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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2024- An Interview with Mari Lowe

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARI LOWE

WINNER OF THE SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD

FOR

THE DUBIOUS PRANKS OF SHAINDY GOODMAN

(Levine Querido; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

 

stba24 blog tour schedule banner

 

We’re thrilled to be back for another year, this time sharing a must-read middle grade novel, The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman by Mari Lowe. This novel not only addresses universal issues school girls deal with daily but one that brings the Orthodox Jewish community into the forefront in an insightful and meaningful way for readers of all backgrounds. Click here to see the full list of books and participants on the blog tour this week: 2024 Blog Tour: Sydney Taylor Book Awards – Association of Jewish Libraries

 

 

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD WINNER
NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD WINNER

Starred Reviews – Horn Book, Shelf Awareness
Kirkus Top 10 Middle Grade Novels for Fall ’23

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

SHAINDY is a twelve-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who struggles in school and has no good friends. She watches with envy as her next-door neighbor, GAYIL, excels socially and academically. They have little to do with each other, and it comes as a surprise when Shaindy looks out her window one September evening and sees Gayil staring out at her from her own window with a sign reading: want to know a secret?

The secret (at first) is that Gayil has a key fob that will allow them to break into their school after hours. Together, they set up a harmless prank in their classroom. But under Gayil’s instigation the mischief becomes malice, and Shaindy sees that the pranks and humiliations are targeted only at certain girls. But what could they have in common?

With the fear of Gayil’s fury and her own reluctance growing, Shaindy comes to the terrifying conclusion that if she can’t figure out how to stop it, the next target could be her.

INTERVIEW:

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Congratulations, Mari, on winning the 2024 Sydney Taylor Book Award for best middle grade novel, The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman. Two years and two wins in a row, has it sunk in yet?

MARI LOWE: It’s honestly been incredible. I never imagined that Shaindy would be so fortunate, and I’m still kind of shocked by the whole thing! But I’m also grateful that these books have left an impact and I hope that they will continue to do so– it’s every writer’s dream.

 

GRWR: I read that you came up with the story concept while at home with your family. Have they influenced your writing journey or did you always know you wanted to write?

ML: Well, I’ve always wanted to write! I read very young and started making up my own stories soon after that, and writing became as instinctive as breathing for me. But I don’t think that I really considered writing in this genre, with Orthodox Jewish characters, until my kids were old enough to read chapter books. And there were just so few where they could see themselves! What few portrayals there were of Orthodox Jews were fleeting and often inaccurate, and I wanted to give them mirrors– and, for other readers, a window into our world, where children are the same regardless of culture.

 

The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman cover Shaindy in Heelys.

 

 

GRWR: The premise of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman is that 6th grader Shaindy would love to be friends with Gayil Itzhaki, “her tall, willowy with perfect hair” neighbor, so when Gayil surprisingly invites Shaindy to join her in pulling off a bunch of pranks, it’s hard to say no. While they are pitched as harmless “fun between friends” as the pranks increase in hurtfulness, Shaindy begins having doubts. It was clever how you included the class lesson on the four steps of Teshuva, especially given the significance of the girls’ negative actions as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach. It helped ground the story. Can you speak to the dilemma that Shaindy faces?

ML: Those four steps of forgiveness feel so apt in all cases– because it isn’t about saying sorry, paying lip service or just regretting the way you’ve hurt someone, it’s about taking responsibility and vowing to do better moving forward. It’s about growth! For Shaindy, someone who has so often been overlooked and neglected by her classmates, there are two elements in the pranks: both the desire to belong, with Gayil, and this kind of underlying, dismissive sense of well, they’ll be fine, because they have what I don’t. It’s mean-spirited and petty, and I don’t think that Shaindy fully acknowledges that part of it until she really takes that step back midway through the book and evaluates not just the ways that she’s been hurt but the ways that she has hurt, in turn. She has to find strength within herself to break away from Gayil, but also to not become Gayil– someone who lashes out and seeks to continue that cycle of pain.

