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Friday, November 23, 2007

Introducing D. Dina Friedman

I’m delighted to introduce D. Dina Friedman. She is the author of two award-winning novels, ESCAPING INTO THE NIGHT, and PLAYING DAD’S SONG. Dina’s well-crafted stories deal with the Holocaust and the tragedy of 9/11. Through her books, young readers are able to view these difficult events with greater understanding and compassion for those who lived through the experiences.

Dina is a true creative spirit – a writer, musician, performer, community activist and more. I was pleased she was able to take time from her busy touring schedule to talk about her stories.

Your book, ESCAPING INTO THE NIGHT (Simon and Schuster, 2006) deals with the underground encampments during the Holocaust. Why were you drawn to write about this topic?

I was inspired to write about this after I visited the National Museum of the Holocaust in Washington DC and read about Tuvia Bielski, who saved 1200 Jews by setting up these encampments in the forests. Though I'd read a lot about the Holocaust and thought I knew most of the key aspects of Holocaust history, this was a story I had never heard. These encampments encompassed entire communities, and focused on mostly saving Jews who were unable to fight (women, children, elderly, etc.) I was intrigued with learning about how these communities functioned, how people survived in them, and what a child's experience living here might be like.

PLAYING DAD’S SONG (Farrar,Straus,Giroux,2006)is about a different kind of survival. Gus, your main character, is dealing with the loss of his dad after 9/11. What inspired you to write about music and performing as opportunities to help Gus heal?

I've always had a strong belief that expressing one's creative self, whatever that might be, promotes healing. My childhood self was an actress wannabee, and I've dabbled in music all my life, starting with piano lessons as a child, teaching myself guitar, playing the chimes in college, and playing in a klezmer band, so I while I believe that throwing yourself into any passion can help you grow and heal, I wanted to write about something I know and love.

Why did you start writing children's book?

ESCAPING INTO THE NIGHT was my first children's book. Before that I focused my writing on novels for adults, though I did try a couple of bad picture books. When I contemplated this story, it just seemed right that the book be written for a younger audience, and I felt familiar with the genre, having read an extensive number of YA and middle grade novels to my children (and later, on my own, because I enjoyed them so much.)

What are you working on now?

It depends on how you define "working on." I'm shopping a book I completed about a boy growing up under McCarthyism whose parents are accused of being Communists; I'm revising a book about a teenager who has to drop out of school to take care of her mentally ill mother; and I'm contemplating a number of other ideas, which I'm beginning to research, as well as write a few rough dribs and drabs.

What is the best thing about being a children's writer?

I love the audience. I like meeting children at book clubs and schools. I also like meeting other children's book writers and "talking shop." I appreciate that no matter how dark they are, most children's books have a "happyish" ending, and that while angst is there, it doesn't completely take over.

What is the hardest part about being a writer?

For me, the hardest part about writing is the first draft. Making things up is like pulling teeth, and my first drafts are really bad because I'm the type of writer who can't figure out where I'm going until I've started writing. It's not efficient, but I can't do it any other way.

What is your favorite question you have been asked by a reader?
I love it when readers ask me something specific about my books that shows that they really understand and care about my characters.

Do you have hobbies besides writing?

I'm an avid gardener, and right now it's hard to find time to write because we are still trying to process this year's tomatoes. I also love to hike, and I walk every day with my dog in the woods by our house. I like cross-country skiing, reading, playing music, and doing comedy improvisation. And I've finally cured myself of an addiction to Sudoku puzzles.

Do you have any pets?

I have a dog named Lefty (husky-shepherd) and a cat named Mopsy.

Can you share a few fun facts about you?

The info above pretty much covers it, but here are some lesser known things about me:
I am a baseball fan (currently Red Sox, but I grew up with the Mets in a family where sports was an everyday dinner table conversation topic.)

In my current family (husband, Shel, daughter, Alana -19, and son, Rafael-14) we never talk about baseball. The threads that link our family are music and food.

I cannot drive more than a mile without listening to a book on tape.

I grew up in New York City, and met my husband at a poetry reading in Greenwich Village.

I currently live next door to a dairy farm with over 300 cows.

Dina, it’s been great getting to know you! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. To learn more about Dina, please check out her web site at

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Heidi Estrin - Books for Life!

I'm delighted to welcome librarian Heidi Estrin to my blog. Heidi is the Library Director at a congregation in Boca Raton, Florida, presides over the South Florida Association of Jewish Libraries, and spent several years on the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. Heidi also hosts Jewish authors on her blog podcast, THE BOOK OF LIFE. It's librarians like Heidi who put the right books in the right hands, helping children to become enthusiastic lifelong readers. Heidi's dedication and passion for Jewish literature is evident in the all the work she does for the community.

Where did you develop your passion for Jewish literature for children?

