When I think of Rosh Hashanah, the upcoming Jewish New Year, my senses swarm with childhood memories: smooth velvet synagogue dresses, the smell of my mother’s honey cakes baking, our congregation’s voices lifted as one in song and prayer, the delicious anticipation of our big family meal after services, sweet honey drizzled on crisp apples and soft challah.
But growing up, the closest I came to seeing in literature anything vaguely familiar to my Modern Orthodox Jewish life was in the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, which takes place in the early 1900s, almost a century before my own childhood! Mostly, the only religious Jews I saw were in the Holocaust books I read over and over again—about hidden children, ghetto children, their way of life decimated, their families murdered. Although I am the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, thankfully my life in 1980s Toronto could not have been more different.
I strongly support the need for children’s Holocaust literature, and these books were a personal key to me understanding what my grandparents had gone through but never spoke about. At the same time, looking back, I see how hard it was to read over and over again about my people being victimized. Even today, the vast majority of mainstream books featuring religious Jews show them in the past, or as victims of persecution. And if set in present day, the narratives often focus on conflict—either Jewish people wrestling with their religion and community, or struggling against a dominant culture or religion.
When I first started writing stories for children, the psychological impact of not seeing myself reflected back in literature revealed itself. I copied the way other authors wrote: I sent my characters to regular public schools, not a Jewish day school; I had them dress up for Halloween, not Purim; no one celebrated Rosh Hashanah. I believed the scents, sounds, and sensations of the world I knew best weren’t legitimate enough to write about.
It wasn’t until I began to read to my children some of my own childhood favorites—Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family—as well as some new ones I was just discovering, like The Penderwicks and The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, that I felt a shift inside me. I decided to try to do what these writers all do so beautifully—show the importance and magnitude of small dramas in everyday life—but with contemporary Jewish characters. I wanted to write a book about Modern Orthodox characters who have close friendships, difficult mother-daughter relationships, and influential teachers. I wanted them to encounter situations that are funny as well as sad. Above all, I wanted to write a book about a pair of friends who could be your neighbors and whose experience of their Judaism is joyful, and not in conflict with anything.
I have always felt that the biggest mark of success for Honey and Me will be if readers love the particulars of Milla and Honey’s daily lives, friendship, and escapades—and also find in it something universal, in which they see themselves, and their own joy, whether or not they identify as Jewish. Today, with antisemitism frighteningly on the rise, my hope is that Honey and Me can also offer an antidote to othering—the foundation of any racism, even when casual and unintentional—by bringing vividly to life characters whose religious practices may be foreign to many readers, but whose hearts, struggles, and humanity are the same.
Started knitting this sweater July 2021, completed July 2022. It fits perfectly 👌(Which never happens when you’re short, so yay! 😀)
Sometimes it feels like everything takes me a long time to accomplish. Knitting this sweater-jacket took me a year! A story I often tell myself is that things take me longer than other people. But when I’m being more honest I know that often within this are choices that I’ve made. During the year I was knitting this sweater I also crocheted a kippa, knit a cardigan for my daughter, learned how to darn, continued to work on an ongoing not-yet-completed needlepoint project, started knitting a hat and started crocheting a toy giraffe.
Sure it would have gone faster if I’d just concentrated on this one thing. But it suited me to complete several smaller projects while I was working on this larger one. There are several reasons for this:
1. It’s very satisfying to finish something. It makes me feel in control and that I’ve accomplished something.
2. It’s fun to start something new! Choosing colors and patterns for a small project that I know won’t take me too long offers a break from the longer project.
3. Starting and completing a smaller project deliberately prolongs the longer one; it can be bittersweet to say goodbye to something I’ve been working on for a long time.
I wish I could say this is an exact metaphor for the journey of my debut novel, Honey and Me,which I wrote the first draft of 10 summers ago! It has been a long journey with this novel. And unlike knitting a sweater, it hasn’t always been a matter of how much I worked on it or if I put it aside for a little while to work on something else, or that I worked on it alongside other writing projects. Yes, I have been working on other projects which I hope I get to share with readers at some point, but Honey and Me’s journey was mostly not a question of choices of what to focus on, and many aspects of it were far beyond my control.
