Jan 27, 2010

Commemorating the Holocaust with Benno

Today is International Holocaust Commemoration Day, designated by the United Nations in 2005, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The United States and Jews everywhere commemorate the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah, the April anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The Holocaust continues to be a difficult subject to grapple with, particularly when it comes to teaching children about this period of Jewish history. How young is too young to introduce this very serious subject, and what is the best way to introduce this topic -- books, films, story-telling? The days of having Holocaust survivors come to speak in classrooms are dwindling.

Kar-Ben has given a lot of serious thought to what sorts of books might be best for bringing the reality of the Holocaust to children. We've been publishing Holocaust-related books since our inception more than 30 years ago, with "The Yanov Torah" (now out of print) and the award-winning Keeping the Promise. These were followed by a couple of other unconventional Holocaust stories: Six Million Paper Clips and The Secret of Priest's Grotto.

Our newest picture book Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, by Meg Wiviott, is for ages 7-10 and takes a carefully considered step toward bringing the subject of the Holocaust to younger children. In this story, Benno the cat observes the appearance of the Nazis in Berlin, culminating in the shattering events of Kristallnacht. Benno, in the quiet way of a kitty, and as a young child might, sees his own life change as relationships in the neighborhood deteriorate, friendships break apart and the world as he knows it disappears. The art, by Canadian artist Josee Bisaillon, is very much a part of the story, conveying that topsy-turvy world from a cats-eye view. And, as in most real life Holocaust stories, there's no "happily ever after."

We'd be interested to know what you, our readers, think of this unusual and beautiful book, and what you think about teaching the Holocaust to children younger than 10 in a world where lessons of tolerance for and acceptance of differences is taught beginning in preschool. It's our hope that we can use the story of Benno and the lessons of the Holocaust to make this world a better place.

Jan 25, 2010

The Bible: A Book Loaded With Role Models

Today's guest blogger is Jacqueline Jules, author of many books, including the recent Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner Benjamin and the Silver Goblet. Thanks and congratulations, Jackie! You are an outstanding role model to authors and educators!

In elementary school, I returned to the library every week to ask for another blue paperback volume in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. As a child, I never tired of reading about people who overcame obstacles and grew up to do important things. Now, I am a big fan of famous rejection stories, which I tape above my computer monitor. My current favorite is the story of Madeleine L’Engle. Her Newbery Award winning A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 different publishers before going on to its current success of selling 15,000 copies a year since its publication in 1962.

Role models inspire us. They give us courage to pursue our dreams. And no book is more loaded with role models than the Bible. These stories have resonated for thousands of years because they give us examples of strong individuals who struggled to find meaning in their lives. The heroes in the Bible frequently had to choose their own conscience over the customs and moral attitudes of their surrounding society. In my picture book, Abraham’s Search for God, a young Abraham questions the traditions of his father. He says “Idols have mouths but cannot speak to me. They have ears but cannot hear me. How can an idol help me?” His father’s abrupt answer, “Don’t question our ways,” does not deter this thoughtful, inquisitive young man. He continues his spiritual quest to learn “Who made the clouds? Who made the flowers?” finally coming to the monotheistic conclusion that made him the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

But Abraham’s story doesn’t end with a declaration of belief. Together, with his wife, Sarah, Abraham teaches other families to worship one invisible God “too powerful to be made into a simple statue of wood or stone.” In my book, Sarah Laughs, I explore Abraham’s life from Sarah’s point of view. When she learns that her husband has heard God’s voice, she knows it means they must leave their comfortable home. Her response is simply, “We must go.” Through years of wandering, Sarah happily supports her husband and maintains a tent with a welcoming lamp and bread for all who visit. But she feels impatience and disappointment, too. Only in old age, after years of longing, does she finally receive what she wants most—a child. Her life embodies the hope that our dreams will come true, not matter how long they are delayed.

This kind of story and character speaks to the psyche of both children and adults. As a writer, I have enjoyed re-visiting my favorite Bible stories and being renewed by them. In Benjamin and the Silver Goblet, I had the opportunity to imagine what it was like for Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons. When he learns that his older brothers betrayed the family by selling their brother Joseph into slavery, he fears for his own safety. On a trip to Egypt, Benjamin is falsely accused of stealing the governor’s silver goblet. Will Jacob’s sons abandon a family member again? No, Judah defends Benjamin, offering his own life. The governor reveals his true identity as Joseph, and the family is reunited. It is the quintessential story of remorse and repentance. Remembering Benjamin’s plight, I can believe that people can change. They don’t have to make the same mistake twice. It helps me if I have trouble in my own life, forgiving a loved one who has wronged me.

