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An Interview with The Passover Guest Author Susan Kusel

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR SUSAN KUSEL

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK

THE PASSOVER GUEST

(Neal Porter Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

The Passover Guest cover

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SHORT SUMMARY:

In The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Passover Guest!

Susan Kusel: Thank you so much for having me here! I am honored to be on this blog

GRWR:  How does it feel as a synagogue librarian and indie bookstore book buyer to know your new book,
The Passover Guest, has landed on shelves? 

SK: It’s an absolutely surreal feeling to know that my book has a spot in some of my favorite libraries and bookstores. I am humbled by the idea of a child pulling it off the shelf and reading it.

GRWR: When did the seed to become a storyteller first plant itself in your soul? Can you recall the first books that sparked your imagination? 

SK: I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long, it’s hard to remember the exact moment I started. I do remember the first time I ever wrote a complete book though. It was for a 5th grade English assignment and was about a Russian Jewish girl named Rachel. I remember being very proud of the special folder I put the book into.

My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child and some of my favorite books then were Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry, Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and of course, The Magician by I.L. Peretz, adapted by Uri Shulevitz.

 

The Passover Guest int1
Interior spread from The Passover Guest, A Neal Porter Book/Holiday House © 2021. Text copyright © 2021 by Susan Kusel Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sean Rubin

 

GRWR: What inspired you to write The Passover Guest as a retelling of the classic I. L. Peretz’s story adapted by Uri Shulevitz in 1973 rather than create a new tale? 

SK: As I mentioned above, The Magician was in regular reading rotation by my mother when I was younger and so it’s a story I’ve been in love with for a long time. When I rediscovered the book in a library as an adult, I still thought it was an amazing story, but I noticed some plot elements that I wished were different. That started me down the path of doing an adaptation of Peretz’s story, a process that took about ten years.

GRWR: Aside from setting the story in 1933 Depression-era D.C. are there any other notable changes you wanted to make for 21st-century young readers? 

SK: The most significant change I made was adding the character of Muriel. In the Peretz version, the story is about a couple but I thought that it was very important to add a child character. There are also a number of subtle changes I added, such as Muriel putting a penny in the Magician’s hat, the rabbi coming to Muriel’s seder, the whole community filling the house, the matzah breaking itself in two, and several smaller plot points. My goal was to stay true to Peretz’s message while making the story my own.

GRWR: What were your go-to Jewish holiday books growing up and right now? Do you have a collection? 

SK: Jewish stories have always been very important to me, but when I was growing up, we owned very few. Our whole book collection, which took up half a shelf in my brother’s closet, was primarily obtained from library book sales. We supplemented these with library books. I only had a few Jewish books including The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Potato Pancakes All Around by Marilyn Hirsh (which we used then, and I still use now for the latke recipe).

As for now, I am typing this while sitting in my home library surrounded by picture books, including several shelves just for Jewish books. Current favorites include Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel (no holiday list is complete without it!), I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, The Matzah Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin (sadly out of print but still extraordinary), and Here is the World by Lesléa Newman. That’s really just a small sample though because there are so many Jewish holiday books I love.

GRWR: Has your experience on the Caldecott Medal selection committee or as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee influenced your writing in any way? 

SK: One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read extensively in your field. I think those committees, as well as others I’ve been on, have certainly helped me with that. When you are reading hundreds and hundreds of books in a genre, it does give you a better sense of what is currently published. Being on so many committees has helped me see what the conventions are, and how they can be broken and how I can be a better writer.

GRWR: Sean Rubin’s art is as magical as your prose and the mysterious guest himself. Do you have a particular favorite spread from the book you can tell us about? 

SK: I think Sean did a truly extraordinary job on the illustrations and picking just one of them is like trying to pick a favorite child. I think his work adds so much to the book and makes it complete.

I could easily go on at length about every individual spread and how much I love it, but if I can only pick one, it would be when Muriel goes to the synagogue to consult the rabbi. Over the course of one continuous spread, Sean shows us four completely separate and distinct scenes and the cause and effect of each one of them. And all of this against the astonishingly beautiful and majestic background of the Sixth and I Synagogue, a D.C. Jewish landmark. 

