Jewish Children’s Authors
Laurel Snyder, Andrea Alban and Michelle Edwards
By Maayan Jaffe
One of the more enjoyable moments for many parents is the time they spend curled up with a special book, delving into a story with their children — one that takes them away to a new world. Not only does reading provide special bonding moments, but also it has been proven to improve verbal skills in young children.
With PJ Library, which provides free Jewish children’s books and music to families on a monthly basis, more parents are seeing the value of incorporating Jewish reading into their repertoire. iNSIDER caught up with three Jewish children’s authors to learn more about the writing process, the goals, and the value of reading together.
Michelle Edwards is an author, illustrator and knitter … but she never planned to be any of those things. Many moons ago, she was living on a kibbutz in Israel. It was just after the Yom Kippur War and the country was bustling with stories. She says, “They awakened something inside of me and I wanted to tell stories, too.” A trained artist, she draws the images for most of her works, always looking for new ways to tell a story; the story dictates the form. Her books include “Chicken Men” (New South, 2009) and “Alef Bet” (New South, 2009).
Do you believe that children’s books must always encompass a message?
I think most writers and illustrators feel that there are messages in each of our stories. ‘Chicken Man’ (a National Jewish Book Awards winner) always makes me feel optimistic … with his deep and abiding love. ‘The Aleph-Bet Book’ was written during the first Gulf War when the Israelis were in sealed rooms. I realized that my reaction had to be a joy of life.
Why are the pictures so important to your stories?
Not all kids are story- and language-driven. Some kids are more mathematical — more logical. Some kids need pictures.
Many of your books include Jewish content, especially your most recent one, “The Hanukkah Trike” (Albert Whitman and Company, 2010). Talk about that.
The whole concept of the book was a message. I wanted a Jewish character who was like all other characters that children can find in a book — but Jewish. My children always hated when they found out the characters they loved celebrated Christmas. This charactercelebrates Chanukah.
Do you have any advice for parents?
I think people should just read endlessly to their children. It gives richness to your lives.
Laurel Snyder is the author of three novels for children, “Penny Dreadful,” (Random House, 2010) “Any Which Wall” (Yearling, 2010) and “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess” (Yearling, 2010) and two picture books, “Inside the Slidy Diner” (Tricycle, 2008) and “Baxter the Kosher Pig” (Tricycle, 2010). She says she’s wanted to write since the fourth grade. Since then, she’s learned that her “elevated sense” of what a writer’s life would be has normalized. Now, she says, being a writer is a lot about being a mom, participating in a community of writers and thinkers, about working hard, sitting still and forcing the words to come. She writes, however, because, “We need to read. We need books. We need to slow down and consume ideas, not just content.”
Describe your style.
Playful, crafted, melancholy. … I like humor, though I don’t write jokes. I like melancholy, but not sadness. … I like … the place where the laugh and the sob find each other.
Some of your books have Jewish content, like ‘Baxter the Kosher Pig.’ How do you balance inspiring Jewish dialogue with writing a good book?
When I start out with a ‘message,’ the books fail. Sometimes, as with Baxter, the Jewish story ends up incorporating a message.
Why should parents read books with Jewish content to their children?
I think Jewish parents need to see … it isn’t an old-fashioned thing to be Jewish. This is a fast, exciting, changing world and being Jewish in that world is a gift. I think [with] Jewish books [you can] explore those intersections.
How do you hope your writing impacts the children who read it?
I want [the children] to love words. I want them to want to write and read more.
Andrea Alban (a.k.a. Gosline) is the author of inspirational parenting books and children’s picture books and novels. Her most recent work, “Anya’s War” (Feiwel and Friends, 2011), has made national headlines, telling a riveting true story in the form of young-adult fiction.
How did you get from picture books to “Anya’s War?”
I started writing the scenes for my book at a very young age. I grew up in a family where my father shared with me his amazing, terrifying and comical stories about his Jewish childhood in Shanghai. I was determined to write an adult novel, but one of my editors convinced me that this generation should hear about this piece of Jewish history while they are still in school.
What are they learning from it?
The book deals with themes of persecution, belonging in a society and not belonging, and what happens when you cannot be yourself because of your religion or sex.
Was it easy for you to break into the writing field?
When I sent out my first picture book, I got 49 rejections. Then, a friend of mine introduced me to Canary Press, which did self-help spiritual books and was looking to start a children’s line. They said if I could write a book with a mothering theme in time for the next mother’s day, they would publish it. That was my first book, ‘Mother’s Nature’ (Conari Press, 1991). After that, I quickly had five contracts.
Talk about the writing process.
You’ll hear this over and over again — you go into [writing a book] with one idea about plot, main character, etc. and, if you allow it, you write and suddenly your story/characters take on lives of their own, their voices shine through more clearly and you go another path.
What do you think is the most essential component of children’s books?
That they help them find their voices. … My children’s books are often on love of family and nature. They are heavily underscored with affirmations you can say about your day. The message for children should be: Start with yourself, be the best person you can be, and move out into the world in a way to make it better.