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The first The Whole Megillah Seminar on Jewish Story, co-sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries, is planned for Sunday, May 18, 2014 at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, and you are invited! The full-day event features several panels:


  • Peninnah Schram, Storyteller, Professor of Speech and Drama, Yeshiva University’s Stern College
  • Samuel Norich, Publisher, The Jewish Daily Forward

Children’s books:

  • Deborah Heiligman, author of Intentions, winner of the 2013 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teen Readers
  • Susan Lynn Meyer, author of Black Radishes, a 2011 Sydney Taylor Honor recipient for Older Readers
  • Rebecca Short, Assistant Editor, Delacorte Press/Random House
  • April Halprin Wayland, author of New Year at the Pier, a 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Younger Readers.


  • Ellen Cassedy, author of We Are Here, winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize for Nonfiction
  • Joy Ladin, author of Through The Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between the Genders, 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist
  • Nancy K. Miller, author of What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past and other memoirs
  • Tahneer Oksman, Jewish women in comics


  • Michal Mahgerefteh, Editor, Poetica Magazine
  • Joy Ladin
  • Elana Bell, author of Eyes, Stones, winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award


Special Features:

On Monday, May 19, interested attendees are welcome to visit the Jewish Museum for special events:

  • A special docent-led tour of the museum
  • A hands-on writing session, inspired by the museum’s art

An extra $35 fee applies.

Cost of Seminar: $125, includes kosher lunch - temporarily reduced to $99!

For more information and to register, please contact barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net

Austin Ratner

Barbara Krasner is a member of AJL's Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, and blogs at The Whole Megillah. She conducted this interview with author Austin Ratner about his new book, In the Land of the Living, the story of a Jewish family, "fathers, sons, and brothers - bound by love, divided by history."

Barbara Krasner (BK): On behalf of the Association of Jewish Libraries, hello and welcome, Austin. Thanks for joining me in this cyber discussion about your second novel, In the Land of the Living.

Austin Ratner (AR): I appreciate the opportunity for an interview and for your thoughtful questions. 

BK: What inspired the idea for this book?

AR: When I was in college, I consulted my creative writing teacher about a problem I imagined was unique to me: I had lost my father when I was so young I could not remember him, yet I had a recurring urge to write about him, his death, and how he lingered in my thoughts and feelings. I asked my teacher if he had any advice and I was surprised by his response. He told me that he too had lost his father in his earliest years and that everything he wrote related in some way to this loss, but he cautioned me against trying to write about it directly. As I get older and more experienced with the difficulties of writing and selling fiction, his advice seems only more sensible. Nonetheless, I could never quite exorcise the urge to write directly on this topic. That is what In the Land of the Living is about: a traumatic loss in early childhood and how it can dominate the thoughts of a person for the rest of his life.

BK: In what ways was writing In the Land of the Living different from writing The Jump Artist?

AR: While The Jump Artist also dealt with the lingering effects of emotional injury, it was in many ways a more straightforward story. It was about one discrete period of an adult man’s life. The premise of In the Land of the Living meant linking together two lives—a father and a son—that only intersected on earth for a few years. That posed technical challenges to me as a novelist.

BK: What was the greatest challenge? The greatest satisfaction?

AR: For all the lip-service paid to the importance of child development in our society, I do not find most people to be particularly psychologically literate about it or particularly interested in thinking about it. I view it as a personal victory that I was able to write directly and truthfully about the underserved theme of childhood loss and its residua, and to get it into print with a major publisher in both the U.S. and France. It’s the most civilized response I think I could mount against this particularly helpless experience. Several years ago, when I wrote about the theme more autobiographically in The New York Times Magazine, I heard from all kinds of people who felt as I did. I hope I speak for them as well as to them.

BK: What thought process did you use to set up Isidore as a knight (and the chapter headings)?

AR: Picaresque medieval romances like Le Morte D’Arthur use grandiose chapter titles that confer legendary significance upon everything the knights do. I used such titles in Part I of my novel in the same spirit that Cervantes uses them in Don Quixote: to satirize quixotic, heroic, romantic ideals—or at least to draw a contrast between them and the more sordid and brutal reality. Whereas Don Quixote often undermines the heroic ideal by comic failures, the brutal reality of what happens to Isidore undermines the heroic ideal in a particularly tragic way.

BK: The relationship between Leo and Mack fascinates me—how one event can shift the foundation of a relationship. How did this come about? Was it difficult or easy to write? What led to the choice of Leo as your protagonist?

AR: The relationship between the brothers I think is really important to help aerate the protagonist Leo’s internal warfare with his own past. With Mack in it, the narrative is not only about Leo and his past but about another person too, and Leo’s interactions with his brother are a narrative strategy for telling the story of Leo’s relation to his own past in a dynamic, living, present-tense sort of way. Brothers share a certain history, and so a brother can be a living representative of one’s own past, and a way of interacting with one’s own past in an external way. 

BK: One of the characteristics I’ve noticed about your writing is your specificity, for example, the scene in the New Haven Public Library: “But this library couldn’t save him, with its shabby little collections, its early closing time, its oblivious teenage librarian doing her homework, making fat redundant loops of blue ballpoint ink on some wide-ruled notebook paper.” Does this come naturally to you or do you insert these details strategically?

AR: We recently started reading Charlotte’s Web to my younger son. Its details create a persuasive fictional dream in a way that many other children’s stories don’t. Charlotte’s Web is of course by E.B. White, the master himself, co-author of Elements of Style. That classic writing primer says: “The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”

In the Land of the Living

BK: What do you want readers to take away from In the Land of the Living?