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GRWR: Your novel resonated with me which is why I could not put it down. Growing up I had a lot of Shaindy in me. That feeling Shaindy describes as “I’m the shadow, the girl no one notices …” And I knew girls like Gayil (“destined to shine” in Shaindy’s eyes) and her BFFs, Rena, and Devorah who seem to have it all. Now, looking back, would you say this story emerged as the result of any past experiences you’ve witnessed as a teacher or encountered yourself when you were in middle school?

ML: Oh, definitely! I’ve had a lot of classes like Shaindy’s, where the girls are all sweet and enthusiastic and a teacher’s dream– but there are those moments of unpleasantness when you know to look for them. There are the girls suffering at the fringes, and there is no easy way to pull them in from the outside, even as a teacher! Maybe especially as a teacher. I’ve spent a lot of time pairing girls up, encouraging new combinations, all in an effort to have every girl find her place. I don’t identify more or less with any of the girls in the book– I think I’ve had my moments when I’ve been each of them. But I definitely remember the Shaindy weeks, the times when I felt completely isolated and inferior, and I drew on a lot of those emotions to construct a girl who feels very universal to me. So many women and girls have told me that they identify with Shaindy. I think that Shaindy is who we feel like in our roughest adolescent moments, and I wanted desperately to give her strength of self in her story.

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GRWR: As writers we’re often told, write what you know, and you’ve done that by using Fairview, the purpose-built Orthodox Jewish community, as the backdrop of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman. I appreciated the loving and respectful glimpse into the school, family, neighborhood, and home lives of the main characters yet did not feel I had to be more religious to understand the novel. The challenges Shaindy coped with were moral and social, things any middle schooler could relate to. Why do you think Shaindy often says her classmates are nice and are not bullies, that’s not something that would occur at Bais Yaakov middle school yet still feels lonely and socially othered?

ML: Thank you! I really try to find universality in my specific cultural experiences. I think that there’s a certain level of expectation in Bais Yaakovs that is inculcated young: that we must be perfect, respectful and kind and caring and inclusive, and it’s an admirable thing, of course! But at the same time, a lot of girls wind up focused on giving off the appearance of those traits, performing them without feeling them. Interestingly, my most religious classes tend to be better-behaved, but also much more competitive and sometimes more likely to ice out an outsider. They rarely bully others– that’s something that can be quantified as Bad, and they are never Bad– but there is a certain level of disdain for those who can’t fit into the perfect mold, who don’t have it all down like they do (and deep down, so few girls do have it all down, and they’re all a little insecure about it– a tale as old as time). And I wanted the girls to confront that, a bit, too, how you don’t have to bully someone to make them miserable.

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GRWR: There is subtle foreshadowing for readers about what’s to come and what big issue Shaindy will ultimately have to deal with, one in fact that I never expected. Did you outline the book so that you knew in advance what would happen to Shaindy and her relationship with Gayil? Or, as her character’s emotional development evolved, did it occur organically and present itself to you?

ML: I started the book knowing a few things– Gayil’s initial proposition to Shaindy, Gayil’s end goal for it, and Gayil’s motivations. I started it knowing very little about Shaindy! But I think that she was easy to understand and to drop into her head. She sees herself as unlovable, but as I spent more and more time with her, I really began to love Shaindy and see her strengths, too. And by the time we get to the moment when everything changes, I was clear on where she would go from there– because I genuinely knew that she had it within her! Though when I initially finished the book, it was with a sweet last few pages which resolved the conflict neatly and left everyone friends. My agent talked me out of that, though! It couldn’t be sweet and simple– it had to feel real to Shaindy’s character growth and the messages of the story. Forgiveness is one thing; friendship and trust are another entirely.

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GRWR: Tzivia is one of my favorite characters. It’s a shame that Shaindy cannot pick up on Tzivia’s friendly overtures because she’s too intent on being friends with Gayil, the “it” girl of the grade. Nor does Shaindy spot Gayil’s meanness (unlike Tzivia) until it’s too late. Shaindy’s loyalty does not serve her well. Are these common friendship errors girls make?