GRWR: Early on in The Passover Guest Muriel meets an unusual street performer to whom she gives her last penny. Can you speak to the story idea of magic and how, especially in tough times, this kind of belief can help people? 

SK: I think it’s always a good time to believe in the possibility of magic, especially during difficult times. You never know who that bedraggled stranger might turn out to be. Faith and hope are so important.

 

The Passover Guest int2
Interior spread from The Passover Guest, A Neal Porter Book/Holiday House © 2021. Text copyright © 2021 by Susan Kusel Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sean Rubin

 

GRWR: Where do you find the time to write with all your other commitments? Do you have a daily routine? 

SK: I’d love to be able to say that I sit down in the same place at the same time every day and write for the same amount of time. But the truth, as you alluded to in this question, is that I have multiple jobs, commitments, and children, and I do my best to write as much as I can when I can.

GRWR: You mentioned in your author’s note that Passover has always been your favorite holiday, can you tell us why? 

SK: I love so many things about Passover: the coming of spring, getting the seder plate ready, singing songs, finding the afikomen, eating too much charoset, being with family, and much more. It’s always been a magical holiday for me and I’m delighted that this book lets me share some of that magic.

GRWR: Are you working on your next book? Will it have a Jewish theme? 

SK: I’m working on several next books, all with Jewish themes. I have a real commitment to telling Jewish stories.

GRWR: It’s been wonderful having you as a guest here today, Susan! I really appreciate your thoughtful replies and am looking forward to sharing a review of your book when we get closer to Passover.

Author Susan KuselBRIEF BIO:

Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching, and of course, reading. Learn more about Susan on her website and by following her on social media.

Twitter: @susankusel
Instagram: @susanhkusel
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Click here to read another picture book author interview.

 

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Best Passover Books for Children – The Passover Mouse

THE PASSOVER MOUSE

Written by Joy Nelkin Wieder

Illustrated by Shahar Kober

(Doubleday BYR; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

 

The Passover Mouse cvr

 

Starred review – Kirkus

The night before Passover, a hungry and mischievous mouse steals a single bread crumb from a pile of chometz (leavened food) on a table where it waits to be burned in the morning, (to prevent the house being contaminated during Passover), and the adventure of The Passover Mouse begins! The mouse is chased first to the cobbler’s house, and then to the matchmaker’s. A different mouse and a cat join the fun, and confusion and chaos descend upon the community as they try to figure out what to do about the homes that have possibly being contaminated with the stray chometz.

This playful and inspiring tale is based upon and introduces children to a passage from the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbis’ commentaries on Jewish law. Along with delightful illustrations by Shahar Kober, the traditional story presents a conundrum for the community, which is not resolved right away. The puzzling problem is presented to the town’s Rabbi, who presents an answer, but how to carry it out is ultimately suggested by a child, who speaks up and suggests community cooperation, which is embraced by everyone.

 

Passover Mouse interior spread 1
Interior spread from The Passover Mouse written by Joy Nelkin Wieder and illustrated by Shahar Kober, Doubleday BYR ©2020.

 

Joy Nelkin Wieder’s debut picture book reads like a traditional folk tale, and kids will have fun learning the many Hebrew and Yiddish words which are used throughout the story. Some may be familiar (Oy vey!) while some may be less known (yeshiva) but thankfully there is a glossary in the back with definitions along with an indication of how to pronounce them. An author’s note is also included which explains the original passage in the Talmud.

Kober’s illustrations have an engaging cast of lively, multi-generational characters that grow in numbers as the story progresses. Individual characters are recognizable and can be found, and followed, through the book. Kids will want to linger over the assorted expressive faces which reveal their personalities and reactions. The Seder scene accurately depicts traditional food, and the clothing and setting throughout portrays a traditional, fabled Jewish community. Kober’s consistent pallet of earthy colors and bright accents invoke a warm and inviting feeling that enhances the warmth and togetherness of this assorted but unified community.

