You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2011 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour, the culmination of a full week of insightful and inspiring award-winning author and illustrator interviews.
Read about the blog tour and all 2012 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts
The wrap-up and virtual roundtable
Imagine, if you will, all the award winners seated at a dais table with mics, poised to answer questions from the press. We have nine participants:
Sydney Taylor Book Awards
- For Younger Readers — Author Michael Rosen for Chanukah Lights (Robert Sabuda, who provided the artwork for this book, was not able to attend today)
- For Older Readers — Susan Goldman Rubin, author of Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein, was not available today
- For Teen Readers — Robert Sharenow for The Berlin Boxing Club
- For Younger Readers — Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti for Naamah and the Ark (illustrator Holly Meade was not able to participate today) and author/illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard for Around the World in One Shabbat
- For Older Readers — Author Trina Robbins for Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer; Shelley Sommer for Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer; and author Marcia Vaughan and illustrator Ron Mazellan for Irena’s Jars of Secrets
- For Teen Readers — Shirley Vernick for The Blood Lie (Morris Gleitzman, author of Then, was not able to make our roundtable today)
The seating’s a little crowded, but we’ve saved room just for you. The energy’s high, although we know this will be a somewhat long discussion — there’s so much to talk about!
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Thank you all for joining us today and congratulations on your great achievement. Let’s just dive right in. What are your recommendations for great Jewish kids lit?
Rob Sharenow: I always recommend Maus by Art Spiegelman, because it succeeds on so many levels. It’s completely original and works perfectly as raw story telling, history, and memoir. Very few works of art do so many things so well.
Michael Rosen: While I recognize that some communities are composed exclusively of Jews, most young readers share a world that is informed by a rich, vast, complicated diversity. A literature that recognizes that is vital. It’s the Jewish heart and soul of the writer that offers the tonic chord, the illuminating light, the empathic point of view. And those qualities can apply to subjects that are not exclusively, or even exceptionally, “Judaic.”
Susan Campbell Bartoletti: The books on the Sydney Taylor Book List are a great place for readers to start.
Durga Yael Bernhard: One of my favorite titles is The Peddler’s Gift by Maxine Rose Schur and Kimberly Root. I think every child should read it, Jewish or not. I love the way Jewish practice is subtly woven into the story. I also love Castle on Hester Street by Linda Heller and Boris Kulikov — an old favorite that really teaches kids about the power of perception; and Gershon’s Monster by Eric Kimmel and Jon Muth — a great lesson for any grouch.
Ron Mazellan: The Harmonica and A Is for Abraham, A Jewish Family Alphabet and, of course, Irena’s Jars of Secrets.
Shelley Sommer: One of the first things I did after learning that Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg was named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book was to purchase a copy of All-of-a-Kind Family. It had been many years since I last read Taylor’s novel and, of course, the award inspired me to read it again. Now I’m recommending it to some of the students at school.
One of the first books that came to mind when I thought about Jewish stories is Margot Zemach’s It Could Always Be Worse. It’s a wonderful re-telling of the well-known Yiddish folktale and a book I’ve always enjoyed reading to kids. I especially love the detailed and funny illustrations.
One of the books I read to our students every December is Naomi Howland’s picture book, Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat. This has always been one of my favorites and the scene with too many latkes is one of my favorite “chaos” scenes in picture books.
I bought The Berlin Boxing Club months ago, and…as soon as I read that it received a Sydney Taylor Award, it went to the top of my “to read” pile.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Rosen: The trend I would like to see coming back is patience, fixity of attention, the ability to be in one place, doing one thing contentedly. Reading is not only reading eight things at once, as if we possessed the eyes of certain spiders. It can’t all be snippets and pre-digested tidbits and visual explosions of media. So, I’d love to see a trend that would ensure that young readers will be able to be overwhelmed with curiosity and excitement by a book of nonfiction; to be so absorbed and lost in a novel that the outside world disappears; to be spirited away and flooded with ideas and memories in a collection of poems.
