Sep 28, 2011

Be Rude at Rosh Hashanah

In a recent essay in the Albany Times Union, Kar-Ben author Linda Elovitz Marshall writes about the power of words and their ability to create conflict or bring understanding. Marshall’s most recent book Talia and the Rude Vegetables, plays with language as the young protagonist mishears her grandmother ask her to gather root vegetables from the garden for a Rosh Hashanah stew. Marshall writes:

As she digs for the seven vegetables her grandmother requested, Talia ponders what makes a vegetable rude. Does it talk back to its mother and father? Does it push its brothers and sisters around? Talia remembers that she, too, has been rude and that the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah is coming.
Rosh Hashanah is coming, Talia says, I must ask their forgiveness.
As a child, Talia sees clearly what we, adults, often miss. Talia knows she has been wrong and must ask forgiveness. Rosh Hashanah is coming.
As Marshall continues to connect words and deeds in her piece, she emphasizes forgiveness during the Days of Awe, writing: “One might wonder if that is what happened with the children of Abraham. One might wonder if Hagar and Sarah had spoken kindly to each other, cuddled each other's offspring, perhaps there would be more happiness in the world.” Indeed, the connections between thoughts, words and actions is apparent at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Marshall’s assertion that through awareness of rudeness we can arrive at forgiveness is a compelling one.

Read the whole piece.

Sep 21, 2011

Is Blowing the Shofar Dangerous?

Jacqueline Dembar Greene is the award-winning author of more than 30 books for young readers. She loves to write stories about the Sephardic Jews who were her ancestors. Ms. Greene has traveled to Spain, walking in the ancient Jewish quarters in Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Seville and Cordoba.  We interviewed Jacqueline about writing The Secret Shofar of Barcelona, a book that depicts a daring Rosh Hashanah celebration in a dark time in Jewish history:
"Musician Don Fernando longs to hear the sounds of the shofar on the High Holidays, but, like the other secret Jews in Inquisition-era Spain, he must hide his religion. When he is asked to perform a symphony celebrating the new world, he and his son Rafael devise a daring plan to usher in the Jewish New Year in plain sight of the Spanish nobility!"  

Where did you get the inspiration for The Secret Shofar of Barcelona?
There was a legend about a composer from Barcelona, who lived during the time of the Inquisition. It was said that he had dared to play the shofar during a concert, risking his life so that the secret Jews could hear it. That sketchy tale inspired me to create new characters, and research the history of music in 1500s Spain. I imagined a new story about young Rafael, who courageously blows the shofar on Rosh Hashanah eve, right under the noses of the dreaded Inquisition.

What is the most interesting thing you learned in the process of writing or illustrating your book?
I was stunned to realize that the secret Jews living in Spain under the rule of the Inquisition had never heard the sound of the shofar. Not hearing that call during the High Holy Days would leave an empty feeling in anyone observing the holidays. I was also surprised to learn that the Spanish conquerors in New Spain (now Mexico) taught the native people to play western instruments, taught them to play church music, and used many native instruments, as well. It was a way to bring non-believers into the church service.

How do you hope your book will impact the Jewish life of a child?
I always write a book to engage a reader or listener to use their imagination as they enter into a different world. The story of Rafael in The Secret Shofar of Barcelona shows how one person, even a child, can make a difference for many. It also demonstrates that standing up for your beliefs sometimes takes real courage.

Anything else you would like to share with readers?
Books open new worlds to you, and every time you curl up with a book in your lap, you have a chance to let your imagination roam and have an armchair adventure. No matter how many electronic games and videos you might choose, a book is always what you make it in your own mind. Always have a book by your side—it doesn’t need a battery! Buy a copy of The Secret Shofar of Barcelona.                                                                                           

Sep 13, 2011

Hanukkah Story Promotes Autism Awareness

Stories can be powerful, accessible ways for children to understand people different than themselves. Stories can also show that people share universal traits in common, like the desire to be happy, healthy and part of a family. Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles is a book that will connect readers with a young autistic character.
Kar-Ben author Tami Lehman-Wilzig lived for a year in Providence, where she met local PJ Library director, Nicole Katzman. Tami introduced Nicole to her books and Nicole, the mother of four young children (one of whom is autistic) and a fierce campaigner for autistic children's rights, told Tami about her determination to have a book on an autistic child written for the American Jewish community. It didn't take long for the two to pair up and develop Kar-Ben's new book Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles. Read the authors’ exchange about their story:

Nicole: Accepting the other in our midst is an important Jewish value. As a mother of an autistic child I didn't feel that acceptance. All too often I found the situation to be reverse and at times painful. I knew that in order to help children understand how to accept the other they needed a story to which they could relate.

Tami: I understood Nicole's feeling of urgency. One of my sons has special needs and I remembered how difficult it was for him as a child. In addition, there were autistic twins in our neighborhood while our sons were growing up, so I was already familiar with autistic behavior. For example, they would continually repeat the same question or statement, but we needed more than behavioral differences. We needed a peg around which we could develop a compelling story.

Nicole: At first I tried writing a story, but it didn't work. After reading it, Tami decided that she had to “interview” me. So I told her all about our son Nathan. She kept prodding me with questions. Finally, she said 'give me an example of something Nathan did that got you really upset.'

