Tag : children’s literature

July 9, 2019 by

Lilith Talks to Erica Perl about Lifting the Suicide Taboo

When All Three Stooges (Knopf, $22.99) first came across my desk, I saw glancing through it (spoiler here) that in it a dad named Gil dies by suicide. I have to admit I avoided it, because my husband, also named Gil, had died that way. After meeting you when the book won a National Jewish Book Award, I bought a copy for you to sign, and found it a thoroughly engaging and rewarding read.

In light of my own experience, I really appreciated that your middle-grade novel doesn’t presume to speak for—or to—the child whose dad died by suicide, but rather to the friends of that child; that is, to a broader audience of the many who are often deeply affected by such a tragedy. There are doubtless many young readers who experience suicide by a degree or two of separation or, for that matter, other tragedies, and who need to feel seen and have their stories told. Can you share something about your journey preparing to write All Three Stooges?

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 12.45.45 PMOver the years, some of the things that have happened in my life have lodged themselves in my head and heart. When I write, it sometimes shakes them loose and I’m surprised to see them on the page. Early on in my work on the book that would become All Three Stooges, I started thinking about the suicide death of a friend who was also the father of my child’s best friend. I wanted to focus on the ripple effect of a suicide through the lens of a friendship between two boys. To prepare to write the book, I did a lot of research. I read books about suicide, grief, and loss. I interviewed teens who had lost parents to suicide. And I volunteered at a grief camp to better understand the diversity of ways kids grieve.

As a reader, I felt so much affection for your narrator, Noah—who perhaps was an example of the “boys who don’t talk” trope. He is always impressed and annoyed with Noa, his homonymic female classmate who runs rings around him in articulateness and sophistication. The families in this story are diverse, just as they are in the real world, in a way we don’t always see in kids’ books: one has divorced parents, one is an interfaith family with two moms, one with a deceased parent and step-parent. How did gender play into your considerations of all these characters?

I started with Noah and Dash, because I knew I wanted to show how strong—and yet how fragile—boys’ friendships can be. Noah’s nemesis, Noa, came next. She’s a girl who’s comfortable doing all the things Noah finds challenging (like: saying the right thing, being patient, and being a good friend to someone who is grieving). And the parental characters fell into place very naturally for lots of reasons. For example, I knew very early on that Noah would be raised by strong women (his two moms and older sister). It has been incredibly gratifying to hear from families who feel seen because of the diversity of Jewish and interfaith families in All Three Stooges.

I’m full of admiration for how you so effectively combined the characters’ love of comedy and humor with such a difficult topic. How did you dare, or rather, how did you know to do this?

Thanks—that means a lot to me! I’ll be honest, it was a bit of a tricky dance. Noah and Dash love comedy, and so does Gil. But, unbeknownst to Noah, Gil struggles with depression—which is something he has in common with many comedians. I tried to use humor to show how laughter can connect and sustain us, and I sought comedy examples to amplify this message as well. I sought to explore the line between sadness and laughter, while making it very clear that there’s nothing funny about the devastating impact of severe depression and suicide.

Many consider suicide a taboo subject. In your essay on Slate, “Alone in the Dark: Why we need more children’s books on suicide and severe depression,” which appeared following some notable celebrity suicides, you wrote “My husband and I didn’t want to explain to our kids why their friend’s dad, the guy who’d made them s’mores on camping trips, was suddenly gone,” and you also survey other books for young readers that touch on this subject that is so often avoided—even by adults. How has this novel been received?

I was extremely honored that All Three Stooges won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and a 2019 Sydney Taylor Award Honor. So, in that respect, the novel has been wonderfully received and celebrated. My only concern is that some people do view suicide as a taboo subject or feel ill-equipped to handle conversations about it. This kind of thinking is counterproductive: talking and reading about mental illness doesn’t produce it. Rather, it destigmatizes mental illness, promotes understanding, and invites those who are struggling to seek treatment and support. Furthermore, All Three Stooges is a book about being a kind, empathetic, and patient friend when someone you love is grieving. It is a book for all children ages 10 and up.

Aside from home and family, this story takes place in a realistic-feeling and upbeat Reform synagogue and Hebrew school setting, with warm, wise rabbis and teachers. Learning that our behavior has consequences is an important part of growing up, and hopefully very much more the point of the bar/bat mitzvah experience than an elaborate party.

Conveying this lesson is taken so seriously here and (another spoiler) that a bar mitzvah celebration could be postponed—not for any reason one might have expected—made so much sense. It also felt like an echo of the suicide theme, where behavior has consequences that can’t just be wished away. There was something so true about how everything was not alright—Noah in his own funk, and frustrated at his bereaved friend’s avoiding him, messes up and behaves unfairly towards him—and yet, life goes on, with all its ups and downs, and continues to be good in surprising ways. How were you able to map out such a very humanly complicated story?

As I was plotting this novel, I felt very sorry for Noah, because, though he makes some poor choices, his heart is clearly in the right place. So, I was very tempted to end the book differently, and give him the results he wants: having all his misdeeds forgiven and becoming a bar mitzvah as scheduled. But the more I tried to write that ending, the more it felt wrong. Deciding not to give Noah the result he craved allowed me to take him down a path that was more honest and, because of that, ultimately hopeful. Writing Noah’s journey this way also allowed him to discover something that I believe: even in times of profound loss, love and laughter endure.

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July 9, 2019 by

Lilith Asks Natalie Blitt

How is The Truth About Leaving (Amberjack, $15.99), about an American girl and an Israeli boy new to their senior class, different—for you—from your previous writing for young readers, The Distance from A to Z and the other novels?

