I love it when picture book art begins on the copyright page and continues onto the title page giving readers an early taste of what’s to come. That’s what first struck me about author-illustrator Paula Cohen’sdebut, Big Fish, Small Dreams. In fact, Cohen’s charming digitally colored pencil drawings include Shirley’s right foot being lifted out of her shoe when the small girl nails the word fish on the title page just mentioned, an actual black-and-white family photo hanging on the wall, to Hebrew lettering under the sign “Gefilte Fish .40/piece.” Then there are the evocative outfits and old-fashioned food packaging helping to transport readers back in time to the small family grocery store inspired by her grandparents’ shop in Upstate New York.
Each family member in the book has a major role to play, Uncle Morris stocked the shelves and no one made a taller tower. Papa kept the store tidy and helped customers. But, it seems there was one item, a staple to the immigrant Jewish family that others in the neighborhood would not buy, gefilte fish. “No one would even Try it.” I have to say I could relate to the reluctance of the neighbors. My grandmother would serve jarred gefilte fish, and the only way I would eat it was smothered in horseradish sauce. Learning that some families made it homemade, however, did change my feelings towards this Jewish specialty.
Shirley may be young but she believes she has big ideas to sell this stuffed fish. Cohen illustrates signs near the cash register—Follow Me to Fish and This Way to Fish. And we see the smile on the brown-haired girl with orange ribbons in her braids standing near the store’s gefilte fish table. She thinks of how to make things faster, prettier, and more modern. Yet nothing would move those cans of gefilte fish.
Shirley’s family says they didn’t come to America for their daughter to solve problems, but then a miracle happened. The family rushes to the hospital when it’s time for Aunt Ida to have her baby leaving the store in the hands of Mrs. Gottlieb who Cohen draws snoring in the back of the store. This is when young Shirley and her precious white cat get busy. She decorates the store and offers “serve yourself pea soup.” But her biggest idea comes when Mrs. Hernandez arrives to purchase tomatoes and a pound of kugel. Shirley packs up her order nicely and places a surprise inside the bag. The drawing of Shirley innocently placing the tin of homemade gefilte fish in the brown paper bag is quite a sweet moment. More customers arrive and more gefilte fish is distributed with the sign “Buy Anything And Get A Surprise” hanging on the wall.
A grey, yellow and brown illustration of the neighborhood apartment building shows neighbors from various ethnicities tasting this new treat with smiles on their faces, but when Mama and Papa return from the hospital to an empty pot and no cash in the register our little protagonist is sent upstairs to go to bed early. The next morning neighbors are lining up for this Jewish delight: gefilte fish. And Mama and Papa couldn’t be prouder. “You know Shirley, you have some pretty good ideas in that keppele after all,” said Mama. Cohen weaves some wonderful Yiddish words into her story making the characters come alive on the pages. (Keppele means little head in Yiddish).
Cohen’s back matter tells the meaning of the Yiddish words she uses. She also explains the story of gefilte fish, along with supplying the Russ Family Salmon and Whitefish Gefilte Fish recipe. I loved learning about Paula’s family story. Both her words and drawings leave the reader feeling like they knew her. Sadly, before this book had a chance to reach readers’ hands in early 2022 Paula passed away suddenly. She is a woman I would have loved to have met. She recorded a beautiful video of herself emotionally opening the box that contained the book, and I am so grateful she had that joyful moment. Sharing this book with friends and family is a great way to assure that Paula’s story will not be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing.
Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Read the Publishers Weekly obituary for this talented author-illustrator hereand visit her website here.
In the new picture book, Mitzvah Pizza, written bySarah Lynn Scheergerand illustrated byDeborah Melmon. Daddy Day is the best day of the week for Missy! Daddy brings the money and she brings the fun during their special time together. But today Missy plans to use her savings from Hanukkah and extra chores so she can be the one doing the buying.
The reader is introduced to the multi-colored city streets of Philly as the story unfolds. Dark haired Missy with her sweet round face and Daddy with his zipper jacket and baggy pants hold hands surrounded by men, women, babies and dogs and a sign reading The Pizza Corner above a red bricked corner eatery. In the past, Missy spent her money on a beaded necklace that broke and cinnamon candies that burned her tongue. Those mishaps made deciding what to buy on this outing hard. But there’s time to figure that out because Missy and her dad are taking a break to eat. Pizza!
The story takes a different direction when another girl and her daddy happen to be in front of the line. The two dads simultaneously ask, “What would you like?” Missy shouts out cheese and the other girl yells mushroom then they smile at each other, big and wide, with images of cheese and mushroom pizzas yummingly displayed in thought bubbles.