When I first came to work at the library at Congregation B'nai Israel (, I feared that I'd be stuck with a bunch of dry, didactic, dull old storybooks. I had the same impression of Jewish kidlit that many people have, left over from our childhoods when Jewish lit was more limited. I was amazed to learn that in actuality, Jewish kidlit is now as interesting, beautiful, inspired, and playful as any other literature! We've entered a sort of Golden Age in Jewish publishing, but many people don't know it. That's why I'm such a promoter for Jewish kidlit - I want people to realize that's "it's not your Bubbe's library!"

As a librarian, what do you look for in books that you recommend to young readers?

I look for books that have heart. I want to see the author's enthusiasm coming through the pages, and I want to see that the author and illustrator have honed their craft and worked hard to make their book the best it can be. I hate it when I feel like a book went to press before it was finished baking, so to speak. And although they have their uses, I'm not really into books that have an educational agenda. Too much like spinach, when what I really want is cinnamon coffeecake (to keep up with the cooking metaphore).

Are there any significant trends in the area of Jewish literature for children?

Why yes, thank you for asking, Barbara! I've just written an article about trends in contemporary Jewish children's literature, and you can read it at! There's also a great article there by my fellow librarian Linda Silver about classic Jewish children's literature. Just to give you a quick overview, the biggest trend I see is that Jewish kidlit is no longer shy and no longer stuck in the shtetl. It's getting more mainstream and more experimental.

What is your role in the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee?

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee of the Association of Jewish Libraries selects the best Jewish kids' books each year for younger, older, and teen readers. I was a reviewer on the Committee 2002-2005 and I was the Chair 2004-2005. When I "graduated" and Rachel Kamin took over as Chair, she had just had a baby, so I stayed on as a sort of assistant to help her out. This worked so well that we've officially decided that the Past Chair should always stick with the committee (in a non-voting capacity) to help with transitions and administrative stuff. So I'm still hanging around - they can't get rid of me! If anybody needs info about the award, by the way, the best resource is The next round of winners will be announced in January.

What books are “missing” from the genre that you would like published?

This is an important question, because Jewish kidlit tends to be lopsided. We have an overabundance of Holocaust-related books for older kids and teens, and quite a lot of books on Chanukah for younger kids. We need more books on lesser-known holidays, we need more non-holiday books about everyday Jewish life (especially from a non-Orthodox viewpoint), we need more (non-political and non-tourist-guide-style) books about Israel, and we especially need more books for preschoolers. Another project I'm involved with is the PJ Library (, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation which provides Jewish books and music for families with young children. The PJ Library book selection committee has the hardest time finding quality Jewish books for kids under age 3, especially when you think of it in terms of these books competing for attention against titles like Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, or No David! So we really need more authors and publishers to take up this challenge.

Tell us about your podcast, The Book of Life.

I host a monthly podcast (an Internet radio show) about Jewish books, music, film, and web resources. It's like Fresh Air on NPR, only with a Jewish focus. It's called The Book of Life and you can hear it at I interview authors, illustrators, musicians, librarians, and others involved in the Jewish arts. It's probably about 50/50 between materials for kids and adults. I've been doing this for two years and I love it! It gives me a wonderful excuse to talk to all these creative people, a real treat for a book groupie like me! I also really enjoy the editing process, it's like an audio version of doing arts & crafts.

Usually I create one episode per month, but in November I ended up with too much material so I created a Thanksgiving Shout-Out Special as a bonus episode. In December the theme will be Hanukkah, and will include an interview with you, Barbara, about your book Like a Maccabee! There will also be an interview with illustrator Ann Koffsky about her snowflake for Robert's Snow (a cancer fundraiser) - I mention that now just because the snowflake auction deadline is coming up, so if you think you might want to bid on Ann's beautiful snowflake "Jerusalem, City of Peace," go to, ASAP!

What is your favorite holiday?

My favorite holiday is Passover. I like that it's not about presents, but about storytelling. I like that there's so much ritual involved, including the getting-ready-beforehand part. It has oomph. There's a lot more "there there" to Passover than most other holidays.

Heidi, thanks for sharing your passionate perspective on Jewish literature for kids!

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Everything Esme

Esme Raji Codell is an author and certified readiologist. I first learned about Esme, a young urban teacher with big dreams in her acclaimed memoir, EDUCATING ESME. Years later, I began reading her children’s books, and was delighted when an advance reader copy of VIVE LE PARIS arrived in my mailbox for review. I was immediately pulled into the story, promptly took off my reviewer hat, curled up in a chair and savoured every page. When I learned the book was awarded the Sydney Taylor Honor Award for “outstanding contribution to Jewish Literature,” I was not surprised!

Esme is passionate about books, literacy, and children. I am thrilled beyond measure that she was willing to share her thoughts and insights on my blog.