Which is comforting in the sense of thinking about a writers journey: no matter how much you will it or want it, it is not under your control how long it might take an agent to read your query letter, and if they decide they want to read your whole manuscript, you don’t have control over how long that takes them. When you do get an agent you can do your best to take their suggestions to get it ready for submission to editors, but you have zero control after that in terms of if/when an editor reads your work, sends it to the editorial committee, makes an offer… And even once you get the magic offer, a whole journey begins anew, again with many aspects beyond one’s control.
What you do have control over
But what you do have is control over the quality of your work. Barring life circumstances that might get in your way—health, other jobs (in which I include running a home, raising children, caring for elderly parents…)—when it’s in your lap you have control over when and how long it takes to write, rewrite, revise, incorporate editorial notes. You have control over what you put into it. You also have control over how you try to get it out into the world. No one can see it if it stays as a file on your computer. Sure, you can’t be rejected if you never give anyone the opportunity to reject it. But then of course you can’t have the opportunity for someone to say, ‘wow I love this so much, let’s go on this journey together!’
Belief in your work
Even when I just couldn’t quite get to where I was trying to go in the journey of Honey and Me, even when there were roadblocks, stumbling blocks, dead ends, and scenic routes, I believed wholeheartedly in my story, my setting, and my characters, Milla and Honey. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have had the capacity for perseverance and tenacity that finally getting to see my book about to be published required.
What happens when the sweater is finished?
Now I get to wear it! I can’t wait. What happens when my book is published on October 18th and it goes out into the world—into readers hands? I don’t know!
I can’t wait for readers to read it. I can’t wait to talk about it with people. I can’t wait to go into schools and do author visits and presentations (but oh my god am I nervous about that. Excited! But nervous.)
Will they like it?
My sweater is for me. Someone might see it and compliment it. But basically if I like it and get use out of it, I’ll be happy with it. My book is a different beast altogether. Actually, it’s not a beast, and it’s not a garment either. It’s very much itself: a book.
Making art and specifically writing a book is a complicated enterprise: yes, we write for ourselves, because we have a story to tell, because we have art to make. But we write with an audience in mind. We want an audience. We write to tell readers a story. We write to give readers something.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know if seasoned published authors have the answers either. For me right now there’s this interplay going on between wanting to be seen, and wanting to hide. Wanting to talk to tons of kids and have public speaking opportunities (both of which I LOVE to do), is fighting with the feeling of wanting to pull a hoodie up over my head.
So all I can say is wish me luck and stay tuned! Honey and Me comes out with Scholastic on October 18th 2022 and is available for preorder wherever fine books can be found.
Honey and Me, my debut novel out Oct 18th with Scholastic Press, which follows the highs and lows of 6th grade with best friends Milla and Honey. Cover art by Shamar Knight-Justice.
In honor of my debut novel Honey and Me—a coming-of-age story about the friendship and escapades of two eleven-year-old girls—being available for preorder, I thought I would do a post about the central theme of friendship in middle grade novels. Although main character Milla has her insecurities and must find the courage to step out of her best friend Honey’s shadow, I deliberately wanted to write about a true friendship, supportive rather than undermining, with give and take, each friend filling in in the spaces where the other needs help.
I adore the friendship between Isaac and Marco in Falling Short by Ernesto Cisneros
For this reason, I just absolutely loved Falling Short, the new book by Pura Belpré-award-winning author Ernesto Cisneros. Isaac and Marco go through sixth grade going to all kinds of lengths to try to help each other when one has a strength and the other a weakness. The two boys continuously respect each other despite their differences, and I can’t think of another book where the friendship between two boys appears in quite this way (please add in the comments any that you know of!) Everyone should be blessed with a friend like Isaac to Marco, and Marco to Isaac.
Alexa & Katie on Netflix, my favorite show about a friendship
A special shout-out to the Netflix show Alexa & Katie for one of the most beautiful of female friendships I’ve ever seen depicted. While this is obviously not a middle grade novel, I think it’s noteworthy in this context. I watched it with my seven-year-old (who was watching it a second time), my sixteen-year-old loved it too, and although it’s about two girls starting high school (while one is just finishing a course of chemo for leukemia,) I’d say it’s perfectly pitched toward a middle grade audience. If you haven’t already, I urge you to watch it for its humor, poignancy, spot-on cast, fabulous acting, sharp dialogue, and that perfect combination of every episode making me both laugh out loud as well as surreptitiously wipe tears from my eyes.