When Missy’s new friend Jane pays with two stickies removed from The Pizza Corner’s wall, Missy begins to question why sticky notes are being exchanged for pizza. As the reader turns the page, they’ll see handwritten blue, yellow, purple, red and pink sticky notes with messages reading “Peace”, “Enjoy”, “Hope this Helps”, and “Pizza on me!”
When Daddy and Missy reach the front of the line, the man behind the counter asks Daddy if he’d like to make a donation to the Piece O’Pizza Fund. Daddy replies “Sure, it’s a mitzvah.” Mitzvah means good deed in Hebrew and Jewish children are raised knowing that giving back to those in need is the biggest mitzvah of them all. In fact another Hebrew work, tzedakah, means “giving to others while not making them feel as if they’ve been helped.” What wonderful values to instill in children!
After eating the pizza, Missy and Jane continue the fun by going to the park, not wanting to say good-bye, and Missy tells Jane about her upcoming birthday party inviting her to come. It’s when Missy and Daddy walk away from the park, that Missy realizes buying one sticky was nice but she has a mitzvah in mind to spend her money and they return to The Pizza Corner.
In this thought provoking story about giving back, young children will discover that they can make a difference with a mitzvah towards hungry people or just by being a good friend. The book’s back matter introduces us to Scheerger’s inspiration for the book, Mason Wartman, owner of Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia. A customer had asked him if he could buy a slice of pizza for someone who couldn’t afford it. This sparked the generous sticky note idea and now Wartman serves free pizza to thirty to forty hungry people every day! He even hired some of them to work in his shop! As Missy showed me, the next time I find myself in Philly, I plan on heading over to Rosa’s Fresh Pizza to place a sticky on the wall as my mitzvah for the day!
When is a Holocaust book not a Holocaust book? When it’s Searching for Lottie, a contemporary fiction, historical and mystery novel that beautifully and sensitively conveys the connectivity the past has with the present. Author Susan L. Ross’s multi-layered story, which won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is a PJ Our Way selection, also emphasizes the importance of individual identity, the supportive role of family and friends, and the power of music.
Twelve-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Roth has an assignment for 7th grade social studies, a family history project. She’s chosen to research her namesake, Great-Aunt Lottie (Charlotte) Kulka, a violin prodigy who likely died during the Holocaust. While living in Vienna, Charlie’s grandmother, Nana Rose (who was Great-Aunt Lottie’s younger sister) and Lottie’s mother escaped to safety in America. “When the Germans invaded Austria, the Jews were at the mercy of the Nazis.” Far from home, Lottie was not as lucky. She had been sent to continue her music studies in Budapest, Hungary so when her mother and sister fled Austria after her father’s arrest, Lottie vanished without a word and was always presumed dead.
Once Charlie begins digging into the past, her Nana Rose starts to reveal some details from the past that even Charlie’s mom wasn’t aware of. First there is the old black and white photo of her namesake. Then, when Charlie is given a diary and eventually a necklace that once belonged to Lottie, bits and pieces of the past begin rising to the surface causing Charlie to wonder whether her Great-Aunt might still be alive. Could she still be in Hungary? Or America? Charlie’s mom reminds her that “The Holocaust was a tragedy that touched every Jewish family,” and there may not be a happy ending. However, with the encouragement of her friends and family, and despite what she may discover, Charlie vows to find out what really happened to Lottie. It’s clear Charlie is going to be learning about herself and her family as much as she will about her long lost relative as her journey into the past continues.
Unusual incidents and people are discovered along the way that pull the reader into the story and make them feel invested in the outcome. It turns out that Lottie had played with the Vienna Philharmonic. Charlie, also passionate about the instrument, would like nothing more than to please her devoted Nana Rose by being selected for the concertmaster position after her upcoming audition. As Charlie prepares for the big day, her crush on a fellow musician, Devin, could become a distraction from both her violin dreams and her genealogical journey but she perseveres.
The many interesting and exciting things happening in every chapter serve to keep Charlie’s mind off the audition and Devin. There is never a dull moment as Charlie delves deeper into the mystery of Lottie’s disappearance. Exploring every lead for her family history project will ultimately give her a greater understanding of how the Holocaust impacted survivors and children of survivors, in Charlie’s case, her grandmother and mother. “‘After I had children of my own,'” ‘Mom said softly,’ “‘I realized––or at least, I understood a bit better—that my mother had to bury the sad parts of her life in order to live happily.'”
