Read about the blog tour and all 2015 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 Jim Aylesworth and illustrator Barbara McClintock for My Grandfather’s Coat
- For Older Readers — Loic Dauvillier, Mark Lizano, and Greg Salsedo, creators of Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust
- For Teen Readers — Donna Jo Napoli for Storm
- For Younger Readers
- Author Barbara Krasner and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley for Goldie Takes a Stand! Golda Meir’s First Crusade
- Author Jacqueline Jules and illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard for Never Say a Mean Word Again
- For Older Readers
- Author Jennifer Elvgren and illustrator Fabio Santomauro of The Whispering Town
- Donna Gephart for Death by Toilet Paper
- For Teen Readers
- Una La Marche for Like No Other
- Lila Perl for Isabel’s War
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!
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Thank you all for joining us today and congratulations on your great achievement. Let’s just dive right in. What are your recommendations for great Jewish kids lit?
Jim Aylesworth: I am the author of over thirty books for children. My first book was published in 1980, and My Grandfather’s Coat is my most recent title.
These days, I’m thought of as an author, but some may like to know that for many years, I was a teacher. Yes, a first grade teacher from 1971 until my retirement in 1996, when I became a full time school presenter. I travel widely now — always doing my best to promote a love of literature in America’s school children. It’s the same effort that was always so much a part of my life in the classroom.
So if asked to discuss a strategy to promote the love of reading that would include My Grandfather’s Coat, I would say to pair the reading with Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback. As a teacher, I often used two versions of the same tale to focus attention on the similarities and differences in the stories – as well as the art. I would typically guide the experience by asking questions like: “Do you prefer this part better than that part?” and “Why do you think that?” The answers, even from very young children, are often quite literary, and they end up liking both versions better than if they had experienced just one. And it’s fun for all — including the teacher!
Marc Lizano: The Golem by Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (it will no doubt be more difficult for young readers), Bigman de Mazzucchelli (a splendid and magnificent variation on that theme). I don’t know if there is an English version of the book. Isn’t it only published in his own self-published revue Rubber Blanket? Le Chat du Rabin (The Rabbi’s Cat) by Joann Sfar (funny, clever and also available in animated cartoon, even if i do prefer the books.
Donna Jo Napoli: Understanding the nature of faith, understanding how it can guide your life, these are critical things for a person of faith. I therefore think any book that deals seriously with faith is great Jewish kids lit. By climbing inside the skin of a person of faith in a book, no matter what the faith of that character may be, you will come to face and understand your own doubts and beliefs. And your appreciation of your faith will deepen.
Jennifer Elvgren: Happy Birthday, Tree!: A Tu B’Shevat Story and The Schmutzy Family both by Madelyn Rosenberg, Chik Chak Shabbat by Mara Rockliff, and Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott.
Una La Marche: I don’t care if this dates me; my favorite kids’ book with a Jewish protagonist will always be Judy Blume’s wonderful Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. As far as more recently published YA, I think that Gayle Forman, David Levithan, and Stephanie Perkins have written — and continue to write — compelling Jewish characters.
Jacqueline Jules: Since the BookExpo America Convention of May 2014, there has literally been a public outcry for more diversity in children’s literature with the We Need Diverse Books Campaign that made publishing headlines last spring. Another effort in this cause, Multicultural Children’s Book Day recently celebrated a second annual event on January 27th to raise awareness for the need for children’s books that contain “characters of color as well as characters that represent a minority point of view.” First Book and other literacy organizations have supported these efforts and several prominent journals have printed articles on the topic. It is exciting to see these initiatives calling for books which better reflect the student population in our schools. I hope that Jewish librarians and families will add their voice to this chorus. Recommended lists of multicultural books should include minority religions, too.
La Marche: Diversity! We need diverse books (for everyone, but especially for kids), and that means characters of different races, religions, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and gender identities.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Napoli: Right now I’m working on a story in which the main character does truly wretched things, and to people she loves. But she is going mad from mercury poisoning. So she cannot stop herself — except through putting an end to her life. So the big issue is: what does forgiveness mean? — how far can we extend it? All of us make mistakes. All of us do hateful things at some point in our lives. Where would we be without forgiveness?
