“Can we talk?” If little ones don’t recognize this signature question from the late comedian Joan Rivers, perhaps parents or grandparents reading the board book to them will. Rivers is just one of the more than three dozen famous Jews presented in this board book that I wish I’d written. Told in rhyme, My First Book of Famous Jews written by Julie Merberg and illustrated by Julie Wilsonis a fabulous introduction to the talented individuals who have made lasting and significant contributions to science, literature, music, film, politics, and the judiciary—even activism, an important inclusion.
It’s never too soon to start sharing the broad impact Jewish people have made in every field. This book sings the praises of everyone from Anne Frank to Helen Frankenthaler, from Steven Spielberg to Gloria Steinem in their respective categories. Wilson’s vibrant art throughout this 24-page book brings members of the tribe alive, in particular Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Bella Abzug, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Descriptions of these iconic figures are brief. “EMMA GOLDMAN rallied to help workers unite./ “BERNIE SANDERS said “’Health care is a human right.’” But just enough to make a great introduction and prompt further reading as kids get older.
A helpful page of back matter expands on some of the people mentioned. This board book offers a great jumping-off point for a conversation about Jewish identity and the influence and importance of these famous Jews with children during year-round and especially during Jewish American Heritage Month.
★Starred Review – School Library Journal 2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner – Children’s Picture Book 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for Picture Books Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers 2021 The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2021, Tablet Magazine
In Eliza Davis’s day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history.(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations onDear Mr. Dickens being recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor in the children’s picture book category! I’m happy to be able to talk to you both about Eliza Davis, Charles Dickens, and his history of negatively portraying Jewish characters in his writing and how that changed because of Eliza’s letters.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN
GoodReadsWithRonna:Nancy, you mention in your acknowledgments that Dear Mr. Dickens had a long, joyful journey. Please tell us more about when and why you decided to dig into this not well-known but enlightening correspondence which is the basis for the book
Nancy Churnin:When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only time she questioned me was when I fell in love with the books of Charles Dickens. She couldn’t understand how I could like a writer that had created the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Didn’t I understand, she asked me, how that character fueled antisemitism, leading readers to believe that all Jewish people were liars and thieves like Fagin?
She was right. Ugly Jewish stereotypes were part of what made people lack compassion for the Jewish people who were tortured and killed in the Holocaust – where we lost so many family members. These were the kind of images that made neighborhood bullies persecute her and other Jewish children growing up in New York City. I wished I could have written Dickens a letter asking him why someone who had so much compassion for children and the poor could treat the Jewish people with such antipathy. Flash forward to 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story would be published, when I was in the library researching baseball and I flitted around the computer screen, landing on an article about Dickens.
That’s when I found two lines in an article that mentioned Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who wrote to him – just as I’d dreamed of doing!—and changed his heart, inspiring him to write his first compassionate Jewish character, Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I had to know more! But all the article had was snippets from one of the letters. I asked the librarian for help. She found three places that had the letters: the University of Southampton in England, where you had to make a special appointment to view them; and two places in the U.S., one of which was at the University of North Texas rare book collection, less than 40 minutes from my home.
I called the University of North Texas librarian who put me in touch with Professor J. Don Vann, a Dickens scholar that had found Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, a 1918 out-of-print book from Chiswick Press in England that contained the letters and donated it to the library. Don and his now late wife Dolores, invited me to tea to discuss Eliza Davis. That’s when I felt compelled to turn this story into a book that I could share with my mother. I had rejections at first from editors that didn’t think a story about letters was exciting enough. It didn’t fit into the usual biography template as it wasn’t the story of either person’s life, but rather an encounter that changed their lives and changed the way English people who read Dickens thought about the Jewish people. I visited The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014, deepening my research. But even when my career as a published author began taking off in 2016, Dear Mr. Dickens sat there, waiting, not seeming to fit into any category anyone wanted. It just seemed to be a story that needed to simmer and be revised as I grew more confident in my ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told.
Finally, in 2020, Wendy McClure, my then editor at Albert Whitman, asked if I had something new. She said, for the first time, she wasn’t looking for biographies, but stories about history-changing encounters and events. I pulled Dear Mr. Dickens out of the drawer and gave it to her. She loved it right away. So did her editorial team. It was acquired with dizzying speed for a manuscript that had been waiting years to dance at the ball. But it was worth every moment. Because Wendy and our illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, really got the story. When it went to print, it said everything I had wanted and hoped to say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mother. When I did, she held it in her hands and read it over and over. Her face softened. I felt an old pain dissolve as she forgave Dickens – and me. We hugged as she read this true story about how people can, sometimes, change for the better if you speak up, persist and then, when the person who does wrong makes amends, forgive.