VIVE LA PARIS is about the relationship of an urban African American girl, and her piano teacher, a holocaust survivor. What was the inspiration for writing a story about the connecting of diverse cultures?

When I was teaching the fifth grade in Chicago to an inner-city classroom of about thirty five kids, I read aloud a book called Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, about children and the Danish resistance during WWII. It was very indirect as to the particulars of the Nazi threat, and none of these children were Jewish or had any prior knowledge of the Holocaust. I was happy to skirt around the atrocities. When the book inspired more probing questions, I answered with the academic equivalent to “Go ask your father,” which is, “go to the library.”

Well, one day, I saw one of my students writing and crying so hard that tears were falling on the page. When I went to see, she was making a word search with words like NAZI AND CREMATORIUM. It turned out that she DID go to the library, and making this word search was her was of processing this information that she had found. I realized that I had chickened out, but I needed something to help me, as a teacher. I needed a book that spoke to all children, especially inner-city children who fight their own wars and injustices every day. I wanted a book that spoke to children now, who are so inundated with media, with images of Rwanda and 9/11 and the Asian tsunami and images from Katrina. So I wrote VIVE LA PARIS specifically from a diverse cultural point of view because I hoped it would be useful in reaching kids from all kinds of backgrounds as a springboard for a larger discussion: how do we deal with the bullies of the world? And, how does history repeat itself, in big ways and in small ways? These questions belong to all cultures. The book can be looked at in this context, but lots of kids also enjoy the straightforward tension of the plot; the idea of a fifth grade girl bullying an eighth grade boy is a big problem, and Paris, the boy’s sister, just gets madder and madder and madder. I think a lot of kids can relate to the idea of an escalating situation, and the desire to solve things peacefully...and just how hard that can be.

VIVE LA PARIS is a companion novel for another book I wrote, SAHARA SPECIAL. Characters appear in both books, so kids who enjoyed SAHARA can see their old friends again, but I was very careful to make sure each book stands on its own. You don’t have to read one to enjoy the other.

Paris, the main character in the book, had no previous knowledge of the Holocaust. Do you think today’s children are lacking exposure to the struggles of previous generations?

I think there’s a fine line between teaching kids the struggles of past generations and discouraging them with the incredible inhumane episodes that recur again and again in the world invented by grown-ups. But in answer to your question, yes, I think generally children could afford to know more about what previous generations have contributed to the present, but then again, I think everyone could afford to know more. I hope history would be approached with a sense of gratitude for what has been sacrificed and endured to arrive at this moment, and with some optimism about the future. Since most history is traditionally taught within a contextual timeline of war, this requires some conscientious effort.

Did you do a lot of research or is VIVE LA PARIS based on personal knowledge and experiences?

I was already well versed in the events of the Holocaust, though lots of facts were checked and re-checked. I did read up a lot on the entertainer Josephine Baker who is referenced in the novel. She really did lead an incredible life, working for the Resistance and dedicating so much of her personal life to the celebration of diversity. But most of VIVE LA PARIS is inspired by my own family, neighbors, children I have taught. There’s no fiction that isn’t born out of a seed of truth.

In HANUKKAH SHMANUKKAH! (Hyperion, 2005), a Jewish version A Christmas Carol, you explore a different historical aspect of the Jewish experience, including the use of humor and Yiddish words. Like Vive La Paris, this story also seems to bridge gaps between generations and communities. Do you see this an a significant theme in your writing?

Gosh, good questions, Barbara! I guess everything about me goes into my books. I grew up in a diverse multicultural neighborhood, and a lot of colloquial Yiddish was used in my home. I had a strong identification as an American, and felt like all American history was my history, including African-American history, which I learned a lot about at home and at school. I was surprised as an adult with the idea that history could belong to one group and not another. Since all the cultures in America, in my mind, should come together in a sense of belonging here, I suppose that shows through in my work.

You began your career as a teacher. Did you always want to write books?
I wanted to be a baseball umpire growing up, and then I wanted to be a scientist, but through it all I always wrote books, diaries. Short stories, articles, poems...sometimes to publish, sometimes not. I have been writing since I was able. It has always been part of who I am, not who I ever wanted to become. I always remind children that being a writer means writing, whether or not you get published, and whatever age you are.

Did your experiences as a teacher inspire your stories?

Oh, yes. Absolutely. Virtually all of my books have something to do with school, and all of my books start with something I want to share with children. I am always conscious of how my book might be used in a classroom, and I always try to write things that are fun to read aloud, since that is the most beneficial classroom approach.

I think I’m obsessed with school because it’s such an ephemeral time. Every school story is also a ghost story, because children change out of their former selves into adults. When I teach, I feel so lucky, I get to experience people during this precious, fleeting time, to know them so early in their own experience of living...and here they are, in this strange place, together: a school. It’s the stuff of great literature!