The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin, a wonderful book about finding yourself and friendship
Another book that I adore for the core friendship at its heart is The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin, about Pacy, known as Grace at school, who is looking for her talent, her identity and a best friend. The essence of the Chinese Year of the Dog, which Pacy’s mother tells her is a year for friendship, comes true when Melody arrives and the two girls develop an instant bond. Especially moving and illuminating is this joint interview of Newbery Honor-winning author/illustrator Grace Lin and Alvina Ling, VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, about how this book is actually based on their own friendship as children! Or this joint podcast interview with them about the publishing industry, or even better their own podcast Book Friends Forever.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE FRIENDSHIPS?
I put a call-out to my fellow MUF contributors as well as to the SCBWI-British Isles Facebook group for more suggestions of great, not-so-great, favorite or otherwise memorable friendships in MG literature—whether something that you read as a child and stuck with you, or something you’ve read more recently— and got some great recommendations.
Props to YA author Matt Killeen for immediately suggesting “Anne Shirley and Diana… bosom friends.” Although I used “Judy Blume meets All-of-A-Kind Family” to pitch Honey and Me, I think the friendship between Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables was definitely an inspiration for my own characters Milla and Honey. And actually, when I think about it, it really does all come back to Anne and Diana, who are eleven when they first meet, as the prototype for middle grade friendships in modern literature. (Again, please add in the comments if there’s something older I’m not thinking of.)
“When I See Blue by Lily Bailey has a gorgeous friendship in it. Hannah Gold’s books have beautiful animal-human friendships of course! And Phil Earles’s When the Sky Falls has an animal-boy friendship too and themes of being understood my someone/thing. The Super-Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates has a really authentic friendship trio in it and it’s worth checking out Jenny Pearson’s other books as she really gets child friendships right (being a teacher helps).” Anna Gamble
MUF bloggers write:
“I like Wish by Barbara O’Connor, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson, and as a kid I loved the loyalty and friendship between Sara Crewe and Ermengarde St. John in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.” Laurie J. Edwards
“Soup by Robert Newton Peck was my favorite friendship book growing up. Its about the hilarious adventures during the 1930s of Robert and Soup and it’s based on the author’s own childhood. I also loved All-of-a-Kind Family which explores friendship and sisterhood. Most recently feels almost impossible to choose. So many! But I must include a shout to Simon & Schuster’s MIX imprint (Aladdin Books) which is dedicated to books about tween female friendship. I’ve had the honor of writing three books for the imprint including, Queen of Likes, The Hot List and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly.” Hillary Homzie
The Hot List, by Hillary Homzie, about the “de-intensification of a friendship”
I also want to note that sometimes friendships are unstable, toxic, or unhealthy, and unfortunately this is something that most people encounter at some point in their life, not to mention being the root cause of so much middle school emotional injury. Hillary Homzie’s The Hot List is about what she describes as the “de-intensification of a friendship” which I think is an invaluable topic for an MG book.
Many people suggested New Kid by Jerry Kraft, which was on my list too.
“I was thinking about your Q[uestion] about MG books and friendship, and how essential friendship is at that age and often how complicated those relationships are. One more recent MG book I really enjoyed was the graphic novel NEW KID by Jerry Craft, about a 7th grade boy named Jordan who starts at a new school where he is one of the few kids of color in his grade. Jordan wants to keep his old friends from his neighborhood and make new ones at his school, but he often feels like he doesn’t really fit in anywhere. This is a smart, engaging, funny and moving #middlegradenovel I think kids really relate to.” Andrea Pyros
Agreed! And I particularly love that in its sequel, Class Act, we also get the POV of some of Jordan’s friends.
