Lesléa Newman introduced herself to me after my Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) panel on “The Whole Megillah: The Jewish Experience in Children’s Books.” I was so honored to meet her and we discussed an interview for this blog. Here are the results.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first believe you were a writer?
Leslea Newman (LN): I’ve always believed that I was a writer, ever since I was quite young. My first validation came when some of my poems, written as a teenager, were published in Seventeen Magazine. I actually got paid for them! I knew then that I was on my way…
TWM: What inspires you to write?
LN: Life inspires me! My own experiences, stories I hear or read about, my dreams, my hopes, my fears, my imagination. And since I make my living as a writer, a dwindling bank account is always very inspiring!
TWM: What is special about writing on Jewish topics for kids? For adults?
LN: When I was growing up, I never read a children’s book that had any Jewish content or featured any Jewish characters. That felt very alienating to me. Why wasn’t there a picture book about a family like mine? As an adult, I could do something—write books—so that Jewish children can see themselves and their families in works of literature. That is very gratifying. For children and for adults.
TWM: What are the greatest challenges?
LN: The greatest challenge comes from not feeling “Jewish enough.” In other words, I have very little Jewish education (though I did become a Bat Mitzvah at the age of 48) and I often feel like I don’t know enough to write about Jewish life. Luckily I have many experts to call on to check my work and make sure I am not making any errors.
TWM: The greatest satisfactions?
LN: When a child comes up to me and says that one of my books is his or her favorite book, that is the greatest feeling in the world.
TWM: You’ve used Yiddish in your children’s books. Please tell us about your own introduction to Yiddish and what led to using it in your books.
LN: “Yinglish” or English sprinkled with Yiddish phrases and Yiddish syntax is the language I grew up hearing in Brighton Beach (a section of Brooklyn, NY). It is the language of my grandmothers. The poet Czeslaw Milosz said, “Language is the only homeland,” and I agree. When I hear Yiddish words or phrases, I feel home in a way I don’t feel at any other time. When I use Yiddish words or phrases, I am writing from my deepest authentic self.
TWM: What similarities exist between writing picture books and writing poetry?
LN: Both forms use economy of language. Neither form allows for one wasted word. You have to say a lot in a very short time. And a lot of the same literary devices are often used such as rhyme and repetition. Most importantly, when I write poetry or picture books, I have to dig deep down into my emotional core and write from the heart.
TWM: Do you have a preference for any particular form of writing?
LN: Poetry has always been my first love. These days I’ve taken to writing formal poetry: sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, villanelles. But I enjoy writing prose as well. As long as I’m writing, I’m happy!
TWM: You’ve published more than 20 picture books, many of them involving Jewish holidays, and you have a new book coming out about holidays. Please tell us more about that.
LN: Here Is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays is a picture book that starts with welcoming a child into the word, and continues through a year’s cycle of Jewish holidays. It’s told in verse and contains an explanation of holidays as well as a craft or recipe for each one. It is forthcoming from Abrams Books for Young Readers.
TWM: Please also tell us more about October Mourning, your novel in verse in response to the murder of Matthew Shepard. Why a novel and why verse? What were your greatest challenge and your greatest satisfaction in writing this?
LN: In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay college student was kidnapped, robbed, brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and abandoned. He was found 18 hours later and brought to the hospital. He died five days later with his family by his side on Monday, October 12 which was the start of Gay Awareness Week at his school. I was the keynote speaker and I arrived on campus the day he died. I made a vow to his friends that I would do something to carry on his name. Since the case has been documented very well (by the New York Times and other newspapers) I didn’t want to write a journalistic account. As a poet, I felt I could use my imagination to access the voices of the silent witnesses such as the fence Matt was tied to, the stars that watched over him, a deer that kept him company all through the night, and others. What could I learn from writing in these voices? October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard answers that question. (See the book trailer.)
TWM: What is your greatest learning as a teacher of writing?
LN: That there is always more for me to learn!
About Lesléa Newman
Bio: Lesléa Newman has created 65 books for readers of all ages including the children’s books Runaway Dreidel!, A Sweet Passover, Remember That, and Matzo Ball Moon. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Foundation, a Sydney Taylor notable, and an American Library Association Stonewall Honor. Lesléa Newman’s short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” has been read on the radio by Carl Reiner as part of the NPR series, “Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New,” which was hosted by Leonard Nimoy, and has been adapted for the stage as a musical with 18 original songs. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, Lesléa Newman is a faculty member of Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program.