GRWR:We’re often told as children’s book writers to make the main characters kids but Eliza Davis is a woman and mother of 10 children. As an adult and Dickens fan, I found the information you shared about Eliza’s positive influence on Dickens fascinating. What do you think makes her a compelling character for young readers to learn about and what can they take away from the book?
Nancy:The most compelling stories for me are the journeys not of a person, but of a person’s dream. In most cases, those dreams start in childhood, so it’s natural to start the book with the character as a child. That’s not the case for Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens. She didn’t grow up dreaming of writing Charles Dickens a letter! But I had grown up dreaming that. I could put the urgency I felt as a child into what she did as an adult. I also did something I’ve never done in a picture book before. I appealed to young readers by starting my book in the second person: “Think of someone famous you admire. What would you do if that person said or wrote something unfair? Would you speak up? Would you risk getting that person angry? Eliza Davis did.” I believe these are questions that kids – and all ages – can relate to. I believe these are questions that can lead kids – and all ages – to speak up, stand up, and become upstanders when they see someone do or say something that isn’t right.
GRWR:When doing your research forDear Mr. Dickens, was there one particular piece of information you uncovered (included or not included in the book) that has had an impact on you?
Nancy:I hope people will read the Author’s Note which gives context to how important Eliza’s action may have been in historical impact. England was once one of the most hostile places for Jewish people. In 1275, centuries before Nazis introduced the yellow star, King Edward I decreed that Jews older than seven had to wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments on their outer clothing. Jewish people were segregated and had to live in restricted areas, were forbidden to lend money, and were unwelcome in trade guilds. In 1290, England expelled Jews who refused to convert; this was two centuries before the Spanish expelled their Jewish people during their Inquisition.
After Eliza Davis helped Dickens see the Jewish people with understanding and compassion, he not only created the kindly Mr. Riah, he advocated in his magazine for them to be treated fairly. Dickens wasn’t the only advocate for Jewish people, but his influence was enormous. Everyone from all classes, chimney sweeps to the Queen of England, read and revered him. Attitudes began to change during his lifetime. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 allowed Jews to serve in Parliament for the first time. I credit the change in English attitudes for the welcoming way that Great Britain opened its arms to thousands of Jewish refugee children during the Kindertransport at the start of World War II.
Eliza Davis wasn’t powerful or famous. All she did was write a letter. But speaking up and not backing down when justice is at stake can make a powerful difference. That’s what I learned from Eliza Davis. That’s what I hope young readers – and all readers – take to heart.
GRWR:Can you speak to your passion for writing nonfiction and also about sharing the stories of notable and in Eliza’s case less notable Jewish individuals?
Nancy: I love and read every genre and I hope, someday – maybe soon – to expand the type of books I write. But I’ll always pay homage to true stories — my mother’s favorite — because, as she’s told me, real people doing great things remind us that we can all do great things, too.
When I look for people to write about, I’m drawn to those who might not be known otherwise – such as Eliza Davis — or who have aspects of themselves that might not otherwise be known – such as Charles Dickens and his evolving view of Jewish people. I feel that every time I shine light on otherwise forgotten people, I’ve helped bring them back into our living, collective heart because it’s only when we have forgotten people or their deeds that they truly disappear.
I’m honored that Dear Mr. Dickens was given a Sydney Taylor Honor because Sydney Taylor provided positive Jewish role models for Jewish children like myself at a time when they were scarce. At first, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were like a little island in a sea of books about non-Jewish characters or Jewish characters that were ugly stereotypes. But since the awards were founded in 1968, they’ve done enormous good in encouraging the creation of books with positive Jewish role models for kids that need Jewish windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. I’m grateful for this encouragement from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and for the Notable award for A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (and for my 2019 Notable for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing). Now, with sons planning marriages and, I hope, with grandchildren around the corner, I feel more passionate than ever about the mission bring more Jewish stories into the world that fill children’s hearts with courage, hope, and determination to heal the world.
INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE
GRWR:Bethany, what struck you most after reading Nancy’s manuscript?
Bethany Stancliffe:I was immediately impressed with the wonderful portrayal of Eliza in this story. Nancy’s writing beautifully captured what it must have felt like to be in Eliza’s shoes.
GRWR:How much research did you have to do to bring 19th century London, and in particular Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, to life?
Bethany:It was important to gather a lot of visual references to make sure my illustrations were true to the characters and settings. Studying information and images documenting Charles Dickens and Victorian England was a significant step in the design process. There weren’t many photographs of Eliza available so it was a pleasant challenge to design her character in a way that conveyed her personality.
