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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Thank You for Me!

A shout-out to my friend, illustrator Ann Koffsky for her new book, Thank You for Me! The book is based on Rick Recht's hit song, Kobi's Lullaby. Rick is the top-touring artist in Jewish music. Ann says he is a total rock star and if you have a kid in any Jewish camp anywhere they are singing his songs whether they know it or not.

Wishing Ann and Rick all the best!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Honoring Yom HaShoah - An interview with Anna Olswanger and Miriam Nerlove

Monday, April 8th is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  In honor of this important day, I'd like to share a new book by my friend, Anna Olswanger. Greenhorn is based on the true story. In the book, Daniel is a young boy who lost his family and begins a new life in a yeshiva. His only possession is a tin box he refuses to open and in the other boys wonder what he is hiding. As the story unfolds, young readers will learn about the heartache of Daniel's loss. Greenhorn is also a story of friendship. love, and loyalty. The illustrations by Miriam Nerlove are tender and warm, a perfect pairing for the heartfelt story of a young boy and his friends. Books like Greenhorn will keep alive the memories of so many who were lost.  I'm so pleased to have the opportunity to interview both Anna and Miriam.

Greenhorn is inspired by true events. Anna, tell me how you learned about the story that inspired you.

I heard the real story of Greenhorn thirty years ago on a tour bus in Israel. The rabbi of my synagogue stood in the front of our bus as we approached Jerusalem and told us the story: When he was in the sixth grade, the school principal came into the classroom to announce that the yeshiva would take in fifty boys. He introduced "Daniel," a young boy who had no possessions, except for a small, tin box that he never let out of his sight. The class later discovered that inside the box was a piece of soap. Daniel believed that the soap, manufactured by the Nazis, was made from the body fat of Jews murdered in the death camps. And he believed that maybe, just maybe, that piece of soap contained his parents' remains. He said he didn't have anything else from his parents, not even a photograph.

Miriam, what were you initial thoughts when you read Greenhorn?

I was very interested and taken by the story of Greenhorn, on many different levels. Learning about the Holocaust has been an interest of mine for years, and the sensitive portrayal of the narrator (Anna's rabbi) and Daniel, as well as the setting of the story in New York yeshiva in the 1940s, all appealed to me. The devastating emotional effects of the Holocaust on the young survivor, Daniel, spoke to me, as did the complex range of emotions and reactions of the yeshiva boys he came to live with. Issues of bullying as well as tremendous kindness are presented in a real and touching way, and I was very moved by the book.

The Holocaust is a difficult subject for any age. Anna, were you concerned about bringing this topic to young readers?

I had originally self-published Greenhorn as a miniature book for Judaica collectors. I didn't think of it as a story for children. A few months after I sent the miniature book to the publisher of my first book as a holiday gift, she called to say she wanted to publish it as an illustrated book for children.
“Why?” I asked her. She said it was a provocative little book (this is the publisher who took the “N” word out of Huckleberry Finn, so she’s no stranger to being provocative), and the book’s image of a tin box and its contents haunted her. She said Greenhorn was a brave work, and she liked the way it brought the Holocaust home and gave it a human face. She later wrote me: "I could not not publish Greenhorn. My son Julien, still my best reader of middle-school and YA fiction, was emotional in confirming it was a book for NewSouth."
Miriam, did you need to do a lot of research to make sure the illustrations were authentic?

I did. Much of the setting was familiar to me, and one that I love—I lived in Manhattan and then Brooklyn years ago, and so the feel of what the buildings and atmosphere were like was familiar to me, but I had to make sure it was the 1940s! My daughters attended a Jewish day school, and my husband is a former cantor, and so even though it's a very different environment from what I was involved in, the yeshiva felt familiar to me as well. Having said that, there was much I still needed to look up to make sure the illustrations were authentic. Also, huge thanks need to be made to Suzanne (Greenhorn's publisher), the staff at NewSouth books, and to Anna, whose help proved invaluable. An author and illustrator are usually kept apart, but I'm grateful we were able to do things differently, and that I was able to benefit from Anna's knowledge and care for what she had so beautifully written.

Anna, how much research was required for Greenhorn? Can you share a bit about your research process?

I wanted to write only the story I heard. I didn't want to add backstory or previous history for the character I named Daniel. Rabbi Rafael Grossman, the basis of the "Aaron" character who told me the real story in the 1980s on that tour bus in Israel, didn't remember every detail forty years later, and certainly not seventy years later when the story was about to be published and I was revising it one last time, so I had to fictionalize parts of what he told me. Because I was concerned about the ethics of creating fiction based on the Holocaust, and because I wanted to honor what the real Daniel went through, I focused entirely on the events I heard, and refrained from inventing anything from the time of the Holocaust itself when Daniel may have been in a concentration camp.

I did, however, change one event from the actual story. When I researched the history of soap made from human fat, what I found was that the Nazis probably did not mass produce the soap. There is some evidence that they experimented with making soap from human fat in one factory in the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig/Gdansk, and that is what I referred to in the book. In the story I heard, Daniel kept a bar of soap with the letters RIF on it. Many Jews, during and after the war, believed this was soap made from Jewish fat, as did the real Daniel and the other boys at the yeshiva, including Rabbi Grossman. But from from what I read, the letters RIF, which many thought stood for Reichs-Juden-Fett (“State Jewish Fat”), in fact stood for Reichsstelle für industrielle Fettversorgung (“National Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning”), the German government agency responsible for wartime production of soap. I revised the story so that Daniel’s bar of soap was from the factory near Gdansk. I felt it was important to make this change and not refer to the unfounded story about the RIF soap.

