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Friday, April 16, 2010

The Year of Goodbyes

Debbie Levy is the author of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry books for young people. Her most recent title is The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells (Disney-Hyperion 2010). The book is based on her mother's personal poetry album and it a deeply moving account of teens growing up under the dark shadow of the Nazi era. Debbie spoke with me at length about the process of writing The Year of Goodbyes.

THE YEAR OF GOODBYES is based on your mother's "poesiealbum," which is described as an autograph album with personal messages from friends. When did you discover that your mother had kept her poesiealbum for so many years? Since writing the book have you discovered others who saved their poesiealbums ?

I can’t say with certainty when my mother first shared her poesiealbum with me. When I was growing up (in Silver Spring, Maryland), there wasn’t much talk in our family about my mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany. My sister and I knew about the Holocaust, of course; we knew parents and grandparents of other kids who had survived concentration camps. But my mother, her sister, and my grandmother really didn’t talk much about their own experiences. I think my mother felt it didn’t warrant discussion—not when others had suffered in the camps.

It wasn’t until after the death of my grandmother—my mother’s mother—in the mid 1980s that my mother shared her diary, which along with the poesiealbum is also excerpted in THE YEAR OF GOODBYES. And it was around that same time that she began talking a little bit more about her childhood. I think this came about in connection with the grassroots efforts that led to the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Like many others, she and my late father participated in the fundraising for the museum; that caused her to open up more about her experience living in Germany in the 1930s during the rise of Nazism. Sometime after that, I became aware of the existence of the poesiealbum—but I didn’t examine it closely until years later.

Here’s what happened: I wrote an article, which covered a small corner of the larger story covered in the book. The article was published in The Washington Post in November 1998. Among its readers were a couple of women who had been classmates with my mother in Hamburg, Germany in the 1930s. Remember, they’re all in their seventies by this time. Many phone calls later, in 2000 my mother and six of her girlfriends from the Jewish School for Girls in Hamburg, Germany reunited for the first time in more than 60 years in Silver Spring, Maryland.

My mother brought out her poesiealbum to share with the “girls”—two of them had written in it. This was when I got my first good look at the poesiealbum. Without even knowing what the entries in it said—they’re in German and Polish and French—I was moved by this beat-up little book full of handwriting and drawings. I studied it, got it translated, and it became clear to me that it needed to be a central element in a book about my other’s story. So, as you know, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes begins with one of the handwritten entries from the poesiealbum.

As for other survivors’ poesiealbums, one of my mother’s former Hamburg classmates, who now lives in New York, has shared her own poesiealbum with me. In it, she has an entry written by my mother as a girl!

I'm sure it is striking for today's tweens to discover that twelve year olds in Nazi Germany had the same feeling and as emotions that kids experience today. What has the response been from young readers?

The book is so new that I haven’t heard from many young readers yet, so I only have a couple of anecdotes. I’m told by a friend that her daughter said to her mother after reading it: “Mom, we’re very lucky.” Also, this same girl said that Jutta and her friends reminded her of her own friends. Someone else sent me a book report a girl wrote right after reading THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, in which she said that one reason she found the book so interesting was because she hadn’t previously read anything with such details about the lives of people during this time.

The book is peppered with some unique artwork which appears to be vintage valentines or paper dolls. Can you tell me a bit about the inclusion of these pieces?

Those are reproductions of oblaten—colorful, die-cut, and often embossed stickers that European girls collected and traded in the 1930s (and before). I’m calling them “stickers,” but that’s something of a misnomer because they didn’t actually have adhesive on their reverse sides—you would apply glue and affix them to the pages. Girls used the oblaten to decorate poesiealbum pages. The images that are scattered throughout THE YEAR OF GOODBYES come from my mother’s cache of oblaten—which she brought with her to the U.S. from Hamburg when she and her family fled in November 1938. A few years ago, she and I found them tucked in an old envelope. Collectors today call these tiny works of art “scraps.”

