Read about the blog tour and all 2014 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.
The wrap-up and virtual roundtable
Imagine, if you will, available 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 Laurel Snyder and illustrator Catia Chien, The Longest Night: A Passover Story
- For Older Readers — Patricia Polacco for The Blessing Cup
- For Teen Readers — Neal Bascomb for The Nazi Hunters
- For Younger Readers
- Author Renee Londner and illustrator Martha Aviles for Stones for Grandpa
- Author Betty Rosenberg Perlov and illustrator Cosei Kawa for Rifka Takes a Bow
- For Older Readers
- The late Leon Leyson (represented by Leon’s widow, Elisabeth Leyson, and Dr. Marilyn Harran, founding director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University) for The Boy on the Wooden Box
- Carol Matas for Dear Canada: Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948
- For Teen Readers
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!
Laurel Snyder: I’m a huge fan of Erica Perl’s middle grade novels, When Life Gives You OJ and Aces Wild. I love that we’re seeing more contemporary middle grade books with authentic Jewish characters, books that capture family life, and the kid experience, without being heavy handed. I love the humor in her work. I’m also a huge fan of The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming. I know it isn’t a book for everyone, but honestly, I find my favorite books tend not to be books for everyone. I like distinct voices, books that surprise and make their mark.
Neal Bascomb: There are some excellent novels that feature young Jewish heroes and heroines or themes. In particular, I would recommend Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon by Ida Vos (a former Sydney Taylor Award winner), which I read years ago and stays with me still. That said, I always take every opportunity to recommend nonfiction to readers, young and old alike. Of course, The Diary of Anne Frank is perhaps the most enduring nonfiction contribution to Jewish kids lit, and remains one of the most powerful works we have detailing Jewish life during WWII.
Caryl Strzelecki: It’s a very difficult question for me personally to answer. I hope that especially young people will remember their own, often tortured, history. I like to think that by reading books children will better be able to understand their own background.Maybe teachers in the schools or parents or friends can give a good guidance for reading books. But I would never force anyone or in particular any child to read anything they don’t like, it’s all about personal taste and you need time to develop your own personal taste.
Laura Watkinson: Well, I’ve recently translated a children’s book for Arthur A. Levine that I’d really like to recommend. The book, written by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis, is called Hidden Like Anne Frank, and it tells the stories of a number of Jewish children who, like Anne Frank, went into hiding in the Netherlands during World War II, but who survived to talk about their experiences.
The authors realized the importance of recording these stories and they’ve built up a wonderful online archive, in addition to the books that they’ve published on the subject. There’s a website with animated films accompanying the stories at www.hiddenlikeannefrank.com.
Hidden Like Anne Frank, which is coming out in March, is a specially-adapted version of the survivors’ stories for younger readers, and it’s full of interesting notes, maps, and photographs of the children who went into hiding.
I feel a bit awkward about recommending a book that I worked on myself, but I really believe in this book and these stories. I’d love Hidden Like Anne Frank to reach more young readers and I’m so pleased that I was able to play a small part in bringing these important stories to a new audience.
Robyn Bavati: Since discovering the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, I get my recommendations from them.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Snyder: I think it’s interesting to see more Jewish fantasy appearing — books like Path of Names and Inquisitor’s Apprentice. I wouldn’t be surprised if that continued.
Bascomb: This is an interesting question, as I don’t necessarily set out to write specifically about Jewish themes, but rather stories that feature the human spirit. The Nazi Hunters took me on a journey that led me to explore a fundamental Jewish struggle in the wake of the Holocaust: Can justice ever truly be delivered for such a horrific set of events? And what does survival mean to the Jewish community, both then, and even today? With this in mind, trends I could imagine might focus on contemporary themes for kids as time increasingly separates them from those struggles: What does it mean to be Jewish today, particularly in the United States and the West where assimilation is the norm? What does it mean to be Jewish in parts of the world where assimilation is not the norm?
Renee Londner: I believe there will be a continued need for multi-cultural books. But I don’t believe it’s necessary to be a part of the culture you write about. What is necessary is the passion you bring to your work, and the authenticity of your story which comes from extensive research for both fiction and non-fiction.
Cosei Kawa: Bright, colourful, gorgeous, energetic, decorative, and vivid images will be the trends from now on. I feel the world has a thirst for festas and feasts. This comes from the need to escape from an unconscious fear that we might repeat the history which erupted a century ago. Blank spaces, resonance, and suggestiveness which are not written/illustrated will become more important in such a tempest.