Miriam, can you tell me a bit about the techniques you used for the illustrations?

I used pencil and watercolor for the illustrations. There is a softness to watercolor that I love, and I was hoping it would be a good fit for Greenhorn.

What is your creative process like?

When I am illustrating someone else's story, I admit to an initial panic. What if I fail the author's vision of how the book should look? And so I read and reread Anna's story, letting it soak in as much as possible. With the publisher, Suzanne's, suggestions in mind, I mapped out the illustrations I planned on doing, as this is important for the pacing of the visuals in the book. Then I went, literally, to the drawing board and began the sketches. I like to draw directly on the watercolor paper, and when I start painting—that is when the real joy of illustrating hits me.

Anna, what were your thoughts when you first saw Miriam Nerlove's illustrations?

One of the advantages of being published by a small, independent press like NewSouth is that the author can be involved. I offered to help Suzanne scour websites for art samples. When I saw samples of Miriam work, I instinctively knew that the softness of her watercolors were what Greenhorn needed. Their softness would balance the intensity of the text.

When we launched the book at Bank Street Books in New York, Rebecca Migdal, the events director there, wrote this in the bookstore's newsletter: "Miriam Nerlove's delicate watercolor illustrations evoke the vulnerability and sweetness of childhood, even as the text exposes the cruelty of which human beings are capable."

I thought that was the perfect endorsement of Miriam's art.

Thank you,  Anna and Miriam!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909

My friend, Michelle Markel has been featured on my blog before so for her new release we decided to try something new. To many authors, new books feel like their children. Michelle's latest creative offspring is Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Ill. By Melissa Sweet; Balzer & Bray). Brave Girl is about a Clara Lemlich, a young immigrant girl who became a labor activist. Without fear, she fought for what was right. I'm proud to know her!

Michelle was generous enough to share her her deepest parental thoughts about Brave Girl with us.

When was the story conceived?
In 2007. After writing two picture book biographies about male artists, I was ready for something new. A story about an extraordinary Jewish woman. My husband, an anthropology professor who teaches gender studies, suggested I read up on the immigrant women activists of the garment industry. I researched not only Clara Lemlich, but also Rose Schneiderman, who became an influential friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and Pauline Newman, who later was an advisor for the Department of Labor.

Does Brave Girl take after any family members?
Though none of my relatives were in the NYC needle trades, my dad was an airline mechanic and president of his local machinists’ union, and participated in a successful strike. I grew up with compassion for working people.

When did the story’s personality start to emerge?
I noticed a fierce attitude developing in the first few months. I tried not to discourage it, since Clara had a rebellious streak. (When she was growing up in the Ukraine, her father forbade her to learn Russian. Clara studied in secrecy, stowing her books under the meat pan. When her father discovered and burnt them, she bought more and hid them in the attic.)

What was your parenting philosophy? Structure or Freedom?
I’m not a rigid outliner. My stories do best in unrestricted environments. Only later do I see what elements to cut. Everything you eliminate makes the rest of the text shine more. I understood, with time, that Brave Girl didn’t want to be a traditional biography. It wanted to be an account of a woman’s courageous leadership in a collective action- the 1909 strike.

Were there problems with separation anxiety?
Not at all. Sometimes I got blocked, and left the story alone for a few weeks. The story didn’t seem to mind. In fact, this worked out best for the both of us. It was calmer and more flexible as a result.

Did you notice any annoying habits?
Yes. One sentence stubbornly tormented me for a whole summer. I took it out. I put it back in. Out. In. Out. In. If the words wanted to be included that badly, there had to be a reason.

How did you cope with the challenges of parenting?
I believed in the importance of the material. Children need to see examples of how wrongs can be righted in a democracy. They need to know that heroism isn’t gender specific.

There are few picture books about labor activists. Were you worried that Brave Girl would be “different”?
That was a concern. But when you love a child this much, you just want it to blossom into its full potential. You have to let it become its bold wonderful self, and not think about what else is out there. Being different can make you stand out, in a good way.

Did Brave Girl have any recurring dreams?
It dreamt of one day coming to life as a beautiful picture book and making its way into the hands of teachers and children. And it happened. Melissa Sweet’s vibrant colors, her use of stitching and fabric and vintage newsprint give texture and dimension to the book. Published this season, to celebrate Women’s History Month!

I have to say- if you have faith, dreams really do come true.

Thanks, Michelle! Best of luck with your new "baby!"

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Welcome Nancy Steiner - On This Night

Nancy Steiner is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. I first met Nancy at a local SCBWI conference and we have been friends ever since! Nancy's work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine,  The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles,  and Lifestyles Magazine. I'm thrilled to introduce Nancy's new Passover book  - On This Night. I am so happy to help celebrate the launch of Nancy's first children's book!

 What insired your Passover story?
Years ago, when my husband and I were newlyweds, we took a Jewish Holiday Workshop class on how to enrich your holiday celebrations. When we were doing the Passover unit, the class held a mock seder. I wrote a poem to read at the end that recapped the steps of the seder and the meaning behind it all -- that all people are meant to be free. We subsequently used the poem at our own seders, and someone who heard it suggested that it would make a great children's book. I didn't think much of it at the time, but the seed had been planted.

