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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2023 – Some Kind of Hate

 

 

STBA 2023 blog tour logo

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD HONOREE

SARAH DARER LITTMAN

 

 

 

SCHOLASTIC DESCRIPTION:

Declan Taylor is furious at the world. After winning state as a freshman starting pitcher, he accidentally messes up his throwing arm. Despite painful surgery and brutal physical therapy, he might never pitch again. And instead of spending the summer with his friends, Declan is forced to get a job to help his family out. On top of that, it seems like his best friend, Jake Lehrer, is flirting with Declan’s crush and always ditching him to hang out with the team or his friends from synagogue.

So Declan ends up playing a lot of Imperialist Empires online and making new friends. It’s there he realizes he’s been playing with Finn, a kid from his class. Finn is the first person who might be just as angry as Declan. As the two spend more time together, Finn also introduces Declan to others who understand what it’s like when the world is working against you, no matter how much you try. How white kids like them are being denied opportunities because others are manipulating the system. And the more time Declan spends with Finn, the more he sees what they’re saying as true. So when his new friends decide it’s time to fight back, Declan is right there with them. Even if it means going after Jake and his family. And each new battle for the cause makes Declan feel in control of his rage, channeling it into saving his future. But when things turn deadly, Declan is going to have to decide just how far he’ll go and what he’s willing to sacrifice.

In a stunning story set against the rise of white nationalism comes an unflinching exploration of the destruction of hate, the power of fear, and the hope of redemption.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome to the blog, Sarah. I’m thrilled to discuss your STBA 2023 honor book Some Kind of Hate. How does it feel to be recognized twice now by the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee? Has that changed your life in any way? 

Sarah Darer Littman: It’s three times! My first book, Confessions of a Closet Catholic won the Older Readers award in 2006, and my third book, Life, After, was also a Sydney Taylor Honor Book in 2011.

It means the world to me to have my books honored in this way.

I’ve noticed a difference winning the honor this year vs. earlier in my career because it was announced as part of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I think it’s raised the profile of the awards within the wider children’s literature community and that’s a good thing.

And now for a funny story – winning the Sydney Taylor Award in 2006 had a hand in my meeting my husband, Hank, to whom Some Kind of Hate is dedicated.

We are both fans of the singer/songwriter Jill Sobule and were on her fan listserv, Happytown, which was a fun community of interesting people. When Confessions won the award in 2006, I wrote an off-topic post telling my fellow Happytowners about it. Hank saw the post and thought “Littman … she sounds like a nice Jewish girl.” He googled me and found my website and my blogs and thought I was cute and funny – but he couldn’t tell if I was single or divorced. He thought about emailing me, but worried that I might think he was a creeper. Like most female writers, I’ve had weird emails and dm’s from a lot of randos over the course of my career.

I was going through a very difficult divorce at the time, and wouldn’t have been in the headspace to meet him then, so it was a good thing he held off.

Fast forward to September of that year – I finally had a trial date for my divorce and I logged onto the Jewish dating website, JDate, to “window shop.” I had no intention of starting to actively date yet, but wanted to get an idea of what kind of fish were out there when I was ready to dip my toes back into the dating sea.

Hank wouldn’t have come up in any of my searches because he was a little younger than me and didn’t have kids. I figured anyone who was in that situation would probably want kids, and I was happy with my son and daughter.

But in his profile, Hank had posted about how someone on JDate had said to him “You live in Boston so you must be a liberal, and like Ann Coulter I hate all liberals,” marveling that anyone would write that to another person on a dating app.

After Ann Coulter’s unforgivable comments about the 9/11 widows, (she went on the following year to talk about how us Jews need to be ‘perfected’) I felt compelled to respond, so I wrote him a private message saying that he’d dodged a bullet. I didn’t sign it, and didn’t expect to hear back from him.

The following day, I received a long email, beginning with: “Dear Sarah, I bet you’re wondering how I know your name …” and proceeded to tell me about how he’d been interested in me nine months earlier!

Our first date was a Jill Sobule concert at Joe’s Pub in NYC in October 2006, and we celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 2016 by getting married.