Strzelecki: I have to say honestly, I’m not very good in making any predictions. I’m working on my drawings in my little studio in Lommel (Belgium)and that’s it. But I hope, without sarcasm, the future world could be a better world for everybody. I would love to see a more peaceful world that would be a real good trend. It sounds very simple but wouldn’t it be wonderful, after facing the endless futility of wars, violence and conflict for centuries.
I like this quote: “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” — Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Snyder: I’ve just published a novel, Seven Stories Up. It’s a time-travel story, about a girl who falls back in time, from 1987 to 1937, and becomes friends with her own grandmother, as they explore the streets of Baltimore. And in December I’m putting out my first picture book biography, SWAN: the life and dance of Anna Pavlova. She was a childhood obsession!
Bascomb: I’m currently at work on my next nonfiction book called Sabotage. It features another wonderful story from World War II about the Allies’ ultimately successful efforts to stop the Nazis from creating a nuclear bomb. I’m working on the book for adults now, but will also write a version for young adults.
Londner: I will continue writing picture books and haiku poetry, hopefully combining the two genres. I also have plans for a non-fiction book for children.
Marilyn Harran (standing in the late Leon Leyson): It was a great privilege to play a part in Leon telling his story. I’ve had the good fortunate over the last years to come to know many witnesses to the Holocaust. There are so many extraordinary stories that remain to be told — and, of course, time is pressing. Right now I am working with another Holocaust survivor who has a remarkable and inspiring story to tell. Most likely, it will be a young adult book, but it’s a little too soon to say for sure. Beyond that, I am in the early stages on a couple of other projects which I can’t as yet publicly discuss, but which I am very excited about.
Carol Matas: In the spring, I will have a new book out called Tucson Jo, inspired by the first Jewish mayor of Tucson and his family. It is set in 1882, and the main character is his independent 14-year-old daughter, Josephine. For this book, I chose Fictive Press, a small, digital publisher. Unlike traditional publishers who now seem overly concerned if a book is “too Jewish” for a general audience, Fictive Press was willing to let me write this book exactly as I saw it and explore issues freely, which was very liberating. In my earlier writing days, this was less of an issue: my publishers were happy to print my Jewish-themed books like Sworn Enemies (just re-released by Starburst Publishing) and The War Within (Simon and Schuster).
Fictive Press has recently published my first non-fiction title, When I Die, a picture book about death and dying for young children and their families. When I Die is a book I hope will help young children who are coping with loss or who are just upset at the idea of death. I still remember my grandson freaking out when he was told that dinosaurs are extinct. He immediately realized that meant people could die, that he could die, and he cried his heart out. He was four years old!
Strzelecki: For my latest book, an autobiographical graphic novel, I’ve worked closely with war correspondent for Belgian TV (VRT) Rudi Vranckx. The book is called The Vulture Club, about the ”Arab revolt.” It came out in autumn 2013. I’m also working with Rudi Vranckx on my next graphic novel. This time it’s about illegal immigrants from Africa and how it’s affecting Europe. It has increased massively in recent years. Many people from poor African countries embark on the dangerous journey for Europe, in hopes of a better life.
Watkinson: I’m currently working on a translation of a classic Dutch children’s adventure story, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, by Tonke Dragt, for Pushkin Press in the UK, which is the sequel to her book The Letter for the King, once voted the best Dutch children’s book ever. It’s about a young knight who goes on a dangerous mission to save a kingdom that’s in peril, and it really is gripping stuff. The Letter for the King was written in 1963, so it’s great to see these two books finally appearing in English.
Kawa: Narratives will attract my interest throughout all of my life. From great narratives to individual stories, I’d like to illustrate themes such as time and fate. Nonsense is also tempting as disassembled narratives. I’d like to imagine the drama on the line between ordinary life and extraordinary experience. Foods/clothes/everyday life/festivals/shows/magic/mysteries.
Bavati: I’m currently working on another YA novel. This one is unrelated to dance and features dual protagonists — one male, one female, so hopefully it will appeal to both boys and girls.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote/illustrated your book?
Snyder: Well, I spent a lot of time thinking about children in the Bible. Thinking about how kids have a very different experience of the world. I could probably spend a lifetime trying to unpack those ideas. What the world was like for the children born immediately after the flood. Or during the years in the desert. It was a lot of fun, talking to my kids about all of that.
Bascomb: Although I did a tremendous amount of research on a wide variety of topics for The Nazi Hunters, there are two parts of the Jewish experience in particular related to my story that stand out for me.
