Author’s Notebook | Richard Michelson, The Language of Angels

language-of-angelsThe Language of Angels: A Story about the Reinvention of Hebrew
Written by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Karla Gudeon
(Charlesbridge, 2017)

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What got you interested in writing about the invention of modern Hebrew? I see you include a dedication to Neil Waldman. Can you tell us about that?
Richard Michelson (RM): Let me answer the first two questions together since they are intertwined. When artist/illustrator/educator/mensch Neil Waldman and I were having lunch fifteen years ago while collaborating on Too Young for Yiddish (plug for my previous Charlesbridge book!), during the writing of which  I learned that the Yiddish language had evolved out of a mixture of Hebrew, Polish and  German and that Isaac Bashevis Singer proudly claimed that Yiddish was the only language without a word for “armaments,” I asked Neil his thoughts about whether a language without specific words for weapons would inhibit thoughts of violence. I don’t recall his answer but I do remember him casually mentioning the life story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his quest to invent words and make Hebrew the daily language of the Jews.  I was fascinated.

Imagine reviving Latin today and having everyone in Italy speaking it within two generations.  Hebrew had died out as a daily spoken language (aside from the prayers) during the time of the Maccabees. But Eliezer had this meshuggeneh idea that its rebirth could help unify the Jewish people. He had to make up words for everything that had happened in the past 200 years: ice cream, bicycles, and so on.  Imagine being Adam naming all the animals. And even more cockamamie, Eliezer wanted his son, Ben-Zion,  to be the first native Hebrew speaker in 2000 years, so he wouldn’t allow him to hear any language but Hebrew.  Which meant, of course, no friends. Ben-Zion wasn’t even allowed to hear the sounds animals make. His father would cover his ears when dogs barked or cows moooo-ed.   Child abuse for sure.  But how did it all end up? Read the book and find out.

Neil, who lived in Israel at one time, said: “I was going to write that story, but couldn’t find my way in. I now give you the idea as a gift.”  It took me fifteen years to find my way in. And so, the book is dedicated to Neil.

TWM: Thanks, that’s a great story. How do you decide what to write picture books about vs. some other form? Where do your ideas come from?
RM: I just think in the picture book form.  I am enamored of  the picture book, which combines my two greatest loves—art and poetry. When done well, it is a perfect marriage. I also write poetry geared toward teens and adults, and even the first drafts of my prose books are written in poetic form.  The language is always paramount, and that helps me get the rhythms down.  Later I will add the connecting tissue.

TWM: How much time do you devote to your writing? Do you write everyday? Who are your first readers?
RM: I wish I wrote every day, but I spend way too much time running my gallery, and checking Facebook, and walking the dog.  Then, as a function of age, I have to get in some stretching and exercising daily. Then dinners out with my wife, and I also like to sleep late.  And I accept too many speaking gigs and I answer too many questionnaires when I should be writing my books. These days we all seem to have full-time PR careers, and part-time creative jobs.  But in the end, I think a varied life is as important as spending all day writing.  The few times I’ve tried that I found I didn’t necessarily get more done in any case.

As to first readers, I don’t share much until I know the work is complete.  If I talk about it, I lose it. And I tend to know when something works, even though I often try to fool myself into thinking I am done, when deep down I know I am not. Then I will share with my wife and my editors.  And I learn that I still am not finished.

As-Good-as-AnybodyTWM: Who inspires you? 
RM: I am inspired by people who get down in the trenches to make the world a better place. Tikkun-Olam. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, I was in my study writing about it, while my wife went down to help poor families sheetrock and clean up.  (Bad on me.)  I am inspired by people I write about like Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel (As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom), both of whom who put their lives on the line, and fought the good fight even when they were shunned by their peers. Heschel famously said: Words must be followed by deeds,”  and when he was out marching he felt “like my legs are praying.’  This is advice we especially must adhere to in these difficult political times.  I am inspired by people who break barriers, reach for the stars and still remember where they came from, people like Leonard Nimoy (Fascinating), Lipman Pike (Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King), and William Powell (Twice as Good).

