A Podcast About Jewish Kidlit (Mostly)

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Monday, December 21, 2015

10 Years of The Book of Life Podcast

Ten years ago on December 21, 2005, I posted the very first episode of The Book of Life. Fourteen and a quarter minutes long, the episode is a mix of home-grown Hanukkah celebrations at Congregation B'nai Israel, the Boca Raton synagogue where I am librarian, and interviews with authors. I had summoned up the courage to approach Eric Kimmel (aka "Mr. Hanukkah"), who I'd met at the 2005 Association of Jewish Libraries conference when he won the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award, and I interviewed him over the phone (with an in-ear recorder!) about his classic Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. I also called Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, who had been my colleague when I worked for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and had since authored Four Sides, Eight Nights: A New Spin on Hanukkah. Because it's been ten years and the downloads have had so long to accumulate, that episode has been downloaded 11,306 times and counting. You can still hear that very first episode here.

My original idea for the podcast was that it would showcase library materials to my own community and encourage folks to come in and borrow things they'd heard about on the show. I tried to interview CBI members and staff to create a sense of community. However, I soon found that most people clam up when you put a microphone in front of them! They get shy, they don't know what to say, and they find the whole experience scary. Authors, on the other hand, are thrilled to talk about their books! It's what they love, plus it's free publicity! So the podcast soon evolved to its current Fresh Air format where I interview authors, illustrators, filmmakers, musicians, and webmasters about their Jewish creations. Hey, if my friends don't wanna talk to me, that's fine, I'll go chat with the famous people!

The Book of Life has produced 152 podcast episodes out of the 272 Jewish news posts on the blog. A particularly memorable episode for me is my 2006 interview with Simms Taback, in which he sang in Yiddish for me. Simms was kind of rambly and he knew it, so when I edited him down to brevity he said "You saved my tuchus!" I answered, "Great! Will you draw me a picture?" And that's how I got this wonderful piece of original artwork! (Note that Simms didn't have an iPod himself, so he didn't realize the wires diverge at midpoint.)

Every now and then I try a new format, like the time I copied A Prairie Home Companion and read greetings from listeners (inviting people to "say chai" for the 18th episode), or when I did a live call-in show to discuss what makes a book Jewish. Another time I recorded a talk by Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) at Books & Books indie bookstore in Miami and he gave me permission to podcast the recording. A recent episode that created a lot of buzz was a virtual panel discussion (accomplished by conference call), discussing the theme  "Enough with the Holocaust Books for Children."

These days, it's easy to find interviewees: many creators email me to introduce their work in hopes of an interview. That's how I found forthcoming podcast subjects: The Last Shepherd (a crowdsourced Israeli sci-fi film) and The Yiddish Fish (a very weird picture book based on a true story). And of course the podcasts about Sydney Taylor Book Award winners just fall into my lap, because I meet those authors and illustrators each year at the Association of Jewish Libraries conference.

If you've been enjoying The Book of Life, please do let me know. It can be lonely, podcasting, because I'm doing all the talking and listeners don't often get in touch. Drop me a line at bookoflifepodcast@gmail.com or leave a comment here on the blog or on Facebook or Twitter to tell me your favorite episodes, make suggestions, or share my delight at reaching the ten year mark! Happy reading and happy podcast listening!

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Mitten String

This post is a double dip! It’s my contribution to the Multicultural Kid Blogs Hanukkah series (see the whole series here) AND it’s my entry in #Readukkah, the 2015 Jewish Reading Challenge, which encourages everyone to spread the word about great Jewish titles in order to increase readership and support Jewish publishing.

Last year I wrote a review of The Mitten String for School Library Journal, which you can see below. I continue to adore this book, and when I thought about what I could use for my #Readukkah selection, this title jumped to mind as an ongoing favorite. 

I love the sense of community that shines forth from the very first line: “It was said that Ruthie Tober’s family warmed the hands of the entire village, because everyone who lived there, big and small, wore mittens knitted from Tober wool.”

I love the spare writing that makes relationships clear so simply: the ease between Mother and Ruthie shows in the wink Mother gives when she reminds Ruthie about her lost mittens.

I love the respectful description of deafness, the fact that Bayla has knowledge to offer as well as a need for help, and the sign language diagrams at the back along with the notation that “Users of sign language actually prefer gloves to mittens, as they employ their fingers to spell words and to sign.” That seems obvious once you read it, but a hearing person may not think about this in a mitten-focused story.

I love, as always, the illustrations by Kristina Swarner. Although Kristina is not Jewish, I consider her a landsman. Her gorgeous work has graced incredible Jewish picture books, from the Sydney Taylor Book Award winner The Bedtime Shema by Sarah Gershman to the heartbreaking Zayde Comes to Live by Sheri Sinykin, a Sydney Taylor Silver.  Gathering Sparks by Howard Schwartz won a Sydney Taylor Silver and his Before You Were Born was named a Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries, because Schwartz and Swarner are such a winning combination. Her work is universal and sweeping, while feeling tender and personal at the same time.

