The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired this story?
Erica Perl (EP): The story was inspired by my two daughters. One Hanukkah night, they lamented the fact that the poor shamash candle works hard for eight nights without any fanfare or appreciation. This astute observation stayed with me for years. I pondered how to write this story and decided to give it a try.
TWM: What were the challenges in writing it?
EP: I stumbled a lot in the beginning. I knew I wanted it to be a book about helping and gratitude, but I didn’t want it to feel preachy or didactic. In an early draft, the family didn’t light candles until it was too late because their lives were so busy. But this version was missing something. Workshopping The Ninth Night of Hanukkah at the Tent: Children’s Literature program (at the Yiddish Book Center) with the guidance of Leonard Marcus and several fellow picture book authors was incredibly helpful. I realized that having the family be overwhelmed by a recent move, rather than just overextended, would make the thoughtful and welcoming gestures of their neighbors all the more meaningful and appreciated.
TWM: What were the satisfactions in writing it?
EP: I was really satisfied when I saw Shahar Kober’s art and felt that he had captured the emotional texture of the book. Seeing the smaller characters in the book, like Mr. Patel with his baby, made me so happy because he captured my vision of this lovely little urban apartment building. That was also satisfying for me because so many Jewish picture books are set in rural and suburban settings (or are set in the past, rather than showing contemporary families). I love books like Chik Chak Shabbat which show Jews and gentiles living together in urban settings. I think this kind of representation is important. I was also proud to create a story which shows an inclusive Jewish holiday celebration.
TWM: You use a refrain: It was nice…but it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah. Can you comment on how you developed that?
EP: I love books with repeated refrains (they’re so much fun to read aloud). I also love books where, due to the narrative arc, the refrain has to evolve – and this was precisely that story. Throughout that book, Max and Rachel settle for “not-quite-Hanukkah” item substitutions (for example, chocolate chips instead of gelt). But at the end of the book, they finally experience the warm communal feeling of a real Hanukkah party, even though – ironically – the holiday has already ended. So, readers will notice that the refrain changes in the book’s last line to subtly convey the book’s message.
TWM. How important is creativity and community to the observance of Hanukkah? To Jewish values? To where we are now in COVID-19 times?
EP: Creativity and community are Jewish values, and go hand-in-hand with Hanukkah observance. I also think that the most important things we can do during Covid-19 times is to help each other and appreciate those who help us. It goes without saying that the first responders and all of those who have risked their lives deserve our recognition and gratitude… but also, it should be said! And drawn on the front of cards, which we then mail or deliver! (Click here for a free downloadable template.). Smaller acts of kindness can make a difference, too. This morning a neighbor dropped off a dozen bagels (his daughter works for a bagel bakery) and it completely made my day. It lifts my spirits during these challenging times to notice and appreciate the often unseen and unheralded helpers among us (the garbage collectors! the delivery people!) and I feel excited about creating something that, hopefully, motivate others to thank the helpers in their lives, too. In that way, The Ninth Night of Hanukkah is more than a book. It’s also sort of a movement. (Which I see as a very Jewish thing, too.)
TWM: What’s next for you?
EP: I am working on a middle grade novel, as well as several series books – I write the Truth or Lie nonfiction series, the Arnold and Louise early chapter book series, the Lucky Dogs beginning reader series, and the Craftily Ever After chapter book series (under the pseudonym Martha Maker). I am also virtually visiting a LOT of communities to help them get ready for Hanukkah and Shamash Night. If you want to connect with me and find out more about my books and my virtual visits, please visit my website and follow me on social media @ericaperl.
Thanks so much, Erica! Now let’s turn it over to illustrator Shahar Kober.
TWM: What medium did you use and why?
Shahar Kober (SK): My work is digital. I use Adobe Photoshop for every stage of my work: Initial sketches, line art and final colour. Photoshop is an amazing tool for illustrators. It’s versatile and user friendly, and gives me the flexibility to amend my work as I go. Nowadays Photoshop brushes allow me to mimic real brushes on paper. Actually, there are so many options there, unlimited options really, and the real challenge is choosing the right tools and work methods for me.
TWM: Did you experience any challenges in illustrating this book?
SK: The main challenge I had while working on this book was to try and balance the many details I had to include in some illustrations while still keeping focus on the main subjects. This is especially noticeable on the last few spreads where many characters are crowded together on each page. I had to use all kinds of composition and colour tricks to make this work.
TWM: What were the satisfactions?
SK: I was very happy with the freedom the publisher gave me for character design and colour palette. I tried to use a limited palette while keeping a general feel of a very colourful work. I think that worked pretty well! 🙂
TWM: How do you decide to use a two-page spread vs. an illustration on just one page?
SK: That’s a tough question. Sometimes this is actually dictated from the designer and sometimes it’s just a feeling I have, based on my experience. Before going to detailed sketches, I create a rough mockup of the book with very sketchy thumbnails, to get a general feeling of the spread and flipping order. Then, I sometimes notice that after going through a few double spreads, a single page illustration or even a vignette can break the sequence and give the audience the ability to take a visual time out before going back to double spreads.
TWM: What strategies do you use to get readers to turn the page?
SK: I’m not sure it’s my job to do that actually. When reading a book the reader will turn the page eventually! I think it’s usually how the text is divided into spreads that has the most impact on getting readers to turn the page. But, I would say my job is very important to make a reader pick up a book in the bookstore in the first place. So the book cover art is probably the most significant piece of work in that sense. It must be appealing and intriguing enough and I hope I managed that.
For more about Shahar Kober, please visit his website.