So thank you, 2006 ST Committee, JDate, and Jill Sobule. I guess I should also thank Ann Coulter for being so hateful that I felt compelled to respond to Hank’s profile.  Love really does win!

GRWR: The release of Some Kind of Hate is significant in that, as you mention in your Author’s Note, antisemitism has been on the rise in both the U.S. and worldwide. Was it that increase that planted the seed for this novel, a particular incident, or was this story something you had already been thinking about as the intolerance, scapegoating, and violence in our society toward minorities or the “other” have grown this past decade?

SDL: Yes, it certainly was part of the inspiration, and a reason why I felt compelled to write this novel when I did.

Many of my YA novels focus on the intersection of teens and technology – an area that fascinates me because being “a woman of a certain age” I grew up without it. I often wonder if I would have survived to adulthood if I’d grown up in the social media age. It’s not that I’m a Luddite – I just view technology as a TOOL, one of many we have as humans to work with to find solutions to the real problems that we face in our society and around the world.

Unfortunately, we’ve been fed the Silicon Valley myth that technology is THE SOLUTION, rather than a tool, and these companies have been making insane amounts of money with no accountability for the damage they do, or their unethical behavior Think Facebook’s experimentation with manipulating emotions through the timeline, and how that led to Cambridge Analytica’s use of it to influence the 2016 election.

I use the analogy of a hammer. A hammer can be used to build, but it can also be used to break and destroy. It’s important that we view technology within that framework, rather than buying the Silicon Valley narrative that it is the solution to every problem.

 

GRWR: Thank you for putting the note in the beginning of Some Kind of Hate about how hard it was to research and write such a disturbing topic, and how some readers might feel discomfort reading it. I felt compelled to read on because I wanted to understand the mindset of hate that Declan, Finn, Charlie, and Ronan felt. Becoming immersed in the world of Stafford’s Corner where the protagonists live, I identified with the Jewish characters who on any given day could be crossing paths with the extremists in your story and have absolutely no idea of the potential threat they posed. Yet at the same time, I appreciated the eye-opening insights into the roots of antisemitism that the book offered. I hope the education coupled with the positive example conveyed through Jake and Arielle, and Kayleigh to speak up, since silence is complicity, will resonate with young readers. What has been the response of your teen audience?

SDL: It’s been enlightening for many non-Jewish readers who have been blissfully unaware of the fact the kind of microaggressions their Jewish friends face, or how we have to hire armed guards and spend a fortune hardening our places of worship, just to be able to pray safely.

But it’s also helped readers understand why young people are drawn to extremism, and hopefully to recognize some of the dog whistles that we hear all around us – including from some members of Congress.

One of the most important things I learned from research and from interviewing former extremists is that most young people aren’t drawn to these groups by the ideology – at least initially. It’s because they have a lack in their lives, and they’re seeking community, identity, and purpose.

That’s made me think about ways that we can help young people find those things based around seeking love and understanding of our common humanity, rather than hatred and fear of the other.

 

GRWR: Since this novel delves deep into the scary world of white-supremacist militias and radicalization from online gaming that causes the rift between Declan and his best friend Jake who is Jewish, how did you remain grounded as you researched it and met many former extremists who shared their experiences with you?

SDL: The truth is I didn’t. I struggled to maintain my mental health while working on this book, particularly when lurking in some of the NeoNazi and Christian Nationalist chatrooms on Telegram. I found I could only do that for short periods because it was like being sprayed with toxic firehose of hate.

Having a supportive husband and good friends, who reminded me to step away when it got to be too much, was critical to surviving the process.

 

GRWR: I cried several times over the course of the book, sometimes as I read Declan’s chapters. I initially thought I would not want to read Declan’s perspective as he descended into the dark world of conspiracy theories and antisemitism. But it was his voice, his despair and his skewed perceptions, that kept me gripped. I needed to see if he could escape the world of hate he’d entered. Is his voice an amalgamation of all those men and boys you interviewed for the novel? Was it a challenge to create and write a character like Declan’s?

