You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2021 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 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.
The wrap-up and virtual roundtable
Imagine, if you will, a Zoom gallery filled with award winners poised to answer questions from the press. We have ten participants:
- Picture Book—Author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Susan Gal for Welcoming Elijah
- Middle Grade—Author M. Evan Wolkenstein for Turtle Boy
- Young Adult—Author Tyler Feder for Dancing at the Pity Party
- Author Jane Yolen and illustrator Khoa Le for Miriam at the River
- Author Mychal Copeland for I Am the Tree of Life
- Author Monica Hesse for They Went Left
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?
Lesléa Newman: Lately, I’ve been very interested in Jewish children’s books that feature cats. I recommend The Cats of Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse, The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank by David Lee Miller, and The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street by Ann Redisch Stampler. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own title (also a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal winner!) Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.
M. Evan Wolkenstein: The Jewish kid-lit that has rocked my world–some is brand new and some, a few of years old: the first is Liza Wiemer’s amazing The Assignment, about an unethical high school assignment which opens up the door for antisemitism, white supremacy, and intolerance. It tricks you into thinking things are moving in a linear direction and then…blammo! Major curve balls.
Speaking of curve balls, I loved Sarah Kapit’s Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! Vivy and the main character of Turtle Boy have a lot in common, and I loved how the book explores the idea of self expression and empowerment through the most esoteric of baseball pitches.
Next is The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, which I read simply because I saw it listed as a prior Sydney Taylor winner; and WOW. I listened to the audiobook while running and I actually had to stop my run and listen, rapt, until the end of some scenes! Which was awkward when I was mid-crosswalk. It’s Canterbury Tales meets the Princess Bride. Plus Jewish.
Most recently, I read Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon. It helped me to see that opening up to romance novels and smashing the patriarchy might go hand in hand. I’ve spoken with female students about the need for literature that centers women’s ambitions and also their desires and now I believe that this book is an essential part of tikkun olam. I will never roll my eyes at a romance novel again.
Finally, All 3 Stooges by Erica Perl. This book blew me away—like Turtle Boy, it’s funny, but also, it’s dark and it gives Middle Grade readers the credit that they can and want to run straight into the shadows, the darkness, and explore amazingly painful subjects (with lovable but deeply flawed protagonists).
Tyler Feder: There are three children’s books my mom kept in the plastic bin with our Chanukah things that I’d look forward to reading every year. These aren’t new but I have great memories of reading them! The Chanukah Guest by Eric A. Kimmel is about an old lady with dwindling eyesight who serves latkes to a hungry bear, confusing his fur for her rabbi’s beard. Arielle and the Hanukkah Surprise by Devra Newberger Speregen is about a girl whose birthday falls during Chanukah and thinks her family forgot about her (it has a happy ending!). Finally, Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah by Sylvia Rouss is about a sweet little spider who spins a different colored dreidel with each of his eight legs.
Jane Yolen: Begin with Sydney Taylor herself, of course. Go from there to any of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s books for children, especially the Chelm stories he retells in The Fools of Chelm. Leslèa Newman’s gorgeous story of immigration—Gittel’s Journey, anything by Barbara Diamond Goldin (including Meet Me at the Well, which we wrote together, about the girls and women of the Hebrew Bible. I have always been fond of The B’nai Bagels. Also read the many remarkable number of YA Holocaust novels out there. I have three Holocaust novels out myself—Devil’s Arithmetic (which won the Sydney Taylor Award way back in 1987 I think), Briar Rose, and Mapping the Bones. Also read the graphic novel Maus, and Elizabeth Wein’s brilliant Code Name Verity.