Bartoletti: If you look at some of the shoes I own, you’ll see that I don’t pay attention to trends. For book subjects, I follow my interests.
Bernhard: I see Jewish publishing changing and growing just as modern Judaism itself continues to evolve. I think authors will be self-publishing more and more, as the explosion of ebooks has only just begun. I’ve designed all but one of my books, and look forward to learning ebook design, too.
Sommer: I was interested in your questions about trends because just this morning, I read a long article in the New York Times about Barnes and Noble, e-readers, and the questionable future of brick and mortar bookstores. One sentence that struck me is this one: “…the Nook, and by extension, Barnes and Noble, at times seem the only things standing between traditional book publishing and oblivion.” I own an e-reader (a Nook, in fact) and it’s great for travel – my tote bag is much easier to carry now! I see the writing on the wall and am trying to be okay with it because I know there is no turning back. That being said, I felt sad after reading the rather gloomy forecast for bookstores. Some of the happiest hours of my life have been spent browsing. I read lots of online reviews and make purchases from online retailers, but there is nothing like seeing a book on a store shelf that you didn’t know about. I know what the reality is, but I’m not giving up on print. It’s no fun to browse on my Nook.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Sharenow: I’m currently working on two new books, one is another novel targeted for teens that is an immigrant story set at the turn of the last century. The other is for the adult market and is loosely based on the life of my cousin who was a schlock movie queen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The two books are vastly different, but both explore some of the same issues of identity, race, and religion and what it means to be an American.
Rosen: Not stumbling — that would be ideal! No, my next steps are very much the way Robert Frost described his art of poetry, having the reader “fall forward, and [italics!] in the dark.” Or I can say it this way. There’s a midrash that says the one question you will be asked at heaven’s gates: “Did you life with hope?
Bartoletti: I try to stretch and grow in my craft as much as I can. I like taking risks. If there’s no risk, then I’m not challenging myself enough.
The next step? I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, and so maybe something will come together out of that. I’m also taking notes on a nonfiction book, and revising a novel.
Shirley Vernick: I love writing for young adult audiences — as well as middle graders — and see myself continuing in those genres. I’m very connected to my Jewish heritage and have some ideas for Jewish-themed stories percolating in my mind. I’m also working on a couple of manuscripts that are secular in nature. All are fictional with elements of real-world historical or current events woven in.
Bernhard: My next book will be A Child’s Treasury of Jewish Blessings (Jewish Lights), an illustrated collection of Jewish blessings along with questions and contemplations for children. I’m also working on a number of proposals, including a a book about an ancient olive tree in Israel, a story from the palace of Versailles, and a non-fiction book about the many forms of water. I plan to start publishing some ebooks of my own. I would also like to focus more on writing, including several ideas for Jewish-themed young adult novels. And I would like to work more with other writers; as an artist, I love to illustrate other authors’ work.
Marcia Vaughan: As far as future writing projects, I am always on the look out for stories about little known people who accomplish great things in their lives. Sometimes I know where to find such stories. For example the slave narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project from the 1930s provided a wealth of information and inspiration for books about children in the days of slavery in American history. (Up The Learning Tree, and The Secret To Freedom, both published by Lee & Low Books) Sometimes, as with the story of Irena Sendler, or Abbie Burgess, a courageous young lighthouse keeper in Maine in the 1800s, I came upon them by accident. Perhaps someone reading this blog will know of someone remarkable for a future book. If so they can contact me. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
Mazellan: The joyful pursuit of working as an illustrator.
Trina Robbins: I’m not sure how literary it is, but I’m about to put together a collection of the comics that Lily Renee drew in the 1940s. It will be a nice companion to my graphic novel, Lily Renee, Escape Artist. Quite a few people who read that book have told me that now they want to see more of Lily’s art.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote/illustrated your book?