SDL: I’m not sure I’d call him an amalgamation, but I certainly drew on what I learned in the interviews and readings I did to create him. What was important was trying to figure what it was specifically that precipitated his vulnerability to these ideas. An impulsive decision with lasting consequences, one that put the future he’d imagined for himself in jeopardy was the key to breaking open his motivations. By layering that on top of the Gilded Age levels of economic inequality we see in our country today, combined with the way social media algorithms work, Declan’s journey becomes understandable, even if the ideas he comes to believe are horrifying.

GRWR: I have always loved novels written with dual POVs. Can you explain the pros and cons of writing a novel this way and why ultimately you chose Declan Taylor and Jake Lehrer to tell this story?

SDL: A big part of why I’m a writer is because I’m fascinated by what makes people believe, act, and behave the way they do.

First person seems to be my natural voice, but it’s limiting because what the reader knows is framed by that character’s perceptions and biases.

By writing in first person but with multiple POVs, the reader experiences the world along with each character. It allows us to see how each character’s actions are interpreted and misinterpreted by the other characters in the story, and how the same incident can look completely different when viewed through another character’s emotional lens.

A big part of the difficulty I had writing this book was figuring out who should tell the story. When I sold the book on proposal in summer 2020, it was from dual POVs, with a boy and a girl character as the main characters.

I was teaching full-time as a special appointment at WCSU that year, so by the end of the year, I’d only written 20K words, which for me is about a third of the first draft. But I’d continued researching in between teaching and grading and moving house and pandemic anxiety and trying to find the time to write. The additional research made me realize that misogyny is a big vector of radicalization for many young men. So, in January 2021, I asked my editor if I could switch it to two male POVs because I felt that was the best way to tell the story. She thought we should try to keep a female POV, so I rewrote it from three POVs – Declan, Jake, and Kayleigh. But when that was finished, it was clear that Kayleigh’s POV wasn’t adding enough on its own, and we could achieve what we needed to through her conversations with the two other characters. At that point, I went back and rewrote it from Declan and Jake’s point of view, and it worked much better.

It was also important to me that we had two male points of view because there is so much conflicting and frankly disturbing information being put forward for young men about what it means to “be a man.” If you’ve never heard of Andrew Tate, for example, prepare to be horrified by how a toxic combination of misogynistic content and algorithms is influencing young boys, and the effect teachers are seeing in school.

For research, I watched a bunch of videos by self-styled “alpha males,” which had some decent advice about personal hygiene, and how to dress well, but fell apart when they started talking about women. I watched so many bearded, muscled men telling young men and boys “what women want,” which bore absolutely ZERO resemblance to anything that most women want. You know, like to be treated like fully actualized human beings, to be listened to and respected, to be paid equally for doing the same job, to have control over medical decisions involving our bodies, to be recognized for the invisible labor that seems to fall on our plates even when both partners are working. What we want shouldn’t be all that difficult to understand.

So many aspects of our society prevent young men from understanding this, including the unfortunate tendency in our society to label books as “boy books” and “girl books” and believing that it’s okay for girls to read “boy books” but that it’s not okay for boys to read “girl books.”

I was at a school visit in the Midwest years ago, and in between the first and second presentations the media specialist said that she was glad she’d had me speak to the mixed audience because originally, she’d planned to have me only speak to the girls because I write “girl books.”

After taking a deep breath, I explained that I don’t write “girl books” – I write “thinking human being” books. I asked her what message it sends to boys – and to girls – when girls are required to listen to male authors, but boys are exempt from listening to female authors. We’re giving kids a message that female voices are less important, that male voices are the ones that matter. I explained that if we’re doing that in elementary and middle school, what’s going to happen as young people grow up and move into the workplace?

Ask any woman who has been talked over in a meeting …

 

GRWR: Something said by Jake’s mom, the local synagogue president, particularly resonated with me after Jake described Declan’s new online gaming friends’ antisemitic and Islamophobic remarks. “It never stops with just hating us. Scratch an antisemite and you’ll find a whole bunch of other hatreds, too. Basically, people choose to hate the idea of us as a substitute for facing their fears of change in society and the world.” You’ve mentioned in interviews and in the book how it’s often not the ideology of these right-wing hate groups that lures recruits in, but rather the sense of “community, identity, and purpose.” Can you please speak to that issue since it seems to be at the heart of more than antisemitism? And how does anyone targeted by this misguided hate find a way to forgiveness?

