Saturday, June 16, 2018

Come play Jewish geography! (And also talk about books.)

If you're near Copley Square tomorrow, come say hi at the BPL's main branch, where we'll be celebrating fifty years of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. There will be storytimes, a "What Makes a Jewish Book?" panel, and a raffle for an American Girl Rebecca doll. (And air conditioning, which seems likely to be relevant.) I'll be the one handing out "Which All-of-a-Kind-Family sibling are you?" quizzes.

And if you're attending the AJL conference, come say hi there, too! I'll be talking tikkun olam on the "Social Justice and Jewish Children's Books" panel on Monday at 2 p.m., and taking a Simmons-ish look at this years winners on the "Sydney Taylor Winners Through an Academic Lens" panel on Tuesday at 9 a.m. I'm excited to meet (or reconnect with!) my fellow committee members and hear their takes on the winners in their session, and to hear from the authors and illustrators themselves. See you there!



Monday, March 12, 2018

Just put the book out there


We're celebrating Women's History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen or Twitter #kidlitwomen. 



There were many things I loved about bookselling. I did not love the books with titles like Stories for Boys and Stickers for Girls.

Yes, "for boys" and "for girls" right in the titles. No, this was not a long time ago.

I avoided facing these books out even if it meant reworking the whole rest of a shelf, and I would've gagged before recommending them to customers. I also grumbled about them. A lot.

Okay, I may also, occasionally, have done some grumbling about books without these sorts of titles that were clearly made with girls, boys, or their adult gift-buyers in mind. But labels--labels written on covers, and labels spoken by adults--were the real problem. 

Some girls do want to read about clothes or fashion or princesses, and some boys do want to read about superheroes and sports. 

And vice versa. And some kids want to read about both. And some kids get placed in one group, but identify with the other one or with neither.

Just put the book out there. Just let it be there for whoever finds it interesting. Don't slap it with a label--whether in its title or in the way you talk about it--that says "this is not for you" and "there's something wrong with you if you want it" and "there are exactly two categories, each with its own menu" and "only people in your own group have interesting stories for you." 

Most of those, and certainly that last one, matter for reasons beyond gender.

Things have improved a little, even just in the past few years. There are fewer books with these "fors" and implied "not-fors" right on their covers. But we still hear books described this way. And we hear, say, chapter books about POC girls described as "Ramona for _____ kids."

Kids hear it, too.

Kids get older, and they create. Some create stories, or re-imagine existing ones. They create chances for people to imagine themselves and others in various roles. They create roles for themselves.

Let's not tell them some things aren't for them.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour: Tammar Stein on The Six-Day Hero

Welcome to the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! This week, the 2018 winners and honorees will be answering questions around the Jewish/bookish blogosphere. Tammar Stein, Honor author in the Older category for The Six-Day Hero, was kind enough to chat with me about the story of Motti, a twelve-year-old Israeli boy whose life changes very quickly at a complicated moment in history.


How much of a role did your family’s memories play in this story?

That’s a great question! Before I wrote a single word, I had spent over six months researching the time period of May-June 1967. I needed to understand the geopolitical events that led to the Six-Day War, but also to understand what life was like in Israel back then. Part of the way that I was able to get all those little details was to speak with my parents. My father was an 18-year-old Israeli soldier during the Six-Day War and my mother was a teenager, living in Haifa. Over and over, I would call them to ask about some minutia. The more we spoke, the more I probed, the more their memories bubbled up. The food, the songs, the routines of daily life, all those rich details, as well as the emotional impact of the war on them all made it into the book. 


What surprised you most as you researched the war?

When I started my research, I knew very little about the Six-Day War. Namely that it was short, it reunified Jerusalem, and it tripled Israel’s landmass. Knowing only those few facts, I assumed that Israel’s winning the war was a foregone conclusion. That, as wars go, it wasn’t that scary or dangerous for Israel. But I was completely wrong. The month of May in 1967 was terrifying for Israelis. Every day brought more bad news: another former ally backing away, another Muslim country joining the coalition against Israel. At a time when 30% of Israelis were Holocaust survivors, some Arab leaders were calling for a new Holocaust. It didn’t seem like an empty threat. It seemed like history repeating itself.


Was it challenging to balance the immediate, sometimes funny details of Motti’s immediate experience with the larger, more serious events going on?

From the get-go, I knew that The Six-Day Hero was a book about a 12-year-old boy and his brothers. I wanted him to be relatable and interesting to my readers and that meant I had to infuse the natural humor and comedy of a 12-year-old’s life. It helped that during that time period, kids had astounding physical freedom. Between school and dinnertime, the city was theirs to roam unsupervised. It might be a modern parents’ nightmare, but it’s a novelist’s dream.


I loved the scene where Motti and family meet his dad’s old friend Daoud once they’re allowed to enter Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. Can you talk a little about the idea for that friendship?