Were there challenges along the way?
I'm Conservative, and the manuscript was purchased by an Hachai, an Orthodox publishing house. Understandably, they wanted the language to represent their readership. So I needed to change some of the wording. For example, Egypt was changed to Mitzrayim and Elijah to Eliyahu. And that meant I had to adjust meter and rhyme accordingly.

How did you feel when you first saw the illustrations?

It's pretty exciting to see your words come to life. And while the family depicted on the illustrations doesn't necessarily look like my family, I'm really impressed with the detail and richness of the illustrations.

What is your favorite thing about Passover?
Besides matzah balls? I like how it can connect tradition and innovation. Passover brings back fond memories from my childhood -- my grandfather leading the seder in Hebrew, cousins gathered around the table, and of course, wonderful food. At the same time, we've tried to enliven our seders with new activities and new readings -- like the poem and Passover trivia games -- to help keep it relevant and engaging for the next generation.

Thanks, Nancy! To learn more about Nancy, please visit at Nancy Steiner

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour

THE 2013 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR - Check out the details here:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sydney Taylor Book Awards - 2013

2013 Sydney Taylor Book Awards
Announced by the Association of Jewish Libraries

The Sydney Taylor Book Award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Younger Readers

Linda Glaser and Adam Gustavson will receive the 2013 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award's Younger Readers category for Hannah's Way, published by Kar-Ben, an imprint of Lerner Publishing. When Hannah's family relocates to rural Minnesota after her father loses his job, she is the only Jewish student in her class. Hannah worries she will not be able to attend a Saturday class picnic when her teacher arranges a carpool. Her observant family does not ride in cars on the Sabbath. In a delightful display of acceptance and friendship, the entire class chooses to walk with Hannah so she can attend the picnic. Barbara Krasner, a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, said: "The Minnesota setting, the Depression timeframe, and a Jewish girl's dilemma all add up to a winning story." In 2011, Glaser received a Sydney Taylor Honor for her book, Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Older Readers

The award in the Older Readers category will be presented to Louise Borden for His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. Written in verse, this biography of the Swedish humanitarian highlights his commitment to rescuing Jewish people in Budapest during World War II for readers aged eight to twelve. Teeming with photographs, Wallenberg's passion for helping others is dramatically portrayed. Committee Chair, Aimee Lurie commented: "His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg shows how the courageous actions of one person, despite tremendous obstacles, can make a difference. Louise Borden's well-researched biography will, without out a doubt, inspire children to perform acts of kindness and speak out against oppression." In 2006, Borden's The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margaret and H.A. Rey was a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Younger Readers.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Teen Readers

Deborah Heiligman will receive the 2013 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award's Teen Readers category for Intentions, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers an imprint of Random House, Inc. The loss of innocence Rachel Greenberg, 16, experiences when the adults in her life -- including her parents, friends, and rabbi -- betray her trust and the relationship with her best friend crumbles is explored in this contemporary novel. Diane Rauchwerger, member of the Award Committee noted: "Rachel grows in her understanding and strength of character, while struggling with moral issues teens confront every day. Most importantly, she learns to forgive and to act with intention."

Honor Books

Four Sydney Taylor Honor Books were named for 2013: The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale by Linda Leopold Strauss with illustrations by Alexi Natchev (Holiday House) and Zayde Comes To Live written by Sheri Sinykin and illustrated by Kristina Swarner (Peachtree Publishers) are recognized in the Younger Readers category.

The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler with illustrations by Carol Liddiment (Albert Whitman & Company) garnered recognition as an Honor Book for Older Readers. For Teen Readers, the honor goes to Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust by Doreen Rappaport (Candlewick).

In addition to the medal winners, the Award Committee designated thirteen Notable Books of Jewish Content for 2013. More information about the Sydney Taylor Book Award can be found at

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hanukkah Read Up!


AJL has created “Hanukkah Read Up!,” a list of Hanukkah books for children recommended by the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. The colorful 2-page flyer is available on the AJL website at All the titles on the list have been recognized by the award committee as gold or silver medalists or as “Notable Books.” A special section is devoted to the Hanukkah works of prolific author Eric A. Kimmel, a past Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award winner.

The list should prove interesting and useful for families seeking Hanukkah titles for their children, to read together or buy as gifts, as well as for librarians who wish to purchase titles for their holiday shelves.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hanukkah Hop! Welcome Erica Silverman!

Hanukkah starts early this year - it's time to think about holiday books to share with the children in your life. One of my favorites is Hanukkah Hop! by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Stephen D'Amico. Hanukkah Hop! celebrates the delight of Hanukkah through a rousing family party filled with be-bop music. The playful, rhyming text, along with the retro feel of the illustrations, will have readers young and old snapping and clapping along. Erica Silverman is the award winning author of numerous books for children, and a personal favorite of mine. I couldn't wait to share Erica's thoughts about Hanukkah Hop!

Hanukkah Hop! is a joyful, rhythmic celebration. Do you have a musical background that inspired the jazzy text?

Thank you, Barbara! My musical background, such as it is, consisted of plunking away at piano lessons as a child - something I enjoyed, but did not excel at. I’ve always enjoyed listening to all kinds of music; classical and jazz are particular favorites. I loved listening to Yiddish music with my grandmother, and I'm tickled over the international resurgence in recent years of Klezmer music, which I wanted to honor in Hanukkah Hop. But really I have to say that it’s the musicality of language - letters, words, phrases, sentences - that draws me to writing picture books like Hanukkah Hop. I remember reciting nursery rhymes out loud for my parents when I was very, very young - before I could even read. Later I discovered how the sounds and rhythms of a poem can have emotional impact. The amazing ability of language to sing still makes my heart beat faster.