SDL: I wanted to make sure that we don’t put the burden on those who were targeted to be the vehicle of redemption for the people who targeted them.

But I also know from life experience that holding on to anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Don’t get me wrong – righteous anger when there is injustice can be energizing, and an important catalyst for change. But it’s also exhausting and ultimately corrosive.

I wanted to include Jewish teachings about the stages of forgiveness because they recognize that like grief, anger is something we overcome bit by bit – and that moving between the different stages might take work on our part, even when we were the wronged party.

Change is unsettling. Change is frightening. And when we perceive that it’s impacting us in a negative way, it’s much easier to blame someone else than to take a good hard look in the mirror and figure out how to adapt.

Bad actors take advantage of this. They seek to weaponize fear of the other to consolidate power. It’s important for people to learn how to recognize how divisive rhetoric and propaganda work. When we see something on social media that raises a strong emotion, we must pause and think who benefits from that provoking that emotion and fact-check before sharing it.

 

GRWR: Declan’s parents and his twin sister Kayleigh are unable to wrest Declan from the militia’s cult-like clutches and watch him spiral downward. I thought it was important that you included the people who toward the book’s end listened to and helped Declan own up to his culpability. They provided readers with hope. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still used to foment hate and antisemitic conspiracy theories such as those claimed by Holocaust deniers. Jake’s father explained that The Protocols have been proved to be fake, more than once, by historians and in different courts of law. How do we guide individuals we know who are easily swayed by such propaganda to consider more reliable sources?

SDL: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. A good start would be to train media specialists in every school and to ensure information literacy skills are incorporated across all subject areas.  Part of the reason I included the debate scene in Mr. Morrison’s class was that when you’ve convinced yourself that the media is controlled by nefarious sources, it’s easy to discount information that contradicts the narrative.

It takes patience and persistence to overcome such beliefs. An adult non-fiction book I recommend reading is Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. It’s about how attending New College of Florida and experiencing kindness and pushback against his ideas helped bring R. Derek Black, the son of Stormfront founder Don Black, out of white nationalism. Reading it also puts Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s placement of extremists like Christopher Rufo on the Board of Trustees there in a deeper context.

I also highly recommend that people sign up for Rumorguard from the News Literacy Project. They send out up-to-the-minute alerts about misinformation that is circulating on social media. They also have a great educational project called Checkology.

 

GRWR: Part of the reason Some Kind of Hate is so engrossing is how believable secondary characters are as well as the setting (it takes an hour bike ride to see the whole place). People have jobs, go to school, play sports (baseball and soccer being the two prominent ones), and even hang out at the local café. I’ve probably spent time in a place like Stafford Corners where the supermarket cashier resents summer visitors and the local economy is closely tied to a big corporation or manufacturer. Did you spend time traveling and people-watching to absorb the atmosphere of the kinds of towns where such “other” anger and hostility are born?

SDL: As an author, I’m always people watching – and listening. I also drove through rural areas of the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states while I was researching and writing and revising this book, and saw places where beautiful old houses are crumbling into disrepair, where barns are collapsing, where the shopfronts on main streets are mostly empty or boarded up, and where abandoned factories stand like the ghosts of our industrial past. Places where the opioid epidemic hit hard, and where the sense of decay and despair hang heavy in the air. When you spend time in those areas, it’s not hard to understand why people are looking for answers, for something or someone to blame.

 

GRWR: Are you working on a new novel, one that allows you to take a break from the heavy subjects explored in Some Kind of Hate?

SDL: Waiting to hear on a proposal for a twisty novel that I’m co-writing with a friend. It isn’t exactly light, but not as personally painful as Some Kind of Hate. I’m exploring other genres and am hoping to get back to writing funny to balance out the dark subjects!

 

GRWR: Thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful, eye-opening answers. I hope our readers will visit Turning the Page Books: https://www.turningthepagebooks.com/book/9781338746815 to purchase Some Kind of Hate and then come back and reread this interview again.

 

  • Click here for the Sydney Taylor Book Award official page.

  • The STBA blog tour 2023 schedule can be found here.