It was my late mother's idea that I write a novel for kids about Israeli history. She was sick with cancer when I finished my first draft and she called me after she read it. She told me she had had a dream that Motti’s dad had a Jordanian friend in Jerusalem. She had even dreamt his name: Daoud. That whole scene was completely her idea. She was right, of course. Friendship between Muslims and Jews, between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews exists.  It’s not a dream. The lovely thing is that for a lot of my readers, that is their favorite part of the book. I love that my mom left such a beautiful, hopeful fingerprint on this book.


Motti’s older brother, Gideon, is exactly the same age as Israel. What does that mean to you?


I wanted to make the point that Israel was so young. It’s kind of a unique situation. When you live in a young country, there are so many things that can feel unsettled. There isn’t that certainty that it was always there and will always be there. 



Thanks, Tammar! And check out Bildungsroman later this morning for an interview with Kathy Kacer, Honor author in the Teen category for To Look a Nazi in the Eye.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Coming soon: the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour!

The schedule is up for the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! Watch this space for an interview with Tammar Stein, STBA Honor author for The Six-Day Hero, on February 4th, and see the link for where and when to find interviews throughout the blogosphere (okay, the kidlit-and/or-Jewish part of it) with the other honorees and winners. Come kvell with us!


Saturday, December 30, 2017

Out with the garbage fire, in with...

I can't say that I'll especially miss 2017. It's become almost a cliche to call the year a garbage fire, and indeed, much of it was a hot, stinky mess. But the intersecting worlds of writing and children's lit are excellent sounding boards and sources of comfort and/or distraction. Here are some things I'm glad to have had in my year:

-My writing projects. I did some new stuff and did more of some old stuff, and I'm excited about whatever comes next for all of it.
-A new writing group that, several months in, feels like a remarkably well-matched set of people and a generally really good thing.
-Parodies for Charities. Proceeds are currently going to the Hispanic Federation; commission some ridiculous writing today! (Hmmm, maybe a 2017 edition of this song? Or this one, retitled "Goodbye, Fire of Trash?")
-A whole lot of books, which I got to write about and discuss with smart people (in between our discussions about food).

As 2018 gets closer (someone please put a warm coat on Baby New Year), I'm excited about:

-More of all of the above!
-Starting my next writing project. I have only vague thoughts at this point about what it will be, but that means the possibilities are endless.
-My first-ever award committee. I'm an incoming member of the Sydney Taylor committee, which is exciting for a lot of reasons, including the AJL Conference in June. (It's in Boston, and it's before ALA. You should come!)

Hope your 2017 had some good things in it, and hope your 2018 has even better things. Happy New Year.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Happy anniversary, Parodies for Charities!

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
Twelve months of mimicry, four full quarters of rhymes.
I've had a year of selling silliness in. It's
because we're living in interesting times.

A year ago today, in a fit of wanting to do something, I announced that that something would be selling parodies of all sorts to benefit organizations in need. Since then, I've gotten to write scenes for people's spouses, raps for people's coworkers, and songs for people's cats; to parody picture books, Gilmore Girls, The Daily Show, and a disproportionate number of showtunes. Requests have ranged from the broad ("here are some things the recipient likes; go to town") to the specific ("the chorus should stay the same, and here's what the verses should be about"). My writing has grown; my knowledge of Sam Seaborn's speech patterns and the metrical quirks of "Down with OPP" has increased. This is fun, is what I'm saying. Fun in exchange for donations to CAIR and First Book and The Trevor Project and others.

Many thanks to those who've participated so far! The offer still stands: a $10 charitable donation gets you a parody (more details here). Proceeds are currently going to the Hispanic Federation. Your choice how you earmark your gift; their drop-down menu includes everything from Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief to Immigrants: We Get the Job Done Coalition.

P4C was started with the holiday season in mind, and look at that--the holidays are coming again. As always, email shoshana dot flax at gmail dot com for all your parody needs.





Sunday, July 16, 2017

Once upon a wibbly wobbly timey wimey...

I don't even watch Dr. Who. I've seen a few episodes, but sci-fi is rarely my genre of choice, and for me it falls into the category of "I can see why people love this; I just don't personally feel that invested."

I feel invested now. And I hope you'll forgive an outsider's weighing in; I have little experience with this show, but lots of experience with being influenced by fictional and fictionalized characters.

Like the moment in college when I first saw the movie Dogma (spoiler ahead). God, or God's corporeal form, is portrayed in that movie by a long-haired, twenty-something Alanis Morissette. Somewhere around the part where she does ungainly but joyful handstands among the flowers, I remember thinking to myself, "If she can be an all-powerful being, I can handle writing my English 221 paper."

Yes, this was a silly thought. But the fact that I had it means that, after about nineteen years of life, the idea of a woman having that much power was new to me, and mattered. Maybe we should be past the point where casting a woman as the powerful one is no big deal, but we're not there yet. We still need to put more powerful women, and powerful people of color, and powerful people outside the default into our movies, TV shows, and books. Especially the books that are going to end up in young people's hands.

Good job, Dr. Who. It's about time.