At the 2011 Highlights Foundation workshop, “Writing Jewish-themed Children’s Books,” I had the pleasure of meeting four talented writers: Lois Barr, Marcia Berneger, Dede Fox, and Joan Seliger Sidney. I’d like to introduce them to you through this interview.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What attracts you to Jewish themes?
Lois Barr (LB): They are never easy. There are no easy answers. I was raised in a mixed up household, Kosher when my Bubby was with us and very Southern trayf when she was not. I didn’t learn Hebrew as a child but as an adult I’ve studied both Hebrew and Yiddish. The Bible gives us tough questions. Why oh why did Abraham take his son up the mountaintop, and why did he listen to Sarah and send Ishmael and Hagar off into the desert?
Marcia Berneger (MB): One of the first things people tell you is to “write what you know best.” My Jewish heritage is an important part of me. I also teach religious school at my synagogue, where I share our traditions and the wonderful stories that explain them. Many times ideas come to me while I’m teaching: Sammy spider talks about the holidays, Feivel talks about the old country. What kind of story might the frogs who lived in Pharaoh’s Egypt tell?
Joan Seliger Sidney (JSS): My Jewish heritage and background: Although my parents came from Orthodox Jewish families in Zurawno, Poland—a paternal great-uncle was a shochet—at fifteen, my father rebelled, cut off his peyes and when he married, refused to let my mother keep kosher. Nonetheless, my parents sent me to a local Talmud Torah, which fed into Marshalliah Hebrew High School, three times a week besides regular high school. Ultimately, in summers I worked at different Camp Ramahs (Hebrew-speaking); also, during my first year and a half in college, I attended classes very part-time at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But for the most part, my Jewish-themed writing has been inspired by my mother’s stories of growing up in Zurawno, my parents’ three-month adventure from Yugoslavia to America during the Holocaust, and other Holocaust testimonies. At the same time, I write to keep my mother’s world alive and to bear witness to the Holocaust.
Dede Fox (DF): There are many skilled writers hoping for publication. When I ask myself what’s unique about me, what do I have to offer that no one else can offer, I always come back to my experiences as a Jewish Texan. Really, how many Jewish writers have daughters who raised pigs for Future Farmers of America (and donated to a food bank)?
TWM: Why you choose to write in the genres you choose; how does writing in one genre affect the other?
LB: I choose fiction when I have lots of time to develop things and when there is a strong element of plot although sometimes I do narrative poems. I choose poems when the language or images are most important to the piece.
I hope that I am more careful about language in my stories because of all the editing and workshopping I do with my poems. Of course, I bring the adage of “show don’t tell” to my poems when they tell stories.
MB: I write picture books, both secular and Jewish-themed. I also have a transitional chapter book mystery series and an early middle grade Jewish-themed mystery. I don’t really choose the genres. Once an idea pops into my head, I write its story down. I just keep writing until I’ve finished. Only then do I know which genre it belongs to. I was a teacher for 34 years, so many of my picture books are about young children (ages 5-7) and the problems that affect them. Sometimes they are Jewish-themed, sometimes not. I also love writing fractured fairy tales. So far the only real cross-over between genres is my Jewish Gingerbread Man (The Hamantash Mensch).
JSS: Mostly, I write poetry because it’s my greatest challenge and seems most naturally to take me where I need to go, though my best writing in other genres is always a process of discovery, too. I began writing picture books after the birth of my first granddaughter—I now have five adorable granddaughters, from eight to twenty-one months!—and completed the first post-MFA semester in picture books at Vermont College (2008) to learn more. Poetry is really the language of picture books, too, through its images, rhythms, and concise language. I also have written a memoir essay and a few short stories. No matter the genre, writing is an ongoing quest for emotional truth.
