Welcome to our party x 5 =
7 Qs + tips and resolutions from 5 wonderful #kidlit authors who’ve joined us to tell us about
their upcoming Jewish board books.
I’m super excited to chat with these amazing authors:
Vivian Kirkfield (It’s PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE Board Book birthday today! / Holiday House) Illustrated by Jill Weber, Pippa’s Passover Plate is a rollicking rhyme with ever-increasing drama as Pippa Mouse hurries and scurries to prepare for Passover. When her special Seder dish goes missing, Pippa gathers her courage, asks for help from natural enemies like Cat, Snake, and Owl and discovers, not only her plate, but a community of friends.
Nancy Churnin (COUNTING ON SHABBAT / Kar-Ben) Illustrated by Petronella Dostalova, Counting on Shabbat has a double meaning. There is a framework of counting from one to ten, but it is also a story about the kindness we count on at Shabbat.
Varda Livney (CHALLAH / P.J.Library): Challah! is about a typical Jewish family (of bunnies) sitting at their festive Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner table.
“Louis, can you say Shabbat?” Dad asks, and Louis says……. “CHALLAH!” –his first word EVER. And in the tradition of toddlers everywhere, Louis does not STOP saying “CHALLAH” all week long. There is speculation as to whether Louis will EVER learn a second word. Spoiler alert: He does.
Ann D. Koffsky (MY MEZUZAH / Apples & Honey Press & SHEEP SAYS SHALOM / Greenbean Books); SHEEP SAYS SHALOM plays with the three meanings of the word Shalom: hello, goodby and peace, with hello in the first half, and when kids flip the book upside down they’ll see Sheep saying Shalom/ goodbye, too. The last page shows sheep peacefully settling in to sleep. In Ann’s four book set, My Mezuzah, My Shofar , My Matzah, and My Dreidel, cheerful animal characters explore and engage with each object.
Sarah Aroeste (MAZAL BUENO! / Kar-Ben) Illustrated by Taja Morley, Mazal Bueno celebrates the milestones in a child’s life – from first giggles, to first foods, first words and more. While it looks like Spanish, the refrain of mazal bueno (congratulations!) is a combination of Hebrew and Spanish, also known as Ladino, which is the language of Sephardic Jews.
Boy, do we have Questions!
Q. 1 How does writing a board book differ from writing a picture book? (Or did you pitch your book as a picture book initially?)
Vivian: PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE actually started as a 32-page picture book and you may notice it has about three times as many words as most board books. However, it makes a perfect board book because the words and concepts are simple (loss, fear, friendship) and the quick-paced rhyme and fun-to-repeat refrains help keep young children engaged.
Nancy: I envisioned Counting on Shabbat as a board book from the start. Board books are even more visually driven than picture books. I saw this story unfolding through images anchored by no more than four to five words on each page, with one of those words being a number that would take us from one to ten over the course of ten spreads.
Easy Peasy –haha.
Varda: Writing a board book is much simpler than writing a picture book. All you have to do is make the story entertaining to babies. Make the story bearable to the adults who will have to read the book over and over and over (!). Have the story introduce the babies to important things like words, art, humor, kindness, nature, diversity, and culture. Do it in approximately 100 words or less.
Focus on your VERY young readers.
Ann: Board books are for the really little ones–age 1-3. As board book authors, we have to focus on our readers, and think about: what will a two year old respond to? What will grab them, make them giggle, make them curious? And attention span at that age is super brief too, so we have to grab them and engage them super efficiently and effectively and hopefully in a way that’s entertaining.
EVERY word counts!
Sarah: I knew from the start that I wanted to write a board book specifically. So few people, Jews and non-Jews alike, are familiar with Sephardic culture in general and Ladino in particular. I was very conscious of using easy words and phrases that were repeatable and from a baby/toddler’s point of view. You also have to write under 100 words for a 10 page spread on average- that’s very little real estate to get a whole story across! YES– every. word. counts.