 

Passover Mouse interior spread 2(1)
Interior spread from The Passover Mouse written by Joy Nelkin Wieder and illustrated by Shahar Kober, Doubleday BYR ©2020.

 

The story starts with the mouse, but the main thrust of the story involves the community who take a journey from confusion, blame and arguing, to unity—coming together and working together to solve their problem. In the end, everyone has re-established their friendships, spread some kindness, and even the mouse (and its companions) don’t go hungry (don’t miss the art on the last page! A wonderful tale and moral not only for Passover, but for any time of year.

Learn more about the Perfect2020PBs group here.

  • Guest Review by Molly Ruttan
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    Molly Ruttan’s illustration debut, I AM A THIEF! by Abigail Rayner from NorthSouth Books had its book birthday on September 3, 2019, and has earned a starred Kirkus review. Molly’s author-illustrator debut, THE STRAY, is forthcoming from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House in May 2020. Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and holds a BFA in graphic design from the Cooper Union School of Art. She lives, works and creates art in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles, California. Find Molly online at www.mollyruttan.com, on Twitter @molly_ruttan and on Instagram@mollyillo
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Kids Books – Celebrate With Pippa’s Passover Plate by Vivian Kirkfield

PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE
Written by Vivian Kirkfield
Illustrated by Jill Weber
(Holiday House; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

book cover illustration by Jill Weber from Pippas Passover Plate by Vivian Kirkfield

 

I’m always happy to welcome a new picture book with an original take on the holiday into the mix of Passover stories. Today I’m reviewing Vivian Kirkfield’s charming Pippa’s Passover Plate with illustrations by Jill Weber so you’ll have time to pick up a copy to read before and during your family’s upcoming Seders.

The premise of this read aloud tale told in rhyme is that Pippa the mouse cannot locate her Seder plate, a plausible predicament even for humans! The pressure’s on because this concerned pip squeak must find the plate before sundown and the start of her Seder (the traditional annual ritual where people of Jewish faith gather with friends and family to eat, read, share stories and celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt).

 

Pippas Passover Plate by Vivian Kirkfield int illustration in kitchen by Jill Weber
Interior spread from Pippa’s Passover Plate written by Vivian Kirkfield with illustrations by Jill Weber, Holiday House ©2019.

 

Kirkfield clearly has fun with the verse and her meter is spot-on throughout the book:

“Pippa climbs up on a chair,
stretches up–the cupboard’s bare!
Teetor-totter–hold on tight!
Weeble-wobble–what a fright!”

At the start of her search, Pippa asks Sphinx the cat if it’s seen the plate. After no luck there, Pippa is told to try Snake. Each time she must approach an ominous new creature, Pippa is filled with dread, and the following repeating and repeatable refrain …

“Quiver! Quaver!
Shiver! Shake!”

… adds to the page turn appeal of the story since the little mouse must face her fears in order to find the missing plate. Her potential predators, however, don’t seem to want to do her harm.

When Owl wisely suggests that Pippa “question Golda Fish” (great name btw), it seems an easier, less scary task to undertake. Weber’s wonderful artwork here in addition to elsewhere in the book complements the text where Golda is described as quite enchanted with herself. Since a mirror isn’t available, a brass Seder plate in which she can admire her reflection is apparently the next best thing. I love Weber’s palate of all shades of yellow, a cheerful color to counter any feelings of danger when Pippa meets Sphinx, Snake and Owl. How the plate landed in the lake is up for debate so why not ask your child? I’m sure they’ll spin some wild tales. The good news is that Pippa can now prepare the Seder.

No longer fearful of the animals, Pippa invites them all to her Seder and the story ends with a frame-worthy illustration of the Seder plate, and the special food that goes on it. I do wish there had been one page of back matter that included a description of what each of the six food items represents in relation to Passover. Nonetheless that’s easily found online and the majority of readers will know and can explain that to their children. For teachers planning to read Pippa’s Passover Plate to a class, I recommend having this information on hand for inquiring minds. It also couldn’t hurt to include info on what matzo is and why a piece of it gets hidden during the Seder since it’s mentioned on the second to last page when the friends are gathered together to celebrate the holiday.