ML: Oh, there are so many girls I want to shake sometimes and tell these girls are not for you. I think that in middle school, it’s so easy to get caught up in the magic of the girls who seem to have it all, who are beloved and surrounded by friends, without realizing that you might just be a bad match. It isn’t about some girls being nice or mean– most girls, I think, are both and neither. But a strong personality might overpower a milder one. A girl who is self-conscious and comes off as competitive because of it won’t mesh well with another girl like that. There are power dynamics and personality conflicts at work in many middle school interactions, and it’s hard to find the right friends for you, even if that person seems like such a good friend to the others around her. And Shaindy is starry-eyed and caught up in Gayil because Gayil is so perfect, to her eyes, that she hardly notices Tzivia until the stars have dissipated. It’s very common, especially while girls are still figuring out who they are– because until you have that confidence of self, it’s easy to be drawn to the girls who are all confidence and overlook quieter, more reliable friends.

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GRWR: Over the course of the novel, Shaindy’s relationship with Bayla, her older sister, improves, and Shaindy also becomes less hard on herself, more open to new friendships. What can readers learn from Shaindy’s rollercoaster (or should I say rollerblades and Heely’s) ride from her brief and tumultuous false friendship with Gayil?

ML: Middle school is a time all about finding your place and yourself. We spend a lot of time searching around us for the key to it all– what will make us stronger, smarter, more popular, happier. Shaindy gets caught up in all of that, looking for the actions and interactions that can change her. But in the end, very few of those changes are really going to come from others but within. We get really immersed in friends and social issues these years because they feel like they’re what define us. But Shaindy comes to understand that it isn’t a friendship with Gayil or the class’s treatment or even her sister’s dismissiveness that defines her: it’s who she is, and what choices she makes. And once she grasps that, the rest falls into place. She finds her real friends, her confidence, and new maturity, and she becomes someone who can take back her own power.

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GRWR: Before I say goodbye, I’m curious what your menagerie of pets consists of and whether any pet in particular keeps you company when you write.

ML: Right now, I have NOTHING KIND to say about the cat who is stubbornly napping behind me so I can’t lean back (save my back, please). I’m kidding! He’s fantastic, except for his propensity to walk on the keyboard when I’m trying to write. He generally takes the clacking of my keyboard as an invitation to curl up and nap beside me.

It’s not much of a menagerie anymore. I have a fifteen-year-old friendly corn snake, and at the time of the bio, we had two adorable hamsters (gifted to my son as a sorry-we’re-not-getting-a-cat present) and a cat (who came soon after). Sadly, over two isolated incidents, several months, and accidentally ajar doors apart, we are down to a snake and a cat. Over the years, I’ve kept a variety of pets– frogs, mice, ducklings, kittens, and even, briefly, a hedgehog. We’ve been contemplating chickens– popular in the neighborhood, and I do consume a Gaston-level number of eggs a day, anyway– but none of those yet!

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GRWR: What a treat it’s been having this opportunity to chat, Mari. I hope everyone who reads this gets a copy of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman and enjoys it as much as I did!

Support an independent bookseller and purchase a copy here.

Mari-Lowe-headshotAUTHOR BIO:

Mari Lowe has too little free time and spends it all on writing and escape rooms. As the daughter of a rabbi and a middle school teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school, she looks forward to sharing little glimpses into her community with her books. She lives in New York with her family, menagerie of pets, and robotic vacuum. Find her at Mari Lowe – Books by Mari Lowe and on Twitter (X) @marilwrites.

 

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Best New Christmas Books for Kids 2022

BEST NEW CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR KIDS 2022

~A ROUNDUP~

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas With Auntie cover bunniesCHRISTMAS WITH AUNTIE
Written by Helen Foster James
Illustrated by Petra Brown
(Sleeping Bear Press; $17.99, Ages 0-4)

My Aunt Shirley wasn’t my real aunt but she treated me as if I were her niece and I loved her the same as all my other aunts. Since Aunties can be blood relations or close family friends, Christmas With Auntie should find a large readership.

When Auntie picks up little bunny for the day, preparations for Christmas get underway. “Bunny-kins bunny, we’ll make and then bake/gingerbread goodies, sweet cookies, and cake.” Taking time to nibble carrots together, Auntie and little bunny spend quality time together. I love the snow bunny they build together and how attentive Auntie is to all bunny’s needs. Foster James writes in gentle rhyme and coupled with Brown’s tender illustrations, Christmas  With Auntie exudes warmth and love like hugs and kisses in book form. What’s extra nice is this Keepsake Edition provides a page to write a letter and add a photo so this copy will be a personalized family treasure.