TWM: For this book, did it have to be vetted by an expert? Will you be speaking in Hebrew when you do author visits?
RM: By many. For one thing, I don’t actually speak Hebrew (what! How can that be? Nor do I speak Yiddish which made for an interesting book tour for Too Young for Yiddish.) The book was vetted by Rabbi Eliezer ben Yehuda, grandson of the man I wrote about, and a scholar of the Hebrew language himself.  We also had invaluable help from the PJ Library experts (PJ Library—all readers of this blog should know of them—check out their website if you don’t as it is a wonderful organization).  And luckily my friend and collaborator, the amazing artist Karla Gudeon speaks Hebrew  and promises to help we with pronunciatioToo-Young-for-Yiddishn before our book tour, so I don’t embarrass myself too badly.

TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring picture book authors?
RM: I gave my advice when you were kind enough to have me on your blog last fall, and I have learned nothing since then—so may I repeat: Read, read, read—and see what the best of your elders and contemporaries are doing. And more importantly, sit down and write. I mean right now. Still here? We all have a million reasons why we don’t have time “right now.” Since this is the last question and you are done with the interview, instead of scrolling back to Facebook, and checking your email: WRITE!!!

About Richard Michelson

Rich MichelsonRichard Michelson’s many books for children, teens and adults have been listed among the Ten Best of the Year by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and The New Yorker; and among the best Dozen of the Decade by Amazon.com. He has been a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award (3X), the National Jewish Book Award (3X), the Harlem Book Fest Wheatley Award, and he is the only author ever awarded both the Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medals in a single year from the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Richard Michelson-Personal Site
www.RichardMichelson.com

R.Michelson Galleries-Gallery Site
www.RMichelson.com

Posted in Authors | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Announcing Lilith Magazine’s 2017 Fiction Contest

From Lilith Magazine:

Lilith Magazine—independent, Jewish and frankly feminist—invites submissions of quality short fiction, 3,000 words or under, for our Annual Fiction Contest.  When selecting what you’ll submit, please remember our tagline.  The magazine proudly spotlights both emerging and established writers. Winner receives $250 + publication. Deadline:  9/30/17

Put “Fiction Contest Submission” as subject line and send to info@Lilith.org

Posted in Contests | Tagged , | Leave a comment

In the Spirit of Poetry Has Value | February 2017 Report

Not much activity to report for February.

Poetry: 1 submission (Salamander), 0 acceptances, and 3 rejections to report (Baltimore Review, Stillwater Review, Wherewithal). My Tiferet poem, “Chicken Fat,” was published this month. Also, my poetry chapbook manuscript was accepted by a publisher. More on that after I sign the contract. If you’d like to receive a promotional postcard, please send your postal mailing address to me at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net.

January 27 marked the debut of the Poetry Workshop at the Kearny (NJ) Public Library with co-host library director and poet Josh Humphrey. A wonderful community is forming and sharing its diverse voices through poetry to help commemorate the town’s 150th anniversary. We meet the last Friday of every month at 6 pm for an hour of prompt-based writing followed by open mic.

Creative Nonfiction: 0 submissions, 1 acceptance (Whale Road Review), 0 rejections. I have been writing a lot in this genre lately, and will shortly have three or four essays to send out into the world.

Fiction: No activity, although I’ve written a new flash fiction piece and am writing a new short story based in Prague.

Academic: No activity, although I am presenting at the Northeast MLA in Baltimore in March.

Question 4U: What conferences do you attend and why?

Posted in In the Spirit of Poetry Has Value, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Author’s Notebook | Linda Leopold-Strauss, A Different Kind of Passover

Linda Leopold-Strauss Photo Credit: Keepsake Photographers

A Different Kind of Passover
Written by Linda Leopold-Strauss and illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau (Kar-Ben, 2017)

The Whole Megillah (TWM):  What inspired you to write A Different Kind of Passover?
Linda Leopold-Strauss (LLS): When I was a child, Passover was one of my favorite times of the year—my family would drive from Philadelphia, where we lived, to New Haven, Connecticut to spend the holiday with my grandparents and aunt and uncle and cousins.  I remember vividly practicing the Four Questions in the car, reciting them over and over.  I remember running up the stairs to my grandparents’ second-floor flat, sleeping on the floor in the living room with my cousins, the bowl of nuts and the nutcracker that were always on the coffee table, washing the two sets of Passover dishes and worrying that I might mix up the meat dishes with the milk dishes, celebrating the end of the holiday with sundaes at Clark’s Dairy.  In addition to the formal rituals, these were the traditions that defined the holiday for me—always the same, despite the words about Passover night’s being different from all over nights.  And then one year my grandfather had a heart attack and absolutely refused to stay in the hospital and eat chometz, so they let him go home after he promised to stay in bed; at that time, heart attack patients had to stay in bed for something like six weeks.  So something about the holiday traditions had to change.  That set up the conflict in the story—“the same” v. “different.”  The way the story played out in A Different Kind of Passover is fiction, but the inspiration for the story is in that piece of my family history.