Anne Blankman: I could go on and on! There are so many wonderful Jewish-themed children’s books. My favorite picture book is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. In this story, Hershel—the trickster of many Jewish folk tales—saves a village’s Hanukkah celebrations when he tricks a group of goblins into leaving a synagogue. I adore Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind-Family series, about a Jewish family living in New York City in the early 1900s. For middle grade readers, I recommend Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse, which is about a Jewish girl and her family fleeing Tsarist Russia. In The Endless Steppe, author Esther Hautzig writes of her exile in Siberia during World War Two. And for nonfiction lovers, I recommend Victoria Ortiz’s Dissenter on the Bench: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life and Work.
Sofiya Pasternack: Jewish middle grade has some great books coming up! Aimee Lucido’s Recipe for Disaster is a contemporary book about baking and figuring out a Jewish identity when you’re not entirely sure if you “count.” Chris Baron’s The Magical Imperfect is about two kids dealing with social isolation for different reasons, and how they come together to face the things they’re ostracized for.
Monica Hesse: Recently I’ve love, loved Brandy Colbert’s Little and Lion, about a queer, Black, Jewish teen juggling her faith, her family and her first crush — which happens to be on a girl her brother also likes. L.C. Rosen’s Camp, about two boys falling in love at theater camp, is buoyant and funny and delicious. I just started Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed (teens build a friendship while doing political canvassing; it’s the perfect story for Washington, DC, where I live), and I also just stumbled upon my old childhood copy of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which I’m planning to reread for the first time in 25 years to see if I still find Judy Blume’s autobiographical novel as relatable as I did when I was nine.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Newman: I am very happy to see that more and more Jewish children’s books are featuring Jews of color and I hope that trend continues. There is a huge need to show the diversity that exists within the Jewish community. I was adamant that the illustrations in Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail showed a diverse range of characters attending the seder depicted in the story. And Susan Gal did an amazing job.
Yolen: A few more editors and small presses opening their doors to American writers. For example, new acquiring editor Elizabeth Lazowski at Chronicle is looking for Jewish books (her grandfather is a rabbi and a child survivor of the Holocaust).
Mychal Copeland: I have spent much of my career working with Jewish families who aren’t often represented in Jewish children’s literature. Families are largely pictured in our books as white, only the boys wear kippot (I used to draw head-coverings on the girls in my copies), we see moms and dads but not often gay, lesbian or transgender parents, and observances are Ashkenazi (Eastern European)-centric. These days, over 70 percent of American Jews are partnering with someone from a different spiritual background, and in 12-15 percent of our families, there is someone who identifies as a Person of Color. I serve a synagogue rooted in LGBTQIA community. Kids from our families rarely see themselves in Jewish literature. This beautifully diverse reality is now being reflected in more of our books. I think (and hope!) that we are going to see an explosion of books reflecting the actual makeup of our communities.
I also see a Jewish cultural shift in that, for generations, we have struggled over how to talk about spirituality and we’ve had a discomfort talking about God. But children are natural seekers and spiritual beings. They ask questions that stump their parents because their parents have not had the chance to engage as adults about their spiritual lives. I hope to see more literature that presents different modes of Jewish spirituality, offering children a wide range of ideas and images, while lending parents some shared language for talking to their kids about spirituality.
Pasternack: Oh gosh! I don’t know about trends. For writers, I generally recommend against writing for trends, so I don’t pay a lot of attention to them. Something I’m seeing pitched a lot, though, are MG vampire novels!! I’ve seen some really adorable takes on vampires in these books, and honestly if anything is going to revive the vampire trend, it’s going to be tween Nosferatu trying to make friends with human kids.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Newman: Right at this moment, I am busy promoting my memoir-in-verse for adults, I Wish My Father, a companion book to I Carry My Mother (both published by Headmistress Press). The book explores the changes that both my father and I went through during the last five years of his life after my mother died and he went from husband to widower, attorney to retiree, tennis player to spectator, driver to passenger, homeowner to independent living resident and lifelong New Yorker to new New Jersey-ite. And I went from daughter to daughter/caretaker which was both challenging and rewarding.
