Friday, December 18, 2009

Reading About Writing and Publishing

A Review of The School Story by Andrew Clements
I just finished reading a fantastic children’s book with my kids (actually, with my whole family as my husband got sucked into it as well!) The School Story is about twelve year old Natalie Nelson, who is an amazing writer and has written a story called, “The Cheater.” Her best friend, Zoe Reisman, reads her manuscript decides that this book needs to get published. It just so happens that Natalie’s mother is an editor at Shipley Junior Books, one of the largest children’s book publishers in New York. Natalie is afraid that no one will take her seriously as a twelve year old, nor would her mother be able to be unbiased. She wants her book to be accepted on its own merit.

The two girls come up with a plan to take on the grown-up world of publishing. Before long, Natalie adopts a pseudonym and becomes Cassandra Day. Zoe becomes “Zee Zee,” Natalie’s fast-talking, loud-mouthed agent from the fictional Sherry Clutch Literary Agency. With the help of their English teacher, the girls set out to achieve their publishing dreams! What makes this story so special is the friendship and loyalty that the girls share. Zoe pushes Natalie when she is discouraged and ready to quit, because she truly believes in her friend. Zoe’s schemes, plotting and ultimately her brilliant publicity stunt at the end of the story are wonderfully entertaining.

This book was recommended to me by a friend because of my personal journey with my own book, however you don’t need to be a writer or to be involved in the publishing world to truly enjoy this book. Not only did my family and I like the wonderful characters, the sub-plots and the story in general, but we loved the way the author walked us through the complicated world of publishing. My kids now understand what a “slush pile” is as well as other real-world issues such as contracts, negotiations, marketing, advertising, etc. The School Story is geared toward middle grades (ages 8-12) but was enjoyed by all five Weinsteins in our household (ages 7-42!) We highly recommend it!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Birth of my Fictional Twins, YaYa and YoYo

About four years ago, when my youngest son was attending the preschool at our synagogue, I volunteered at the school’s book fair. I was in charge of setting up a table that was dedicated to Jewish children’s books. As I browsed the selection, I found that there was a wonderful assortment of picture books, mostly about Jewish holidays. In addition, there were only three or four books for older kids which covered the topics of the Holocaust or famous Jews in sports. Now, in all fairness, it was a preschool book fair, which explains the imbalance in the favor of picture books. However, I began to wonder if there were engaging books from which older kids could learn about being Jewish that go beyond Sasha Cohen and Anne Frank. While I do believe that kids need to be informed of the tragic and horrific events of the Holocaust and while I think it’s great for them to formulate positive identities with famous Jewish icons, I was simply looking for a fun read for my kids. Fiction.

I started looking into this idea and found that there are indeed many good Jewish books for kids, but there is also room for much more. (In fact, as I come across other worthwhile books, I’ll be sure to share them here on my blog.) As part of my quest, I learned that there are whole organizations dedicated to nothing other than quality Jewish books (The Jewish Book Council and The Association of Jewish Libraries, to name a couple.) Who knew?! I even had the opportunity to attend a Jewish Children’s Writer’s Workshop at the 92 Street Y in New York City. The room was full of authors and illustrators of Jewish children’s books.

Anyway, what I found was that there are many books that touch on Judaism tangentially, maybe making a reference to bagels and lox or a cousin’s bar mitzvah party, but I was looking for something with a bit more “meat” (and I‘m not just talking about kosher pastrami on rye!) On the other end of the spectrum, there are lots of great books written with a more right-leaning, orthodox tilt. Plus, there are many wonderful books that fall into the category of Historical Fiction. All good stuff, but I was searching for the Baby-Bear in the Goldilocks world of Jewish books: Not too heavy on the Jewish stuff and not too light. Just right. I wanted something that my own kids would relate to and enjoy. I was seeking something current that reflects their lives as they live them; that illustrates the joys and beauty of Jewish living in today’s world. My quest turned into a project, which turned into a passion, which turned into a new profession. An author was born!