The fourth story in this series, Miriam in the Desert, will be released in the fall of 2010. In this picture book, I follow Miriam and her grandson, Bezalel, as they witness the miracles in the desert. Once again, I was fascinated by a Biblical heroine, facing one hardship after another with fortitude and faith. I only hope that if I am ever in a difficult situation, I can be as comforting and courageous as Miriam. And I hope that when parents read my Bible stories with their children, both generations will find role models to guide and inspire their lives.

Check out the book trailer for Jacqueline's Bible series!

All artwork was by Natascia Ugliano.

Jan 18, 2010

Bringing "Hot Pursuit" to Life

Today's guest blogger is Craig Orback, who has illustrated several picture books including Keeping the Promise. Here he shares his research and creative process for his latest book, Hot Pursuit. It's about the murders of civil rights workers in 1964 Mississippi, so it's especially relevant today as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. You can learn more about Craig at his website and blog. Thanks, Craig!

Almost a year ago I finished work on the book Hot Pursuit: Murder in Mississippi for Kar-Ben Publishing. This true story is written by Stacia Deutsch & Rhody Cohon and I was lucky enough to complete the 31 individual paintings.

Here is the description of the book provided by the publisher:

It was the Freedom Summer of 1964. Civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were driving through rural Mississippi. When a police cruiser flashed its lights behind them, they hesitated. Were these law-abiding officers or members of the Ku Klux Klan? Should they pull over or try to outrun their pursuers? The last day in the lives of these courageous young men is relived in this gripping story.

Being that I was born in 1971 I did not know a lot about this event in the Civil Rights Movement. I had seen the 1988 movie "
Mississippi Burning" that recounts the investigation of their disappearance but nothing is shown about the work they did before their tragic deaths. The time seemed right for an illustrated book for kids telling their story so I jumped at the chance to illustrate it.
As an illustrator, research always comes before pencil hits paper so I found lots of books and images on the internet to help familiarize me with the three main characters. I also read through several books about the civil rights movement and their story specifically. Usually I am looking for images that will help me to make my illustrations more accurate but reading the text provides me with important details not available in photos.

I had difficulty finding many photos of Mickey, Andrew and James. To the left are about the only images I could find.

In my research I learned that Mickey, the leader of the three civil rights workers, being from New York City was a fan of the NYC Mets baseball team and was seen most times wearing a baseball hat. That was a detail I had to include.

Since I didn't have a lot of photos of them to help me my next step was to take the photos I had and translate them into sketches which would help me later when painting them at various angles.

Two other characters important to the story are the law enforcement officers of Neshoba County Mississippi that arrest and jail the civil rights workers. I mostly show them in the shadows but these photos were helpful nonetheless.

Also in my research I learned that during the days before their disappearance in Mississippi they were driving around in a blue 1964 Ford station wagon. There were going to be lots of scenes of them in the car so I wanted to have some good photos of the inside and out of that kind of car. One day I decided to look on craigslist for similar cars for sale and amazingly enough found someone near Seattle was selling a car of that exact description. He was nice enough to let me take photos of his car. It wasn't blue but it was a great find nonetheless! Here is a photo of the real car from the story and photos I took of the similar one.

After all my research I was ready to start the paintings! Again I had 31 individual paintings to do when typically I only have about 15-20 to do for a book. Early on it was decided that this book should have a graphic novel feel which would mean there would sometimes be several illustrations on a page showing the action from different angles. This was a new challenge for me but I loved thinking of compositions in a new way.

Now it was time to start drawing! I will be showing you the steps I took to illustrate the scene from pages 20-21 in the book. It's one of the scenes showing the main characters being chased by the local sheriff. The story jumps several times from past to present showing them being chased by the sheriff and the hard decision Mickey has to make.

With any illustration I start with small thumbnail sketches.I liked to explore lots of ideas. To the right are the ones I came up with for that scene.

Eventually I get an idea I like and a larger sketch is made (here on the left).

I liked this one because in two illustrations it captured both the dramatic chase between the cars as well as the fear felt by the young men. All my larger sketches for the whole book were then reviewed by my publisher, some changes were requested, and then I was ready to complete the final paintings!