The illustrations in Hanukkah Hop! are such a perfect pairing for the story. What was your response when you first saw Steven D’Amico’s work?

I was absolutely thrilled. From the moment I knew Steve was the artist, I was happy with the choice. But I had no idea how perfect he would be. I love his retro style, the humor, the movement, the colors...everything! There are so many delicious details. Most of all, Steve's art so perfectly captures the joy I was reaching for with language. The characters pop off the page, and best of all, each one of this large party seem so individual and so real. I’d love to invite them all to my next party. And his Klezmer players are adorable! I have such fun reading this book out loud and sharing the art with children.

Have you ever hosted a real Hanukkah Hop?

Well, actually, my Hanukkah celebrations have been typically food oriented. I’ve hosted my share of latke parties. But last year when my book launched, the Skirball museum hosted a Hanukkah Hop. They invited a couple of klezmer bands and there was a group called Family Dance Jam which, with movement teacher Ilaan Egeland Mazzini, led all of us in these really rhythmic raucous dance activities. They were fabulous! And of course, I read the book to a couple of groups of children. I’m happy to say I had them all swaying, snapping and bim bim bopping with me. It was wonderfully fun. I do hope Hanukkah Hops catch on.

What’s the best thing about writing books for children?

That’s such a hard question to answer, Barbara - as I'm sure you know. There are so many aspects of this work that make me happy. I love the process of writing. It’s so engaging, so challenging. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and the most satisfying - when it works! The absorption of writing itself keeps me going through the hard times (like not being able to get a story right or the rejections from publishers - ouch!).

Another thing I love is the community of writers, artists, teachers, librarians and others who loiter in the children's lit world. So much support and sharing. The best people!!!

Perhaps the best “best” thing is when a child tells me he or she likes something I’ve written. There’s nothing more deeply rewarding than knowing that my words have touched a child, gotten her or him excited about reading, and maybe even writing. We take books into our hearts so fully when we're young. And when I hear from a parent who says her son or daughter has had a reading breakthrough because of one of my books, it just fills me with joy. I once was told about a girl who took a book of mine to bed with her every night and put it under her pillow. What could be better than that?

Erica, thank you so much for taking the time to chat about Hanukkah Hop! For more information about Erica and her books, please visit

Like a Maccabee - PJ Library

Like a Maccabbe  - A PJ Libary Selection for November, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My post on the CBC Diversity Blog

I am excited to be the guest blogger for the Children's Book Council Diversity Blog.

CBC Diversity Blog

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lesley Simpson - A Song for My Sister

Lesley Simpson is the author of A Song for My Sister (Random House) a lovely picture book about simchat bat, the Jewish baby naming ritual. Lesley takes young readers on a humour filled journey as older sister Mira adapts to her new, very noisy baby sister! The charming illustrations by Tatjana Mai-Wyss are a perfect pairing for the lively story. I'm so excited to share this special book and welcome Lesley.

What was the inspiration for Song for My Sister ?

The true story about this book is that I wrote a book called A Name For My Brother. It was full of toilet humour, bubbling with explosive burps and stinky farts. One publisher liked the concept but not the toilet humour and asked if I would consider a rewrite. I did a rewrite but out emerged a completely different book! That is one of the best things about writing-the surprise or what I call the loot bag factor. You do not always know what will emerge. I had read about a simchat bat ceremony for a girl that sounded meaningful. The ceremony featured showing light, for example, so the girl would create light in the world and each blessing contained a concrete example of its essence. I thought it was lovely way to welcome a new life into the world. For the record, I still have the stinky burpy book in my drawer if any publishers are curious. The Simchat Bat celebration may not be familiar to many readers. Why did you feel this was an important celebration to share with young readers? I love the notion of celebrating a new life of a girl with the wishes and blessings for what her life can be. I found out after I had submitted the book that it is the only English language picture book celebrating the naming of a girl in the Jewish world. I was flabbergasted but happy to begin filling the void.

What were your thoughts when you saw the illustrations by Tatjana Mai-Wyss ?

I am a writer. And I say this as a writer of picture books. If the art does not 'sing' the book is dead. In my own imagination I wanted something that radiated warmth, whimsy with a sense of humour. These illustrations exceeded my expectations. I am honoured to have Tatjana's Mai-Wyss' work illuminate the story. The art is the lens through which the reader experiences the book. It is primary to the experience.

Mira is a very relatable older sister as she struggles with the loud crying of her little sister. Is Mira's character based on someone you know?

Mira exists in my imagination. She is plucky, honest and good at cartwheels. (I am terrible at gymnastics for the record and somersaults used to make me feel car sick.)

What is your favorite children's book?

OK, it's impossible to pick one book. But I can tell you right now I do love Sweet Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, about a little pea who can not eat his veggies until he gobbles up all of his sweets. I love Rosenthal's spirit of creativity, pluck and warmth.

Thanks, Lesley!

To learn more about Lesley, please visit her web site at

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Monday, August 13, 2012

New Book Announcement - It's a ... It's a... It's a Mitzvah

I'm excited to share the news that Diane Heiman and Liz Suneby have paired up for another wonderful book, It's a It's a It's a Mitzvah  (Jewish Lights). 

After their collaboration on The Mitzvah Project Book, the two wanted to share the same theme of helping others with a younger audience. In It’s a It’s a It’s a Mitzvah, (their first picture book), they invite children to take a journey with the Mitzvah Meerkat and pals as they do good deeds and mitzvot grounded in Jewish tradition.