AR: If I’ve emulated E.B. White’s use of detail, I couldn’t aspire to the beautiful simplicity of his story structure—and the reason perhaps goes back to the decision not to back away from a direct, realistic treatment of childhood loss despite this subject’s enormous psychological complexity. Literature has perhaps moved on from the deep introspection of modernism, but the emotional terrain of childhood loss requires such deep modernist introspection, wherein a persuasive fictional dream of inner life occupies the foreground and a diverting story the background. I hope readers enjoy the story and the humor in In the Land of the Living, but the more important thing to me is whether readers experience a persuasive fictional dream and feel they’ve encountered another real consciousness in the book. A persuasive fictional dream is always more diverting to me than a conventional story anyway.

BK: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you go from med school to the Iowa Workshop?

AR: This question always makes me think of Gonzo in The Muppet Movie. He tells Kermit and Fozzie he’s going to Bombay, India to become a movie star. They tell him: you don’t go to Bombay, India to become a movie star, you go to Hollywood, where we’re going. Gonzo says, sure, if you want to do it the easy way. I always wanted to be a writer, but I did not take a direct path. There are worse paths, though, than the one that leads through a medical career. Somerset Maugham said that medical school was the ideal preparation for any fiction writer.

BK: What’s your typical writing schedule? In other words, how do you write?

AR: When I am not crippled by self-doubt, I write automatically, like I eat and breathe and sleep. The trick for me is to combat the doubt. Then the words come and work gets done and something gets created.

BK: Thanks, Austin, for a great interview. I can’t wait to read your next work.

Posted in: Authors, Interview


On this final day of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, awards committee member Barbara Krasner hosts a roundtable wrap-up at her blog, The Whole Megillah. Read responses from various winners, as if they were participating in a panel presentation at a conference!


Thanks to all the winners for their participation in the blog tour, to all the bloggers for hosting, and to you, the readers, for your enthusiasm and attention!

Read an interview with Linda Leopold Strauss, author of The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category) at Pen and Prose! A highlight: "As I was writing the story, I kept hearing the cadence of my grandparents’ Yiddish-speaking voices in my head.  The repetition of phrases, the rhythms, the word combinations.  And I think their voices also very much informed the way I wrote the story."

Read an interview with Alexi Natchev, illustrator of The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale(Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category) at Madelyn Rosenberg's Virtual Living Room! A highlight: "In my artistic education, illustration was really not just for children. In my formative years, art was part of the idealogical system. We were living at that time on the other side of the Iron Curtain so everything was very ideological and politicized. But in the illustration field you could be a little more creative, not so rigidly following certain requirements of clichés and artistic concepts with which you didn’t necessarily always agree."

Read an interview with Sheri Sinykin, author of Zayde Comes to Live (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category) at Read, Write, Repeat! A highlight: "My dearest wish is that Zayde will bring reassurance, peace, and completeness — shalom! — to children just discovering the circle of life they’ve heard sung about in the popular animated movie."

Read an interview with Kristina Swarner, illustrator of Zayde Comes to Live (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category) at Writing and Illustrating! A highlight: "I really didn’t want to make the art too sad or pensive. The ideas evolved as I sketched, and the more I sketched, the more the tenderness and joyfulness of the story came out in the art."

Read an interview with Linda Glaser, author of Hannah's Way (Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category) at This Messy Life! A highlight: "This is a story about staying true to one’s traditions but still wanting to “belong.” It’s also a story about ordinary children who, through a simple act of kindness, become heroes. I hope that with the help of the Sydney Taylor Award, Hannah’s Way will reach many more kids and will do its small part to encourage tolerance, acceptance, and kindness."


Read an interview with Adam Gustavson, illustrator of Hannah's Way (Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category) at Here in HP! A highlight: "I’ve always drawn; my mother was an artist when I was growing up, and my brothers and I drew like most other kids would play ball. It was a big part of how we played together. My father, an engineer, used to come home with art supplies he’d picked up for us on his way home from work. I grew up in the only household for miles and miles where a crisis consisted of my mother trying to find out just who took her kneaded eraser."


Read an interview with Louise Borden, author of His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg (Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers Category) at Randomly Reading! A highlight: "Young readers have much longer lives ahead of them.  I want them to be inspired by this man and by his character and actions.  I want kids to know that they too can make a positive difference in the world.  I want them to find their own heroes.  And I want readers to remember Raoul Wallenberg and to carry his story into their own futures.  We are all storytellers - kids will remember a great story and I hope they will tell others and use its power for good in their own lives."


Read an interview with Deborah Heiligman, author of Intentions (Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen Readers Category) at The Fourth Musketeer! A highlight: "I wanted to capture that moment in a teen's life when she realizes that someone she adores and even idolizes is flawed. That happened to me in a pretty spectacular way in my community growing up (though not quite as spectacularly as in the book!) and it was a truly painful time. That moment informs who you become I think--because how you deal with it can shape the rest of your life."

Read an interview with Ann Redisch Stampler, author of The Wooden Sword (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category) at Shelf-Employed! A highlight: "as I researched the Afghani story, learning more about the culture of the Jews who lived with their Muslim neighbors in Afghanistan for a thousand years, I loved it. It was hilarious, but at the same time, its message was profound."


Read an interview with Carol Liddiment, illustrator of The Wooden Sword (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category) at Ann Koffsky's Blog!  A highlight: "This is a warm story about the Shah’s desire to understand the poor man’s faith. It is a story about tolerance and understanding… I hope that message can be embraced by all."


