Honor Book in Middle-Grade Category: Honey and Me by Meira Drazin (Scholastic, 2022, 304 pp.)
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Mazel tov on your award! I’m so delighted to get to know you better.
Meira Drazin (MD): Hi Barbara, thanks so much for having me on your blog and mazel tov to you on Ethel’s Song! I also need to tell you that many (many) years ago I discovered your blog and through that I discovered the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award, for which I applied and Honey and Me ended up winning, setting me off on my journey to publication and now this award. I am so grateful to you and The Whole Megillah.
TWM: Thanks so much! What inspired you to write this novel? (I know it’s in your author’s note, but tell us anyway.)
MD: When I was growing up, the closest I came to seeing something vaguely familiar to my observant Jewish home was in the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, which takes place in the early 1900s, and as I got older, in the adult novels of Chaim Potok, set pre– and post–World War II. But mostly, the only religious Jews I saw were in the Holocaust books I read somewhat obsessively. Although all four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, thankfully my life in 1980s Toronto could not have been more different. I strongly support the need for children’s Holocaust literature: for me these books were a key to understanding what my grandparents had gone through but never spoke about, and today’s children, even Jewish ones, no longer have the immediacy of near history never mind the opportunity to know a survivor. At the same time, looking back, I see how hard it was to read over and over again about our people being victimized. Even today, the vast majority of mainstream books featuring religious Jews still show them in the past, or as victims of persecution. And if set in present day, the narratives often focus on conflict—either Jewish people wrestling with their religion and community, or struggling against a dominant culture or religion.
When I first started writing stories for children, the psychological impact of not seeing myself reflected back in literature became apparent. I copied the way other authors wrote: I sent my characters to regular public schools, not a Jewish day school; I had them dress up for Halloween, not Purim. Basically, I believed the world I knew best wasn’t legitimate enough to write about. It wasn’t until I began to read my eldest child some of my own childhood favorites—Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family—as well as some new ones I was just discovering, like The Penderwicks, that I felt a shift inside me. I wondered if I could do what these writers all do so beautifully—show the importance and magnitude of small dramas in everyday life—but with contemporary Jewish characters. I wanted to write a book about Modern Orthodox characters who have close friendships, difficult mother-daughter relationships, and influential teachers. I wanted them to encounter situations that are funny as well as sad. Mostly, I just really wanted to write a book about observant Jews whose experience of their Judaism is on the balance joyful, and not in conflict with anything. That was when I began to write Honey and Me.
TWM: What were your greatest challenges? Satisfactions?
MD: My greatest challenge was taking a book that started out more like a short story cycle with a loose narrative arc, where each chapter was another episode in Milla and Honey’s friendship, into a novel that had a through-line as well as forward motion. Because this isn’t a big “Issue” book and the plot revolves around the dramas of everyday life, there was a danger in it being seen as too “quiet.” (Which I first thought was a compliment when agents told me, and then realised they didn’t mean it that way!) A great satisfaction has been hearing from kids that when they started it they couldn’t put it down and that they’ve read it in one or two sittings. Another satisfaction, or maybe a better description would be unexpected delight, has been also hearing from adults (including many men) from the Modern Orthodox community who have read it and felt a thrill at seeing their childhood and/or current way of life as a setting in a novel. I think many people never thought about never having seen that before, until seeing it for the first time. But the greatest satisfaction is hearing from readers of any age, gender, religion, nationality etc about how much they relate to Milla and Honey and connect to their story. I find it so satisfying and truly amazing as well that this very specific book about two Modern Orthodox eleven-year-old girls has reached the hearts of so many people both like them and not like them at all.
TWM:Please describe your writing process. When did you first get the idea for this book? What was your revision process? What’s your daily process?
MD: I love to read writing craft books and to take classes, and my personal style is more pantser than planner. I focus a lot on a story’s voice, aesthetic and atmosphere. But I find that I can only do that, and discover who my characters are and what they sound like, by writing. I do tend to know the rough ending—for example in Honey and Me I knew by a few chapters in that Milla would have an emotional journey and that this would involve how she thought of herself in comparison to Honey, and also how the relationship between Milla and her mom developed. Once I have the idea of the characters I’ll make a list of things that could happen to them, like episodes. I find outlining hard but often about a third of the way through I’ll do a basic outline to have a sense of where those episodes might fall in the overall arc of the story. That being said, once Honey and Me sold to Scholastic I had to give my editors a very detailed outline. It was torture but also invaluable and we used it to see how each episode and incident furthered Milla’s story and emotional development.
