The Whole Megillah (TWN): How did you decide to write a Passover story?
April Halprin Wayland (AHW): When I was little, I loved the song, Dayenu, which we sing at Passover.
As an adult, I’m particularly entranced by the definition and concept of Dayenu: to be aware of and grateful for the blessings in each moment. It’s an idea shared by religions and philosophies the world over.
Am I the only one who struggles between too much thinking and not enough being present, in this moment? I even set my cell to sound a gentle guitar chord every afternoon at 2:50pm (an arbitrary time). It reminds me to stop. To feel the ground beneath my feet. To be present. To focus on the world around me, rather than on the circus in my brain. Try it.
With this in mind, I was hiking with my family on a particularly challenging trail in Kauai, Hawaii. I was overjoyed that we were together, and was in awe of the beauty surrounding us. (I also may have just had a cup of coffee, which always gives me a crazy-happy buzz…)
In order to power up the steep trail, I said to myself, “If I only hike up this rich, red dirt, Dayenu; if I only see the blue and green ocean from the top of this hill, Dayenu; if I only dive into the warm waves, Dayenu…”
Later, I wrote it as a poem and read it aloud at our Seder. The response was encouraging, so I revised it. It became the story of a six or seven year old and her family on a hike in Hawaii.
My editor loved it…asking for just a few changes…
Thirty-eight versions later, I love what my Hawaiian hike story has become!
I began it as I often begin writing a poem: by copying what I’m trying to imitate into a blank document, then changing the words to my own. Eventually, I settled on simply making sure the rhythm and meter was the same in every stanza.
TWM: What made you include a kitten? (which I thought could be named Dayenu)
AHW: Ha—great name, Barbara! I include animals in all my books. They keep me loved and laughing, and make my worries seem unimportant. And it’s fun to follow them in illustrations.
Beyond that, when we contemplated removing the kitten to reduce the number of words, my friend Barbara Bietz pointed out that this kitten represents releasing the Jews from slavery. Of course we couldn’t take Kitten (hereafter called Dayenu) out of the story!
TWM: What made you publish this with a mainstream publisher vs. a Jewish publisher?
AHW: Dial Books for Young Readers had previously published New Year at the Pier ~ A Rosh Hannah Story, and I loved my editor there, so they were the obvious choice.
TWM: Do you have other holiday stories planned?
AHW: Yes. But I don’t talk about future books until every brick is in place.🙂
TWM: Do you do school visits? What is a typical program for you and what age groups are attending?
AHW: I love teaching writing workshops for adults and I love visiting schools! I talk about all of my books (two are specific to the Jewish experience; the rest are not.)
On a typical day, I’ll do two or three assemblies to cover all classes, and then teach a poetry workshop (usually to a small group of fourth or fifth graders) or a teacher in-service writing workshop.
My assemblies for elementary through high school students speak to the writing process. You’ve just read how it took 38 rewrites to get from the initial idea to a 205-word picture book. I take students on the rollercoaster of highs and lows in my writing life. It’s wild ride.
My assemblies for younger children are about stories…and about being grateful.
TWM: Do you participate in a critique group? Please share with us about that.
AHW: Yes. I’ve been in many, always for the long haul. One group lasted for over 15 years and was a spin-off from Myra Cohn Livingston’s Master Class in Writing Poetry for Children. Every two weeks, we met for three hours in poet Sonya Sones’ pink, retro kitchen. We brought work which someone other than the author to read aloud to the group. It was heaven.
When I was revising More Than Enough to make sure the rhythm and meter were spot-on, I worked with Sonya, line by line. Her ear is brilliant, and it helped that she’s Jewish, as she could suggest additional details, or reword existing ones.
The group I’m in now is led by author Barbara Bottner and requires more “homework,” as we each email everyone our work the day before we meet. Thus, we get six to eight handwritten critiques and also an oral critique that evening. We sit around a beautiful wooden dining room table. I call it Barbara’s Magic Table.
Meeting with other writers adds richness to my life. I am so grateful for what I call my writerly peeps …Dayenu!
For more about April Halprin Wayland, click here>>>