THE BOOK OF LIFE - Pond Life
3:49AM Jul 23, 2020
[COLD OPEN] Hi, I'm Joanne Levy, author of Fish Out of Water. I identify as a white Jewish cishet woman and I'm so excited about the "Pond Life" episode of The Book of Life podcast. Where I join Evan Wolkenstein, and we speak with Heidi about our #ownvoices books, that feature of male protagonists who struggle with their Bar Mitzvah projects.
This is Evan Wolkenstein, author of Turtle Boy, I identify as a white Ashkenazi Jewish cishet man, educator and author without disabilities. But I'd also like to use my privilege to boost black voices.
I wanted to take this moment to boost the voice of a black author who is also a fellow Canadian. It's my mission to write mirror and window books that kids of any background can enjoy that feature Jewish characters. I honestly believe that it's through reading about characters who are unlike them, that children build empathy and are more resistant to hate later in life. So while there is absolutely a place for books about the Holocaust and antisemitism, my books are about kids who do kid things, but who just happened to be Jewish, so Jewish kids can see themselves and non Jewish kids can see we are all the same in many ways. So with that in mind, when Heidi invited me to take this opportunity to use my privilege to boost a black author, I wanted to highlight a book that is about a black kid doing kid things. I found that in Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott. I mean, looking after dragons isn't a typical kid thing, but I can't imagine any kid who wouldn't want a dragon. It's a fun and funny book about a dinosaur-loving kid who unwittingly finds himself the caretaker of baby dragons, and the cast of characters he meets along the way. It's the perfect book for kids who love a little bit of magic in their stories. And I highly recommend the audiobook, the voice actor is wonderful. And there's even the bonus of having the author read her own acknowledgments at the end, highlighting some of her own frustrations with the lack of diversity in kidlit. I do hope we're making a change on that front, and to that end I do hope you'll give Dragons in a Bag a read or a listen. I'm eager to read the second book in the series, The Dragon Thief, and more books from Zetta. Thank you for listening and read widely. It's one way to repair the world.
I'd like to recommend Tight by Torrey Maldonado. Tight is about a boy around the age of the main character in Turtle Boy. His name is Brian and he's an all around sweet kid, but he's got some monsters in his closet. Brian is close to his loving and wise mother. But he aches for the approval of his father who has been in and out of prison and who has a violent, explosive temper. It's the story of what happens when Brian has the opportunity to become friends with a kid who seems like the bridge to becoming a bit less like his mom, and a bit more like his dad. What I loved about this book was that it features caring, thoughtful adults, and it shows a well rounded kid trying to figure out how to get the love that he needs and the attention that he craves. And in a way it reminded me a little of my own writing. And on the other hand, Brian is black growing up in low income housing in Brooklyn and he has a whole set of other concerns that my fairly privileged protagonist doesn't have to contend with: food insecurity, societal institutionalized racism, mass incarceration, violence. And yet like Will Levine, Brian is a bit of a dork. He loves comic books he loves Ms Pac Man. And in some ways, if the world were a different place, I could see he and Will being friends. Torrey's dialogue is rich and authentic. It's not really hard to pick up the vernacular and it does give you a real sense of immersion and culture and way of life I don't have daily access to. Meanwhile, Torrey himself did the dialogue on the audiobook and it's read with sparkle and with passion. So pick up a copy of Tight by Torrey Maldonado and see the world through a new perspective.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. For this "Pond Life" episode I paired the books Turtle Boy with Fish Out of Water to highlight the similar themes I saw in both middle grade Bar Mitzvah novels. Luckily, authors Joanne levy and Evan Wolkenstein really hit it off, and they actually helped to interview each other. Before we get into the conversation, I just want to mention that the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators has a curriculum for Turtle Boy on their website, which I will link to at BookofLifepodcast.com along with links to everything else that we'll be talking about. Let's dive in.
Evan, tell us about Turtle Boy and what inspired this story.
