Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Four Questions and Picture Books for Passover ~ Christy Mihaly (and friends)

It's Passover! Pesach Sameach to all and sundry. 
Ready for Passover 2019 at the Mihaly house
On this day, Jewish families traditionally retell the story of Moses at a festive seder meal. This year, things will be different. Many seders will be very small gatherings, while others will go online for virtual fellowship. I know folks will find many creative ways to keep the Passover blessings flowing. 

A highlight of the seder is when a child (customarily the youngest) asks the Four Questions. So here GROG asks Four Questions of four distinguished authors of Jewish-themed books. We've included recommendations for kids' Passover books at the end. Enjoy! 

For those who celebrate Easter or Ramadan later this month, or if you're just thankful for the springtime -- Joy to you all!

Our cast of characters:
Nancy Churnin: Nancy's most recent release is For Spacious Skies, about Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote "America the Beautiful." Nancy has published a plethora of inspiring picture book biographies about people who are famous, or ought to be. They include Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Who Made America Sing, and Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank.

Carol Gordon Ekster: Carol is a former teacher and an energetic booster of literacy and of other children's writers. She has been publishing humorous, lively, and engaging picture books since 2002. She's the author of Before I Sleep; Ruth the Sleuth and the Messy Room; You Know What? and other wonderful books.
Carol Coven GrannickCarol is a GROGger and an accomplished  poet who enjoys writing narrative nonfiction and other stories for children. Her debut novel-in-verse, Reeni's Turn, is slated to release September 13. It follows a shy and self-conscious tween who embarks on a misdirected journey to find courage, self-acceptance, and a new identity, and we can't wait to read it! 
Linda Elovitz Marshall: Linda has been an early childhood educator and a farmer and is the author of a range of fiction picture books (most recently, Have You Ever Seen a Ziz?). She has written many Jewish-themed stories, including The Passover Lamb, and the recently released Shalom Bayit: A Peaceful Home. This year she'll be publishing several nonfiction picture books, including one about Anne Frank. 
❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

GROG: Welcome, ladies. I'll start by asking: What's your motivation for writing Jewish stories?

Linda: For me it's been happenstance and a lot of good luck. I saw an announcement for a conference (inexpensive, as conferences go) for Jewish children’s writers….and I figured, I’m Jewish. I’m writing children’s books. The dates look good! The price is right! I’ll go! That was the beginning of this wonderful ride.
Carol Coven Grannick: My strong desire to include Jewish content in my upcoming novel in verse, and in some published and unpublished work, is because often, my own Jewish life and experiences inform the heart of the story. During the course of many revisions of REENI’S TURN (Regal House Publishing/Fitzroy Books, September 13, 2020), the Jewish content became an “issue.” I was asked to increase it, then take it out, and put it back in, and—the best advice of all—make certain the content was significant in moving the story forward. The day after I completed my final draft, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred. Something inside me said, That’s it. I’m never taking the Jewish content out again.

Carol Gordon EksterI've always felt connected to my Jewish roots. I grew up with my father’s family, his seven brothers and sisters, my many cousins, and Bubie and Zadie being consistent presences in my life. Every story I write comes to me… whether in a dream or when I’m exercising, or when I least expect it! In the last couple of years, more and more Jewish stories have come to me this way.

Nancy: Jewish tradition teaches us that we are here to repair the world. All of my books, including those that aren't overtly Jewish, try to do that by focusing on people who have left the world a better place and I hope will encourage the kids to look for ways they can leave the world a better place, too. My books with Jewish subjects, Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing (illustrated by James Rey Sanchez) and Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg), focus on people who changed the world for the better. Martin & Anne believed in justice and goodness even in the face of darkness and hate, and left us with words that articulated their vision of a better world where everyone is treated with equality and love.
Writing about Irving Berlin, I dug deeply into his Jewishness, with the help of a Jewish music educator, Mark Kreditor, who pointed out to me that the last three notes of the shema prayer are also the last three notes of “God Bless America.” This shows how Irving brought his deepest, spiritual beliefs, the shema prayer, into a oneness with his love of his new country, America. It underlines how “God Bless America” was, essentially, his prayer for America. It helps us understand why he never took money for this song, and instead donated the royalties to the children of America through a gift to the Girl and Boy Scouts. 

GROG: That's powerful motivation. I think if you have that sense of identity or mission in your writing, you're also going to write with a great deal of heart. 
My next question is, Are you worried about being "pigeon-holed" as a "Jewish writer"?