TWM: How did you and Scholastic find each other?
MD: Scholastic and I found each other the old-fashioned traditional way, which is that my wonderful agent Molly Ker Hawn submitted it to my wonderful editor Tracy Mack. I also found my agent the old-fashioned way—cold querying. Pre-published authors, take heart: I tried three rounds of querying for two different books over three years and it was the second time I was trying with Molly.
TWM: Years ago, someone at a retreat told me I’d be more successful as a writer if I didn’t write “Jewish.” You’ve obviously proved that person wrong. What does it mean to you to write “Jewish?”
MD: That’s very disheartening to hear, but to be honest I think that even without me being told those words themselves I had internalized them all the same for many years. (see above!) At the same time, I think I was lucky that when I wrote the first draft of Honey and Me I was a serious newbie to children’s book writing and didn’t really know anything about the industry and what did or didn’t sell. I had signed up for a YA novel writing class and when I got to the first class I found out that the majority of the students had already written their novels and were there to workshop them. I had signed up in order to learn how to write my novel, (ie it was currently non-existent,) so I totally freaked out and almost quit the class after the first session. But then later that night I had this idea of two girls, best friends, on a bus. I knew that they were truly supportive of each other. I knew that one was sporty, sparky and didn’t worry about anything, but that she was from a big family and that could sometimes be a burden for her. And I knew that the other was quieter, more introspective and self-conscious and came from a smaller family. The next day I started writing a story about them, from the POV of the quieter one, Milla, going to Honey’s house for Friday night Shabbat dinner. I loved describing the Wines’ house and I could see exactly what kind of family they were: the warmth and the chaos.
Deciding to make it a Modern Orthodox setting and writing a fictional story about a world that was familiar to me had the effect of opening a floodgate! You could submit up to 15 pages for critique every week so I basically wrote a chapter every week. I could tell from the initial feedback from both the teacher and other students, most of whom were not Jewish, that they saw the Orthodox setting as world building the way you might in a fantasy or sci fi and that made a lot of sense to me. I think it can be hard to find the balance between explaining a world unfamiliar to people and keeping the ball rolling from a plot and character-development perspective, and that as long as I kept that in mind, what world I was describing didn’t matter as long as I made it interesting, fully developed and baked into the plot and characters as opposed to slapped on.
TWM: What does the Sydney Taylor Honor Book mean to you?
MD: It’s hard to overstate how much being honored with an Honor in the middle grade category of the Sydney Taylor Book Award means to me.
There are so many personal connections and threads:
First of all, the All-of-a-Kind Family stories were quite literally the inspiration for me writing Honey and Me, from the cozy aesthetic, to the sensitive and deep exploration of interpersonal relationships, to the way the characters’ Judaism is both integral and incidental. Several years ago when Honey and Me won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award— established by Sydney’s husband Ralph Taylor to encourage aspiring authors of Jewish children’s books—not only was it a wonderful moment of symmetry to be recognized for exactly the reason the award was set up, in memory of the author herself and her trailblazing work, but the award accomplished its aim—introducing me to a world of Jewish kidlit, giving me validation that my work had merit, and setting me off on my journey to publication. I have spent many years following the Sydney Taylor Book Award, learning from it that there was room in this world for lots of Jewish children’s literature, and dreaming of Honey and Me being recognized one day. So now that the published version of Honey and Me is being recognized by the actual prestigious book award itself is truly beyond my capacity for words.
With regard to your earlier point about “writing Jewish,” it’s incredible to see how many books recognized with awards by STBA this year have been published by mainstream presses (including two Gold winners for books about observant Jews—Chana Stiefel’s The Tower of Life by Scholastic Press and Mari Lowe’s Aviva vs the Dybbuk by Levine Querido), and in general the amount of excellence happening right now in Jewish children’s literature. Not to mention the robust community of librarians, publishers, agents, editors, reviewers and authors in its orbit. I want to give heaps of “hakarot hatov” (“recognizing the good”) for the STBA committee members and to the award itself for doing so much to further this.
TWM: Can you tell us what your next project is?
MD: I have a few projects at various stages of draft that I am excited to get back to work on, but at the same time Honey and Me was such a long journey that I am trying to be very in-the-moment with it right now, very present to all the excitement of it coming out and getting wonderful reviews, and working on publicizing it, visiting schools and presenting on panels and other events, and just trying to enjoy and feel grateful for this dream come true!
For more information about Meira Drazin, please visit her website.
For more information about the Sydney Taylor Book Awards Blog Tour, please click here.