The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this story?
Bracha K. Sharp (BKS): At first, it was actually more of a case regarding who inspired me! It seems funny to think of it now, but while I was working at a previous job, one of my supervisors there said something in passing that really inspired me to write this story.
I was working at a small Judaica shop and one of the most popular food items that we sold were challahs. One afternoon, after I had sold a large amount of them, my supervisor happened to come by and said, “Oh, you’re such a challah girl!” As soon as she said that, Divine Inspiration hit me and I immediately thought of a former college class that I had taken not too long before, on the psychology of fairy tales and their meanings. That class was called “Literature of the Self” and until my classmates and I took it, we didn’t actually know that we would be discussing and reading fairy tales!
Taking the class had a huge impact on me, in terms of the way that I viewed that particular genre of children’s literature afterwards, since it is often relegated to the sidelines. I had mainly associated fairy tales as a former childhood reading experience, so it became of significant interest to me to try to understand their deeper meanings and the psychological landscapes that they evoked. Because they still had a resonance and an influence throughout the history of literature and had a broader cultural impact than I had realized, I was inspired to write my Senior Thesis on ballets based on fairy tales. Afterwards, I had wanted to write something in the realm of fairy tales, ever since, but until the moment that the idea for The Challah Girl came together, I had not really pursued it. As well, the professor who taught the class was someone with whom I was and still am in contact with. Since I had taken many classes from him before, I was inspired to write a story that would take the literary knowledge that he had given to us and then make it my own. So all of it really came together for me in that moment!
TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
BKS: Understanding, knowing about, and using all of that prior knowledge—and then “forgetting” about half of it! When I set out to write the manuscript, it came together almost immediately for me and the story was typed out, as if completed. However, in order to get a deeper sense of the plot line, the various character ambitions and the overall journey to the palace that Zlatah Leah would be undertaking, I reread all of my notes, textbooks, and fairy tale editions from that course and I elected to read through various sources regarding Jewish fairy tales and legends. I also ordered more books on the topic and found out more about Jewish folklore and fables, which turned out to be both fascinating and exciting. The greatest challenge for me was pretty much in devouring all of that knowledge and then not including it in the text! It certainly made the manuscript tighter and the flow much better, but getting rid of some of what I had thought was essential, at first, was very hard.
To that end, sometimes Zlatah Leah and the others would lead me down paths that I had never thought of before and, after a while, I had to surrender to the process of her voice telling me her story and what she wanted me to do. While the characters and story were of course a part of me, sometimes my characters knew more about where the plot was heading than I did! And sometimes, they made me wait to find out what was going to happen next. I would have to wait for their inner motives to appear, which could take a long while. Not an easy task to learn to do so, while the juices were still flowing!
My other big challenge was in making my fairy tale unique to this genre, while also imparting a Jewish take that built on what had gone before. I didn’t want my story to be cliche or a repetition of what everyone had already read, so I was invested in making it not merely an outgrowth of the familiar, but also a story that drew on deeper layers of plot and character development. While I wanted readers to associate it with one of the “classic” fairy tales, in that it had a pull towards the familiar and the comforting, I was also very involved in making it a Jewish plot, with Jewish values. Thus, the story could be read both as a universal tale that featured good values, but it could also be read on a more Jewish-centric level, where the importance of these cultural values are brought to the fore. In that vein, the co-challenge was to avoid as much didacticism and moralizing as possible, while still maintaining the integrity of my message.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
BKS: The voice of Zlatah Leah was strong throughout the writing process and never really left. She knew what she wanted to do and she lead the way. I was extremely happy because, almost immediately, the first and last lines of the book came to me and the basic plot did, too. The middle part of the story took some time to logistically come together, but because I essentially had a beginning and an ending, already, it was much easier to figure out what Zlatah Leah’s journey would be comprised of and how that might turn out. I was also able to take the premise of often-violent or extreme fairy tale stories and instead give Zlatah Leah a tight-knit and supportive family and community, which allowed her story’s tension to come from more of an inner place of personal growth, rather than from a more outward and sinister manifestation, which would drive her from home.