On the children’s book front, I have many picture books coming out in the next few years, and I am very eager to get them into the hands of readers. In May of 2021, I have two board books coming out from Candlewick: A-B-C Cats and1-2-3 Cats (you see, I just can’t get away from cats!). And in 2022, my first bilingual book will be brought out from the Children’s Press (a division of Lee & Low). Los coquíes y el huracán: Una canción para Puerto Rico/Coquíes and the Hurricane: A Song for Puerto Rico. I wrote this book for my spouse who is from Puerto Rico and was devastated by the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the US government’s response to it. There are more projects in the works…stay tuned!
Susan Gal: I am currently illustrating a non-fiction picture book for Scholastic. It too is a book with Jewish subject matter and I’m passionately researching the history of that story. Later in the year I will begin work on illustrating a lovely manuscript with Nancy Paulsen Books. We currently have a book that I both wrote and illustrated entitled TWOgether coming out this spring. I’m also continually working on book ideas and coaxing them into (hopefully!) becoming actual picture books.
Wolkenstein: As I wrapped up Turtle Boy, I found that I’d become so deeply attached to my characters, I was sad at the thought of life without them, like the normal and bittersweet moment at graduation when we all hugged our friends and cried and promised to stay in touch. Well, I found that Shirah, the protagonist, wouldn’t let me go—she stomped after me, demanding her turn. She’s forceful and strong and has some subtle vulnerabilities that come from somewhere within me which need to be explored. When I do virtual author visits and students ask if I’m writing another book—and I tell them I’m working on a sequel to Turtle Boy featuring Shirah—there’s lots of fist bumps and cheers, especially from the girls. I owe it to them—and to Shirah—to make it happen.
Feder: This past year I finished a children’s book called Bodies Are Cool, a colorful and friendly body positive anthem for preschoolers with illustrations of lots of different bodies of varying sizes, colors, abilities, genders, etc. It comes out this June, just in time for swimsuit season! I’m also currently working on another graphic memoir about my experience living with clinical anxiety.
Yolen: To live long enough (I am 82 next month) to see all my books under contract come out. That includes five Jewish books, among them: for Kar Ben: Mrs. Noah’s Doves, Deborah’s Tree, and the board book Something New for Rosh Hashonah, and Chronicle’s Too Many Golems.
Copeland: I am working on two picture books. One follows a child as they realize that they are interconnected with the natural world. I am hoping that in addition to standing alone as a narrative, it will serve as a companion to I Am the Tree of Life as a guided meditation at the end of a yoga practice. In the second, I am celebrating the diversity of ethnic, racial, interreligious, sexual and gender variety in contemporary Jewish families.
Pasternack: My plan right now is to just keep writing more books! I have another middle grade coming out in 2022. It’s another historical fantasy, set a little earlier than Anya is, in Khazaria. When 12-year-old Ziva’s terminally ill twin brother prophesies his own death happening on Rosh Hashanah, she spends Elul trying to get him to the city of Luz, where she hopes he can avoid the Angel of Death.
I’m also writing a YA historical fantasy set during an alternate Cold War, where the war is fought with atomic magicians instead of atomic bombs. When an American magician is sent on a secret mission into the heart of the USSR, she’s forced to work with a Soviet soldier, who has a mission of his own. Both of the teens are Jewish, with their very different approaches to Judaism influenced by their upbringing, parents, and experiences in two completely different nations. The research needed for this is pretty hefty, and I’ve been working on it for almost two years at this point!
