The Whole Megillah (TWM): Sheri, what was your inspiration for writing Zayde Comes to Live?
Sheri Sinykin (SS): Several inspirational strands twined together in the creation of Zayde. For many years I was a hospice volunteer in Madison, WI, where we raised our three sons. The character, the situation of Zayde himself, came from a hospice patient I followed several years ago. He outlived his six-month prognosis, but eventually died of congestive heart failure. His world had been reduced to what he could see outside his window, while living in a sleeper chair, hooked constantly to an oxygen machine. The Jewish strand came from a talk by a hospice rabbi, who offered his experience and opinion that Jewish patients in hospice tend to fare worse when approaching death than other patients. His view was that we Jews focus on Mitzvah, the here-and-now, not the Hereafter, and that most Jews don’t even know what our religion believes about an afterlife, if anything. Although my parents did not die until I was 56 and 58, another thread was suggested by my seven-year-old child-self, who wanted to understand the death of a loved one—both physically and spiritually—while also having words to respond to well-meaning Christian and Muslim friends whose comforting promises did not ring true for me, a Jewish child.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing Zayde Comes to Live?
SS: My greatest challenge, as a novelist my entire career, was to write a spare picture book text in a believable child-voice that had emotional resonance without being didactic. I have to admit that most of the text felt like a gift from the Universe; it came to me almost of one piece. I struggled, in particular, with one word—whether to use soul or spirit—and I consulted with two rabbis. Their suggestion that I use “energy” instead was the perfect key to unlock one part of the story, while also opening a window for Kristina in her illustrations.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
SS: My hope has always been that Zayde would be a bridge to a difficult but necessary conversation about death with children universally—not only Jewish children. I wanted it to demonstrate respect for all major religions, while also giving Jewish children comfort that their loved one does have a place to “go.” I hoped that perhaps with this belief system rooted in childhood, the final passage for Jews might not always be as anxiety-ridden as the hospice rabbi felt it currently is. My greatest satisfaction has been the emotional response and embrace of this book not only by Jewish adults who care about children, but also by non-Jews—parents, teachers, and grief counselors alike.
TWM: How did you decide to use “Zayde” rather than “Grandpa” or another English word?
SS: My paternal grandparents were Ashkenazi immigrant Jews from Russia and Austria and often spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand them. While I did not call that grandfather Zayde, I loved the endearing sound of the word when “Pop” talked about zaydes in general. One of my grandsons calls his maternal grandfather Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) and I might have considered using that word, but I wrote Zayde long before our five grandsons were born and had not known it. I like that Zayde is unfamiliar and perhaps mysterious to non-Jewish audiences, while most Jews would recognize it instantly. I also appreciate that it conveys the special love inherent in that unique intergenerational relationship.
TWM: How did you choose Peachtree/how did Peachtree choose to publish the book of decidedly Jewish content?
SS: In 2007 Peachtree published my novel, Giving Up the Ghost, for middle school readers. It deals in a realistic and suspenseful way with death on a haunted plantation near New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina. They asked to see other work, and I sent them Zayde. Both books sold in 2004, about a month apart. Ghost was published relatively swiftly, but it’s taken eight years for Zayde to reach its audience. My view is that no book is published before “its right time,” and Zayde was waiting for the perfect illustrator. I was concerned that Peachtree might not publish a book with Jewish content, but my editor’s view was that Peachtree considered it a universal, multi-cultural book rather than a wholly Jewish book. (Giving Up the Ghost, too, improved by waiting three years between contract and publication; the forgiveness theme was deepened by my own grief therapy work after my mother died. Hurricane Katrina, occurring in 2005, necessitated a further revision that gave the original themes more depth and resonance.)
TWM: I love the double entendre of “Live” in the book’s title. Can you describe how the process for titling the book came about?
SS: The first sentences of the book are “Zayde comes to live with us. It’s because he is dying.” As the story proceeds—Rabbi Lev assures Rachel that Zayde is living until the moment he dies, and that his memory and energy will live on—it occurred to me that lifting those opening words and making them the title would have several levels. My titles are often lifted from the text. This is true of Giving Up the Ghost as well.
TWM: Your website says it took you 30 years and 156 rejections to realize your dream of writing children’s books. How did you stay motivated?
