You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2020 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 2020 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 eight participants:
- Picture Books—Author Sue Macy and illustrator Stacy Innerst for The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come
- Middle Grade—Author R.J. Palacio for White Bird: A Wonder Story
- Young Adult—Author Rachel DeWoskin for Someday We Will Fly
- Author Lesléa Newman for Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story and recipient of the Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award
- Author Sofiya Pasternack for Anya and the Dragon
- Author Andrew Maraniss for Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany
- Author Hannah Moskowitz for Sick Kids in Love
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?
Sofiya Pasternack: I don’t even know where to start! There are too many! Okay… Adam Gidwitz, the author who wrote the blurb for my book. His historical story, The Inquisitor’s Tale, is absolutely amazing and told in such a unique way. Katherine Locke is a prior Sydney Taylor Honoree and for a good reason! Their book The Girl with the Red Balloon and its sequel, The Spy with the Red Balloon, are both wonderful, as is their anthology, It’s a Whole Spiel. Chris Baron’s All of Me, Victoria Lee’s The Fever King, Natasha Díaz’s Color Me In—I know I’m forgetting some, but that should be a good starting place for middle grade and young adult Jewish kidlit!
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Lesléa Newman: I see books that feature diverse Jewish families, which is a wonderful thing!
Hannah Moskowitz: I’m always in favor of seeing more books with Jewish characters that are set in modern times and focus on current-day issues. I’ve been seeing more of these lately and I’m so excited!
Pasternack: I’ve read some beautiful verse novels this last year, and I think there’s so much that can be done with a story as a poem rather than prose. Novels in verse I think are going to keep getting more popular. Other than that, I have no idea!
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Sue Macy: I’m actually merging my two writing interests and working on a picture book biography of a Jewish female athlete. More will be revealed.
R.J. Palacio: I have three novels I’m dying to write—all kind of vying for attention in my head—but I’m still not sure which one to work on next. I’m giving myself a little time for the right one to gain total control of my psyche so I can enter that world and start writing it. In the meanwhile, I’m doing a lot of binge-watching and catching up on reading.
Rachel DeWoskin: My first poetry collection, called Two Menus, is coming out in April; I started out as a poet and wrote many novels in the meantime, but have been working on the poems in Two Menus for 18 years, so I’m very excited to have them in the world. Many of the poems are concerned with the same kinds of questions as Someday We Will Fly: youth and adulthood, safety and danger, humor and sorrow, fear and love.
Newman: My steps have been the same since Day One. Sit down on my writing couch, pick up a pen and notebook, put a word down on a page and just keep going. It’s worked now for over 50 years, so as my mom always used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
Pasternack: I’m going to keep writing! I graduate from my doctoral program next year, so I’ll have more time to write after that. One day I’ll get an MFA… or maybe I’ll just take some creative writing classes. I really love learning about the craft of writing, and I think advancing a literary career (or any career, really) is all about learning, learning, learning!
Andrew Maraniss: I am currently finishing a manuscript for a Young Adult biography of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay major league baseball player. As with my first two books, Singled Out will be sports-related narrative non-fiction with a social justice message. It will come out in spring 2021.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
Macy: When I interviewed Aaron Lansky, he said Jews are a people with a culture that’s so all-encompassing, we even have our own religion. He flipped the way many Jews see themselves, on a scale of religious observance. As a secular Jew, I often felt somehow “less than,” but after speaking with Aaron and writing this book I see how Jewish I really am, in relation to Jewish history, food, language, and culture. It’s been validating.
Also, thanks to the work of the Yiddish Book Center and other groups, I’m finally getting a better picture of the lives my grandparents led in “the old country.” Before the recent English translations of Yiddish literature, some of which were produced by the Book Center, my main frame of reference for Eastern European Jewish life was Fiddler on the Roof. Now there is new, reclaimed literature available to me that presents a more well-rounded and nuanced picture of the lives my ancestors led.