As my work is pretty realistic I like to have reference photos of models to paint from. For this book I was mostly able to use my self as a model then later made them look like the real life people I was depicting. Here are a few photos for that illustration. Note Mickey's Mets baseball cap.

Next I do a final line drawing (shown on the right) for myself based on my research and model photos.

I use a projector to transfer this small drawing to my final larger surface and can now finally start painting!

For these paintings I used oil paint on smooth illustration board. Oil allows me to rework a painting while still wet and I love the painterly look I can achieve with it. After a few days of painting this is the final page as it appears in the book!

As you can see there are a lot of steps when completing an illustration, especially throughout a book like Hot Pursuit. One of the pleasures for me was depicting details from the 1960's: a favorite decade for me with its great music, fun fashion and design, even if I did miss being a part of it by a couple of years! This book was a challenge for me in many ways but I felt lucky to be a part of sharing this important story with young readers.

Jan 13, 2010

Thank You, Readers!

It's been a thrill to connect with our readers through social media these past few months! Your comments, feedback, and enthusiasm is much appreciated!

As our thanks to you, we're offering 10% off your next order at karben.com! Use the coupon code SOCIAL* when you check out, and the discount will be automatically applied to your order.

While you're shopping, be sure to check out what's new! Here's a preview. Click on the covers for more information...

*Offer not valid with any other discounts. Web orders only. Expires 2/28/2010.

Jan 12, 2010

Awards Excitement!

No, we're not talking Golden Globes and Oscars, here. The Sydney Taylor Book Award winners have just been announced! The prestigious award, administered by the Association of Jewish Libraries, exclusively honors children’s and YA books of Jewish content.

Kar-Ben is pleased to announce that both Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim by Deborah Bodin Cohen (pictured left), illustrated by Jago, and Benjamin and the Silver Goblet by Jacqueline Jules (pictured right), illustrated by Natascia Ugliano, have won the 2010 Sydney Taylor Honor Award for Younger Readers! The authors and illustrators will be honored at the annual AJL conference in June 2010.

Four additional Kar-Ben titles were recognized as Sydney Taylor Award Notable Books:

The Secret Shofar of Barcelona by Jacqueline Dembar Greene, illus. by Doug Chayka
Sukkot Treasure Hunt by Allison Ofanansky, photos by Eliyahu Alpern
Menorah Under the Sea by Esther Susan Heller
The Man Who Flies with Birds by Carole G. Vogel and Yossi Leshem

Mazel tov to all the winners! It is an honor and pleasure to include your books in our catalogue.

Jan 7, 2010

Answering the Big Questions

As an adult, it's easy to slip into what I call "fact-mode," accepting the truth, being serious, reading the newspaper and thoughtful books, working hard, and being responsible. But what about your sense of wonder? Imagination? Ability to question the world around you? What about the spiritual side of yourself? Sometimes, one needs to step out of "fact-mode" and think more like a child.

Amy Meltzer's latest post at Homeshuling got me thinking about the big questions about God that kids ask their parents and teachers. Who is God? Where is God? Why does God make bad things happen? While adults seem like wise, all-knowing beings, a lot of the time we're still figuring it out for ourselves. Ideas about God can take a long time to develop and are deeply personal, and can't be explained as easily as why the sky is blue or disproving the theory of "boy cooties." How does one begin to talk about God with a child?

I like this article by Rabbi David Wolpe from Interfaith Family because he emphasizes that in Judaism, there's no one idea about God. There are many different interpretations. In discussions with children, even the grown-ups can learn something.

Rabbi Wolpe lists some thoughtful tips about how to talk to your kids about God, including the importance of telling stories. Many of our books are based on midrash, which is a form of interpretation of the Torah that fills in the gaps that a plain reading of the text leaves out. Bible stories like Abraham's Search for God and The Seventh Day use midrash to help form an answer to a child's questions about God. To go along with Rabbi Wolpe's article, reading stories like these and asking your child what he or she thinks can help kick off the discussion and grow your child's own understanding about God.

What about when bad things happen? The book Where Do People Go When They Die? tries to answer that very question in a simple and open-ended way so that families and educators can read it with a child. Though it's a difficult question to answer, this book provides comfort in a time of uncertainty.

Just as children grow up and form their own ideas about God and the world, we learn that it's enriching for us as adults to step out of "fact-mode" and pose some of the same questions to ourselves.
Topmost book image from Wikimedia Commons.