You have written many books in a variety of genres. Do you have a favorite genre?

I like writing non-fiction best, because I like observing better than having make things up. Inventing a whole fictional universe is exhausting, and requires more choices than a Libra like me can handle. Though I do try.

What are you working on now?

I have three picture books from Greenwillow on the horizon. I am also planning on launching a podcast soon that celebrates the joys of reading and the wonderful work of other authors and illustrators.

What do you like to read?

I like to read children’s books, because they are fast-paced and usually funnier than literature for adults. Realistic fiction and picture books are my favorite genre, though I’ll give anything a go for a few chapters. When I was a child, comic books were my favorite thing to read.

What is your favorite holiday?

Halloween, Johnny Appleseed’s birthday (September 26th) and my son’s birthday.

Do you have hobbies besides writing?

Well, my husband says eating is not a hobby, but I do love everything to do with food: cooking, reading food magazines, trying new restaurants. I love to spend my time listening to music, dancing and singing (usually in the privacy of my own apartment). I am also a rabid collector (I like robots, old Fisher Price toys, anything to do with fairy tales, Halloween collectibles and of course, children’s books and videos), a sloppy but bountiful urban gardener, and I like to plan parties, make puppet shows, blog about my favorite books at and read aloud. My very favorite thing to do is spend time with friends and family, and make sure they know I love them.

Do you have any pets?

We have two sugar gliders named Amelia and Philippe. They are very old and fat marsupials with a lot of personality. Definitely part of the family.

Can you share a few fun facts about you?

One of my first things I ever had published was a movie review in a newspaper when I was seven years old.
When I was a teenager, I had 200 penpals and often skipped school to write letters to them.
I worked as a doughnut finisher for Dunkin’ Doughnuts. I like their French Cruller and Strawberry Frosted best.
I secretly would like to run a museum, or have a radio show.

Esme, it had been a delight! Thanks for stopping by!

To learn more about Esme, check out her web site at
Be a part of the PlanetEsme Plan!

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Maxine Rose Schur

Maxine Rose Shur is a multi-faceted, award-winning author. Many of her books for children bring to life many unexplored aspects of Jewish history. She is also the author of SAMANTHA’S SURPRISE, from the popular AMERICAN GIRL series. Maxine’s impressive list includes two Sydney Taylor Book Awards for DAY OF DELIGHT (1994, Dial books, Penguin) and WHEN I LEFT MY VILLAGE (1994, Dial Books, Penguin). I have been a fan of Maxine’s books for many years. I am honored that she was willing to take the time to share her thoughts with me.

Your books reflect many aspects of Jewish life, from traditional torah stories like THE STORY OF RUTH to DAY OF DELIGHT, and WHEN I LEFT MY VILLAGE, which are stories about Ethiopian Jews. As a Jewish writer, do you think it is important to offer children books that reflect the diversity of Jewish culture?
Yes, that's why I wrote the The Circlemaker set during the Cantonist period in Russia in the 1850s and Sacred Shadows which revealed the life of Jews in Western Poland between the two world wars. I'm very interested in bringing to light the lesser known places and times in Jewish history. In Day of Delight and its sequel, When I Left My Village, it was also illuminating the life of little-known Jews as well. I think it's an urge to show the great diversity of Jewish experience and rescue from oblivion the life of Jews in the pockets of place and time that have fallen through the cracks.

What inspires your stories?
I have to be emotionally moved by a story to write about it. Sacred Shadows is really a fictionalized story with a real setting and real people and events from my mother's life. The Circlemaker was inspired by the main character who had appeared first in a short story I wrote and I was intrigued by him and wanted to know his past so I made it up. Day of Delight came to me full blown in a kind of poetic language. It still seems a mystery to me. Inspiration comes in so many sly and varied ways.

How important is research in your work?
I research a lot because you have to if you're writing historical fiction and it can be quite painstaking such as researching whether they had matches in 1855? Research however is also very absorbing and inspiring and allows you to know the great context beyond your story and just knowing more than you write about makes for a richer story... I believe this to be true for myself anyway. Research also can help with plot as you find all sorts of interesting bits of information and anecdotes that inspire plot ideas and dialogue.

What are you currently working on?
My book, Places in Time: Reflections on a Journey was recently named the Best Travel Book of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association and so I'm busy giving talks about it.
I'm currently working on essays about France, its culture and style and history --- all woven in with my personal experiences there. Also, I just finished a book about a dress-designer mouse who lives in Paris.

Can you share a few fun facts your readers might not know about you?
Hmmm? I used to be an actress in a soap opera and on the stage when I lived in New Zealand.

There is much more to learn about Maxine! Please visit her web site at