Welcome to The Whole Megillah‘s cyber-round table of authors whose books were submitted and selected by PJ Library and/or PJ Our Way. Our authors include Amalia Hoffman, author/illustrator of Dreidel Day (Kar-Ben, 2018); Karen Pokras, author of the forthcoming middle-grade historical novel, The Backyard Boys (Kar-Ben, 2021); and Joy Nelkin Wieder, author of The Passover Mouse (Doubleday, 2020).
The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you first hear about PJ Library?
Amalia Hoffman (AH): I heard about PJ Library for the first time when I attended a Jewish authors and illustrators conference in New York.
Karen Pokras (KP): I’d heard the name PJ Library here and there, but have to admit, I wasn’t truly familiar with them until you brought them up. However, when I started mentioning PJ to (non-writer) friends, so many were familiar with and had received books from them over the years. I wish I had paid closer attention when my children were young readers.
Joy Nelkin Wieder (JNW): I first heard about PJ Library through a friend in my critique group. She sent me a link to the first-time SCBWI/PJ Library Jewish Stories Award in 2018, and I had the perfect manuscript to submit. The working title was “Rivka and the Mice,” which was a Passover picture book based on a passage of Talmud. It had received an award back in 2004 but had not found a home in publishing. Although it had been languishing in a plastic bin in my basement, I knew it had “legs” because of the prior award. However, I really had no expectations when I submitted it to the SCBWI/PJ Library Jewish Stories Award. I only knew there was nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I sent it off. I was verklempt when I received an email letting me know that my manuscript had received Honorable Mention (a category created just for my story) and that PJ Library would try to help me get it published with an eye toward using it in their program.
Once I knew about PJ Library, I learned about the TENT: Children’s Literature program at the Yiddish Book Center. I was accepted into the program in 2018 and had a wonderful experience. I learned more about PJ Our Way and PJ Library’s need for more books for older readers. When I got home, I submitted my two early chapter books. I recently found out that my chapter book, The Secret Tunnel, was accepted in the PJ Our Way program and an agreement has been reached with my publisher, Hachai Publishing.
TWM: Did the incentive make a difference to you, if you received one?
AH: The incentive made a big difference to me. A lot of families received my book, Dreidel Day. People kept sending me photos of their kids and grandkids enjoying my book, which by itself was an incentive to keep on writing and illustrating Jewish-themed books. I also got invited to present Dreidel Day in many PJ Library books events in Jewish community centers, libraries and schools.
KP: Receiving the incentive was helpful as well as exciting, as it was the first time I was offered a monetary award to work on a story.
JNW: While the incentive gave me a sense of validation, it certainly wasn’t the overriding factor. I was more interested in the weight of PJ Library’s backing of my manuscript. I knew that an agent and/or a publisher would finally take notice of my story and the award would give my manuscript the validity it needed to finally become a published book.
TWM: How did any editorial comments help you revise and improve your ms.?
AH: The editorial comments I received helped me with some issues I had with the imagery in a couple of spreads. The editor also helped me in figuring out how to better focus on the Hanukkah theme and design a more attractive cover.
KP: The editorial comments were invaluable. My manuscript went through two rounds of deep edits thanks to the amazing and thoughtful comments given by both the young and grown readers at PJ. In fact, my publisher recently returned my manuscript for review with a note that there were very few additional edits because my manuscript was “already in excellent shape.” I attribute that to PJ Our Way and am thankful for their critical eye.
JNW: I went through a few rounds of editing with my agent, Barbara Krasner of Olswanger Literary LLC (and publisher of this blog!) to make the story even stronger before submitting it to publishers. Once it was accepted by Frances Gilbert, Editor-in-Chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers, my editor wanted to change the title to make “Passover” front and center. At first, we decided on The Passover Mice, but Frances felt the focus of the book was really on just one mouse, so we ended up with The Passover Mouse. I thought it was a brilliant marketing tool to let readers know right away that it is a Passover book. As I said to Frances, “Why didn’t I think of that?” That’s what a good editor is for!
TWM: How did acceptance by PJ influence getting an agent or book contract?
AH: My second PJ Library Incentive Award for my forthcoming board book, Hanukkah Lights, sold (but not yet contracted) in less than a week.
KP: I have no doubt that my acceptance into PJ Library helped get my book in front of editors and publishers and ultimately helped with my offer of publication.
JNW: It had a HUGE influence! When I was at the SCBWI National Conference in New York to receive my award, I met with Amalia Hoffman who had also won an incentive award and had a PJ Library Hanukkah board book coming out soon. She told me that her agent was Anna Olswanger. I have known Anna through the years, and I figured that she would be a perfect agent to submit my manuscript. After the conference, I sent Anna my story and let her know about the award. She was interested in the story but was not taking new picture book clients. She asked if she could pass it along to her new associate, Barbara, and I agreed. Luckily, Barbara agreed to take me on as a client. She submitted the manuscript along with information about PJ Library to several mainstream publishers. I know from talking with my editor that both the award and the interest from PJ Library not only influenced her decision but also helped her sell the book at the acquisitions meeting.
TWM: Any advice to aspiring authors?
AH: Look at other PJ Library books in the genre you’re writing to get ideas of what PJ Library is looking for. Explore fresh ideas for stories that have a fresh feel and appeal to today’s Jewish family.
KP: Write from your heart and try not to put too much pressure on yourself. If the words aren’t coming out, do something else … but always keep a notepad close by. Recently, I started baking. Sometimes in the middle, I’ll find myself writing out dialogue on pads of paper covered in flour. Don’t get hung up on rejections. Just the other day, a writer friend of mine wrote that it’s important to distinguish between rejection and failure. I found this interesting because as writers, we sometimes equate the two, but they are very different. Failure is giving up; rejection is moving on. Also, keep reading! We can learn so much from other writers. Finally, don’t call yourself an aspiring writer. If there are words down, even if they’re not the best words, you’re a writer. You can always go back and polish them later.
JNW: After waiting 18 years to get my book published, my best advice is: DON’T GIVE UP! Several people have told me that my journey to publication has inspired them to keep going and not give up on their dreams of getting their work published. And that inspires me!