Many people are curious as to why they chose a meerkat as the character who explains each act of kindness. Well, Diane's own daughters were huge fans of Animal Planet’s documentary television show, “Meerkat Manor.” Liz and Diane liked the alliteration of meerkat with mitzvah. They also thought that a meerkat would be an appealing “fresh face” in children’s book, and it already had the thumbs up from Diane's kids!

Their first collaboration with an illustrator couldn't have been more productive. Diane says "Laurel Molk’s captivating illustrations create architecture for the book filled with soul and humor. She added so much to the book’s development. Laurel suggested adding the trio of mice in each spread, which contributes an additional layer of whimsical fun to the more serious sentiment of caring for others. It amazes me that Laurel’s close friendship with Liz predates Liz’s and my writing careers. Naturally, we urged Jewish Lights to consider Laurel as the illustrator. To me, that’s a great definition of 'bashert'!"

It's a It's a It's a Mitzvah! was recently selected as one of the "50 Best Spiritual Books of the Year" by the multi-faith web site

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Monique Polak - What World is Left

What World is Left (Orca, 2008) by Monique Polak tells the story of Anneke and her family as they are forced from their comfortable home and taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp, the site of a Nazi propaganda film. In the camp, Anneke and her family face disease and despair, as they struggle to do what is right.  The novel is inspired by Monique Polak's mother, whose family spent two years in Theresienstadt. Perhaps this real life connection is why Anneke feels so real, a relatable teen whose dreams and desires manage to exist in the darkest of times. I read What World is Left and was pulled into another world. My heart ached for Anneke, but her spirit inspired me.

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Monique at the Association of Jewish Libraries Convention in Montreal. Since I had loved What World is Left, I was excited to see Monique's presentation. What an experience! Monique is charming, passionate, and dynamic. It was as if Anneke had come to share her story – an absolute highlight of the convention. I’m delighted to welcome Monique to my blog! I know you’ll love her, too.

What World is Left is based on your mother’s experiences. How did you balance your family history with the fictional aspect of the story?
My mother is now 83. When I interviewed her for the project about five years ago, she already had difficulty remembering specific facts. That is one of the reasons I decided to fictionalize her experience.

The other reason is that my mum insisted she had never -- not for a second -- questioned her father's actions. To clarify, her father (my grandfather) Jo Spier was a well known Dutch artist. When the Nazis found out who he was, they forced him to produce propaganda art. What interested me most was writing about a girl who questioned her father's actions. Even my decision to fictionalize this part of the story was difficult for my mother (and also for her brothers). But I felt this was an issue that would make the book resonate with contemporary readers. I think it's the central question in the book. What would readers do if they were faced with a similar situation? How far would any of us go to keep our families alive?

My narrator Anneke is kind of a mix of my mother and me. I began by trying to imagine myself in my mum's position. Writing this book helped me understand a little better a part of her life that she'd always kept secret.

Can you share your research process for writing What World is Left?
I spent years researching what happened at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp where my mum was imprisoned. I read everything I could about the camp. Then, and it took a great deal of convincing, I got my mother to agree to be interviewed. I worked with her for about three months in 2007, every weekday morning. She called our sessions together, "Dutch lessons." She never said they were about the Holocaust or even the war. My mum had kept her story secret for more than 60 years! It's also remarkable I think that she told the story without an ounce of self-pity. She only cried once or twice, always for other people.

What did you learn about the artists whose talents were exploited by the Nazis?
I learned that these artists were put in a terrible position -- one that must have been very painful. I realize that the rest of us, or at least most of us, are blessed never to have to face such moral quandaries.

I also know that some of these artists, including my grandfather, also produced "true" drawings of what they saw in Theresienstadt. If these drawings had been discovered, my grandfather would almost certainly have been killed.

Another thing I'd like to point out is that my grandfather must have realized that his talent kept him and his family alive. I was very close with my grandfather, who lived in New York when I was growing up. But he died before we could discuss any of these things together.

As a reader, the aspect of the story that took my breath away was that young love manages to grow in the bleakest of times. What has been the response from teen readers?
The scenes with Franticek were the ones I most enjoyed writing. My mother really did have a small crush on a boy in the camp. He was older than her, and my mother thinks he was having a sexual relationship with an older woman in the camp. My mother never knew what became of this boy. Only when I was researching the book did I learn that he had been transported to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chambers.

When I was writing the book, I felt like I was falling in love with Franticek, too! My teen readers seem to respond to the romance in the story. But mostly, I find that they are interested in survival. Many teens I meet are themselves going through difficult times, and I think it's good for them to know that though their lives can be blown apart, they can rebuild them. The scars make us who we are. During school visits, I always tell students my mum is a force of nature. She is funny and smart and full of life. She stands up for what she believes in. And yet, she lived through hell. It's an important message for all of us. We can get through terrible things, too, and come out changed, but not destoyed.

You recently traveling to Holland for a release of the Dutch translation of What World is Left. Can you tell me about your visit?
It was the trip of a lifetime! I went there with both of my parents and we launched the book twice. The first time was at the Jewish Historical Museum. It's connected to a former Jewish opera house, from which my mum and her family were deported. She had never returned there since April 1943. Neither of my parents cried there, but I did. In some ways, I feel like I am not only sharing my mum's story, but also helping her process all the emotions connected with what she endured.

