Earlier this year, Kar-Ben Publishing released a new picture book, Shanghai Sukkah, written by Heidi Smith Hyde and illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong. The Whole Megillah presents an interview here with author, illustrator, and publisher Joni Sussman.
TWM: What inspired you to write this story and to base it around a holiday?
Heidi Smith Hyde (HSH): Many years ago my neighborhood shul established a monument to commemorate Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat to Lithuania who, at the risk of his own career, issued thousands of visas to Jews to help them escape the horrors of the Holocaust. Many of these Jews resettled in Shanghai, where they lived meaningful Jewish lives. In addition to celebrating the holidays, they established schools, newspapers, and theaters. Despite the difficult living conditions, the refugees somehow managed to preserve their rich traditions. I chose Sukkot because it reminds us of the temporary shelters that Jews lived in while wandering through the wilderness. For Marcus, the protagonist of the story, Shanghai also served as a refuge.
TWM: How did you research the topic?
HSH: Before the monument was created, I was unaware of the fact that there was a thriving Jewish community living in Shanghai at the time of the Holocaust. As part of my research, I watched a moving film called “Shanghai Ghetto” (2002). The film features interviews with former Jewish refugees who lived in Hongkew, the poorest section of Shanghai. It wasn’t unusual for 6 or 7 families to share a kitchen, and in some apartments there was no kitchen at all, or even indoor-plumbing. They peacefully co-existed with their Chinese neighbors, who themselves lived in dire poverty.
TWM: How long did it take you from first draft to submission?
HSH: For me, the most challenging part of the writing process is coming up with the “perfect idea.” The next hurdle is making this idea come alive in a way that makes sense, while ensuring that every word counts. It took me several months from first draft to submission, but I enjoyed every moment of it. It’s exciting watching the process unfold in all its mystery.
TWM: Do you have a critique group or beta reader? If so, please describe.
HSH: Kar-Ben always helps steer me in the right direction if my storyline goes astray. In addition, I know I can count on my husband and our two grown sons, who have an uncanny ability to identify areas of my story that need refinement.
TWM: How did you create your main character? Why a boy?
HSH: Interestingly enough, all of my protagonists thus far have been male. Could it be because I live in a male dominated household? Perhaps! But for this particular story, I wanted to focus on a yeshiva student, so naturally it made sense to create a male character.
TWM: How much of the story ended up on the cutting room floor?
HSH: No matter how strong the manuscript, there is still a considerable amount of work that takes place behind the scenes. For example, Amy, my editor, transformed the protagonist’s first meeting with Liang into a brief scene, so that instead of being told by the narrator that the two boys meet and become friends, readers will see it happen. In addition, she helped alter the language a bit so that the setting didn’t come across as uniformly bleak. Writing books is truly a partnership between author, editor, publisher and illustrator.
TWM: Based on your previous books for Kar-Ben, you’re drawn to historical topics. Please comment on that.
HSH: My passion is exploring obscure pieces of history while shedding light on the Jewish immigrant experience. Our ancestors have been everywhere, and have done everything! I like to convey this to young readers, as well as to their parents. When writing a manuscript, I try to keep both audiences in mind. There is always something to be learned!
TWM: Joni, let’s turn to you. What attracted you to the manuscript?
Joni Sussman (JS): I was especially intrigued by a story that, while Holocaust-related, wasn’t actually about the Holocaust but rather about a multi-cultural friendship. Kar-Ben strives to reflect cultural diversity in a Jewish context, and this unique story about friendship between a Jewish boy and a Chinese boy, centered on the holiday of Sukkot, and also taking place in Shanghai during WWII, hit three terrific topics all in one. Heidi included some excellent research on how Sukkot was actually celebrated in the Shanghai Ghetto, which gives the story historic context, and the back matter we assembled makes this not just a beautiful story but also a history lesson.
TWM: What was it about Jing Jing’s illustration style that made it your choice?
JS: I was looking for something unusual and special for the illustrations for this book. I wanted the art to portray Shanghai in an authentic way, and was hoping to find an illustrator with an Asian feel to his/her art, while at the same time having the ability to portray all the important Jewish aspects of the story. Jing’s portfolio featured both. I though her layered color and textured art would be a terrific fit for this story, and her bio, which listed her experience in traditional stone lithography and monoprints, convinced me that she would bring a sense of history and place to the illustrations as well. Jing’s art is so wonderful we ended up featuring one of her sukkah illustrations on our Fall Holiday brochure!
TWM: Now, Jing Jing, we have a few questions for you. Let’s start with your process. How do you interpret the words for illustration, for example?
Jing Jing Tsong (JJT): I imagine myself as a movie director and think of what colors, lighting, scenery and staging will best capture each page. Then I go through and make sure the scenes flow with the appropriate tension or drama that enhances the story visually.
TWM: How do you conduct your research?
JJT: Kar-Ben provided some images for me to start with. Then I did a lot of research about the Jewish immigration to Shanghai online. Someone had scanned photos from a LIFE magazine photo essay and posted them online. The images really helped me see how the Jewish community thrived in the middle of Shanghai.
TWM: How do you choose your medium?
JJT: I love the textural qualities of traditional printmaking. I create many textures with block prints and other traditional techniques. I then scan them and collage everything digitally. This gives me flexibility in layering, experimenting with color and rearranging elements.
TWM: Now let’s talk about the illustration itself—do you create “studies” or preliminaries?
JJT: It’s interesting to look back on the stacks of sketches for each page. I explore what angles and perspectives best capture the emotional qualities of the scene. One of the challenges of any book, is developing the main characters for each book. By the end of the book, I felt like I really got to know Marcus and Liang—I hope that will happen for readers, as well.
TWM: How do you develop your color strategy (when the red popped, it literally took my breath away)?
JJT: Traditionally my illustration is bright and colorful‚ but this wasn’t appropriate for the story. I chose a muted palette and used brighter colors to contrast and show the importance of an object or event. For instance, when Liang returns the marble to Marcus in the beginning, it is bright red. This red is then used more generously in the Autumn Festival parade and the lanterns at the story’s end. I think of color as “sound” and “feeling.” In the parade image with the dragon, I hope the bright colors capture the celebratory noise and energy of the event. In the last image of the lanterns lighting the sukkah, the red is celebratory and “loud,” but the soft glow of the lanterns more embracing and warm.
TWM: In illustrating this book, what did you find most gratifying? What did you find most challenging?
JJT: In Shanghai Sukkah there are many scenes with a lot of people. It was challenging to create so many different personalities and imagine the way they would interact. One of the most gratifying parts of illustrating the book was simply learning about the community and their individual stories. it was an honor to be part of this book!