Read an interview with Doreen Rappaport, author of Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Teen Readers Category) at Bildungsroman! A highlight: "I feel I was privileged to learn about so many Jewish children, men and women, who exhibited extraordinary courage and foresight during the nightmare of the Holocaust.  I had the privilege of speaking directly with three survivors and forging a friendship with one of them.  My research led me into a world I knew nothing about and filled me with enormous pride about these courageous Jews."



Erika Dreifus is our Facebook Writer-in-Residence during the month of December. Erika is the author of QUIET AMERICANS: STORIES, which is a 2012 ALA Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title. The stories in QUIET AMERICANS are based largely on the histories and experiences of Erika's paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s; Erika is donating portions of book-sale proceeds to The Blue Card, which supports U.S.-based survivors of Nazi persecution. Additionally, Erika—whose first paying job was serving as a library assistant at her middle school—is a prolific book reviewer and blogger and a passionate advocate for Jewish literature. A regular participant in AJL's Jewish Book Carnival, Erika will also host the Carnival in December on My Machberet, her blog on matters of Jewish literary and cultural interest. She anticipates an exciting month in discussion with AJL's Facebook community and welcomes any early questions or suggestions you may have. Please visit her online at

Jean Naggar, author of the memoir Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt, shares with us some thoughts on the art of the memoir. Enter our drawing for a free copy of Sipping from the Nile by leaving a comment on AJL's Facebook page at by April 30, 2012!  And now, let's hear from Jean, herself:

I never planned to write a memoir. Fiction was my passion, and if I was ever granted time to write, I knew it would be a novel. The catalyst that started the process of writing my memoir came zooming out of left field soon after the births of my first grandchildren. I realized then that they would be growing up so distant from me in generation, time, and space, that they would never be able to imagine the childhood I had experienced, or to know the people who had woven the magical fabric of my young years. Looking back, I realized that the community and the world I had known had completely disappeared. It began to seem increasingly important to write them back into being, to preserve their vibrant personalities and idiosyncrasies, along with the rich and complicated world in which they flourished.           

I had grown up in a large extended Sephardic family in Egypt, before the Suez crisis of 1956 put an end to that life and that world. This newborn generation sending billows of joy to my heart held the key to the future, but I held the key to their past. They were entitled to find it, if they ever went seeking.


So I thought I should jot down a few memories of my childhood in moments stolen from a busy life. I never meant to share my reflections with the world. I wrote for my family. But as I began to open locked doors and allow the past back in, more and more memories, more scenes, more scents and sounds of a lost world swelled into being and jostled in my mind for attention. Soon, I began to write for the immense pleasure in the craft, and the satisfaction of feeling that I was rendering homage to those who came before me, and laying a path for those in search of themselves to follow. I began to see that I, myself, was a mere fragment in time, the sum of choices made by unknown ancestors, in a distant past.


The more I worked on draft after draft, the more I came to an understanding that memoir is both unique, and universal. As readers began to respond to what I had written, I learned that each personal memoir holds truths and commonalities way beyond those experienced by the writer.  Every life, whatever the circumstances, turns out to be a universal tale of reversals and transformations, shaped by the storms of politics, economics, wars, and losses; the prism through which each tale is viewed is what bends the experience into widely differing shapes for each individual. Every memoir is an attempt to make sense of it all, to seek out a vanished past that leaves its faint footprint in the present.


We live in an era of emails and text messages that leave little possibility for future generations to discover a bundle of letters bound with blue ribbon in an attic. History and biography are always colored by the politics of the day. So I believe that personal memoir will probably be the only true witness for future generations to learn how we really lived, and who we were.


In striving to make sense of our own lives, we are drawn to read about the lives of others. Whether those lives mirror our own or offer a taste of exotica or trauma we have not shared, we enter them for a brief time, taking pleasure or pain in the sharing, and always finding a common humanity.


For me, writing my memoir, Sipping From the Nile, was a transformational experience. I laid the past to rest. The echo of my life bounced back to me across the topography of decades, bringing resolution, self-knowledge, meaning, and substance to the present.

About Jean Naggar

Jean Naggar was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She grew up in Cairo, moving to England, and then New York City, where she currently resides. She is the founder of the prominent Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Village Voice and Publishers Weekly. She is the mother of three adult children and grandmother of seven. Now, she is at last exploring her childhood dreams: to write.

Her memoir of a magical childhood, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt, is available in print, Kindle and audio versions at the following link: Amazon, or you can visit her at: and

Posted in: Authors, Giveaway
Katie Davis, host of the award-winning children's literature podcast, Brain Burps About Books, has created a special episode focused exclusively on the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Davis is a long-time fan of author Sydney Taylor and of the award named in her memory. The special episode features interviews with each of this year's gold medalists and can be found at

Michael J. Rosen and Robert Sabuda, author and artist of Chanukah Lights, Susan Goldman Rubin, author of Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein, and Robert Sharenow, author of The Berlin Boxing Club,are the 2012 winners of the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award. All four winners appear in lively interview segments on Brain Burps About Books.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series. The winners will receive their awards at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Pasadena, California this June.