If you haven’t read The Mitten String, do yourself a favor and seek it out. Here’s my original review from SLJ. Happy #Readukkah!

K-Gr 3—The Tobers raise sheep, and young Ruthie loves to knit mittens from their wool for the villagers. When her family befriends a deaf woman whose wagon has broken down and her baby, the child observes how the mother, Bayla, sleeps with a string tied between her own wrist and Aaron's, to alert her if her son wakes up in the night. Inspired, Ruthie knits the pair a set of baby- and mother-sized mittens connected by a string and goes on to make more for the local children to keep them from losing their mittens. "You are both clever and kind," her mother praises. "You make our world a bit better with every stitch." The character of Bayla is based on the author's great-great-aunt; Rosner also has two deaf daughters. It is not surprising, therefore, that her portrayal of deafness is extremely respectful and sensitive. When Bayla uses sign language with Aaron, "To Ruthie, it looked as if Bayla were standing before an invisible spinning wheel, her words flowing from her fingers like delicate strands of yarn." Swarner's rounded and gentle watercolor prints add to the safe, warm feeling of this story of resourcefulness and mutual admiration. The "old country" Jewish setting is subtle, giving the story flavor without dominating it. Knitting and sign-language glossaries round out this attractive title. This beautiful story of kindness, acceptance, and resourcefulness will have wide appeal.—Heidi Estrin, Congregation B'nai Israel, Boca Raton, FL

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Hanukkah Books: A Diverse Dozen

I was very pleased when Multicultural Kid Blogs invited me to write a guest post about Hanukkah. MKB is a collective of blogs from around the world "for families and educators raising world citizens, through arts, activities, crafts, food, language, and love." 

Because the post was for a general audience, I started with a roundup of facts about Hanukkah. Because of the diversity emphasis of MKB, I focused my reading list on books that show the diversity of the Jewish experience by posting about Hanukkah books with Sephardic characters, Jews of color, Jews with disabilities, and interfaith families. 


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Enough with the Holocaust Books for Children!

Image from Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock, used with permission

It all started with Marjorie Ingall’s Tablet article, Enough with the Holocaust Books for Children. As she says in the article, "if you dropped an alien into the children’s section of a library, it would think Jews disappeared after World War II.” Then Arthur A. Levine shared Marjorie’s article on Facebook, commenting that “this smart article says many things that I’ve been saying for a while.” Twenty comments later, Elissa Gershowitz and Yael Levy had thoroughly discussed the difficulties and triumphs of getting NON-Holocaust books for kids published, and Barbara Bietz and I (blogger and podcaster, respectively) had started wondering aloud how we could bring more attention to these issues. Thus, this podcast episode was born.


Mp3 (63:19)

BOOK LIST of mostly non-Holocaust great Jewish kidlit
(titles mentioned during the podcast or submitted later by panelists)

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin
An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank by Elaine Marie Alphin
My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth

Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Becoming Darkness by Lindsay Francis Brambles

Samir and Yonaton by Daniella Carmi
Hush by Eishes Chayil
Deadly by Julie Chibarro
Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier and Greg Salsedo
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, How Mirka Met a Meteorite, How Mirka Caught a Fish by Barry Deutsch
The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren
Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle
The Importance of Wings by Robin Friedman 
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser
The Path of Names by Ari Goelman
The Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz
The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani
The Rabbi and the 29 Witches by Marilyn Hirsh
Feivel’s Flying Horses by Heidi Smith Hyde
Never Say a Mean Word Again by Jacqueline Jules
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel
Sam and Charlie (and Sam Too) by Leslie Kimmelman
About the B’nai Bagels by E.L. Konigsburg
Albert Einstein by Kathleen Krull
all books by Anna Levine
The Very Beary Tooth Fairy by Arthur A. Levine
Small Medium at Large by Joanne Levy
Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust by Leanne Lieberman
Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman
Proxy by Alex London
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel
Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
The Cats in the Doll Shop by Yona Zeldis McDonough
The Doll Shop Upstairs by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons by Alice B. McGinty
As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson
Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King by Richard Michelson
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor
Wonder by RJ Palacio
When Life Gives You OJ by Erica Perl
Rifka Takes a Bow by Betty Rosenberg Perlov
Beautiful Yetta, the Yiddish Chicken by Daniel Pinkwater
Hidden Like Anne Frank: 14 True Stories of Survival by Marcel Prins
Chik Chak Shabbat by Mara Rockliff
Fleabrain Loves Franny by Joanne Rocklin
Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen
Looking for Me by Betsy Rosenthal
The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner
Gathering Sparks by Howard Schwartz
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow
Zayde Comes to Live by Sheri Sinykin
Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder
Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind and Haveli by Suzanne Fisher Staples
Kindred by Tammar Stein (series)
All of a Kind Family (series) by Sydney Taylor
New Year at the Pier by April Halprin Wayland
I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz
Company’s Coming by Arthur Yorinks
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti


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: facebook.com/bookoflifepodcast   
Twitter: @bookoflifepod 
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