The second launch was in a museum in the town of Zutphen, my grandfather's hometown, where his work is on permanent display.

I met so many interesting people, several of whom shared their own memories about my grandfather. And you know what? I could write another book based on the stories they told me!

I understand you have been taking boxing lessons? A new project in the works?
Yes m'am! I've been taking private boxing lessons for nearly a year now. It's partly for fitness, but mostly for research. I'm completing the first draft of a manuscript tentatively entitled Straight Punch. It's already scheduled for release in spring 2014 with Orca Books. And I have two new books coming out before then: Pyro (fall 2012) and So Much It Hurts (fall 2013). Both titles will also be published by Orca.

What is your favorite holiday?
Hanukkah! I think because though I'm 52, I'm a kid at heart and I love getting presents! Also because I love candles and lights. I believe that even in darkness, we must find the light.

Thanks for asking all these questions. It's always a pleasure for me to talk about a project which is so close to my heart!  Big hug to you and your blog readers from Monique!

Thanks, Monique A BIG hug to you, too! Looking forward to reading your new books. To learn more about  Monique and her books visit

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Thank you, AJL!

The Association of Jewish Libraries Convention took place last week in Pasadena. Four days packed with wonderful sessions, friends, and fun. My experiences being the chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee have been rewarding beyond measure. Here's a taste of this year's convention through my eyes:

My name tag!

Sydney Taylor Book Award Winners - Susan Goldman Rubin and Rob Sharenow

SharingChanukah Lights with Debbie Feder and Aimee Lurie

Sharing a smile with the lovely Susan Goldman Rubin

Aimee Lurie, incoming chair of the STBA Committee and me!

For more photos and info visit the AJL Facebook page at!/jewishlibraries

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sifriyat Pijama B’America

Many of you are familiar with the wonderful PJ Library program that distributes Jewish books for to young children. I recently learned about Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which mails free Hebrew books to kids 3-6 throughout the country.

Later this month I will be interviewing Adam Milstein , who co-founded this program. In the meantime, I am happy to share information from their current press release. If you are interested in the program, please sign up as soon as possible. The cut-off is June 30th.

From Sifriyat Pijama B’America:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Israeli-American and Jewish-American families across the United States are participating in a new children’s program through which they are mailed monthly – for free – a quality Jewish children’s book in Hebrew.

Sifriyat Pijama B’America (SP-BA) provides an opportunity for young Jewish children, ages three to six, with or without Israeli roots, living in the United States, to sign up to receive free storybooks in Hebrew. The program is designed to strengthen participants’ Hebrew language proficiency and connections with Jewish values and culture, as well as develop a channel through which young Jewish children can spend more quality time at bedtime with their families in a positive, educational manner.

Why Sifriyat Pijama B’America and Why Now?

“At a time when many hundreds of thousands of Israelis have moved to the U.S. and settled with their families here, with increased assimilation away from Israeli and Jewish tradition, the value of Sifriyat Pijama B’America, a program steeped in Jewish culture and Hebrew language, cannot be stressed enough,” said Adam and Gila Milstein, a Los Angeles-based philanthropists and the project’s co-founders. “This is a program designed for our youngest Israeli-Americans – who have at least one Hebrew-speaking parent – as an integral way to maintain, strengthen and deepen ties to Jewish principles and interest in Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people and in Jewish education more generally, from an early age.”

“This isn’t a process that happens just through listening to bedtime stories in Hebrew; what we are truly seeking to do is to build communities with Jewish day schools as their focal point and help Israeli-Americans – especially those who are unaffiliated with Jewish institutions – to connect with Jewish life and Jewish education.”

Families living in areas with one or more of the schools officially affiliated with the program are encouraged to register at scheduled registration events across the country; spots will fill up quickly and are based on a first-come, first-served basis. Children need not be enrolled in an affiliated school to participate in SP-BA, but the registration events are an important first step in greater involvement in the local Israeli-American and Jewish communities. Families also can register online at; however, website registration is limited in number of enrollments available and is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. In the fall, as described above, affiliated schools will host monthly or bi-monthly group reading events and activities to bring participating families together; families not yet registered to receive books will have the opportunity to sign up then, as well.

Bringing Jewish Values and Traditions to Life

Through High-Quality Children’s Books and Music CDs

Each year, materials delivered include nine high-quality children’s books and a music CD or DVD. The selections are chosen by the Israel Ministry of Education and a committee of experts in early childhood and Jewish education. The curriculum is composed of popular storybooks by Jewish authors in Israel and the U.S. – that teach Jewish values on a universal level – to which children everywhere can relate. A key part of SP-BA is the inclusion of Jewish values and traditions in the content of the stories, so as bring Judaism into children’s lives at an early age. Each book or CD is accompanied by a parent guide to help parents further engage their children through activities and discussions. All families with at least one Hebrew-speaking parent who are raising Jewish children between ages three and six are invited to enroll. When families enroll, they will be signed up to receive books for two years and can enroll again after the first two years if they still have children in the three-to-six age range. Children already receiving books through PJ Library are also eligible to enroll in SP-BA.

How to Register

Families should visit to find local registration events, which have already begun and extend through the end of June. Affiliated schools hosting registration events at one or more schools in the following cities or areas are: Bergen County, N.J., Boston, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago, Essex County, N.J., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Other cities with affiliated schools that have yet to plan registration events are: Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Long Island, Phoenix and San Francisco.