Q. 2 For the Rhymers in the group: Where did you hone your rhyming skills? (I tend to credit all the song lyrics I memorized as a teen, the bad puns my friends and I made up on the way home from school, and all those scansion/ Shakespeare courses in college.)
Vivian: I always loved rhyming. I still have the tiny spiral notebook from when I was 10-years-old and it contains little poems I wrote. And I definitely memorized song lyrics in the 50s and 60s – I can remember coming home from high school and singing Joan Baez tunes to my mother while she ironed in the kitchen. One of the picture book writing classes I took during this journey was Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab and I can honestly say that helped me, not just with rhyming, but also with the rhythm which all good picture books and board books need to have, whether they are rhyming or prose.
Nancy: I love rhyming and reading poems, but I consider myself very much a student of this art. I am grateful for the kindness of mentors, friends, and critique partners! Like Vivian, I have taken Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab. I am in a wonderful group with alumni of that program who have been very patient and supportive – thank you Joyce, Nancy, Marty, Colleen and Natalie! Plus, Vivian helped me tweak my rhymes for Counting on Shabbat. Thanks, Vivian!
Vivian: The advice I’d give writers who want to write in rhyme: READ!
Read mentor texts: I think reading board books or picture books that have great rhyme is the best way to hone your own rhyming skills.
Read your words aloud: (and ask other people to read them aloud) That’s the BEST way to figure out if your rhyme is working because if it’s not, you’ll keep tripping up. The rhyme in board books has to be spot-on and lots of fun because parents are going to be reading this to their kids over and over and over.
Which came first?
Q. 3 For the author/illustrators: Which came first—the text or the illustration concept?
Ann: Usually when I write, it’s words first, for sure. But for SHEEP SAYS SHALOM, neither the art OR the words came first: the FORMAT did. I conceived it as an accordion book and the whole thing is inextricably tied to that: SIDE A of the accordion is Sheep saying SHALOM or HELLO to all her friends: “hello, hello, hello!” Then the reader gets to flip it over to SIDE B, and Sheep says Shalom again…but this time it means, “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!” The whole thing works because of the format. So that came first. Then the pictures and words.
Varda: The illustration came first. I generally start writing by doodling. I was doodling challahs, and it morphed into a story…….
Q. 4 Can you share some “tips” for authors who want to include Hebrew or Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) words in their stories—as smoothly as these books do?
Sarah: My first board book, Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom, had Ladino words sprinkled on each page, making it clear from the context what the words meant (i.e. Light the candles, las kandelas/Sing some songs, las kantikas). I was intentional about teaching specific Ladino words as they pertained to Shabbat. But in my forthcoming board book, Mazal Bueno, I decided that I only wanted the refrain to have Ladino words. I wanted the refrain to be what people remembered and practiced, and it’s actually part of the punchline of the book – it’s baby’s first words! So again, it was purposeful that the Ladino refrain of mazal bueno is what would be carried through the book.
Sarah: I’d say that whatever an author chooses, it should be intentional and clear to the reader. Language learning is hard enough for babies and toddlers; the last thing we want to do is confuse them. New words in any language have to be in context with the pictures, the prose, or the overall story message.
Q. 5 Which line or spread is your favorite? Please explain. For example, does one of the spreads bring back a fond memory? Is your text or story based on personal experience in any way?
Nancy: The final spread, “Ten smiles. Shabbat is here.” is my favorite because it is so full of joy. It is a reminder that Shabbat, all holidays, and all days are made joyful by the love we show each other. As a mom of two cats (in addition to four boys and a dog), I particularly like how the ten smiles include the elderly main character’s four cats. Our animals are beloved members of our families!
And yes, the story is based on personal experience. My Mom, now 97, lives alone with caretakers in her home. I know how much it brightens her days when my sister’s little grandkids visit. In many ways, the book is a thank you to them and to all the toddlers that bring happiness to elders simply by being there.
Varda: My favorite spread (above) shows the family together at the dinner table on Shabbat (Sabbath). That table is one of my happy places from childhood. It is exactly those warm & fuzzy feelings about family, or being Jewish, (or being a bunny,) that I want to pass along to the next generation.