One, the effects of the brutality of the Nazis on the human spirit. In his execution of the Final Solution, Eichmann did specific things to attempt to strip the humanity from the Jews: removing them from their homes, separating them from their families, treating them like cattle in the transports, the denial of any free will at all. Although I was certainly familiar with this before researching the book, I read many personal testimonials which added unforgettable and heartbreaking color to my understanding of this.
Two, the question of justice, how to exact it. David Ben-Gurion understood that by bringing Eichmann to trial he would remind the world what the Germans did to the Jews during the war, as well as remind Jewish youth why the state of Israel needed to exist. It would have been much simpler to kill him, but mere revenge would not have served a larger purpose. I remember interviewing the Mossad agents about how difficult it was to have one of the men chiefly responsible for the death of their loved ones, not to mention many, many other unspeakable acts, within easy strangling distance. To hold Eichmann in the safe house in Argentina while they waited for an opportunity to take him back to Israel and put him on trial was excruciating. The strength of these men (and women) to follow through on their mission and their ability to respond so nobly in the face of such barbarism is an enduring testament to Jewish humanity—and humanity over all.
Aline Sax: The story of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto is rather unknown in Belgium. We all know about the round-ups, the camps, the gas chambers, the death marches. Young people think of the Jews as lambs being led to the slaughter, passively packing up their stuff and boarding the trains. When I studied history in Berlin, I took up a course on the relationship between Poles, Jews and Germans during the Second World War, where the subject of the ghetto uprising came up. I was immediately interested, since this was such a different story of what I already knew about Jewish life during the war. It showed Jews were not all that passive. They did resist, they did raise their voice, hoping to be heard, they did not accept what was happening but protested against the injustice being inflicted upon them. I think it’s important to tell this part of history as well.
Matas: I needed to think a lot about the nature of yetzer ha-rah, the evil side, and yetzer tov, the good side. A character who is an orphan, who has experienced the worst of human nature, must look at the world in a particular way and I had to try to understand that and to inhabit it. A character like that must try to reconcile a good universe vs. a bad universe. She must try to come to terms with the world and she must try to discover if there is any love or beauty even as she knows from the inside the horror and the hate.
Strzelecki: It’s very difficult to imagine what life must have been on those days in Warsaw. The entire war period was just madness for Jewish life. It’s still today difficult to understand how this all could happen. For me, the key moment is absolutely when the ghetto inhabitants learned that the deportations were part of an extermination process. It changed everything! But fighting with almost nothing (only some handguns, grenades, and Molotov cocktails), that’s heroism: A battle they could not win against the more powerful Nazis. So they decided not to go quietly to certain death. That’s for me, personally, pure heroism.
Watkinson: I was, of course, aware of the tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising, but translating Aline’s take on the story and really getting inside those events, seeing things from the point of view of someone who suffered the horror and the indignity of incarceration and starvation, really inspired a visceral reaction within me. The scene with the flamethrowers was particularly vivid and harrowing, and Caryl’s illustrations underline the sheer despair of the people within the Ghetto.
I think Aline’s story, supported by Caryl’s dramatic illustrations, provides an important way in to this essential historical material for younger readers. It also introduces them to a very strong man, Mordechai Anielewicz. I was certainly inspired to find out more about him and about his life and death.
Bavati: Dancing in the Dark was very much a product of my Orthodox upbringing and the inner conflicts I experienced both in adolescence and well into adulthood as a result of it. Writing it actually helped me to resolve these issues and clarify my own beliefs. I’m not sure I got any additional insights into Jewish life; instead, I gained further insight into my own psyche.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Bascomb: It means a tremendous amount to be recognized for my efforts in this way, in particular since, as most people know, I am not Jewish. It is always important to me as a writer to honor the people and the amazing things they accomplished by telling their stories in the best way I know how. To be recognized for The Nazi Hunters by those who safeguard Jewish children’s literature means I might have achieved that here, and I’m very proud of that.
Londner: Having my book recognized by the AJL is an honor beyond description. The fact that Stones for Grandpa is such a personal story makes this recognition even more meaningful. I remember, many years ago, when a friend in a critique group announced her book had won the Sydney Taylor Award. I was filled with such wonder at her achievement. Now I am thrilled that my book has also been recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor.
Elisabeth Leyson: I am absolutely overjoyed by the Sydney Taylor Honor Award to my husband’s memoir The Boy on the Wooden Box. Leon would have been so proud that his work is being recognized by such an influential and esteemed group. Thank you.