GRWR: One of my favorite illustrations is the one where two scenes, Dickens in his home and Eliza in hers, flow together with sheets of correspondence. Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what about it do you love?
Bethany: Thank you! One of my favorite spreads to paint was the scene of Eliza and her son walking together to post a letter to Mr. Dickens. While I was illustrating this book I had a toddler of my own running around which really helped me appreciate that Eliza was speaking up not only for herself but for others who may not be able to do so for themselves.
Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working onDear Mr. Dickens. I’m also grateful that many misconceptions I and perhaps others had about Charles Dickens have been cleared up and hope everyone will read the book to see how one person’s voice made such a powerful impact.
Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of multiple picture book biographies. The former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times San Diego Edition, she’s now a full-time writer and peace negotiator between her dog and cats. She lives in North Texas.
Bethany Stancliffe grew up in the Rockies and studied art and illustration at Brigham Young University-Idaho. When she’s not painting, she enjoys exploring outside with her son, Max, and creating original stories with her husband.
The Torah is called the Tree of Life. Just as a tree is always growing and changing, the Torah’s ideas can help us grow and change, too. Yoga can do the same. Both can help us strengthen ourselves, calm our minds, and learn to appreciate the world around us.
Written by rabbi and certified yoga instructor Mychal Copeland, I Am the Tree of Life encourages us to explore both the world of yoga and the stories of the Bible and find meaning in both.
GoodReadsWithRonna: Congratulations on your great honor, Rabbi!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today.
“How might it feel to stand at Mount Sinai? To dance at the red sea?” are the inviting opening words to your lovely picture book. This gentle and meaningful introduction to yoga through Torah exploration is a wonderful idea for a story. Please share your inspiration with us. Is this a practice you use with children?
Rabbi Mychal Copeland:This book came together organically, doing yoga with children at Jewish summer camps and synagogues. We imagined, together, which stories we could form with our bodies. I loved seeing kids use their imagination and how easily they understood what it means to embody, or become, an animal, object, or character. Those ideas evolved over many years into the poses in the book, alongside poses I brought into my adult Jewish yoga classes based on the weekly Torah readings and holidays.
GRWR:The beautiful blend of the spiritual and physical come together seamlessly in I AM THE TREE OF LIFE. What do you feel your book offers to youngsters especially now when they have been coping with an unprecedented pandemic?
RMC: Parents of young children are striving to bring grounding, healthy practices into their kids’ lives, especially during this pandemic. Yoga teaches adults and children that we can regulate our own breathing, calm ourselves down when necessary, pay attention to what we are feeling, and to be empowered in our bodies. Children have lost their daily opportunities for movement, so I’ve been thrilled to hear that this book has helped them get moving during this time. I hope that has, in turn, connected them to their spiritual selves and to the world around them as they embody a mountain, tree or a fish.
GRWR:I love how there’s a boat pose to signify Noah’s Ark. Did you have trouble finding poses to correlate to the various stories? Or did you select the stories based on existing poses?
RMC: I have been teaching yoga in a Jewish context for many years, and in my practice I connect the poses to the weekly Torah portion or Jewish holiday wherever there is a meaningful link. I have collected so many poses that fit perfectly with our stories. In fact, I had a tough time choosing which ones to drop to make the book the right length for children!
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
RMC: The book is based around the image of the tree, both as a metaphor for our Torah and of our bodies. The cover so perfectly brings those images together with a child coming into Tree Pose against the backdrop of a tree so we can see how our feet are like roots, legs like a trunk, and arms like branches. I also love the way he integrated the Torah stories we are about to read into the Tree of Life while we are forming Tree Pose on the opening pages. I also love the Crescent Moon, because Andre so beautifully captured the sweeping feeling of this pose and the story in Genesis.
GRWR:The book is filled with a variety of wonderful Torah stories. Is your hope that, in addition to wanting to try yoga, children reading your book might also become interested in further Jewish study?
RMC:Yes! My hope is that the short glimpses into the Torah stories will pique a child’s curiosity to know the full stories. Perhaps at a Passover seder, they will hear the Exodus narrative and remember that they tried a yoga pose from that formative story. If they feel like that story is theirs because they embodied it, even better. I hear so many young adults say that they don’t feel Jewish enough, that they didn’t learn enough to feel it’s theirs, or that the Jewish community doesn’t accept them as being fully Jewish. My hope is that our upcoming generation of kids feel like they own their own Judaism. It is not someone else’s tradition that they are peering into. It is wholly theirs to live, learn, and create.