Tami: The minute Nicole related the incident of Nathan blowing out the Hanukkah candles the previous year, I knew we had the peg. It was perfect. Nathan's action was off the chart and Hanukkah was a wonderful setting. Creating a story around it with the right feel was the challenge. I wanted the story to be true – not too sugary, but not too tough. Finding the right balance was a challenge and it took several drafts, plus the help of “book doctor” Deborah Brodie to put me on the right track. It was Deborah who suggested that I tell the story from a sibling's vantage point.  The minute I did that, everything fell into place. Since I was already familiar with the repetitive nature of autistic children's conversations, I used that particular quirk to jump start the story. I consulted with Nicole throughout the entire writing process to make sure that Nathan's behavior was on track, as well as the reactions of siblings and kids.  

Nicole: It's exciting for me to have a book on an autistic child that is specifically my son. It's more than a dream come true. It's an opportunity to open people's eyes and minds. Too often they are misinformed about autism, insensitive in their comments and judgmental of both the child and his/her caregivers.

Tami: I am so pleased that Nicole inspired me to write this book. Both of us feel that Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles will make an important contribution to the Jewish community by being read aloud in the classroom or at home, and then used to open a conversation on how to love, respect and understand children who are different.

Nicole: Do you have a child with autism, or a friend or relative? If you have a story of your own please share it with us. Help us break down the barriers.

Please add your voice to Tami and Nicole’s initiative to create more understanding about autism.  Please post your own comments, story or insights about autism below.

Linda Elovitz Marshall Cooks Up a Rosh Hashanah Story

Finding inspiration for stories is almost always an interesting process. Linda Elovitz Marshall’s new book Talia and the Rude Vegetables has inspirations that are as varied as they are interesting. We interviewed Linda to learn more:
Why did you want to become an author or illustrator?
I love words and I love playing with words. I like to string them together in all sorts of different ways and see what happens. I never get tired of this game. I guess that’s why I like writing.
Where did you get the inspiration for Talia and the Rude Vegetables?
One of the things I enjoy doing is helping people from other countries learn to speak English. While I was teaching a Russian speaker, I realized that there’s not much difference between the sounds of the words “root” and “rude.” I combined this with a recipe that I use for Rosh Hashanah (based on root vegetables, many of which I used to grow in my garden). And that’s how I cooked up the story! I used the name “Talia” because my granddaughter, Talia, was born just about the same time I presented the story to my editor at Kar-Ben.

What is the most interesting thing you learned in the process of writing or illustrating your book?
In an early version, Talia sold the perfect vegetables and gave the money to her grandmother. When I showed that version to my Russian student, she said, “Nyet! Money is not to be in a story for children.” I thought about what she said. And I thought about Tzedakah. That’s how I got the idea that Talia should give the perfect vegetables to the rabbi, for distribution to the poor.

How do you hope your book will impact the Jewish life of a child?
I hope the book will help Jewish children appreciate the joys of gardening and the need to help the hungry.
Get ideas for Rosh Hashanah related activities: grow your own "rude" vegetable.

Sep 9, 2011

Buzzworthy: Interview with Allison Ofanansky

What does author Allison Ofanansky have in common with one of her favorite authors, A.A. Milne?

Both of them write about honey, Milne with his honey eating bear and Ofanansky with What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year. This new book uses words and photography to introduce kids to the process of making honey on an Israeli honey farm. We asked Ofanansky to tell us more about her writing and new book:

Why did you want to become an author or illustrator?
Because I love to read so much I wanted to create books for others, and because I want to share my experiences of living in Israel and interacting with nature.
What are you most excited about promoting in your new book?
I am excited about including so many of my daughters' friends in the next book. I have also enjoyed meeting the people at Dovrat Hatavor and seeing the interesting and engaging way they teach kids about bees and honey.

How do you hope your book will impact the Jewish life of a child?
 I hope that all the books in this series will show the connection between the Jewish holidays and nature, especially the way the seasons in Israel correspond to the different holidays. I also hope to show children a bit about how things can be made or done or found on their own—that not everything has to be bought in a store.

What are some fun facts about you?
I used to go on very long bike trips in the mountains, sometimes lasting weeks or even months. Now I enjoy gardening and hiking around near where I live in the Galilee.

Sep 8, 2011

Can You Walk and Read at the Same Time?

An interesting blog post by Elizabeth Bluemle appeared in Publishers Weekly all about bringing children’s literature outdoors. In a variety of programs, one called StoryWalk, pages from books are made into outdoor installations along a walking trail. Two great activities for kids—reading and movement—are brought together in the outdoors’ fresh air and sunshine.

When I think of an outdoor story experience this time of year, I immediately think of Tashlich at Turtle Rock, a story about Annie and her family as they take a walk to Turtle Creek on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. They will throw crumbs into the water as symbols of mistakes they made during the past year. As they hike through the woods, they think about the good and bad things that happened and make plans for the new year.  Allowing children to experience this story and to interact with its thoughtful questions in nature adds a dimension that would make a lasting impact on a young and formative mind. Imagine if this "story walk" ended at a tashlich?
Would you consider a project like this in your community?

StoryWalk has a very helpful FAQ on their website, with great information to get a program going in your community.