Funny enough, The Truth About Leaving was the first novel I wrote. I finished a very rough draft in November 2011 and it’s taken almost eight years for it to find a home and make it into print. That said, this book has been rewritten dozens of times, so I feel like it’s both my first book and my second, fourth, eighth, twelfth, etc. etc. It has changed radically in that time, but it’s still the first story I needed to write badly enough that I actually did it.

Do you consider The Truth About Leaving your first novel with explicitly Jewish material?

Definitely. My other novels have Jewish characters and scenes with Jewish content, but this one is the only one infused with Jewish/Israel content. However, I think if you asked my main character, Dov, he’d say that Israel has a big role in the story, not Judaism. And I’m quite sure Lucy would agree.

In the beginning, Lucy and Dov are paired in an English class where each is assigned to bring in a poem that responds to the poem the other brought in. (Brilliant pedagogy!) They share poems by William Butler Yeats, Yehuda Amichai, Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, among others. Are you a poet too, besides being a novelist? Do you have thoughts about bridging commercial and literary genres?

Hmmm. Interesting question! I love poetry—many of the poems were ones I’d grown up reading in an old hardcover poetry collection that I inherited/stole from my dad, while a few were some from my childhood. And as for being a poet, I have a whole file of bad poetry I wrote in college, but that’s about it. Though here’s a secret: the poem that Lucy writes for Dov is a poem I wrote back then…

There are many literary precedents for unlikely romances— Shakespeare, Jane Austen come to mind. Can you say more about the particular unlikeliness of the love story of Lucy and Dov? And do you have an opinion about happy endings?

Unlikely romances are the best kinds of romances! If it was easy for two people to fall in love and be together, nobody would learn anything about themselves. I love the tension that is created when two people who seem so different are able to make enough room inside to accept and love the other. And personally, I’m all about happy endings. There’s too much unhappiness and failure in the real world, I like the idea of being able to offer a vision of something that seems unlikely but actually works. One important element though: it was really important to me that Lucy and Dov needed to change and grow in order to be together. I don’t believe in solutions that come from one person understanding the other and changing.

Can you tell us more about the protagonists’ moms—who are notably not easy people?

Oh the moms! I get so many strong reactions to the poor moms. (Unlike the grandmas, Amy and Megan, who seem to have their own fan club.) I feel strongly that if I had changed the moms into dads, nobody would have blinked an eye. But when a mom tries to be selfish? The whole world freaks out. Now, Lucy’s mom in particular clearly doesn’t see the cost of her decisions, but I would argue that without watching what her mom did and went through, Lucy couldn’t have made her decision about her future. To me, Lucy’s mom isn’t bad or good, she’s a person who is making choices for herself, despite the consequences. When I was writing the book, Lucy’s mom was the character I identified with most as I hid from my children and family to get more words in. I was very aware that I was missing out on so many things, but I really felt like writing this book in particular was something I couldn’t give up either.

The love interest in this midwestern private high school is a visiting Israeli student. How did you choose “which” Israel to present, which harsh realities to share?

Of all the choices I had to make in this book, this was the easiest. I wanted this to be as realistic a portrait of an 18-year-old Israeli boy as a no-longer-18-year-old North American woman could write. I wanted Dov to be Israeli like my nieces and nephews who live there, and Lucy to see Israel through the news as I did at 18. I wanted the reader to see the clash between those two Israels take place in their encounters. Dov’s view of Israel isn’t devoid of wars and terrorism, but it also isn’t de ned by them. And that’s the Israel I wanted Lucy to experience. There are many children’s books and young-adult novels that deal with the conflict and war. I wanted to write a different kind of story about Israel.

Tell us about the title, The Truth About Leaving. What does it mean?

Ah! So, funny story: this book has actually always been called The Truth About Leaving, but I didn’t know why it worked, I just knew it did. And then one day, a few weeks a er the book came out, I realized that the book really does seek to answer the question of what does it mean to leave or stay. It was like subconsciously, I knew it was the right title but I needed my brain to catch up with my subconscious to figure it out. Being any more specific would be vaguely spoilery.

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The Lilith Blog

April 15, 2019 by

From “I Hate Everyone” to “While Grandpa Naps,” Naomi Danis on Her Fiction for Young Readers

Naomi Danis is Lilith’s resident angel/soother of souls/bridge over troubled waters. She combines a practical-get-it-done attitude with an uncommon amount of kindness and empathy and she is much-loved within the office and beyond. 

while grandpa napsDanis is also an accomplished author of several well-received picture books and as she prepares to launch her latest, While Grandpa Naps, illustrated by Junghwa Park, she talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the way she keeps so many balls spinning in the air with such effortless grace.

YZM: Tell us when you started working at Lilith and a little bit about what the job has been like.

ND: I started working at Lilith in 1988, after nine years at home raising three children, during which time I began seriously writing for kids. I had trained as an early childhood teacher, also have an MA in English, but learned from a friend at my Forest Hills synagogue who did grant writing that Lilith was looking for someone. The position turned out to be administrator, and I really wanted to be called something like assistant editor, but two friends in publishing I consulted said if you like the people, take the job. I still love it after all these years, and feel very lucky and grateful every day. I have the kindest, smartest, funniest, most caring, talented, inspiring and encouraging colleagues. 

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The Lilith Blog

August 15, 2018 by

The Book That Teaches Children About a Jewish Prima Ballerina

An Unlikely Ballerina

Young Lily Marks loves to stand on her tiptoes. When her parents notice there’s weakness in her legs, her doctor suggests dancing lessons to strengthen them, and Lily falls in love with ballet. But can this fragile girl ever become a serious dancer? When the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova comes to town, Lily just has to meet her. Maybe Pavlova—small, delicate, and Jewish like Lily—holds the key to Lily’s future. Fiction Editor (and lifelong balletomane) Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Krystyna Poray Goddu about her informative and charming new picture book.

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