Brain Burps About Books

Children's author/illustrator Katie Davis has published nine books and appears monthly on the ABC affiliate show, Good Morning Connecticut, recommending great books for kids. She produces Brain Burps About Books, a podcast about kidlit, a blog and monthly newsletter. You can find her podcast at

The Sydney Taylor Book Award will be celebrating and showcasing its 2012 gold and silver medalists and a few selected Notables with a Blog Tour, February 5-10, 2012! Interviews with winning authors and illustrators will appear on a wide variety of Jewish and kidlit blogs. For those of you who have not yet experienced a Blog Tour, it's basically a virtual book tour. Instead of going to a library or bookstore to see an author or illustrator speak, you go to a website on or after the advertised date to read an author’s or illustrator's interview.

Later this spring, we'll follow up with an episode of Katie Davis's Brain Burps About Books devoted to the Sydney Taylor Book Award!

Below is the schedule for the 2012 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!



Susan Campbell Bartoletti, author of Naamah and the Ark at Night
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Ima On & Off the Bima

Holly Meade, illustrator of Naamah and the Ark at Night
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Into the Wardrobe

Shelley Sommer, author of Hammerin' Hank Greenberg, Baseball Pioneer
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at Great Kid Books


Marcia Vaughan
, author of Irena's Jar of Secrets
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at Shelf-Employed 

Ron Mazellan
, illustrator of Irena's Jar of Secrets
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at The Children's War 


Trina Robbins
, author of Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at Bildungsroman

Anne Timmons (and possibly Mo Oh), illustrators of of Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category 
at Gathering Books 

Morris Gleitzman, author of Then
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
at The 3 R's


Michael Rosen, author of Chanukah Lights
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy 

Robert Sabuda
, illustrator/paper engineer of Chanukah Lights
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Practically Paradise 

Susan Goldman Rubin
, author of Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at Cynsations 

Robert Sharenow
, author of The Berlin Boxing Club
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
at Jewish Books for Children 


Durga Yael Bernhard, author & illustrator of Around the World in One Shabbat
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Frume Sarah's World

Shirley Vernick, author of The Blood Lie
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
at The Fourth Musketeer 


Eric Kimmel, author of The Golem's Latkes
Sydney Taylor Notable Book, and winner of the National Jewish Book Award
at Ann Koffsky's Blog

Gloria Spielman, author of Marcel Marceau, Master of Mime
Sydney Taylor Notable Book, and finalist for the National Jewish Book Award
at Shannon and the Sunshine Band

Richard Michelson, author of Lipman Pike: America's First Home Run King
Sydney Taylor Notable Book, and finalist for the National Jewish Book Award
at Blue Thread

Sydney Taylor Award Winners – Wrap-Up
All winners, all categories
at The Whole Megillah

Gathering Sparks by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner is the 2011 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Younger Readers. Howard joined us in Montreal and wanted to share his article about the 16th Century teaching of Tikkun Olam that inspired the book. Let's all gather sparks together!

You can read Howard's article in Tikkun Magazine at
Today I have an interview with Avner Mandelman, author of the Giller Prize-nominated novel The Debba. You can see a trailer for the book here.

1. The story you tell in THE DEBBA mixes politics, romance, myth and even magic. There are issues around Jewish identity and assimilation as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict and it all comes together at the end with the revelation of shocking secrets and betrayals. What inspired you to write this story?

The story’s beginning came to me on the third day of the Yom Kippur War (I was then living in Vancouver, Canada), as I saw  on TV Israeli jet planes exploding and Israeli tanks bursting into flames, with my friends in them. I escaped to a nearby park in great distress, and the opening pages of the book then came to me -- I still have no idea from where -- and I wrote them down in a white heat. Then the flow stopped, and over the next eighteen years, as I got married, had children, got an MBA degree, and worked in the market, I kept trying to dig out the story, but it was clear to me I did not know how to write fiction. So finally in 1991 I closed my house in Toronto, took my then-wife and two toddlers and decamped to California to the Bay Area, to learn how to write fiction. It took a while. I got an MA in CW, finished the book, got an agent, published some story collections, and returned to Canada. After many rejections, last year, thirty six years after the first words were written, the book was finally accepted by a publisher. And yes, the ending shocked me too when I wrote it…

2. The main character, David, a burnt-out Israeli military assassin, has to return to Israel from Canada after the death of his father, who asks him posthumously to stage a play called THE DEBBA. It seems like a very unusual request and puts David in the role of a creator. Why does his father make this request? What impact does it have on David?

David’s father asks him to perform the play as an oblique way of telling David his destiny, and what he must do. The story is structured as a monomyth, the classical “hero’s return,” as identified by Joseph Campbell. It usually involves a hero of mysterious origins who had left his people and who suddenly receives a message from his ancestor (or his God or gods) to perform a task. This task goes against his grain and so he at first refuses, but after a while he does it; and as he performs it, he gets deeper and deeper into trouble, passes through a vale of shadows where he must perform ever harder tasks, until at the end he must perform the one task that changes him and renders him whole, and reveals to him his destiny, thereby helping his people. This in essence is the structure of all the enduring myths— Moses, Jason, Jesus, or modern ones like Hamlet, Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, etc. So David must stage the play and go through the investigation in order to find out what his father really wanted.

3. In an interview you did for Other Press you talk about the violent reactions people have to the play in the book, that "normal people kill and are killed for fictions." Do you think that art can still have that power even in a cynical age like ours?