Sharenow: One of the revelations I had writing the book was that there are “Jewish” traits that are not necessarily rooted in the religion or traditional culture. For instance, my lead character, Karl, is a Jewish boy growing in Berlin in the 1930s, who has no religious identity at all. However he is obsessed with cartooning and comic book superheroes, that both turn out to be very Jewish traits. Most of the creators of the great superheroes like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the X-Men, and the Hulk, were Jewish boys just like Karl. He also discovers that there was a strong tradition of Jews in boxing, which is something that was completely unexpected.
Vernick: Researching and writing The Blood Lie, which takes place in 1920s America, enriched my understanding of the psychosocial issues facing Jewish immigrants and their children. For instance, I learned how people’s pre-immigration experience of anti-Semitic oppression colored their perception of post-immigration bigotry. Sometimes the American version of anti-Semitism was viewed as mild, while other times it triggered the immigrant Jews’ worst memory-based fears.
I also gained a deeper appreciation of the pressures on Jewish immigrants to assimilate. The need to make a living — to get hired, to secure customers — drove many adults to do things they wouldn’t have dreamed of in the shtetl, like working on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, the children craved social acceptance, bully-avoidance, and the freedom to partake in the culture to which they were exposed on a daily basis. I think our predecessors deserve a lot of credit for thoughtfully juggling the often dueling demands to uphold tradition on the one hand, and to succeed in the New World on the other.
Bartoletti: As I was writing about Naamah, I thought a lot about all of the various flood stories that can be found across cultures.
Bernhard: The book really put me in touch with Shabbat as a sanctuary for families. Celebrating the Sabbath really nourishes healthy family life — no matter what the shape or size of the family. I learned a great deal about Jewish life all over the world. Of course, the differences in Jewish practice were a surprise to discover — such as the diverse foods eaten and the many different environments we live in throughout the Diaspora. But it was the similarities that struck me most. A Sabbath table in St. Petersburg is not so different from a table in Melbourne!
Mazellan: Several years ago I illustrated a similar book entitled The Harmonica, which dealt with the Holocaust as well. It was extremely difficult in terms of research; it changed me as a person and as an illustrator. Irena’s story has moved me in much the same way. I have come to realize, that in the middle of the darkest moments of life, good can rise up. Irena represents the good that is possible when we choose to make a difference
“It is my desire that Irena’s story would instill hope and courage into the lives of readers, a more direct outcome is a prompting through Irena’s life for parents and children to do good and offer kindness to others no matter how bleak or difficult an experience might be.”
Robbins: Hardly Jewish life, but I immersed myself in Kindertransport and the Blitz, and that terrible period when England declared all refugees over the age of seventeen to be enemy aliens, and I learned much more than I had known before.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Sharenow: It’s an incredible honor. Obviously, writers want their books to be read by a wide audience. But in my mind the “perfect readers” for The Berlin Boxing Club are Jewish adolescents, particularly boys, who are struggling with their identity. The Sydney Taylor award has great meaning for the audience I’m most hoping to reach.
Rosen: That a kid living in the Ohio foothills of Appalachia where Jews are spotted about as often as snowy owls or pirate ships, can celebrate his faith — can place his menorah in the window for all to see — and that those lights can be seen by a community that reaches across the country. Okay, okay, I’m not a kid anymore, but this award clearly extends the light Robert Sabuda and I tried to create in our book.
Bartoletti: This was a great honor. I was surprised and thrilled when the phone came. I am familiar with the books that Sydney Taylor wrote because I read them growing up. (Now I want to reread them.)
In my work, you’ll see that I’m interested in the same sort of themes that Sydney Taylor explored — family love, charity, wisdom, and social justice. I think Naamah embodies these themes.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking, wait a minute. How is this a story of social justice? What about all the terrified people left behind as the floodwaters rose? Where’s the social justice in that? Suffice it to say that I thought a lot about those people and I wondered how Naamah and her husband Noah felt about all those people and there’s a line in the story that addresses that.)