Hesse: I’m at the misery point of my latest YA novel: 70,000 words written so far, which means the ending is in sight but simultaneously seems so far away. It’s my fourth book of historical fiction but my first set in a time period other than WWII. I’ve never been able to talk much about what I’m working on until it’s done (feels like a jinx?) but right now my nightstand is littered with books about the Spanish flu, the 19th Amendment, oystering on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and common poisons of the early 20th century. And it’s all fascinating. Outside of novel-writing, I’m a columnist with the Washington Post, where I mostly write about gender and its impact on society. It’s an amazing job that I hope to have for awhile.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
Newman: As I wrote my book, I remembered how much I loved Passover as a child. I loved helping my mother change the dishes; I loved seeing the boxes of matzo appear in our pantry; I loved watching my father make matzo brei (the only meal he ever cooked); and most of all, I loved the seder. And what I loved most about the seder was opening the door to welcome Elijah. So many memories returned to me as I wrote the story. I also thought about how each seder is unique, depending on who is attending, who is leading, what foods are served, what is going on in the world which influences the conversations around the table as we eat the festive meal. It is really a unique and exquisite tradition. I have been to very large seders and very small seders and each one has been very special.
Gal: When my agent Gail Gaynin presented me with the manuscript for Elijah I was initially concerned because I am not Jewish. However, I had successfully worked with Lesléa on our first book Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays and Gail knew that I would be up to the task of making Elijah authentic and heartfelt. With both books it was very important to me to honor the richness of the Jewish traditions. I researched the history and asked my Jewish friends about their holiday celebrations and what each holiday meant to them and their families before beginning sketches for the books. My goal was to bring the stories to life and create a world that was both emotional and true to the subject matter. To me, Elijah is not only a story about Passover but a story about contrast; darkness and light, indoor and outdoor, loneliness and togetherness. It was important to me that the story be illustrated in a limited palette to emphasize this contrast; deep blue hues for the outdoor spreads and rich golden tones for the indoor pages. I wanted the reader to experience the celebration of the different generations coming together and the joy we feel when we share our sacred family traditions with those we love.
Wolkenstein: As a Jewish educator, I have a closet full of ideas that I think are core, essential, and inspiring about Jewish life and civilization, and I began early drafts of Turtle Boy the way I pack my suitcase before a two-week vacation. I wanted to pack everything. I had to face reality—I could not bring my entire sweater collection. The result is a narrower scope into Jewish life, but each one which is wildly idiosyncratic. For example, the Mourner’s Kaddish plays a major role in my book, but Will Levine twists it and adapts it for his own rhythmic purposes and turns it into a deeply personal, custom made prayer, tethering the past to his own present life. From this came the insight that making a single tradition into a personal experience builds the next link of the chain of tradition. To quote Goethe. of all people: What you have as heritage, Take now at task; For thus you will make it your own. Jewish Kidlit can play a critical role in helping young people to take their heritage as task, making it their own. In this way, we are preparing the next generation to grow up with their tradition in their hearts and their hands.
Feder: As I worked on my book, I felt really grateful for the way Jewish tradition eased the pain of losing my mom. The commotion and chaos of the shiva (along with all the delicious food) were a total balm to my raw emotional state. Since I’ve grown up in this bustling Jewish family, it’s what I’m used to, and it can be easy to forget that Jewish mourning traditions are not “standard” in this country. It was interesting to hear from readers of other backgrounds who experienced a similar loss but through a more dour, hands-off mourning tradition. It made me feel extra lucky to have had such a warm environment in which to process my grief.
Yolen: Each one is a different research problem. For Miriam at the River, which was an honor book this year in the picture book category, I had already done the book Meet Me at the Well with Barbara Diamond Goldin that was about four years of research and writing. So I already had made a pretty thorough study of Miriam, not only rereading the story, but reading Jewish feminist Biblical scholars, midrashim, etc. But telling the story in a picture book, in a lyrical way brought up other problems—such as: what creatures would have been in the river in those days, not something that I needed to know for the Meet Me at the Well book.
Khoa Le: Before working on illustrating Miriam at the River, I don’t have much knowledge about Jewish culture or religion, I have to admit. However to express my art the best way for the story, I started to google and read a lot of contents about Jew and Judaism, the stories, the legend, the cultures… It’s like a whole new world opened before my eyes and I learn so much from just being an illustrator for this picture book.