 

Moo Baa Fa La La cover farm animalsMOO, BAA, FA LA LA LA LA!
Written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton
(Little Simon Books; $6.99, Ages 1-3)

If you or your kids are fans of that perennial fave, Moo, Baa, La La La!, you’ll be happy to know the adorable farmyard friends are back with a rollicking animal-centric altered rendition of “Deck the Halls.” While the meter may not be spot on in this board book, the silliness of what Boynton does best—cows, sheep, ducks, pigs, ducks, doggies, and chickens having a blast— is too good to miss. See the animals sing while they decorate the barn and get in a holiday mood along with them.  The playfulness of the pigs getting piggy with it, the bock, bock, bock of the chickens looking like they are about to Rockette it out, and the touch of the final fa la la la la fun at the end promises to entertain readers young and old.

 

 

Christmas Street cover

CHRISTMAS STREET
Written by Jonathan Emmett
Illustrated by Ingela P. Arrhenius
(Nosy Crow; $17.99, Ages 2-5)

This fold-out, lift-the-flap, two-sided board book is one your children will return to again and again every Christmas until they outgrow the make-believe play this book invites. My daughter would have asked me to make cut-out characters to insert into all the scenes when the street is completely unfolded. But I can also see kids using little animal figures they might already have to join with those in the cheerful art.

Penguins, bears, dogs, cats, bunnies, tigers, reindeer, giraffes, foxes, frogs, and walruses populate the pages of this rhyming alphabet book. Youngsters lift the flaps as they travel from store front to store front on bustling Christmas Street to discover what’s happening inside the shops and above them. “I is for icing on freshly baked cakes. J is for jingle, the sound a bell makes.” A snow-covered festive park scene is on the reverse side where a band practices beneath a gazebo, Christmas carols are sung, vendors sell hot drinks, and animal children skate and toss snowballs. This book makes a great gift for toddlers and pre-schoolers learning the alphabet and into pretend play. The nice thing is that it can be read simply as a board book or opened up for a longer interactive experience depending on how much time you have.

 

The Night Before The Nutcracker coverTHE NIGHT BEFORE THE NUTCRACKER
(American Ballet Theatre Presents)
Written by John Robert Allman
Illustrated by Julianna Swaney
(Doubleday BYR; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

As a huge Nutcracker fan, I found myself totally enthralled while reading this behind-the-scenes look as four young dancers go through auditions, rehearsals, costume fittings, and ultimately the opening night performance of the beloved Nutcracker ballet. Not only does Allman manage to pull off the upbeat rhyme based on “The Night Before Christmas,” but he’s done so while using an abundance of ballet and theatre terminology which is not easy. This is such a captivating way to engage young readers!

Our first introduction to the characters is as they lay sleepless in their beds thinking about opening night and then we go back to the different stages of getting ready for the big event. When at last we’re back on stage just before “Places!” is called, the excitement is palpable and we’re rooting for these kids. I especially liked how The Nutcracker story unfolds with glimpses backstage. Children who are not familiar with the plot can easily follow along with Clara and her nutcracker. In full-page bleeds, Swaney’s art depicts movement and magic with a diverse group of performers in colorful costumes and graceful poses. Backmatter includes “Richard Hudson’s original costume designs for the ABT’s production” while explaining Act 1 and Act 2. If you or your child has never attended a performance of The Nutcracker, this book might just be what gets you to finally reserve tickets. Enjoy!

 

Through the North Pole Snow cover Santa fox in sleighTHROUGH THE NORTH POLE SNOW
Written by Polly Faber
Illustrated by Richard Jones
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

This delightful picture book is quiet (except for some loud noises in the beginning), calming and heartwarming. It’s perfect for when you’re winding down your child’s day and are ready to snuggle. A small white fox seeks shelter and food amidst a snowy scape. It crawls down a chimney where it gets stuck and is aided by a jolly man with a white beard that little ones may not recognize despite the cover illustration. The art along with the old fella offers hints that he’s been on his Christmas rounds and is exhausted. Still, the fox doesn’t realize who he’s living with! Santa and the fox sleep until the season has changed and the man awakens to begin work on a new batch of toys. With the fox close by, Santa reads the letters, makes lists, and prepares his sack and sleigh for the night run. The fox is thrilled to be invited along. Then, as toys are delivered, Fox at last understands. “And when the sleigh was empty, the fox’s heart was full.” Jones’s warm tones and folksy style enrich Faber’s sweet text and make us feel good all over about this very special newfound friendship.

