I met up with a writer pal and fellow adjunct English professor this week to exchange and critique our writing. She read my 25 pages of a new contemporary YA novel in verse–and liked it! She said the voice is strong. I am writing one new poem a week in response to prompts from my poetry mentor. It may take a while, but at least I’m writing.
A new Facebook group for Jewish Children’s Lit mavens started this week, organized by Susan Kusel and Heidi Rabinowitz, Association of Jewish Libraries leaders.
How about we set aside one Sunday to send our work out into the world, an activity I tend to neglect during the academic semester? We can keep in touch through The Whole Megillah Facebook page. How does July 7 sound? Please comment below if interested.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to begin a magazine for Jewish kids? Anna Caplan (AC):Honeycake was an idea I dreamed up for my own children. One day as I was renewing my four-year-old’s subscription to Ladybug magazine, it occurred to me that I had never seen a similar type of publication for Jewish kids. I started to think about the gaps I saw in contemporary American Jewish children’s literature, and how a magazine could fill some of those gaps for our family. The idea began to take on a life of its own and Honeycake was born.
TWM: Why this particular age group? AC: The first issue of Honeycake will be for two- to six-year-olds (similar to magazines like Ladybug and High Five). Because this age group encompasses both pre-readers and early readers, we know that many of our young readers will experience Honeycake read aloud, while older children may enjoy the magazine on their own. It’s exciting to design a magazine for children at this transitional moment in their experience of reading.
TWM: How is it distributed? AC: We’re distributing the first issue of Honeycake on our own. For a limited time, the first issue can be pre-ordered through our Kickstarter campaign (launching May 14, 2019). Backers will receive their copy of Honeycake in the mail in early December — just in time for Hanukkah!
TWM: What can you tell us about your editorial needs? What are you looking for? AC: We’re looking for a freelance editor to work on our first issue. The ideal candidate will have experience working on manuscripts for young children as well as a background in Jewish education. If this sounds like you or someone you know, we’d love to hear from you at email@example.com.
TWM: How can writers submit to you? AC: Writers can submit work to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit our website for details about what we’re looking for.
TWM: Is there anything else you’d like to add? AC: We have big plans for Honeycake! As we grow, we plan to publish four to six issues each year. We’re also exploring the possibility of adding a section for older children, so that the magazine can be shared with the whole family. Our vision is that the magazine will serve as a platform for Jewish writers and artists and inspire the creation of new work. To follow us on our journey, you can subscribe to our email newsletter. You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram at @honeycakemagazine.
My publisher and I have begun to discuss the cover for my YA historical, Matchless. I can’t wait to see the design! I’ve sent her my photos of my grandfather’s shtetl from my 2008 visit for inspiration. The photo on the left is from that shtetl, Zaromb (Zareby Koscielne in Polish), northeast of Warsaw. I think this is the street where my grandfather may have lived.
Aside from my two fellowships this summer, I’ll be attending a three-day workshop for community college language arts instructors at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I have a grant to help defray travel and lodging.
Thanks to those of you who contacted me seeking agency representation. It’s going to be a busy summer!
To commemorate Yom HaShoah, The Whole Megillah sponsored a survey of writers and publishers/editors of Holocaust books for young readers. The writers include Jane Yolen, Janet Wees, Susan Lynn Meyer, Andria Rosenbaum, Nancy Churnin, Susan L. Ross, and Kathy Kacer. The publishers/editors include Joni Sussman of Kar-Ben, Dena Neusner of Behrman House/Apples & Honey Press, and Dianne Hess of Scholastic. We’re not able to always identify by name the sources of the responses (my mistake in survey design), but here are the results.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspires you to write or publish children’s Holocaust literature?
Dena Neusner: It’s a hard topic to address for young children. I’m inspired by good stories that will engage and educate, in an age-appropriate way.
Dianne Hess: My family came from Germany and Hungary. Some fled the Holocaust, some did not. I feel a strong responsibility to keep the stories alive and to ensure it never happens again.