Barbara Krasner: I’m shopping around a couple of picture book biographies. This year I’ll be working on a YA Holocaust-related novel that takes place in Poland in November 1939 when the borders between the Nazi-occupied side and the Soviet-occupied side open for a brief period and a 16-year-old girl and her family are caught inbetween. I’ll also be working on a nonfiction book about Cold War spies.
Kelsey Garrity-Riley: I’m currently working on illustrating a book with Chronicle set to come out in 2016. I’d really love to be able to work more on developing my own illustrated stories!
Jules: I have completed a middle grade novel with Jewish identity themes that I hope my agent will be able to place this year. So far, I have board books, picture books, easy readers, and early chapter books out in this world. It would be very exciting to have a middle grade novel, too.
Lizano: I’m actually working on many projects as an adaptation of “Le cheval d’orgueil” from Pierre-Jakez Hélias, a trilogy with Benöit Broyart, “La pension Moreau” and also, as an author, on “Marcelin Comète.”
Elvgren: To date I’ve written picture books and magazine fiction. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and working on a middle-grade novel about a rescue horse, which is based on a true story. I’m almost half-way through the second draft and hope to finish this spring before my children are out of school for the summer. Summer chaos makes a regular writing schedule nearly impossible!
Fabio Santomauro: The Whispering Town has been recently edited in Italy with the translation La città che sussurrò. At the moment I am thus promoting this new edition, through readings and workshops for children who are learning a lot about important themes and, in the meanwhile, enjoying the fun of drawings and stories.
Donna Gephart: I’ve written about a presidential candidate’s daughter, a boy (and his hamster) who make hilarious, successful YouTube videos, but barely manage to survive middle school, a Kids Week Jeopardy! contestant trivia whiz who misses her father and a contest-crazed, big-hearted Jewish boy, who will do anything to help his mom stay afloat and to keep a promise he made to his recently deceased father. Next up is something very different; a humorous, heartbreaking novel about a transgender tween learning to live authentically in a world that can be less than welcoming. I’ve never researched so much or worked so intensely as I have on this novel, due out from Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House in 2016.
La Marche: I have a comic essay collection, Unabrow, coming out March 31, and then a third, yet-to-be-officially-announced YA novel publishing around Labor Day.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote/illustrated your book?
Barbara McClintock: When I moved to northeastern Connecticut nine years ago, I fell in love with the area’s rural landscape and farm culture. There seem to be more cows than people, and the pace of traffic is often determined by the speed of a tractor driving down the road at the front of a long line of cars. What I didn’t realize initially was that many of the farm families in my neighborhood have roots going back to Jewish enclaves in Russia and Eastern Europe.
A few years ago, my editor Dianne Hess at Scholastic Press sent Jim Aylesworth’s manuscript for My Grandfather’s Coat to me. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about taking on a story that had been so well illustrated by Simms Taback. Simms’ version of the tale is set in “the old country” — in fact, most picture books based on Jewish tales are set in Eastern Europe or in American urban settings. I recognized an opportunity to place this version in my own back yard, honoring the Jews who traveled across an ocean and found a new life and a drastically new line of work from what many of them had experienced back home.
My research began with interviewing my Jewish friend and neighbor who’s family had emigrated from Germany in the early 1900s to northeastern Connecticut. I discovered that many Connecticut Jewish farm families’ ancestors came to America sponsored by a philanthropic foundation that had its beginnings in the 1890s. Baron Maurice De Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonization Association to help persecuted Jews establish agricultural colonies outside Russia and other Eastern European Countries. His organization continued to grow long after his death, and provided financial aid, training, and help purchasing farms to Jews immigrating to the United States, Canada, Argentina and Palestine. The JCA continued to help Jewish immigrants during and after the second world war; the association ended in the late 1970s.
The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford provided research, support, and help as I was developing the visual narrative for My Grandfather’s Coat. The society’s website has an abundance of rich materials about the JCA and Jewish life in rural Connecticut.
“The Jewish Farmer,” a newsletter published in the early 1900s was full of advice — one gem was, “Don’t become a farmer unless your wife likes the idea.” Life for farmers was full of unpredictable events, toil and trial, but faith and community helped many overcome the struggles inherent to agricultural life.
My friend’s parents still belong to the United Brethren of Hebron Synagogue in Hebron, Connecticut. The Hebron congregation initially met for Sabbath services in the homes of its members. The congregation eventually raised enough funding to build a tiny synagogue in the 1940s, constructed in true small town fashion by the Jewish congregation and their non-Jewish neighbors pitching in. The synagogue has seating for 40-50 people, and is much loved by the current congregation.