Stacy Innerst: As one who didn’t grow up immersed in Jewish life and culture, I have to say that nearly every page of the book provided a new insight. I studied art and history in college and was particularly interested in figurative painters like Chagall and I took every class the university offered on the history of the Jewish people. At the time, I had no idea why or that I’d be putting that accumulation of interests to such good use! I also discovered that I knew more Yiddish words than I thought I knew. Popular culture has absorbed so much Yiddish that we’re using it every day. Who knew?
When I first read Sue’s wonderful manuscript, there were a few scenes that encapsulated the story for me. One described the brother throwing Aaron’s grandmother’s suitcase full of her precious “old country” artifacts into New York harbor. Another was Aaron’s dumpster-diving quest to save discarded Yiddish books from being ruined by the rain.
Both scenes are an illustrator’s dream but they also perfectly captured the competing desires that immigrants must experience to assimilate while also preserving their own sense of self and cultural history.
Palacio: I did more research before beginning White Bird than I’d ever done before on anything—because I didn’t want to do what I’ve seen done in books before, which is to use historical events almost like a backdrop to a story, rather than its raison d’être. For White Bird to work, the Holocaust couldn’t be just a backdrop—it had to be the very architecture of the story: the driver of the plot; the drumbeat of the narrative. I understand that fiction is allowed to do use history anyway it wants, but I don’t think authors of historical fiction should bend history to suit their narratives. At least, I myself didn’t want to do that. What I wanted to do was tell a story about a very relatable girl whose life goes from wonderful to frightening in the span of a few short years. I wanted to portray the real events that shaped this girl’s life. So I read every history book and article I could get a hold of that dealt very specifically with the lives of French Jews in the 1930s and 1940s: their lifestyles, cultural practices, religiousness. You don’t necessarily see that research in the final result, but it was important that I did it. What I came away with after doing the research, what I still find the most moving thing, really, is how the Jewish faith is truly inextinguishable. That light, which Sara’s father talks about—that spirit of transcendence—so integral to Jewish life, was my biggest takeaway from my research. I mean, I knew about it before I started writing White bird, of course, but after doing all my research, I knew it anew.
DeWoskin: I was in Shanghai in 2011, working on a contemporary television project, when I visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and discovered that 18,000 Jewish refugees had fled Nazi-occupied Europe and survived WWII in the only city in the world that would allow them safe landing: Shanghai. It was there that I saw two photographs that inspired me to write Someday We Will Fly; the first was a 1940 shot of a group of teenage boys from Europe. They have the soulful, hollowed-out look of kids in war-time, but also look like boys anywhere, mischievous and sweet, wearing polos monogrammed with school insignias. They hold table tennis paddles. I stared. These kids had fled entire lives; their grown-ups, on top of managing near-impossible survival, had made them a school, a table tennis table team, even tee-shirts. How? Next to that image was a second, this one of two toddlers, girls holding rag dolls. The girls were in rags themselves, but someone who loved them, their parents, maybe, or friends, or aunties, or Chinese neighbors, had sewn dolls for them, and painted on those dolls lovely, expressive faces. The records of these children’s lives, and the objects that revealed their community’s devotion to them, inspired Lillia Kazka, the 16-year-old refugee at the center of Someday We Will Fly. I wanted to ask, in as many and complicated ways as possible, the horrifying question of how human beings survive the chaos of war. I began imagining and researching teenage life in WWII Shanghai; Chinese citizens welcoming thousands of Jewish families into their city, the Shanghai Jews building businesses, schools, girl scout troupes, theater companies, chamber music groups, community, and a sense – astonishingly—of normalcy for their children. The stories I found, and the objects, documents, and photographs, continued to surprise me for the duration of the seven years I spent traveling back and forth to Shanghai, reading, asking, and writing. Someday We Will Fly is a tribute to the most surprising and compelling aspects of what I discovered: the Shanghai Jews’ gritty practicality and profound courage, and the resilience that so many refugees demonstrate, by holding onto hope in contexts that guarantee the pulse of its twin force, dread.