THE MAGIC INGREDIENT
I think that one could argue that friendship is both essential in MG literature, and also that little bit of magic ingredient that makes it stick with you long after you are a child, becoming a part of the make up of your own coming of age. Here are some great lists of middle grade books about friendship that have already been compiled. Please add your own favorites, from childhood or more recently, in the comments!
For many years here on the Mixed Up Files there is an annual pre-New Years post where MUF bloggers list their writing and reading resolutions. At the end of 2020 I knew exactly what I would put, which is that I wanted to keep a tally of everything I read throughout the year. I also took some time to privately write down for myself what I had accomplished writing-wise in 2020, and some specific writing goals for 2021. Like many people, and notwithstanding immediate evidence to the contrary, I was hopeful for 2021. Despite all the fear and uncertainty and sickness of 2020, I felt like we had gotten through it and things would surely move forward.
Well, my public MUF resolution went down the toilet fairly quickly—like, within days—the ones when my kids didn’t go back to school after winter break.
My state of the union from this time last year
In January of 2021, exactly one year ago, I wrote to my editors to check in about the draft of my novel I was working on. This is part of what I wrote:
“It seems like everyone I know who wasn’t sick the last time around is sick now or has been sick in the last 5-6 weeks. Thankfully they seem to be getting through it ok but the hospitals are overwhelmed and even with the vaccine rollout the government is indicating that schools will be closed until the end of March. My kids are in kindergarten, 4th, 6th and 9th grades and to be completely honest I am drowning.
Last week I learned about the solar system for 4th graders, how rivers flow, how to write a beginner’s code in microbit, what an algorithm is to a 5 year old, the solar system for 6th graders, and how King William used the feudal system to consolidate power. I have broken my head on 4th grade math and worked on an essay on Of Mice and Men. I go between feeling like I got this, and my kids will be ok, to feeling like my kids are being emotionally stunted and that I am being graded and must be the dumbest parent in the class, often within the same hour. Their lunch break is at 4 different times spanning 2 hours. Getting them (and myself) outside during daylight is a challenge. My son in 6th grade with ADHD presents special challenges (including to my sanity!) At the same time I really know that we are exceptionally privileged that, among other things, in the three schools my kids are at the online provision is pretty good, how much most of the teachers care and are working their butts off, and that I am able to be home to manage their schooling.
The other good news is that I am still able to find time and mental clarity to work on HONEY if I wake up very early and this method seemed to work the first time around, so this is really all to say that I am working, but pretty slowly.”
Metaphorical toilet times… And yet…
Art by Rose Metting; Website by Websydaisy
Things definitely got worse before they started getting better. With particular grimness I remember the six days we spent without heat when my boiler broke while London experienced several snowstorms and an unusual cold snap. Despite that, my draft did get done. When I sat down last week to read my goals from 2021 I was surprised to see that I had been able to meet most of them. I wrote the amount of blog posts for the Mixed Up Files and reviews for the mock book award Sydney Taylor Shmooze I’d hoped to, I wrote a picture book text and short story, I took a romance writing course and started my own romance novel for fun. There are a few things I didn’t do: some because they made sense to delay, some because my focus shifted onto something else that made sense to take its place. There were several disappointments about writing things I’d hoped would work out but didn’t. (At least not yet.) One thing I especially love is my new author website, which looks exactly how I dreamed my author website would one day look.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
One doesn’t need to have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs memorized however to know how impossible it is to think forward proactively when your immediate goals are survival. In the months my kids were at home in the winter of 2021 it certainly felt all-consuming and while this was not the same as having food or shelter insecurity— there were many days when the goal was simply to get to the end of the day. During this time I also felt that my goals had negative and positive effects: they stressed me out, amplifying my frustration–how on earth would I accomplish anything? While at the same time spurring me on to try: I really want my book published so the only way to accomplish that is to wake up at 5 am and work on it for two hours before the day starts with the kids. Trust me when I say I never thought I would be the kind of person to do that, but I did.
Resources and Advice for Goals-Setting:
In case anyone is interested in the research and advice on goals setting, a google search literally of “goals setting” came up with a plethora of information and tools.
I especially found the life vision exercise of the rocking chair an interesting way to think about long term goals: “Picture yourself in retirement, thinking back on your life from your rocking chair. What accomplishments will you be most proud of? What will you most regret? These are your most important answers to the question, ‘Why is goal setting important?’”