The United Brethren of Hebron Synagogue is the setting for Grandfather’s daughter’s wedding scene in My Grandfather’s Coat.
Illustrating My Grandfather’s Coat brought the American Jewish rural experience to vivid life for me. I have the added benefit of appreciating more about my home and friends in Northeastern Connecticut. And I’m able to be more patient with that pokey tractor driver on the road as I imagine his or her families’ background and story.
Garrity-Riley: I really enjoyed getting to learn more about what life for this Jewish immigrant family looked like in turn of the century Milwaukee. Its endlessly fascinating , and sometimes exhausting to research what details of life looked like for them. What did they wear? How would their homes have looked? But more than just the visual fabric of their lives, I love how relatable Goldie and her family are even in our 21st century world. Her feelings of doubt, determination, and learning to work together to achieve something important are timeless.
Lizano: All the elements of a Jewish life provide from the work of Loïc in Hidden. In my personal artwork, the fact that the heads are so big is probably due to my studies (I did study Philosophy in University in the ’90s) because of the concept of otherness, of alternity, directly from my reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s texts.
Napoli: In a sense my story is “pre-Jewish” in that it is pre-Abraham. But it is a study dealing with the ancient peoples that surrounded the birth of Judaism, so in that sense it deals with Jewish life. The thing that struck me most in writing this book was how very hard it was for Noah and his family to keep their faith. Any person of faith encounters challenges to their faith, yes. But the challenges of the great flood were exaggerated. They would have shaken most faithful people to the core. How do you believe that a God who wipes out so much life is “good”? How do you believe there is any “order” to his scheme of things, when the scheme seems mad? It takes enormous optimism and great personal strength to hold on. I ached for Noah, as I wrote this. I ached for all of them, but perhaps most for his wife.
Jules: Writing Never Say a Mean Word Again gave me the opportunity to research medieval Spain. I read Tales of the Alhambra and other books to imbibe the atmosphere of the era. I also scoured sources for information on Samuel Ha-Nagid and the legend of how he told the king he had torn out his enemy’s tongue and replaced it with a kind one. The Golden Age of Spain when Muslims, Jews, and Christians exchanged cultural ideas and lived in peace is a comforting historical period to remember. One of the things that attracted me to retell the legend of Samuel Ha-Nagid was the setting. And I am very indebted to Durga Yael Bernhard for her elegant illustrations which so beautifully evoked medieval Spain in Never Say a Mean Word Again.
Durga Yael Bernhard: Illustrating a book set in Spain a thousand years ago was truly a learning experience for me. Although I have created several multi-cultural books before, I have never delved into this particular time and place. Medieval Spain was a place that was bursting with creativity in terms of architecture, textiles, and other decorative arts. I could have filled several books with all the arched windows, vaulted ceilings, gilded ceramics and intricate tapestries I discovered. Yet it was also a time of drought, disease, and widespread oppression. Many of the creative forms appear “dark” by our modern standards. My special challenge in this book was to lighten up the setting and see it through the eyes of a child.
Learning about Samuel HaNagid, upon whom two of the characters in the story are based, was even more fascinating. In the context of Muslim-ruled Spain, he rose to the highest pinnacle of power ever reached by a Jew in his time. I was so impressed by his accomplishments as a renowned poet, military leader, rabbi, Arabic scholar, and as royal vizier to the Muslim caliph — that I continued to study HaNagid’s life beyond what I needed for the book.
Gephart: Since I wrote about a Jewish family that was similar to the family in which I grew up, I didn’t research that element of my novel (other than making sure I got the Yiddish spellings correct for the glossary at the back of the book.) Most of my time was spent researching sweepstakes enthusiasts and finding fascinating toilet and toilet paper facts to head each chapter. For example, did you know the first stall in a public restroom is the least used and therefore the cleanest?
Santomauro: Illustrating The Whispering Town was very interesting. I thought it was a special book from the very first time I read the story. Considering the historical importance of the Holocaust theme, it becomes pivotal talking about it to the new generations, mostly through the use of graphics and images, which is, through a form of art highly communicative and emotional for young readers.
