Thursday, July 12, 2007


I recently was so very fortunate to attend the Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Phoenix, Arizona, for the honor of receiving a Sidney Taylor silver honor award for an outstanding contribution to the field of Jewish Literature for Children for my book, VIVE LA PARIS. It was the first time this award was given for a book featuring an African American protagonist, and I must say it was one of my proudest professional achievements. During the conference, besides making many new friends, laughing with old ones and getting to enjoy a lot of good food, I attended some amazing booktalks and came away with gems. Here are just a bissel of the best that landed in my luggage!

I AM MARC CHAGALL by Bimba Landmann (Eerdmans) 3-D collage scenes populate the pages with cows, chickens donkeys, musicians and angels, the dreamlike populations of Chagall's Russian childhood and artistic imagination that insisted, "painting is as necessary as bread." Based on the artist's autobiography, the story is a great adventure of a poet-artist, a testament to possibility. Chagall speaks about children, "I was delighted to see that they understood that the world inside us is at times more real than the world outside." That line alone is worth the price of the book. (5 and up)

by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Greg Harlin (Dutton) All right, it's definitely early, but if we can have Christmas in July, why not Hanukkah? I had the great pleasure of hearing both author and illustrator speak about how this book came to fruition. With a great sense of humor, Krensky shared how he once was learning to write under none other than Natalie Babbitt (author of TUCK EVERLASTING), and shared with his audience a critique of his manuscript in which she had made a remark or correction for nearly every line. Instead of being thwarted by the criticism, he was grateful, realizing that in writing, "everything counts." His well-researched prose of a likely event in which George Washington comes upon a Hanukkah celebration during the Revolutionary War is coupled by the graceful and accomplished watercolors by Harlin. Though this very sweet illustrator was shy when faced with the roomful of people, his talent came through loud and clear as he walked around "sketches" worthy of an art museum's walls and oohs and ahhs from everyone in the audience. More than a holiday story, this Sydney Taylor gold-medal winner for picture books is a piece de resistance of author/artist collaboration, and a nice reminder that America has always been a melting pot. (5 and up)

by Ellen Schwartz (Tundra Books) Some bad luck and tragic outcomes leave nine-year-old mixed-race Joey Sexton to live with his aunt, a Jewish woman from the Bronx, and his bigoted grandfather who has trouble getting past the choices of his daughter. Can the support of members of his newfound family and the rise of a baseball star named Jackie Robinson keep Joey from striking out? Though some of the baseball history fact-checking could have been tightened, strong dialogue and characterization make this a grand slam for realistic fiction, and the paperback format and manageable size make it a good warm-up for reluctant readers; the last teacher I gave it to bought a classroom set of thirty. A solid choice for read-aloud, classroom lit circles or book clubs, and fun to compare and contrast with Bette Bao Lord's IN THE YEAR OF THE BOAR AND JACKIE ROBINSON (one of my all-time favorites, incidentally) and Dan Gutman's JACKIE AND ME. (10 and up)

by Dave Horowitz (Putnam) Though I did not encounter this book at the conference, I would like to nominate it for consideration for next year's notable books! Based on the popular preschool fingerplay "Five Little Ducklings," readers follow along as five pieces of gefilte (a bit like a fishy matzoh ball) go out of their jar and far away, taking in plays (next weekon the marquee: "Goldie Lox and the 3 Shmears"), crash a deli buffet ("such chutzpah!" complain the knishes), and shelp around New York's garmet district in a taxi cab. "Oy vey," kvetches Mama Gefilte who is so lonely without them, but she shouldn't worry because she has raised mensches (good people) who don't forget to come back. Full of wit and visual jokes, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this very funny multicultural piece of children's lit, especially thanks to the dandy glossary at the back which serves as a JOYS OF YIDDISH for kids. Even if gefilte fish seems less than deelish, so what? You don't have to eat it, you just have to read it! (4 and up)

Also of interest:
If you enjoy these picks, be sure to get a Sydney Taylor Book Award kit, which includes a brochure, 20 bookmarks, a Quest for the Best CD-ROM (a truly amazing resource for booklovers of any faith), and enough gold and silver seals for the most recent year’s winner and honor books!

On a personal note:
An 2007 AJL convention photo album! Thanks to Kathe and Etta for snapping and sending!

Okay, first things first! I had the out-of-body experience of meeting super-glammy Jo Taylor Marshall, the daughter of Sidney Taylor (legendary author of the timeless ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY series that celebrated the urban experience of a Jewish family in the early part of the 20th century). I had the infinite honor of sitting at her table along with members of her family during the award ceremony, though I was really too star-struck to strike up a conversation (and for me, that's saying a lot).

This year the Taylor family generously underwrote a new teen category for the award, which went to Markus Zusak for her masterpiece THE BOOK THIEF, Alice Hoffman's INCANTATION and Dana Reinhardt's A BRIEF CHAPTER IN MY IMPOSSIBLE LIFE. I got to have a lovely informal lunch with Mark and Dana (above) and also attended their very engaging session in which they teamed up to lend considerable insight into their work and the genre, answering the age-old question: what is the real difference between young adult and adult literature? Answer: well, I'm still not sure, but books that feature young adults are a clue, and maybe it doesn't matter in the end, so long as the book is terrific. In the session, women in the audience struggled mightily to ignore Mark's apparent disfigurement, Australian accent, wedding ring and accompanying love-of-wife, and focus instead on his thoughtful comments. Keep fighting the good fight, ladies! And hey Dana, what are you, chopped liver?! You're plenty pretty and smart, too...and the woman can write!!!

