You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2016 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour, the culmination of a full week of insightful and inspiring award-winning author and illustrator interviews.
Read about the blog tour and all 2016 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 Lesléa Newman and illustrator Amy June Bates, Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed
- For Older Readers — Author Aharon Appelfeld, illustrator Philippe Dumas, and translator Jeffrey M. Green for Adam and Thomas
- For Teen Readers — Laura Amy Schlitz for The Hired Girl
- For Younger Readers
- Author Leslie Kimmelman and illustrator Talitha Shipman for Everybody Says Shalom
- Author Heidi Smith Hyde and illustrator Jing Jing Tsong for Shanghai Sukkah
- For Older Readers
- Author/illustrator Barry Deutsch for Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish
- For Teen Readers
- Suzanne Nelson for Serendipity’s Footsteps
- Kathy Kacer for Stones on a Grave
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?
Jeffrey M. Green: I am not at all conversant with this field, but I would suggest, in a general way, that it should be literature that presents Jews as complete persons, that instills pride in the Jewish heritage (without chauvinism), that provides some knowledge about Jewishness (depending on the age), and that isn’t too parochial. I imagine that in the Orthodox and Haredi sector as they have their own body of books, and that you’re thinking of families from Conservative, Reform, etc. backgrounds, who want to help their children become Jews without closing themselves off from the rest of the world. For American Jews, the immigrant experience, though it is getting more and more remote in time, is of great importance for self-understanding. Indeed, I think that self-understanding as a Jewish person should be the main goal of specifically Jewish children’s literature. And obviously it has to be just as good as the other things a child might read.
Laura Amy Schlitz: I’m going to take some liberties here, and include books by great Jewish authors (whose books may or may not feature Jewish content) as well as books by non-Jewish authors who have written about Jewish characters or Jewish history. Here goes:
Two picture book authors that I love are Maurice Sendak and Mordicai Gerstein. Neither of them wrote exclusively about Jewish themes, but their books have what seems to me a Jewish sensibility: a deep compassion, an insight into the way children perceive the world; a thread of sadness, and a wealth of mischievous joy.
I love Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Stories for Children, not just for the magical plots, but for the perfectly pitched storyteller’s voice.
The All-of-a-Kind Family books still charm young readers. When girls finish the series and beg for more, I recommend Yona Zeldis McDonough’s The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Cats in the Doll Shop Upstairs. These are gentle stories, and I’ve never had a child read the first one without demanding the sequel.
I love Virginia Euwer Wolf’s The Mozart Season, the story of a half-Jewish violin player who draws on her family heritage when she’s preparing for a violin competition.
Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars is sad, powerful, and inspiring.
Eric A.Kimmel’s adaptations of folk tales are dependably delightful: wonderfully paced, and full of humor.
For suspenseful and incisive nonfiction, I recommend books by Steve Sheinkin and Marc Aronson.
For teenage romantics, I recommend Like No Other, Una LaMarche’s love story about a Hasidic girl and a West-Indian boy.
For sheer fascination and a sense of deep enchantment, I recommend the art novels of Brian Selznick.
And for good things to come, the upcoming Inquisitor’s Tale, or, Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz.
Leslie Kimmelman: Here are my admittedly all over the map, idiosyncratic recommendations for great Jewish kids lit: Zlateh the Goat(Singer/Sendak) still seems as magical to me now as it did when I read it in elementary school.
I love Eric Kimmel, and especially The Jar of Fools, because anything about Chelm tickles me. Margot Zemach’s It Could Always Be Worse stands the test of time, and I’m crazy for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Simms Taback.)
I also seem to gravitate toward books set on NYC’s Lower East Side: So, obviously any of the All-of-a-Kind Family books, What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street (Rael/Priceman); and The Castle on Hester Street (Heller/Kulikov).
