The Whole Megillah welcomes writer Leslie Kimmelman and illustrator Galia Bernstein to the forum. We asked them a few questions about their book, The Eight Knights of Hanukkah:
The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come up with the idea for Eight Knights?
Leslie Kimmelman (LK): I’ve wanted to do a Hanukkah story for some time; my last one, The Runaway Latkes, was published in 2000. But what could I say that hasn’t been said? There are so many good Hanukkah books available now. Then I thought of the play on words—knight/night. I researched it and was extremely surprised that no one had taken that road yet. Once I had the title, the story came fairly easily. It’s so much fun to writeth knightly dialogue! (The book also gave me an excuse to buy some chain mail! Hopefully I can use it for some virtual visits this fall.)
TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
LK: My biggest challenge, I suppose, was that I wanted the book to do more than just tell a story. I wanted it to have a deeper meaning, without hitting readers over the head with lesson. Hopefully I succeeded in challenging kids to go forth and do their own acts of “awesome kindness and stupendous bravery.” And of course, I wanted to imbue the story with humor. I think I’m funny, but I wanted to make sure that readers did as well!
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
LK: My greatest satisfaction is the same as it always is—seeing the finished book. Galia Bernstein’s illustrations are absolutely fantastic—much more than I could have hoped for. They add a whole other layer to the story. She has a busy schedule, so I had to wait for her. But it was well worth the wait. Also, I am really happy the book is coming out this year. If ever there was a time for encouraging kindness, this is it. Without kindness, compassion, and grace, life will be very hard for us all.
TWM: Do you have an agent? What was your process in securing one?
LK: I have an agent, as of just a few months ago. I have been in the publishing field (as an editor) since graduating from college, so I guess I felt I had the contacts to do it myself. With the exception of a few years, I have done so and it’s worked out well for me. But lately I realized I would rather be spending my energy on actually writing. So I queried a number of agents, and I am really happy with the one I signed with. She has just sent out my first manuscript, and I’m crossing my fingers.
TWM: Do you have a critique group? How has that worked for you?
LK: I don’t have a formal critique group right now, though I do have writer friends, and we swap manuscripts on an informal basis. I have gotten some really good advice from them. I also have a daughter who is an avid reader and works with young children herself; she’s a terrific critic.
TWM: Who inspires you?
LK: Without being too political, these past few years have been terribly disappointing in terms of expecting moral leadership from most elected officials. Instead, I am inspired by all the things that people are doing on a grass-roots level: the front-line workers just digging in and doing their jobs, the BLM movement, the millions of people who are standing up and fighting injustice. Which is really the message of Eight Knights. You don’t have to slay a dragon to be a hero. You can bring chicken soup to a neighbor, or help around the house, or speak out when you see wrong, or just do your part—e.g., wear a mask—o keep everyone healthy. Even the youngest kids can understand what it means to do something kind or brave; small acts of heroics are in everyone’s reach. I am so desperately hoping that we can usher in a kinder era.
TWM: What’s next?
LK: I have a number of projects in the works. In Spring 2021, books three and four of an early reader series will be published: Bat and Sloth Throw a Party and Bat and Sloth Solve a Mystery. They’re a lot of fun, and hopefully I can re-promote the first two, which came out this past April when most of us had other things on their mind. I am hard at work on a second draft of my first middle-grade book; I’m also working on a couple of nonfiction picture books. I don’t want to jinx things by saying more!
TWM: Thanks so much, Leslie! Now let’s turn to Galia. What was your illustration strategy?
Galia Bernstein (GB): Since the book is written in the style of a medieval ballad, I immediately though of medieval illuminated manuscripts. That’s where the illuminated letters came from, as well as the parchment color pages. I also had a great time drawing the endpapers map, in the style of maps of that era.
TWM: The drawings are so nuanced and keep the humor alive. How did you make that happen?
GB: Well, it helped that Leslie’s writing is so funny. The knights take their tasks, no matter how menial, very seriously. Showing a knight carving a dreidel with the same intensity as he would ride into battle is funny and I tried to stay true to that spirit. Of course, I always add animals where I can, so each knight has a horse who is just as serious and dedicated. I’m pretty sure this book wins “Most horses in a Hanukkah book.” I’m proud of that.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
GB: All eight knights are dressed in armor for the entire book. Not something I’m used to drawing, especially in so many different poses. To prepare, I went to the Arms and Armor section of the Metropolitan Museum and made a lot of sketches. I was really inspired by the collection’s cultural variety. Since my knights are multicultural, I used elements of Asian and African armor, as well as “traditional” European, in their design.
TWM: Your greatest satisfaction?
GB: This is a religion-themed book, designed to look like an ancient religious text. It was very important to me, and I think to Leslie as well, to keep it modern and relatable. Humor is key, but also cultural representation and modern ideas of gender rolls. Sir Gabriel is peeling potatoes, while Sir Isabella is chasing a dragon. They go where they are needed and no task is more, or less meaningful than the other. Books about religion can often be stiff and old fashion, this book is not and I’m very happy about it.
TWM: Who inspires you?
GB: I am a fan of line illustrators for children, who were also cartoonists for adults. William Steig comes to mind. Their characters are so expressive in so few lines. For this book I also thought of Nancy Carpenter’s illustration for historic biographies picture books like Balderdash! and Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine. I love her characters and creative layouts.
TWM: What’s next for you (if you can talk about it)?
GB: I’m currently in the last stages of illustrating two wonderful picture books by two amazing authors. Lost and Found by Kate Banks and Ear Worm by Jo Knowles. I’m very excited about both and can’t wait for everyone to see them sometime in 2021. I’m also in the very early stages of writing my third book as author/illustrator.
TWM: Thank you both for a great interview!