Blankman: While I was drafting The Blackbird Girls, my family received devastating news: my husband had stage III cancer. For a few weeks, we were in shock. My husband was only in his thirties and had always been healthy. As I took care of him and our then-nine-year-old daughter, and worked full-time as a school librarian and wrote this book, I often felt overwhelmed. Never, though, did I feel hopeless.
My Jewish faith was like a rock, offering me a solid place to stand. It comforted me when I felt scared, and it strengthened me when I felt weak. And it flowed into my writing. In some ways, the emotional and religious journey of my Jewish main characters, Valentina and Rifka, was my own.
Pasternack: In Kiev, Anya spends Shabbat with a family of Sephardim. This family fled Spain several generations earlier during a Jewish expulsion, and the friend Anya makes there, Misha, has a completely different experience with Judaism than Anya does. So I had to do a lot of research about what Misha’s experiences would have been, and how they would have been different from Anya’s!
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Newman: It means so much to me to have my work recognized in this way. When I received the award in 2016 as well as the Sydney Taylor Body-of Work Award last year, I felt that this type of recognition is something to live up to, a call to action as it were, to create more children’s books with Jewish characters and Jewish themes. It is my self-appointed task to fulfill my obligation of tikkun olam. What I try to do to repair the world is create books that help children feel safe and that they have a place at the table (literally—at the seder table—and figuratively!)
Gal: When I first read Leslèa’s manuscript I felt that it was something special. The story spoke to me and I put my heart and passion into illustrating Elijah. I’m very grateful to be recognized by the Sydney Taylor Award Committee and to receive such a marvelous honor. It’s my belief that we all stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. I share this award with my loved ones and honor all the support my family has given me throughout my career.
Yolen: It began with an intake of breath, then a dance while I was on the phone. But mostly it meant that I got to know the book was considered important enough to win the award. And besides, one of my best writing buddies (we have been in the same writing group for almost 40 years!) won the gold—Lesléa Newman! So it felt like family day!
Le: I am very grateful to you for considering Miriam at the River 2021 Sydney Taylor Honor Book. The fact that my contribution to the book (alongside the amazing manuscript by Jane Yolen) has been recognized instills confidence in me to keep working to the best of my abilities to create more beautiful books.
Copeland: This is my first children’s book (I previously edited a book on the integration of LGBTQI people into American religious life) and writing children’s literature has been a passion of mine. To be recognized among some of my most favorite works is a tremendous thrill. As Good as Anybody, on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Joshua Heschel’s friendship, helped me navigate important discussions with my kids about racism and antisemitism they still remember years later. I have shared The Castle on Hester Street countless times in my work as a rabbi, reflecting on the centrality of storytelling in Jewish life and the power of the storyteller to choose how and what we remember. Gathering Sparks has been such an inspiration to me, inviting children to contemplate a complex spiritual, mystical idea. I am moved to think of a child who is Jewish or has never met a Jew, picking up my book in a library and learning that Jewish tradition contains this profound idea that our Torah is called a Tree of Life, and that humans are likened to that same image of a tree. We are not passive observers of our tradition, but rather, we step into our stories as active participants.
Blankman: When I was in elementary school, I wrote and illustrated dozens of short stories. I always drew award stickers on the covers! I didn’t know what the stickers symbolized, but I’d seen them on some of my favorite books so I decided to make my own. To have a real award sticker on the cover of my book feels incredibly special. To have the sticker be the Sydney Taylor Honor feels amazing. This recognition means that The Blackbird Girls resonates with its readers and reviewers—and that I did well by Valentina and Rifka, my Jewish main characters. I’m so grateful.
Pasternack: I wrote in my personal blog that the STBA Honor means a lot to me because I wasn’t raised Jewish. My family’s history with Judaism is complicated, and I didn’t have more than a vague idea about where we came from until I was an adult. There are a lot of facets of Jewish life that I just don’t understand, because I missed having any kind of formal Jewish education. I’ve been trying to make up for it as an adult! And I put all those things I learn and love into my books. So the STBA says to me that, even though I still feel ignorant or like an outsider sometimes, I belong here.
