Report on the 12th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference

Anyone who doubted that the annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conference in New York City would continue its longstanding tradition of excellence as sponsorship and venue moved from the 92nd Street Y to the Jewish Book Council (JBC) and the Center for Jewish History would have been proven wrong yesterday.

About 40 registrants sat lecture-style in the Kovno Room listening intently to a superb line-up of speakers, including authors, editors, and agents. About half the audience had attended the conference in previous years.

Now, of course, I’m a bit biased. I’ve been a coordinator of this conference for many years. But yesterday proved that beginner or veteran could learn something new.

The day opened with some opening comments by JBC Board Member Bill Liss-Levinson. Author Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of many book for young readers, including The Doll with the Yellow Star and the Doll Shop Downstairs provided the keynote speech. She talked about the balancing act writers have to strike. She talked about keeping stories and characters relevant to today’s audience. And, she talked about perseverance.

Stephanie Lurie, editorial director at Disney Hyperion, followed. Stephanie shared 18 Jewish-themed books, ranging from picture book to YA to nonfiction us, each with a unique tale but with the common thread of universal appeal. She gave us the three “H”s of Jewish children’s lit: Holidays, Histories, and Holocaust.

The big surprise for me was the direction Behrman House is taking. Executive Editor Mark Levine talked about this religious publisher’s move into “digitally interactive storytelling” and “transmedia storytelling,” an opportunity for authors and illustrators to think and create with innovation and, dare I say, abandon.

Aileen Grossberg, Chair of the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition Committee, and Kathe Pinchuck, past chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee shared guidelines and successes. Please check the Association of Jewish Libraries website for details and deadlines.

Kar-Ben is a longtime friend of this conference and editorial director and founder Judye Groner talked about contemporary, relevant stories.

The conference’s new sponsor, the Jewish Book Council, has many wonderful programs Jewish children’s book writers may not know about. Carolyn Starman Hessel, Miri Pomerantz Dauber, and Naomi Firestone talked about the work of the JBC and specific programs, including the Jewish Book Network, the Jewish Book Exhibitors Association, National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book World, and the JBC blog.

Former conference chair Steve Siegel, now retired from his Buttenwieser Library post at the 92nd Street Y, was a surprise guest. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude for all the great leadership he’s shown over the years. (And let’s not forget Anna Olswanger, whose vision for Jewish book writers created this conference in the first place.)

While illustrators met and received portfolio critiques from Robbin Gourley, Senior Art Director at Highlights Books, and some writers met with editors in one-on-one consultations, the remainder heard from Elana Roth, agent with the Caren Johnson Literary Agency and her client, Laura Toffler-Corrie, author of The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz, about their agent-author relationship.

Three authors participated in a panel. Laura Toffler-Corrie talked about marketing aspects. Ann Koffsky, illustrator of more than 20 children’s books, talked about her first foray into writing and illustrating a children’s book. David Bernstein talked about his POD efforts.

Viking Children’s Books editor Kendra Levin rounded out the agenda. She spoke of Jewish lit in terms of folklore, historical, and Holocaust-related works.

The conference ended with a Q&A session and closing remarks by Bill Liss-Levinson.

Whew, a whirlwind day. A day well spent. All of you who attended, please comment on your experiences of the conference!

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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19 Responses to Report on the 12th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference

  1. Heidi Estrin says:

    I’m curious to hear what Stephanie’s angle was on “the three “H”s of Jewish children’s lit: Holidays, Histories, and Holocaust.” Yes, those *are* predominant themes in the genre, but to me, that’s a problem! We need to branch out a little more.

    Anyway, sounds like it was a great day, and kudos to you, Barbara, for making it happen!

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  3. Barbara,
    Sounds like a wonderful day filled with terrific information. Thanks for sharing the highlights – wish I could have joined you!

    Barbara Bietz

  4. Lisa Silverman says:

    Hi Barbara,
    What a great report! One of these days I will get myself to this conference, but being in LA makes it a bit difficult. FYI: We are having a west cost children’s lit conference here in April at the American Jewish University. This year’s theme is Jewish graphic novels. Take a look at the program : http://wcce.ajula.edu/Content/ContentUnit.asp?CID=1620&u=8872&t=0

  5. Caroline Levine says:

    Barbara,
    Thank you so much for organizing the wonderful conference. It was the best one I’ve attended in years. Will come again next year.

    Caroline Levine,
    Rockville, Maryland

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  7. Dorothy Gilbert Goldstone says:

    A new feature at this year’s conference was a fascinating discussion between agent Elana Roth and author/client Laura Toffler-Corrie. Both were wonderfully candid about the process of bringing a manuscript to publication, and the interplay between author/ agent, and agent/ publisher. It was a real opportunity to peak through the keyhole and very helpful!