Heidi Smith Hyde: As a longtime religious school principal, I am constantly on the lookout for meaningful Jewish literature to add to our school library. For me, nothing is more gratifying than watching the enraptured faces of children as their teachers read aloud to them during circle time. When choosing books, I try to find titles that expose our children to fundamental Jewish values, such as l’dor vador (from generation to generation) and gemilut hasadim (deeds of loving-kindness). I try to stay away from books that are preachy or clichéd. One of my favorite titles is The White Ram by Mordicai Gerstein, a poignant picture book (based on a midrash) about a heroic ram who patiently awaits God’s call. I love Chicken Man by Michelle Edwards, a whimsical tale about a kibbutznik named Rody whose cheerful demeanor positively influences everyone around him. Another favorite is The Patchwork Torah by Allison Ofanansky, a timeless story about Jewish continuity.
Barry Deutsch: There are too many to list! But just recently, I read the third graphic novel in Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis’s Defiance trilogy, and I really enjoyed it—a very realistic and disturbing look at how war makes even the characters on the side of good, do bad things.
Suzanne Nelson: One of the books that moved me profoundly, although it’s over a decade old now, is Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl-Dicker Brandeis and the Children of Terezin, by Susan Goldman Rubin. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one of my favorite books of all time. Also, I just finished Sydney Taylor award winner Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl, which I loved so much I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know. My belief is that all readers should read books that challenge their hearts with both beautiful and brutal emotions, that make them feel cozy or downright uncomfortable, that open their minds to new experiences, countries, people, and cultures. Ralph Waldo Emerson once talked about becoming a “transparent eyeball,” and I’ve always thought this meant we should soak up every aspect of the world and all it has to offer with every one of our senses. We can do this through books as much as through life itself. Reading books that speak to experiences beyond our own is one of the ways we develop empathy for each other as fellow human beings.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Green: No idea.
Kimmelman: It’s hard to know what trends are coming, but I’m hoping it’s good, contemporary books that let kids see themselves in the characters. I think we need sort of an update of the All-of-a-Kind family, where we see an ordinary Jewish family going about daily life.
Nelson: It’s my theory that trends in publishing are like trends in anything else…They recycle themselves. We’ll see trends from ten years ago crop up again in another ten. As a former children’s book editor, I’m curious about trends but don’t try to predict them. No matter what’s “hot” in the market, there will always be room for exceptional, well-written books that don’t follow current fads. In fact, many times those singular stories are the ones we end up treasuring that will stand the test of time on bookshelves.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Lesléa Newman: I’m thrilled to have two forthcoming Jewish children’s books: Hanukkah Delight! a board book forthcoming from Kar-Ben, and Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, a picture book for older readers forthcoming from Abrams.
Green: As a free-lance translator, I can’t always anticipate my next steps. I am in the middle of the translation of a biography of Gershom Scholem, of an anthropological book on suicide terrorism, and I have a bunch of texts to translate for the Posen Library of Jewish Civilization. I’m also due to start on the translation of a novel by Gail Hareven, an important Israeli writer.
Talitha Shipman: I’d love to write and illustrate children’s books. I’ve always enjoyed creating characters and stories and even though I love interpreting a writer’s manuscript through my art, I’m excited to create something that’s wholly my own! It’s a-lot of hard work and tweaking to get a manuscript where you want it, but it’s an exciting process.
Smith Hyde: I go wherever the ideas take me! I have been fortunate to work with a publisher (Kar-Ben) who has encouraged me to delve into the Jewish immigrant experience, and to shed light on obscure pieces of history. My literary travels have brought me to Coney Island, the East European shtetl, Shanghai, the mesa, and New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world. I enjoy visiting these magical, mystical places and look forward to the next stop on my inner journey.
Deutsch: I’m currently working on a non-Hereville graphic novel, about a handless artist who takes a hiking trip alone, and the people she meets.
Nelson: I’m currently working on another historical fiction novel titled The Freedom Dress. It deals with slavery and the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, moving back and forth in time from the 1850s to the 1960s. It addresses some very difficult topics, but it’s a story I’m very passionate about sharing with readers.
Kathy Kacer: I write books that focus on stories of the Second World War and the Holocaust. I have been dedicated to doing that since 1999 when my first book (The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser) was published. Stones on a Grave is my 20th book that focuses on this subject. I am more and more aware that the survivors of the Holocaust, and the subjects for many of my books, are aging and passing away. Now more than ever, I feel an urgency to find these remarkable stories and write them down for young readers. That’s what I will continue to do in my literary career going forward. I have a couple of books in the works and many more that I am thinking about!