DF: Turning my attention to poetry in 2006 has improved my prose because my writing is now more lyrical, concise, and subtle. I pay more attention to connotation and the sounds of words. When I write non-fiction, I focus on personal interviews and recording factually accurate content. Those practices provide context for my other writing. Sometimes I’ll pre-write in one genre and move into another genre. Going back and forth between genres helps me to find The Place My Words Are Looking For.
TWM: What insights have you gained as you write about your Jewish heritage?
LB: I’ve learned a lot of Jewish history. I learn history best when I have to research it and when I ask questions as to how characters would feel and behave under certain circumstances. For example, I was working on a YA novel about a young girl whose family is among the first to go farm the land in Argentina. Despite the fact that I’ve read all the Argentine writers who came from the Jewish Colonies and visited Moisesville, I’ve had to do a lot more reading. I’ve studied flora and fauna to get a sense of how they would plant, what birds she would see and hear. I’ve read folklore from the time to get a sense as to how the locals would have reacted to their new Jewish neighbors. I’ve read military journals about exploration in Argentina in the 19th century and found some interesting anecdotes and information about the terrain.
I’ve worked out issues in my mind about my identity. My poem, “Bialystok Impasse,” published in the New Vilna Review, dealt with my ambiguity about going back to see where my ancestors lived.
MB: When I explore a story idea with a Jewish theme, it expands my knowledge about that particular topic. For example, I often have to research the details that go into my stories. I might have to analyze what’s going on to flush out a character’s personality and/or motivation. And I love putting myself into my stories to feel what it must have been like, living long ago in Modin or in Pharaoh’s time.
JSS: The more I write about my Jewish heritage, on an emotional level, the closer I come to knowing the world that’s vanished, including the grandparents I never met. This may sound bizarre, but at times while writing I’ve actually felt the presence of my deceased maternal grandmother as well as my deceased parents channeling me information, which made me realize how connected I am (and probably we all are) to my ancestors, that they really do continue to live through my writing, even the ones I never met. The older I become, the more I’m drawn to my Jewish heritage as well as the stories of Holocaust survivors.
DF: I have gained so many insights by writing about my Jewish heritage that I have expressed them in multiple ways, including a new YA manuscript called Emet and a creative nonfiction called Confessions of a Jewish Texan which Poetica Press will publish in June 2013.
TWM: What have been your greatest challenges in writing on Jewish themes?
LB: There is no right or wrong on many issues, but people have very strong reactions to anything having to do with faith and ritual. I have a poem about Elijah which is almost a rap poem and I am not certain I ever want to see it published.
MB: These themes have been around for hundreds of years. When writing about a holiday or even a Jewish twist on a contemporary theme, it has to be unique. Creating characters with their own distinct voices telling their own versions of a story is quite the challenge.
JSS: Since much of my material is a mix of memory and creative imagination, it’s frustrating when a prospective publisher turns down my picture book, saying “It’s too old-fashioned for today’s market” or “You start in the present but go back to the past then return to the present. That’s too hard for young readers, they need a simple chronology.” Or when my character brought back something from the past, the editors said, “You’re confusing reality for the reader.” Editors have also told me, “We’re not interested in Holocaust books any more.” Evidently, I haven’t found the right editor.
DF: My greatest challenge to writing on Jewish themes is the same as my greatest challenge to writing on any theme—finding enough time and energy to care for my family, manage a household, work as a full time librarian, and write.
TWM: What have been your greatest satisfactions in writing on Jewish themes?
LB: Any time I write about my grandmother and my mom and their issues, I have lots of success. And, of course, I’m always honored when asked to write a Dvar Torah.
MB: I love it when I’ve finished a story (including its countless revisions) and it came out the way I hoped it would. Of course that’s true for all stories, but I usually read my Jewish-themed ones to my students. It’s fun to watch their reactions. I now have a story about Rosh Hashanah, one for Passover and one for two for Purim. My little Gan-Alef students performed my Purim story (The Hamantasch Mensch) for our congregation this year Purim. That was incredible!