  8. Dorothy Gilbert Goldstone says:

    Answering Heidi’s question about Stephanie Lurie’s presentation: Stephanie’s presentation was complex, offering many levels of information, including her own inspirational story of conversion! I think the “take-away” for me was: when you can, place your story on a broad canvas that places the “Jewish” topic within the larger world. For major trade publishers like Disney, who are selling through the big chains, where shelf space is limited, if the story cannot be neatly categorized as Action Adventure (YA); Paranormal (YA) ; or a Series (Middle Grade)..it is very, very hard to sell to publishers like here. She suggested looking to the publishers who sell primarily to libraries and schools, such as Holiday House, and Scholastic, and…. (help me out fellow attendees….). She was asked about books on Israel, and was very frank about saying how tough it was to get those into any book store. She was refreshingly honest to us. The answers might not be what we wanted to hear, but at least they told us what we were up against.

  9. Dorothy Gilbert Goldstone says:

    Kar-Ben’s Judye Groner’s plea, which needs to be reiterated, was PLEASE stop writing about bubbe’s and zeide’s who sound like they’ve just come from the shtetl, and start writing about contemporary American families that our young kids can recognize as their own. She’s an amazingly “with-it”, very candid editor and knows just what she wants. A good look at what she’s publishing tells you something. HOWEVER, I was disappointed to learn that their award winning longer 36 and 24 page books, such as the Janucz Korschak Story (sorry if the spelling is off) just are not pulling in the sales numbers, so she is really only looking for books for the younger set.

    • What I’m about to say may be unpopular, but it comes from my core. When you stand in your grandparents’ shtetlach and know that underneath the pretty plot of land near where the river used to be are two rows of your ancestors’ bodies, and you know that on Shabbos afternoons the young Jews walked the three kilometers to the forest with their books and dreams, you realize that it is absolutely an imperative to keep shtetl stories alive. They are an integral component of our collective consciousness and I, for one, will not stand idly by and not write them because of marketability. Even if the only audience is one child, I will tell the story. It is my mission and my duty.

  10. Kimberly Marcus says:

    Hi Barbara,
    I very much enjoyed the conference this year. Thank you so much for organizing it and being so welcoming. It was my second so I can only compare it to the year before. I liked the intimate setting and I also loved walking around The Center for Jewish History and seeing the exhibits.
    I thought the speakers this year were very interesting too. My takeaway was to make your story universal while including Jewish values, etc. I agree with you that people should keep writing about the shtetl because it is so much a part of our history but I think what Judye said also applies because the face of Judaism is changing. I think we can have one without discarding the other and have a balance.
    Thanks again for giving me much to think about!!

    • Thanks, Kim! What I love about these conferences is the conversation writers, agents, editors, and librarians have about Jewish children’s lit! Now, we just need the educators in the mix!

  11. Barbara, I agree, we can’t let the shtetl stories die, because they are an important part of our heritage.

    But I also think it’s important to recognize the economic realities of the mainstream commercial publishers who are struggling to figure out the new publishing paradigm (OMG, I’m talking like my former MBA self, shoot me!) in an age of e-books and shrinking margins. Also, I think in YA fiction teens want to be able to recognize themselves in the books they read, and for most teens growing up today it would have been their great-grandparents who were of the Holocaust generation. For example, my kids are 17 and 14 and my dad was 8 during WWII.

    The reason I think Sharon Doggar’s Annexed works (and also, why The Dairy of Anne Frank is so timeless) is because they both capture teen EMOTIONS so well. The longing, the frustration, the fantasies, the mood swings.

    • Sarah, as a fellow MBA-er, I totally agree. I believe we can make “shtetl” stories relevant by ensuring “contemporary sensibilities.” It’s a challenge, but a good one. It’s what I’m working on now with my own “shtetl” novel.

      • It can definitely be done. I mean, look at HUSH by Eishes Chayil. (Was that talked about at all? I’d love to know the reaction.) To most secular teens, that is a completely unknown world. But it deals with issues that are common with secular society – silence and denial in the face of sexual abuse, how the repercussions often land on the victim rather than the perpetrator, etc, so it transcends the specific Jewishness while providing a learning experience for people who might not know anything about the Orthodox community.

  12. So sorry to have missed the event but glad to be catching up via this wonderful dialogue. For what it’s worth, my 5-year-old (who, along with her 2-year-old brother, were the reason behind my missing the conference) does not yet object to the “shtetl-sounding” grandparents in some of her favorite picture books: The Sukkah on the Roof, Anna Olswanger’s Schlemiel Crooks, Nathan’s Hanukkah Bargain, Something from Nothing. (These are all set in the U.S. and feature grandparent figures who came from the shtetls.) Now I’m curious about what age, if ever, she’ll drift toward contemporary preferences. But I agree with the need to supply lots of choices for readers of all ages.

    Hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful Chanukah! And thanks so much, Barbara, for organizing and posting about the conference.

  13. I certainly wish that I’d been at the conference! I find the above discussion both relevant and interesting, so I assume the discussions at the conference were also thought provoking. Shtetl stories, modern stories, Shoah stories, humour, drama – isn’t there room for all of them? A child might pick a story because of its subject matter, or because of the gender of the main character (that one drives me crazy), but if we can introduce a well written book to a child by reading the first few pages to him/her out loud, the writing, the fascinating characters and story, will be the hook. I love to read good children’s books whether they’re about shtetls, modern kids or the Shoah – or pirates. Variety is certainly what we need (yes, there were Jewish pirates). Anyhow, maybe one day I’ll be in New York for one of the conferences. Mazal Tov on making such a success of this one.

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