So Turtle Boy is based on a difficult year of my life. Both the main character of the book, Will, and I both had a very difficult year. We have had a minor facial difference that made us feel different than other people, that we got some bullying for and some name calling for, but also kind of introverted and afraid to connect to other people in the outside world. So both the book and my life as a seventh grader were about learning to break out of that shell and kind of swim out into the real world. It started as a comic strip that I drew in order to share that experience that I had with other people and eventually turned into a novel.
Joanne, tell us about Fish Out of Water and what inspired your story.
So Fish Out of Water is about a boy who is gearing up toward his Bar Mitzvah and he has to choose a mitzvah project. His best friend is collecting hockey equipment to give to people who can't afford hockey equipment, because here in Canada, hockey is a very big deal and hockey equipment is very expensive, except that Fish doesn't like sports, and he doesn't really want to do something like that. And he knows he needs to do something meaningful but he can't think of anything meaningful. So he ends up wanting to knit socks because he's seen his grandmother knitting socks and, and he loves them. He feels like the knitted socks are like hugs from his grandmother every time he wears them, so to him that's meaningful. And where I got the idea, I guess just I wanted to write a story about a kid who didn't like regular boy things and make it okay. You know, there's a lot of subtle resistance that he got from well meaning people, his grandparents and his mom and his friends especially. And, you know, I think right now that the little subtle ways we censure people are unconscious bias. And I wanted to put that in there with a light hand, but important that Fish stood up and said, This is what I want to do, and it's okay and why wouldn't it be okay? So that's where the story came from. And it was inspired... if you looked at the dedication in the book, I dedicate it to Travis, who is my friend's son, and he's just like this exuberant kid, and he loves crafts, and he's, he's just really clever and different. And it's so awesome. He's such a great kid. So I wanted to write a book about a kid like that.
Cool, All right. So I'd like to ask both of you to talk about the importance of B'nai mitzvah, in these stories and in real life.
Sure! It was easy to talk about in this book, because obviously, it's built right in that Fish needs to figure out what he wants to do that's meaningful. And one of the things that I love about what he ends up doing is it's something so small, but it's something so meaningful and it takes a lot of work for him to actually knit socks because it is very challenging to knit socks. And it seems like such a little thing to provide socks to people who don't have them. But it's huge. And I read an article about socks being so requested in homeless shelters because it's just something people don't donate, they end up getting a lot of really bad socks like cotton sweat socks. And if somebody's wearing socks for a week, or two weeks or three weeks at a time, sweat socks, don't do it. You need good solid wool socks. So it just seemed like a great thing that Fish could do and rally his grandmother and all the knitters at Shalom Village and his knitting club to help him for something so small his socks but it can be life changing for somebody that needs them.
Yeah, so one thing that I thought was the case about the Bat Mitzvah year is I thought you prepare for the ceremony and then you have the ceremony and then like you're an adult now because that's kind of the way that the language is around what it means to become a bar mitzvah. Now you're an adult member of the community. But anybody who's gone through the experience knows that you just finished seventh grade, you're barely in eighth grade, or maybe you're just starting eighth grade, and the entire world treats you like a child. And in many ways, you're still coming along without much change in your life in terms of like additional privileges or responsibilities. So my feeling about the Bar or Bat Mitzvah process is, it's not where you end being a child and you start being an adult, but it's like the official kickoff of entering into a process of adulting and figuring out who you are and who you want to be. So while Fish is trying to figure out what he wants to do, and how he wants to organize what it means to be a boy or a man or what it doesn't have to mean and he's figuring out his own identity, Will has been living his entire life in this kind of a bubble. Actually, similarly to Fish. He's got hesitancies about the tikkun portion of his experience, but his Rabbi kind of behind the scenes understands him and puts him in a position where he's going to have to do something that is outside of his comfort zone, which is going to be visiting a punk rock drummer teenager in the hospital, older than him, an extrovert, loud, funny, brash, while Will is the opposite of those things. And so this experience, like the first act of the book is going to be Will pushing against it because it hurts too much to imagine growing into that. And it ignites a lot of his own anxieties. But like so much of the adulting process, it's all about that next step of who you want to be, step by step, you can't do it all at once. You have to do it a little at a time. And then when the bar mitzvah happens, I won't reveal too much. But it's not that everything in Will's life is now solved. It's that Will has the beginning of a toolbox for how to address the problems in his life. And I think that that can be a powerful thing for a b'nai mitzvah to learn, is that as they enter into this new phase, it's not some magic gateway that you go through and you never come back. It's the inauguration or the Bon Voyage at the beginning of a journey. And you have that year to think about how you want that first year of adulting to be, but it's going to be a long, long process. The Talmud says all beginnings are difficult. The b'nai mitzvah experience is about making sure that the beginning of your experience, you have as much support as you possibly can.