JSS: Writing books that really matter to me, that I look forward to sharing with readers of all ages, have brought great satisfaction. Although I’m still looking for a publisher for my non-fiction biography of a local Holocaust survivor, many readers of the manuscript have been very moved by both the story and my writing. My most recent satisfaction was to win the grand-prize in the 2013 Whole Megillah Picture Book Contest, which I hope will lead to publication. My story, Elsa’s Pillow, is a fictionalized version of my mother’s journey from Yugoslavia to America.
DF: What I’ve discovered about my family enhances my commitment to being an active Jew. My relatives sacrificed a lot to insure our family’s survival and provide for our religious freedom. I’ve also learned many Jews are truly People of the Book, talented wordsmiths.
TWM: Where do you gain your inspiration?
LB: My grandmother, who adored me as the first born grandchild, until I hit puberty and became a “snake in the grass,” is a fountain of stories and strong sensory memories. I remember her noodles hanging from the kitchen chair. I remember her telling me that beef fry tasted exactly like bacon, and I remember telling her she said that because she’d never tried bacon. Now I obey the laws of kashruth, at least I’ve eliminated pork, shellfish, bottom feeders and mixing milk and meat. But my bubby’s strong faith, her attachment to ritual, and her ability to survive continue to amaze me. Because of my Bubby and my parents I celebrated Passover with family and friends and I waited with great joy to open the Passover order. The tin chest of Svetochne Tea went to my dollhouse and I remember delicious jams that we only had at that holiday. Of course my bubby and my mother did all the work. When I order my fish already chopped from the market, I am aware how easy I have it. I complain about opening the blender when I make the chrain but they grated the horseradish by hand. These and other strong memories and struggles and my adult’s sense of gratitude all inform my writing.
MB: The inspiration for my picture books has definitely come from my teaching religious school. But my latest project, my early middle grade mystery, was written entirely during the Whole Megillah’s NaNoWriMo [“Write Your Own Megillah“] this past winter. I was terrified to write such a long (18,000 word) manuscript but kept at it, with lots of encouragement, and finished it. Very inspiring!
JSS: As I’ve already said, my inspiration comes from my mother’s stories, in addition, imagined or channeled stories, plus lectures, interviews and videos of Holocaust survivors.
DF: Inspiration is everywhere, but my interest in people—their motivation and histories—is a catalyst for much of my writing.
TWM: Why did you sign up for the Highlights workshop?
LB: I wanted to write children’s books and I had a book about a child from a mixed marriage wanting to invite the baby Jesus as a guest to a sukkah. Needless to say, the story shocked some and interested others. It did not please the visiting editor. I had begun to write (and continue to write) books for my granddaughter. Neither she nor the few publishers who take unsolicited manuscripts have been terribly impressed so far, but I’ll keep trying.
MB: I had been playing around with a few Jewish-themed ideas and the workshop appeared just at the right time in my writing career. I wanted to learn all I could about writing for the Jewish market. I did — but took home so much more than that.
JSS: I wanted to meet other writers and editors of Jewish-themed children’s books, to get their feedback on some of my manuscripts, and make connections which could lead to a published book. I also wanted more information on what editors were looking for. Lastly, I hoped an ongoing community of writers would emerge.
DF: Because I have attended the Highlights Summer Workshop at Chautauqua, I knew the quality of any Highlights program would be exceptional. The foundation hires the best teachers and encourages an egalitarian atmosphere that brings out professionalism in all participants. Also, I met Barbara Krasner, at Chautauqua. She introduced me to other Jewish writers and was generous with her time and expertise. Although far from home, I always feel very much at home at Highlights’s events.
TWM: What did you get out of it — how did it help?
LB: I got lots of ideas for poems and other stories. I had truly memorable time getting to know such different and interesting writers. I felt I gained a lot of background and grounding in children’s writing from Barbara and the guest editors and writers. The most important thing I gained was a support group of writers whose work I love to read and who are very generous about reading and critiquing mine.
