Today, I’m thrilled to be part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Joining me is Elka Weber, author of the THE YANKEE AT THE SEDER, which was published by (my own darling) Tricycle, and is an Honor Award Winner for 2010.
Everyone… welcome Elka, and enjoy the interview…
Hey, Elka! Lovely to have you here, and huge congrats on your honor! To begin with, I wonder if you can tell us how/why you struck upon the idea for this book. I think you grew up in Canada, right? Why’d you choose the American Civil War as the backdrop for a Passover story?
Thanks, great to have landed in such a lovely part of cyberspace.
The idea for The Yankee at the Seder had actually been buzzing around in my head for about thirty years. I did grow up in Montreal, Canada, but my father, who was a rabbi, was originally from the US. One year at the Seder he told us the small true story that is the historical basis for The Yankee at the Seder. I remember thinking, Boy, that must have been an awkward meal. The book grew from there.
In any case, the American Civil War is a perfect setting for a Passover story. People at the time regularly used the imagery of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt when they talked politics. The Passover story is THE story of slavery and redemption.
For American Jews celebrating Passover, looking back to the Civil War makes perfect sense. In every generation, we are supposed to imagine that we ourselves were liberated from Egypt. Not that easy, is it? Just close your eyes and think “slavery”. For most of us, the first image that comes to mind is not ancient Egypt but the antebellum south. So I wanted to use that connection to understand the Passover story and make it real.
Not unrelated, as an author and a mom, I have particular interest in books that help us expand– as yours does–our idea of “Jewish books for kids”, and our understanding of “The Jewish Experience” more generally. I wonder what a “Jewish story” was growing up at your house? And what a “Jewish story” is like for your own kids?
I think there are two kinds of Jewish stories. One is the overtly Jewish story – like Yankee at the Seder – that has Jewish themes and Jewish characters. Every year, more and more quality Jewish books are published (a shout out to all the other Sidney Taylor winners and to Baxter!), and I think it’s amazing to be a part of that trend. But I think it’s a mistake to restrict our understanding of a “Jewish story” to those books that deal with Jewish themes.
There is definitely another kind of Jewish story, and that’s just good literature. The Jewishness there isn’t in the content of the book. It’s in the mindset of the reader. Every time you open a book, you bring your values and experiences to what you read. Children who’ve been exposed to Jewish values naturally approach literature through a Jewish lens.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with good books, and I’ve tried to do the same for my children. I’ve got five of them, ranging in age from 9 to 18, so I’ve done my share of reading aloud and buying kids’ books. And I think over the years I’ve come to see that the classics endure because they speak to children’s better natures.
Charlotte’s Web is about fighting for life in the face of adversity. Alice in Wonderland is about self-awareness. The Magic Tollbooth is about not letting the little stuff get in the way of living. Goodnight Moon is about love and security. The Harry Potter books are about finding your own strength and standing up for goodness in a complicated world. These are values that shape a Jewish life.
Wow. Good answer.
Now, I’d love to know how you felt about the art in the book, as you watched it take shape. Did it match up to the images in your head? If not, how was it different?
I consider myself really lucky to have worked with Adam Gustavson. Tricycle Press did a great bit of matchmaking in pairing my words with his illustrations. Here’s how I know: as I wrote the book I had absolutely no idea what the narrator would look like. Then I got Adam’s illustrations and said, “Yup, that’s Jacob.” I recognized him without even knowing why.
Adam’s illustrations actually made the book better than the one I wrote. The Yankee at the Seder is about seeing the world from a different point of view, and Adam managed to express that by painting from unexpected perspectives.
Adam’s also a stickler for historical accuracy (and you have to be when you’re dealing with the Civil War because there are an awful lot of Civil War buffs out there). He bought period clothing to see how it would look on a character. The pattern on the rug in the hall is authentic. There is nothing in the book that couldn’t be found in Virginia in 1865. Even the readers who don’t pay much attention to historical accuracy will tell you there’s a sort of magical quality to the illustrations. It’s because they transport you to a different time.
(I do think the book can stand on its own without illustrations. In fact, I’m really gratified to know that it’s just been rendered into Braille.)
I’m excited about all the new things happening in Jewish kidlit right now. I wonder if– as part of that trend– you you’d be willing to share a few ideas for things you’re working on, or works in progress. What’s the wackiest Jewish pickture book you can imagine wanting to write? They book you’d liketo write, but have a hard time imagining anyone would publish?
As you say, this is an exciting time in Jewish kidlit. The Jewish community in the US has always been diverse, but we’ve gotten better at reflecting that reality. Children’s literature in general grows more sophisticated and Jewish literature is part of that larger trend. I just hope we don’t get too sophisticated to have fun.
My next book (One Little Chicken, June 2011) is a retelling of a story in the Talmud, but with a slight twist. It’s about a rabbi who was so committed to returning a lost chicken that he sells the eggs, invests the proceeds and ends up with a houseful of animals before the original owner shows up to claim his one little chicken. In my telling, the story gets a little antic toward the end.
The wackiest Jewish picture book I’d love to write would be What Do You Mean, You Don’t Want Seconds? starring feisty Jewish grandmothers from different times and places defending their traditional cooking. Naturally, it would be narrated by a piece of gefilte fish and end up in an all-out food fight at the central bus station in Jerusalem.
I am also writing for adults. I’ve finished a book about the last voyage of Henry Hudson. His men mutinied and set him adrift in the Arctic in 1611 and he was never heard from again. There’s nothing explicitly Jewish in the book but the question of what drives good men to evil deeds is most definitely a religious issue.
I was really impressed with the end of Yankee at the Seder. I was surprised and delighted at your ability to resist a pat ending. I wondered if you could talk about that choice. Did it just come out that way? Or did you work to end it in a slightly unresolved manner?
Some stories don’t lend themselves to pat endings.
The Civil War left hundreds of thousands dead and devastated the South. The resentment didn’t go away overnight just because the war ended. Ask any southerner.
It’s wonderful when people try to bond over what they’ve got in common, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to agree about everything. I’m living with my family in Israel this year, so all I have to do is look around the neighborhood to realize that some issues are too big to get resolved by sitting down to a meal together.
I also know, as a mother and as a writer, that you don’t do children any favors by ignoring the complexities in this world. What helps is discussing them in a safe and loving way. In Yankee at the Seder, the narrator Jacob is ten years old. He’s just old enough to notice that not all the grownups in his life see the world in the same way. After all, here on his doorstep is a Jew who fought for the Yankees! Jacob’s mother invited the Union soldier into their house; his father might not have done the same. That’s an unsettling realization but it paves the way for a very important step. Soon Jacob will be able to interpret events on his own, and sometimes his conclusions will be different from those of his parents. That’s called growing up, and it’s kind of complicated.
So the short answer is – yes, I wanted to be as honest as I could and I wanted to leave room for everyone in the story to move on. My favorite books are the ones that leave me wondering what’s next for the characters.
Elka, I can’t tell you how interesting and real and honest this has been for me as an interviewer. Thanks so much!