 

Hello Tree coverHELLO, TREE
Written by Alastair Heim
Illustrated by Alisa Coburn
(Little Bee Books;  $17.99, Ages 3-8)

Between the sly fox’s antics and the pages packed with visual treats—look closely—the hilarious Hello, Tree merits multiple reads. We meet Fox, fond of the five-finger discount, in the process of taking whatever strikes his fancy. The problem is he likes a lot of what he sees whether that’s a Christmas tree, a snowman’s nose (to munch on), gingerbread, candy canes (one of my fave illustrations),

ornaments, poinsettias, or a string of lights, all to decorate his home at everyone else’s expense. He swipes, and swipes to his heart’s delight! And though his intentions may be good, since he clearly wants to create an inviting atmosphere when giving presents as indicated by the many stockings hanging from his fireplace mantel, stealing is not the way. So, when Santa drops in, he makes Fox give back his ill-gotten goods. Only then can the true Christmas spirit shine. I love all the subtle and not-so-subtle humor in Heim’s rhyming read-aloud. I’m thinking of the illustration showing bear parents kissing under mistletoe with their kid sticking out his tongue. “Hello, kissy mistletoe.” I know kids will get a kick out of scenes like this too. It’s such fun to also find details in Coburn’s illustrations upon a second read that I didn’t catch the first time and I know there are more treats waiting for me to discover. Don’t miss the surprise on the endpapers!

 

The Little Toymaker coverTHE LITTLE TOYMAKER
Written and illustrated by Cat Min
(Levine Querido; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

The Little Toymaker, though not a Christmas book per se, still feels like it delivers all the feels a holiday book should. This boy has a magical talent and it’s not for making children’s toys like the guy with the white beard and red garb. He repurposes old toys from grandparents and other older people’s childhoods. Kids probably don’t realize the elderly like toys too, in fact, I bet if you’re reading this you have a particular childhood fave too.

One day an old woman arrives at his toy-making tower and hands him a candy tin to fix. As he worked he chats with the woman learning about each other’s likes and dislikes. When his first attempt does not please her, the little Toymaker tries again. His second attempt also leaves something to be desired so it’s back to the drawing board. Over tea, the two talk some more. The boy gleans insight into exactly what he needs to do with the candy tin after hearing the old lady recollect a special time in her past full of love and romance. Finally, the little Toymaker’s last attempt succeeds because he listened. Inside the tin, he’s captured enough cherished memories to fill her heart for all her days. That sweet little bit of magic moved me as I remembered toys and happy times from my childhood. Watch your little ones create new memories playing with the toys and sharing experiences this holiday season. Min’s exuberant art is an added bonus to this lovely heartwarming tale.

 

THE CHRISTMAS PINE
Written  by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Victoria Sandøy
(Scholastic Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Told from the point of view of the pine tree, this story found its start as a poem by beloved British author, Julia Donaldson for the UK Poetry Society “to celebrate the 2020 Christmas tree” which was a gift from Norway to the British people.

The Christmas Pine, now a picture book with spare rhyming text, was inspired by a true story. A young tree recalls how it grew and then came to find a home in London, a tradition that began in 1947, one that I, having lived there for over seven years, was not aware of. When it’s old enough for felling, the tree (back matter explains it’s usually a Norwegian spruce) journeys via sea to reach the UK. Eventually, it takes its place in Trafalgar Square near Nelson’s column and other statues and monuments. The spread of Londoners and perhaps visitors too, gazing upon the tree is my favorite because it shows people from all walks of life admiring nature’s beauty and majesty. The Christmas Pine, on the other hand, would probably tell us the illustration featuring children caroling at its base is its favorite.

