The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write The Tattered Prayer Book?
Ellen Bari (EB): When my daughter was picture book age, there were almost no books about the Holocaust for young children. I felt there needed to be what I’m calling a “gentle introduction” to the Holocaust, an accessible story that children can relate to and that could be used as a tool by parents and educators to begin a conversation on this insanely difficult topic.
TWM: We hear all the time that no one wants Holocaust stories. Did that hold you back at all, at least initially?
EB: I actually wrote the book without any hesitation, as it is a story that is somewhat autobiographical, and I guess I felt it needed to be told. However, I rarely sent it out to editors, because as you said, no one was interested in “Holocaust stories.” I imagine many writers have a number of manuscripts tucked away in the proverbial drawer, waiting for the right moment to share the stories that “nobody wants”…yet.
TWM: What were the challenges in writing this book?
EB: I was hoping to create a universal story that would resonate with Jews and non-Jews alike, while centering the story around an object of faith that has special significance to Jews. I wanted that story to reflect one family’s Holocaust experience, without depictions of violence that would be too graphic and off-putting for younger readers. I also wanted my father to be comfortable with the story. To this day he has never gone back to Germany, and generally does not revisit that part of his life. It was important to me that he like the book.
TWM: What were the satisfactions?
EB: There are many. The illustrations are based on family photographs and artifacts. The grandfather clock in the book was in my grandparents’ house in Germany, then in their New York apartment, and now in mine. The illustrator Avi Katz, took my family images and lovingly recreated them, memorializing family members in a very unique way. Reading the completed book with my father and 90-year-old uncle has been satisfying beyond words. When my uncle responded to an illustration of my grandmother by saying, “That’s my mother. She used to wear her hair that way,” I knew I had done something right. I also know that as the generation of survivors ages and passes on, it is incumbent upon the second and third generations to tell the stories. By creating this type of narrative, it makes it easy for me share the important messages of Holocaust education. I can talk about it with children and families from my perspective, which I think can make it less scary, and more personal.
TWM: Did you read Holocaust books as a young reader?
EB: I guess Anne Frank stands out above all others, along with a Hebrew book with a red cover about the Warsaw Ghetto. I remember hearing lots of stories, but not reading a lot of actual books until I was a bit older, and was able to read books like Eli Wiesel’s Night.
TWM: You promote the book as a gentle introduction to the Holocaust for children ages 6-10. Why is that important?
EB: I have heard from many parents that they don’t know how to broach the subject. Picture books can offer a meaningful way in, in this case, allowing parents to discuss Holocaust-related issues of prejudice, hate and displacement without having to talk about the murder of millions of Jewish men, women and children. Bringing the experience down to a child’s level can facilitate invaluable discussions about the larger implications of stereotyping, bullying, racism, and the importance of individual responsibility and tolerance. My hope is that the story will lay a foundation for exploring the more difficult aspects of the Holocaust later, when a child is older and able to integrate the information.
TWM: How did you decide on a publishing strategy? What brought you to Gihon River Press?
EB: I met the publisher, Steve Feuer, at Book Expo in 2012. He was promoting an adult book, and I asked if he might be interested in a children’s title. The rest is history as they say. This is his first children’s book.
TWM: We’re going to turn to Steve Feuer for a moment. What attracted you to The Tattered Prayer Book?
Steve Feuer (SF): I’ve not taken a survey, however, I believe that Gihon River Press is one of a very few independent publishers that specializes in Holocaust education and I’m always on the lookout for potential books. I was doing a book signing at the Book Expo America for another title, when Ellen approached me with the idea of a children’s book about the Holocaust. The idea intrigued me. I was up front with Ellen and said that I had not done a children’s book before, that I was a very small publisher and might not be able to do it justice. As Ellen and I discussed it, the potential became clear and with Ellen’s help and expertise I felt it would be possible. Again my experience with children’s books, especially about the Holocaust, was a leap of faith. Ellen’s experience and positive ideas are what attracted me to The Tattered Prayer Book.
TWM: How did you (or Avi Katz) decide to use different typography and framed pages for the flashback?
SF: This was all Avi Katz’s idea.
Ellen, what has the reaction been to this book? It’s quite a departure from Jumping Jenny (published by Kar-Ben).
EB: The response has been great. I guess in some ways, both books are good jumping-off points for discussions about how each of us can make a difference in the world. I was recently invited to bring The Tattered Prayer Book to an inner city school for a day of celebrating literature. I visited with two 8th grade classes whose teachers had done units on the Holocaust. The librarian thought my background in developing museum exhibits and the Learning Center for the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. would be of interest to the older students. They were rapt, even as I read them a picture book! They asked great questions, though I could see that a number of the students were struggling with understanding how I, or my father, could have had anything to do with the Holocaust. I always bring archival pictures of my family from before the war in Germany, which the kids find fascinating. But in this case, I felt like the photos brought an authentic “light bulb” moment of the reality of the Holocaust into this Brooklyn classroom.
At the other end of the spectrum, the book is a great resource for Jewish schools and synagogues and I’ve gotten very positive feedback from rabbis and teachers. I presented the book at a Yom Hashoah program for a much younger group, and the questions there were quite powerful. As I have been back to Germany to visit the home my father grew up in and the Jewish day school he attended as a boy, I share those experiences with the kids as well. Though I obviously cannot talk about the Holocaust first hand, I think my experience adds a perspective that audiences can relate to. While the programming that I do for Jumping Jenny is more “fun” and activity oriented, I find children and adults welcome an opportunity to talk about this book and its themes as well as learning more about the “real” people behind the book characters.
You can reach Ellen Bari at her website.