Activities & Extensions
Q. 6 Are there links to activities or extensions for your book? Please share.
Vivian: Yes! PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE was a PJLibrary selection when it first launched as a picture book in 2019 and PJLibrary created a craft activity for young children which can be found here and a reading guide/lesson plan which can be found here.
Nancy: Please stay tuned for a lovely teacher guide being prepared by the wonderful author Marcie Colleen, who has done many of my teacher guides. The guide will be posted on my website nancychurnin.com and on the Kar-Ben website. It will include a project, COUNTING ON KINDNESS, where I hope to post photos of toddlers and seniors spending time together.
Ann: I’ve created coloring pages that go along with these characters. You can find SHEEP SAYS SHALOM here: https://annkoffsky.com/sheep-says-shalom/ and MY MEZUZAH here: https://annkoffsky.com/my-mezuzah-coloring-page/ To receive free coloring pages for the Jewish holidays in your inbox, email me with “sign me up!” in the subject line at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah: My first book has a companion song that goes with it, “Buen Shabat,” and I’m happy to send sheet music to anyone who requests it! I also have a whole animated song series that combines visuals with Ladino music I’ve written just for kids. That playlist can be found here. And if parents and kids are interested in seeing children speaking in Ladino, I have a web series with my 6 year-old daughter called “Cute Kids Speaking Ladino”, which can be accessed here.
New Year’s Resolutions
Q. 7 Do you have a #kidlit New Year’s Resolution?
Ann: I really want to get my act together, and create a new picture book dummy. Check back with me next year and we’ll see if I manage to pull it off!
Varda: To bring world peace by drawing bunnies–and making more board books. Why?
- I Like catching kids when they are the youngest of sponges.
- I like the exercise of trying to say something with a minimal amount of words.
- I like that board books are edible and indestructible.
- I like that babies can hold them by themselves and turn the pages.
- I like drawing small.
- I like passing on the warm and fuzzies, as opposed to detailed information and facts.
Vivian: In the spirit of Pippa, “Life is good when friends are near”…I will continue to take her words to heart, lifting up other authors and illustrators on my blog and mentoring other writers. I feel blessed to be living my dream and love helping others live theirs.
Nancy: With a nod to the subject of my Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing book, I want to remember to “count my blessings instead of sheep.” Being a children’s book author can be challenging, but I want to resolve to always keep looking toward the light, to stay grateful for the opportunity to share books like Counting on Shabbat with children, families, and educators, and to keep reaching into my heart for the stories I want and need to share next.
Bonus tips for those who want to write Board Books
Vivian: One of the best ways to connect with the kidlit community, hone your writing skills (especially your sparse writing skills that are needed for creating board books), and have fun – all at the same time is to participate in writing contests and challenges.
Susanna Hill has several: Halloweensie (100-word limit), Valentiny (214-word limit) and the Holiday Contest (300-word limit).
And of course, there is my #50PreciousWords which has, as you may have guessed, a word-count limit of only 50! Seriously speaking, this contest has resulted in quite a few published board books. The contest runs early in March. People can follow my blog or follow me on social media to find out the exact dates and guidelines.
Author Julie Abery now has eight books in the Little Animal Friends series published by Amicus, but the first one, Little Tiger, started as an entry in #50PreciousWords. And Amber Hendricks has another series, Little Explorers, and those books started as contest submissions. This year we had 750 fabulous submissions and 57 amazing prizes including many editor and agent critiques and a 3-day retreat at Highlights Foundation. I also started a literacy initiative and asked participants to purchase a children’s book from my local indie bookstore. I’m thrilled that when the contest was over, we were able to donate 410 brand-new children’s books to three local schools in need.
Thank you to these wonderful authors for joining us today.
To learn more about their work, check out their blogs and follow them on social media:
Happiest of New Years –and BOARD BOOKS–to ALL!
Up next on the blog:
We can’t wait to celebrate the Book Birthday of Katelyn Aronson’s WHEN PB MET J , illustrated by Sesame Street artist Sarah Rebar!