In each installment of "Three Questions With" we ask a different PJ Library author or illustrator questions about their work, their process, and their interests. This month we're chatting with Lesléa Newman, author of dozens of books for children and adults, including PJ Library titles like A Kiss on the Keppie and Matzo Ball Moon.
Were there books that you read as a child that influenced your writing today?
I was raised on Dr. Seuss (The Cat in the Hat! Hop on Pop!) and I think my love of rhythm, rhyme, and energy comes from his books, which I asked my parents to read over and over and over. When I got a bit older, I read books about animals such as Winnie-the Pooh, Black Beauty, Babar the Elephant, and The Yearling. I am a big animal lover, and I think those books inspired me to write books such as Hachiko Waits, which is a middle-grade novel based on the true story of Japan’s famous Akita, who waited for 10 years at a train station hoping for his master’s return, and Ketzel: The Cat Who Composed, which is based on the true story of the loving relationship of the composer Moshe Cotel and his six-toed cat Ketzel, who also becomes a composer!
How does your Jewish background affect or influence your writing?
Everything I write is affected by my Jewish background whether or not it has overt Jewish content. This is because every minute of every day of my life is affected by my Jewish background. I was raised in a mostly secular household—we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, and Chanukah, but did not go to shul on a regular basis. Still, my parents and especially my two grandmothers who were born in what they called the Old Country and came to America via Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century (both my grandfathers died before I was born) instilled a strong sense of Jewish heritage and pride in my two brothers and me.
Throughout the many books and poems you’ve written, are there certain Jewish values that you feel are particularly prevalent in your work?
I feel very strongly that my writing is my way of performing tikkun olam, repairing the world. I try to make the world a better and safer place by creating literature that gives children the message that each one of them is fine just the way they are, whether they have two moms (as in Heather Has Two Mommies) or defy gender stereotypes (as in Sparkle Boy) or have an unusual name (as in My Name Is Aviva). Every child is a precious being who should be treasured. And to me, that is definitely a Jewish value.
Lesléa Newman has created 70 books for readers of all ages including the children’s books A Sweet Passover, Here Is The World: A Year of Jewish Holidays, Runaway Dreidel!, and Matzo Ball Moon. Her literary awards include the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award and two American Library Association Stonewall Honors. Forthcoming titles include Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story (Abrams 2019) and Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail (Charlesbridge, 2020). A past poet laureate of Northampton, MA she currently teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program.
September 14, 2018