That’s an excellent question. The “fictions” in the book for which “normal people kill and are killed” are not Art, but scriptures, religions, ideologies, and other books of “holy” fictions. All around him David sees otherwise sane people who casually accept “holy fictional fables” as perfectly good reasons to kill strangers who believe in other fictional stories, or as good reasons to be killed themselves. It is the casual acceptance of “holy fictions” as a valid reason for killing that horrifies him. As for whether art can still have this power even in a cynical age like ours, the answer is, of course, yes. Every day people still kill or are killed for the sake of “holy” poetic fictions such as the Old and New Testaments or the Koran, and for the sake of their fictive protagonists. Clearly, then, skillfully composed fictions can raise intense emotions which even in this modern age have the power to unleash death and destruction. Now, any good novel makes the readers enter into a trance that temporarily makes them forget their everyday reality. But exceptionally well-structured language in “holy” art can hypnotize many into life-long trances. They then come to believe that what the stories tell them about— 72 Virgins in paradise, or the Messiah and Resurrection, or Hell and Damnation, or Pearly Gates— is more real than what their senses tell them, and, what’s worse, are perfectly good reasons to kill and be killed. In my novel, I hope that, for a brief time, Good Art can be seen to counteract the perniciousness of “holy” Art (a.k.a. in the novel as “God’s Mein Kampf”).

4. One reviewer compared THE DEBBA to an "M.C. Escher-like structure...doubling back on [itself]." To me it was like a layer cake of secrets, symbols and hidden agendas. How do you see the book?

Another very good question. Yes, there are some symbols in the book, but it’s up to the reader to find them... As for hidden agendas, there aren’t any. I’m merely trying to tell a good story. As far as the reviewer’s reference to structure, the Western monomyth is only half of it. The other half is the Moslem End of Days myth, so that the book in essence has two overlapping myths. The father’s request (from beyond the grave) both starts the Western-type hero on his journey-of-return, and launches the Eastern-type hero on his journey to the End-of-Days. In addition, there are three time periods: The past, the present, and the play, in each of which the same characters re-appear. These three parallel stories, and the repetition of actions in different forms, are meant to give the novel reverberations beyond the straight story. 5. The Booklist review says the book "reveal[s] the paradoxes of Israeli life." What were you trying to show about Israel through the way you portray the country in THE DEBBA? I tried to convey Israel’s smells, sights, tastes, and feeling of tightly-confined communal living, in a place where everyone knows everyone else, and where soldier / citizens must take hard actions during their army service to keep life going. Indeed, if there’s any theme in the book, it is that of necessary evil. As I’ve said elsewhere, most of us conveniently prefer to forget that necessary evil is often the price of civilized life. If we want to eat cow’s meat, someone must be the butcher. But what if we see cow-killing as evil? We still want our steak. What then is to be done with the butcher? This can provide a rich vein for a novelist: how much necessary evil can be allowed by a civilized society, and what is to be done with those who perform the tasks we cannot admit are necessary? Or, worse, who defines what’s necessary for whom, and why? All these are hard questions without straight answers, just the kind novelists find useful to make a book unputdownable and unforgettable. If, that is, they can resist the twin temptations of providing answers or engaging in polemics…

Mr. Mandelman, thank you so much taking the time to answer my questions. I hope lots of people decide to read your fantastic book.

Posted by Marie.
Posted in: Authors, Interview
Today I have for you an interview with Avi Steinberg, former prison librarian and author of the great new memoir Running the Books.

The book details his time working at Boston's Suffolk County House of Corrections, as well as his life and experiences as an Orthodox Jew as they relate to his time in the big house.

In the interview, Steinberg discusses what lead him to become a prison librarian, some of the challenges he faced, and how his yeshiva upbringing informed the approach he took in this very different library setting.

You can listen to our conversation here:

Avi Steinberg Interview Part 1 of 3

Avi Steinberg Interview Part 2 of 3

Avi Steinberg Interview Part 3 of 3

The interview run-time is about 30 minutes. Thanks to Steinberg and Random House for making this interview possible.

Posted by Marie.

Today I have for you an interview with graphic novel artist and writer Barry Deutsch, whose book Hereville, a graphic novel about a troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox girl launches today from Amulet Books. Barry is an accomplished artist and you can visit his website, Amptoons, to learn more.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background as an artist?

I was born in New York City, and raised in New York and Connecticut. I've loved comics for as long as I remember. My parents have an original "Pogo" Sunday page -- Pogo, for your readers too young to know, was one of the all-time great newspaper comic strips, the Calvin and Hobbes of its day – and I would kneel on the back of the sofa and read that page over and over again.

[caption id="attachment_577" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Barry Deutsch"][/caption]

I remember drawing comics in junior high and in high school. I was an okay student -- sliding by on book smarts rather than hard work, a sure recipe for mediocrity -- but I took drawing classes very seriously. After attending and dropping out of Oberlin College (my poor parents!), I attended School of Visual Arts in New York City for a year, where I took Will Eisner's cartooning class. Then I moved to Massachusetts, where I wasn't a student at UMASS, but nonetheless did a daily strip in their student newspaper, which was an amazing learning experience. Next came Oregon, and finally Portland State University, the first college I actually graduated from. While there I did political cartoons in the student paper, for which I won the national Charles Schulz Award for outstanding college cartoonist. Along the way I began and abandoned any number of larger comic book projects.

2. Why did you decide to write about rebellious Mirka? What interested you about her and her family? What audience did you write the book for?

One of my abandoned ideas was a comic about a Jewish woman, in the middle ages, wanting to fight a dragon St George style, but facing (among other barriers) that Jews couldn't legally carry weapons at that time. I had also read Liz Harris' book Holy Days, which has many great stories of Hasidic family life, about a decade earlier. I think those things were percolating in my mind, because when my friend Jennifer Lee (the awesome cartoonist behind told me, a website for girl-friendly comics, was looking for submissions, the idea of an Orthodox 11 year old girl's quest for a sword popped to mind pretty easily.

