Read about the blog tour and all 2019 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 Gold Medalists
- For Younger Readers—Author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Paul Zelinsky for All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah
- For Older Readers—Author/illustrator Jonathan Auxier for Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
- For Teen Readers—Author/illustrator Vesper Stamper for What the Night Sings
- For Younger Readers
- For Older Readers
- For Teen Readers
- Author Rachel Lynn Solomon for You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone
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?
Emily Jenkins: Besides Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family stories? For middle-grade, I love my colleague Sarah Mlynowski’s Whatever After series, which features two Jewish kids who fall into fairy tales, mess them up, and have to make new happy endings. The books are not centered on Jewish issues, but simply show Jewish characters having hysterically funny magical adventures — though the characters do celebrate Purim in Two Peas and a Pod (the Princess and the Pea story). For picture books, my favorite is a classic: Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. It’s simply wonderful— joyful and clever, culturally specific and universal.
Jonathan Auxier: Sweep is about a golem made from chimney soot, and I always try to encourage readers to seek out both I.B. Singer and David Wisniewski’s books—two wonderful tellings of the more traditional Golem story. Looking at something more current, I would urge every reader in the world to read Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island, which is one of my very favorite contemporary children’s books. Laurel’s story is not explicitly Jewish, but the world and themes relate very closely to her Jewish identity. The book is just amazing.
Vesper Stamper: I recommend a new contemporary YA anthology coming out this fall from my publisher, Knopf, called It’s a Whole Spiel, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman, and featuring authors like David Levithan, Lance Rubin, Rachel Solomon, and more. This anthology has a bunch of diverse perspectives and subjects—I love it! And I would absolutely be remiss if I didn’t recommend one of the books that is closest to my heart: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. That book, to me, perfectly captures what it means to be a young artist in the world, figuring out your relationship to the urgency of art and the responsibility to our communities. Being an artist doesn’t mean “burning it all down” but rather being a mirror and a window to the people around you.
Jane Breskin Zalben: The same reply I would give to any book. Write true to your heart; edit with your mind; and rewrite until you get the best book you can. It can always be improved upon. Simply at some point it feels completed and the author has to move on. And, I feel a book is a book, and hopefully speaks to the reader on all levels. Would someone say Sendak did “kids lit?” Or Gorey? Or Steig. There are many ‘adult’ writers and artists who should be this brilliant. Don’t set out to write a Jewish book unless you choose to. Write great literature with a story that works. That is the key.
Erica Perl: Some of my recent favorites are right there on the Sydney Taylor list: I loved Sweep and I am currently reading—and really enjoying—The Length of a String. I often rely on Marjorie Ingall’s lists and articles in Tablet as well as the links in the Jewish Book Carnival (often hosted by your wonderful blog)!
Rachel Lynn Solomon: I’d love to talk about a few YA novels coming out soon! You Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman (March 5, Sourcebooks) explores academic pressure with an overachieving protagonist who is both Jewish and bisexual. The Truth about Leaving by Natalie Blitt (March 5, Amberjack) is a stunning contemporary romance between an American Jewish girl and an Israeli transfer student. And What I Like about You by Marisa Kanter (spring 2020, Simon & Schuster) is a romantic comedy about anonymous online identities and book blogging—and it’s also the closest I’ve come to seeing my own Jewish upbringing represented on the page. I didn’t realize how powerful that could be until I was lucky enough to read an early version of Kanter’s book. I’m a huge fan of contemporary books with Jewish characters that naturally fold Judaism into their lives, and all three of these books do this beautifully!
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Auxier: I don’t keep up the way I should—mainly because I’m usually reading older books for research. That being said, there’s very clearly an explosion happening in middle grade right now. Picture book people and YA people are all writing middle grade novels—which I find thrilling because those are my favorite stories to read!
Breskin Zalben: I don’t believe in trends. Although I know they must exist. Again, if you have to create something because it speaks to you at the time and that is what you need to say. And often, it is the artist who is ahead of her/his time. In A Moon for Moe and Mo, I had been invited to international schools since the 90’s and got to see a bigger world with its differences, problems, and joys. That is what planted a seed. But that was earlier on than anything I could have predicted about how the world would change and grow into larger problems.