The bakers among your readers may also know oblaten as also a type of thin, wafer-like cookie. No, the girls were not putting cookies in their poesiealbums!

The follow-up of Jutta's friends brings her story full circle. How difficult was the research required to complete your manuscript?

The research was difficult in two ways—it was, as you can understand, often extremely sad, and it was also challenging. Of the 30 people who make an appearance in my book, half were killed by the Nazis or their collaborators in the Holocaust.

As for the challenging aspect of the research: There is no one-stop resource that a researcher can go to for definitive information on people who were killed in, or survived, the Holocaust. Databases maintained by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust research center and museum in Jerusalem) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (in Washington, D.C.) are extremely useful, and I used them both. They have their limitations, however, and sometime include incorrect information—after all, they are based on reports and testimony filed by individuals, and human error can creep in. I also consulted various books and documents that the Holocaust Museum makes available to the public, such as memorial books published by various German entities. I used an array of directories and sources to track down survivors, or the survivors of survivors. Internet research was invaluable in this respect.

Even today, 65 years after the liberation of Europe from Nazi conquest, information is still dribbling out about Holocaust victims. For example, for years our family believed that my mother’s cousin Manja died in Auschwitz concentration camp, based on reports by other family members who survived that camp. But my research led me to a Page of Testimony in Yad Vashem’s database—a statement filed by another witness—who said Manja died in the Lodz Ghetto.

Then, as my book was about to go to press, I received word from a researcher at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. She had been searching for me in a huge recently opened archive which had been held in Germany since the end of the war. It’s called the International Tracing Service. She found German government records of Manja’s transfer from Auschwitz to Stutthof concentration camp in September 1944. This was late in the war. She had survived a long time! For an instant, I was hopeful there might be some good news. But the next document was a death certificate from Stutthof; stating that Manja died on January 7, 1945 from “complete body weakness.” I was already reconciled to thinking that that this young woman perished in a concentration camp. But to think of her surviving Auschwitz (where her mother died) and then being shipped hundreds of miles north to Stutthof was very difficult. And to think of Manja surviving until January 1945, with the end of the war only four months away—heartbreaking. Manja was 25 when she died in 1945—6 years older than my mother.

What was the most interesting part of writing THE YEAR OF GOODBYES?

I’m sorry, I can’t choose just one thing. I have to mention:

· Countless hours of interviewing and talking with my mother, and examining her keepsakes.

· Listening to my mother’s six classmates from Hamburg’s Jewish School for Girls at their reunions starting in 2000.

· Tracking down information about my mother’s Parisian cousin Guy Gotthelf, who wrote in her poesiealbum in November 1938. I started with a simple Google search on his name, which yielded a map showing Rue Guy Gotthelf (Guy Gotthelf Street) in Yerres, France. Of course, I had to find out whether this was “our” Guy.

· Finding the connections between what my mother’s friends wrote in her poesiealbum and what was going on around them in Hamburg and Germany as they wrote.

Debbie, thank you for sharing so much about your research and writing process for The Year of Goodbyes. It is a special book that is sure to be meaningful to young readers. To learn more about Debbie and her books, please visit:

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Secrets of a Jewish Mother

The Jewish mother is traditionally the heart of the family. How has modern life changed the role of mothers in Jewish families? Despite technological advances, shifting social norms, and changing fashions, the soul of a Jewish mother remains strong from generation to generation.

In the newly released book, Secrets of a Jewish Mother (Dutton, 2010) a family of women share their inner thoughts about love, live, and being a Jewish mother. Jill Zarin, Lisa Wexler, and their mother Gloria Kamin candidly discuss the issues that matter to Jewish families. The authors are known from the Bravo TV show The Real Housewives of New York City, but each is a successful businesswoman in her own field and more importantly, a Jewish Mother.

