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The 2021 Sydney Taylor Blog Tour: A Talk with Lesléa Newman and Susan Gal about Welcoming Elijah

There was so much to process when the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced last month that one could be forgiven for needing a fuller consideration of all the winners. For my part, one of my favorite awards to track is the Sydney Taylor Award which is, “presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” It is with great delight that I tell you too that I was asked to host the winners of the Sydney Taylor Award for Picture Books as part of the awards’ blog tour right here on this site. Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Susan Gal, was featured on my 31 Days, 31 Lists list of great Holiday Picture Books, so I couldn’t have been more pleased to see it receive the top honor. Lesléa and Susan have joined us here today to answer some of my questions about the book, its process, and where they’re headed next.

Betsy Bird: Lesléa, I’d like to compliment you right off the bat for your recent Sydney Taylor win. Welcoming Elijah utilizes a clever method of pairing Passover and all that it entails alongside the antics of a kitten in the outdoors. Where did you get the idea for the book? 

Lesléa Newman: When kids ask me where I get ideas, I answer, “At the idea store!” The truth is, I don’t know where ideas come from; they are little gifts. As my friend the beloved children’s book writer Patricia MacLachlan likes to say, “Sometimes, if a writer is very lucky, a story comes along and taps her on the shoulder.” In this case, I was tapped on the shoulder not by a hand but by a paw. I wrote the book with my 21-year-old white cat purring on my lap; she died shortly after the book was completed. It was the last gift (of many) that she gave to me. That’s one answer. The other answer is, Passover has always been my favorite holiday, and opening the door for Elijah is my favorite part of the Seder. As a child, after being cooped up for what seemed like hours, we got to open the door and stand outside which seemed very magical to me. I looked up at the stars and saw all that space. The house had been very noisy with talking and singing and laughing; now all was quiet. There was a world inside my house and a world outside my house and the kitten was a way to bring those two worlds together.

BB: Susan, congrats to you too on the win! You’ve worked with Lesléa before on other picture books like Here Is the World. How did you hear about this particular project? Was there anything about it that stood out to you?

Susan Gal: My brilliant agent, Gail Gaynin at Morgan Gaynin Inc. presented me with Lesléa’s manuscript. Like our first book together, Here is the World, I was attracted to Lesléa’s lyrical prose and storytelling. Elijah spoke to me of wonder, love of family, and respect for tradition and I immediately started envisioning how I would bring those themes to life. I too have experienced the joy and grief that beloved pets inspire and I was excited to develop the relationship between the kitten and the family. I especially enjoyed the challenge of creating a world that would encourage the reader to experience those emotions too. 

BB: Lesléa, I sometimes suspect that Passover makes for particularly interesting picture books. Nothing against the other Jewish holidays but year after year I find myself enjoying the Passover books especially. What, to your mind, is it about this holiday that translates to original picture book retellings so well?

LN: Well the holiday is all about telling a story, so it makes sense that there would be so many books about it. There are so many versions of the haggadah. We are encouraged to participate fully in the Seder by asking questions, making comments, having discussions, even arguing. Story is a part of Passover, so it seems natural to me that Passover would be described, reflected upon, and celebrated in story after story after story. Plus, the holiday is so full of ritual and so full of details, and as Jack Kerouac said, “Details are the life of the novel.” There’s so much to write about when it comes to Passover! I myself, have written 3 Passover books. Besides “Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail,” I am the author of “Matzo Ball Moon” and “A Sweet Passover.” And I have an unsold manuscript called “At The Seder.” And I have written many poems for adults about the holiday as well.

BB: Susan, could you tell us a bit about the art that you created for Elijah and why you chose to illustrate it the way that you did?