Perl: I hope this is not a trend but an actual change in the landscape: I am enjoying seeing how many new Jewish books are showcasing the incredible diversity within the Jewish experience. For example, Pam Ehrenberg’s picture book Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Chang’s novel, This is Not a Test (2018 Honor Book), and Elissa Brendt Weissman’s aforementioned novel The Length of a String (2019 Honor Book).
Elissa Brent Weissman: I see lots of books that incorporate Jewish characters of diverse backgrounds (like Imani in The Length of a String). It’s great, because there are so many kinds of Jewish families nowadays, and literature should reflect the diversity of the Jewish community and the community at large. There also seem to be more and more books with Jewish characters whose religion isn’t central to the story but is there in the
background. I hope this is a trend that continues to build.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Auxier: I’m in the middle of working on a chapter book series that is tangentially related to the world of my first book, Peter Nimble. It’s been a great chance to try writing something that my own young children can read as I draft it. So far, they’re fans!
Stamper: I’m working on another illustrated YA coming out next year about the Great Plague in 1348 England. It explores how an ordinary girl who doesn’t fit anywhere finds herself doing something extraordinary—something only she can do—in another kind of impossible situation. I’m also illustrating a picture book biography of Jane Austen. I do hope, though, to return to the postwar experience in the future. It’s a bottomless subject.
Breskin Zalben: To combine the abstract art paintings with my illustrations and get to another process that publishers have not seen from me but I have known has existed since before I began in this field. Since my mother died four years ago I have been painting and showing in galleries. Right now, I am working on several projects toward the goal of marrying my many sides into one. As you move on in a career, you get more of a hold on it—what it is you want to do and not do—time is precious. how do you want to spend it and on what.
Merdokht Amini: I am working on a project with Lerner Publishing, which is called Dictionary for a Better World, and is a collection of poems by Charles Waters and Irene Latham. Organized as a dictionary of sorts, each poem is written about a word that relates to creating a better world–and the poem is paired on the spread with a nonfiction element explaining type of poem, a quote about the word the poem, a note from the author, and also a question/writing prompt for the reader to take action in some way. It is geared towards a middle grade readership, which makes it a very exciting project for me as I have so far worked primarily on picture books for very young readers. I have also just signed a contract with The Chronicle, publishing on a third book of a series of picture books focusing on introducing Islamic symbols in basic concepts like colors, shapes, numbers with the working title of Two Hands and Twelve Stars.
Barb Rosenstock: I have two new books coming out in 2019. The first is Yogi: the life, loves and language of baseball legend Yogi Berra and Prairie Boy about the early years of Frank Lloyd Wright (both from Calkins Creek.) Next year there’s two books on accomplished women, Fight of the Century about Alice Paul and the suffrage movement and Leave It to Abigail about the astonishing life of Abigail Adams. More to come after that too…and I have an idea about an Israeli palm seed…
Perl: I am currently co-writing a novel with Alan Silberberg that is set in a modern-day Chelm. And I have several early readers and early chapter books coming out this year: the Arnold and Louise series, illustrated by Chris Chatterton, the Truth or Lie nonfiction series, illustrated by Michael Slack, and the Craftily Ever After series (which I write under the name Martha Maker), illustrated by Xindi Yan.
Solomon: My second book, Our Year of Maybe, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted with my publisher, Simon Pulse. My summer 2020 book is a romantic comedy that follows two rivals who realize they may actually be falling for each other over 24 hours on the last day of senior year. It’s the most fun I’ve had working on a book, and while it’s significantly more upbeat than my previous two books, it also features characters who confront modern-day antisemitism in a way I’ve been afraid to explore in the past. It’s been tough to write, but I’m hopeful it will resonate with readers.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
Jenkins: I got to research the history of New York’s Lower East Side for All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah. In the early 20th century, there were 500 synagogues in that one small neighborhood. I learned about the butcher boycott, which was led by the housewives of the Lower East Side to protest unfair kosher meat pricing, and about the many different populations from many different parts of the world who learned to coexist there. I went on tours of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and got a sense of the ways people lived and worshipped at the time of my story.
