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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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Kids Books for Passover 2020 – A Roundup

PASSOVER PICTURE BOOKS

Passover will be different this year because we’re self-isolating. And since it’s advisable to not meet up with family and friends, some of us may participate in Seders via video teleconferencing. We may also have to choose new menu variations based on what food is available. One thing that won’t change is the Passover story in our Haggadahs and the variety of wonderful books we can share with our children. Here are some books worth reading during this eagerly awaited eight day holiday.

 

Welcoming Elijah
WELCOMING ELIJAH:

A PASSOVER TALE WITH A TAIL
Written by Lesléa Newman
Illustrated by Susan Gal
(Charlesbridge Publishing; $16.99, Ages 5-8)

Starred Review – School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

I loved the new perspective Newman has captured with her gently flowing, lyrical language in Welcoming Elijah. It’s been years since I thought about all the times I went to my Aunt’s front door and opened it for Elijah when I was a child. So reading about the main character’s experience filled me with joy. As readers feel the young boy’s anticipation about every aspect of the evening’s Seder inside, they’ll also be introduced to a stray cat outside mimicking many of the steps that are taking place at the dining room table.

Inside, the boy dipped
parsley into salt water.

Outside, the kitten chewed
a wet blade of grass.

Inside, the boy broke
the middle matzo in half.

Outside, the kitten split
a twig in two.

When at last the youngster opens the front door for the Prophet Elijah, and looks outside, it’s not the prophet who makes an appearance at the Seder, but a friendly kitty looking for a home. Gal’s warm palette adds to the uplifting ambiance in all her illustrations. This sweet Passover tale should resonate with many children who look forward to celebrating Passover and all its beloved kid-centric rituals of not only asking the four questions, and finding the afikoman, but to welcoming Elijah into their homes year after year. Back matter about the holiday is also included.

 

Asteroid Goldberg cover

ASTEROID GOLDBERG:
PASSOVER IN OUTER SPACE

Written by Brianna Caplan Sayres
Illustrated by Merrill Rainey
(Intergalactic Afikoman; $18.95, Ages 4-8)

You may think you’ve heard of every kind of Seder possible, but I have a feeling you’ve never heard of a Seder in outer space. And Asteroid Goldberg is no ordinary story so if you have children who are into all things cosmic, Sayres’s 40-page holiday picture book will deliver just the right blast of humor and read aloud rhyme.

As space-whiz Asteroid steers the spaceship home from Pluto in time for Seder, she and her family are notified they’ll “have to wait to land.” The timing couldn’t be worse and Passover prep will now require an added dimension. Looks like this family’s going to have to search for Pesach supplies in the Milky Way!

She aimed their ship toward Jupiter.
So many yummy moons!

“Matzoh balls!” said Asteroid.
“All we need are spoons!”

The clever way our plucky heroine finds all the food on offer in outer space is just one of the things children will enjoy when reading this far out story. The idea of dining in an anti-gravity setting is such fun as is an intergalactic afikoman hunt. Rainey’s jewel-toned illustrations are cheerful and humorous, complementing this truly creative Passover tale. Once given the all clear to land from Houston, the Goldbergs deliver readers a surprise ending for those of us who know the traditional closing of the Seder as being “Next year in Jerusalem!”

 

I Love Matzah bbcoverI LOVE MATZAH
Written by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
Illustrated by Angelika Scudamore
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $6.99, Ages 1-4)

I Love Matzah is an adorable board book ode to the delights of the unleavened bread we eat during Passover. Its simple rhyme pattern is easy for little ones to repeat and to anticipate the rhyming word from the illustrations. There are so many different ways and times of day to enjoy matzah, whether you have it after a morning stroll or with yogurt in a Passover bowl. But what happened to matzah brei, my fave? Scudamore’s bright artwork adds to the upbeat feeling conveyed on all 12 pages of this charming read. Parents can point out the boy’s I Matzah t-shirt and help their kids try reading the rhyming words printed in red, an educational component that works quite well.