Susan L. Ross: I was inspired by my son’s 7th grade research into my own mother’s experiences as a refugee to write Searching for Lottie, a contemporary middle grade mystery about a 12 year old girl trying to discover what happened to the young violinist she was named after, who disappeared during the Holocaust. My middle name is Lottie, and I was named after a lovely young cousin who did not survive. Although the novel is fictional, it is largely based on family stories. I was especially struck with the notion that although the history of the Holocaust is further away in time, it is more accessible to kids today because of the astonishing reach of the internet and also because kids are able to ask questions that were simply too painful for our generation. I thought it was important to write a contemporary book that offers kids a pathway into a difficult legacy. The intergenerational relationships at the heart of Searching for Lottie matter most to me and reflect my deep appreciation for my own mother’s determination to raise her children with optimism, hope, and love in spite of early loss and hardship.
Response: The Holocaust is an important part of modern Jewish history and children are often exposed to Yom HaShoah and Holocaust-related topics at a young age. My goal is to publish a variety of age-appropriate materials for children of all ages beginning with about age 8.
Response: I’m a child of Holocaust survivors, committed to keeping this history alive, particularly as the survivor community ages and disappears.
Response: The fact that antisemitism is alive and well. The hope that by teaching children about the horrors of history they’ll be inspired to stand up against evil. The fact that it is a part of every Jew’s history whether they like it or not.
Susan Lynn Meyer: I wanted to tell the story of my father’s experiences in and escape from Nazi-occupied France, as listening to and trying to make sense of this story shaped my childhood.
Nancy Churnin: Learning about the Holocaust helps us see the horrible, ugly natural conclusion of prejudice and dehumanization, issues that we still wrestle with today. Learning about the Holocaust makes us, as a society, look in the mirror and think about the choices we make in being oppressive, passively supporting oppression by doing nothing or resisting oppression by helping the vulnerable among us.
Yolen: I was too young to speak out then. But now I can, and boy! is my voice loud!
Response: This is my first book for children about the Holocaust. I was inspired by actually seeing the Hidden Village and by the stories told to me by a man who lived there as a little boy while hiding from the Nazis.
TWM: Has anyone ever told you not to write or publish about the Holocaust? If so, what was the rationale?
Neusner: There’s been talk that there are too many Holocaust stories, or that we should focus on positive Jewish stories instead. I think it’s important to publish a variety of stories about the Jewish experience, and Holocaust stories address the imperative to never forget.
Hess: Sometimes people have concerns about publishing Holocaust stories for children. There is a spirited debate about what age is appropriate to bring up the subject.
Ross: When my children were in elementary school, not all parents wanted their children reading Holocaust books because they felt they were simply too upsetting. I understand this concern and tried to find a way to introduce the topic in a story that is meaningful to kids, but not overwhelming for younger children. I also hope to engage readers who might not be especially interested in historical fiction. In Searching for Lottie, 12-year-old Charlie worries that she needs to live up to her great aunt’s legacy as a violinist but comes to realize she must follow her own true path. I hope that kids will relate to Charlie’s search into the past as she make important discoveries about her family and her future.
Response: I’ve only heard and read articles about there being too many Holocaust-related titles at the expense of other aspects of the Jewish experience. While this may be true, there continues to be great interest in the marketplace—among both Jewish and secular readers—for Holocaust-related books.
Response: I’ve never had anyone tell me not to write stories about the Holocaust, and I have 25 published books about this history! On the contrary, my experience is that publishers are keen to have these important stories available to young people.
Response: Yes. It’s too dark and terrible to share with children. No one wants to read, or buy another book about the Holocaust. The PJ Library won’t even consider Holocaust literature.
Meyer: When I was writing the novel (Black Radishes, my first), I talked to my father about it, and he, actually, discouraged me from doing it, saying nobody would be interested in such “ancient history.” I’m happy to say that he was wrong about that. But I wonder what responses he must have had, in the course of his life, when mentioning his own past to people, that he was so sure that this was the case.
Churnin: I write for younger children and there is that question about whether the Holocaust is too much for that age to process. I feel it is all in the way you present the material. Children, sadly, see and experience prejudice from the time they are born. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in their song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” prejudice can become ingrained early—”at six or seven or eight/to hate all the people your relatives hate.” We need books for that age group to offer a different way of looking at the world, books that question prejudice, books that show where prejudice can lead, books that show the heroism of those that resist and those that stand up for and protect others.
Yolen: No, rather an editor begged me to write the novel we discussed, The Devil’s Arithmetic.
Response: No, in fact I get encouraged to write more about the Holocaust.