SS: I don’t believe my website says it took 30 years—at least, when I did a search for that phrase, I could not locate such a sentence. [Ed. Note: It’s on the home page.] I was 40 years old when my first book was published, and I know I didn’t start working toward that goal passionately at the age of ten! It is true, though, that as a child I dreamed of writing books for children. But I didn’t really turn dreaming into working in a disciplined way until after our third son was born.
It is also true that I collected 156 rejection letters on many different projects between 1982 and 1988, when I sold my first book, Shrimpboat and Gym Bags—a boys’ gymnastics novel—to Atheneum (1990). During those years, I kept telling myself that “each rejection brings me closer to success” and also that if I were to give up, I would never know if I could have “made it.” It helped that I loved the work itself, and that I had come to the conclusion I would keep writing, even if I knew I would never be published. I believe that focusing on process and “letting go of results” proved helpful ultimately.
TWM: Sheri, you say you write for the girl in you. How old is she?
SS: It depends what book I’m working on. Most of my novels were written for the twelve-year-old me, who very much needed to know that things would be okay, that her voice was needed and valued, and that self-acceptance was of utmost importance. In Zayde, that girl would have been six or seven.
TWM: You’ve written many books for young readers. Do you have a favorite theme? Favorite age group?
SS: Zayde is my 19th book. Looking at the entirety of my career, I think self-acceptance was the most frequently recurring theme. More recently, conquering fears—particularly fear of death—has nudged that aside. This may well be due to the grief recovery work I have been doing in my own life around my mother’s illness and subsequent death.
Middle school has been a favorite age group, although the eight books I wrote for younger readers (Grades 2-4) as part of The Magic Attic Club series continue to draw reader responses long after the books have been out of print. (For your information, by way of background, Marie Osmond bought that series from the Portland, ME creators in the late ‘90s. She kept the dolls but reneged on the publishing contracts and commitments. As lead author, I persuaded them to let Heather be Jewish, and was thrilled to be permitted to write about the Spanish Inquisition in Viva, Heather!)
TWM: I see from your background that you have an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What was the most important thing you learned in the program?
SS: The most important thing I learned (Winter ’01 to Winter ’03) was to write from my own emotional core about what terrified me, about the things that made me say, “I could never write about that!” My creative thesis, Saving Adam, is not yet published, but I worked on much of Giving Up the Ghost with Carolyn Coman, my third semester mentor. She encouraged me to write about the terror I felt at the likely prospect of losing my mother to the Stage 4B endometrial cancer she was diagnosed with in 1998. Mom was given a less than 5 percent chance of living two years. Her reply: “Oh yeah? Watch me!” And she lived 8 ½ more years. Ghost was sold before she died, but published the year after she died. Much of it was written that third semester while I was living with my parents in Sacramento, CA, helping Mom through various treatments and setbacks. For the last six weeks of her life, my husband and I were privileged to care for her in our Arizona home. (My other mentors were Louise Hawes, Ron Koertge, and Marion Dane Bauer for my final semester.)
My critical thesis at VC was on the subject of making death and bereavement authentic for middle grade readers, so much of that work informed the writing of Giving Up the Ghost.
I made a conscious decision to drop my maiden name—Cooper—from my writing name after I earned my MFA and to thereafter publish under Sheri Sinykin. I hoped that any books released after graduation might be viewed in a different light than my earlier books, and so far, judging by reviews, sales, and state award nominations, that seems to be the case.
TWM: The illustration seems almost transparent. Was that intentional? If so, why?
KS: It just started going in that direction and I followed it, partly because a lot of the images are memories, or soon-to-be-memories, or imagined by Rachel, so I wanted to give the images a soft quality.
TWM: Is there any significance to the leaves and birds?
KS: When my own grandfather (who lived in a house surrounded by leafy trees) passed away one night, one of his favorite birds, a cardinal, showed up at my window the next morning. Afterward, I always connected my grandfather with the bird somehow—I guess that’s how the birds ended up in the artwork.
TWM: Were there any challenges in illustrating this book?
KS: I had to spend a long time thinking about the story before I began drawing, to get away from the death = sad issue I was having. Once the story’s very accepting and peaceful message began to sink in, the ideas started to flow.
TWM: What artists have inspired you? One page in Zayde with the floating angel reminds me of Chagall.
KS: I’m inspired by different artists all the time—too many to list! The Art Institute here in Chicago has a beautiful, huge, blue stained glass Chagall window (The America Windows). I’ve seen it so many times that it’s probably in my subconscious, and surfaces from time to time when I’m drawing.