Beyond that, I had no idea what I was doing. Girlamatic said "yes," so I was making up the pages as I drew them, and in my spare time I started doing more serious research. And the more I learned, the more interested I became in Mirka's family and home life. In particular, Stephanie Levine's book Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers was very inspirational to me – in particular, how girl-centered life is for girls in that culture before they reach a marriageable age, and how incredibly spirited and strong Levine found the girls she met to be.

The main audience I write for is myself. I wanted to create a comic that I'd want to read. So it has a lot of elements I love to see in comics -- lots of humor and adventure, but also a lot of cultural information, and (I hope) interesting storytelling and layouts.

3. At the end of the day, the fanciful fable you tell about a brave girl who battles a troll turns out to have a very domesticated moral. What do you hope your readers take away from the book?

I don't think of my work as having a message. If readers come away feeling attached to the characters and saying "that was a really great story," then I'm satisfied. If some readers see some deeper things then that -- if they see it as a story about ambition, and about mourning a dead parent – then I'm delighted, but it's not necessary.

I am concerned with identity politics -- I'd like to see more girl-centered pop fiction, and I'd like to see more Jewish characters in popular fictions. And if other readers, especially female readers and Jewish readers, have been feeling that same hunger and so get a bit of extra pleasure out of reading Hereville, then that's great.

4. How did you develop your visual style? Do you think the comics medium is valuable for telling Jewish stories? Why or why not?

Some of my visual style comes from consciously imitating other cartoonists -- I spend a lot of time trying (and failing) to get my figures to flow as smoothly as Will Eisner's did, for example. But some of it didn't seem to
come from anywhere. It's just there, and the more I draw the more apparent it becomes. Why the big muppet-like mouths, for instance? I don't know why.

I think the comics medium is valuable for telling any sort of story, Jewish stories included. There is no limit, either to what stories comics can tell, or to the number of Jewish stories to be told.

5. What other Jewish comics artists do you admire?

I've already mentioned Will Eisner, but I'll mention him again, because he was such a spectacularly great cartoonist. His drawing was dazzling, his layouts were innovative, and on top of all that he was the first great cartoonist to make Jewish characters the text (instead of a hidden subtext) in his work.

There are so many great Jewish cartoonists! But some whose work I like are Jules Fieffer (who began his career working for Eisner), Will Elder, Al Hirschfeld (another cartoonist my parents had on their walls), Harvey Kurtzman, and more recently Art Spiegelman, Ariel Schrag, Rutu Modan, and Daniel Clowes. Oh, and just last week I picked up one of Sarah Glidden'scomics about Israel, and it was really good -- I can't wait to read her whole book.

6. What are you working on now and when can we see you in print again?

I'm working on the second Hereville book! Abrams hasn't yet announced the publication date, though.
Barry, thank you so much for participating and telling us about your book! Best of luck and keep in touch with what you're working on next!

Posted by Marie.
Note: On October 12, 2010, beloved novelist Belva Plain passed away. What follows is an appreciation of her life and work by writer Randy Susan Meyers, author of the novel The Murderer's Daughters (2010, Macmillan).

“In the beginning there was a warm room with a table, a black iron stove and red flowered wallpaper.”

That’s the first line of Belva Plain’s first book. In a prescient review, Library Journal wrote of Evergreen: “A magnificent story...this beautifully written book will be treasured and reread for many years to come."

I read Evergreen as I did most books in 1978—for the luxury of escape, seeking solace in a world that wasn’t mine, my world being defined by a two-year-old, a five- year-old, and a marriage chosen at 19, when I was in love and desperate for perceived safety.

Belva Plain’s books comforted me then and her life story has comforted me ever since. Each birthday

that another year passed without publishing a novel, each year that writing gave way to raising children and working, I’d think of Belva Plain publishing her first novel at 59. She’d sold short stories in her twenties, but broke from writing as she raised her family. I’d co-authored a nonfiction book in my twenties, and then became lost in family and work, until I realized my dream at 57, when I published my novel The Murderer’s Daughters.

Belva Plain was a guiding light to me from 1978 forward. As I counted down the years, in a world where youth is treated as an achievement, the presence of Belva Plain calmed me. For every time there is a season, I reminded myself. Ms. Plain was my example against the world’s devaluation of middle-aged women.

Ms. Plain was a New York Times bestselling author. Though rarely given critical acclaim, her rich reads offered millions exactly what they wanted, stories thick with family, conflict, and all the true and tough issues facing women. In her New York Times obituary, she is quoted as saying: “I got sick of reading the same old story, told by Jewish writers, of the same old stereotypes — the possessive mothers, the worn-out fathers, all the rest of the neurotic rebellious unhappy self-hating tribe,” she said. “I wanted to write a different novel about Jews — and a truer one.”

An amazing and accomplished woman, Belva Plain built a wonderful life. From within her happiness—a long loving marriage, beloved by and close to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—Ms. Plain was able to touch the ways women stay strong in the face of the disasters they faced in their homes, in their communities, and in the world.

Belva Plain provided succor and transport in her stories and a breath-taking role model with her life. She will be missed.

