Thursday, February 18, 2010

Good for the Jews -- A Purim Tale

"Good for the Jews is a smart, funny, sexy novel set in Madison, Wisconsin, during the Bush administration. Part mystery and part stranger-comes-to town story, Good for the Jews is loosely based on the biblical book of Esther. Like Esther, Debra Spark's characters deal with anti-Semitism and the way that powerful men—and the women who love them—negotiate bureaucracies."
-- University of Michigan Press
Colby College professor and award-winning author Debra Spark's newest novel is Good for the Jews. With Purim approaching, I thought you might like to learn a little more abo
ut this unique story and its relationship with the megillah. Debra was kind enough to do an email interview with me - enjoy her answers below, and be sure to check out her extremely funky website.

Debra, what got you interested in exploring and retelling the story of Esther?

Several years ago, in preparation for taking my son to his first Purim service, I reread the Book of Esther. It turned out that I entirely misremembered the end of the story
. In fact, I think I never knew the true end of the story. What I remembered: At story's end, Haman is vanquished, hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, and all's well that ends well. In fact: after Haman dies, the Jews are given permission to continue fighting, and they got out and kill thousands. Revenge? Or self-defense? The Book of Esther doesn't really say. Since I happened to be rereading Esther, just as the United States was going into Iraq, the ending discomfitted me. In going into Iraq, wasn't the United States--the victims on 9/11--becoming victimizers? I wanted to write my novel in order to explore my own discomfort. But I also liked the idea of a retelling, because the Book of Esther has so much going for it in terms of humor, the relationship between the sexes, palace intrigue and so on. I liked having the scaffolding of a much beloved story--and beloved for good reason--on which to hang my tale.

Why did you set your retelling of The Book of Esther in Madison, Wisconsin?

I wanted to set my book in a left wing town, since I wanted to explore the so-called anti-Semitism of the left. I happen to have lived in Madison for two years when I was in my twenties, so that was that.

The title of the book is the catchphrase "good for the Jews." Can you explain a bit about what the phrase means, what it implies?

People of my parents' generation, and perhaps my own, are used to things being couched in terms of whether it is or is not "good for the Jews." The implication (usually) is that anything that gives non-Jews a reason not to think well of the Jews is suspect. It's bad for the Jews. And visa versa.

At the end of the book Ellen, the Esther character, wonders if Biblical stories are "good for the Jews." Do you think they are or aren't?

Well, I think I thought that the Book of Esther, if read in a certain light, could be bad for the Jews, and, in fact, when I looked into it, it turned out that, through the centuries, plenty of anti-Semites have used the ending of that book as evidence of the bloodthirstiness of the Jews. Throughout the Bible, of course, Jews don't behave necessarily well. Neither does God, for that matter. So you can see, in a weird way, how the Bible might not be "good for the Jews," not the best public relations kit! But, of course, tha
t's just one angle into the Bible and not, perhaps, the most fair one, but the one that I thought my character would be brought to by the events of the novel.

Ironically, the Haman character instigates diversity training in the school where he is principal. Mose (the Mordichai character) says that minorities don't need diversity training. Do you think that's true?

Hmm ... I'm not sure I'd say that exactly, even though he does. That said, I find the notion of diversity training a little peculiar. I suppose you could
be trained into having an awareness of class and race that you didn't have before being "trained," but I am doubtful.

In some of your interviews you talk about the tension between being seen as a victim versus a victimizer and how sometimes the same people can be both. Can you talk a little about that, and about how that works into the book?
I heard the Israeli novelist David Grossman say (some
where? I can't remember where) that the Middle Eastern situation would never be solved until both sides admitted they had been victims and victimizers. I couldn't agree more, and I think it is both sides tendency to claim only victim status that has led to the perpetual stalemate in the region. No one thinks of themselves, of course, as the bad guy, so I'm interested in how bad things happen, when everyone imagines themselves an innocent. That was part of what I wanted to look at in the book, and I hoped one way to do that would be to make all of the characters have their reasons for thinking as they did. Even if you (as a reader) couldn't assent to what they were doing, it would be believable that they thought what they were doing was right.

As a reader who was already familiar with the story of Esther, I found the parallels in your book very intriguing, but I wonder what the reading experience would be like for someone who did not bring that background knowledge with them. Have you heard any reactions from such readers, and was their reading experience different in any significant way?

Well, I think Jews tend to know the story, but non-Jews
don't, so I don't think it matters if you know the story or not. I hope it doesn't matter! When I first sent the novel to friends to read, no one recognized the story beneath the story, save for a Jewish friend (the writer Marjorie Sandor) who figured it out about 3/4s of the way through. I loved that she "got" it. Back when it was time to write "ad copy" for my book, I didn't think I should describe the book as a retelling of the Esther story, but I got sort of stumped when I went to give a short explanation of the book, so I fell back on that. (In some ways, knowing that it is a retelling of the Esther story ruins things, after all, because it might mean that you can see things coming.) I don't think I'd expect anyone to get the various parallels, even as I put them in. I did a lot of reading on The Book of Esther while I was writing, so a few things I put in there were completely obscure, but just fun for me to put in. But I still haven't answered your question. I haven't heard anyone tell me that the book didn't work for the, because they don't know the Book of Esther, but I imagine they wouldn't tell me if this was, indeed, the case.

If you were going to dress up for Purim, what would you dress as? :^)

Oh, Esther! But that's only because my husband made me an Esther face puppet years ago,and I love it. He made a Haman one, too. But I don't like to be the bad guy! It seems that kids don't go as the story's characters as much as they used to. My son is determined to go to this year's Purim service as a Ninja. Oy!

