Elissa Brent Weissman loved living in Baltimore; it’s the city where she spent her college days, her early working years and where her two children were born.
She herself grew up in Merrick, N.Y., on Long Island, home to a large Jewish community. There, she was a member of a Reform synagogue, went to Hebrew school and celebrated her bat mitzvah. She came to Maryland to attend Johns Hopkins University, where she studied creative writing seminars in the Writing Seminars Department. She also met her Wisconsin-born husband on campus.
Later, she earned a master’s degree in London in the study of children’s literature. Then the couple settled in Federal Hill for almost 15 years, where they were members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation for a time. After their daughter and son were born, the couple enrolled them in a Beth El program called “Hebrew school in your neighborhood.” Today, the kids are ages 12 and 10.
The family left in 2019 “to make a change” — and a change it was. They moved to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Weissman, 39, was just tapped as the Maryland Writer’s Association’s (MWA) Notable Maryland Author for the month of December.
When did you first start writing? Did you always want to be an author?
I’ve been coming up with stories since before I could hold a pencil. I wrote my first novel in fifth grade, sent it off to 10 large publishing companies … and received 10 rejections.
Thankfully, that setback only made me more determined to accomplish my goal.
You have penned nearly a dozen books. Describe your most recent one, “The Renegade Reporters.”
I write realistic fiction with a combination of humor and heart. In “The Renegade Reporters,” a group of Baltimore City sixth-graders start their own YouTube news show and uncover a digital privacy scandal involving the (fictional) EdTech company that makes the software they use at school.
Why did you want to write middle-grade books? What is it about that age that interests you?
Like so many kids, I was a particularly voracious reader between the ages of 8 and 12. It was those books that made me want to write. Middle-grade novels can be rich and complex, but also bursting with humor and wordplay. It’s also what I find easiest and most fun — I still have vivid memories of being in elementary and middle school, so writing from the point of view of a 10- or 11-year old is oddly natural for me.
That said, my first picture book for readers ages 4-7 comes out later this year! It’s so much shorter than a novel, and yet it was so much harder to write.
What was the best thing about attending Johns Hopkins? And later, the best thing about living in downtown Baltimore?
I loved the academic rigor at Hopkins. It was exciting to be in a place where everyone wanted to do well, and it was cool to be smart. (What else would you expect from the author of Nerd Camp?) The best part of Federal Hill was the vibrant urban lifestyle, as well as the walkability. I also appreciated the racial and ethnic diversity in Baltimore, during college and after. There are so many benefits to living in a multicultural community; that’s part of what prompted our family’s move overseas.
How did you come to choose New Zealand as your new home? What is your involvement in Jewish life there?
My husband and I wanted to make a change, broaden our family’s perspective and have an adventure. Aotearoa [the current Māori-language name for New Zealand] has friendly people, a healthy work-life balance and an emphasis on getting outside to explore the gorgeous scenery. The Jewish population is very, very small, especially on the South Island, but that’s actually made retaining our cultural and religious identity more important. We belong to small but active synagogue with Jews from all over the world. We don’t have a rabbi or any paid staff, so services and events are run by volunteers from the community, including myself — in fact, my d’var Torahs have been a hit!
I’m sure you have received other literary honors, but what was your reaction to being the Maryland Writers’ Association’s author pick?
It made me laugh! I spent almost 20 years in Baltimore, so it was funny to become the Maryland Author of the Month after moving overseas. I wrote most of my books in Baltimore, though, and I’ll never forget how wonderful it was to live there. I’m delighted to know Maryland remembers me, too.
What is the one thing that has surprised you most about raising a family abroad?
Despite being so far away from our extended family, our relationships remain as strong as ever. My kids have such full, loving connections with their grandparents, aunts and uncles. The distance makes the time we do get to be together in person that much more special.
A bigger surprise, though?
I was hoping my kids would speak with Kiwi accents, and they do — but only around their friends when they think I can’t hear!