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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Interview: Michael J. Rosen

Welcome Michael J. Rosen, the author of Chanukah Lights, who, along with the artist, Robert Sabuda, is the 2012 Winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, Younger Readers. My review from yesterday.

Michael J. Rosen is here as part of the 2012 Blog Tour for the 2012 Sydney Taylor Book Awards

Full information on the Book Awards and the Blog Tour may be found at The People of the Books blog (the Association of Jewish Libraries blog); more information on the award is at the Association of Jewish Libraries, at the Sydney Taylor Book Awards site.

Liz B: Where were you when you learned you’d won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Younger Readers?

Michael J. Rosen: Here at my home. I had just opened a bottle of wine—Friday night, welcoming the Sabbath, the weekend, the Thai green-chili dinner I was cooking with a friend’s help. And Barbara Krasner telephoned from California. She was especially excited that the award was being conferred upon a pop-up book, an intergenerational book. She said it was unprecedented. So I raised my glass with something even more special to toast.

Liz B: Chanukah Lights shines a light on the times and places Chanukah has been celebrated, from immigrant ships to shtetls. What type of research did you do in selecting these times and places? Was there any particular time or place that you would have liked to included, but could not?

Michael J. Rosen: Choosing eight moments, or windows, into Jewish history was beyond “challenging,” particularly for someone who would never claim to being anything like a scholar of history. Let’s just say my scholasticism is set in the present tense. :¬)

The continuum of events, the complications of history, the recurring (okay, sadly redundant) conflicts. It was like entering a room where thousands of dominos stand in some snaking, zigzagging pattern. There’s no picking one—or eight—without all the other tiles zipping into a blur of motion. And yet, after setting ‘em up and knocking ‘em down many times, I thought I’d found eight moments that were both specific enough to create unique scenes, and general enough to represent more than just one precise date or exact location in history.

For instance, when Robert designed the vessel in which escaping Jews are lighting a menorah in its hold, the sailing ship’s structure does suggest one century, although ships of one sort or another transported Jewish refugees over the course of many centuries.

There were two other scenes that we considered. One was a Jewish settlement in Spain. Something prior to the Inquisition. But Robert compelling argued that he needed to create some iconic thing that could blossom from a page. Some unmistakable structure. And nothing emerged in his research that presented an that dramatic possibility for a pop-up.

We also debated about a scene set amid the Holocaust. Robert felt the magnitude of those years—the hold they have on our modern memories—argued for inclusion. And even if documentation could persuade readers that some Jews, at some camp, managed to gather around a menorah, I felt that such a scene would overwhelm readers. Stop the flow of the book. And while I allowed for the fact that much—too much—of Jewish history is about enduring or escaping persecution, my hope for this book was to be celebratory. A beautiful experience to share with children. A kind of grace or blessing that still recognizes suffering or hardship as so many prayers and Jewish ceremonies include. Like the portion of challah dough that’s left in the oven to burn. Always an acknowledgment.

Liz B: Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Robert Sabuda? What was that working process like? How was the process different from working on a picture book?

You can tell a bit of the process from my previous answer. Here’s another example. We also wrestled with the initial spread of the Temple. Uniquely, for both of us, we started this book before there was any text or concept beyond the fact that Candlewick had given the two of us a chance to do a book on Chanukah. Robert and I had a working friendship that spanned to the beginning of our different careers. Over 20 years. So there was an energy and ease about diving into the project. For instance, in no uncertain terms Robert told me that he was not designing a pop-up of a family standing around candles, or opening presents. “No paper latkes jiggling in a skillet as a page opens?” “That’s right.” From the outset, we knew we were embarking on a book for Chanukah that would have to make its own place on the crowded shelf.

So we had a few long phone conversations, just lobbing ideas, stumbling around, spinning off into new options. One funny accident: We were talking about the “desecration” of the Temple that’s used as the pivotal start of the Chanukah story. And we got all excited about a pop-up spread with columns crashing, oil barrels spilling, fires, and so forth. And then, coming back to my senses after the call, I remembered/realized that we let “desecration” turned into “destruction,” and that neither of the two destroyed Temples are in the this story. I shot Robert an e-mail: “At this point, the Syrians had basically taken over the Temple, erected an altar to Zeus, sacrificed pigs within its space, unsealed the oil containers, etc., but there’s no rubble to tumble and pop up. If scratch-and-sniff is an option, a bacon scent might be nice here.”

The rest of the process followed the same give-and-take process: I’d sketch out the scenes, draft possible texts, and send them to Robert. He’d call with questions from his design team. They researched the architecture that would be present in each scene. And then they worked to translate those shapes into paper architecture.

Again, unique to this book, the first visual thing Robert presented to the editor and me was a complete, full-size dummy of the book in all white. All the pop-ups cut and assembled by hand. A set of sketches simply wouldn’t suffice.

And while there was much he’d eventually refine, this dummy helped us all see what the book needed. We worked at rearranging and substituting a few pages. I wrote other drafts of the text (shorter and shorter) to fit the odd open spaces in each scene. We’d see photos of individual pages. The studio created an MPEG of the book so that the rest of us could see the actual pages opening. Just a remarkable collaborative experience—I can’t underestimate the contribution of Robert’s studio members. Nor of Candlewick’s editors, who offered both that essential deference, leeway, and confidence in their author/artist team, and that equally important scrutiny, alertness, and nimbleness to revisit even what had been taken as final, as settled.  

Liz B: What are you working on now?

Michael J. Rosen: Like many authors, there always seem to be a variety of projects in stages. I rather feel like one of those eccentric jugglers working to keep a watermelon, a flaming baton, four rings, and a running chainsaw…all in the air. But specifically, I have a number of much loved, but long out-of-print titles coming back as eBooks this spring, as well as a novel in poetry and two voices, Running with Trains.

Take a peak at Chanukah Lights, with this book trailer:

Thank you, Michael J. Rosen!

And thank you for stopping by. Have fun reading the rest of the blog tour!

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. […] make sure to check out this interview with Rosen about creating the book. One part I thought was interesting: One funny accident: We were […]