a-different-kind-of-passover-cover-2TWM: How do you get your ideas for picture books?
LLS: The idea for A Different Kind of Passover, as noted above, came from my family history.  The idea for The Princess Gown (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) came from my husband’s family history—his great-great grandfather in England, Victor Abraham, was Embroiderer to the Queen, and the story that was passed down was that each of the many children in Joseph Abraham’s family put a stitch in Queen Victoria’s wedding gown.  The actual story, as I pursued it, seemed to be that Joseph Abraham embroidered the covering for the throne Queen Victoria sat on for her coronation, and each of the children put a stitch in that, but I went with the wedding gown version for my story.

elijah doorThe idea for The Elijah Door (Holiday House, 2012) was a visual:  I was taking a walk and a break from preparing for Passover one year, wondering where we were going to put the guests, thinking about how many families had even larger seders and therefore larger logistical problems, when I saw two houses side by side up on a hill.  What if the owners just opened the doors and let the seder spill out? I wondered.  And what if the two side-by-side seders met in the middle?  I’m not sure why I decided to set this story in an Eastern European shtetl—it just came out that way.  (As stories sometimes do!)

And one more: The idea for Preschool Day Hooray! (Scholastic/Cartwheel, 2010) came from the label on a bottle of barbecue sauce!  Sticky Fingers barbecue sauce!  I loved the sound of that; thought children would, too.  So one day while I was walking (my favorite time for inspiration), I started playing with sounds:  prickly rose, licky lolly, clucky hen, lucky clover.  After I’d assembled a bunch of these phrases, I realized I could pick and choose and create a kind of poem that was “a day in the life of” a small child.  And then my editor at Scholastic asked me to pare it down to a school day, which I did.

TWM: You’ve been writing for children for more than 40 years. What changes have you seen?
LLS: The change that perhaps has affected me most is the demand for manuscripts that are shorter and shorter.  Picture story books, which are what I started out writing (and which I still love to write, and read), are increasingly harder to sell.  I’ve been very lucky to get a few under the wire, but they seem to be a dying form.  Also, I think the fact that library and school budgets have been drastically cut has put the bookstore consumer more in the driver’s seat in terms of marketability of manuscripts.  And finally, with cutbacks in staff, many fewer publishing houses are accepting submissions from non-agented authors.  The number of houses to which an author without an agent can submit is significantly smaller than when I started writing.

TWM: Do you have an agent? Tell us about how you found one and how the process works for you.
LLS: I do not have an agent.  I did for a year—long ago.  My agent was a former editor, and she worked with me on revising A Fairy Called Hilary to her specifications, but the manuscript that resulted didn’t sell.  Ultimately I sent her the original manuscript again and at her suggestion, submitted it to Cricket magazine for possible serialization.  Cricket accepted it, and after the first episode appeared, Holiday House contacted me about publishing it as a book.  As originally written.  At that point, my agent and I amicably parted ways, and I’ve been submitting on my own ever since.

TWM: What is your advice for aspiring picture book authors?
LLS: First of all, read, read, read.  Read what’s being written and published today: Today’s books are probably shorter, snappier, possibly edgier, more “modern” than that books you read as a child.  Also read about how to write a picture book—there are lots of books out there with good advice.  Format matters:  how a picture book is structured, 32 pages, focus on page turns, memorable character and story arc needed, etc.  A picture book is not just an illustrated story.  Unless you are an illustrator yourself, you will be leaving choice of illustrators up to an editor who buys your manuscript, but you need to leave room in your manuscript for illustrations.  Polish your manuscript till you are certain it’s the best you can offer before you send it out.  Join or form a writers’ group to get some outside opinions on your work.  Go to writers’ conferences; nowadays, editors who speak at such conferences often invite attendees to send them work, though otherwise the house may be closed to non-agented writers.  It’s a good way in. And most of all, be patient; be persistent; don’t give up!