Also obvious yet profound is the idea that goals with measurable means of success give us meaning and purpose which is a key to happiness—or more importantly, satisfaction.While for many years when I had little kids, and especially when I moved countries, I paused my lifelong hobby of knitting and crocheting, I think it’s no coincidence that in 2021 I finished knitting the cardigan I’d started during the first lockdown, made half of a new one, completed a crocheting project, and also completed two needlepoint projects. I learned to touch type! (and I’m slowly trying to get fast enough to really use it when I’m writing. )
2022 goals in the poo bags… And yet?
All that being said, bang on trend for once I started the first week of 2022 with a(nother) bout of Covid—then I spent a week recovering—and then this week my family got a puppy. Which is to say… all my intentions to look back at 2021 and make goals for 2022 have been consumed by life, especially said puppy. But if the past two years have taught me anything it is playing both a short game and a medium-long game. By which I mean, being aware of deadlines and goals (eg doing some last-minute revisions on my debut middle grade novel Honey and Me, coming out with Scholastic this fall 🙏) that must be met and take priority over everything else; and having the clear-eyed discipline to make them happen if at all possible (while being aware and accepting that at certain times things just won’t be possible) even if it’s slightly slower than hoped for (see above re Winter 2021.) And also being aware of more medium-term goals (say, those for the year, or the next few months), that can go in your back pocket while you’re dealing with the short term goals—they’re not necessarily visible but you can feel them on your butt. You might take them out later than you’d hoped, but by the end of the year it’s amazing to see how much that pocket has emptied—and things have moved forward.
How about you?
I’m curious how anyone reading this might use goals or wish to use them. Do you find them helpful? How small do you make them? How measurable? Do you write them down? Do you give yourself deadlines or timeframes? Do you give yourself visual cues? How often do you check in on your progress? How often do you stop to set new goals? (Which is to remind everyone—myself especially—that goals don’t just have to be set at the beginning of the year.) How far down the road do you set goals for yourself? Any tips or things that worked especially well for you? Please share in the comments!
Wishing everyone a wonderfully productive 2022 in which pursuing your goals enables you to thrive.
(Enter by October 28th, 2021 for a chance to win a signed copy! Details below)
Our instinct is often to want to shield kids from death, despite death being something that is difficult for adults to understand any better. And despite the chances that children will encounter it in some form—whether it’s the passing of a loved one or a close friend’s loved one, or even a tangential acquaintance.
Enter SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS, a new middle grade novel by Joanne Levy, about a girl whose family runs a funeral home. Besides being a brilliant idea, Joanne pulls it off with just the right balance between heartfelt, moving, sad, funny and respectful, as the main character Evie must navigate a friendship with Oren whose parents have just been killed in a horrific car accident. I’m so honored and excited to welcome Joanne to our blog.
MD: Hi, Joanne–welcome to …From the Mixed Up Files!
JL: Thank you so much for having me! I’ve been following along almost since the beginning so it’s a great honor to be here. And thank you so much for the kind words about SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS—I’m so pleased it resonated with you!
MD: Absolutely. Joanne, I had to laugh when your email subject line to me was “The book whose title doesn’t do well as a subject line.” I definitely can see that when you’re cold calling people to promote your book offering them condolences (“Sorry for your loss”) might get you off on the wrong foot! It’s both a funny joke but also feels like perhaps it is a metaphor for the complicated business of writing a children’s book—or any book for that matter—that is about death and the rituals and procedures surrounding it. Beyond avoiding putting the title in email subject lines, what were other challenges or complications you had to navigate when writing SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS?
JL: It wasn’t until I started sending out emails about the book that it quickly occurred to me that I might alarm people with a subject line containing the title! Of course, that pitfall was easily avoided. What was more difficult to navigate was including the right content in the book. You’re right that writing a book with such difficult topics (not just for kids, either, since as you say above, adults also struggle with death, grief, and loss) is complicated business. I didn’t want to scare kids or be overly graphic, but at the same time, I felt it was really important to be honest and pull back the curtain on death and funerals in a way that would satisfy readers’ curiosity without crossing the line into nightmare territory. I made very conscious decisions in what details to include and which to leave out and hope that I found that right balance. Even so, I recognize that some readers are going to wish there were more details and some might wish there were fewer and some won’t pick up the book at all. That’s perfectly okay, especially when it comes to difficult topics.
