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