For more about Linda Leopold-Strauss, please visit her website.

Posted in Authors | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Sponsored Your Jewish Literacy?

6161469290_8e7a32ab3d_oI’ve been reading Deborah Brandt’s “The Sponsors of Literacy,” and wonder now about my own sponsors of Jewish literacy. I think the library at my Hebrew school, Congregation B’nai Israel, in Kearny, New Jersey was responsible for my love of Jewish history. They had a book about Jewish women that must have had some impact, because when I saw it on a bookseller’s table a few years ago at the Center for Jewish History, I bought it. It was at this library I came to know and love Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family.

I don’t recall anyone recommending I read Elie Wiesel or Isaac Bashevis Singer, but I suppose my father was a sponsor since he would take us on Saturday night to Korvette’s in West Orange to the books and records department. I always wanted the Bobbsey Twins to be Jewish.

Please think about your own sponsors of Jewish literacy and comment below. Think about your parents, siblings, teachers, supervisors, friends. Think about home and school. Think about how your Jewish literacy may have changed over the years. To help you, here are some questions:

  1. What was the first Jewish book you remember reading? Did anyone suggest it or read it to you? Where did this experience take place?
  2. What Jewish book or author holds the most meaning for you? Why?
  3. What places do you associate with your own Jewish literacy?
  4. Who were your sponsors, who introduced you to Jewish writing and reading? At what stages of your life did this take place.
  5. Do you know Hebrew or Yiddish? How and where did you learn? Do you use these languages today? How?

To read Brandt’s article, click here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

PJ Our Way: An Interview with Director Catriella Freedman

pjow-urban-91-2The Whole Megillah (TWM): What is PJ Our Way? What is its mission?
Catriella Freedman (CF): PJ Our Way is the next chapter of our free Jewish children’s book program, PJ Library, for kids ages 9-11. It’s designed to meet the developmental needs of older kids by letting them choose their own books each month, and by creating a platform to express themselves by encouraging them to post book reviews, ratings, and blog comments on the PJ Our Way website.

Its mission is to engage independent readers with high-quality books that have positive Jewish content. With PJ Our Way chapter books and graphic novels, kids can read about contemporary Jewish life, Israeli history, Jewish history, and Jewish ideas in a way that brings them into the larger conversation. Here are the books we’ve offered in the program so far.

TWM: How and why did it come about?
CF: PJ Library is such a wonderful and effective book program that engages the whole family in Jewish life. Many of our families and community partners felt that this positive experience shouldn’t end at age 8. So Harold Grinspoon (the founder and major funder of PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation) saw an opportunity to continue to reach and engage families with great books by expanding PJ Library through age 11.

As a result of his vision, PJ Our Way started as a pilot program in 10 communities in October 2014. In October 2016, the program became available nationally to all eligible kids. Now kids can sign up starting at age eight-and-a-half, and there are almost 20,000 kids around the country enjoying the program!

PJ Our Way Director Catriella Friedman

PJ Our Way Director
Catriella Freedman

TWM: How is the distribution of books different from books for younger readers?
CF: Unlike PJ Library where a specific book arrives automatically each month, kids in PJ Our Way get to choose their monthly books via our website, www.pjourway.org. Everything in the program is designed with the idea of putting kids in the driver’s seat—they need to be active in order to be engaged. Knowing that we can’t predict exactly how many kids will choose a specific book, we print many of our titles on demand (POD) once the orders have been received.

TWM: What kinds of books are you looking for?
CF: Page turners! Since PJ Our Way subscribers choose their books each month, the subject doesn’t matter as much as the pace and having stories and plots that kids can relate to, whether historical fiction or contemporary. Currently we are looking for more books with boy protagonists, written for a younger audience (ages 8-10). Great books for this age seem to be in short supply, and our book selection rates show that boys tend to choose books with male characters while girls tend to be more flexible in their book selections.

We get a lot of submissions with Holocaust themes, and for this age group we don’t consider books set in the camps or ghettoes; our Holocaust content needs to have a hopeful message.