Still, as I’m writing this response to your question, I’ve only gotten feedback about the book from adult readers so I am very nervously holding my breath, waiting to hear from kids.
MD: Evie’s family runs a Jewish funeral home and Evie opens up to the reader (myself included) many of the mysteries of the rituals and practicalities surrounding death and burial –whatever the religion–that are often shrouded in mystery and whispers, deemed too morbid or “gory” to think about. I personally found it refreshing and eye-opening and I think other readers, young and old, will too. Were there parts though that you originally put in but had to take out?
JL: As I mentioned above, I was very conscious of the details I included in the book. I wanted to make sure that each was organic to the story and not just there for shock value. So I don’t think I had to back out any details but I will say that I struggled a little with how far I wanted to go with respect to Evie and Oren seeing a body. Slight spoiler: It wasn’t until I wrote the scene where they open the fridge that I even knew for sure what was going to happen there. Looking back, it feels inevitable that it would play out the way it did (and I strongly feel I made the right choice) but just to give you that little behind-the-scenes insight into how it happened, it took until that moment for me to know what was going to happen even though I’d known for weeks that the scene was coming.
Sidebar: if anyone is interested in my research, I have put a page on my website that tours the funeral home my dad manages – with pictures and further reading links. You’ll find it here.
MD: Great, thank you. In general, how did you balance writing a book about death and funerals with writing a book for children?
JL: My number one consideration when writing for kids is being absolutely honest. That doesn’t mean I need to put every single detail about death and funerals on the page, but I’m not hiding them, either. Kids are curious and resilient and want to know what happens to us when we die. That said, this book is about so much more—friendships and bullying and finding little joys in life, even in dark moments.
Also, I looked at the story through Evie’s eyes and how she would see the things around her. She sees funerals nearly every day and it’s just a part of her life and family business, so while many of us shy away from death and grief, for her, elements that we find taboo or strange are mundane. Caskets? She sees them as dust-collecting furniture she has to polish. It’s through her perspective that we can get past the scary symbols and rituals to the feelings underneath.
MD: To what extent did you draw from your own experiences? You mention in the promotional materials that you did research by “touring” the funeral home your father manages. Did your family manage the funeral home when you were growing up too? If so, like Evie, did you help out? And did you find that other children had difficulty accepting you and/or understanding the vital role your family played in the community?
JL: Actually no, my parents came to the funeral business later in life. My great aunt was a member of the group of volunteers that prepares bodies for burial and I believe she recruited my dad who, in turn, recruited my mom. The manager of my hometown Jewish funeral chapel retired and my father took over that role and I believe by then he was in his sixties. So I didn’t grow up entrenched in the business the way Evie does in the book. But I’ve always been fascinated by the industry and had I been born to it, I have a feeling I’d have been the one dusting caskets and giving out tissues.
MD: One of the points that come up several times throughout the novel is the idea of respect, especially the importance of respecting the body of the person who has died. Can you talk about that?
JL: Not only is it built right into the ritual of caring for the body—there are even specific prayers that require those preparing the body for burial to beg forgiveness for any inadvertent wrongdoing–but this is how my father looks at his role. He takes great pride and care in what he does and that respect—both for the deceased and their families—never wavers. Knowing that gave me great comfort when we laid my mom to rest because I knew everyone taking care of her would treat her with that same respect. I never had to worry and I felt that it was really important for readers to know that the people behind the scenes really, really care about what they do and take it very seriously.
MD: This is your 6th published book. Congratulations! Did you find the process of writing this one similar or different to your previous book? Did you feel more experienced having gone through the writing, editing and publishing process before?
JL: Every book feels like its very own mountain to climb but I will say that with every book I trust my process more. That doesn’t mean books are easier to write, just less anxiety-inducing and I know that even when I feel blocked, it’ll come back and I’ll get it done. I just need to trust that process and get out of my own head (or house – long dog walks are great to unstick plots!).