Auxier: Sweep is set in the 19th century, and when I set out to write this book, I thought I was going to be looking at ancient history. But the more I learned about the past, the more I saw a clear reflection of the present: sexism, intolerance, economic inequality, child labor, and antisemitism are all still very much in the world. It can be overwhelming to find hope in the face of so much darkness. One of the things that reading, writing, and discussing Jewish identity over the course of this book taught me was a new sense of what it means to fight for Justice—it’s not about a lone hero, but about a community working together to heal the world: Tikkun Olam. In the end of the story, that’s what the main character discovers, and it’s what I discovered, too.
Stamper: The answer to that is complex. Growing up Reform, I found that there was a lot of suspicion of the Orthodox and especially Hasidic community. It meant that I had not really intersected with the Orthodox community until working on this book. I was embarrassed about that. Thankfully I’ve made several good friends—rabbis, musicians, artists, families—who have welcomed me with open arms despite my steep learning curve.
Breskin Zalben: Well, in visiting countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, Eastern Europe, Israel, Turkey, Spain and speaking to children and adults in schools, I found more insights from Jewish life that disappeared than in America where it has flourished. And in those places, it is fascinating to see civilizations coming together in layers from different time periods. Those are the things that started my journey. And seeing besides synagogues, visiting a lot of mosques. I am drawn to that kind of architecture and detail in the rugs, jewelry, textiles—it is very lush.
Amini: Before this book I had no idea about the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and, since I live in London, I had never visited Flatbush Avenue! It was a real challenge for me because the story happens in real locations and so I had to make it right. To do that I spend lots of time virtually walking up and down on Google map through Flatbush Avenue to get a sense of the place. I didn’t want to have realistic images of the locations like Mr. Sahadi’s grocery shop or the other places but it was essential to convey the feeling of the places in the illustrations.
I also didn’t want to have the characters dressed up in traditional clothing because it would have looked out of place. As it happens in real life we might meet many people who come from different background and religions whose clothes or house decorations or even their facial features has nothing to do with their background. So I could portray the families and their setting without delving too much into their religious background.
Rosenstock: I have two new books coming out in 2019. The first is Yogi: the life, loves and language of baseball legend Yogi Berra and Prairie Boy about the early years of Frank Lloyd Wright (both from Calkins Creek.) Next year there’s two books on accomplished women, Fight of the Century about Alice Paul and the suffrage movement and Leave It to Abigail about the astonishing life of Abigail Adams. More to come after that too…and I have an idea about an Israeli palm seed…
Perl: To be a Jew is to question, to worry, to care deeply, and to find humor even in times of darkness.
Brent Weissman: As part of my research for the historical part of my story, I spoke with my grandparents about growing up in New York City in the 1940s. I found it fascinating to hear how different Jewish life was for them then. My grandmother’s neighborhood in Brooklyn was so overwhelmingly Jewish that every adult she knew spoke Yiddish, and she never even met a Christian person until high school. What a contrast to how I grew up, and, I think it’s safe to say, most American Jews grow up today.
As part of my research for the contemporary part of my story, and in the time since the book has come out, I interacted with many adoptees and people of color who are Jewish. Their experiences have been so different from my grandparents’—their very existence speaks to a difference between then and now. But with everyone, I found experiences and memories—holidays, foods, Hebrew school—that cross generational, geographic, and denominational lines and connect us as a culture.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Jenkins: I never imagined Paul Zelinsky and I would be eligible for the Taylor award, since our story is connected to Taylor’s own work. I was flabbergasted to win. It is a deep honor, because I have spent so much time thinking about Taylor’s novels and her remarkable life.
Auxier: It is a truly humbling thing. I think when any writer begins a story, there’s a sense of responsibility: they’re afraid of “letting down” the characters. This is compounded when a writer is working outside their tradition, as I was. The rich and beautiful history of Golem folklore was a gift that I very much wanted to honor—one that ended up weaving itself into every corner of the story. To know that the Sydney Taylor committee liked the story is overwhelming.