TWM: How are you integrating kids’ feedback?
 CF: In all ways! After going through our book selection process, every book we offer in PJ Our Way is first vetted by kid reviewers from all over the country. We take their feedback very seriously. They will often raise an issue with a book that we may have overlooked, and we will raise those issues with the publishers and change actual text when possible. When we were considering the manuscript of The Six Day Hero by Tammar Stein, we ran it through a group of six tweens who shared important feedback with Tammar; she took their comments very seriously and made changes to the plot accordingly. It since has become a Junior Library Guild selection, and we are excited to be offering it as a PJ Our Way selection in May 2017. When deciding whether to offer a book a second or third time, we carefully review the kid feedback and ratings on the website for that book.

TWM: Are you accepting manuscripts? If so, how can writers submit?
CF: Yes! And we have great news! We are currently offering a $2,000 author incentive award for accepted manuscripts in addition to any payments made by a publisher. Potential authors can read our submission guidelines and send manuscripts to submissions@pjourway.org. The author incentive opportunity is available through December 2018.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour | Final Stop

You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2017 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 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.

The wrap-up and virtual roundtable

Imagine, if you will, available award winners seated at a dais table with mics, poised to answer questions from the press. We have nine participants:

Sydney Taylor Gold Medalists

  • For Younger Readers—Author Debbie Levy and illustrator Elizabeth Baddeley for I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
  • For Older Readers—Author Adam Gidwitz and illustrator Hatem Aly for The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
  • For Teen Readers—Gavriel Savit for Anna and the Swallow Man

Sydney Taylor Silver Medalists

  • For Younger Readers

The seating’s a little crowded, but we’ve saved room just for you. The energy’s high, although we know this will be a somewhat long discussion—there’s so much to talk about!

We begin…

savit_gavriel_708_ret-hi-res-2

Gavriel Savit

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?
Gavriel Savit (GS): Bear with me on this one—I’m working on a theory that Harry Potter is some of the best Jewish kids’ lit ever written. Not, of course, because Harry Potter himself is Jewish (though Daniel Radcliffe is!), but he does represent a certain type of dual-identitied childhood that so many of us experience throughout our young Jewish lives. Do I say this bracha before eating lunch with my non-Jewish friends? Do I have to keep my magic secret in front of my muggle friends?

Richard Michelson and Leonard Nimoy at Nimoy's 80th birthday party. Photo: Sylvia Mautner Photography

Richard Michelson and Leonard Nimoy at Nimoy’s 80th birthday party. Photo: Sylvia Mautner Photography

Richard Michelson (RM): I think the yearly AJL recommendations are always worth the read, and I keep up as well with the latest offerings by my friends and Western MA neighbors—Jane Yolen, Lesléa Newman, Barbara Goldin Diamond, and Mordicai Gerstein. That alone can keep you busy reading all year.

Michelle Edwards (ME): For great Jewish children’s literature, I propose great stories. Great stories that make a reader feel joyful, empowered, thoughtful, generous, peaceful, civil, entertained, spiritual, and valued. Great stories, and whenever possible, have them paired with great illustrations. Great stories and great illustrations, then crafted into a whole object, that is the both the sum of its parts, and more than that, a third wonder, a book.

Joel ben Izzy (JBI): As a storyteller, I love re-reading books that delve into the rich world of Jewish Folklore.   Looking toward’s classics, I recommend picking up a copy of Zlateh the Goat by IB Singer, with fantastic illustrations by Maurice Sendak.  I write about the book in Dreidels on the Brain, as it was my earliest inspiration to become a storyteller.  Just check out this picture of “The First Schlemiel.”

As for modern collectors and writers of Jewish Folktales, none can compare to Howard Schwartz, past winner of the Sydney Taylor book award.  Both his story collections and picture books are wonderful.

TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
GS: I do my best to ignore trends, so I’m going for a long shot: Beis Hillel Werewolves vs. Beis Shamai Vampires Paranormal Romance.

Michelle Edwards

Michelle Edwards

ME: I think we will have more picture book biographies of major and minor Jewish figures, like Debbie Levy’s marvelous, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark , this year’s Sydney Taylor Award winner. I predict there will more books—picture books, middle grade, and young adult–that emerge from the multicultural parts of the Jewish community like Paula J. Freedman’s My Basmati Bar Mitzvah. I think we will continue to have books that explore Jewish history, our immigrant past, the State of Israel, and the Shoah. These new books will peer into corners of those experiences where we have not been before, like Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man, or Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Joel ben Izzy Photo: Ahri Golden

Joel ben Izzy
Photo: Ahri Golden

JBI: I think that recent catastrophic political events will have a marked influence on Jewish kids lit.  Storytellers in general—and Jewish storytellers in particular – have long taken a stand against the forces of ignorance and arrogance. With political leadership in direct opposition to the most important Jewish values—”welcome the stranger,” “act with humility,” “treat all people with dignity,” and “be a mensch,” to name a few—I’ll expect Jewish writers for kids and adults to stand up for these values, on behalf of Jews and non-Jews alike.

TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
GS: I’m just going to keep on writing stories that speak to me and hope they speak to other people as well. I’ve got several irons in the fire—drafts of novels, a huge epic play about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and even a developing idea for a television show…

RM: The next step is my book The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew, which will soon be featured on the wonderful The Whole Megillah blog!!!  I am also finishing the follow-up collection to More Money than God, my last poetry collection for adults; the core of the new collection is a series of poems reinterpreting the Haggadah. 

ME: I am about to begin a revision of a middle grade novel I started several years ago. I am still intrigued with the story’s possibilities. I can’t wait to dig in. I will fiddle with my inventory of stories, stirring the pot.  I will take a step most days towards creating something I call #studioscrawls, which I post on Instagram and Facebook. It’s my personal idea lab.

JBI: I go back and forth between telling stories and writing, so I’ll be looking forward to performing more.  I have some ideas floating around for books as well, though I’m still deciding which ones are ready to put in writing. 

Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (SJ/LF): It’s not flashy!  We hope to continue to create artwork for stories written by and about people of all races, ethnicities, social class and experience.  We hope to continue to grow and learn and challenge ourselves as artists.

TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?

G. Brian Karas

G. Brian Karas

Brian Karas (BK): My Jewish in-laws of 20+ years made me “Honorary Jew” despite my non-Jewish background (a joke of course). I learned a lot about Jewish life in that time, so I had a head start on insights when working on A Hat for Mrs. Goldman. For me though, the book isn’t so much about Jewish life as it is about the spirit of mitzvahs. I love that Mrs. Goldman lives by that notion. And what better way to share your love than to knit someone a hat or scarf to keep you warm?

 

 

 

JBI: When I decided it was finally time to share a story I had heard at age 12, and treasured since then, I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it now. Over time—and a lot of writing and rewriting—I think I’ve come to see why I told this story:  It’s about finding light in the darkness.

And I think that’s my realization—all our stories are about that same thing: finding light in the darkness. It’s as though we’re somehow writing footnotes to that legend of the shards and the sparks, sifting through to find those that will catch on. And while it’s always important, it’s especially important now. 

Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis Pinkney (ADP): I’d often heard that many Jews changed their names as a means of assimilation, but when I researched the life and times of children’s book creator Ezra Jack Keats, I truly saw discrimination’s impact.  Ezra was born the son of struggling  Polish immigrants. His birth name was Jacob Jack Ezra Katz. He was proud of this name. When Jacob returned to Brooklyn after serving in World War II, he could not find a job. There were signs in windows saying “Jews Need Not Apply.” When Ezra changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats, he no longer faced job prejudice, and was able to find work as a comic book artist. While employment was a good thing, the very notion that Ezra was forced to hide his heritage to be able to support himself, is very upsetting. Ezra had experienced what it meant to marginalized. This was one of the reasons he so successfully incorporated people from all races and backgrounds into his books, and it’s why those books continue to stand the test of time, and are still beloved today.    

SJ/LF: We already knew a great deal about historic and contemporary Jewish life, so we didn’t learn a ton of new insights.  Primarily, we focused on authenticity in our art and honoring the legacy of Ezra Keats.

TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Adam Gidwitz (AG): When I was a kid, we used to sit around the dinner table and play what I now refer to as the “Jewish” Game. The game would start unexpectedly, usually when I was telling my parents about some fascinating figure from history that I learned about in school. “Guys, I read something amazing today by Sigmund Freud.” At which point my mom would interrupt: “Jewish,” she would say. And then I was free to continue. Or sometimes I would be asking a question: “Did Ralph Lauren invent the polo shirt? Is he even a real person?” “A real person? Yes, he is, and his real name is Ralph Lifschitz. Jewish.” I suppose, to an outsider, this game might have been marginally offensive. It wasn’t that Jews were the only smart ones. (“Darwin?” I’d ask, hopefully. My mother would just shake her head like we, as a tribe, had missed an opportunity.) The point of the “Jewish Game,” I think, was that my parents wanted me to see myself reflected among the most educated, the hardest working, and, yes, the smartest. But the hidden message of the  “Jewish Game”, the one that was never stated, and was never forgotten, was that there were some Jews worth talking about over dinner.

