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Monday, March 31, 2008

Welcome Editor Alexandra Cooper!

Alexandra Cooper is an editor at Simon and Schuster. I met Alexandra at a recent SCBWI Writer’s Retreat. She was kind enough to answer some questions about Jewish books, and her role as an editor. Many people wonder about the editor’s perspective, and I’m delighted to share Alexandra’s thoughts on Jewish literature for children.

As an editor in a mainstream publishing house are you able to produce books that fit into the genre of Jewish children's literature?

I think so. Every editor has to have a balanced list, between novels and picture books and also between more commercial and more literary projects. I would count Jewishly-themed books as a part of my mix, and I am definitely enthusiastic about editing books of Jewish interest. It's about striking that balance--no editor can publish books meant only for one audience, unless that editor is at a publishing house exclusively devoted to that particular audience. As an editor at a general trade house, I think I have the opportunity to raise awareness and bring books I love to a wider population.

Are there any unique marketing issues with a book that has a Jewish thread?

The Jewish community in particular has some wonderful resources, so there are a number of opportunities for books of Jewish interest to reach their target audience. But what about expanding beyond that base? I wouldn't want a person to pick up a book, then realize that the book has some Jewish content and think, "That's not for me." Every book has a specific theme, but the challenge is to make that translate universally so the book speaks to a wide audience, not just those readers who could directly relate to the protagonist.

Is there a Jewish topic that is not well represented in mainstream books that you would like to see?

That's a tough question! I'm looking for books that appeal to a wide audience, but at the same time, aren't just another book that's similar to what's already been published, or to a book I've already edited. There are all kinds of topics, Jewish and not, that aren't necessarily what I'd call well-represented by general publishers, but that's also not the mission of a mainstream house. I think that more and more, specialized publishers are going to gain traction, because they will be able to put out strong books meant for a specific audience, books that will be found and embraced by that specific audience. It's already happening with the recording industry and with movie-making--smaller companies are finding it easier to brand themselves by creating niches.

Do you have any book in your previous or current list you would like to mention?

I edited a middle-grade novel called THE TRUTH ABOUT MY BAT MITZVAH, by Nora Raleigh Baskin, that I'm really excited about. It centers around a girl who is just discovering her Jewish identity--her mother is Jewish but her father isn't, and her best friend is starting to plan her own bat mitzvah. I think Nora absolutely captured how it feels to be in seventh grade and confused about everything, trying to navigate friendships and boys and school, and the character here is also struggling with religion, tradition, and family.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I couldn't pick only one--I think that's part of the reason I work in children's books now! I remember loving Ferdinand the Bull, Caps for Sale, and the Frog and Toad stories, to name a mere

Alexandra, thanks so much for sharing your words of wisdom!

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Welcoming Steve Sheinkin and Rabbi Harvey!

Graphic novels are a growing genre in children's literature. Steve Sheinkin has created a series young readers love. He is the writer and illustrator of The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey (Jewish Lights), for which he won Moment Magazine's Emerging Writer Award in children's literature in 2006. The new follow-up, Rabbi Harvey Rides Again, was published by Jewish Lights in March 2008. Steve lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn, NY. I recently met Steve at the Jewish Literature for Children conference in Los Angeles. Be sure to check out his newest book!

Tell me a little bit about your latest book. Why you were drawn to write about a Jewish theme or character?

Rabbi Harvey Rides Again is a graphic novel of Jewish folktales, creatively retold and let loose in the Wild West. Harvey’s part old world rabbi, part western sheriff. He protects his town and delivers justice wielding only the weapons of wisdom, wit, and a bit of trickery. This book is a follow-up to The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, for which I was honored to win Moment Magazine’s Emerging Writer Award in children’s literature in 2006.

I grew up loving both Jewish folktales and stories of the American West. So I guess Jewish and American folklore were mixing in my head for years, and these Rabbi Harvey stories are the result. One thing I love about retelling these classic tales is the opportunity to add my own characters and dialogue—and lots of jokes.

What type of research was involved?

The “research” was a pleasure. Basically, I read every book of traditional Jewish stories, Talmudic wisdom, and Hassidic tales I could find. I started with my own books, most of which once belonged to my father—the real Jewish scholar in our family, and a major inspiration for the Harvey character. Then I branched out to libraries and on-line searches. What I love to do is find a few great stories or gems of wisdom, and then figure out a way to weave them into a single narrative.

How did you become a children’s writer?

For years I researched and wrote history textbooks for a living. And time after time, I watched nervous editors cut out all the best stories. This was so frustrating that I finally started writing my own history books for kids, packing them with all the amazing, funny, and gross stories and quotes that never make it into textbooks. A couple of these books will be coming out with Roaring Brook Press later this year.

