Jan 16, 2013

Meet The Purim Superhero Author Elisabeth Kushner

The Purim Superhero author Elisabeth Kushner lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her spouse, Lise, their daughter, and a jumble of books and musical instruments. If she were a superhero, she'd be Orange Ukulele Girl. Her favorite kind of hamentaschen is poppyseed. This is her first children’s book.

Meet Elisabeth and learn more about her book--the first LGBT-inclusive Jewish-themed children's book published in English--The Purim Superhero.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?
As a child, I had two favorite novels: A LITTLE PRINCESS, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and HARRIET THE SPY, by Louise Fitzhugh. I read both of them over and over. They’re different in so many ways, but they’re both books about young girls in great cities (London and New York) who overcome serious problems through storytelling or writing. That theme appeals to me a lot, for obvious reasons, I guess. I also loved a book called THE TALL BOOK OF MAKE-BELIEVE, a sort of anthology of poems and stories—some famous, some obscure--that all touched on some kind of magic or imagination. It had the most wonderful illustrations, by Garth Williams (before he became famous for his illustrations of E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series).

What’s your favorite line from a book?

My favorite line from a children’s book is from MAX’S BREAKFAST, by Rosemary Wells: “You can’t hide from your egg, Max.” And it’s true. You can’t. Your egg, whatever it is, will always find you, wherever you are.

Why did you want to become an author or illustrator?
I’ve always been a word person; words are how I think and express myself and understand the world. I don’t even like music that doesn’t have words in it. So I always wrote things down—like Harriet the Spy, I had a Notebook-- and always wanted to write a book because I loved books so much.

Do you have any advice for future authors or illustrators?
My advice is the same as that of almost everyone who’s ever written about writing: you just have to do it. And you don’t have to be a special kind of person to write; you just have to write For a long time I thought I had to be a more confident or brave or polished or disciplined or wise, or, well, just a *different* kind of person to be a Real Writer. But I didn’t. I could be the flawed and imperfect human being that I was, and am. I just had to be that person, writing things down, and then revising them.

Where did you get the inspiration for The Purim Superhero?
The direct inspiration for this book came from two places. First, I was a librarian at a Jewish day school for nine years, and in that time I read dozens and dozens of Jewish picture books to library classes. I was always looking for books to share at Jewish holidays. And it always seemed weird to me that there were lots of great read-aloud stories about Chanukah, and a good number of Passover books, but there were almost no books about contemporary Jewish kids celebrating Purim. It seemed like such a natural theme for a children’s book, with many of the appealing qualities of Halloween and April Fool’s Day (Costumes! Silliness! Carnivals! Treats!), but most of the books I found, while wonderful, were basically retellings of the story of Esther. I wanted a book to share with my classes that would reflect and expand on their present-day experience of celebrating Purim. I thought a kid with a costume crisis might be a good hook for a story, and I tried to start one, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Then, a few years after I’d left that job, I heard about Keshet’s Picture Book Contest: Keshet is a wonderful organization for Jewish gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and they sponsored a contest for a picture book with both gay/lesbian and Jewish content. Apparently there had never been one, which really surprised me! I was working on a novel at the time, plus I had a day job and a family, and at first I thought I didn’t have time for another project. But then I thought, wait, I’m a Jewish lesbian, I’m a parent, I’m a writer, and I’ve read *lots* of Jewish picture books. If I don’t enter this contest, I’ll never forgive myself!

And I realized that my old idea for a Purim story was a perfect fit for this project: Purim is very much about “coming out” as yourself—Esther is a great example of someone who comes out of the closet for a good cause—and I thought that would be a good setting for a book about a kid with gay parents.

What are you most excited about promoting in your new book?
I’m very excited that this is a picture book about a kid with same-sex parents where his family structure is not the problem, but is still an important part of the story. I think that kids like my daughter and her friends, and like many of the kids I knew at the Jewish Day School, who’ve been lucky enough to grow up in inclusive and accepting communities, will recognize children like themselves and their friends in this story. And I hope that kids with any kind of family and any religious background who feel weird and self-conscious because they like different things than their friends or classmates—and I think that’s all kids, at some point—will find inspiration and sustenance in Nate’s story.

I am also really excited to be promoting a Purim story about a contemporary Jewish kid! I know there are more now than when I first started thinking about this book, but it’s still an aspect of the book that’s close to my heart.

What is the most interesting thing you learned in the process of writing or illustrating your book?
When I started THE PURIM SUPERHERO I had just finished a first draft of a novel, and had struggled with the plot and resolution. Plot is really hard for me! I turned to this project with some relief, thinking, “Well, I wrote a novel, and this is just a picture book; how hard could it be?” And was amazed and astounded to discover that I had all the same plot-related problems with the picture book that I’d had with the novel—in fact, it was even harder, because it had to be so compact. That was a humbling and educational experience.

How do you hope your book will impact the Jewish life of a child?
I hope that Nate’s story will help children recognize that they can be all the parts of themselves at once: the self that is Jewish; the self that is part of their family; whatever its structure; and the self that loves aliens or superheroes or rock stars or whatever it is that they’re passionate about.

I also think that a compelling story about believable characters (which is what I hope THE PURIM SUPERHERO is) has a deep value in itself, and that a good Jewish story broadens and enriches the Jewish world of the reader; it doesn’t have to teach a lesson or do anything else except to be a good story.

What are some fun facts about you?
I come from a musical family, and my spouse, Lise, is a musician, but I never could manage to learn a musical instrument until a few years ago, when I took up the ukulele. I have a little orange ukulele that I play all the time now. It drives my daughter nuts but it makes me really happy to play. I use it when I do storytimes at the public library where I work now, and kids always want to know about the “little guitar.”

Buy a copy of The Purim Superhero, available in hardcover and paperback. 

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