That said, this book was a huge challenge because of how important it was to me to get it right. I was committed to making it readable and entertaining and maybe even educational for kids, same as all my books. But SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS is also a tribute to my dad and those like him who do such important work. I also wanted it to be accurate, accessible, and interesting to non-Jews as well. I have never worked harder, done so much research on a project, or sent out to so many beta readers for feedback, but I’m proud of the result and it feels like a job well done.
On Crafting (and writing!):
MD: I follow you on Instagram and adore all the crafty things you make and sell on Etsy. Do you find there is a connection between being a writer and the other creative things you do?
JL: That’s a great question and I think that indirectly there is a connection and it’s that creativity piece. I was always a crafty kid and I love being creative and making things with my hands. But crafting things out of wool or some other tangible medium is different than crafting worlds and characters out of thin air. Still, I think that creativity begets creativity and one type can influence another and crafts have woven their way into my books – quilling in for SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS, knitting in FISH OUT OF WATER.
That said, repetitive crafts, like needle felting (stabbing wool with special needles), give my brain space to wander while my hands are busy. I’ve detangled many a plot issue while my hands were occupied with other things. I think a lot of writers turn to other artistic pursuits either as a respite from a constantly whirling mind, or to give that mind space to work in the background.
Hmm. That feels like a convoluted answer to a very straightforward question. Let’s just say yes.
MD: Haha. As a knitter, crocheter and needlepointer myself I am smiling at that answer! 🙂
MD: Joanne, when I first met you it was at breakfast my first morning as a fellow of TENT: Children’s Literature, a week-long writing residency–I was a 2019 fellow and you was a past fellow, returning to use the time as a retreat as well as mingle and meet the new crew of authors writing children’s literature with Jewish content. I was jet lagged and bleary-eyed from my journey but I’ll never forget how I perked up when you told me you were writing a novel that is set in a Jewish funeral home, based somewhat on your own experience of being part of a family who manages a Jewish funeral home. I thought it was a brilliant idea, with so much potential, not to mention something that would definitely fill a hole in kidlit, with the practicalities of death in any religion not something often covered.
I was delighted this past month to read the finished result.I think that readers will laugh and cry with Evie and Oren and that SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS will open up many important discussions about respect in death as well as the procedures and customs surrounding it regardless of faith or religion. Scroll down for a chance to win your own copy. Joanne, thank you so much for joining us on MUF today 🙂
JL: Meira, I remember that breakfast well and despite your jet lag and long journey, you were a joy to talk to! Thank you so much for your kind words about SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS. It means so much to me that the book resonated with you. While I wrote it from a Jewish perspective, I wrote it for ALL readers, hoping they would find relatable characters and lots to discuss. Thank you for this opportunity to chat about it here and share it with you and the MUF community!
Gordon Korman, although not that much older than me, was a childhood hero of mine. Growing up in Canada I was one of many teens who loved and laughed all through the antics of Bruno and Boots in THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING AT MACDONALD HALL (which we all knew Korman had written when he was in 7th grade) and its sequels, as well as my other favorites the Bugs Potter books. It was a huge honor as well as pleasure to review Korman’s latest novel in a prolific career, more serious than these earlier works and yet still with his signature humor as well as deft plotting and nuanced characters. Here is my review of LINKED for the Sydney Taylor Shmooze:
When a large swastika spray-painted in red is found in the middle school of a small quiet town in Colorado at the opening of Gordon Korman’s new book LINKED, everyone is shocked. Who would do such a thing? And why? The school takes swift and immediate action, organizing a comprehensive tolerance program that spans weeks. But this is when things get interesting from a narrative structure, because rather than the tolerance training being the solution, neatly tying things up … more swastikas begin appearing. Law enforcement, residents of the town and the principal of the middle school are flummoxed: now what? The kids feel helpless and enraged. Inspired by the famous 1998 Paper Clips Project by eighth graders from Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee, the students at Korman’s Chokecherry Middle School respond by coming up with their own plan to try to understand the enormity of the Holocaust, fight against hate and racism, and bring people together: they attempt to create a paper chain with six million links. The project takes off beyond their wildest dreams, even as swastikas continue to appear. The story is told from alternating points of view: Michael, who found the first swastika, is head of the art club and the only Dominican kid in the school; Dana, whose outsider status as one of the kids of the archaeologists from MIT working on a dig outside the town is even more cemented as the only Jewish person most of the kids in school have ever met; and Link—star athlete, the glue in the massive paper chain project the kids devise, and going on his own personal journey. The different voices give the story even more meaning as the reader explores along with them, hate and tolerance and why people do the things they do.