MB: Well, of course I learned so much about the market for Jewish-themed writing. I was able to chat with editors and with fellow writers. We (the writers) formed a support group that continued for most of the year. The Highlights workshop encouraged me to expand my writing for the Jewish market, working with themes from many genres covering picture books through middle grade. Prior to the workshop I’d written a few Jewish-themed stories. Since then, I’ve added six more picture books with Jewish themes and my middle-grade mystery (plus the start of two other middle-grade novels) to my repertoire. At least two of those picture book ideas popped into my head during the workshop. You really started the ball rolling for me!
JSS: The workshop was a very enjoyable experience with fellow writers giving constructive feedback.
Although one of the editors really liked one of my picture books, her colleague turned it down after overlooking it for half a year and ultimately needing her nudge—his was the chronology comment. This was an obvious disappointment after all the enthusiasm everyone showed but it’s my problem, not the workshop’s.
The experienced guest editor, who critiqued my verse novel-in-progress, gave me a very different perspective on audience, characters, plot. She suggested writing for a young adult reader, not middle-grade, introducing contemporary themes like incest, which she saw as potential in my story. Unfortunately, instead of exploring her advice, I was so taken aback by her different vision that I abandoned the project. This interview is making me realize it’s time to go back and see where the novel wants to go, not where I was leading it.
DF: Where do I begin on what I learned?
- We studied the Jewish market and needs of various publishers.
- We learned about exceptional children’s books for Jewish readers.
- We shared our writing in read-arounds, which helped with revision.
- I began a lengthy “to do” list for writing and submitting
- We wrote down personal goals for the coming year.
- I enjoyed the camaraderie of writers with shared beliefs and experiences, a bonus for a Jewish Texan since we make up only.6% of the total state population.
- I learned more about targeting submissions to fit the needs of Highlights readers. I have a non-fiction “What the Pros Know” article coming out in the July 2013 issue and have sold a Jewish-themed craft.
- Several participants continue to support each other online; we offer suggestions for revision and kvell at each others’ successes.
About Lois Barr
A professor of Spanish, Lois Barr chairs the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Lake Forest College. Her poems, essays and stories have appeared in zines, literary reviews and anthologies around the country. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction and poetry. She has written extensively about Latin American Jewish Literature and was co-executive producer of a documentary, “Isa Kremer: The People’s Diva,” which aired at festivals around the world and on public television around the country.
About Marcia Berneger
Marcia is married and the mother of two wonderful sons. She has a houseful of pets including two small dogs, a cat, and a bearded dragon. She has retired from a long and much-loved teaching career, teaching first/second grade and working with children who had learning challenges. She now has time to devote to her passion, writing stories for children. Marcia’s work has appeared in Boys’ Life Magazine and Highlights for Children. Her picture book, Buster, has just been acquired by Sleeping Bear Press.
About Joan Seliger Sidney
Joan Seliger Sidney’s Body of Diminishing Motion: Poems and a Memoir was published by CavanKerry Press. Her poem, “Malka at Ninety,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Joan has received individual artist’s poetry fellowships from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center, also a Visiting Faculty Fellowship to research at the Fortunoff Video Archives for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. She’s Writer-in-Residence at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, and also facilitates Writing for Your Life, an adult workshop. Her manuscript, Elsa’s Pillow, won the grand-prize in the Whole Megillah’s 2013 Picture Book Contest.
About Dede Fox
Highlights Magazine has published several of Dede Fox’s nonfiction articles and photos. Her writing credits include The Treasure in the Tiny Blue Tin, a children’s novel listed in Linda Silver’s Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens. Dede’s poetry appears in many literary magazines and journals, including the Summer 2013 issue of Poetica, which will also publish her book Confessions of a Jewish Texan in May. A Washington University alumna and school librarian, Dede has taught with Houston’s Writers in the Schools and will present at the Association of Jewish Libraries Conference in June.