 

Alligator Seder book coverALLIGATOR SEDER
Written by Jessica Hickman
Illustrated by Ellisambura
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $6.99, Ages 1-4)

Alligator Seder is such a funny spin on the Seder stories we usually see. This 12-page full color board book is guaranteed to get laughs with its gorgeously illustrated gator family getting ready for Passover. There are some truly funny lines such as:

They look for bits of chametz.
They’re good investigators.
They’re really just like you and me
except they’re ALLIGATORS!

Mommy gator makes gefilte fish. Gator guests join the celebration. Their mouthful of teeth make for some serious matzah crunching sounds. However for me, the ending is what’s perfect. In fact, it was the inspiration for the name of my Zoom Passover Seder this year which is called Seder, See Ya Later!

Everyone is going home.
They all say, “See you later!”

Another year, another splendid
ALLIGATOR SEDER!

If you want to bring smiles to any Seder, I recommend getting a copy of Alligator Seder to share and get swamped in the best possible way!

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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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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Passover Books for Kids: The Littlest Levine by Sandy Lanton

Children’s Passover Books
The Littlest Levine

I’m getting excited because Passover begins next week. As a child, I attended a Passover Seder at my aunt’s house in N.J. for both the first and second nights of the Jewish holiday. The traffic heading from Long Island to Aunt Helen’s was always horrendous, but the meal and time spent with close family were worth whatever we had to deal with on the road. This year it’s going to be something completely different. My husband and I are hosting the second night Seder at our home to start a new Passover tradition in our family.  I’m reading everything I can to be prepared including kids’ books, and doing so has caused me to reflect on what it’s like to be a child during Passover. Here’s a book I’ve reviewed plus additional suggestions that you might like to share with your family. May your journeys be traffic-free and your Seder be meaningful and delicious!

thumbnail-1.aspThe Littlest Levine by Sandy Lanton with illustrations by Claire Keay (Kar-Ben, Hardcover, $17.95; Paperback, $7.95; eBook, $6.95; Ages 3-8):

The Littlest Levine, a Passover picture book, introduces readers to Hannah, a young girl who absolutely hated being the “Littlest Levine.” “I know,” said Grandpa, “but someday you may change your mind.” Being the youngest and smallest meant there were so many things Hannah couldn’t do. She couldn’t reach the sink by herself or “ride the big yellow school bus with her sister and brother.” On Jewish holidays like Sukkot, she had to be held up by her father to decorate the Sukkah roof, and on Hanukkah Hannah was too little to light the candles without help from her grandma. But Grandpa had something up his sleeve as he assured his granddaughter, “Your holiday is coming, my littlest Levine.”

I like how Lanton chose to focus on the youngest child for this Passover picture book. Sometimes being the youngest of three siblings can be frustrating, always hearing, “No,” “Not yet!” or “Wait!” Great examples of all the things Hannah was not allowed to do were clearly illustrated in Keay’s beautiful and thoughtful artwork. But they made total sense as many could be dangerous for such a little girl. However, reading this story with a parent, children will learn what there is to look forward to as well.

Grandpa had a plan he let Hannah in on, but readers have to wait to find out what’s in store at the first Seder. Parents familiar with the Seder tradition of Passover will likely know the conclusion, but for interfaith and non-Jewish families, that may not be the case. Rest assured that in the end, Grandpa’s helped Hannah who will at last be rewarded for being the “Littlest Levine.”

Additional Recommended Passover books:

9780449814314.jpg.172x250_q85Max Makes a Cake by Michelle Edwards with illustrations by Charles Santoso (Random House Kids, $17.99, Ages 3-7)

976HStone Soup with Matzoh Balls: A Passover Tale in Chelm (Albert Whitman, $16.99, Ages 4-7) by Linda Glaser with illustrations by Maryam Tabatabaei.

thumbnail.aspSeder in the Desert (Kar-Ben, Hardover, $17.95; Paperback, $7.95; eBook, $6.95, Ages 3-8) by Jamie Korngold with photographs by Jeff Finkelstein.

 

29028The Story of Passover (Holiday House, $15.99, Ages 4-8) by David A. Adler with illustrations by Jill Weber.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

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