Carol Coven Grannick: Yes and no. I can’t write anything that isn’t true to my heart, values, beliefs. So if a story is  “pigeon-holed,” I hope it would identify the opportunity to learn about Jewish life, religion, and culture, just as it does for the wonderful multitude of other diverse categories. If I only wrote Jewish-themed work, and was considered a “Jewish writer” I’d be perfectly proud, just as I am proud to be a Jewish American woman.

Carol Gordon Ekster: No! My published books are secular…well that is except the Catholic one. Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You (Pauline Books and Media, 2015) started out as a bedtime shema prayer. I woke up in the middle of the night repeating, “Before I sleep, it’s time to pray…” and knew I had to write a story related to that. When it didn’t sell to Jewish publishers, I revised to make it more secular. Then a critique buddy told me a publisher was interested in her book about forgiveness, and I thought maybe they’d want a gratitude book … and they did! They just happened to be a Catholic publisher. The book won awards and is in its third printing. So it's right where it should be.  And my rabbi felt it fit with the theme of Rosh Hashana and asked me to read it at the children’s holiday service last year. Sharing this book up on the bima was a wonderful moment for me.

Nancy: No. I write the books I feel I must write, the books that come from my heart. I don’t worry about them being Jewish or not Jewish. I cannot control how someone might pigeon-hole me and I don’t worry about what I can’t control. All I can control is doing the best, most honest, truthful and I hope helpful work I can and trust that it will reach the children it needs to reach and have a positive impact on hearts and minds.
Linda's recent release, about Beatrix Potter

Linda: No, because I write a lot, about anything and everything. I’m interested in many things - from science to biography to word-play. I love learning new things and, especially, trying to decode complex language and thoughts into words everyone can understand.  This year, especially, my publishing scope has broadened with the release of three picture book biographies.

GROG: So, you write the books you feel driven to write – something we should all strive to do, right?

I'm wondering about organizations supporting Jewish books and writers. PJ Library is a Jewish literacy nonprofit that distributes books with Jewish content to families. Have you worked with PJ Library, or are you a member of a group of writers of Jewish-themed books?

Nancy: I am a proud co-founder and member of the Book Meshuggenahs and also a member of the Jewish Kidlit Mavens. I love the camaraderie of both groups, which have different missions. The Book Meshuggenahs are Jewish women writing books with Jewish characters and themes. We all support each other and kids. We just launched a Chai-ku contest to encourage kids to write haiku with Jewish themes. I’m happy about the way the contest is encouraging kids to take pride and share their Jewish ideas and heritage.

 Jewish Kidlit Mavens is a group of creators, librarians, educators, publishers, journalists — lots of different people who care about Jewish literature for kids. I learn so much from our conversations about the larger Jewish kid lit community and appreciate the support from the members there, too.

I was also selected for the Yiddish Book Center's Tent program, sponsored by PJ Library. It was a pleasure to meet the people at PJ Library and the Yiddish Book Center and see their passion for getting good books with Jewish themes into children’s hands.

LindaI’ve worked with PJ Library on several of my books. It's been wonderfully helpful and inspiring. It thrills me to see my stories finding their way into so many homes!

Carol Gordon Ekster: I'm a member of the Jewish Kidlit Mavens on Facebook, but not a member of Book Meshuggenahs as I don’t have a Jewish book published…yet! This past December I was excited to sell my first Jewish story to Highlights Magazine.

Carol Coven Grannick: I belong to the somewhat new and fabulous Facebook group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens. I’ve not worked with PJ Library, but it’s not off my radar!

GROG: Our fourth question is: Have you written a Passover book?

Linda: Yes! The Passover Lamb was one of my first stories… It wouldn’t have been written had it not been for my having attended (thank you, Fran Manushkin, author of Miriam’s Cup, for the invitation!) to a long-ago meeting of the PJ Library book selection people with prospective authors. The story took place on our farm when we were raising sheep. A ewe had given birth a few days earlier. But she was not feeding one of her lambs - so we had to take over with a bottle. Raising a lamb on a bottle is one of the most fun things about having sheep. It can also be a pain in the neck. Somehow, we had to figure out how to get to the seder – more than 2 hours away—and what to do with our bottle lamb!

Carol Gordon Ekster: I love Passover! It’s one of the joy-filled holidays that I remember so fondly, celebrating as a child with my large extended family. And I still love the seders we share today with a group of friends. I love the songs, the foods, and the significance of the holiday. I've written two Passover-themed picture books that are waiting for the right publisher.
From Carol Coven Grannick's Passover Table

Carol Coven Grannick: I have a not-yet-published Passover picture book, ELIJAH DOES THE DISHES, in which the heroine’s father is overseas in the military during Passover. My forthcoming novel, REENI’S TURN, includes a Passover scene during Reeni’s family Seder, in which she comes to a major realization. This scene, like the book itself, reflects my own experiences and spiritual sensibilities, and helps my character push forward on her journey.