Another Mount-Everest high point for me was getting to share a session with Jennifer Roy, who wrote what may very well be the most important children's book of the past year, YELLOW STAR (Marshall Cavendish), real history told in free verse, inspired by interviews with her aunt who was one of a dozen children to survive the Nazi terrors in the Lodz ghettos during WWII. The brilliance of this book is that besides being honest and powerful, it is one that is truly age-appropriate for intermediate readers on the Holocaust, a subject that often seems impossible to broach. I expected to meet someone in her 70's, and was stunned that such a wise and sensitive book was delivered by someone who was so young. It was a pleasure meeting one of her sisters and her mother, and also learning that she also had an identical twin sister, Julia DeVillers, who is the author of HOW MY PERSONAL, PRIVATE JOURNAL BECAME A BESTSELLER, which is airing later this month (July 21!) on the Disney Channel as "Read it and Weep". A lot of talent in one family, and a happy chapter, I think, in the legacy of her family's rich history. The session was deftly facilitated by Kathe Pinchuck. I was very delighted not to have to follow Jennifer as she gave a fantastic presentation incorporating maps and pictures, and had everyone's heart beating faster and more than a few tears flowing. Her experience as both a gifted and talented and special education teacher really shone through, both as a speaker and as the creator of a book that belongs in every classroom of every faith. She would be a dream guest author at any school, that's for sure! Visit her home page at
See these women? These are heavy hitters here. To the left is former award committee chair Heidi Estrin, who now runs the Book of Life podcast (2007 winner of the Bronze medal for outstanding audio blog...congratulations, Heidi!) , and who at one point was sporting a fabulous t-shirt illustrated by Caldecott winner Simms Taback that we all need to incorporate into our summer wardrobes. Rachel Kamin, on the right, is the current chair and a shockingly dynamic leader, who also was a stellar presence at one of the best sessions I have attended at any conference ever, titled "Adventures in Book Reviewing," which moved along at a well-timed clip that could have been a t.v. show, it was so fun to watch. Over hours that flew by like minutes, attendees were treated to a variety pack of author talks, reviews of the best books of the year by a hard core panel of librarian reviewers (Rachel Kamin, Nancy Austein, Kathy Bloomfield, Susan Berson and Kathe Pinchuck), and a brutal literary pummeling session titled "what's hot, what's not" in which reviewers with opposing views of the same book vehemently stated their cases with the fervor of high-school-debate-team-meets-roller-derby. Believe me, authors in the audience were sweating! Rachel Kamin duked it out over Micol Ostow's EMILY GOLDBERG LEARNS TO SALSA, among others. (Rachel, please get a blog! The whole world needs to hear your sassy, saucy POV!) All of this was followed with an exciting preview of what the Sidney Taylor committee is looking at now, including submissions that did not necessarily fully fit their criteria but were excellent in their own right. It was truly fascinating and enlightening, as someone who approaches books from such a secular perspective, to see each book analyzed from so many different lenses of religious practice: liberal, reform, conservative, and beyond. I really came away even more deeply appreciating what a reader brings to a book and how that impacts the interpretation of the content. I'm sure this is true whether the reader is an adult or a child. It was also impressive how even when the discussion became heated and people were very invested in their opinions, the warmth did not dissipate. This was a showcase of booklovers and people-lovers hard at work, and neither passion was compromised.

The awards ceremony was very touching, with kind and unusual attention and description given to the work of each awardee. Of course I cried when local girl and goombah Brenda Ferber accepted her gold award for her novel JULIA'S KITCHEN, I was so very, very proud of her. Earlier in the day, she gave a wonderful session in which she read extensively from her real-life journal, describing the ebb and flow of emotion and the hard work she put into her manuscript, all leading up to the great news that she had won. You've got to check out her son Sammy's hilarious take on his mom's great victory on her blog! If you want more vicarious conference attendance, check out the AJL blog comprised of entries from many attendees.

Most of all, I was proud of AJL. I've said it before and I'll say it again and again, my own great honor notwithstanding, the Sidney Taylor Award is a hyperion of what a book award should be, and sets an example for other book awards that establish criteria based on the author instead of what's in the binding. Meticulous debate, transparency, and a love of literature were clearly the order of the day, and every day that went into the work of AJL this past year. I would hope in future years the American Library Association would embrace this award as they have The Coretta Scott King Award and Pura Belpre Award, as it would only reflect well on them to do so and there is clearly a large enough body of work to warrant it. Meanwhile, kudos to everyone who worked so hard to create such a phenomenal conference. I look forward to attending the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Taylor Awards at the AJL conference in Cleveland next year, and urge anyone who works with books and children and who is interested in professional development to join me!

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Unknown said...

Why Esme, I don't think I've ever been called a goombah before! Terrific write-up. What a fun experience! Hooray for AJL!

Anonymous said...

Esme, thanks for the beautiful writeup and the courageous call for the Sydney Taylor to be asked intothe bigger club...Cleveland next year sounds like a great plan!
Carol Grannick

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Well, you're either a bad friend for not telling me about this award, or, much more likely, I'm a bad friend for not asking, "What awards have you won lately?"

Congrats, congrats.


April Halprin Wayland said...

I feel like a schlub--I didn't know you'd gotten the Sydney Taylor! Your blog is so beautifully written, Esme.

I am proud, proud, proud to call you my friend.


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