You can find out more about Randy Susan Meyers and her novel at

[caption id="attachment_556" align="alignleft" width="181" caption="Randy Susan Meyers"][/caption]

Posted by Marie.
Posted in: Authors, Guest Post

[caption id="attachment_488" align="alignright" width="284" caption="Mitchell James Kaplan. Photo by Renee Rosensteel courtesy of Other Press."][/caption]

Recently I had the opportunity to interview author Mitchell James Kaplan, whose new book BY FIRE, BY WATER has recently been published by Other Press. The book is an intriguing and engrossing novel set during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and Colombus's voyage to the Americas and focuses on a diverse community of Spanish Jews.
You can find reviews of BY FIRE, BY WATER in  Ha'aretz (, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle (

1. What was it that drew your attention to the topic of converso Jews and the Inquisition?

I did not set out to write a book about converso Jews or the Spanish Inquisition. I set out to write a novel exploring the background of Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage of discovery. It became clear that Columbus's voyage was as much the symptom of a world in profound disarray as it was a harbinger of change. As I explored that disarray, the Spanish inquisition and the condition of conversos came into focus as important elements in my story.

2. Why do you think this subject is important for today's readers?

Most of us are conversos today, in the sense that we must navigate between different identities and ghettos. Few of us in the western world any longer have the privilege of remaining confined within one narrow belief system or ethnicity, to the exclusion of all others. Like it or not, we are exposed to competing world-views and absorb elements from them. The conversos of fifteenth century Spain were precursors of modern man.

3. Why did you choose Luis de Santangel as the central figure of your book? How is the real life Santangel different from your fictional creation?

Santangel stood at the center of all four events that changed the world at the end of the fifteenth century: the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the “reconquest” of Granada, and the discovery of the New World. Despite his importance in history, most Americans had never heard of him. The fact that his personal life was so complex, and in some ways tragic, made him all the more compelling as a character.

My initial question, with regard to Santangel, was: What could possibly motivate such an astute and well-grounded courtier to take the risks associated with supporting Columbus's voyage, even when the preponderance of scholarly opinion found no merit in Columbus's ideas? After researching Santangel's life, I came to feel that Columbus's dream must have represented a prayer of hope for Santangel, uttered from the murky depths of a world whirling into chaos.

The Luis de Santangel of my story, like most of my characters, is closely based on the historical individual. He really did have a cousin who was murdered by the Spanish Inquisition. His son did have to pay penance in much the way I described. Santangel was accused of murdering the first Chief Inquisitor of Aragon. King Ferdinand did intervene to save him from the consequences of that accusation. Columbus really did write first to Santangel, following his 1492 voyage.

Santangel's love interest, Judith Migdal, I invented to show the condition of the Jews in Granada leading up to the expulsion. But her nephew, Levi Migdal (later baptized as Luis de Torres) was Columbus's interpreter on the Santa Maria. As Columbus describes him in his diaries, he was a Jew who spoke Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew, as well as Spanish, so it is likely he grew up in the Islamic emirate of Granada.

4. You clearly did a lot of research into the period. Did you learn anything that surprised you? Was there something particularly interesting or unusual that you learned, that didn't make its way into your book?

I learned so many surprising things, among them the aforementioned fact that the Spanish Inquisition was unique in its focus on the “judaizing” heresy among conversos. It was interesting to me to learn that the pope did not initially authorize the Spanish inquisition, and indeed continued to express qualms about it even after it was established. As I researched Queen Isabella, I came to the conclusion that she was a usurper, although most history books gloss over that fact. It would take me much more than another whole book to describe everything I had to leave out.

5. What do you want your readers to take away in terms of an understanding about converso Jews and Jewish culture of the period? What lessons can be drawn from the book?

Regarding the conversos: I like Santangel's question, "what is the advantage of knowing, with absolute certainty, what one believes? There's much to be said for doubt." This intrusion of doubt into the medieval world – a world of certainties, at least with regard to faith – marked the beginning of the process that would lead to the Enlightenment, the Existential age, and our current age which, in my view, is evolving toward mutual respect between the faiths. Karen Armstrong credits conversos with the invention of atheism.

Regarding “lessons:” What I want most of all is not to preach but for my readers to feel that their sojourn in the world of my novel has been a valuable and enriching experience.

A good novel, in my view, is an experience of language, of characters, of complexity and nuance. The best novels evoke an entire world. Like real life, a good novel teems with ambiguity, connotation, and subtlety.

For this reason, I was thrilled to discover that many of my Christian readers identified Luis de Santangel as a Christian facing a crisis of faith, while many of my Jewish readers felt he was a Jew. Similarly, some of my readers asked why I made Torquemada so “human,” as if I were trying to vindicate him, while others saw him as a psychopathic villain. When I receive a wide range of responses like that, I feel I have succeeded in at least one of my aims: to faithfully hold a mirror to a complex world.

Within that complex world, there is room for a Torquemada (whom I see as sincere and intelligent but misguided) as well as a Caceres (whose understanding of Christ's message of love and forgiveness seems to be more aligned with our own) and a Talavera (a man of contradictions, moderate and analytical). The Islamic rulers of Granada can be seen as protective (from Judith's point of view) or ruthless (from the point of view of Sarah's mother). The Jewish scribe Serero is sincere, but causes great damage to those who trust him.
Posted in: Authors, Interview

Several weeks ago I had the privilege to interview Alix Strauss, author of Based upon Availability, published this past summer by HarperCollins.

Alix and I talked about the book, her own story and her history with libraries and Judaism.

The interview is about 18 minutes long in two parts:

Alix Strauss Part 1

Alix Strauss Part 2

We are hosting a giveaway of a finished, signed copy of Based Upon Availability in conjunction with this interview. To enter, simply  leave a comment on this post with your email address. I will pick a winner using random-number generator on October 7 and notify the winner on October 11. The winner will have until Friday, October 15 to reply. The contest is open to United States addresses only.