GRWR:I love how at the end of the book you address what’s Jewish about yoga. For those reading who do not yet have the book, what’s your answer?
RMC: Yoga emerges from the Hindu philosophical tradition. Jews have a long tradition of being open to learning and incorporating wisdom from other traditions that surround us (medieval liturgy based on Arabic poetry, piyyut, is another great example). But movement also has a long history in Judaism. Our ancient rabbis discussed how to move our bodies during prayer, recognizing that words are not the only way to pray. One medieval Jewish mystic matched Hebrew letters and vowels with head movements. Other kabbalists envisioned different aspects of God as a chart in the shape of a tree, the Tree of Life, and mapped that chart onto the human body. And Hasids used body movements to enhance their prayer.
So yoga is a practice that Jews are borrowing, but spiritual movement is not new to our people.
GRWR: This is such a feel good, calming read. What other Jewish or non-Jewish children’s books have you enjoyed reading for your own writing inspiration?
RMC: Howard Schwartz and Kristina Swarner’s Gathering Sparks (a Sydney Taylor Award winner) has been such an inspiration to me, inviting children to contemplate a complex spiritual, mystical idea in a way that is both relatable and calming. Their book, Before You Were Born, has that same mystical, whimsical quality. I have also been heavily influenced by Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s work (In God’s Name, God’s Paintbrush and so many others), bringing a depth of spiritual conversation to an ecumenical audience.
GRWR:What else would you like to mention about your experience writing the book?
RMC:In early conversations with Apples and Honey Press, we wanted to make sure that the children pictured in the book would represent the diversity of the Jewish community. They brought Brazilian artist, André Ceolin, to the project and I am overjoyed with the illustrations. Portraying children of color in books does not solve the deep-seated issues we face in the Jewish community or our larger American culture. Yet making sure People of Color are represented in Jewish children’s literature is one way we can show kids they are visible in Jewish life, while showing white children that a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds is what Jewish looks like. We can offer the next generation an invitation to connect themselves to Jewish stories and other Jews.Collectively, we can make intentional choices about which stories and images are passed on.
INTERVIEW WITH ANDRE CEOLIN:
GRWR:Congratulations on your great honor!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today, André.
On the very first spread of the book readers see the tree of life pose along with the tree itself representing the Torah. Can you speak to some of the wisdom shown on the different branches of the tree, the preview of stories to come, and how you imagined this particular illustration?
André Ceolin: Both Ann Kofsky, from Behrman House, and Rabbi Mychal have given me the guidelines and important insights for that illustration, coming up with the idea of the tree showing the passages in each branch.
The tree is strong and healthy, and each branch of it shows an image which represents a passage from the Torah. For me it shows that the wisdom from each passage lead us to a balanced, steady and healthy life.
GRWR:Can you please tell us how you created the artwork? Was it done digitally? And what made you choose this color palate? How long did it take to complete the illustrations?
AC: On a piece of paper and using a good pencil, I always start with several small sketches, the size of a thumbnail, for each illustration to be done. In doing so, I experiment several approaches, having a general idea of the drawing structure, without being distracted by the details.
After evaluating all the miniature sketches, I shoot some photos of the best ones and then, start to work at the computer in a bigger and more detailed version, which will be sent later to the editors and authors for evaluation .
Once approved, I get started with the final version of the illustration, more elaborate and colorful. This step is made digitally as well.
Regarding the color palates, each drawing has its own one in order to express the feeling and the time period in which the story takes place.
Normally, it takes from 2 to 4 days for each illustration, from the sketches to the final version, depending on its complexity.
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
AC:The illustration with Jonah inside the giant fish is my favorite, because it was really fun to illustrate that monster-fish. Besides, the image shows some tension, at the same time that it shows hope.
GRWR: You made all the poses look so easy and fun. Did you have to learn yoga to be able to illustrate this book?
AC:Yes, I had to learn a little bit about Yoga, despite not being able to do many of the poses (maybe one day I will take some Yoga classes). Rabbi, through her feedback helped me a lot to correct and make right each of the poses illustrations, as shown in the book.
GRWR:Who are some of the illustrators who have influenced your art?
AC:There are many artists whose work I admire. Stephen Michael King, Rodney Mathews, Rebecca Dautremer and Edivaldo Barbosa de Souza are some of the artists who inspire me.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your experience illustrating this book?
AC:Illustrating The Tree of Life was a very rich and enjoyable experience in which, in addition to learning about yoga, I learned about the wisdom of the Torah and Jewish culture.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA THANKS YOU BOTH SO VERY MUCH FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL REPLIES!