  • Watch Sarah discuss her novel on YouTube here.

  • Buy Some Kind of Hate here.

AUTHOR BIO:

Sarah Darer Littman Photo Credit Cate Barry Photographs
Author Sarah Darer Littman Photo Credit Cate Barry Photography

Website: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahdarerlitt/

Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of 19 middle grade and young adult novels, including Some Kind of Hate (2023 Sydney Taylor Honor) Backlash (Winner of the Iowa Teen Book Award and the Grand Canyon Reader Award) and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. As well as writing novels, Sarah teaches in the MFA program at Western CT State University, and at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. She is also an award-winning columnist.
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Sydney Taylor Book Award 2022 Blog Tour – Dear Mr. Dickens Q+A

WELCOME TO DAY TWO OF THE STBA BLOG TOUR!

 

STBA22 Blog Tour graphic

 

FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH

AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN

&

ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE  

DISCUSSING THEIR

HONOR-WINNING PICTURE BOOK

DEAR MR. DICKENS

 

 

Dear Mr Dickens cover

 

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


BOOK SUMMARY

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)

GREETING

Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations on Dear 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?

 

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Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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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.

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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.

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Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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GRWR: When doing your research for Dear 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.

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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.

 

Dear Mr Dickens int3
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

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.

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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.

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Dear Mr Dickens Elizaandson int4
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

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.

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Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working on Dear 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.

 

BIOS

Nancy Churnin1
Author Nancy Churin Photo credit: Kim Leeson

 

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.

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See the entire blog tour schedule on the AJL blog: https://jewishlibraries.org/2022-blog-tour/

Find more information about the Sydney Taylor Award here: https://jewishlibraries.org/sydney_taylor_book_award/

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THE 2021 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR

WELCOME TO DAY 4 OF THE STBA BLOG TOUR

 

STBA 2021 Blog Tour


FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH

AUTHOR RABBI MYCHAL COPELAND

&

ILLUSTRATOR ANDRE CEOLIN

DISCUSSING THEIR

HONOR-WINNING PICTURE BOOK

I AM THE TREE OF LIFE: My Jewish Yoga Book

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BOOK SUMMARY:


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.

INTERVIEW WITH RABBI MYCHAL COPELAND:

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!

 

Tree pose int1
Interior spread from I Am The Tree of Life written by Rabbi Mychal Copeland and illustrated by André Ceolin, Apples and Honey Press ©2020.

 

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.

 

Crescent moon int5
Interior spread from I Am The Tree of Life written by Rabbi Mychal Copeland and illustrated by André Ceolin, Apples and Honey Press ©2020.

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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.

 

Jonah and The Whale int16
Interior spread from I Am The Tree of Life written by Rabbi Mychal Copeland and illustrated by André Ceolin, Apples and Honey Press ©2020.

 

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!

 

BIOS:

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 Religious Perspectives (SkyLight Paths, 2016) and I Am the Tree of Life: 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. 

Click here for my Facebook page where people can find me and yoga opportunities for their kids.

 

Ceolin photoAndré 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 website here.

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BOOKMARK THESE SITES:

Association of Jewish Libraries

Sydney Taylor Book Award
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STBA BLOG TOUR DATES

Below is the schedule for the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2021 

Lesléa Newman and Susan Gal, author and illustrator of Welcoming Elijah
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Picture Book Category
at A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal

Sofiya Pasternack, author of Anya and the Nightingale
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category
at 100 Scope Notes at School Library Journal

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2021

M. Evan Wolkenstein, author of Turtle Boy
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Middle Grade Category
at Mr. Schu Reads

Jane Yolen and Khoa Lee, author and illustrator of Miriam at the River
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category
at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast 

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2021

Anne Blankman, author of The Blackbird Girls
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category
at The Paper Brigade Daily at The Jewish Book Council

Monica Hesse, author of They Went Left
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Adult Category
at Jewish Books for Kids

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2021

Tyler Feder, author of Dancing at the Pity Party
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Young Adult Category
at Out of the Box at The Horn Book

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2021

Tziporah Cohen, author of No Vacancy
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category
at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

Podcast interview at The Children’s Book Podcast

Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah

Read about last year’s 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour here.

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