Newman: I realized on a whole different level, how much courage it took for my ancestors to make the voyage from Eastern Europe to America. I had to dive deeply into the emotions of my characters—specifically, Gittel and her mother—and I felt in my bones the fear and pain of their separation. In reality, they never saw each other again, but I just didn’t have the heart to make that the storyline of the book (I do talk about it in the Author’s Note).
Pasternack: I had to really learn a lot about medieval Jewish life, especially outside of the traditional medieval Jewish settings people normally think of. Part of my book is taking the reader through Anya’s Friday as she prepares for Shabbat, and realizing how much work that used to be was really something.
Maraniss: I was fascinated to listen to the sermons of Rabbi Steven Wise in New York as he spoke so eloquently and persuasively about the reasons to boycott the 1936 Olympics. I was moved by the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz when he wrote of the love, togetherness and determination present at his synagogue on the eve of the April 1, 1933 Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. I was amazed by the courage of ordinary people like the Miller family, who sent their 14-year-old son Al to America in 1937 for his own safety without knowing if they’d ever see him again. I was inspired by the words of Elie Wiesel, who said that “those who were silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.” We cannot wait for those who have been on the wrong side of history to realize the error of their ways and atone for it. We can’t wait for people who may believe the right things but haven’t acted on it to speak up, either. It’s up to each of us to speak up, now, in defense of truth, justice and equality.
Moskowitz: I actually never thought of Sick Kids as a Jewish book; the characters are Jewish because I’m Jewish. I’ve been continuously surprised by how many reviews point out that they’re Jewish, because to me it wasn’t a large part of the book, but gradually I’ve come to understand how much Jewish values really do influence what’s important to the characters and, really, how I write and see the world.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Innerst: It’s hard to describe how gratifying it is to win the Sydney Taylor Award for authentically portraying Jewish life. Sue Macy and the team at Paula Wiseman Books gave me a gorgeous story to illustrate and I couldn’t be more grateful to them and to the award committee. I knew this could be a very good picture book from the moment I read the manuscript. I was just trying not to screw it up.
When you set out to illustrate a book you don’t think, “This one’s going to win the Sydney Taylor Award and have a shiny sticker.” It certainly is a thrill when that happens, though! I’m kvelling.
Palacio: As a non-Jewish person writing a story about a Jewish family set in France during the Holocaust, I was very conscious of the necessity to not only represent the historical narrative accurately, but in a way that illustrated the honor and affection I have always felt for people of the Jewish faith. Growing up in Queens, NY, as a first-generation daughter of Spanish-speaking Colombian immigrants, my earliest memories involve my teachers—almost all of whom were Jewish—always treating my parents and me with the utmost dignity and respect. This may seem like it would be a given, but that wasn’t always the case growing up as an immigrant in a predominantly white neighborhood—and the intellectual generosity and kindness of those elementary school teachers will always stay with me. Since then, perhaps because of that, because of the friend group I ended up being part of in middle school, or spending so much time with my best friend in high school, or the fact that I married a Jewish man—I have always felt very “at home” within the Jewish community. I’ve always felt welcomed and embraced. But having strong ties to a community isn’t the same as being one of the faith, of course, so I decided to approach White Bird neither as an insider nor an outsider, but as a storyteller. I’m telling a story that teaches children growing up right now—for whom the Holocaust might seem like distant history—about the Holocaust, about antisemitism, about intolerance. And ultimately, of course, about finding the moral courage to speak up against injustice. I strongly believe that we’re not teaching children early enough about the Holocaust, and we’ve left the burden fall on the Jewish community alone to fight antisemitism. It should be on everyone, regardless of religion or background, to teach their children about the horrors of the Holocaust. And that is ultimately why I wrote White Bird: to be able to connect the readers of Wonder, all around the world, with a story that they might not otherwise have come to. So receiving the Sydney Taylor Award means everything to me, in a way that’s almost impossible to describe. Yes, it’s a validation of the choices I made on how to tell this story, and how to illustrate it, which involved research beyond my own personal experience to authentically portray the Jewish experience—but it’s also an acknowledgement from the Association of Jewish Libraries that this book is doing what I had hoped it would do, which is to connect with young readers and build a bridge between the past and the present.