The collaborative process between the publishing house, my illustrator and me was also rewarding. Everyone was so diligent in turning out a good product and I was able to have a lot of input throughout the writing and illustrating process, so that although we were working from three different places, it all came together. Even though it took a little bit longer because of the time differences, it actually resulted in a more fully-thought out and beautifully realized book than I ever could have anticipated. The kindness and support from everyone involved—even outside of the publishing world–also reinforced the beautiful values that I strove to portray in my book!
TWM: Who inspires you?
BKS: Too many people, books, and things to list!
However, I will say that when I went to a Highlights Foundation Conference on writing Jewish-themed children’s books, you and the other teachers really inspired me to keep on writing—and finishing!—my various manuscripts. I have also been inspired by the Gotham Writer’s Workshops since I was a teenager and I recently had the privilege of joining the author Ruchama King Feuerman‘s writing group for some time, too. That was a very valuable experience and I received a lot of help on my latest manuscript. The SCBWI and the SSCBWI groups are also a source of inspiration and support and I have gained a lot from having that sense of community, which is invaluable. Even if one doesn’t know the members, personally, it adds so much to a writer’s toolkit to be able to have that sense of similar purpose and camaraderie!
In terms of The Challah Girl, I was inspired, in part, by a lesser-known variant of the “Cinderella” tale-type, called “Donkeyskin” and by the bravery and resourcefulness of the Russian heroine in “Vasilisa the Beautiful/Brave.” I took the donkey element from the first story and gave Zlatah Leah an actual “animal helper” to guide her to the palace. Her tears were inspired by the Brothers Grimm “Cinderella” tale, but unlike the tears in that story or the signature ring from “Donkeyskin,” they instead became the outer manifestation of her inner prayers, which led her to help heal the prince. And I made sure to ask that her hair color would be somewhat blonde or golden, just like Vasilisa’s, so that not only would she stand out in a good way, but it would also draw attention to her second name, Leah, which was inspired by Leah, our Foremother, whose prayers were so deep and full of meaning. In purposefully getting away from the usual violence and scariness of the tales, I was inspired to find another way to convey the heroine’s depth and strength of character.
As always, poetry continues to inspire me, particularly the work of Mary Oliver, Dickinson, Frost, and Billy Collins. I love everything from Shakespeare to the Modernist poets, authors, and artists and I’m big on the “Classics.” I’ve recently been re-reading Faulkner and Thomas C. Foster’s books on reading and interpreting literature. And my professor also introduced us to Kate Atkinson’s books and I have loved to read her, ever since. The way that she is simultaneously herself, but also inhabits all of her varied characters and their worlds is astounding and her wordplay and ingenuity is magnificent.
And finding the good things in one’s community and life is inspiring. While seemingly trite and not always immediately easy to do, it can add to one’s sense of wonder and purpose. That gratitude can translate positively over into a person’s writing and spread joy.
TWM: Please tell us about your submission process. How did this get to Mosaica Press?
BKS: Another case of Divine Intervention!
When my family and I were on a past trip to Israel, we hired a tour guide who also happened to be one of the heads of Mosaica Press. I told him about a children’s picture book manuscript that I had completed and he asked to see it. After the trip, I sent it along to him and the next thing I knew, he said that he and the rest of the team would be happy to accept it for publication. However, I decided that I still wanted to work on that manuscript, for a bit, and around that time, I also got the inspiration for The Challah Girl. Because it was a little while after my first manuscript was accepted, I sent out The Challah Girl to him, as well, and they loved it even more than the first one! Since it was more fully formed, I accepted and we began to work on the editorial, art, and design processes, which would all later form into what is now the finished product. Every time that I think of the miraculous nature of the acceptance of my manuscript, it gives me pause and makes me smile!
TWM: What’s next for you?
BKS: Right now, I’m continuing to work on a picture book manuscript that I started to go over in Ruchama King Feuerman’s writing group, centered on a little boy whose community is unable to find the moon when it is time for the monthly Kiddush Levanah (“Sanctification of the Moon”) ceremony to occur. Usually, little boys—and sometimes little girls—and their stories come to me, so it was quite a big departure for the older Zlatah Leah to come knocking! I’m interested to see how getting into the mindset of a younger character, once again, will go. And I always have poems and, to a lesser extent, short stories and other forms of writing, coming to me and waiting to be explored—so I, myself, am always interested to see what’s next!
For more about Bracha and The Challah Girl, see Bracha’s website>>>