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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sarah Lamstein - LETTER ON THE WIND

I am happy to welcome Sarah Lamstein to my blog! Sarah crafts heart- filled stories that are loved by children, parents, teachers, and librarians. Her newest picture book, LETTER ON THE WIND (Boyds Mills Press) just received a Sydney Taylor Honor Award for picture books.

Congratulations on the Sydney Taylor Book Award! How did you hear the news?

I received a very tantalizing email from Rachel Kamin, the chair of the Sydney Taylor Award committee asking me to call her. I did and was thrilled to hear that Letter on the Wind was selected as an Honor book. I was glad I could directly hear her enthusiasm for the work of her committee and that I could convey my excitement to her. It was great!!

Tell me a little about the book.

Letter on the Wind, a Chanukah tale, is a story of faith and generosity, skepticism and innocence. When a Middle Eastern village suffers a drought and the olives hang withered on the trees, the villagers cannot make olive oil to light their menorahs. They are resigned to a year without Chanukah, but one man, the poorest in the village, won’t accept that possibility. He writes a letter to the Almighty, asking for help with the dilemma. Help arrives, but with it come complications.

This tale reminds readers of the first Chanukah and of Mattathias’ bravery in protecting his faith.

Why were you drawn to a Jewish theme?

My first Jewish-themed book, Annie’s Shabbat, was a paean to the Shabos of my childhood. My editor asked if I could write a story like Annie’s Shabbat, but about Chanukah. Chanukah wasn’t as rich for me as our weekly observance of the Sabbath, with is preparation, its feast, its shul, its Havdalah, its time of peace and family. I could have written a Chanukah story about going to Joel Feldman’s each year, where his mother served a delicious meal, his grandfather being a butcher and always supplying his family with the fattest and juiciest hotdogs to go with our latkes.

My editor suggested that instead I research Jewish folktales to find one for Chanukah. Dov Noy’s Folktales of Israel proved a valuable source. One of the stories, a Passover tale entitled “Letter to the Almighty” captivated me with its image of a poor, innocent man sending a letter to the Almighty on the wind. It was the poetry of that image that set me to writing Letter on the Wind.

How much research was required to write the book?

I wanted to set the tale in the Middle East – a place of olive groves – in, say, the sixteenth century. I researched Jewish communal living in that time and place, found little, and broadened my scope to just plain communal living. I also looked a bit into the horticulture of olive trees and the process of making olive oil. I believe the illustrator, Neil Waldman, researched, among other things, menorahs. But rather than from research, the setting of the tale came more from my intuition and imagination.

How did you become a children’s writer?

After my first child was born, I began to explore writing for children but spent most of my early mothering years writing poetry. When our family spent two summers in Nepal for my husband’s work, I was drawn to the folk literature of the country and worked with a Nepali writer to produce a collection of tales for American readers. That project, From the Mango Tree and Other Folktales from Nepal, set me on the path to writing for children.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on old manuscript – something I’ve been clinging to for twenty years – a work of nonfiction for older readers. And in the back of my mind is a middle grade novel with a Jewish theme.

What are some fun facts about you?

I’m a puppeteer.
I love Motown.
I can play the Third Man Theme on my nose.

What is your favorite holiday?

My favorite holiday is Pesach because it involves a full table – filled with food and people gathered around it. I love the opportunity for discussion. I love the singing. But most of all, I love the long preparation – the quiet time in my kitchen preparing the ancient symbols – the roasted egg, the roasted shank bone, the horseradish, the charoseth. I feel like my mother, performing the same tasks as she. I feel like a part of a rich continuum.

To learn more about Sarah, please visit her web site at www.SarahLamstein.com

Sarah, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about writing books for children. Congratulations on your well deserved Sydney Taylor Honor Award!

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