Nathan, growing up in a shtetl in Russia, loves to sing. When he hears opera for the first time he is transfixed and longs to learn this kind of music. His family and community, including his little brother Samuel, gather money to pay for his passage to Italy. What happens next is a marvel of picture book writing. I talked to my friend and long-time writing colleague Leda Schubert about the choices she made in telling this story from her own family history in her new picture book, Nathan’s Song.
[Uma] So how do you take a life like your grandfather’s and pack it into thirty-two pages? how do you decide what belongs and what is not germane to the story the book needs to tell?
[Leda] Good question, Uma, and I have several responses. First, I’ve been writing picture books for a very long time, and I’ve read thousands and thousands of them over my longish life. I think the form is embedded in my DNA by now. (I must add that many of these manuscripts have not and will not see the light of day. If you’re reading this and seeking publication, don’t give up!) That isn’t to say that I’ve mastered the picture book. Not likely. It’s one of the simplest and most complex of forms, isn’t it?
Second, I can’t remember much about anything. My grandfather lived into his 80s, but he was reticent about his past, particularly about his childhood in Russia, and I expect it would have been painful to recall. He did tell me the bare bones of this story, however, and some of it stuck with me. Maybe enough for a story, I thought. In real life, he drank a bit too much, got on the wrong boat in Odessa, and ended up first in Brazil, where he sold rags from a cart, learned Portuguese, and eventually made his way to New York. And he did sing opera. He was a gorgeous singer, even singing in Broadway/off-Broadway productions. He did make hats, he did fall in love with my grandmother, and he did sing for us at family gatherings on occasion.
Third, the rest? It had to do with the shape of story.
In the end, readers make a story their own, I think, but for me his story is about leaving home, finding home, and family love. It’s a story that’s true of millions and millions of people, often forced to abandon everything they’ve known and embark to unknown lands. (It is also true that several of my picture books have turned out to be about music–Ballet of the Elephants, Listen: How Pete Seeger got America Singing– which is central to my life.)
[Uma] I’m always fascinated at the way stories turn and create patterns. I was delighted that while Nathan may have meant to go to Italy and ended up in America, Italy came to him in New York, in the person of the marvelous Nicolo. Your thoughts?
[Leda] I have to say that was something I never even realized. It’s important to acknowledge, I feel, that there is something mysterious about writing. There are subconscious forces that shape our work. A writer must give those forces time and space to emerge. “Nathan’s Song” sat somewhere in my mind for decades.
Finally, as you ask, anyone writing about anything has to figure out what to leave out. What propels a story and what doesn’t? What are the underlying bones–the trajectory? I knew I didn’t have the space to go into more detail (I tried to cut even more), so what mattered most? What would an illustrator be able to work with? What could I rely on the artwork instead of the words to carry? What kind of action would there be on each page? For example, I didn’t need to describe the ship, Ellis Island, or Nathan’s village. I chose also to eliminate the Brazil years; they derailed the narrative. I didn’t need to write about the family back home in Russia, or what they would do in the US. Etc. Of course the editor chooses the artist, and I was incredibly lucky that Lauri Hornik found Maya Ish-Shalom. I couldn’t be happier with her glorious work, which is so bright and joyful.
This is from the School Library Journal review of Nathan’s Song:
This title pays tribute to courageous individuals, with an underlying message of the unbroken connection of family love.
[Leda] What is harder for me than compressing is expanding. How do you write a novel, Uma?
Hmm. How indeed. Very carefully?