Wearing their hearts on their sleeves, each of the women weigh in on some difficult topics, including inter-faith dating, difficult in-laws, and divorce. The book is full of Jewish wisdom and a bit of schmaltz. Reading Secrets of a Jewish Mother is like a sitting around the kitchen table with a pot of coffee and a chocolate bobka, listening to advice from old friends. I was thrilled the authors could take time from their busy schedules to answer a few questions about their book.

Lisa, in Secrets of a Jewish Mother your personal anecdotes are both revealing and inspiring. I admire you all for sharing your stories so candidly. What was the writing process like with three unique perspectives?

We came up with a structure for the book that allowed us to integrate stories from each of us. We called it "context, framework, action". The context were the chapter summaries and conclusions, the framework was the stories and the action was the "ask yourself" piece.

I came up with the idea for the book and led the writing process. I circulated drafts of each chapter in the context form, then asked Mom and Jill for their stories to flesh out what we were trying to say. Thanks to the beauty of email, the process went quite smoothly. I am very pleased that you can hear three voices in the book.

Gloria, my own grandmother used to say “Little children, little problems, big children big problems.” Now that your children are grown, does the worry lessen or multiply? Does a Jewish mother ever exhale?

Your grandmother and I have a lot in common. In fact, my husband Sol is fond of saying that as well. I consider my daughters to be my daughters until the day I die. Period. And their children are an extension of me as well. So the worry does not lessen at all. Sometimes it multiplies as their lives become more complex and the demands upon them increase. I worry about their economic well-being, their health and the parenting challenges they face. As we said in the book, worry is the default setting in the brain of the Jewish mother.

Lisa, you have had two high-powered careers, as an attorney and a radio host. How does your role as a Jewish mother affect your professional interactions?

I have always considered myself an ambassador for the Jewish people in anything and everything I have done. Maybe this was because I grew up in the Five Towns, from where I had to always fight against the "JAP" stereotype. I always felt I was being judged both on the face of my own personality, and as a Jewish woman.

As a Jewish mother, common to most mothers, my main priority is my children and family. I look at my life as a wheel, trying to balance career, family, friends and community. When one piece of the wheel takes up too much space, it is time to scale back.

In terms of my professional interactions, I hope that I bring to them to values I learned from my own parents, namely, to speak up, whether it be for myself or anyone else. I advocate for clients, I speak up against injustice where I see it, and I am certainly there to inquire, investigate and advocate for my children.

Jill, As a recognizable personality do you feel an added responsibility of representing Jewish mothers?

Yes and No. I don't claim to know it all and in fact I say that in the book. I just try to be a good person and be the best I can be.

Finally, I asked the authors if they have any favorite Jewish children’s books and both Lisa and Jill mentioned the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor!

Jill, Lisa, and Gloria, it's been a pleasure. Thank you for celebrating Jewish Mothers everywhere!

To learn more about The Secrets of a Jewish Mother, please visit:

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Welcome Debby Waldman

I am thrilled to introduce author Debby Waldman. Debby's first picture book, A Sack Full of Feathers, a charming retelling of a Jewish folktale, was published by Orca in 2006. She is also the author of WOW: World’s Outstanding Women Athletes (Sports Illustrated for Kids Books, 1998). Her picture book, Clever Rachel (Orca), was published in the fall of 2009. Her third picture book, Room Enough for Daisy, written with Rita Feutl, will be published in 2011. Debby’s articles and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications including People, Parents, Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Publishers Weekly, American Baby, Chatelaine, Glamour, and The Washington Post.

Debby is married and has two children. Her daughter, who is hard-of-hearing, inspired her to co-write Your Child’s Hearing Loss: What Parents Need to Know (Perigee, 2005) with audiology professor Dr. Jackson Roush. An updated version, Your Child’s Hearing Loss: A Guide for Parents, was published in the fall of 2009 by Plural Publishing. Debby was born and raised in Utica, NY, and now lives in Edmonton, Alberta. When not working on one of her many writing projects, she enjoys reading, cycling, baking, attempting to make nutritionally balanced meals for her family, and ferrying her children to music lessons and sports activities.

Your picture books are based on Jewish folktales. What appeals to you about these traditional stories?

They’re solid stories. The fact that they’ve been around for so long means that they’re timeless. Maybe some of the superficial details change: setting, character names and occupations, clothing -- but the gist of the story and the message stay the same. I also enjoy the challenge of finding a new way to tell the story while retaining the message.

What were the challenges you faced in retelling the stories?

In some ways it’s the same with any story -- figuring out the right way to tell it. A Sack Full of Feathers was easier than Clever Rachel, in part because I didn’t change the story that much: like the other versions, mine was about someone with a big mouth who has to learn that just because you know something (or think you do) doesn’t mean you should be blabbering about it to the entire world. Unlike the other versions I had seen, my blabbermouth was a boy, Yankel. As it turns out, that made it a perfect fit for Orca, which publishes children’s books where the main characters are children.

At some level, I modeled Yankel after myself. I love telling stories: I like entertaining people and I know how tempting it is to make the story bigger and more exciting because that’s what people seem to want to hear. But my background is journalism and I’m very careful to get my facts straight. My biggest fear as a writer is that I might misinform people. Yankel wasn’t thinking about the consequences, of the harm that could be caused by his highly inaccurate tales. He had to learn that lesson.

Rewriting Clever Rachel was a bigger challenge. A woman who knows a lot about books for Jewish children told me about the folk tale and said she’d like to see it rewritten for kids. I read some versions and did not like the message that leapt out at me: a woman agrees to marry an arrogant jerk who tells her that if she disagrees with him, he’s going to kick her out of his mansion and send her back to her father’s inn. I thought, “What kind of woman would agree to THAT?” But I figured if this person who knew a lot about books for Jewish children liked the story there had to be some merit to it.

I wrote so many drafts. In the worst one, Rachel was a clever young teen who used riddles to help her family escape from the Nazis. I looked at it and thought, “This is ridiculous. This is not a picture book.” Then I asked myself, “Why does this girl like riddles so much?” And when I answered that question -- because it’s how her dad put her to bed when she was little -- I had my story. It kind of wrote itself. It was amazing. I felt as if I’d turned the story on its ear. I kept the important message -- that the best way to solve problems is to cooperate -- and some of the original riddles, but I made it more palatable or, at least, more palatable to me.
My next picture book is also based on a Jewish folk tale -- the one about the man who thinks his house is too small until the rabbi tells him to bring first one animal and then another and another inside. It’s called Room Enough for Daisy, and I wrote it with Rita Feutl, a fellow writer and friend here in Edmonton. We were talking about folk tales one day and it turned out we both knew that one, but she knew the Ukrainian version (no rabbi) and I knew the Jewish version (rabbi). She had a great idea for rewriting it with a current twist and I said, “You should write it!” and she said “You should write it!” and I said “You should write it!” and she said, “You should write it!” and I said, “We should write it together!” and we did, and it’s been magical. Orca is going to publish it in 2011. Cindy Revell, who illustrated Sack and Rachel, is going to illustrate. It’s got some wonderful messages -- Mitzvah Day, recycling, decluttering. And it’s fun.

How did you become a children's writer?

A friend of mine from my synagogue here in Edmonton wanted to write a Passover story based on her daughter’s ambivalent relationship with the concept of Elijah. This was about fifteen or sixteen years ago. I was writing articles, essays, and reviews for magazines, and she asked if maybe we could write a picture book together. I’d never written a picture book but I thought, “Well, this could be interesting. And fun.” It was both, although the story never did get published. We sure got lots of nice rejection letters, though. I’d still like to have it published, but that’s another story. After that I decided I wanted to write another picture book. I knew a wonderful writer in town who wrote picture books based on folk tales from his native Africa. I thought to myself, “There are some great Jewish folk tales. I think I’ll try a Jewish folk tale.” The story about the feathers appealed to me because of the gossip-accuracy issues. I’m working on a couple more Jewish-themed picture books. Neither of them are based on folk tales, but one is set in Olkinik, the ancestral village of my dad’s family, and the place where I set both Sack and Rachel. In fact, Yankel is going to make another appearance.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