DeWoskin: I have loved All-of-a-Kind Family all my life. I read it not just as a little girl, but also to both of my daughters; every chance I had to live in Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie’s world and story—was a profound delight. Sydney Taylor’s books are part of the reason I imagined and wrote Someday We Will Fly; one of the great beauties of her work is the dignity she gives kids, the belief running through her pages that children’s lives and struggles are to be taken seriously, that their joys and fears are primal and real, their rights human rights. And this is not just true of her characters, but also of readers as I think she considers us; the loveliness and depth of her prose are evidence that she believes stories for and about young people should rise to the level of transcendent literature. Of course this is also evident in how her characters describe, think, and care about reading. All this to say, winning the Sydney Taylor Award feels poetically profound to me, like a milestone I would have been unable to dream of in my childhood, reading her books. My girls have been wearing the beautiful gold Sydney Taylor Award stickers on their clothes.
Newman: To receive the Sydney Taylor Silver Medal means so much to me especially because Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, is based on my own family history, and my 91-year-old Aunt Phyllis (daughter of the real “Gittel”) is alive and well and so moved that her mom’s story is being honored in this way and read by so many children. And to receive the Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award at this point in my life and career touches me deeply. I have been working very hard for many years (many decades!) and it’s nice to have that acknowledged.
Pasternack: I think every author worries so much about making some kind of impact. Did my book mean anything to anyone besides me? I’m an external validation person, and the Sydney Taylor Honor answered that question for me: “Yes, your book means something to someone besides you.”
Maraniss: This is a tremendous honor, and one that means the world to me. I’m honored that the committee took my book seriously. One of my pet causes is to demonstrate that sports books are legitimate books. Some of the most interesting stories of civil rights, justice and equality have taken place on the athletic fields of play. My intent is to use sports as a hook to get young people interested in reading. A book with a basketball player on the cover may seem accessible to a lot of kids. And then once they get into the book, they learn something—in a fun and interesting way—about larger issues such as racism, antisemitism, and propaganda. I am extremely proud that this honor will always be a part of my legacy as an author. It legitimizes my career in some ways. This is an honor that is held in very high esteem in the book world, so I’m incredibly grateful.
Moskowitz: A little while ago there was a Twitter thread going around where we talked about our first memories of Jewish literature, and mine was reading All-of-a-Kind Family with my grandmother when I was little. So being recognized for an award with Sydney Taylor’s name is…so, so cool. That little kid would be stunned.
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?
DeWoskin: Of course I’m absolutely thrilled with this recognition, and my great hope is that the Sydney Taylor award will bring readers to my book, and allow for a deepening of the conversation about the particular history of the Shanghai Jews, and also the larger question of how we learn from that history ways to protect vulnerable people and allow them safe havens.
Pasternack: I photoshopped the award onto a ton of stuff and annoyed my whole family! But seriously, I don’t know what will be different now. I hope it opens up some speaking opportunities for me, because I love to speak to people, especially other authors. I use my background in psychotherapy to augment my writing, and so far people have been pretty interested in hearing about that. I really want some of those speaking opportunities to be at synagogues or Jewish schools, so I can talk to the kids there about writing your own experience, and about how history is awesome!
Maraniss: Receiving an honor like this provides extra motivation to keep doing what I’m doing, keep telling stories about social justice, keep reaching kids with stories that can help shape the way they see the world and the way the use their voices. It has been obvious to me that the Sydney Taylor Book Award is held in extremely high esteem by librarians, teachers and other authors. There is a responsibility that comes with one’s work being associated with an honor like this, an obligation to b an “upstander” rather than a bystander in the face of injustice.
The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion and we congratulate all the Gold Medal, Silver Medal, and Notable award winners. 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.