Don't forget to comment with your email address for a chance to win a paperback of the book!

Posted by Marie.
Today I have the privilege of sharing an interview I recently conducted with author Carla Jablonski, who's written many books for teens and young adults. You can visit her website and find out more about her and her books at Her first graphic novel, Resistance: Book 1, has recently been published by First Second. What follows is a conversation we had about this book, which focuses on the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II and in particular about the efforts of a French family to save French Jews.

  1. The narrative, while fictional, is based in historical fact and makes reference to several historical events and circumstances. The Velodrome d'Hiver roundup, the use the Paris sewers as hiding places and the significant presence of French Jews in the Resistance are all alluded to, and although it's not named explicitly, Paul and Marie's efforts to help Henri recall the activities of the Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (Children's Relief Efforts or OSE). When you were researching all this for the book, did you learn anything that surprised you about the Resistance or about France during the war, or anything else?

So much! As an American, what I learned in school was primarily about the American entrance into the war, or very specifically about the Jewish experience. I really didn’t know all that much about what it must have been like for ordinary French people during the war, their daily life, their struggles, and -- especially -- the ways life, although altered, still went on.

I admit I was shocked by the wide-spread and deep strain of anti-Semitism in France, resulting in an overwhelming amount of denunciations. I was also surprised by -- and then used as part of the story -- all of the conflicts within the Resistance itself.

The role of luck and coincidence in many of the successful -- or tragic -- events of the Resistance also was quite startling.

And of course, all the research got me asking the question: “What would I do if my country were occupied?”

  1. What was it about the Resistance that intrigued you? Why is it an important subject to learn about in the context of Holocaust studies for children?

The passion and commitment of people who became part of the Resistance was very compelling to me. How people made choices, what they were willing to risk, and conversely, what lines they weren’t willing to cross were all elements I wanted to explore. Also, the struggle for victory against enormous odds while suffering terrible difficulties is both dramatic and inspiring. I also find the idea of secrets a very appealing subject for fiction-- keeping them, having them, and the danger of them -- particularly as an element in a book for early teens.

For all those same reasons that I was drawn to the Resistance is why I think it’s an important subject for children to learn about. Children often feel helpless in the face of conflicts created by adults. These people took action -- in spite of so much being against them and the dire consequences of failure. Doing the right thing, even if that makes you the minority, is also an important lesson. Discovering that people can all want to do the right thing, yet not agree on how to go about it is also an important topic that can be discussed via the Resistance.

  1. One thing I enjoyed about the book from a reader's perspective was the way you built the suspense slowly and tell the story unflinchingly, sparing neither the horror nor trauma of war. Was it challenging to present these things in a way that's appropriate for children? What audience did you envision as you were writing?

I’ve written a lot for kids and teens, so I actually didn’t find that difficult. I guess I’ve somehow internalized those limits and so the story unfolds in an age-appropriate way without my consciously having to police it!

I think the ideal reader for this is probably about thirteen, though I hope it will appeal to those older (like Sylvie and Jacques) and to those who are younger, like Marie.

  1. What themes or ideas were you trying to illustrate with the choices you made about how to tell the story?

I purposely chose to have three children at different ages so that I could explore the impact of the war at different levels of maturity. Because it’s a graphic novel, I decided to make Paul an artist to really exploit the visual medium. I came up with ideas for his drawings in his sketchbook to reveal what he’s feeling but wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing another way -- while also providing a believable skill that would make him valuable to the Resistance. It was also really important to me to not just be historically accurate (while also being entertaining) but to allow the kids to really be kids -- not little superheroes or overly noble. I worked hard on the dialogue so that it would have the feel of real conversation.

  1. This book is titled Resistance Book 1, suggesting that there may be a Book 2 in the works. Is there? What's it going to be about?

Actually there are two more! It’s a trilogy, following Marie, Paul, and Sylvie through to the liberation of Paris. Each book is set one year apart, and as the kids get older and more deeply involved, the conflicts get more intense and the stakes get higher. Their roles in the Resistance change, they uncover more secrets about people they know, and their relationships change -- with friends, with other Resistance members, with Germans, and even with each other -- sometimes quite dramatically!

Carla, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to AJL and best of luck with the trilogy!

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Booker-Prize winning author Yann Martel, author of the new novel Beatrice and Virgil. Beatrice and Virgil is a fascinating novel that takes an unconventional approach to one of the most challenging subjects available to literature- the Holocaust.

[caption id="attachment_225" align="alignleft" width="140" caption="Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel"][/caption]

I had the privilege of speaking to Mr. Martel during the second leg of his American tour to promote the book, which has been widely, and variously, reviewed.

Text Publishing offers a roundup of some of the reviews that have come in, and an analysis of the controversy surrounding this most unusual book.

Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for Life of Pi. He is also the author of several other books as well as the blog What is Stephen Harper Reading, a document of his ongoing project to share his passion for literature with the Prime Minister of Canada.

The interview is approximately 30 minutes in length and is presented here in four parts.

Yann Martel Interview Part 1 of 4

Yann Martel Interview Part 2 of 4

Yann Martel Interview Part 3 of 4

Yann Martel Interview Part 4 of 4


Enter the Mention Convention weekly drawing for a $10 Amazon gift card by linking back to this interview on your blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter (hashtag #AJL10) — just email to show us what you did!

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