Joanne, Fish Out of Water is a book with a strong message about gender expectations. So as a woman, why did you choose to write it from a male point of view?
I think we need more boys and men as allies to solve sexism. And I think when going back to the, the subtle way that we talk to boys, I don't think it's interpreted as sexism, but it is and it creates expectations and we tell boys a lot of things they can't do, exactly what Fish gets told, oh, why would you want to do that? That's girly. It's insulting to boys and women. You know, we hear stuff like that as women and girls all the time. I don't think boys do as much. And I think it's important to put the spotlight on that. I see this book as two tracks. For young boys reading it, I think it's sort of a gut check that you trust what you want to do whatever you want to do, if that's your passion, go for it, nobody should stop you. And also for adults reading the book, watch what you say, see the impact of it and think about it and check your bias at the door because look how you can be damaging a kid who otherwise just has dreams and passions that shouldn't be related to gender. So I felt that writing it as a boy perspective just gave it a bit more than your regular story about girls saying "I can do it, I can do it" and they can. But I think it's just a little different from a boy's perspective.
Yeah, good answer. I agree. Evan, Turtle Boy is a real Carpe Diem, seize the day kind of story. What does-- well first of all, did you know what Carpe Diem means?
I saw Dead Poets Society.
Because, okay, because I was about to say, What does Carpe Diem mean to you? And I want to make sure you know what Carpe Diem means. You know, what is on your bucket list? What have you done so far on your bucket list? You know, you were talking about going outside your comfort zone. And also, I'd like you to talk about the challenge of seizing the day during the global pandemic.
Yeah. One way that I've lived my life really differently than a lot of my peers is I waited a long time, and there's a certain amount of male privilege for this is biologically, to get married and have kids. So one downside of that is I'm later in my life but one upside is I was able to do a lot of the things that as a 20-something I had desire to do. And many of them were really in my bones. I really wanted to travel the world. I wanted to pick up a backpack and go to India and I wanted to go to Egypt. I wanted to go to Turkey, I wanted to live abroad. I spent five years in Israel, I studied Torah, I did a lot of different kinds of jobs. I've done everything from cooking fast food to working as a high school teacher. And I feel like I've had a really rich and interesting life and all along the way I've done a lot of things that I am really proud of. I've played in bands, I've, you know, drawn comic strips, I've played music on the street for change. Like I've just done a lot of things that as a kid I sort of dreamed about. And then I did them and they were incredible. And then when I was done with them, I really felt done and I really felt like I was ready to move on with my life and do something very different. And so now I have a little two year old who was asleep in the other room; married. And so "seize the day" to me now as an almost 46 year old is completely different than what it meant when I was in my 20s. In my 20s it exactly meant, Go out there and find something crazy to do and just do it, get on a bus, travel somewhere that you've never been before and see who you meet and just kind of throw yourself on the kindness of opportunities as they come. There were times when I was the only person I knew in an entire country. I didn't know anybody in the country and I would just make friends and find a place to stay and, and live life. Now that's not what Carpe Diem means to me, now It means every minute when I'm with Anna, my daughter, be with her, like my phone is very tempting. And I really want to pick it up to check my email. No, stack the blocks with her. Or I think about an email that I should be writing to somebody. No, join her in the storytelling. And it's really hard and there's a lot of distraction. But to me now it just means being very present as a dad, as a husband, as a different kind of person than I used to be. And I think the pandemic plays into that and I'm really aware that I have a circumstance that is very privileged, I think about that a lot. I have space, I have a house with an office that I can go to, I have a backyard with, I'm looking at some beautiful bamboo there. I know that that is not everybody's circumstance. I'm very grateful for that. And it's leading me to do a lot of thinking about how my privilege fits into the choices that I have to make in my life, in the struggles that I need to think about joining in. So that is on my mind, but at the same time, it can be an opportunity to turn inwards. And in a world that is constantly pushing us to go, go, go it's a little bit like, it can be a little bit like Shabbat like stay and, and be. And I think anybody who's really conscious of this knows that we can't just celebrate this as a giant Shabbat because people are sick, people are dying, people are suffering. So this is not something to celebrate. But given the fact that we're put in this situation, trying to learn from it, what we can, is really essential.