My approach to Rabbi Harvey has been kind of similar. I would never set out to preach to kids about Jewish ethics. But I do love to take this wealth of material, and figure out ways of making it funny and accessible to young readers. My favorite quote about the first Rabbi Harvey book came a from Publisher’s Weekly reviewer, who said: “Harvey’s adventures are so much fun, you hardly realize you’re learning anything until it’s too late.”

Was it difficult for you to get these books published?

The first Rabbi Harvey book went through about eight years of steady rejections before it was finally published by Jewish Lights in 2006. The concept of setting Jewish folktales in the Wild West, and doing it all in graphic novel format, is a bit strange, apparently. At least, that’s what publishing companies told me. But I just kept thinking about myself as a kid, picturing myself reading Rabbi Harvey. I knew I would have liked it, and that encouraged me to keep trying to get it out there to other readers.

What are you working on now?

I hope to begin work on a third volume of Rabbi Harvey stories later this year. My goal is to keep the series going, so we’ll see… And I’m always plugging away on new history projects, hoping to prove to kids that history is actually exciting (they never believe it when you just tell them).

What are a few fun facts about you?

I live in Brooklyn, NY, with my wife, Rachel, and our young daughter, Anna. Anna’s not exactly a Rabbi Harvey fan yet. In fact, when I showed her the first book, she attempted to eat it. I love to get out of the city and into nature whenever possible, and I help maintain a hiking trail along the Hudson River about an hour north of NYC.

What is your favorite holiday?

My favorite has always been Pesach, because it’s so much about telling and re-telling wonderful stories. Sure, my uncle offers the same exact commentaries year after year, but even that’s part of the fun. And every year, before the seder, I can research some new angle, some new interpretation or insight, and use it to spark conversation and debate. I think Rabbi Harvey would lead a great Seder, though I’m not really qualified to say exactly what he might do.

Steve, thanks for visiting! To learn more about Rabbi Harvey visit

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Welcoming Jacqueline Jules!

Jacqueline Jules has made some terrific contributions to Jewish literature for children, and it is an honor to share her interview on my blog. Jacqueline Jules is the author of thirteen children's books including The Hardest Word (Kar-Ben), The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle(Kar-Ben), No English (Mitten Press), Abraham's Search for God (Kar-Ben), and Sarah Laughs (Kar-Ben). The Hardest Word and Abraham's Search for God were named Notable Books for Younger readers by the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. Sarah Laughs was named a 2009 Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Younger Readers. She is also a public elementary school librarian, who teaches weekly classes to students from preschool through sixth grade. The mother of two grown sons, she lives in Northen Virginia, with her husband, Alan, the webmaster for

Tell me a little bit about Sarah Laughs. Why you were drawn to write about this biblical matriarch?

To talk about Sarah Laughs (Kar-Ben, 2008), I need to talk a little bit about its companion book, Abraham's Search for God (Kar-Ben, 2007). Both books are part of a Bible series I am doing for Kar-Ben Publishing. The original idea for Abraham's Search for God came to me in 2001, when I was working as a synagogue librarian at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC. One of the religious school teachers asked me for a book for young children on our patriarch Abraham. I couldn't find anything suitable in the children's collection. Since the library had an endowment for children's books, I tried finding something I could purchase. Everything available had too many words and not enough pictures for young children. I realized that there was a need for a more child-friendly introduction to Abraham. That inspired me. My work as a librarian frequently leads me to the topics I choose to write about. Librarians love connecting readers with books. When I have no existing book to fill a request, I find myself itching to write one. Maybe I have an overwhelming need to please, but my creative juices start pumping when I see a need for something that doesn't currently exist.

It took several years to get a book contract for Abraham's Search for God. However, when Kar-Ben purchased it, they requested a book about Sarah as well. I agreed because my research into available children's books on Abraham had taught me that there was a need for children's book on the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs.

Sarah Laughs tells the familiar bible story of Abraham's journey to Canaan, through his wife, Sarah's, eyes. It imagines the thoughts that must have twirled in Sarah's mind when Abraham told her they were leaving their comfortable home in Ur to go to an unknown place. Sarah had fears and concerns, but she was a true partner in everything her husband did. The story follows the couple through years of traveling in Canaan, ending with Isaac's birth, when Sarah uttered her famous laugh.

What type of research was involved?

I did extensive research for Sarah Laughs. My main sources, which are listed on the last page of the book are Biblical Images by Adin Steinsaltz; Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary edited by David Lieber; Daughters of Fire by Fran Manushkin; Legends of the Bible by Louis Ginzberg; Miriam’s Well by Alice Bach; Pentateuch & Haftorahs, second edition, edited by J.H. Hertz; Reading the Old Testament by Lawrence Boadt; Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler; Wrestling with Angels by Naomi Rosenblatt. The Torah does not describe Sarah or her feelings in great detail, so I had often had to rely on midrash. As a librarian, research comes naturally to me. Librarians love digging up facts. And once I start researching a subject, it becomes an exciting adventure.