SG: What I loved about Elijah is that it’s not only a story about Passover but also a story about contrast; darkness and light, indoor and outdoor, loneliness and togetherness. I felt it was important that the story be illustrated in a limited palette to emphasize this contrast; deep blue hues for the cool moonlight spreads and rich golden candlelight tones for the indoor pages.The artwork also needed a sense of place and community. I put a lot of thought into what type of setting would make a family feel warm and welcome and how the people that came together in that space would relate to one another. I wanted to capture what makes family gatherings special; the coming together of the different generations and the joy we feel when we are connected with those we love. As I worked on the first round of sketches I created some rough color spreads so the editor and art directors could see how I was envisioning the palette and the lighting. I’m grateful that they embraced my approach and gave me the opportunity to run with it. 

BB: Lesléa, how does your faith influence the books that you write that carry Jewish themes? Is there something that you look to include or make sure to do with them?

LN: Judaism has been with me since the day I was born and will be with me until the day I die. Being a Jew affects everything that I do, which of course includes my writing. Writing is my self-appointed task to fulfill the obligation of “Tikkun Olam” or repairing the world. Every Jew is assigned this task at birth. It is understood that one doesn’t accomplish this alone and that the world will most likely not be fully repaired in one’s lifetime. Still, that doesn’t mean one can shirk one’s responsibilities. It is up to each one of us to decide how to best participate in tikkun olam. I try to make the world a better place with each book I write by infusing my books with hope, with joy, with comfort, with love. 

BB: Susan, do you ever interact with Lesléa when creating books together? What kind of feedback did you receive from your editor during the creation of this book?

SG: It’s been my experience that authors and illustrators normally don’t have the opportunity to collaborate. I’ve both written and illustrated picture books so I understand that its a leap of faith for an author to trust an illustrator to bring their book to life. To me, the author plants a seed with their manuscript and then has to trust the illustrator to nourish it and help it grow into a vibrant and captivating flower. I love the process of diving into a story and creating a world through color and texture. My favorite challenge is experimenting with how to draw the characters, getting to know them, and bringing them to life. For example, the little stray kitten in Elijah brought back memories of when I was alone after graduating art school and occasionally felt lonely and anxious about my future. I would bicycle around my neighborhood in the evenings and was comforted by seeing windows beginning to glow with warm lighting. In a way it gave me hope that I would someday have a safe and secure place to share with someone that I loved. I envisioned the kitten having those same emotions and did my best to capture his isolation and his desire to be welcomed into a safe and loving home.

BB: And finally, what are you both working on next?

LN: I have a lot of current and future projects happening! My newest (adult) poetry collection, “I Wish My Father,” a memoir-in-verse and companion book to “I Carry My Mother” was recently published by Headmistress Press. Both books explore the journey an adult Jewish daughter takes as she cares for her parents in turn during the last years of their lives.

On the children’s book front: I have two board books coming out in May from Candlewick: “A-B-C Cats” and “1-2-3 Cats” (I just can’t stop writing about cats!). And I am very excited that in 2022, the Children’s Press (a division of Lee & Low) is bringing out my first bilingual book, “Los coquíes y el huracán: Una canción para Puerto Rico/Coquíes and the Hurricane: A Song for Puerto Rico.” I wrote this book for my spouse who was distraught when Hurricane Maria devastated the beloved island of her birth and even more so by the US government’s response to that destruction. The book was written to give the children of Puerto Rico hope. And there are more projects underway. Stay tuned!

SG: I’m currently illustrating a non-fiction picture book for Scholastic and looking forward to begin work on illustrating a lovely manuscript with Nancy Paulsen Books. I have a book with Nancy Paulsen entitled TWOgether coming out in May of this year. Its a book that I both wrote and illustrated about an elephant shrew, an elephant, and a day at the beach. I’m also continually working on my own picture book ideas; some graciously blossom and others torment me relentlessly, defying me to become a book. Maybe someday it will get easier but I’m not counting on it!

Remember that you can find the full schedule of the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour Schedule here and a list of all the Sydney Taylor Book Award winners here. A big thank you to Lesléa and Susan for answering my questions and to Rebecca Levitan for setting all this up.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.