Thanks very much, Debra!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Save the Deli!


The Book of Life's Canadian Correspondent, Anne Dublin, attends the launch party for Save the Deli by David Sax at Caplansky's Deli in Toronto.





Produced by: Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel
Supported in part by: Association of Jewish Libraries
Theme music: The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band
Facebook fan page:
Twitter: @bookoflifepod

Your feedback is appreciated! Please write to or call our voicemail number at 561-206-2473.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Natascia Ugliano, Illustrator of Benjamin and the Silver Goblet

I am very pleased to be participating in the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! Features on winning authors and illustrators are being posted on blogs all over the web this week; click here to see the entire schedule and links to all participating blogs!

The assignment I was happy to accept was to bring you a profile of Natascia Ugliano, illustrator of Jacqueline Jules' Bible story series. The third book in this series, Benjamin and the Silver Goblet, was named a 2010 Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers category, and will receive a silver medal. Check out a profile of the book's author today on ASHarmony, blogged by my friend Betsy Lipp.

I cover Sydney Taylor Book Award news frequently, so you may already know that this literary prize recognizes the best Jewish books for children and teens each year. It is the only book award that focuses solely on Judaic children's literature. It's named in memory of Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family books, a series that marked a turning point in the genre of Jewish children's literature. For official info on the award, visit

Natascia Ugliano (as pictured here in the adorable self-portrait she uses on Facebook) lives in Milan, Italy. She has worked as a scenographer and costume design assistant in theater and cinema, as well as doing illustration. She has won quite a few literary prizes in Italy, and her work on Kar-Ben Publishing's Bible story series has been recognized by the Sydney Taylor committee in the past, with a silver medal for Sarah Laughs in 2009 and with Notable Book status for Abraham's Search for God in 2008.

I was not able to reach Natascia directly in time to interview her for the blog tour, so I spoke instead to Joanna Sussman at Kar-Ben Publishing to get her take on the artist's work.

Joni, how did you originally discover Natascia Ugliano's art?

As a publisher, I receive communication and marketing information from many artists and artist representatives. I saw a sample of Natascia’s art just as I was beginning to look for an artist for Jacqueline Jules’ Bible series, and I thought Natascia’s beautiful, richly colored art would be a wonderful fit for these stories. As there was not much action in the first couple of stories in this series – Abraham’s Search for God and Sarah Laughs, I wanted an artist who could still create lush beautiful art with a lot of detail that was lovely to look at and would help propel the stories forward despite the lack of action in the plots.

What makes Natascia's art a good fit for Jacqueline Jules' Bible story series?

Illustrating Bible stories is tricky in that many of these Bible characters are well known and readers may have preconceived notions of what they ought to look like. Were they dark or light skinned, curly haired or straight-haired? And how does one illustrate God or God’s spirit? I thought Natascia’s art had great thoughtfulness and spirituality to it and she also had the ability to capture the landscapes of the various Bible stories. As Natascia isn’t Jewish, we review especially carefully all elements of the art in these stories to make sure it has a Jewish sensibility; the Jewish vs. Christian visual interpretation can be quite different. Natascia does a wonderful job of bringing the Jewish Bible to life.

Can you reveal any behind-the-scenes secrets about Natascia's art?

We’re just completing work on the most recent title in this Bible series Miriam in the Desert,(coming Fall 2010) the story of Miriam’s leading the people through the wilderness and the introduction of the boy Bezalel, who becomes the artist who crafts the Holy Ark. The tricky part in working with the art for this story was deciding how the Ark should look because, of course, nobody knows what the original Ark of the Covenant looked like – was it plain or elaborate? Did it look like the one in the Indiana Jones movie? How big was it in proportion to the people? Both we and Natascia did a fair amount of research and we went back and forth on several designs before deciding on one that we thought would work.

[art from the forthcoming Miriam in the Desert]

Natascia lives in Italy and Kar-Ben is based in Minnesota, USA. In the modern world of publishing, does this create any barriers or difficulties? Or have electronic communications truly made it irrelevant where your colleagues live?

The digital revolution has been wonderful in terms of broadening the range of art from which publishers can now choose. It’s made the work of artists from all over the world easily accessible, and we think the larger variety of art styles really enhances our library of titles. Natascia was among the first foreign artists we worked with and our relationship with her has been so delightful and positive, we’ve gone on to work with quite a few other foreign artists, including Gosia Mosz, Hungary, (Hanukkah Moon); Valeria Cis, Argentina (A Tale of Two Seders); Cecilia Rebora, Guadalajara, Mexico (Tower of Babel); Jago Silver, United Kingdom (Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim); and Israelis Ksenia Topaz (Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig), Avi Katz (Boy From Seville), and Pepi Marzel (My First Hebrew Word Book), to name a few.

Are you planning to have Natascia illustrate any other Kar-Ben books besides this series?

Until now, Natascia’s been busy with the four books in this Bible series, but I would love to have her illustrate other stories for us as well. She is just finishing the art for Fall 2010’s Miriam in the Desert.

Joni, thanks for being part of the blog tour, and congratulations on Kar-Ben being recognized once again by the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee!


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Kvetchfessional: The Movie

Remember back in November 2009 when I posted my interview with author Simone Elkeles and kidlit expert June Cummins, talking about the "kvetchfessional" style of YA chicklit? Simone has now produced a very fun book trailer video for her newest title in the "How to Ruin" series, How to Ruin Your Boyfriend's Reputation. Enjoy!