How did you become a children’s writer?

I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't want to be a writer. Long before I wanted to be a librarian, before I wanted to be a wife and a mother, I wanted to be a writer. I have always loved to read. Books took me to different worlds. They introduced me to interesting people. They were magical. The idea of creating something myself that gave me such pleasure was very appealing to me, even as child of nine. In third grade, when my teacher asked us all to put our career goals down on a strip of construction paper for a bulletin board, I wrote down "writer."

In 1979, I got a BA in Writing at The University of Pittsburgh, becoming one of the first undergraduates of a newly established writing program. However, it was many years before I realized that most of the protagonists in my stories were young people and I should start marketing my work to children's publishers. Some of the same stories that were rejected by adult publishers were accepted by children's magazines. That's when I began to focus on writing for children. A little while later, when I went back to school to become a librarian, I found myself mesmerized by the children's literature courses. While I have worked as a Judaica librarian, serving both children and adults, my first love is for children's literature, and I am happiest working in an elementary school library as I do now. I am a voracious reader, but I only read one or two adult books (outside of my research) a year.

Do you have any new books to tell us about?

I am excited to tell you that I have four new books out. Three of them are of Jewish interest. The Princess and the Ziz (Kar-Ben Publishing), the fourth book in the Ziz series, which began in 2001 with The Hardest Word, was released in September of 2008. This story is an extension of a tale about King Solomon's daughter, in which I first encountered the gigantic mythical bird called the Ziz. In The Princess and the Ziz, the eager lovable Ziz takes the princess on a joyful trip around the world. But when she falls in love with a young man, the Ziz becomes jealous and problems follow. I have had a great time doing author presentations for The Princess and the Ziz. At some events, the kids have come dressed in royal costumes. We sing princess songs. To hear a little of the program and see the Ziz flying, please visit my website and watch The Princess and the Ziz book trailer,

The Princess and the Ziz was followed by a board book, Goodnight Sh’ma. Eventhough board books are quite short, they are not easy to write because every word is important, and the rhyme must scan perfectly. My editor and I were absolutely thrilled when Jewish Living Magazine said Goodnight Sh’ma should become “a must-read bedtime story for Jewish babies."

Benjamin and the Silver Goblet
was released in January 2009. It is the third book in the Bible series which began with Abraham’s Search for God. Benjamin and the Silver Goblet tells a story I have been enchanted with for years. When Joseph falsely accuses Benjamin of stealing his silver goblet, he gives his brothers the opportunity to abandon their youngest brother. Will they treat Benjamin as callously as they treated Joseph all those years ago? The brothers choose not to make the same kind of mistake they made before, thereby showing they have repented for their crime. For me, this bible story reveals the true meaning of teshuvah (repentance). Benjamin and the Silver Goblet, like Abraham’s Search for God, and Sarah Laughs are all PJ Library selections.

Finally, Charlesbridge Publishing released Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation in January 2009. Illustrated by Nickelodeon Magazine comic strip artist, Jef Czekaj, Unite or Die dramatizes the conflicts and compromises of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in the form of a school play performed by exuberant young actors dressed as the thirteen original colonies. Please see the book trailer for Unite or Die at

What are a few fun facts about you?

In addition to reading and writing, I like to sing. Before story time in my school library, my youngest students and I always sing for about ten minutes. Some of the songs are from children's tapes I listen to in the car, and others are ones I have simply made up. I also love puppets. I have a huge collection of them, including a Ziz puppet I asked an artist to make for me. My puppets love to kiss little cheeks as we sing songs in the library or at my author appearances.

My favorite color at the moment is purple. Two summers ago, I redecorated my bedroom with purple paint, purple carpet, purple bedspread, and purple sheets. Many of my clothes are purple including my winter coat and favorite earrings. I recently purchased a purple purse.

What is your favorite holiday?

My fondest holiday memories are of Rosh Hashanah when I was a child. I grew up in a small congregation of less than one hundred families in a small southern town. After Rosh Hashanah evening services, there was an Oneg for the entire congregation. We would stay for hours after services, eating delicious cookies and talking. I also remember feeling special in the new dress and shoes my parents bought me for the Rosh Hashanah holiday. One day, I hope to write a story that captures the joy of celebrating the holidays in a small congregation.

Jacqueline, it has been a delight getting to know you! For more information about Jacqueline or her books, visit her web site at

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