Hesse: They Went Left is set in the immediate aftermath of WWII, and follows a concentration camp survivor named Zofia as she searches for her younger brother, the only other member of her family to survive Auschwitz. Writing a book like this, about a time period that is so profound, I felt an immense duty to get it right. To get it right for readers, and more importantly, to get it right for survivors, for their descendants, and for history. I spent hundreds of hours drawing on my journalistic training to do every kind of research: listening to oral histories, combing through ledgers, examining postwar railway timetables, repeatedly visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, tracing routes on Google maps through cities in Poland and Germany, and reading dozens of books about the Jewish experience in postwar Europe. Receiving a Sydney Taylor Honor gives me hope that I got it right, and that I was able to do justice to these people living through this time.
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?
Newman: Yes! I get to have fancy gold stickers on the front cover of my book! Other than that, my plan is to continue doing what I do: which is every morning (or to be honest, most mornings) pick up my pen and notebook to play with words on the page and see what happens. My mentor, Allen Ginsberg, said that writing is 33 percent inspiration, 33 percent perspiration, and 33 percent respiration. I said, “Allen, that’s only 99 percent. What’s the missing 1 percent?” His eyes lit up. “Magic!” Every day I wait for the magic.
Gal: I hope that it will bring me additional opportunities to work with more authors that I admire. I am genuinely devoted to the hard work of making picture books. Receiving this award encourages me to keep striving to create the best work that I can and to continue to honor those stories that I am fortunate enough to illustrate.
Wolkenstein: Imposter syndrome is a real disease and it afflicts every artist I know, and I’m no exception. In the early phases of writing Turtle Boy, it felt so impossible —so daunting—only the deadlines imposed upon me by my editor, Beverly Horowitz at Delacorte, and my coach, Kristy Lin Billuni, kept me from deleting all the files and bludgeoning my laptop with the nearest rolling pin. Now that Turtle Boy is done, one might think imposter syndrome might relax a bit, but instead, it has morphed into a new variant—I’m an imposter author who got lucky once! Well, now, I have one small tool in my arsenal against this malady: the incredibly motivating and inspiring message from the Sydney Taylor award. I’m hearing that Turtle Boy is contributing to contemporary Jewish culture! What a feeling…and what a responsibility. And if the idea of letting my coach and editor down got me through book one, the fear of letting down contemporary Jewish civilization—well, that might be enough to get me through those awkward and painful early drafts!
Pasternack: Well I have a brand new roll of STBA stickers, so I’m very excited about that! I don’t think much will change for me, really. I’m going to keep writing books no matter what. I’d love to go to more writing conferences and speak about writing and how everyone should write magical Jewish fantasy, so maybe I can go do some more of that!
Yolen: I have won it before. But as I like to tell people, winning an award never gets old, even though I do.
Le: I don’t think anything will be much different. I still will try my best to work on any picture book that I have a chance to be an illustrator for. Any project will be a completely new story, new challenge, and new beginning for me, and I would learn so much from all of them. For me, being an illustrator is both a career and a chance to see the world through words and I value that highly. The Sydney Taylor Honor Book Award is a great recognition for me, and not only do I feel honoured but I also see it as a way for people to see me as a good illustrator. Hopefully that will get me to work with even more interesting projects in the future.
Hesse: In my heart? Yes. In my life? Sadly, my dog never cares about any of my awards, and neither does my laundry, or my deadlines, or the leaky showerhead I keep meaning to replace. Winning an award brings a little bit of brief validation, but I think most authors eventually revert to their natural state: “I haven’t written enough. What I have written is bad. I need to write more, and better. Help, where is the ice cream.”
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 and give space to honor these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.