TWM: In which Holocaust narrative categories would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: Here is a listing of possible Holocaust narrative settings. Select all those in which your books take place.
TWM: In which geographic settings would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: In what genre(s) do you currently publish your Holocaust narratives?
TWM: In which genre(s) would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: Now we come to age group. For what age group do you currently publish?
TWM: For what age group would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: Any final comments you would like to make?
Hess: We do always need holocaust books because they are important to publish and on the curriculum, so there is a steady market from schools. The stories that come to us you could have never imagined existed. It’s up the authors to discover and write amazing stories about things they are passionate about. This is always what makes the best books of all.
Meyer: I’d like to see lots of stories of all kinds and in all places published. Even after writing my two novels, I still feel an obsessive preoccupation with this subject.
So, there you have it. Despite the flaws in our survey design, Holocaust literature for young readers serves an important purpose and there are still stories to tell: nonfiction, teen, postwar and Jewish resistance narratives, and narratives with settings in China and South America—just to mention a few of the opportunities. Will you be the one to write one of these narratives?
I have signed a contract with MB Publishing in Maryland to publish my YA historical novel, Matchless. It’s slated for publication in May 2020. I think of it as Pride & Prejudice meets the Jewish shtetl in interwar Poland. This is a novel that’s had many lives, started in 1999!
I’m looking for students for my online fiction and creative nonfiction classes. If interested, please contact me through Comments. One of the current fiction classes is in Cycle 14—we began in July 2016.
Finally, my family history informs much of my creative writing. While I began my research nearly 30 years ago (yikes!) with rolls of microfilm, it’s never been easier to find your roots. Taking Ancestry’s DNA test last year has introduced me to new cousins and has reinforced the concept that we’re all connected. Now if only I knew who the people in this photo are. I could be looking at my great-grandmother and not even know it.
That’s it for this week. Have a good one and stay tuned for a Yom Hashoah post tonight about Why We Write and Publish Holocaust Books for Young Readers!
Inspired by and with permission of Erika Dreifus, I am initiating a weekly post of three quick things on Wednesdays.
I have signed a contract with Kar-Ben Publishing of Lerner Publishing Group for a middle-grade novel in verse about the MS St. Louis, 1939. Right now it’s called 37 Days. This book has gone through so many lives, starting with nonfiction in 2010 after I interviewed eight survivors. It then became adult poetry in seven voices, then back to middle grade in three voices, then ultimately to one voice. Along the way, I fictionalized, which was liberating. The novel is slated for Spring 2021 publication.
Finally, I’m a literary agent at Olswanger Literary LLC. I represent authors of both adult and children’s books. I’m particularly fond of historical and Jewish material. But if you’re writing history, be forewarned. I’m a real stickler for accuracy and research as well as polished writing.
Matzah Belowstairs, written by Susan L. Meyer and illustrated by Mette Engell. Kar-Ben, 2019, 24 pp. Hardcover, $17.99; paperback, $7.99. Ebook also available.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired this story? Susan Lynn Meyer (SLM): I’ve often sat at seder tables at Passover wondering what would happen if nobody remembered where the afikomen was hidden. A child might be the one to hide it—and then might fall asleep before the search. What if a mouse found it, I would think? A mouse does, in Matzah Belowstairs!
Then too, there’s a hole in the molding that I see while sitting at my desk, and it looks a lot like a mouse hole! When Kar-Ben editor Joni Sussman asked me to clarify to her and the illustrator what I was envisioning, imagining a mouse being able to get a piece of matzah into the wall, I chuckled to myself, thinking that she must have lived in houses that were much better maintained that the ones I have lived in. And I send her a photo, saying, “Well, this hole could be a bit bigger, and the crack at the base could be longer . . . .” [I’m sending you a photo too.]
TWM: What was the greatest challenge in writing this story? SLM: It’s hard to write a book about a holiday that only (at most) two percent of the American population celebrates and also make it interesting and comprehensible to ALL small children, even those who have never celebrated Passover, which I wanted to do. There’s a fine line—I wanted to put in a bit of information, so that it would make sense, but not too much. I wanted the holiday to be for the most part a given, and for my book to be primarily an interesting STORY about a mouse and a boy, not an explanation of Passover. In writing a picture book, you only have about 500 words, so you can hardly do both. So it’s much harder than writing a story that takes place on a holiday like Christmas or Easter, where everyone assumes a basic familiarity with the holiday itself.