“The number of participants in Sifriyat Pijama B’America is growing exponentially,” Adam Milstein said of what was started as a pilot program last year. “When we started out last year, we had a goal of reaching 1,000 families, and a few weeks later, we already had 2,500 families registered with 2,000 of those receiving the books on a monthly basis now. We are thrilled to have secured funding to be able to expand beyond Jewish homes into schools, and to reach an additional 4,000 families this year.”

Here is the link to the Sifriyat Pijama B’America™ video on YouTube: Additional information of how to register for free Hebrew book,  please go to

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Winner of the Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose Blog Tour Raffle!

Congratulation to GAIL GAUTHIER ! Gail is the lucky winner of a Kindle! Happy Reading, Gail.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose Blog Tour - Tina Nichols Coury Celebrates America!

I am honored to be today's stop on the Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose Blog Tour 2012 ! I first met Tina Nichols Coury nearly two decades ago in a writing class taught by Alexis O'Neill. One day Tina shared her idea for a story about Mount Rushmore. Tina's excitement was spilling over as she told us about Lincoln Borglum, the son of sculptor Gutzon Borglum. I remember feeling a tingle in my heart - I knew my friend was embarking on something special. I have seen Tina's sheer dedication to the story of Lincoln Borglum as she researched, revised, and carefully crafted every word of her story. As critique partners, Tina and I have supported each othe through many journeys, in writing and in life.  I am thrilled to share in the joy as we celebrate the launch of Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose - Growing Up on Mount Rushmore with the interview of my dear friend, Tina Nichols Coury.

Comment Raffle - You could be a winner!

Please join me in celebrating Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose - Growing Up on Mount Rushmore! Share your comment and participate in the Blog Tour "Comment Raffle Prize." One lucky reader who leaves a comment before May 15th will be selected at random to win a KINDLE!

Why is the story of Lincoln Borglum important to share? What spark in his story ignited you?

I am crazy about history and kids who helped change it. What amazed me about Lincoln and the building of Mount Rushmore is how little I knew about the story. At a time when most fathers left the parenting to the wife, Gutzon showered his son Lincoln with time and attention. Lincoln went everywhere with his dad since he was a baby, from meeting Kings in European courts to the Presidents in the White House. Lincoln was there at the beginning when Gutzon was hired to carve a mountain in South Dakota. Lincoln was at his dad side and learned to carve a mountain. What an amazing story. You were in that children’s literature class in 1994 the day I brought in the story. If you remember Barbara, I asked the class what angle I should take on the manuscript and everyone agreed the best idea was to focus on Lincoln Borglum.

Your writer’s journey spanned nearly two decades. How did you find the courage and motivation to keep your story alive?

Believe me I never dreamed it would take so long. At first I thought it would spit it out in 6 months, have a book out in a year and go on to something else. I knew nothing about craft, collaboration and children’s literature. But I was lucky, my first children’s writing teacher, Alexis O’Neil was a SCBWI Regional Advisor so early on I was introduce to the wonderful family of the SCBWI. Over the years I attended countless SCBWI workshops, retreats, smoozes, critiquenics, conferences and had many critique groups. I learned about voice, plot, characters language, promotion, marketing and totally immersed myself in the fabulous world of children’s literature. But why I stayed are the people. The nicest, sweetest, generous souls are in the SCBWI. I had found life long friends. Where else could I get dressed up in a costume and get a prize for doing so?

What are the greatest challenges you faced in the writing process?

Not walking away. Around year five or six I was so discouraged by all the rejection letters that I was ready to quit. I sat on the floor of your parent’s living room during a critique group wanting to give it all up. If you remember, you and Alexis talked me in to staying the course, encourage me to work on other manuscripts and made me believe that some day I would be published.

How many revisions did you write for Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose?

I should ask you how many revisions you have read. Hundreds, thousands, ten years worth of revisions before it was acquired at a SCBWI Writer’s Day in 2005 by editor Mark McVeigh of Dutton. After a few more years I did revisions with Mark, and when he left Dutton, revisions with my new editor, Steve Meltzer. Before Dutton had the manuscript it was a diary, it was in first person, it was in third person, and it was called “In the Shadow of the Mountain.” It was called, “The Diary of Lincoln Borglum.” The great title, “Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose,” came from illustrator/author Siri Weber Feeney who I was in a critique group with. Over the years I also illustrated five dummies, but never felt the art was right. When Mark just bought the manuscript and not the art I was relieved and it freed me up to be a writer.

How did you feel when you first saw Sally Werner Comport’s illustrations?

OMG I was blown away. I was a big fan of Sally. She had illustrated many historical picture books. Mark had made the perfect choice. I immediately sent Sally a small Mount Rushmore made from the actual South Dakota granite as a good luck charm for the project. Years later when I saw the final art, I cried. The illustrations were beautiful and captured the spirit of the book.

Can you share some fun facts about Lincoln Borglum and the creation of Mt Rushmore that are not included in the book?

There are so many. The hard part of writing the book was deciding what stories stay and what stories go.

Here’s one about Lincoln. You didn’t need driver’s license in those days. Lincoln learned to drive a car when he was a kid. The family had a driver but Gutzon often let Lincoln do it. At twelve years old Lincoln drove the family to the top of Pike’s Peak and got a certificate for doing so.

Besides being a talented sculptor, Gutzon Borglum was the ultimate promoter. In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge was in the Black Hills, and Borglum was planning a formal dedication of the mountain. Borglum hired a plane to fly over the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park where Coolidge was staying. As he flew by Borglum dropped a wreath to invite the President to the dedication ceremony. Fortunately Coolidge agreed to attend and dedicate the mountain.