I’m very happy for the recognition for Naamah and for Holly’s magnificent art and her vision for the story. I’m grateful to Katie Cunningham, our editor, who had the incredibly good sense to pair us.
Vernick: Affirmation from my peers! When you have a manuscript accepted by a publisher, you think, “Okay, this means I have some writing talent, and I have a marketable story.” But when the AJL recognizes you through the Sydney Taylor, you know you’ve written a book that’s significant.
Bernhard: I am greatly honored to receive this award. It means my book is making an impression on people, which is very gratifying, and helping to educate Jewish children, which means the world to me. Around the World in One Shabbat is closer to my heart than any book I’ve written or illustrated. I hope this award will help keep the concept of the Sabbath alive in the minds and hearts of contemporary Jews and non-Jews alike.
Vaughan: I can hardly tell you how surprised and delighted I was when I heard the good news!!! I enjoy the freedom and creativity of writing for young readers every day. Receiving an honor as prestigious as this is such a thrill and so greatly appreciated. I hope it means the story of Irena Sendler will reach a greater number of children and inspire them to live their lives fully.
Mazellan: As a recipient of The Sydney Taylor Honor Award it is an honor to be selected. It is accolade I share with my wife and family along with my agent Libby Ford and the incredible folks at Lee & Low, all of which have been my support along the way.
Robbins: It means an enormous amount to get an award for my book from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee! I feel like the book has truly been recognized!
Sommer: One of the most interesting things about my Sydney Taylor Honor is that when I tell people about it, they sometimes ask if I’m Jewish. I’m not, but Greenberg’s story has universal themes. I work with students every day who have moments of feeling like the “other” for one reason or another — that’s part of growing up. When I was reading anecdotes about Hank, there were so many moments that I knew kids would relate to. Being “new” to a team, working hard to be better at something, and succeeding even when faced with obstacles are things most people experience.
What most inspired me about Hank’s story is how hard he worked to be a great baseball player. I admire his perseverance.
The best part of this honor is knowing that more kids will know about Hank Greenberg’s story — he deserves notice.
TWM: And now for the final question for today’s discussion: Will anything be different now that your work has been recognized by the Sydney Taylor Book Award?
Sharenow: Being recognized with a Sydney Taylor has provided real inspiration for me. Writing is a very solitary endeavor, and it takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to stick with it. Winning the Sydney Taylor gave me the most lovely kick in the butt to keep moving down the creative path I’m on and have confidence in my ideas and choices.
Bartoletti: Recognition for a job well done always feels good. The thing about writing is that recognition doesn’t make writing the next book any easier. Each time I sit down, I’m an aspiring writer all over again. Oh, sure, some aspects of the process get a bit easier, but the only guarantee seems to be this: Each time some aspect gets easier, something else will get harder. But that’s a good thing, right? Because it means I’m stretching and taking risks. Right?
Vernick: The award has boosted my confidence when I talk to editors and event planners and when I think about writing my next novel. It has also given my book some wonderful exposure.
Bernhard: I am encouraged to keep working on my ideas for Jewish-themed books. And my books will bear a lovely silver sticker, of which I will be very proud.
Robbins: I’m happy to see that Jewish libraries are really paying attention! A friend in Seattle told me her synagogue’s library had just gotten my Lily Renee book in — and she took it out immediately!
The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion. Readers, please check out the preceding blog tour and get to know these winners and their works even better — their techniques, their approaches, their inspirations. And thanks to all the wonderful bloggers who volunteered their time and space to interview these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.
Wonderful to be celebrated in this community. Thank you. Honored. Now let’s continue the reverence for books and young readers in ripples of celebration into the greater world.
thank you, so much to read!
I’ve been following this, thanks to Durga, we have many of her books, including Around the World in One Shabbat. I appreciate you putting this together…good stuff.
Thanks – I would love to fill my home with Durga’s art work. Someday.
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