I thought back to my own childhood reading memories and recalled how I loved reading books by my favorite author, Judy Blume. I remember reading Judy Blume’s books and thinking that she really knew how to get into a kid’s head. She made me forget that it was a grown-up doing the writing. I couldn’t put her books down. Whether it was Deenie or Blubber or any one of her other many works that I happened to pick up, I finished it the same day. I also recalled reading the All of a Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor and how I loved being able to relate to the Jewish events she portrayed through her wonderful characters.

It sparked the idea for me to create a chapter book for older kids that will immerse kids (and parents too) in the richness of Jewish culture and practice that goes beyond a light “matzah ball or bagels” version of a Jewish story. I set out to create engaging characters that kids would love and relate to the way I “befriended” Peter Hatcher and Sally J. Friedman in Judy Blume’s books. Then I wove in Jewish experiences, akin to those in the All of a Kind Family series, but instead of taking place at the turn of the century, I created current, modern, cool kids with whom readers would actually want to be “friends.”

While reading the Junie B. Jones and Magic Tree House series with my own children, my idea for a book bloomed into an idea for a whole series. I posed the idea to my husband, expecting him to tell me that this is another one of my “hair-brained schemes,” as he likes to say. Little did I know that he would become my biggest cheerleader, PR man and best fan. I shared my idea with my kids, who then overtook my husband’s role as biggest fan. Each day when I’d pick them up from school, they’d climb into the car, clamoring, “Did you write any more today?” “What happened to Ellie?” “Hurry up and finish Chapter 7 already!”

And so began my journey with my new kids, my fictional twins, Ellie and Joel Silver, affectionately known as YaYa and YoYo. I’m happy to report that bringing two new children into our family did not cause any jealousy, fighting or even higher grocery bills! They have become a welcome addition to our family. I am having so much fun with YaYa and YoYo and I hope that you will enjoy getting to know them too! I can’t wait for you to meet them when Sliding into the New Year is published in early 2011 by Yaldah Publishing!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

My First Review

OK, I have to admit, it's a bit biased...

For my first official post, I'm actually not putting up my own writing, but rather an excerpt from a letter my husband wrote to a friend a while back (with his permission, of course!). I love what he had to say and wanted to share. I will post my own version sometime soon.

Dori decided to write a book. She had been looking for Jewish books for kids around our kids’ ages (2nd and 5th grades). Other than books about the Holocaust or books about famous Jewish athletes, she really could not find anything between books for preschool kids and ones for high school kids. And certainly nothing that was just a really good chapter book that kids would eat up irrespective of it being a Jewish book. She got to planning, and came up with the model of doing a book series; twelve books, taking place over the course of a year, hitting on holidays and other life cycle events. My most useful suggestion was to take things one step further. Have the characters in each book learn about and struggle with a core value or two about/from Judaism. After some discussion, Dori decided to try to tackle this concept and see if she could weave it into her book outlining and writing.

It has been a long process. She would write, and then sit with our kids to get their reactions and feedback. Although I was part of conversations over many dinners discussing the book and knew the basic plot, I decided to wait to until a first draft was completed before reading it. That was just before Passover, 2006. The book was great.

She had a focus group or two of kid-readers, had some friends read it, and got lots of feedback. Then she took a very long vacation. Sometime after the chaggim (High Holidays) she got to work on revising, and towards the end of 2006 she finished up the second draft. Again, I waited until the draft was completed to read it, and was even more blown away. Not only is it well written, captivating, warm, fun and funny, as a rabbi friend told her over dinner a few months ago, the book will be published because it needs to be published. The story – no, not the story, the wisdom, growth and insights it offers – is absent from the literary landscape and is desperately needed in the homes of so many Jewish families and schools.

Without giving away too much, it is centered on some kids who have all of the activities, issues, etc. of everyday middle class American kids. They are Jewish, go to afternoon Hebrew school, but live in the “real world”. The plot struggle relates to the main character being invited by her best friend (not Jewish) to go to a new water park on Rosh Hashanah. Dori has managed to address not only that very ordinary tension for a ten year old, but to do it in a way that intertwines it with t’shuvah concepts that are within the experience and comprehension levels of elementary-aged kids.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Welcome to my Blog!

Thanks for visiting me in my new space! I plan to share updates, news and musings about my experiences as a new author. Wish me luck! This blogging business is all new territory for me. I hope you like it. Please stop by and say hi!