Today's guest post is from Lesley Simpson, author of The Shabbat Box and The Purim Surprise. Her stories have delighted readers in Jewish homes and classrooms. Lesley was kind enough to sit down with us and share how The Shabbat Box came to be such a classic and loveable story. Thanks, Lesley!
Where did you get the idea to write The Shabbat Box?
When my son was in kindergarten, one Friday he brought home a shoebox covered in blue velvet. The box had the word Shabbat in Hebrew letters. Inside the box there was a kiddush cup, some candles, homemade challah rolls from the teacher, and a little book where parents shared their stories about how their kids had used the Shabbat box. I had never seen a Shabbat box before. And I remember being amazed that this box, wrapped in a plastic bag to protect the elegant velvet during the winter snow, was still in one piece, and that the contents were intact. I was amazed because in this particular class there was a rotation system set up, and each kid got a turn to take the box home Friday and return it Monday. I remember lifting the lid. Kiddush cup? Check. Little candlesticks? Check. Shabbat Candles? Check. It seemed like a miracle, especially for five year olds who might be considered particularly skilled when it comes to losing snow pants, mittens and lunchboxes. I think they were, in their own way, each honored to have a turn, and they treated the box with respect. It was seeing this box that inspired me to write the story.
What happened after the book was published?
When you write a book it sometimes takes on a life of its own. You don’t know how people are going to react to the story, what kind of impact it might make, and what kind of independent life it will have without you. With this book, I was tickled when I learned that the book had inspired kids to make their own Shabbat boxes.
Recently, writer Amy Meltzer told a story on her blog (Homeshuling) that was like the story in my book, only it was REAL LIFE. She was concerned her daughter Ella, then five, might not get a turn to take home the Shabbat box from her classroom and that they might need to take matters into their own hands and make one. On the blog you can see a picture of Ella with her gorgeous challah cover. I was not kidding when I said I wanted one!
You will see at the back of the book there are ideas of how to make your own Shabbat box and what you can use to put inside. So you know those shoeboxes you toss into the recycling? Hold onto them. Ribbons from gift-wrap? Buttons that have fallen off coats and dresses? Pop them in the shoebox. Clothing that’s torn, stained, or too small? Save this material—everyone has stuff around their house and you can use anything from old mop strings to a broken hair ribbon or seashells for decoration.
Create a new use for an old thing. (This is something I love to do—finding a new use for an old thing. For example, I am now saving my old sweaty stinky running shoes to plant flowers in them this spring. They will be transformed with flowers spilling out where feet used to be!) It is also something that is a fundamental Jewish value—not to waste.
When I had a book launch for The Shabbat Box we created a series of art stations where kids could paint challah covers, make a spice pouch of besamim, and staple wallpaper samples and fabric to shoeboxes. The range of design was staggering to see, with boxes decorated with everything from sparkly beads, old buttons, ribbons, glitter, fake flowers, stickers, fabric scraps, felt pieces —you name it. You can collect beautiful junk, share your junk with a friend, and make some boxes on a rainy day. Walk around your house and ask people you live with to give you stuff that is broken or torn. Learn to look at it not , for example, as a ripped washcloth, or broken necklace, or uncooked macaroni, but as raw material you can transform.
What do you do when you visit schools or synagogues?
If I am reading The Shabbat Box, I have designed a hands-on art program that will enrich the reading experience. I bring my own box to show the students. I actually have two boxes: one my son made when he was about five, and another one we made during my book launch. The variety shows the kids the possibilities in terms of designing their own creations. I like the idea of making something that is functional, not a cut and paste picture that’s destined for the blue box . You can make something you can use, week after week, whether it’s the challah cover or the candlesticks.
During one of the Jewish Book Fairs in Toronto, the staff created a program where kids could make a placemat and then laminate it. This craft was a great fit because everyone knows someone will manage to spill the grape juice Friday night (or something else) and with lamination, you just wipe clean and bring it out again. In my box, I have some plastic Kiddush cups decorated with beads, a fabric pouch of besamim filled with cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon (it smells so aromatic it’s addictive), as well as a hand painted challah cover on white canvas. And my confession? Sometimes my box includes candy (as long as I don’t eat it first!)
How can schools get in touch with you?
I am delighted to do readings. Contact me at email@example.com. Label your e-mail "Reading Request for The Shabbat Box."
Check out Jonah's Shabbat box, inspired by the book! (video appears courtesy of Reading Kids are Dreaming Kids)