 

Pippas Passover Plate by Vivian Kirkfield with art by Jill Weber Seder Plate art
Interior artwork from Pippa’s Passover Plate written by Vivian Kirkfield with illustrations by Jill Weber, Holiday House ©2019.

 

I recommend this adorable picture book which provides the perfect opportunity to discuss Passover traditions, especially for little ones ages 3-6 who will find Pippa’s plight engaging and most enjoyable. Happy Passover!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Find a Passover book review from last year by clicking here.

 

 

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Paulie’s Passover Predicament by Jane Sutton

PAULIE’S PASSOVER PREDICAMENT
Written by Jane Sutton
Illustrated by Barbara Vagnozzi
(Kar-Ben; $17.99 hardcover, $7.99 paperback, Ages 4-6)

 

Cover art for Paulie's Passover Predicament

 

I don’t have a flair for cooking and it seems the same can be said about the main character and moos-ician, Paulie, in Paulie’s Passover Predicament by Jane Sutton. As the Passover Seder host, Paulie gets all the important dishes wrong. But unlike me, Paulie scores points because he at least makes the effort to prepare an entire meal whereas I’m more comfortable (and it’s safer, too) being someone else’s Seder guest.

Paulie’s invited all his animal friends over which includes Evelyn, Horace, Irving, Moe and Sally. At first his pals seem impressed by his Passover Seder spread. Soon however, as each traditional dish is served, there are giggles, chuckles and guffaws. “I see you have an extremely large egg on your seder plate,” said Moe. How big you ask? It’s an Ostrich egg!

 

Int artwork from Paulie's Passover Predicament
Interior artwork and text from Paulie’s Passover Predicament © 2018 by Jane Sutton, Illustrations copyright © 2018 Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.

 

There’s pepper in the salt water that’s supposed to represent “the tears of our ancestors when they were slaves,” but Paulie’s put pepper in so the pepper wouldn’t be jealous of the salt. He’s mixed pine cones instead of walnuts into the charoset, uses grass in place of parsley, and for the maror he’s carved a horse out of a radish instead of using horseradish!! But rather than ridicule Paulie who is embarrassed and saddened by his mistakes, his pals realize he’s just put his own special spin on the seder and love him for it. Happy again, Paulie reflects on the special meal. “He loved dipping his hoof in grape juice as he and his friends recited The Ten Plagues.”

When Sally is selected to hide the afikomen, everyone goes searching. Lucky Paulie finds it but unluckily gets stuck in the basement until his ingenuity saves the day (and the afikomen). I like the symbolism in his being set free just like our ancestors were and the special camaraderie amongst all the friends afterwards as they sing Dayeinu. “If God had only taken us out of Egypt, it would have been enough. Dayeinu.”

Vagnozzi’s joyful artwork will delight youngsters, some of whom may be old enough to recite The Four Questions. Paulie’s Passover Predicament is a light-hearted look at the holiday and reinforces the message that it’s really not about the food, but about being together and honoring the traditions of the past generations. Enjoy your read-aloud time with this story and wishing all those who celebrate a very happy Passover 2018!

About Passover From Paulie’s Passover Predicament:
Passover is a spring holiday that celebrates the exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The holiday begins with a festive meal called a seder. Symbolic foods recall the bitterness of slavery, the haste in which the Jews left Egypt, and the joy of freedom. Children ask The Four Questions and look for the hidden piece of matzah—the afikomen—at the end of the meal.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Click here for a link to 2017’s Passover book review of A Different Kind of Passover
Click here for a link to 2016’s Passover book review, More Than Enough

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A Different Kind of Passover by Linda Leopold-Strauss

A DIFFERENT KIND OF PASSOVER
Written by Linda Leopold-Strauss
Illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau
(Kar-Ben; Hardcover, $17.99;
Paperback, $7.99; eBook, $6.99, Ages 4-9)

 

Cover image of grandpa in bed from A Different Kind of Passover by Linda Leopold-Strauss

 

Any child who has ever celebrated a holiday when someone special couldn’t attend will relate to        A Different Kind of Passover. But even those who haven’t will appreciate the sentiments expressed and the lovely twist author Linda Leopold-Strauss has added in this heartwarming story I’m delighted to share.