The next story said a lot about the father and son bond.

When Lincoln was in high school his dad had him drive down to his Texas studio to pick up the model of Mount Rushmore to use for measurements. Lincoln fell asleep and car drove into a ditch and the model was destroyed. When Lincoln called his dad to tell him about the accident Gutzon said, “It is easier to fix a model than to fix a boy.” Don’t you just love that story?

What would Lincoln Borglum think about Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose?

Unlike his dad Gutzon, Lincoln was a humble man. Lincoln always spread the credit around and he would have liked that the book highlighted the crew as well as him in the carving of Mount Rushmore. From the begining I worked closely with Lincoln’s daughter, Robin Borglum Carter. She told me family stories, sent me photos and encouraged me in many ways. She is delighted that the story of her dad has finally been published.

No doubt copies of Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose will be flying off bookshelves and making their way into the hands and hearts of readers. What are your thoughts about being an “overnight success?”

Seventeen and half years are hardly overnight and I cross my fingers hoping for some success with the book. I hadn’t even thought of reviews but I was really pleased with Daniel Krauss of Booklist. He said “…Perfect for history units, this is a great piece of work about a great piece of work.” Man that was sweet.

It has been a wonderful journey full of friends, knowledge and tons of great books. I am really enjoying this published author thingy. I am glad I waited for a traditional house that gave me my wonderful editor, Steve Meltzer and my editor turned agent, Mark McVeigh. But mostly I look forward to school visits and hanging out with the kids. Who knows, maybe one of them is the next Lincoln Borglum who will help change history.

See the full list of stops on the Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose Blog Tour!

My friend, Tina Nichols Coury, and me!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Blogging for YALSA

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour - Welcome Robert Sharenow - The Berlin Boxing Club

I am honored to introduce Rob Sharenow, winner of the 2012 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s TeenReaders Category for The Berlin Boxing Club published by HarperTeen. This historical novel reveals the history of Nazi Germany through the eyes of Karl Stern, a typical 14-year-old German boy. Karl never gave much thought to being Jewish and had little connection with any religious life. When classmates bully Karl, he is forced to face the dangers in his own community. Given the opportunity to learn boxing from German champion Max Schmeling, Karl jumps at the chance. He grows strong and learns to defend himself. But as the Nazi’s gain power and his family is in peril, Karl questions who he can trust. The Berlin Boxing Club is a riveting read - bringing history to life in a compelling story that will inspire readers of all ages.

I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Rob and learn more about The Berlin Boxing Club.

In Berlin Boxing Club, Karl is a believable teen. His thoughts, emotions, and experiences will ring true for today's readers. Interestingly, Karl doesn't identify with being Jewish. Why was this an important part of Karl’s character?

I think most teenagers have mixed feelings about their identity, particularly if they don't see themselves as part of a majority. I grew up in a town where Jews were a real minority. Despite being brought up with a strong Jewish background, I did not love the idea of being identified as the class "Jew" at school and having to answer for that in any way. At school, I wanted to be just another kid, and I was largely able to achieve that in modern America. Nazi Germany did not allow for such choices. In 1930s Berlin, a Jew was a Jew and you could never deny or change that in the eyes of anyone. I specifically made Karl come from a non-observant family to amplify just how unfair the Nazi labeling could be. Interestingly, although Karl does not consider himself Jewish, his interests reflect that identity without him even knowing it. His love of comic books and cartooning is a very Jewish trait, as is his love of the sport of boxing. One of the wonderful revelations for his character is his discovery of the Jewish fighters who filled the U.S. boxing ranks at the time. For a German boy, it was a complete shock to see that kind of powerful image of Jewish masculinity. It still is.

After Karl is attacked by bullies at school and jumps at the opportunity to learn boxing from Max Schmeling. What sparked your interest in the famous boxer?
I first learned about Schmeling when I was working as a writer for the History Channel. I was astonished to learn that he had never joined the Nazi party and his manager and close friends were Jews. This completely flew in the face of all my assumptions about him being an Aryan superman and a poster boy for Hitler. I'm a real history buff and I'm always intrigued when a character from history reveals some unexpected quality or dimension. Also, Schmeling's life had an epic quality, he was a boxing champion, a soldier, he married a movie star, and then went on to become a hugely successful businessman. I haven't come across many characters who led such a varied and exciting life.

As a work of historical fiction, how much research was involved in writing the story? How concerned are you with balancing fact and fiction?

I researched the subject for several years. I love interweaving fact and fiction, but I'm very careful to try to keep the historical characters as rooted in reality as possible. To understand Schmeling, I studied everything I could about him, read his autobiography, watched films of all his fights and TV appearances. I tried to make sure I was capturing him as realistically as possible.

In the process of researching and writing, what is the most surprising or interesting thing you discovered?

I was most shocked by how much many Jewish boys in Nazi Germany wanted to join the Hitler Youth. Like most kids, they just wanted to belong to the cool new club that all of their friends were joining. I read an incredible memoir called Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J Massaquoi, and he conveyed much of the same emotion. The book cover has a photograph of him as a young black boy, with a homemade swastika pinned to his sweater. The power of adolescent longing transcends politics. You just want to fit in.

Rob - Congratulations on winning the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teen Readers. Thanks for taking the time to participate in the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour!

To learn more about the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, please visit the AJL Blog

To learn more about the Sydney Taylor Book Award, please visit the Official
STBA page.

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