My mother wanted me, of course, to be someone worth talking about over dinner. She figured that law school was the surest path for me to get there. When I quit full-time teaching, at the age of 25, to pursue a career in writing books for children, she was hopeful that this little interlude would give me a chance to fill out law school applications. When my first book got published, she was slightly perturbed, concerned that this would delay the start of my law career. And when my book first hit the Bestseller list, she took me aside, very somberly, and said, “Does this mean you’re not applying to law school?”

What does the Sydney Taylor award mean to me? It means that maybe, in some household somewhere in America, and child will say to her parents, “I’m reading an amazing book called The Inquisitor’s Tale! It’s by this guy, Adam Gidwitz.” And her parents will nod and sagely say, “Jewish.” Also, now, maybe, my mother will finally put the whole law school thing to rest.

GS: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place on the planet then a well-stocked library. To see my work accepted and celebrated by such a redoubtable organization of Jewish libraries, no less, is, in a certain way, like the best kind of homecoming.

FASCINATING_w final art (2)RM: I have been privileged to have been awarded both the Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medals previously and it is always an honor. I try to stay abreast of what is being published in the Jewish children’s book marketplace, but every year I discover gems I’ve missed, so I take the committee’s recommendations seriously, and consider myself fortunate when one of my books is singled out. We writers publish to find a readership, and those AJL stickers on the books certainly help. That said, awards are a nice temporary sugar high, but they do not change anything essential when you are facing the next white piece of paper or blank computer screen– you are back to struggling with yourself; and finding the perfect word is just as difficult each and every time regardless of prior recognition. I can promise all aspiring writers out there, that a Sydney Taylor Medal does not mean your next book will automatically be snapped up by a publisher (and if you are hoping for untold riches, you are plowing the wrong field). One can only get back to work on the next manuscript—and make it the very best you possibly can– so that you don’t let down all those the wonderful and dedicated AJL librarians. 

hat-for-mrs-goldmanME: It means a lot to mean. Receiving the Sydney Taylor Honor feels like what I imagine it might feel like to be in command of a tiny boat struggling to the shore, and to be surprised by a bright hopeful and helpful beam from a far away lighthouse.  The Honor Award is an affirmation of both my story and Brian’s soulful illustrations, and it is a wonderful feeling to hold onto that positive light as I head into my studio.

BK: It’s meaningful to me in that it recognizes books that authentically portray the Jewish experience. As an artist, authenticity is something I strive for. It’s impossible that I can ever truly know how someone else feels, but I can learn about them and their culture so that their experiences are relatable to mine. I know what happiness or sadness feels like, whatever the circumstances.

poemforpeter_jkt_final-3ADP: Sydney Taylor’s legacy is one that carries such sparkling beauty—such kid-friendly storytelling. So many threads that bring readers from a multifaceted tableau of  backgrounds and cultures together. It’s what every writer aspires to—the chance to unify, to inspire! And so, for this writer to have a book honored in Sydney Taylor’s name, is a true gift.

SJ/LF: If it results in more kids seeing this book, if it brings more children to write and tell their stories or to make art, if it spreads the word on a broader scale that literature matters now and forevermore, well, winning this award means that we’re part of a very, very cool, celebratory happening.

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?
ADP: Absolutely. Like the stories of African Americans whose heritage and culture are vital strands of history, so are the narratives of Jewish people. I hope to bring more of these stories into future writings.

GS: Hopefully the award will carry my work to new readers, but for me, the job is always the same: tell the best story I can, and make it true.

ME: I am not sure. For now, I plan to do the same thing I have done most every day for decades.  I will go to my studio and work.

dreidels-on-the-brainJBI: Dreidels on the Brain is about my forblondjet family, how we never fit in, and how I somehow survived Hanukkah 1971. Never while I was writing did it occur to me that my family’s mishegoss would someday be linked to her All-of-a-Kind family.
It’s a great honor—and a great gift as well, a sense of fitting in that I’d long since given up having. Thank you.
The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion. 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 these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.

Posted in Authors, Contests, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments