Dec 16, 2009

More about Menorah Under the Sea

Our new book Menorah Under the Sea is unique in many ways. It's about a marine biologist who celebrates Hanukkah in an unusual way– at the bottom of the ocean! David Ginsburg was in Antarctica doing research on sea urchins (say that 5 times fast!) during Hanukkah. Since the sun doesn't set during Antarctica's summer (winter to us in the Northern Hemisphere), David creatively brought Hanukkah with him on a dive.

Besides being a book for Hanukkah, Menorah Under the Sea is packed with information about Antarctica and photos of David's time at the McMurdo research station. Penguins are scattered around the research station like pigeons gather in the city. The land is covered with ice and snow and no trees or shrubs.

Learn more about David's research and celebrating Hanukkah in Antarctica by reading the excellent interview on My Jewish Learning's blog Mixed Multitudes.

Dec 11, 2009

Hanukkah Nosh

It's certainly cold and snowy here in Minneapolis, which makes for cozy holiday gatherings! This Hanukkah, besides making fried latkes and sufganiyot, why not add a new recipe? Share a new food with your little ones and get them involved in the kitchen.

Here's a new take on Hanukkah Gelt: chocolate covered apricots! These are easy and fun to make, but be sure to make extra if you've got hungry dreidel players.

Amy at Homeshuling was inspired by our book Harvest of Light and decided to integrate olive oil into her Hanukkah celebration. Olive oil is a healthy alternative to fried foods (not to mention more sophisticated!) and there's lots you can do with it. Host an olive oil tasting featuring infused olive oils and crusty bread. Infuse your own olive oil, or see what your local specialty store has to offer. It makes great gifts!

You can even bake with olive oil! Here's a recipe for Almond Citrus Olive Oil Cake from TC Jewfolk's column Noshin'. It looks yummy and light, a nice alternative when you've had too many doughnuts and cookies.

But if you're craving a doughnut, try these burmelos from Turkey!

Recipe adapted from Hanukkah Around the World

1 egg
1 cup of milk
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cup of flour
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
Your favorite syrup (maple, chocolate, etc.)

1. In a medium bowl, beat egg and milk using a fork or whisk.
2. Add cinnamon and baking powder, mix to combine.
3. Add flour in stages and mix until thick.
4. Heat oil in deep frying pan. Drop the batter by tablespoons into the hot oil, keeping fritters a few inches apart.
5. Turn the fritters over and let both sides brown evenly.
6. Remove from oil and set them on paper towels to cool and drain.
7. Serve with your favorite syrup. Yum!

Other recipe recommendations:
Smitten Kitchen's latkes (with beautiful photography!)
Sweet Potato Latkes from TC Jewfolk
Apple and Pear Beignets with Vanilla Bean Sugar – a French twist on sufganiyot

Dec 10, 2009

Word Art

A friend from college gave me a Wordle as an early Hanukkah gift. What's a Wordle? It's a tool (or toy) that creates a word cloud based on the text you put in. She used text from our Facebook pages, but you can use any sort of text you like to create a fun and unique work of art.

I made a Wordle out of text from our blog, and it's fun to see what topics are prominent: Book, Holocaust, Israel, Birds, etc. Heavily used words are in larger text, less used words are in smaller text. (Click on the image to see it better)

My Jewish Learning made Wordles out of the Ten Commandments and the Shema, which I think would be useful in a classroom setting for young children's budding vocabularies. These also make great gifts for word nerds!

After checking out our Wordle, are there any topics you'd like to see the blog cover? Feel free to leave your comments below. Any feedback is welcome! Thanks for reading.

Nov 30, 2009

For Kurdistan Jews, Hanukkah is a Time to Reuse & Recycle

Author Tami Lehman-Wilzig was kind enough to share with us a Hanukkah tradition from Kurdistan. Tami writes about all kinds of multicultural Jewish holiday celebrations and customs at her blog. They are a great way to integrate new traidtions into your classroom or family. Thanks, Tami!

The three “Rs” – Reduce, Reuse & Recycle – have become today’s environmental mantra. As Westerners who really have it all, we never stop to think that there are Jews who don’t need the ecology cause to practice the “Reuse” principle. Take the Jews from Kurdistan and their charming, low budget way of shedding light on Hanukkah’s oil miracle. Kurdish Jews who could not afford a Hanukkiah used eggshells as cups for wicks and oil. There was no egg on anyone’s face because they didn’t have enough money. On the contrary. Eggs were eaten either for breakfast, lunch or dinner and the cracked egg shells were saved for lighting what I call the Eggnukia, every night. Tell your students to scramble home and try out this neat Hanukkiah alternative. Every which way, it gives the correct message – they’ll learn how to reuse and at the same time not take material goods for granted. If anything, maybe it will prompt them to start accumulating their own nest egg for next year’s Hanukkah presents.

For more Hanukkah customs, check out Tami's new book Hanukkah Around the World. Get a 20% discount on your order when you shop at and use the discount code TAMI when you check out. This offer is available until January 15, 2010.

Nov 24, 2009

Out and About with Authors

Sure, authors love writing, but the real fun part is meeting readers! Our authors travel all over the U.S. and in Israel to speak at book fairs, schools, and community organizations. It's a thrill to see them in their element, speaking about the inspiration for their latest book or what idea got them writing in the first place. Here are some recent author appearances:

Chris Nicola signing The Secret of Priest's Grotto at the Southwest Florida Chapter of the Explorers Club. Photo by Jim Thompson.

Jacqueline Jules (left) and Katherine Janus Kahn sign copies of The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle at the NAEYC Conference. Photo by Madeline Wikler.

Heidi Smith Hyde signs Mendel's Accordion for fans at Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA. Photo provided by the author.

If you're organizing an event at your school, synagogue, or JCC, consider inviting a Kar-Ben author or illustrator! Check out our brochure for more information, and you can always email to see if there's an author or illustrator in your area.

Nov 9, 2009

Commemorating Kristallnacht

Today marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On the night of November 9, 1938, pogroms (organized anti-Jewish riots) destroyed Jewish property including synagogues, cemetaries, storefronts, and businesses. Jewish people were assaulted, arrested, and killed by raging crowds, while police stood by waiting for orders from Nazi officials. This horrific night marked the beginning of the Holocaust.

Though this is a difficult subject for children to understand, there are many resources available to teachers and parents looking to start discussions with older children. It's imperative that everyone, young and old, know about this dark time in history and work together to educate others so that we never forget.

Selected Holocaust books from Kar-Ben:
An Unbroken Chain (soon to be a movie)

Other links:
AJL's Podcast "Not Just the Facts: Illustrated Non-Fiction for Youth" (fast-forward to 34:30 to hear Chris Nicola speak about Priest's Grotto)

Nov 4, 2009

Meet Author Carole G. Vogel

Our guest blogger today is Carole G. Vogel, co-author of The Man Who Flies with Birds. Carole was kind enough to fill us in on how she connected with co-author Yossi Leshem (the Man) and how her childhood fascination with research and science turned her into a nonfiction writer. Thanks, Carole!

Where did you get the inspiration for your Kar-Ben book, The Man Who Flies with Birds?
As a writer of children’s environmental books, I am constantly on the prowl for new topics that will excite kids. While perusing the October 2004 issue of New Scientist magazine, I tripped across an article called “Bird Traffic Controller” which described the fascinating work of Israeli bird expert, Yossi Leshem. Yossi soars with eagles literally and figuratively. In a motorized glider he flew alongside migrating flocks of eagles, storks, and other large soaring birds so he could track their migration paths through Israeli airspace. Before Yossi came along, the Israel Air Force (IAF) was losing planes to bird strikes—collisions between birds and aircraft. The IAF used Yossi’s research to teach pilots how to avoid the paths of migrating birds.

What most appealed to you about Yossi Leshem’s work?
I always wanted to write a book about Israel that showed the ingenuity of its scientists. I loved Yossi’s passion for birds and his use of science to resolve the conflict between birds and planes. Yossi’s message about bringing peace to the Middle East one bird lover at a time resonated deeply with me, as did his pro-environmental activism. For instance, many people look at owls and hawks and think “large birds.” Yossi looks at them and thinks “flying mousetraps” and then convinces Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian farmers to substitute barn owls and kestrels (small hawks) for pesticides. In one foul swoop Yossi addressed a critical environmental issue (pesticides are poisoning the soil and ground water) and a political issue (finding common ground among historical enemies).

What are you most excited about promoting in your new book?
I am a physicist’s daughter and part of me is most excited about Yossi’s use of science to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. But I am also excited about a whole compendium of other things. I always had in mind to write a book that cast Israel as a light among nations. I believe that this book fits that bill. Writing a hopeful book about Israel was especially important to me because many of my relatives live in Israel, as does my dear friend Sally Nemzow Esakov to whom I dedicated the book. I also want my readers to learn about this amazing human being, Yossi Leshem. He is proof that one person can make difference if he or she is empowered.

What is the most interesting thing you learned in the process of writing it?
I was surprised to learn that half a billion birds migrate through Israel’s tight airspace twice yearly during the spring and fall migrations. This may not mean much to the average reader but being bird savvy, I realized that Israel was likely the single most important flyway (highway in the sky for migrating birds) in the world. One of my goals in writing The Man Who Flies with Birds is to raise awareness inside Israel and out, of the importance of protecting the remaining natural areas in Israel. They are crucial to the survival of the migrating birds of central Europe and western Asia.

What are you working on now?
I am exploring several different ideas. Most of my books so far have been on science and environmental topics. They reflect my keen interest in the natural world. But I am also a Jewish history buff. In my spare time I have been researching my genealogy and the places where my ancestors lived. I have come across some amazing material and I am wondering if I can spin it into a book or a couple of books, or perhaps half a dozen books. I also might like to take a stab at collaborating on a biography with another interesting public figure. And of course I am always on the lookout for a new science angle to explore.

What did you like to read when you were a child?
As a kid, one of my favorite books was Songs of the Swallows by Leo Politi (New York: Scribner, 1949). This Caldecott Medal-winning book immortalizes the annual return of the swallows to San Capistrano Mission in California, and Juan the boy who loves them. I was kind of like Juan in that I looked forward to my first sign of spring—the return of robins to my yard in suburban Pittsburgh. I remember watching the robins pull worms out of the lawn and thinking that I was glad that I didn’t have to eat anything so icky. It made me curious about the foods that wild animals ate and why. I was fascinated by the idea that the shape of a bird’s beak determines the kind of food the bird can eat. I was also fascinated by its corollary in the mammalian order–the kind of teeth that mammals have determines the mammal’s food.

As a teeneager, I read incessantly about World War II and the fate of the Jews in Europe. My parents were Holocaust survivors and they steadfastly refused to discuss their experiences under Nazi tyranny or the fate of their many relatives who had vanished. The subject of the Holocaust was never discussed in any of my classes in public and Hebrew school until my 10th grade confirmation class at Temple David in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Our rabbi, Rabbi David Edelstein, gave a comprehensive overview, replete with a film from a liberated concentration camp. It was horrifying but I was grateful for finally finding one adult who didn’t shy from the topic.

One of the requirements for confirmation was to write a 10-page term paper on any Jewish-related subject. For my topic I chose “The History of Anti-Semitism.” I needed to know the antecedents in history that set the stage for Germany’s attempt to exterminate the Jews. It was depressing reading but it made me realize that events in the distant past could dramatically influence the present and future. This was the first time that I experienced the intellectual rush that I still get from doing research.

What are some interesting facts about you?
I like to hike on the flanks of volcanoes. So far I have hiked at least seven volcanoes (two of them were active at the time but not violently so.)

My idea of a great vacation is to go to a distant land and meet relatives that I haven’t met in person before. So far, I have met up with relatives in Israel, England, Austria, Germany, and Russia. My daughter has visited relatives in most of these countries plus France and Argentina.

About a dozen years ago I got the courage to join a dialogue group that brought together children of Holocaust survivors with the sons and daughters of Nazis or German bystanders. I became good friends with Inge Franken, the daughter of an avowed Nazi who served in the German Army during World War II and died on the Russian front. Together, Inge and I have given presentations in schools and colleges in the United States and Germany, where we discuss growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust from both perspectives.

My dad was a physicist. He took my two sisters and me to his research labs when my mom needed peace and quiet. There, he would perform scientific experiments to keep us occupied. My favorite involved using liquid nitrogen to freeze rubber hosing. When it was frozen, the rubber lost its ability to bend. It became so stiff that Dad could shatter it by whacking it against a table and the bits of tubing flew all over the room. The pieces cooled immediately and became flexible again.

I have identified more than 150 different kinds of birds, including one (a herring gull) that pooped on my head while I was watching it.

You can meet Carole at these upcoming events:

Beth El of N. Westchester Chappaqua, NY
12/3/2009 3:45 PM

JCC of Worcester, MA
3/11/2010 7 PM

Sussex County Main Library in Newton, NJ
3/20/2010 11:00 AM

Interested in having Carole speak at your school, JCC, or congregation? Contact

Nov 2, 2009

Bonjour, Sammy!

Sammy Spider is a lucky guy. He gets to learn about the Jewish holidays and go on adventures with his buddy Josh (the kitchen! Israel! School!). Now he'll get to meet little French speakers! Here's a sneak peek at the new Sammy Spider books in French from Yodéa Editions.

UPDATE: Here's where you can order the books.

Oct 22, 2009

Bat-Chen's Hope for Peace Lives On

A few years ago, I became familiar with the life of Bat-Chen Shahak. Kar-Ben published the English edition of her diaries, which had been published in several languages already. Bat-Chen lived in Tel Mond, Israel, not far from Jerusalem. She was smart, sassy, and full of imagination. Her life was cut short when, on her 15th birthday on Purim of 1996, she was killed by a suicide bomber while while visiting Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center.

Bat-Chen's story is just one of thousands of children whose lives were lost because of war and terrorism. Her diaries reveal her uncertainties of the future, her feelings about the conflict going on in Israel, and her love of her family, friends, and her home country.

Today, her parents have established The Association for the Commemoration of Bat-Chen Shahak and travel all over the world, sharing Bat-Chen's story and working to fulfill her dreams of peace. They speak to students of all backgrounds about the power of keeping a diary, giving out copies of The Bat-Chen Diaries and a blank one to use as their own. This concept has been especially relevant to young people in southern Israel, who see it as a therapeutic aid in dealing with stress, anxiety and trauma which often are a part of these children's lives while living in the shadow of kassam rockets and unrest.

Bat-Chen's story has been deeply felt in Tel Mond's sister city, Sarasota, Florida. One of Bat-Chen's drawings won an annual art contest there, and it was enlarged to billboard size and appeared in a city-wide exhibition. The topic of the drawing was her family and was drawn when Bat-Chen was only 12 years old. In honor of the new year, a copy of the huge enlarged picture arrived in Tel Mond and is on permanent display at an elementary school.

Bat-Chen's story proves the power of writing and imagination, even that of a young person, can live on after one's death.

Oct 19, 2009

After the Holidays

Author Anna Levine was kind enough to share some of her reflections on Israel and the Fall Holidays. Now that they're over and Hanukkah has not yet begun, we feel like new projects are sprouting up all over! Welcome to the blog, Anna! (Here's Anna in Modi'in, the setting for Jodie's Hanukkah Dig.)

Some time around the beginning of September we start using the Hebrew phrase achrai hachagim. Literally this translates to “after the holidays.” However, this quintessential Israeli expression really means, “there’s no point of even thinking of doing anything until after the holidays, so don’t even try.”

I am used to this by now, though many immigrants unfamiliar with this mind set have a hard time adjusting. The first night of Sukkot we had a young guest who is in Israel for the year. He is in the throes of finding an apartment and says that dealing with Israeli bureaucracy makes him feel more Israeli every time he comes face to face with a brick wall and manages to take one down. “But these last 2 weeks,” he says, “have been impossible. How can the country function when everything closes down for the holidays?”

We adapt. It rained last night and a bit today and for these few weeks of the year we get a taste of autumn and we are reminded that our Holy Days have an agricultural as well as spiritual tie. The fruits which decorate the sukkah are the ones that are also ripening naturally on the trees in our gardens. Driving from Jerusalem to my cousins in the north I notice the changes of season as they are defined by the changes in the agricultural landscape. If the fields are white, then the cotton is ready for picking. It must be Fall.

In a way, it is liberating to know that absolutely nothing will get done during the time it takes for the new moon of Rosh Hashana to round out into the full moon of Sukkot. I love how the Israeli year is divided according to the Jewish holidays. We welcome in 5770 by sitting back and allowing ourselves to adjust to the feel of the new year and the changes of weather, celebrating with family and friends—giving ourselves time to adapt, and to think about the future.

As for me, I won’t be looking too far into the future for the next while. I’ll be looking into the past. With my picture book, Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig, having received a Sydney Taylor Notable award, I’ve gotten the go ahead for another archaeological book. This one takes place in Hezekiah’s Tunnel. A miraculous feat of engineering, built long before surveyors could scout with sophisticated equipment, tractors could dig, or diggers could lead without even a flashlight, King Hezekiah (First Temple period) planned, executed and succeeded in building a water tunnel through which water is still flowing today, two thousand years later, under the City of Jerusalem.

I’ll start working seriously on the revisions for this book sometime after the holidays, achrai hachagim. For now I wonder, do you think when King Hezekiah gathered his workers together he said, “Okay guys, we need to get this project done quickly.” And they looked back at him, and with all the respect they could muster, said, “Sure your majesty, no problem. We’ll get right to it—achrai hachagim.”

Oct 1, 2009

Making Jewish Preschoolers Giggle

We asked Jacqueline Jules, author of many Kar-Ben books including the Ziz series, Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner Sarah Laughs, and the preschool favorite Once Upon a Shabbos, to be a guest blogger. Welcome to the Kar-Ben Blog, Jackie!

In 1996, I was “Miss Jackie” to two entirely different groups of preschoolers. During the week, I was a library media specialist who conducted story times for young children who loved nothing more than to be entertained. I read lots of traditional stories with a chorus, because I found my students liked those best. When children happily join along in a repeated song or phrase, story time is an engaging, interactive experience for all.

But “I’ll huff and I’ll puff” is more than an entertaining chant for young learners. It is an opportunity to build language, the foundation for literacy skills.

On Saturdays, I was “Miss Jackie” to a group of preschoolers and their parents who came for Tot Shabbat services. We had a service booklet with a few prayers and just before the end, at the point where a sermon might come in an adult service, I always read or told a story. For my Tot Shabbat kids, I also wanted an engaging, interactive experience. I searched for Jewish children’s books with a traditional chorus, inviting everyone to join in with unabashed glee. There weren’t enough to fill the school year. In fact, many of the Jewish books I found in the public library had a decidedly expository feel to them. They explained Shabbat or Jewish holidays to kids in often lengthy and didactic text. I found this disappointing. Not every Christmas or Easter book explains the religious background of the holiday. Most depicted happy families celebrating within heartwarming or humorous plots. Why were so many Jewish children’s books thinly veiled nonfiction, primarily explaining the reasons behind ritual? And why weren’t there more Jewish books that made preschoolers giggle?

I thought about this one day, as I was reading an Appalachian folktale called Sody Salleratus to my weekday kids. In this traditional story, a grandmother sends out each member of her family to buy sody salleratus or baking soda so she can make biscuits. Each family member leaves the house singing about the item they are to buy and each one encounters a bear, who gobbles them up, much as the wolf in Red Riding Hood. While it may seem at first glance, a gruesome story, it is actually an empowering one because the children roar with the bear just before he swallows each character. And like Red Riding Hood, everyone is extracted from the bear’s stomach for a happy ending. My weekday students adored this story and asked for it again. They loved singing the song. They loved roaring like a bear. And I loved to see them giggle.

“Why isn’t there a Jewish version of Sody Salleratus?” I asked myself. My Tot Shabbat kids would have as much fun with something like this as my weekday kids. So I sat down at my computer to write a Jewish Sody Salleratus. The first thing I did was change the Appalachian setting. It became Brooklyn with a Yiddish speaking Bubbe and Zayde.

Instead of baking soda biscuits, Bubbe was preparing to make her sweet Shabbos kugel for Friday night dinner. Missing a key ingredient from her cabinet, she sends her grandson Jacob to the corner store with a little gelt. Jacob skips out of the apartment, singing “Honey, honey sweet as Shabbos!” Then the bear, who just happens to be lost in Brooklyn, enters. He wants the honey Jacob is taking to Bubbe for her sweet Shabbos kugel.

My Jewish re-telling of Sody Salleratus, went very well up until that point. Then I was stuck! How could the bear swallow Jacob? My Tot Shabbat parents would be horrified! Clearly, my original inspiration could not be followed verbatim. But was there any reason why a nice Jewish family couldn’t make friends with a bear lost in Brooklyn right before Shabbos? Especially a bear who comes from a storybook and loves Shabbos dinner?

With my story finished, I got a bear puppet and performed it for my Tot Shabbat group. It was an immediate hit. The children sang along and roared in all the right places. So did the adults.
Once Upon a Shabbos, my greatly altered Jewish version of Sody Salleratus was published by Kar-Ben Publishers in 1998 with whimsical illustrations by the wonderful Katherine Janus Kahn. Since then, I have received numerous feedback from Jewish teachers and storytellers who tell me they have used Once Upon a Shabbos with great success at their own story times. And when the book went out of print for a couple of years, I heard many pleas for its return. I was absolutely delighted this year when Kar-Ben brought Once Upon a Shabbos back into print by popular demand. For a taste of the book, here's the book trailer:

Gut Shabbos!

Sep 24, 2009

Social Media, More Specifically

A few weeks ago, I posted some thoughts about social media. We're all told social media is popular, useful, and important, but how do we actually use it??

Each morning, and multiple times a day when I'm not checking email or managing our website, I check my Twitter and Google Reader. These are essential tools in participating in the social media conversation happening all over the world, plus they make it easy for me to connect with topics and people that are related to what I do at Kar-Ben.

Google Reader is a lifesaver and time saver. Ever wonder how avid blog-readers keep track of all their favorite blogs? They subscribe to the blogs' RSS feeds, meaning they are notified whenever the blog is updated.

Here's a brilliant video about RSS feeds and what they do:

Google Reader is a tool to create your own "digest" of blogs. Go to and start your free account. Then add subscriptions to your favorite blogs. For example, if you'd like to be automatically notified every time we update the Kar-Ben blog, click the pull-down menu at the top right corner under "Subscribe To." Or copy and paste this URL to your Google Reader: That's a link to our RSS feed. Now you can easily bookmark your favorite blogs and be notified of when they're updated. (If you're feeling confident with your Google Reader skills, consider reading this post from Chris Brogan, who is a pro at social media communications.)

Check out the links over there in the right column for blogs we like, including the Lerner Books Blog. Here's an informative post for social media users (aimed at authors but useful for people outside of the industry.)

I'm least familiar with Twitter, but I'm slowly learning how useful it can be. Users tweet short messages, updates, and links. You might think it's a waste of time, but using only 140 characters per tweet forces users to get to the point pretty fast. Links are easy to pass on from one user to another. By glimpsing at what users are talking about, I can quickly connect with organizations and people related to my main interests, including books (specifically children's), education, and Jewish organizations and people. If you're looking to see if Twitter is right for you, check out their search page. Enter in the last book you read, the city you live in, or keywords relating to a question or subject you're curious about. If you find yourself clicking user's profiles and wanting to see more of what they have to say, I'd tell you to start your own account. Especially since tomorrow is Follow Friday, a day when users traditionally recommend other users to follow. Twitter's own, "if you follow me, you might enjoy following these other users."

But you don't have to take my word for it. Also check out Jewish Publication Society's The Jewish Non-Profit Guide to Social Media Marketing and the Book of Life's Why Be Social podcast.

Sep 16, 2009

Happy New Year 5770

To all our authors and illustrators, customers and friends around the world, best wishes for a sweet, happy, healthy and peaceful new year. In Minnesota the leaves have begun to turn. When we build our sukkah in two weeks, it will have cornstalks on the roof. We buy our cornstalks from a local farmer who comes to the farmer's market every year with his load of cornstalks, gourds and other sukkah-friendly material. The trouble was that he could never quite figure out why when he shlepped a few cornstalks one week he would have customers wanting to by dozens, so he'd then bring dozens the next week and nobody would want any.

The year he mentioned this to me, I explained to him that there was indeed a method to the madness, and I gave him a little Kar-Ben Mini Jewish Calendar and circled the following year's pre-Sukkot weekend so he'd know exactly which weekend the Jews would be wanting their cornstalks -- that weekend and no other. I also invited him to our sukkah party so he could see what-the-heck (his words) we were using all those cornstalks for.

And so a friendship was born. He comes to our sukkah party every year bringing gifts of honey or eggs or broomcorn from his farm, and we provide him with a mini calendar every year so he knows when Sukkot is. So now my plug for Kar-Ben calendars -- buy them and give them to your non-Jewish neighbors, teachers and others. They're great, they promote cultural understanding, and you may make a new friend.

Shanah tovah!

Sep 9, 2009

Back to School!

I'm sure I'm not the only adult who misses going back to school. On my way to work, I pass busses full of chatty kids on their way to school; I'm tempted to add new pencils and folders to my cart at Target; and my teacher friends are saying goodbye to summer and gearing up for a new year.

Luckily, things are cyclical for me here at Kar-Ben. As the seasons change, I have new books to promote and with Rosh Hashanah less than two weeks away, a whole new year of holidays begin.

So, what's new at Kar-Ben? I'm so glad you asked!

For those heading back to school, check out the latest Sammy Spider adventure, Sammy Spider's First Day of School, which marks many firsts for Sammy. It's his first time in a classroom and the first time he's acknowledged by Josh Shapiro, the little boy he's been living near all these years. This book also teaches youngsters about the importance of kindness to animals (an important lesson even for those out of school!)

I've heard that some schools start as early as 7:15 (which I imagine isn't easy for a lot of parents and kids). If your family has trouble getting up and motivated in the morning, I recommend Rabbi Joe Black's new book Boker Tov! Good Morning! It's based on his original song about starting the day off right. It's full of energy and great to play when you're getting ready or in the car to school or day care.

I'm also excited about our word books for kids and grown-ups. My First Hebrew Word Book and the new My First Yiddish Word Book each include over 150 words with English translations and transliterations. You're never too old to learn a new language! Here's a preview of My First Yiddish Word Book to get you started:

Aug 27, 2009

Write What You Don't Know

We asked Jacqueline Dembar Greene, author of the new book The Secret Shofar of Barcelona, to be our first guest blogger. For her new book, Jackie researched about the conversos (secret Jews) in Spain during the time of the Inquisition. Welcome to the Kar-Ben Blog, Jackie!

When I was in grade school, teachers always advised students to “Write what you know.” But what interested me the most was what I didn’t know. The books I most enjoyed reading were about past times and unfamiliar places. That was what I wanted to write about. I thought I’d never be a good writer, though, since nothing interesting had ever happened to me.

It took a job as a news reporter and a personal interest in researching my family’s Sephardic background before I discovered that I could learn about anything—through books, archives, museums, pictures, and experts—and then I truly could write about what I knew. More importantly, I could go on to create a fictional world that was true to history, and draw a reader into that world until they, too, felt they knew it.
Reading historical records sparks most of my book ideas. My historical novels are set in such disparate times and places as Colonial Massachusetts, New Amsterdam in 1654, and Rembrandt’s home in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam. My picture books are set in Spain during the 1100s, or places like Ukraine in the 1800s when the Jewish folk character Herschel tricked and teased his neighbors.

So it was with great anticipation that I agreed to research a story about the secret Jews of Barcelona that was mentioned in several Rosh Hashanah sermons a few years ago. The editors at Kar-Ben related the basic tale of a converso named Don Fernando Aguilar who was said to have been the conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona. Supposedly, he had played the shofar during a concert, right under the noses of members of the dreaded Inquisition.

I began sleuthing the origins of the story. I tried Internet searches, worked with research librarians, and read books on Spanish history, early Spanish music, and life under the Inquisition. I pored through Sephardic and Spanish folk tales, but there was no story of Don Fernando and his shofar.
During a trip to Barcelona, I spoke with members of the historic synagogue tucked into an isolated corner of the old Jewish Quarter. No one there had heard of the story of Don Fernando, but they were excited about it. One member said she hoped that if I wrote the story, a bit of Barcelona’s Sephardic past would be brought to light. I wandered the narrow roads and alleys rummaging through used bookstores, but found nothing to support any historical basis to the tale. Clearly, there was no Don Fernando, no Royal Orchestra of Barcelona, and not a single historical record of the tale.

Far from being discouraged, however, I relished the idea that I could use some elements of the legend while creating my own original twist. Because I planned to write a picture book for children, I wanted a young character to become the story’s hero. Before I sat down to write a word, I decided that my fictional Don Fernando would have a son, Rafael, and he would be determined to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

The next element I needed was an intriguing way for Don Fernando and Rafael to include the shofar in the community’s secret observance of the holiday. As I read about life in the middle and late 1500s, I learned that Spanish explorers had established a strong foothold in Mexico (New Spain). They converted the native people to Christianity and introduced them to European music. They encouraged the people to play liturgical music on their folk instruments. An eclectic mix of native and European instruments created music for the church.

I also read that whenever there was the slightest excuse, from the birth of a noble child to the celebration of a new saint, the Spanish nobility planned a festival. People traveled long distances on foot, by mule, or wagon. They camped in the fields, set up markets, and sang and danced long into the night. When the festival day arrived, music was a major part of the celebration. Most noblemen kept small musical groups in their employ, and they offered public concerts. They attended dressed in their finery, and peasants were allowed to stand in the back and listen. Often the concerts concluded with celebratory fireworks.

I incorporated these historical facts of life in early Barcelona to write the tale. In my version, Don Fernando composes a musical piece celebrating native instruments from the New World. He chooses a performance date that secretly coincides with Rosh Hashanah, and the Duke unwittingly declares a festival day.

Don Fernando’s son, Rafael, vows to learn to play the shofar that his father has hidden away, and to sound it during the concert so that all the secret Jews can hear it for the first time. He hopes the Duke and his entourage will think the ram’s horn is just another strange folk instrument. Rafael rises above his own fears and bravely sounds the shofar right under the noses of the nobility and members of the dreaded Inquisition.

Writing the story brought memories of the ancient streets of Barcelona back to my mind. It conjured up images of the secret Jews who once lived behind the heavy wooden doors in fear of having their religious beliefs discovered by the Inquisition. It made me feel closer to my Spanish ancestors who probably had been expelled from their homes before they ever heard the shofar’s call. And it made me hope that perhaps, through my fictional story, I might introduce a young reader to a piece of Jewish history from a world they never knew about before—all through the pages of an imaginative story.
Illustrations by Doug Chayka

Aug 18, 2009

The Social Media Conversation

This past weekend, I attended the Midwest Independent Publishers Association's Regional Publishing University. It certainly didn't feel like a university; I was excited about sitting in the front row and wasn't checking the clock every five minutes. What interested me most about the conference was a program called Promotion in a Digital World. The program featured four speakers from various publishing backgrounds, who were all using social media in creative and relevant ways that enhanced their interaction with readers. I have to admit, social media is something of an obsession for me, so this program confirmed that I should keep doing what I'm doing, and reminded me that social media is a community, conversation, and more than a two-way street.

Since I started at Kar-Ben three years ago, social media has exploded into the mainstream and my responsibilities have grown along with it. My daily tasks wouldn't be the same without it. I get excited to see how many new readers have signed up to receive our e-newsletter, or who is following us on Twitter, or who commented on a link I posted on Kar-Ben's Facebook page. For many companies as little as five years ago, customer relations was limited to a store, a phone, and maybe an email address. Conferences were essential for interaction; lots of paper and postage was required. Now we're only a few clicks away through email or social media avenues. Communication is quick, informal, and to the point. We have a better sense of who's out there. It's new, kind of scary, and also comforting to know you're talking to a real person and how easy it is to join the conversation.

Aug 14, 2009

An Education in an Anti-tank Ditch (or why I became a publisher)

This week we’re sending out invitations to some of our Kar-Ben authors inviting them to post to this blog, to write about what inspires them in writing their books. For me, inspiration to do what I do comes from my mom, Hinda Danziger Kibort, among many other things a survivor of the Holocaust. The war came into her life just as she was completing her first year of university, and she never had the opportunity to finish her degree. Despite that, she was one of the best-educated people I’ve ever known, speaking seven languages and with a vast knowledge of world history, literature and even math (she learned to add on an abacus and was faster at it on that device than I was with a calculator).

Here is a story my mom told me about an experience of hers during the Holocaust, which inspires me to do what I do:

“I had a friend who I had gone to school with, whose mother was with us in the women’s camp. Her name was Frau Schmidt. As we worked in groups of five, digging anti-tank ditches for the Nazis, starving and beginning to lose hope that we’d survive, she did her best to make us understand that it was important to avoid self-pity. She insisted that some day we young women would be free again and we would need to resume our lives. She was, as I think back, a remarkable person. She decided that, as my sister, my friend and I had been students before the war, and our education had been interrupted, we should continue to study, even there in the camp! So, as we continued to dig in our ditch, she started a ‘school.’ Each day the five of us working in our group took turns, teaching a subject in which we were interested. One taught Russian literature, one taught poetry, one medicine, I taught French. And once a week we let Lorna give us a ‘cooking lesson.’

“Lorna, who was from Belgium, was always talking about food, driving us crazy since we were starving. So Frau Schmidt told Lorna that she could talk about food as much as she wanted on her one ‘lesson day’ each week in exchange for not talking about food at any other time. To this Lorna agreed. It was not as hard for us as you might imagine since, as Lorna was from Belgium, many of the ingredients and recipes she described included foods that were unfamiliar to us – we had never seen pineapples, for example.

“From Frau Schmidt I learned a valuable lesson: while you may have every physical possession taken from you, nobody can ever take away what’s inside your head. Your education is yours forever. “

This is why I do what I do, publishing children’s books, because, as Frau Schmidt said, their education will be theirs forever.

Aug 11, 2009

Welcome to the Kar-Ben blog!

We're very excited to launch our new blog. Here, you'll learn about new Kar-Ben books, get to know our authors and illustrators, and get some insight into who we are and what we're up to. We would like to use our blog as another avenue to interact with readers, authors, reviewers, and whatever category you may fall into!

As the Publicity Coordinator, I wear many hats here at Kar-Ben. My main responsibilities are book publicity, marketing, and monitoring editorial and production processes. I also update our website and social media presence regularly. I've been fascinated by books for as long as I can remember, so a career in publishing suits me well. One of my favorite parts of this job is seeing an author's manuscript transform into a book. I'm continually impressed by our authors; they take complex concepts and make them just right for children. And then, illustrations! We literally coo over the original artwork from artists all over the world. Then our designers weave the words and art together into a book, which will soon be in the hands of a librarian, teacher, parent, grandparent, or child. It's so fun to see all the elements come together.

I'm looking forward to sharing more with you as our blog grows and progresses. Thanks for visiting.

Jess Horwitz, Publicity Coordinator

Aug 4, 2009

My first publisher's note on Kar-ben's new blog!

What exactly does a publisher do? I think I’ve got the most wonderful job in the world, but also one with great responsibility for shaping a generation. As Kar-Ben’s publisher, I receive manuscripts from around the world – about 800+ each year – from which I, with a team of sales, marketing and editorial people, select about 15 for publication. I often run these manuscripts past a focus group or two – parents, teachers, librarians, kids – to see what resonates for them, what they like and don’t like about a particular story. I check the new manuscript against our existing catalogue to make sure it meets a need. I oversee the editing, artist selection, layout, sales and marketing for each book, helped once again by a fantastic team of people skilled in their particular areas of expertise. I determine whether we want the book to come in hardcover and/or paperback, how many copies we want to print, what targeted marketing we may want to do for each title. And then I wait for the finished book to arrive on my desk – an exciting day. Although I’ve been in this business for many years, I can’t get over the thrill of seeing a finished book for the first time – there’s just nothing like it.

It’s an exciting time to be a publisher of Jewish children’s books. As the American Jewish community continues to change at a rapid pace, I think it’s important that Kar-Ben books reflect the full vibrancy and diversity of the evolving community. And yet, we can’t be all things to all people. Do we want to address issues of ethnic diversity, divorce, gay families, the Jewish “green movement,” roles of contemporary Jewish grandparents who don’t necessarily live in the same communities as their grandchildren do, special needs kids, and intermarried families in our books? We do. And yet, we also want to be sensitive to authentic Jewish experiences that Jews share regardless of where they’re coming from. We still want to interpret Bible stories, create stories about Shabbat, and other Jewish holidays. We want to celebrate the new life that’s been given to old rituals like Tashlich and Rosh Chodesh. We’ll keep putting baseball caps on little boys but not necessarily dresses on little girls. If you have ideas to share, book topics to suggest or just want to communicate with us for whatever reason, please consider this blog your forum to do so!

Joni Sussman, Publisher