Harran: Well, it means a lot, but it would mean so very much more if Leon were here to receive it. I think of him every day. I am proud to have played a role with Lis in helping him tell his story. I think about how much courage it took for Leon to relive that history and then to find the words to capture what is in many ways an indescribable set of experiences. Every time I read a page or two from the book, I hear Leon’s voice. He had a truly extraordinary ability to reach audiences of all ages. It’s very nice to read comments on Amazon from readers who echo that very thought — that although the book is written for readers 11 and up, people of all ages are reading it and finding it meaningful. And it’s thrilling to read comments where people say that once they start the book, they can’t put it down. Leon would be stunned at the reception the book has received and its being named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book. I know he would see it as a tribute to all his family and perhaps most especially to his beloved older brother Tsalig, whose memory, I think, was what most inspired Leon.
Matas: I take it as a confirmation that there are Jewish readers who are as interested in Jewish issues as I am and that I am not speaking into the void!
Strzelecki: We all want to get recognized and noticed for the work you do. We all enjoy receiving compliments, but that’s not the reason you do it. The purpose is always to tell a good story maybe an important story. That’ my goal. And, therefore, it’s a lot easier when you win prizes; it gives you the freedom to work in the future on the things you like to do. So for me personally the Sydney Taylor Book Award is of course very welcome. It also makes me very proud that it came from the Jewish society. In fact that makes it extra special!
Watkinson: I’m very thankful for the committee’s recognition of the team that created The War within These Walls and brought the book to the United States. It’s a great honor for everyone involved that The War within These Walls has been recognized with such an important award, and it’s particularly gratifying as the book opens up such a very important chapter of history.
I hope that this award will encourage librarians to read The War within These Walls and to recommend the book to a new group of readers, and to help convey the book’s message to a younger generation.
Kawa: Receiving praise is a genuine pleasure. Thank you so much for this honour! I hope children will know Rifka Takes a Bow by this award and enjoy reading it. It gives me confidence that there are people who empathize with my drawings. Also, I’m excited about what kind of changes will occur around me.
Sax: I am very happy that our book has been chosen as a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for various reasons. It was already nice to hear that Eerdmans wanted to translate and publish our story in the United States, but when I heard we also won the silver medal of the Sydney Taylor Award, I was really thrilled. It’s so nice to get recognition abroad because it shows that our story also touches people in other countries. I think it’s important that good books are translated into different languages. Literature is a great way for people around the world to learn about each other, it’s a marvelous way of communication between cultures.
Moreover, I’m very honored because this is a Jewish award. I think it’s very important to tell the story of the Holocaust to as many people as possible and I’m glad that the Jewish community supports this idea – and our story, by granting us this silver medal. I hope this award will make the story known to an even broader audience.
Bavati: I feel extremely honoured. Given the high quality of Jewish writing today and the wonderful books that abound, it’s a great privilege to be named alongside some truly outstanding writers.
Though I didn’t write Dancing in the Dark for a specifically Jewish audience, I did feel it would be of particular interest to Jewish teens and their parents, and I hoped it would find its way to the Jewish libraries and schools. But there was some controversy over it in Australia when the principal of a Modern Orthodox Jewish school refused to allow the book on the library shelves because he felt it portrayed Orthodoxy in a negative light (see Book Censorship at Mount Scopus College). He claimed that the book had “a clear agenda to disengage young Jews from Judaism” (certainly not the case) and that it was, moreover, “a bad book.”
Finding out that it had won a medal and been named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for teens was, therefore, especially gratifying.
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?
Bascomb: Well, I’ve never been to Las Vegas before, so I’m really looking forward to that! More seriously, I don’t think anything fundamentally changes for me in my day-to-day work: The research and writing remain as difficult as they’ve always been. But what the Sydney Taylor Award does change for me is my perspective on the purpose of my work. All writers share the purpose to add to our understanding of the human experience, our history, present, and future. This award is a reminder that, when done as well as I’m able, people, and in particular, kids will read my work and it can inform their view of the world.
Londner: Since there are so many wonderful books being published it is almost impossible to read them all. However whenever I, personally, see that a book has been singled out for an award or an honor, I pay closer attention. It often introduces me to an author I may not have known and I then tend to follow his/her work. I hope this is true of other readers, as well.
Matas: I hope Pieces of the Past will reach a wider audience, and hopefully the award will encourage more readers, young and old, to read and learn about the Holocaust, a subject that people often find frightening or daunting to explore.
Bavati: My writing process and lifestyle won’t be any different. Hopefully the award will help increase sales.
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.