Ross has created a vibrant and resourceful young girl in the character of Charlie. Her hunt through history to uncover hidden truths about Lottie, if successful, will surely solve decades of doubt and we’re all rooting for her. It was hard for me to believe that, though based on Ross’s family, all the characters were fictional. They felt so real, their situations so possible. It’s helpful to read the Author’s Note to learn about Ross’s story inspiration. I found myself heading over to the Ellis Island Archives as I was reading the novel because, like Charlie, and the author, I too, have many unanswered questions about my Eastern European family.
Searching for Lottie will get tweens thinking and hopefully talking about the Holocaust, about their own heritage, and how we often need to look to our past before moving forward. I recommend this novel as it’s not only one of hope and inspiration, but it powerfully demonstrates how one determined young girl can make a difference.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
- Happy Book Birthday to Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross
Welcome to day three! As one of the bloggers participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour, I’ve had the privilege to interview author Rachel Lynn Solomonabout her terrific debut novel You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at the Association of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY OF YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.
But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.
When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.
These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?
From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.
INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON
Good Reads With Ronna: Please tell us what the source of your inspiration was for writing You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone (Simon Pulse, $17.99 + 12.99, Ages 14+)?
RLS: Thank you for having me on your blog! As a kid, I remember watching a couple TV shows that centered on genetic testing, and the idea of being able to know your fate, to an extent, stuck with me. Years later in early 2014, I was doing some random Internet research, looking for something that might spark a book idea. I landed on a page about Huntington’s disease, which I knew a little about. What stood out to me was the fact that a child of a parent with Huntington’s has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, and I wondered: what if twin sisters received opposite results?
GRWR: Your bio says you write about ambitious, complicated, sometimes unlikable girls who are trying their best. Can you please expand on that in reference to your main characters, Adina and Tovah, the 18 year-old fraternal twin sisters who do not get along?
RLS: Absolutely! I firmly believe we don’t need to like the characters we read about — we just need to relate to them. Likable characters, in fact, are often quite boring to read about. Rule-following characters who always make the right decisions, who never hurt anyone’s feelings…not realistic, for one, and not as interesting as a reader or writer. Furthermore, in fiction, male characters are often given much more “permission” to be unlikable. Their flaws are more easily forgiven.
In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah aren’t bad people, but they make mistakes, they hurt each other, and they occasionally sabotage themselves. But they’re trying, and they’re relatable (I hope!), and at the end of the day, those are the kinds of characters I’m always going to gravitate toward.
GRWR: Do you share any qualities with your main characters aside from Adina’s love of Siren red lipstick?
RLS: There’s a bit of myself in all the characters I write. While I don’t play viola like Adina, I grew up playing piano and guitar, and in high school, I was a stereotypical overachiever like Tovah.
GRWR: What are your thoughts about the need for Jewish authors to write about more than just Holocaust stories despite the need for those to continue being told? And what kinds of books would you like to see written?
RLS: My major thought about this is: YES. We need stories about all kinds of Jewish experiences. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but growing up, I truly believed we only had one story to tell, and that story was the Holocaust. And that’s just devastating, to think your entire culture can be summed up by a tragedy. It’s why it took me so long to write Jewish characters of my own — while YMMWIG was my first published book, it was my fifth completed manuscript since I decided to get serious about writing. It was also my first with Jewish characters.
I would love to see more historical novels featuring Jewish characters that don’t center on the Holocaust. IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF TRUE by Susan Kaplan Carlton, which comes out in April, is a great example of this, and I highly recommend it! I’d also love to see more intersectional Jewish stories like YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura Silverman, coming out in March, and COLOR ME IN by Natasha Diaz, coming out in August. Aside from that, more contemporary stories about Jewish teens simply living their lives while also being Jewish — whatever “being Jewish” means to them.
GRWR: Do you feel that books featuring Jewish protagonists and teens tackling illness fall under the diverse books heading since they are so underrepresented and often stereotyped?
RLS: This is a weighty topic, and one I’m still grappling with. Judaism occupies an interesting space in diversity discussions. I’m keeping a list of 2019 YA novels by Jewish authors and with Jewish protagonists, and I have only 14 books on that list. It’s so underrepresented in YA, and yet I’ve had a trade review insinuate Judaism isn’t diverse. Jewish friends writing Jewish characters have asked me whether their book “counts” as diverse. Conversely, one review told me I made my characters Jewish “for diversity points.” To me, Jewish books are diverse books, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the book community.