Stamper: Well, there’s the obvious cosmic craziness that is me being on the cover of All-of-a-Kind Family when I was seven years old! I’m the one with the feathered bob in front of Mama. That photo shoot was my first time in an illustrator’s studio as well and I remember it so clearly—even picking out that pinafore. I’ve loved those books ever since! Truth is truly stranger than fiction.
But when Susan [Kusel, Chair, Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee] told me that I had won the award, it struck my heart in another way. I said in my author’s note that visiting Auschwitz felt like my arms were full of souls. And the Holocaust survivors I sat with entrusted me with hours of their most painful memories. I will always feel an enormous responsibility to carry their stories forward for readers. So to be recognized by a Jewish body, the Association of Jewish Libraries, has been profound. It feels like another trust, to keep sharing this history with young people, hopefully for a long time to come.
Breskin Zalben: It means hopefully, a wider audience for the work past and present and future. Every author dreams that after being alone in room working and reworking so hard that someone out there might appreciate the effort. You just never know. How could you? All you know inside is that you have to do it to survive for yourself. To create whatever you want or hope to work on. And it is all about the project ahead—not the one that was. To continue to be supported and create. So if an award helps toward that end, great. And to have someone appreciate it and let you know—especially little children—and librarians and teachers—how great is that?
Amini: I still don’t know what it might brings for me professionally but on the personal level it means a lot to me. I was born in a Muslim country and have seen the conflict between the religions all my life but I believe in all the monotheistic religions equally and I think they all come from the same source. So one of the biggest puzzles of my life is how people could fight each other because of religion. There are 114 chapters in Quran and each of them starts with “In the name of God the Merciful the compassionate,” now how people violate others’ rights in the name of this compassionate God is really strange to me. So the fact that by getting an honor in Sydney Taylor Book Award the message of love, similarity and inter-community friendship in the book spreads more widely makes me so happy.
Rosenstock: The Sydney Taylor honor is a full-circle kind of experience for me. At my elementary school library I devoured the All of a Kind Family books (even though I couldn’t understand how Sydney Taylor, who I assumed was a man, got the sister relationships so perfect!) Though they lived long ago, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and the rest were girls like me. Ms. Taylor taught me about history and writing and how to put love into your words. This honor means the world, it means I’ve done a bit of that in my writing too. It means that what we read in childhood stays with us forever.
Brent Weissman: It means a lot! All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. It was also one of my mom’s favorite when she was a kid, and now it’s one of my daughter’s favorites, so that’s three generations of Sydney Taylor fans who are thrilled to see one of my books receive this particular honor!
I read All-of-a-Kind Family countless times. I loved the characters and the gentle problems they faced, but I especially loved that their family was Jewish. It was so rare to see Jewish characters in books back then. Even though their family was more observant than mine, it was such a special feeling to see my culture represented in a book, and it made me connect with the characters in a deeper way. What’s cool is that The Length of a String is very much about the power of seeing oneself in a book—Imani sees herself in her great-grandmother’s diary—and the way our shared stories deepen our connections, even across generations.
I hope this honor helps get The Length of a String into the hands of more young readers. Perhaps one of them will see him or herself reflected in Imani, Anna, or any of the other characters. What a neat way to continue that circle.
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?
Jenkins: I imagine people may think of me as a Jewish author in a way that they maybe didn’t before. I have written a number of Jewish protagonists but that side of my work has never been particularly remarked upon. I hope the award will mean that more children and families enjoy the story I wrote, and Paul O. Zelinsky’s superlative illustrations.
Breskin Zalben: Not really. This is my fourth time receiving the silver medal. I am happy each time. I do what I do. Plow ahead. Do books that are Jewish, or not Jewish. I do a book that speaks to me at the time. I happen to be a woman. An artist. An author. A wife. A mother. A grandmother. And Jewish. And the list goes on. Those are only a few of my titles. I have many passions in life that I throw myself into. And not all of them are toward anything other than creating something out of nothing. And nurturing that something into existence.
Perl: It was deeply gratifying to receive the Sydney Taylor Honor for All Three Stooges, a book for kids that explores subjects (suicide, loss, and grief) that make some adults uncomfortable. This validation encourages me to write more books that take such risks, so I am excited about where that will lead me.
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.