LINKED should be a strong contender for Sydney Taylor Book Award recognition. As a contemporary realistic middle grade novel, it addresses modern hate and racism, the Holocaust, a boy discovering his secret heritage and studying for his bar mitzvah, and that Judaism is not a monolith. Everyone looks to Dana and her family as the only Jews in town, but this makes her even more uncomfortable—and not just because it makes her further stand out. Yes, she had a bat mitzvah and helps Link study for his, but her family is fairly unaffiliated—they don’t keep kosher or mind living somewhere hundreds of miles from the nearest synagogue— and she doesn’t like feeling like the sole representative of Judaism. Not to mention that she’s many-generations American; the Holocaust turns out to be closer to Link than to her. LINKED is woven with Gordon Kormon’s signature humor, smart set-up and repercussions, as well as three-dimensional characters who don’t feel like stand-ins for tropes or plot-driven stereotypes. There’s a a mystery that keeps the pages turning quickly, a media personality manipulating the situation to his own benefit, and a community that comes together but also must face up to its own history.
I am lucky enough to be part of a wonderful group of people who are as excited about middle grade books as me. When I was first invited to join the blog From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle Grade Authors I already knew I would say yes when I heard the name! That’s because it’s a play on the name of one of my favorite books from childhood—From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. In it a girl named Claudia and her brother Jamie run away from their home and hide out in a famous museum in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and even solve a mystery. When I used to read this book I would dream of visiting the museum myself–and maybe even living in New York City one day. This is a dream that came true! Although I don’t live in New York anymore, I did live there for 18 years and visited the Met many times. I still love New York, but now I live in London—another exciting city of museums and adventure.
I love the MUF blog because it is a wealth of resources, giveaways, STEM segments, articles, interviews and all things celebrating books for 8-12-year-olds. I love writing for the MUF blog because I get to interview fabulous middle grade authors and sometimes write blog posts about ideas and issues relating to children’s books and publishing that I’ve been thinking about. Check it out!
I already mentioned winning the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award but there is a very important and prestigious award for books that are already published called the Sydney Taylor Book Award which recognizes outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. The Sydney Taylor Shmooze is a mock award blog created to encourage discussion of books eligible for the Sydney Taylor Book Award over the course of the year. Different people (me being one of them) volunteer to read and review the books that might be considered for the Award and at the end of the year everyone votes. Of course, the real Award Committee make their own choices but this is a fun way to read, learn about and discuss new books. Here are some of my reviews:
Before I had an agent or anyone agreed to publish Honey and Me, but my book felt as good as I could get it (after many, many revisions*,) I sent Honey and Me off to a competition for a manuscript award and I won!
*P.S. It’s gone through many, many more revisions since 🙂
The award is named after Sydney Taylor who wrote the All-of-a-Kind Family series. These books were a huge influence on me growing up. Not only did I love them and read them over and over again, but when I began reading them to my own daughter it made me wonder if I could write something that had the same sensibility as them, but set in today’s world. So it was not only a big honor to win the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award, but it was an especially meaningful one.
Here is a podcast in which I am interviewed about Honey and Me after winning the award.
Before I started writing fiction, I did lots of other kinds of writing, but all non-fiction. I worked for a not-for-profit organization where, for example, I wrote speeches for my bosses, as well as press releases and articles about all the great work the organization was doing. After I started having children I did a lot of freelance writing, especially for parenting magazines and Jewish newspapers. When I first moved to London I was sad and lonely; I really missed my friends and all the things that had been familiar to me in New York. So I wrote this personal essay about what it was like to drive around London as a new person—and it helped me feel better.