Process Talk: Tziporah Cohen on No Vacancy

The best and brightest middle grade novels hit the sweet spot between lightness and the big questions of life. Here’s one from VCFA grad Tziporah Cohen. I asked Tzippy if she’d tell me more about this whimsical, intelligent novel about 11-year-old Miriam who finds herself transplanted from New York City to the failing motel that her parents, most unreasonably, have chosen to run.

Photo courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[UK] Your Miriam has a fine sense of the dramatic and tragic. She also has a kind of tenderness and vulnerability, a lively imagination, and a touch of that lovely magical thinking that’s so characteristic of middle grade. Can you talk about how this character grew and came to life for you?

[TC] In many ways, Miriam is like me. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but it didn’t always feel rooted. We went to synagogue on the major holidays and had wonderful Passover seders, but also ate sausage pizza once a week and went to the mall on Saturday mornings. I craved something more, but didn’t know what. When I became more religiously observant, I realized that something was community. I loved belonging to something bigger than myself.

I knew from the outset that Miriam would be Jewish, like me, and I also had been wanting to explore religion and faith from a middle grade-perspective. Miriam is at that age, just at the beginning of adolescence, where she is searching for something but can’t yet identify what it is, and I channeled some of my own experience into creating her. Other parts of her struggle come from issues I grapple with as an adult: how religion can bring out the worst in people when it leads to judgment or lack of tolerance, but how it can also be a source of kindness and great good, when channeled the right way.

[UK] I was enchanted by the details of your setting—grape pie, the Myrna-Mabel confusion, and of course the old drive-in theater. How did you go about creating a setting that also grows your character and is very much a part of the conflict in the story?

Photos courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[TC] The motel setting has its own backstory. The summer after I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my family and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a mini-vacation. We stayed in a somewhat run-down motel (though not nearly as run-down as The Jewel Motor Inn) owned by an East Indian family from Staten Island, NY who had moved in just three days before we got there. There was a young boy hanging around—their nephew, I think—and I started wondering what it would be like for a kid to move from the diverse big city to live in a motel in a very non-diverse small town. I started my first draft in that motel room!

As I wrote, I brought in details from that vacation and from living in upstate New York while in college. The details emerged over many drafts over many years (I started this story in 2013!), in an interactive, reciprocal way. For example, many motels have a restaurant or diner next door, so I created one, and then Myrna Whitley and her husband made their appearance to work in it. In that instance, the characters grew from the setting. But the setting also grew from the characters: Mrs. Whitley’s granddaughter Kate, who is Catholic, befriends Miriam and pushes her to confront some of her feelings about being Jewish and ask questions about the varieties of faith she notices around her. This led me to (spoiler alert!) the idea of the girls creating the Virgin Mary apparition, as well as the scenes at the drive-in and synagogue, all of which worked towards creating the setting of the small town of Greenvale.

[UK] At one level, this is a quirky, sweet book about friendship and family. But we quickly find ourselves entering more complicated terrain and encountering questions of prejudice and bias, truth and lies, means and ends and taking responsibility. Even so, there’s a lightness to the story that allows a reader to engage with its more difficult questions. How do we create that balance in writing for the middle grades? How did you do that here?

[TC] Such a hard question! Hard because so much of writing this book for me felt like it was happening on a subconscious level. In early drafts, the book had a much more comical approach, sometimes even verging on slapstick. My dad was very sick when I started writing it, and I was also working on another novel that was full of grief, and I needed to write something light. But as the book evolved, the questions Miriam struggled with grew more serious. The world around me also seemed to be changing over the years that I wrote the novel—with an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice—and I found myself responding to that as well.

The other thing I’ve learned, from my work as a psychiatrist in palliative care, is that life is a balance of bitter and sweet. We need the sweet to endure the bitter, and the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I hope I was able to convey some of that reality in Miriam’s story.

[UK] Ah yes, the shifting sands of drafts. Thank you, Tziporah Cohen, for this tender middle grade fiction that delivers reality while brushing it with the hope that is so needed by young people (and old ones, really).

Images of Home in Three Picture Books

What it is about us humans that we keep longing for home? Wherever we are is never quite it. Home is always some far place, or in a time long ago, or even just a dream in the heart.

From Groundwood Books, here are three picture books, each addressing the notion of home in a very different way.

MalaikasWinterCarnival.jpgIn Malaika’s Winter Carnival, Mummy is marrying Mr. Frédéric. Suddenly Malaika not only has a new sister, Adèle, but has to move to a different country. Here’s a fresh twist on the immigrant story that raises questions of what constitutes home. Look at  how very strange Malaika’s new country is! It’s cold, for one thing, and people speak with a “different talk.” For another, the new sister “kiss me two sides of my face,” a little gesture that leads us to the setting—Quebec, where people speak French. A gentle resolution results in this child-centered story.

Onlyinmyhometown.jpgKisimi Taimaippaktut Angirrarijarani/Only in My Hometown by Angnakuluk Friesen, illustrated by Ippiksaut Friesen (they’re sisters), is a bilingual book with three fonts. How can that be, you ask? It was written in English and translated into Inuktitut (the Aivilik dialect). The Inuktitut language is represented in two fonts–syllabics and transliteration into roman script. And the illustrations–how fantastic is this?–were painted with watercolor and acrylic on elephant poo paper. Yes. That is correct. I thought I was seeing things too, because the book opens with these words: “Sitting on the elephant…” Elephant? In the frozen north? You have to read the book to understand this particular and heartfelt evocation of home.