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
Newman: As I researched the story of Ketzel, I thought a great deal about the notion of kavanah or intention, and how to live one’s life with openness and appreciation for all the beautiful moments that present themselves to us when we least expect it.
Green: Since I have translated more than a dozen books by Aharon Appelfeld, I didn’t really get new insights, but I did understand both the difficulty and importance of presenting stories like this to young Americans (Jews and non-Jews).
Schlitz: In a many-steps-removed kind of way, I experienced the way the rhythm of the week revolves around Shabbos. Because The Hired Girl is a diary, I had to keep a close eye on my 1911 calendar. Shabbos was always a factor. I had to make sure I allowed Joan and Malka extra time to shop and clean and cook before the holiday. Every week I planned how many people might be coming for dinner. The weekly celebration seemed to provide the downbeat for the action of the novel.
Before I researched The Hired Girl, I didn’t know much about the German Jews in America. The stories of the Eastern European immigrants who came in the late nineteenth century were more familiar. I was surprised how early the Reform movement began, and how deeply rooted the German Jews were in the cultural, mercantile, medical and philanthropic life of Baltimore.
Shipman: I did a ton of research on Israel while working on Shalom. I dug into the recent history of the country and quickly learned that it’s a place that could take years to fully wrap your head around. Israel is a complex mix of people that is steeped in incredible history. I can’t imagine what it is like to live in such an ancient nation but still be part of an ultra modern society. Using Google Street View I was even able to take “tours” of the ancient winding alleys of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and modern residential neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. I think it’s a place that most people associate with Bible stories and not much more, but it’s a hip thriving country with amazing food, culture and people. Israel is now on my list of places I’d love to visit!
Smith Hyde: While researching the Shanghai ghetto, I was struck by the ability of the refugees to establish meaningful Jewish lives in the midst of great poverty. In addition to celebrating the holidays, they established yeshivot, newspapers, and theaters. Our ancestors have done much wandering in the wilderness, and yet wherever we go we preserve our rich traditions, never losing sight of who we are—even in the face of adversity.
Deutsch: Working on Hereville made me feel much more connected to my Judaism. I researched, wrote, and drew about Jewish life for six years, and Jewish life suddenly became my daily conversational bread and butter. Plus, it gave me a reason to connect with so many Jewish communities—not just my immediate family and community, but with Jewish schools and congregations all across the country. I’m very lucky.
Nelson: Before conducting research for my book, I had never heard of the shoe-testing track and the Schuhläuferkommando, or shoe-testing unit, at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. As soon as I discovered its existence, I realized, tragic as it was, that it was important to include in Dalya’s story. I didn’t know about the one thousand Jewish children who were brought to America from Europe as refugees in the 1930s and early 1940s as part of an American kindertransport. They arrived here without their parents and lived with foster families, many times for the remainder of their childhoods. I was so moved by these children—their strength and courage—that I wanted to be sure to mold their resilience into Dalya’s character and story. There are so many events in history that are taught in classrooms, but many times classroom content is only the tip of the iceberg. Historical fiction and non-fiction books can illuminate perhaps lesser known, but just as important, pieces of the larger picture for readers.
Kacer: The insights I got were more about life in the DP camps after the war had ended. I am always trying to find ways for my readers to make a “meaningful” connection to the history of the Holocaust and to make an emotional connection to the people I write about. The more I can learn about the details of life in a particular circumstance, the easier it is for me to translate that experience into something substantial for my readers. I had not written in the past about the DP camps—where they were established, who went there, what they looked like, what happened in those camps. So it was a new experience to research this history and chose the parts of it that I wanted to include in this book. In a way, the book itself helped me to do that. My character, Sara, has no idea that her mother was Jewish and that she was born in a DP camp at the end of the war. In the same way that I was researching what life was like in those camps, so too was Sara able to go through the process of discovering the circumstances of her birth in one of those camps. We made the journey together!
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Newman: The Sydney Taylor Award means a great deal to me. To be recognized by the Association of Jewish Libraries in this way is not something I ever expected. When I got the call and heard the news, tears of joy fell from my eyes.
