Guest Post: The Peddler's Gift by Maxine Rose Schur

The classic picture book, The Peddler's Gift, winner of the 1999 Sydney Taylor Book Award, is back in print. Author Maxine Rose Schur joined The Book of Life to answer a few questions, below. 

First, what is the book about? From Lawley Publishing:

When Shnook, the peddler, arrives in the sleepy town of Korovenko, young Leibush runs to meet him. Every peddler brings merriment to the village, but simple Shnook brings more laughs than any of them.

On this visit, Shnook’s wares include beautiful, hand-carved dreidels. Leibush can’t take his eyes off them! When Leibush notices one mistakenly left behind, he makes excuses for keeping the dreidel. It isn’t until Leibush makes amends that he learns the peddler’s simple ways might just be a cover for a wealth of wisdom and forgiveness. And when Hanukkah comes, Shnook leaves Leibush a gift to last a lifetime.

Acclaimed author Maxine Rose Schur’s dramatic story has a simple voice that speaks volumes about the depth of kindness and honor that can be found in unlikely places. Combined with Kimberly Bulcken Root’s expertly crafted and touching illustrations, The Peddler’s Gift will reach straight into your heart.

Winner of the Sydney Taylor Award, Smithsonian Notable Book of the Century, and Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book


The Book of Life: Maxine, what inspired you to write The Peddler's Gift?

Maxine Rose Schur: There was an Orthodox Jewish press called Dillon Press in the 1980s that wanted me to write a story for children. I had always loved the good but misunderstood, mistreated and hapless characters of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and I.L. Peretz, such as Tevye, Shlemiel, Gimpel and Bontsha the Silent. I wanted to create my own character in this vein so I created Shnook the Peddler. And because children can be mean; they often tend to make fun of someone who’s different, I followed this line of thought and wove this story that has an inherent moral lesson. Also, I wanted to increase the wistfulness of the story by casting it as a remembered incident from the narrator’s long ago childhood. 

TBOL: To me, the character of Shnook kind of seems like a lamed vavnik, one of the 36 hidden righteous people who roam the world, according to legend. What do you think of that? Tell us about Shnook.

MRS: Oh, I love this comparison! Yes, he is like a lamed vavnik because he is on the surface, an unimportant person. He is overlooked as a saintly being because of his poverty, humble nature, and his seemingly foolish mistakes. Yet he is holy in his goodness, wisdom and gentleness. He is a good soul. And like Leibush, all of us may not at first recognize those who are the good souls among us yet they are all around and in every country on earth.

TBOL: The Peddler's Gift won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in 1999, but it was originally published in a different form in 1985. What was the difference between these two versions? And is the new 2022 edition different in any way from the two earlier versions?

MRS: The book was originally published by a small Orthodox press as Shnook the Peddler. That book had lovely black and white illustrations by the artist, Dale Redpath. When Phyllis Fogelman, the Editor-in-Chief of Dial Books (Penguin-Random House) read the book, she wanted to publish it in a larger format and with full color illustrations. She bought the rights to the story and we changed the title.

Now a Lawley book, other than a slightly smaller, square format, it’s exactly the same―enriched with the beautifully detailed illustrations by Kimberly Bulcken Root.

TBOL: How did the book come to be republished in 2022?

MRS: After Lawley Publishing re-published three of my children’s books that had gone out-of-print I sent them The Peddler’s Gift. They loved the story and wanted to reprint it as well. So thanks to them, this story can now touch a new generation of young readers.

TBOL: I understand that you've developed an educational guide to go with The Peddler's Gift. Where can we get it, and what will we find in it?

MRS: I love doing the research to create a resource that enhances the understanding of the story. The resource guide is found after you subscribe on the Lawley Publishing site then click on the book: The Peddler's Gift

TBOL: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

MRS: I hope the readers will get a sense of Jewish life in a shtetl in the Ukraine in the early 1900s. It was a world of poor but close-knit Jewish communities. A world of oppression, hard work and strong faith. I also hope of course that readers will enjoy the story with its dual message of kindness and forgiveness.

TBOL: What interview question do you wish someone would ask you, and how would you answer it?

MRS: Hmmm. This is such an interesting question! Perhaps I might wish that someone would ask me why I’m interested in shtetl life of Eastern Europe? My answer would be that my mother grew up in Poland between the two world wars and I was always fascinated by her account of growing up in Eastern Europe. She didn’t live in a shtetl but in a small town and her stepfather spoke Yiddish. So, from an early age I was intrigued by the life of the Jews in Poland. As an adult I did a lot of research into the life of the Jews in The Pale of Settlement in the Ukraine and from that I created my middle grade historical novel, The Circlemaker. So perhaps it was just a small step from that to create a picture book in that same milieu that I had learned so much about. Oh and by the way, I am in love with the writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer, so his stories of shtetl life were also a huge influence on me.

TBOL: On The Book of Life Podcast we always have a Tikkun Olam Moment when guests share a suggestion for making the world a better place. What is your Tikkun Olam suggestion for how each of us can help to repair the world?

MRS: My Tikkun Olam suggestion is a reflection of the message in The Peddler’s Gift. Leibush and his friends look down on the peddler because the peddler is different. They ridicule him because his ways are strange and he appears foolish so they view him as the “other.” Today, as we always have, live in a world in which there is distrust among people who look, behave or think differently than we do. I think we each need to not pre-judge others but to maintain a curiosity about others and a willingness to understand different ways of life, customs, perspectives and beliefs. The best way to do this, I believe, is to engage in respectful dialogue and to listen.

TBOL: Finally, how will you be celebrating Hanukkah this year?

MRS: I always celebrate Hanukkah with my family―my husband, two sons, my daughter-in law, three grandchildren and various other relatives. We eat dinner (with latkes of course!), play dreidel, light the menorah and exchange gifts. We don’t try to compete with the splendor of Christmas. We enjoy a happy time that is both low-key and fun.

Maxine Rose Schur, thank you so much for joining us on The Book of Life!


Arlene Schenker said…
What a wonderful interview. The Peddler's Gift looks beautiful, judging by the richly-textured
cover illustration and the simple but powerful message. I'm so glad it's been newly published. I will look for it.