A couple of months ago, I was offered the chance to read and review a wonderful funny Jewish children book - A Gefilte Fishy Tale, that I had the opportunity to review extensively elsewhere. The book is not only well written, approaching a very special audience, but succeeds to make relevant old family stories and customs. Curious about how it is possible to create Jewish stories that appeals to the young readers I approached the authors, Allison and Wayne Marks, for an extensive interview. Here is the result of the exchange.
What inspires you to write?
The word we’d use is not so much “inspires” as it is “compels.” Stories will logjam in our brains if we don’t put in the time to write on a daily basis. Writing together is one of the joys in our lives. The moments we share haggling over diction questions and debating plot twists are highlights of our busy week.
How do you find inspiration for your books?
Story ideas come from many different sources: family photographs, a Yiddish saying, dreams, childhood memories, or a piece of Talmudic text. We are always looking for a unique angle on different aspects of Jewish life and culture to share with a young audience.
A Gefilte Fishy Tale sprung from a conversation after a Passover seder in which we were discussing Wayne’s love of the whitefish, carp, and pike delicacy. The idea of a difficult-to-open jar soon blossomed into a Jewish sword-in-the-stone quest. Working with our publisher, Margie Blumberg, the book took new and exciting directions with the addition of Yiddish words, a recipe, and an original song.
The inspiration for Og’s Ark came from Allison’s reading of Jewish folktales from around the world. Since there had never been a picture book version of Og helping Noah collect the animals, we thought this format would be an ideal way to introduce this old story to a new generation of young readers. In our retelling, we turned it into a bedtime story by bringing in the biblical reference to Og’s iron bed.
Our latest book, The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story, is rooted in personal experience. When our twins, Elliott and Claire, were young, they took art lessons from Grandpa Marks, much like the main character, Shoshana, does in the book. Inspired by artworks hanging on the walls at Temple Israel in Akron, Ohio, we researched papercuts and learned how they were used as decorations to celebrate Shavuot in Eastern Europe. Blending these elements, we created a story that touches on several themes: the importance of imagination, the passing on of traditions, and the idea that creating a beautiful work of art can be a messy business.
Our publishers, Margie Blumberg (MB Publishing) and Joni Sussman (Kar-Ben Publishing) have been true creative forces in helping to bring our manuscripts to life and making them available to children everywhere.
What is the most difficult part of writing for children?
Since our books are written for four- to eight-year-olds, it can be challenging to strike the right balance between word choices and expressive language. Our goal is to write books children want to read again and again, so we try to incorporate bits of humor and a sense of wonder to our stories, while delivering a message without being didactic. We think back to the books we loved as children (e.g. Stone Soup, The Sneetches, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) and ask, “What made them special to us?” We’ve concluded that though cultural sensibilities and technologies have changed, children still know a good story when they hear one.
In The Art Lesson we wanted to make Shoshana’s visits to Grandma Jacobs’ art studio magical. The solution was a 100-drawer cabinet holding treasures for the young artist in our book to discover every week. A Gefilte Fishy Tale pushes the boundaries of absurdity by having Bubbe and Zayde go to extreme lengths to unscrew the stubborn lid in time for their Friday night dinner. And what child would not want to share their bed with all kinds of animals like Og the Giant does?
How is it possible to keep alive Jewish traditions among children in a world that never wants to stop?
In a small but significant way, Jewish-themed picture books play a role in keeping traditions alive in the home. First, the act itself of reading to a child, whether snuggled in bed or sitting on a lap, creates a lasting bond and shared memories. Further, books that show modern families celebrating customs together (e.g. making papercuts or gathering for a Sabbath meal) can influence a child’s awareness of how traditions honor the past and celebrate the present. Yes, the world moves at a frantic pace. However, books demand us to slow down, reflect, and think about what is truly important. They can be a precious alternative to the unceasing stream of technology bombarding children every day.
How do you connect with your audience?
We do book readings, library talks, and book festivals. The most satisfying part of being an author is reading your book to children and seeing them anticipate what’s going to happen with the turn of each page. Also, we make time to talk with aspiring writers and to encourage children to pursue their own writing projects.
What does your audience think about your stories?
The response to our books has been overwhelmingly positive. Since writing can be a solitary experience, you hope for the best when your book finally comes out into the world.
Much praise has deservedly been given to each book’s fine illustrations. We have been fortunate to have had three fabulous artists of differing styles brilliantly capture the tone and essence of our stories: Martina Peluso (Og’s Ark), Renée Andriani (A Gefilte Fishy Tale) and Annie Wilkinson (The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story).
Last autumn, during the Jewish Art & Food Festival at Temple Israel, older congregants would pick up A Gefilte Fishy Tale, scan through the pages and laugh. Then they would reminisce and share stories with us about making gefilte fish with their mothers the old-fashioned way.
What are your writing plans for 2017?
Our goal is to continue laughing together and writing more children’s picture books.