 

bitterandsweet.jpgIn Bitter and Sweet by Sandra Feder, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, Hannah doesn’t want to move, but her father has a job in a new town. Hannah’s grandmother tells her there are bitter and sweet parts to change. As the move becomes reality, Hannah keeps trying to find the sweet parts, and with each new spread, even as she opens up to hope, the sweetness keeps eluding her. The chocolate “ptooey” page is especially charming. The story circles naturally around with Hannah’s phone call to her grandmother, arriving at a final turn of understanding and resolution.

Childhood is a place of emotion barely understood but deeply felt, and in a different way, each of these books captures the fresh new feelings of a young life, newly lived.

 

At Canada’s Edge, Trails of American History

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Review copy courtesy of Groundwood Books

The Africville of this heartfelt and beautiful picture book no longer exists as it did for 150 years just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. That community, largely consisting of the descendants of Black Loyalists migrating north after the American Revolutionary War and Black Refugees fleeing American slavery, was torn down in the 1960s and its inhabitants forcibly relocated. Few know that Halifax itself was built with the labor of enslaved people.

Africville’s history is the background and context for Shauntay Grant‘s lovingly crafted picture book, illustrated with Eva Campbell’s lustrous oil and pastels on a textured canvas background. The graininess of the canvas gives the characters shadowy edges, blurring the borders between past and present. Imagining the community as it must have been many years ago, the young narrator leads the reader through details of landscape and sensory experience, from hill to field to pond and to the ocean’s shore. Infused with the tenderness of family and community, conveying the sense of stories kept alive, the book simultaneously embraces today’s child reader.

Africville may no longer be the thriving town it once was, the book suggests, but feel the stubborn love that kept its stories alive. There is much to this history. The residents of the community paid taxes but got no services. A railway extension cut through the village, destroying several homes. But wait. The story also includes an admission of racism, an apology rendered by the Mayor of Halifax in 2010, a replica of the orginal church built to house a museum, part of a compensation deal. Lyrical and healing, this picture book offers a window into a little-known past and suggests it holds deep relevance to the present.

What might America look like, I wonder, if healing from the past’s wounds could ever be made a priority? What would that mean for America’s children of every color? Compensation? Apology? What a concept!

Diversity 102: from the Lee and Low blog

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Graphics courtesy of Lee and Low Books

For years, the number of diverse books in American children’s and YA publishing has remained stuck at about 10%, according to data gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Could the backgrounds of the decision-makers in our field–publishing executives, editors, sales reps, marketing and publicity people, reviewers–have anything to do with this? It is after all surprising to find such a gap between the representation of diversity in children’s and YA books and comparable demographics in the general population?

Who works in publishing? This was the simple question that led to the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, although the conversation itself has been going on for much longer. As Jason Low writes:

While the lack of diversity among publishing staff was often spoken about, there was very little hard data about who exactly works in publishing.

The survey results are now out. They come as no surprise.

I’m happy to say that two of my publishers are involved with the survey. Lee & Low, of course, with the intrepid Jason Low at the helm of this effort. And Groundwood Books, another North American pioneer in bringing underrepresented books to the market. But Simon and Schuster? Did I miss them somehow? Nope. Not there.

So the question remains, what happens next? And whatever happens, how can we learn to talk about it and move on? This survey feels like a giant step in the right direction. So, for that matter, does this year’s Newbery Award.

The Joy of Endpapers

9781554984053_1024x1024I just received the first two author copies of my new picture book, Bright Sky, Starry City, published by the lovely people at Groundwood and illustrated by the talented Aimee Sicuro. is there anything quite like opening a package and finding a new book? All right, I’m not going into the usual rant about the lack of tactility in an e-book, or how the heck we think kids are going to love books if they can’t hug them or smell them or chew on them or even what’s going to happen to bodies and brains if a backlit screen becomes the primary source of text and image. Doc-02-25-15_ 08-49 -01Instead let us consider endpapers. Look at these. Sidewalk chalk and sky, child mind and universe–it’s all in here. Are these endpapers not the perfect introduction to a book on dark skies and a child’s vast, reaching imagination? The picture book writer is only the owner of the book in a kind of curatorial way. You start the thing off with an idea that has you in its grip. You try to give it shape. You plunk some words on the page. If the thing holds up (and many picture book ideas do not) you keep going. If you can get enough of the vision down so it makes sense to others, well then a publisher might pick it up and assign it to an illustrator. The illustrator gets to work, without my word-bound oversight, for which praise be. In this case, I got to check facts. I suggested a few research sources. I asked a consultant to comment on  the accuracy of both text and images. Some text changed as the images grew. But the endpapers? They were a complete surprise. They ensure that the story of the book begins in the child reader’s mind before even a single page gets turned. What a gift!

Connecting Books and Young Readers: An Open Book Foundation

Gaithersburg_201420140520_102123When I was in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC recently to attend the Gaithersburg Book Festival, I stopped by Strawberry Knolls Elementary School. Strawberry Knolls lives up to its lovely name. Students and staff were generous and welcoming, and everyone was appreciative of my books, my time, my presence in the school, and the foundation that made my visit possible. Look at this lovely post by 1st grade teacher Laura Ado.

anopenbooklogoAn Open Book Foundation is a DC area nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring authors and illustrators to schools in the Nation’s Capital. Not only do they arrange the visits and host the visiting authors and illustrators, but they also purchase or arrange for donations of books so that every child leaves at the end of the day with a book. Sometimes these are the first books these children have ever owned. That should not be the case, certainly not in communities in and around Washington, DC. But that’s the way it is.

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I came home with a stash of thank you notes. No one can do rainbows like a six year-old. One child took four elements of the book jacket of my picture book,  Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and integrated them into his own jaunty image. Wow. This is why I write for kids!

Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically calls for states who are party to the convention to “encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books.” The United States at this time is a signatory to the convention, but has yet to ratify it.