Green: I’m very pleased that the book won this honor. I haven’t lived in the United States for more than 40 years, so I am not really involved in the American Jewish community, but the existence of the award and of the Jewish librarians’ association are important signs of vitality.
Schlitz: It’s a great delight for me, because I clearly remember discovering Sydney Taylor’s books as a child. Sometimes when I tell people that I’ve won this award, I can see them trying to recall who Sydney Taylor was. So I help them out, “Did you ever read the All-of-a-Kind Family books when you were young?” People’s faces light up, and almost everyone says the same thing: “I loved those books!” This response reminds me of the kind of book I hope to write—a book that a person will remember joyfully fifty years past childhood. Winning this award gives me hope that I’m getting closer to writing books like that.
Shipman: I loved working on Shalom. My editor Naomi and art director Jan were wonderful and collaborating with Leslie was a great experience. It was the first picture book I illustrated, so I think it will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also a book that I’m proud of because it’s something I’ll be able to show to my daughter someday to hopefully spark her imagination and love of travel. To have it honored is an amazing testament to the hard work and passion we all had for this project. Creating children’s books really is a group effort and I’m so thankful I got to be a part of Shalom!
Smith Hyde: Having grown up reading Sydney Taylor’s classic series, All-of-a-Kind Family, I was incredibly honored to receive this special recognition. Taylor’s series chronicling the life of five spunky immigrant sisters fueled my imagination, helping to form my earliest impression of the Jewish immigrant experience in America. I recently learned that All-of-a-Kind Family was the first ever series about a Jewish family. Sydney Taylor helped pave the way for all of us by exposing generations of young readers (Jews and non-Jews alike) to a world of Jewish culture.
Nelson: When I began writing Serendipity’s Footsteps, I worried how I could accurately portray Dalya’s character. I hoped to show how she honored her faith, family, and heritage with the choices she made. Although I have many beloved Jewish friends whose family members were lost in the horror of the Holocaust, this wasn’t part of my own personal experience or heritage. The tremendous tragedy Dalya experiences and the tumult of emotions she feels about her Jewish identity as she faces persecution—these aspects of her journey were the most challenging for me to write because it was so important to me to do her every justice she deserved. As I wrote her, I kept in my heart the admiration I have for my friends who continue to carry on their family’s legacy through their traditions and faith. Having Serendipity’s Footsteps keeping company with the other tremendous Sydney Taylor books, and having it recognized for its portrayal of Jewish culture, faith, and history…I am humbled, honored, and filled with gratitude.
Kacer: As a Canadian author, I am particularly delighted when a book of mine has been recognized and honored by an American association. The Sydney Taylor Book Award is certainly a prestigious one. This honor will allow me the opportunity to broaden the readership for my books and bring my stories to a new audience of young people.
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?
Newman: Having received this recognition will inspire me to work harder to be worthy of this accolade. I feel that being a children’s book author is a privilege that comes with responsibility: to write stories that will make the world a better place and have a great impact on children’s lives. I hope to continue to be worthy of the respect of the members of the Association of Jewish Libraries for many years to come.
Green: No. Except I’ll be able to visit my cousins in South Carolina, including Billy Keyserling, the mayor of Beaufort.
Kimmelman: I am extremely honored to be recognized by the Sydney Taylor committee. I don’t know that anything will be different, but it certainly gives me impetus to write more. It is amazing how much things have changed in the last twenty years or so—there’s such a huge array of really first-rate books available for Jewish children.
Deutsch: This is my third Sydney Taylor recognition, so I don’t expect anything to be different. But it’s a continuing pleasure to know that my work’s been recognized by the Sydney Taylor readers, who are some of the best readers in the world. It means a lot to me.
Nelson: The most wonderful thing that could happen would be that Serendipity’s Footsteps reaches a wider audience now. The book is so dear to my heart, and I feel a deep loyalty and tenderness for the characters. It’s every writer’s hope that her book will find its way into the hands of readers who love reading it as much as she did writing it. If my book could be used in classrooms or libraries as a tool for discussion about history, tolerance, and diversity, if it moves readers to carry a piece of it with them, always, then that would be one of my greatest wishes fulfilled.
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.