Grandpa is sick and has just come back home from the hospital. That means the Passover seder will be different this year and narrator Jessica wonders how that will change things, especially now that she’s going to ask the Four Questions in Hebrew. And since she’s finding it hard to imagine a seder without Grandpa, Jessica soon realizes it doesn’t have to be that way. Grandpa may be nearby tucked in bed, and wearing pajamas, but how convenient that “… Grandpa’s door opens to the dining room?” notes an enthused Jessica. When Grandpa questions his participation in such attire, Grandma remarks, “Does God care if you’re in your pajamas?” The plan is hatched and the seder will take place  with most things remaining the same as always and just a few things different like Grandpa reclining in bed and cousin Mark “getting to sip sweet wine instead of grape juice, since he has just had his bar mitzvah.”

The joy of family and tradition in this story is wonderfully conveyed through Tugeau’s muted illustrations. I love the varied perspectives he shares, especially the ones where we know it’s Grandpa looking out on his family seated around the dining room table. Nothing says everyone must be in the same room for a seder so when Jessica comes up with the great idea to include Grandpa by leaving his bedroom door open, it’s symbolic in so many meaningful ways. Leopold-Strauss has created a sweet and thoughtfully written seder story that will resonate with young readers for years to come.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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More Than Enough: A Passover Story by April Halprin Wayland

MORE THAN ENOUGH:
A PASSOVER STORY
Written by April Halprin Wayland
Illustrated by Katie Kath
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 3-5)

 

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Get ready for Passover with More Than Enough. In her new picture book, April Halprin Wayland captures the many joyful experiences children feel at Passover.

I found myself singing the story, moving easily and eagerly from page to page with More Than Enough’s perfectly paced melodic text. How apropos given that Wayland was inspired to write this picture book because of the Dayenu song, her favorite part of the Passover seder. In the author’s notes she explains, “For me, Dayenu’s message – being grateful for the blessings in each moment – goes beyond Passover.”

interior kitten MORE THAN ENOUGH
Interior artwork from More Than Enough by April Halprin Wayland with illustrations by Katie Kath, Dial Books for Young Readers ©2016.

 

Accenting every two or four lines is the word dayenu, reminding readers to savor the special moments and to count our blessings big and small. Whether wandering through the local farmers market with their mom while looking for Seder ingredients, or getting a new kitten from a shelter, the brother and sister narrators enjoy every moment of the lead up to the Passover holiday.

 

Interior rain MORE THAN ENOUGH
Interior artwork from More Than Enough by April Halprin Wayland with illustrations by Katie Kath, Dial Books for Young Readers ©2016.

 

Together with their parents, the siblings help make Charoset, a Passover dish symbolizing mortar. They then prepare to go to their grandma’s house for the Seder. Wayland takes readers through the Seder traditions so even those unfamiliar with Passover will find they’ve gotten a better understanding of this important Jewish celebration.

 

interior 4 MORE THAN ENOUGH
Interior artwork from More Than Enough by April Halprin Wayland with illustrations by Katie Kath, Dial Books for Young Readers ©2016.

 

Ending with our narrators’ full tummies and a Passover sleepover at Nana’s, More Than Enough is a heart-warming story and a welcome addition to any family’s holiday book collection. Jews and non-Jews will appreciate the glossary Wayland’s provided to introduce young readers to interesting Passover vocabulary. She’s even included  the song sheet for Dayenu for those who’d like a go at playing the song on their own.

Illustrator Katie Kath’s wonderful water colors are so cheerful and convey the excitement that children experience as Passover approaches. I especially liked all the Seder spreads with family gathered around Nana’s dining room table. Those illustrations took me back to the years of celebrating at my aunt’s house with my Nana, some of the sweetest memories I have of holiday time spent with family. I know readers will feel the same way, too.  Dayenu!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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