That I have the freedom to write what I want, and that there are people who want to publish it, and other people who want to read it. How wonderful is that? How blessed am I? (Very and very, to answer my questions.) I also enjoy visiting schools and libraries and community centres, reading my stories, and talking to people about writing.

I wish I’d met more writers when I was growing up. I wish I’d met even one! But they were mythical creatures as far as I was concerned because I never laid eyes on one until I was a young adult. I remember the first writer I interviewed when I was working as a newspaper reporter. Her name was Hannah Pakula and I was prepared to be thoroughly intimidated by her because her husband had directed the movie, “All the President’s Men,” AND she had written a massively researched biography, The Last Romantic, about Queen Marie of Roumania. But Hannah was wonderful -- warm, friendly and encouraging. Talking to her was like talking to a friend. She made me believe I could be a writer, but a few decades had to pass before I felt comfortable calling myself that.

For a long time I felt that if I called myself a writer I was being pretentious. I called myself a freelance writer. That didn’t sound quite as pretentious. My first book was a work-for-hire about women athletes, for Sports Illustrated for Kids Books. It was fun to research and write, but I had a hard time thinking of it as a “real” book because it was about the size of a comic book and none of the stories inside were more than 400 words. I think it had more photos than words. In 2003 I co-wrote a book for parents of children who are hard of hearing (my 14-year-old daughter has worn hearing aids since she was three and I wrote the book to help myself and my husband and other parents in our situation). I consider that my first real book, but because it wasn’t a novel and would never have been considered a candidate for, say Oprah’s Book Club, I still had trouble thinking of myself as a writer.

I remember the first time I saw myself identified, in print, as an author -- it was at the end of a book review I’d written for my local newspaper. I thought, “That’s misleading! I’m not an author!” and then it occurred to me, “I guess I am.” By that time I’d had three books published, so I decided it was probably okay to think of myself not only as a writer, but also an author.

What is your favorite children's book?

Well, I don’t have just one. Growing up my favorite book was The Outsiders, by SE Hinton. I read that book so often during junior high and high school that I practically rubbed the print off the pages. In junior high I also discovered Night, by Elie Wiesel. Those two books made me want to become a writer. But I also loved the All of a Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor, Harriet the Spy, Lisa Bright and Dark and Edgar Allen by John Neufeld, the Karen series by Marie Killilea, and any biography. I read every biography in my elementary school library. I still love biographies. (Right now I am reading Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography. It’s very hard to put down.)

As for picture books, when I was little I remember liking The Carrot Seed, Curious George, and Make Way for Ducklings. My favorite picture book for the past couple of years has been Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis. I absolutely adore that book. I think it is the most wonderful rendition of a folk tale. It makes me laugh and think every time I read it. I also quite like Raisel’s Riddle by Erica Silverman, Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, and all of the Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban.

Debby, thank so much for taking the time to share so much about your creative process! To learn more about Debby, please visit her web site at

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Kayak by Debbie Spring

Debbie Spring, author of The Righteous Smuggler has just released a new book, The Kayak. If you are looking for a meaningful middle grade novel, here a bit of info:

Being involved in sports took Teresa’s mind off the demands that teens typically face, but after she was hit by a car while jogging, she realized that fate can strike at any time and that what happens next defines a person. Living her life in a wheelchair limits Teresa’s choices profoundly. Smothered by her parents, she finds personal power, peace, and independence only by kayaking. On the water she is in control of her life, capable, connected. In her kayak her anger, disappointment, and embarrassment give way to confidence, and the return to land always weighs heavily on her.

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