GRWR: Your YA novel tackles a tough topic of a mother slowly succumbing to Huntington’s disease as her teen daughters witness the decline. Also, early on in the story, one of the twins will learn after genetic testing, that she will get the disease, too. Your second novel also deals with a character needing a kidney transplant. What compels you to write about characters coping with illness?
RLS: I’m drawn most to topics that interest me — with YMMWIG, I wanted to learn more about Huntington’s disease and genetic testing, and with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, which deals with the aftermath of a kidney transplant, I was curious about organ donation. Curiosity is a huge part of my writing process. My background is in journalism, and I love research, and writing is such a magnificent way to learn more about the world.
With regard to illness, specifically, I wanted to write characters who are not defined by their illness. In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah’s mother is suffering from Huntington’s. It was important to me that Huntington’s was not her sole defining characteristic. She enjoys her job as a teacher, old movie musicals, and knitting, and she has a meet-cute backstory with the twins’ dad. In OUR YEAR OF MAYBE I focus more on the aftermath of the transplant and how it affects the two protagonists’ relationship. I aim to write sensitive portrayals of illness where the illness is a piece of the story but not the entire story.
GRWR: Of the two sisters, Tovah is the practicing Jew who keeps kosher, studies Torah and observes Shabbat along with her parents. It was encouraging to read a YA novel featuring Jewish main characters and their perceptions navigating life in a predominantly non-Jewish school and world. Was this your experience too?
RLS: Thank you! Yes — I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in my Seattle suburb. I actually don’t remember meeting other Jewish kids outside of temple until middle school. And it wasn’t until college that I found more of a Jewish community — I took a year of modern Hebrew, I joined Hillel, and for a while, I attended services every Friday. These days, I am more secular, but I’m happy to say I have close Jewish friends for the first time in my life, which I’ve realized is so incredibly important, especially in a world that often makes us feel like outsiders.
GRWR: Adina can be cruel, jealous, socially aloof and manipulative, often using her beauty to control guys. Is it easier to write a more likeable character such as Tovah or one who’s not so likeable?
RLS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure what this says about me, but Adina was much easier to write than Tovah! It might be that I’m more similar to Tovah, so writing Adina allowed me to get more creative. To this day, her voice is the clearest of any main character I’ve written.
GRWR: Tovah is a neophyte when it comes to sex while Adina has been sexually active since age 14. Tovah myopically dreams of attending Johns Hopkins to become a surgeon while Adina dreams of playing viola in an orchestra. One incident four years earlier has shattered their tight bond. Sisters yet complete opposites and strangers. What would they or anyone for that matter have to do to become close again and repair the wounds?
RLS: I’ve never experienced a rift quite like theirs, but my sister and I fought constantly growing up. It’s hard to admit you did something wrong, but I think that humility is the only way to at least begin to repair a broken relationship. I’m not sure if it’s something that gets easier as we grow up and grow older, but I know it’s especially difficult as a teen.
GRWR: The twins’ story is told through alternating POV which works so well. What do you like about this approach and what other YA novels using this dual POV have you enjoyed?
RLS: Thank you so much. I felt strongly that this was the only way the book could be told — each sister is a full person but only half the story. It was the same with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE. The book explores the aftermath of a kidney transplant, complicated by the fact that the donor is in love with the recipient. The book doesn’t work unless we have both POVs and understand both characters, whose arcs are so closely entwined. Some other dual POV books I love: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson, JUST VISITING by Dahlia Adler, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr.
GRWR: I found it hard to say good-bye to Adina and Tovah. How do you feel upon completing a book?
RLS: It’s been an adjustment! In the past, my manuscripts felt like living documents — I could open one up and tweak a sentence any time I wanted. But now, the book gets to a point where I have to be done messing with it. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, but it’s heartening to know that the book is done because it’s going out to readers who will be able to experience it for the first time.
For anyone else who’s interested, I wrote a “five years later” short story about Adina and Tovah that originally went out as part of a preorder campaign. It’s available on my website here for anyone to read: https://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/extras/. There are some sad moments, but I hope it provides a bit of additional closure!
GRWR: What other irons do you have in the fire?
RLS: My second book, OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted through Simon Pulse. My third, a romantic comedy, will be out in the summer of 2020. It takes place in 24 hours on the last day of senior year, and follows two rivals who realize, as they reluctantly team up to win a senior class game, that they might be in love with each other. While it’s lighter than my first two books, the two main characters also confront anti-Semitism in a way I haven’t written about before.
GRWR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention or call to readers’ attention?
These questions were wonderful — thank you for again having me!
2019 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2019
Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky, author and illustrator of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Out of the Box at the Horn Book