Winner of the National Jewish Book Award
Illustrated Children’s Book Category
The Patchwork Torah is a global collaboration between U.S.-based publisher, Kar-Ben, author Allison Ofanansky in Israel and illustrator Elsa Oriol in France.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Allison, what inspired you to write this book?
Allison Ofanansky (AO): The book was inspired by a real patchwork Torah which our community in Tzfat, Israel bought several years ago. Our scroll is also made up of parts of old and damaged scrolls which were put together to make a whole, kosher Torah. But we don’t know any of the stories of the parts of our Torah scroll. The stories of the scrolls David collects are made up, even if some of them are based on real events.
TWM: Most of your books are contemporary, realistic narratives illustrated with photography. Why this book?
AO: It also started from a ‘contemporary realistic’ issue—the Torah our community bought. But it wasn’t possible to find out the histories of those fragments, so the story became more like historical fiction, going back to the times at which the various scrolls were written and damaged. It became obvious that it wasn’t suited for being illustrated with photographs, as my other books are.
TWM: What do you want young readers to take away from this book?
AO: Mostly I hope they enjoy the story. But there are a few ‘messages’. One is ecological—that damaged things can be restored rather than thrown away. Another is that even difficult parts of our history can be brought together into something new and beautiful. Also, I intentionally included David’s granddaughter (rather than grandson) in the last scenes to show inclusion of girls and women in celebrating with the Torah.
TWM: Did you conduct any research for The Patchwork Torah? If so, please describe your process.
AO: I spoke with several soferim (scribes) although I was not able to get in touch with the one who put together the Torah which we bought. Also, I sent the story to friends and asked them to read it to their children. The feedback I got was very helpful. For example, an earlier version had more about the scene during the Holocaust, but it was too upsetting for young children.
TWM: How do you choose the topics for your books?
AO: The ‘Nature in Israel’ series came out of a desire to show the connections between Jewish holidays and the natural cycles in Israel. This is something I’ve learned a lot about and experienced personally during the 20 years we’ve lived in Israel. As the series has developed, I speak with the publisher to find out what they need and want. For example, the last two books are about Shavuot and Rosh Chodesh—there are very few children’s books about these holidays.
TWM: What books or authors have inspired you the most? Why?
AO: I’ve always been a huge reader, so it’s hard to pick a few. I love the Laura Ingles Wilder books for showing so clearly and simply the details of her life.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
AO: As I got feedback from friends who read the story to their children, I realized how difficult it was to make the changes in time periods clear to kids who may not understand references to events like the Depression, World War II, Hurricane Katrina, etc. It took a lot of revision to make it flow in a way that kids could easily follow.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
AO: Getting nice feedback from readers.
TWM: Elsa, now let’s turn to you. Your artwork is stunning. What was your approach to the illustration? What medium did you use and why?
Elsa Oriol (EO): It was important for me to translate the emotion and tenderness of this story. I used my favorite technical: oil painting on paper, brushes and palette knife to give vibrant colors. Before, I had made all drawings with charcoal on paper.
TWM: Did you have to conduct any research? If so, please describe your process.
EO: Yes I did, I was lucky that one of my best friends, Isabelle, works at the Art and History Museum of Judaism in Paris, and her husband, Steven, is a Rabbi from New York, working and living now in Paris. Both of them learned me precious instructions. Also the publisher, Joanna Sussman, gave me good directions. So I could find the right elements by internet and at the Museum’s library.
TWM: Were there any particular challenges in illustrating this book? Please describe.
EO: I didn’t know too much about Simchat Torah and scribes, so I had to learn this important tradition. That’s why I created the pictures in a classical style. I was glad the publisher thought about me for this project and I wanted to take care of this very nice story.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction in illustrating this book?
EO: It was my first book for the United States, and this story is so beautiful… I hope Allison Ofanansky enjoyed my illustrations!
TWM: What inspired you to illustrate children’s books?
EO: As a painter and mother, I looked for some books for my son when he was a child. I like art when it’s timeless, and some children’s books, allowing real painting style, give lovely results… So, I decided to explore that way. If illustrating for children could also help them to grow up, that would make me happy!
Good interview. For those of us who might not research this book further, I would have liked to know the age group, no. of pages, etc.
It’s a standard picture book in terms of format. Obviously, it’s above standard in terms of content and illustration. 🙂