Nancy: I have not written a Passover book, just because I haven’t yet found the right story to tell. I am working on a picture book that may be perfect for Purim though!

Thanks so much to all of you. That wraps up our Four Questions. 
Below we've rounded up some popular Passover picture books, including two that are new this year, with comments by our authors. Thanks for visiting!
The Passover Mouse, by Joy Nelkin Wieder (Doubleday, 2020) (one little mouse upsets the entire village's preparations for Passover when it takes some bread)
Carol Gordon Ekster: This is a well-written original Passover tale with perfect picture book ingredients – excellent writing, tension, a repeated refrain, a surprise solution, and beautiful illustrations.
Nancy: A charming new addition for our Passover collection! It is always good to see a small creature — someone to whom a child can relate — can seem to cause a disturbance, which is actually a wonderful way of bringing people together.

Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail, by Leslea Newman (Charlesbridge, 2020)
Carol Gordon Ekster: I love the structure of this picture book...the repetition of comparing what's happening inside and outside. I love the heartwarming feel of the book while it teaches us about Passover. You read with anticipation knowing the boy and cat are both waiting for something. Sweet surprise ending and the illustrations are wonderful.
Nancy: A new book by Leslea Newman is always a treat. I am looking forward to this reminder that miracles can be found in unexpected places.

Pippa's Passover Plate, by Vivian Kirkfield (Holiday House, 2019)
Carol Gordon Ekster: I love the repeated refrain, the rhyming text and adorable illustrations. This is such a fun Passover book!
Nancy: Pippa and her search to find her Passover plate is an uplifting and whimsical reminder that it not only takes a village to put together a seder, but the seder is sweeter when you invite that village to partake.

More than Enough, by April Halprin Wayland (Dial Books, 2016)
Nancy: This teaches children the concept of dayenu and offers a great reminder for kids to be thankful.
Carol Coven Grannick: This book is lovely for all ages, engaging children in a developmentally accessible way of understanding the concept of gratitude, an important Passover theme.

The Passover Lamb, by Linda Elovitz Marshall (Random House, 2013)
Nancy:  A sweet story about caring for those in need, set on a farm, brings a fresh look at the baby Moses part of the Passover tale.

The Longest Night, by Laurel Snyder (Random House, 2013)
Nancy: I love how this book whisks kids back in time so they can experience what it may have been like to live through the time of Passover.

Yankee at the Seder, by Elka Weber (Tricycle Press, 2009)
Nancy: A welcome message during our polarized times of how what binds us together is deeper and more enduring than what pulls us apart.

Abuelita's Secret Matzahs, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Clerisy Press, 2005)
Nancy: A wonderful and important story of the CryptoJews that shines a light on the diversity of the Jewish experience.


  1. Chris, this is such a wonderful topic and you presented it so well with the 4 Passover questions. Ty, authors for your thoughtful answers and sharing your books. I have more on my TBR list now!!!

    1. Thank YOU, Kathy. Collaborative posts are the best! And even though Passover seders are different this year -- we'll all find meaning in the fellowship.

  2. Great interviews! Our beliefs definitely inform the way we write.

    1. Tina, Thank you so much. We find the heart of our stories in our beliefs, right?

  3. Thanks so much for mentioning The Yankee at the Seder! At times like this, it's always worth remembering that the things that unite us far outweigh the things that divide us. A happy and healthy Passover to all.

    1. I LOVE The Yankee at the Seder! Thanks for visiting GROG, and thanks for your thoughts in this divisive and frightening time. Let us all read good books!

  4. I love reading this post and grateful to be a part of. Thank you, Chris! Happy Passover to all.

    1. Many thanks to you, Carol, and thank you for stopping by GROG. And, Happy Passover.

  5. Thank you for this inspiring post. Health and happiness to all.

    1. Thank you, Charlotte. Indeed, may we all stay healthy and safe with loved ones this holiday.

  6. Great list of books and awesome authors! So true that we're all celebrating in different ways, now, to achieve some facsimile of the human connection we are missing. Thanks for an inspired Q+A!

  7. Thanks for your comment, Jilanne! I enjoyed the virtual conversation with these four talented writers. Happy holidays to you also.