TWM: What was the greatest satisfaction? SLM: As a result of the problem above, it was a great satisfaction to me when I heard, in the same week, that a little girl who is Christian and homeschooled and a little boy, whose rabbi mom sent me a photo of him wearing a yarmulke, both absolutely loved and were inspired by my story!
TWM: You write both novels (award-winning, I might add) and picture books. Do you have a preference and if so, in what ways? SLM: Thank you! I love the feeling of getting to know my characters and their world over the many years that it takes me to write a novel. Since the two novels I have had published (Black Radishes and Skating With the Statue of Liberty) and the one I am currently working on, are historical, it takes a lot of research to make my way back into the lived experience of existing in another time. It’s a great feeling when I start to know the world of my novels in my bones. But I have a full-time job also (as well as a family) so it can be hard to find the sustained time to focus on a novel. One great thing about picture books is that I can have an idea, mull it over, draft it, and revise it in the small bits of time that I can find in my life. And when a picture book pulls together, it can feel sort of perfect and complete in the way that a novel doesn’t, exactly.
TWM: Do you have a critique group? SLM: I have two of them, and they are invaluable to me. One group I have been with for many years, and one is newer. They keep me writing, and the group brainstorming that takes place inspires ideas I would never have had on my own.
TWM: Who inspires you? SLM: Usually life inspires me, history, or particular people I know, who appear, transmuted, in my characters. I also read ALL the time, so I live in a world of words and stories. Right now I’m rereading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, which I’ll be teaching next week at Wellesley College, and which also had some influence on the novel I’m currently writing. I’m also rereading Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, which I hadn’t picked up in many years, because one friend told me my Matzah Belowstairs was a bit like a Jewish Borrowers—and she’s so right, though I hadn’t realized it!
TWM: What’s next for Susan Lynn Meyer? SLM: I’ve actually just been working on another picture book story about Miriam Mouse, inspired by a rabbi friend, whose little boy asked if there were going to be more books! (Thank you, Dena!) And I’m working on the third full revision of my latest novel, which takes place in 1913-14 in the Boston area.
For more about Susan Lynn Meyer, please visit her website.
Three quick things: Even while traveling and participating in fellowships, I am continuing to write poetry, one poem at a time. This is part of a new contemporary YA work in progress. At some point, I really need to focus … Continue reading →
Three quick things: My article on border crossing between the Nazi and Soviet spheres of interest in the fall of 1939 has been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed academic journal. Through this writing exercise I learned to value: Once … Continue reading →
The Brave Princess and Me, written by Kathy Kacer and illustrated by Juliana Kolesova, Second Story Press, September 2019, 32 pp., $18.95. The Whole Megillah (TWM): The Brave Princess and Me might just be the first Holocaust book for kids … Continue reading →
Three quick things: I am completing my second week at the faculty seminar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Three immediate takeaways: I’m convinced that the more I learn, the less I know. I am still trying to … Continue reading →
Three quick things: I am slowly navigating academic writing—and am finding creative writing so much easier. The academic peer review process is unnerving. Conversation Starter: What narrative would you most like to see as a picture book? Middle grade? YA? … Continue reading →
Three quick things: I thought I had an academic journal article due by June 1. Turns out it’s due late September. After reading three articles by Eliyana Adler, I am so glad I have more time. While I focused on … Continue reading →
The Brave Cyclist: The True Story of a Holocaust Hero, written by Amalia Hoffman and illustrated by Chiara Fedele, 40 pp., $17.95 (Capstone, June 2019) The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this story? Amalia Hoffman (AH): My … Continue reading →
Three quick things: I met up with a writer pal and fellow adjunct English professor this week to exchange and critique our writing. She read my 25 pages of a new contemporary YA novel in verse–and liked it! She … Continue reading →
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to begin a magazine for Jewish kids? Anna Caplan (AC): Honeycake was an idea I dreamed up for my own children. One day as I was renewing my four-year-old’s subscription to Ladybug magazine, … Continue reading →
Three quick things: My publisher and I have begun to discuss the cover for my YA historical, Matchless. I can’t wait to see the design! I’ve sent her my photos of my grandfather’s shtetl from my 2008 visit for inspiration. … Continue reading →