On May 18, award-winning children’s book author April Halprin Wayland joins the children’s book panel at the Seminar on Jewish Story, held at Temple Emanu-El, 10 E. 66th Street, in New York City.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to become a children’s writer?
April Halprin Wayland (AHW): My mother. Isn’t it always Mom? She and my father were in love with words, always words. Stressing the correct usage, helping me rewrite an essay, doubling over with laughter as she read Thurber and Dorothy Parker aloud to us.
After college, I realized that I loved picture books. Loved the duet of words and illustrations. I was hungry to learn all I could about how to create them, so I took classes in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in writing for children—every class was stellar.
The spell was cast. It was like that wild passion of first love: I didn’t need sleep, wasn’t hungry, floated along the sidewalk in my high heels and business suit. And this is no joke: I’d been walking past a construction site for months during lunch. After I enrolled in the class, I got whistles as I walked by. Nothing—and everything—had changed.
I heard that Myra Cohn Livingston was teaching Writing Poetry for Children. All I knew about her was that she was a very, very important children’s poet. I thought that if I took her class in poetry, my picture book writing would become more poetic. I would understand how to use words in new ways.
Also, I had heard that she was old. I was afraid she was so old she might die, so I immediately signed up for her class. She didn’t die. She was a strict and uncompromising teacher—one of the best I’ve ever had. I studied under Myra for twelve years. She—and the poets in her class—changed my writing (and my life) forever.
TWM: Why do you write on Jewish themes?
AHW: I hadn’t thought about writing a Jewish-themed story until 2002, when one of my editors, Michelle Frey, at Knopf, asked if I had any Jewish stories in me. Tashlich popped into my head; it’s my favorite Jewish celebration. I’ve dragged many friends to the pier so they could taste the poetry of this ritual. I wanted them to feel the wind, hear the gulls, experience the relief of tossing each piece of bread. How could I not share this in a picture book?
Dial Books for Young Readers ended up publishing that story as New Year at the Pier.
They’re publishing my next book, also Jewish themed—it’s about “dayenu,” and is coming out in time for Passover, 2016.
TWM: Which writers do you read and admire?
AHW: I’ll answer this in two parts. These are some of the writers who shaped me: Crockett Johnson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joni Mitchell, Beverly Cleary, Leon Uris. My best friend in middle school and I both read Uris’ Exodus; we were stunned by it. She became a practicing Jew and lived in Israel for several years. I was just inspired.
Currently? There are too many, of course! Here are just a few that come to mind, in no particular order: Jeri Chase Ferris, Michelle Markel, Steve Sheinkin, Amy Friedman, Bruce Balan, Janet Wong, Alice Schertle, Paul Fleischman, Joan Bransfield Graham, Linda Smith, Ruth Lercher Bornstein, Sonya Sones, Alice McLerran, Juan Felipe Herrera, Virginia Euer Wolf, Anne Lamott, Deborah Heiligman, Barbara Bottner, Denise Doyen, Susan Goldman Rubin, Ann Coleridge, Pat Brisson, Karla Kuskin, Valerie Worth, Michael Teig…also political cartoonists, columnists who write with humanity, and a newspaper called Funny Times, which has nothing but comics, political cartoons, and humorous commentary.
TWM: What is the single most important criterion for writing Jewish-themed children’s books successfully?
AHW: Tell the truth.
TWM: What are the challenges?
AHW: Although Jews buy lots of books, Jewish books are still a small segment of the children’s market, so when you set out to write a Jewish-themed book, you know from the start that your story will likely reach fewer readers.
Titling a Jewish book is a challenge, too. If a children’s book were titled Yuandan (what Chinese New Year’s Day was traditionally called), I might not pick it up—I wish I wouldn’t, but I would probably unconsciously think, that book is for Chinese kids and their parents.
Thinking about this, I fought for the title New Year at the Pier, rather than The Best Part of Rosh Hashanah, because I didn’t want someone to walk by and think, “I’m not Jewish, so that book’s not for me,”—especially since New Year is more broadly about making amends, a topic for everyone.
In New Year, I learned to fact-check my story with religious Jews. As a result, I changed the word “temple” to synagogue, changed the timing so that the main characters were not writing on Rosh Hashanah, and asked the illustrator, Stéphane Jorisch, to add more kippot on the central male characters. I’m convinced that it never would have won the Sydney Taylor Gold Medal Book Award without those changes.
TWM: What do you hope to bring to the upcoming Seminar on Jewish Story?
AHW: I’m honored to be on the panel with Deborah Heiligman, Susan Lynn Meyer, Rebecca Short, and will be talking about how my upcoming book changed (partly because of the current picture book market)—from initial idea to final draft.
To learn more about the Seminar on Jewish Story, contact Barbara Krasner at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)com.