La Marche: I grew up, as my mother would joke, “marginally Jewish”; I’m only a quarter Jewish by blood, and completely non-religious. So deciding to write a Hasidic character presented (to put it mildy) a steep learning curve. I really came to it with zero knowledge or understanding, and what I learned really humbled me. I had always assumed that I had nothing in common with Hasidic women; it seemed like the rules (or lack thereof, in my case) that governed our lives would prevent us from relating to one another. But in speaking to women who had grown up in Hasidic homes, I realized something that, frankly, I should have already known: religion (or race, or sexual identity, etc.) doesn’t alter the fundamental experience of being a human being. We all share, to some extent, the same emotions and questions and desires. There are some things that all teenage girls do and feel, no matter where they’re from or what they believe in. I’m ashamed that this was a revelation for me, but it was.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Aylesworth: I am very proud of this honor! And I sincerely thank AJL and all who were involved in bestowing it! Folks who know me well may notice that I’m now walking a little taller, and that I have a shinier look in my eyes — all because My Grandfather’s Coat is the winner of The Sydney Taylor Award!
But by nature I’m a very modest person, and you won’t hear me doing a lot of bragging about it. However, I will admit that I’ve begun a list of modest ways to bring it up as dinner conversation.
Lizano: I hope we reached to find the “good” tone, the right correctness, sensitivity, and accuracy of our work. That mean a lot when this kind of book is well received by the readers.
Napoli: The members of the Association of Jewish Libraries are educated, intelligent, and thoughtful people. How could they not be: they are librarians. Librarians are the front line against censorship. Librarians are the ones who reach out to individual children and put a book in their hands, knowing that book is going to matter to precisely that child. Librarians are in the job of opening minds. When I was a child, my elementary school librarian was my lifeline.
To get an award from the Association of Jewish Libraries makes me cry every time I think of it. Even now as I am typing this. I am so very lucky and so very grateful to be recognized by a group that I respect so inordinately much. Writing is a lonely business, and feedback is infrequent and often disheartening. Getting this award means I can feel I didn’t waste people’s time with that book. It means I can stop pacing, I can sleep at night… at least till the next book.
Garrity-Riley: It’s such an incredible honor!
Jules: I won a Sydney Taylor Honor for Sarah Laughs in 2009 and for Benjamin and the Silver Goblet in 2010. I was not able to attend the 2009 awards banquet but I did attend the 2010 AJL convention in Seattle. I still remember that trip as one of the highlights of my year. As a former synagogue librarian myself, it was a true pleasure to meet so many wonderful Judaica librarians. A night I particularly enjoyed was a Kosher Chinese dinner with members of the Sydney Taylor Award committee. Everyone was so warm and so clearly committed to Jewish children’s literature. A great deal of thought and deliberation goes into the selection of books honored by the Sydney Taylor committee. Receiving a third major recognition from this award committee is indeed a milestone for me. I have the other two certificates with the silver seal framed on the wall of my study. I look forward to placing a third frame for Never Say a Mean Word Again beside them.
Gephart: This award means the world to me. I’d be delighted if Benjamin Epstein’s story of hope, hard work and humor to overcome his family’s serious challenges gets into the hands of more readers. I’d love to visit Jewish schools and Jewish book festivals and talk about his story and how it might matter to young readers. I’d also like to share my story of growing up poor and overcoming challenges with a sense of hope and creativity and frequent trips to the Northeast Regional Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Benjamin’s story mirrors mine in some ways, right down to the contest entries and the unfortunate toilet paper situation!
La Marche: It’s an enormous honor, especially given my marginal Jewish identity (see above). I will also take it as a challenge to continue to write complex and strong Jewish characters in my fiction moving forward.
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?
Napoli: Everything is always different. :-)
Krasner: I posted the honor to Facebook, where at least two editors have seen it. When congratulating me, one asked me what other manuscripts I have. How encouraging! I think I will always hold Goldie up as the, pardon the pun, gold standard for myself.
Lizano: It is too early to say. We are far from USA. Today, we are pleased and proud of being honored. The publisher told us it was a huge honor and opportunity for the “life” of our book. I hope it will possible for me to come one day in USA to meet the American readers.
Elvgren: Because of this award, a new group of children will discover The Whispering Town and learn about occupied Denmark. In 1943, the children that were hidden and the children that helped the hidden showed extraordinary bravery and kindness. I hope today’s children are inspired by that history and look for opportunities around them to be brave and to be kind.
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.