 

The Christmas Book Flood coverTHE CHRISTMAS BOOK FLOOD
Written by Emily Kilgore
Illustrated by Kitty Moss
(Farrar, Straus Giroux BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

This is a story about a good flood, a flood of books in Iceland that get published in autumn. Many of the books are then bought, and gifted annually on December 24 since WWII. This stunningly illustrated book uses collage mixed with newsprint/book text that captures the spirit of this wonderful tradition. The palette is warm, dark, and rich reflecting the magical short days and long nights in this northern country leading up to Christmas. Kilgore’s lyrical language conveys the anticipation building among the people like a dam about to burst. The search for the right book to give friends and family is almost as exciting as the pleasure of getting to read the books at last. If you know a book lover, young or old, consider gifting this lovely picture book celebrating the joy of reading and starting your own book flood!

 

THE PERFECT TREE
Written by Corinne Demas
Illustrated by Penelope Dullaghan
(Cameron Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

This story unfolds on the day before Christmas as Bunny is searching for the perfect tree. Each kind forest friend she encounters tells her the different things the perfect tree should have. Squirrel, Mole, Cardinal, and Skunk suggest a tree that’s bushy, has a point at the top, and has the right color, and smell. When Bunny has looked high and low with no luck, Deer posits that perhaps there is no perfect tree but Bunny is not about to give up. Heading back home as night falls, Bunny spots a tree she hasn’t seen before and realizes it’s too perfect to cut down. With her friends helping, Bunny decorates the tree and celebrates the perfect Christmas Eve with the perfect tree. While the story is a simple one, it flows easily from scene to scene. Dullaghan’s sweet illustrations bring the right amount of winter chill and charm to each spread. Add this feel-good Christmas tree tale that’s perfect for storytime or bedtime to your Christmas book list.

 

Celebrate With Me! coverCELEBRATE WITH ME!:
Recipes, Crafts, and Holiday Fun From Around the World
Edited by Laura Gladwin
Illustrated by Dawn M. Cardona
(Magic Cat Publishing/Harry N. Abrams; $22.99, Ages 8-12)

This time of year when it seems there’s a party around every corner, the perfect book to keep this mood going is Celebrate with Me! Recipes, Crafts, and Holiday Fun from Around the World. Beginning with January 1st, middle-graders learn fun facts that span the globe. Each holiday is presented by a different contributor which gives the book a wonderful range of information.

In February or March, make a papier-mâché mask to celebrate Portuguese Carnival.

On April 13th, learn about Songkran (or Thai New Year) when Thai people literally wash away anything negative by splashing each other with water. What kid won’t get behind this holiday?! The accompanying recipe for Thai-Style Congee is simple and delicious.

In Spain, Christmas is celebrated with the chewy and nutty Turrón de Navidad. Make a batch, then pop it in the fridge to set up while you sing festive songs called villancicos together.

Every page’s amazing information is accompanied by Dawn M. Cardona’s cheerful illustrations showcasing our world in a rainbow of colors. I like the closing pages which encourage kids to ask each other what holiday they celebrate, what’s important about it, and why it’s special to them. This is a great way to get to know a new friend or learn something new about someone already in your life. • This book was reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.WriteforSuccessEditing.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@WriteforSuccessEditing.com

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS:

CRINKLE BELLS
by Jay Fleck
(Chronicle Books; $8.99, Ages 0-3)
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PEEK-A-FLAP JOLLY 
Illustrated by Kathrin Fherl
(Cottage Door Press; $9.99, Ages 1-5)
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WHEN SANTA CAME TO STAY
Written by Billy Sharff
Illustrated by
Eda Kaban
(Dial Books; $18.99, Ages 4-7)
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HOW TO CATCH A REINDEER
Written by Alice Walstead
Illustrated by Andy Elkerton
(Sourcebooks Wonderland; $10.99, Ages 4-8)

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Picture Book Review – Big Dreams, Small Fish

 

BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH

Written and illustrated by Paula Cohen

(Levine Querido; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Big Dreams Small Fish cover

 

 

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’s debut, 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.

 

Big Dreams Small Fish int1
Interior spread from Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, Levine Querido ©2022.

 

 

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.

 

Big Dreams, Small Fish int2
Interior spread from Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, Levine Querido ©2022.

 

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.

 

 

Big Dreams, Small Fish int3
Interior spread from Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, Levine Querido ©2022.

 

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 here and visit her website here.

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