You can find Mychal getting into yoga poses while teaching, writing, reading Torah, and even leading Shabbat services at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Mychal is both a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, earned a masters and teaching credential from Harvard Divinity School, and is a certified yoga instructor, fusing Jewish spirituality with movement through yoga. She co-edited Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American ReligiousPerspectives (SkyLight Paths, 2016) and I Am the Tree ofLife: My Jewish Yoga Book (Apples & Honey Press, 2020) is her first children’s book. She leads yoga sessions that are steeped in Jewish thought and prayer, melding breath and posture practice with Jewish ideas. Her interests span Jewish magical texts, interfaith dialogue, Jewish issues of inclusion, and teaching Judaism as a spiritual path.
Clickherefor my Facebook page where people can find me and yoga opportunities for their kids.
André Ceolin is a self-taught illustrator from Brazil He started his first attempt at sketching around the age of four when his father brought home some reams of paper from work. It was in that moment that he fell in love with painting and drawing. André initially got a degree in pharmacy at UNIMEP. Though he worked in this field for several years, his artistic passion was too strong to ignore. As a young father, he was surrounded by beautiful children’s books and was always drawn to the spontaneity of the imagery. He then decided to switch gears and studied at School of Visual Arts in NYC, Melies, and Escola Panamericana de Artes to develop a signature look and learned new illustration techniques. He illustrated his first book “Um Dia na Vida de Micaela” de Cauê by Steinberg Milano, published by Editora Roda & Cia in 2009. Ever since, he has illustrated over 20 books by great publishers in Brazil such as Roda & Cia, Saber e Ler, SM, Moderna, FTD, Editora do Brasil, Editora Abril. He loves working with books targeting juvenile readers from the very young age to middle-grade and young adult. When not illustrating, he creates toys and small sculptures for his son. He also enjoys bicycling, playing his guitar, and, singing. Visit his websitehere.
After spending five miserable months at sea, Judah arrives in New Orleans. “His father and grandfather had also sailed the seas. They left their homes to practice Judaism in peace and freedom. God had taken care of them. Judah knew God had a plan for him, too.”
Mildenberger’s illustrations, using soft brown and blue colors, depict the busy harbor in Touro’s new hometown. “A busy harbor meant trade. And trade was a business Judah knew well.” Ades takes us through Judah’s transforming life as he welcomes new friends into his shop at Number 27 Chartres Street. Mildenberger draws crowds of people waiting in line as the industrious shop owner’s business booms. He becomes the most successful merchant in town unlike his father and grandfather who had been great Rabbis. “Had God planned for him to be a businessman?”
The United States entered the War of 1812 eleven years after Judah had relocated to New Orleans. When General Andrew Jackson urgently requested volunteers, Judah joined up, doing one of “the most dangerous jobs on the battlefield, bringing ammunition to soldiers.” During the war Judah was injured and his dearest friend, Rezin Shepherd, found him and nurtured him back to health. “While he lay in bed, he had plenty of time to think about why God had spared his life.”
e e Eagerly turning the page, we see Mildenberger’s moving full color illustrations of sad faces and homeless people as Judah walks through town. “His gut ached for the children who begged for food when they should have been in school. And he sobbed for families torn apart by diseases like yellow fever and cholera.” The poverty and suffering profoundly impacts Judah, supported by his cane, walking past the hospital. He knows he can afford to help these people and so he does. Judah begins making huge donations, but he “requested only one thing in return. He asked that his donations be kept secret. Judah Touro didn’t want to be famous.”
This engaging, educational story takes us through Judah’s purchase of the city’s first Jewish synagogue. We then see how “everyday, African men, women and children were legally sold as slaves so quietly, Judah began to pay off masters.” Ades explains to readers how, when Judah died in 1854, he left money for myriad charities and causes, both Jewish and non-Jewish. “He made sure that fire departments, public parks, libraries and schools could remain open and running.” In his lifetime, “Judah gave away more money than any other American of his time. But he was not famous. And that’s the way he wanted it.”
In the Author’s Note, Ades explains how Touro did not leave a diary. However his secretive, selfless and generous actions make clear that during his formative years he had learned a great Jewish value, helping those in need. This fascinating historical fictionalized story is a great lesson on kindness and humility for lower grade students. They’ll learn that success is more than having money; it is about what you do with that money, and that philanthropic deeds, large and small can be done without requiring recognition. In our world of social media and instant gratification, it was inspirational to read about a real life hero who did great deeds, but chose to avoid fame.