All right. This question is for both of you. What was the hardest part of your story to write? And what was the easiest?
Some books are just magic and they write themselves. It does not happen very often. Usually there's a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into every book and every word. This one was not that book, this book just fell into place. And I'm not an outliner. But it just worked. So please don't hate me, other writers. It never happens. It won't happen again. But this one really worked. So I'd have to say the book as a whole. The hard part was checking my own biases. It really came into clear view, where I stand on things and my assumptions, growing up in a family, I was the youngest and the only girl, three older brothers. And you know, my parents always said, you can do whatever you want. You can be whatever you want, and they were always extremely supportive that way. But there was a lot of differences in how we were treated, it was always expected that my brothers mowed the lawn and did outside work. And it was always expected that I clean the kitchen, and just little things like that. And it occurred to me as I was reading this book that these are the little things that we don't notice, but the kids do. And kids don't come into this world knowing about bias, they learn from these little things as well meaning as they may be. So this really gave me the opportunity to examine where I'm coming from and the things that I say and even the way I look at things because you just, you don't even notice. And it's so subtle sometimes that it really opened my eyes to how I look at things and how I treat myself and others and how I think about what we say to kids.
The hardest part for me was, I'm the same person I always was. That seventh grader is still in me. But I am a very transformed person. I've grown up and changed in so many ways, so one of the most difficult things was creating a seventh grade character who's kind of a persona of me. And my first name is Matthew, you know, Matt, and Matt and Will are like anagrams, like the W becomes an M, the vowel and then the two kind of long tall letters like Will is me I am Will, but not the official character. So one thing that was very challenging was how much of the kind of misanthropic grouchy closed-off me that I was as a seventh grader, am I going to force onto my readers? And to what extent am I going to say let's just create somebody here who a reader can connect to and not feel pushed away from, and it took a lot of drafts to develop somebody that you might root for, even though you could see him really struggling. If that happened, that is in no small part because of the incredible editing of people like my editor at Random House, Beverly Horowitz, who pushed me to let go of my grip on who Will needed to be and let him be his own new person, which, ironically, is what we're talking about today, like letting people be themselves, I needed to let my character be my-- be his self, in the same way that I think our books are very much about letting people discover who they really are. So in some ways, the process of creating a fictional character can kind of mirror some of the ways that we're urging both our own selves and the young people that we come into contact with, to embrace who they really are, to not be afraid to try something new, and to go out of a different path than the one that they felt pushed into.
Good answer. And I feel like I should say that there are so many similarities with our books. We didn't write them together. Correct?
It feels like we did, while I was listening to it. I was like, Ooh, that's a different way of doing the same thing. I did.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the the dead fathers and the mitzvah project. We did them in such different ways, though, but there's so many similarities.
I was struck by that. Yeah, it's like Legos like it's the same Lego blocks, but completely different configuration.
Well, relating to how the books were so similar, both of these books feature a bar mitzvah boy who's a good kid, a model of non toxic masculinity. And they're both learning to embrace their true selves. So what is the Zeitgeist that inspired you both to write this sort of book right now?
Just a matter of, I wanted to write a book about a kid like my friend's son. They came here to stay for a visit and I was just so inspired by his personality, and he's just such a great kid. So I think the bar mitzvah thing is sort of built in for that age. And it just sort of went from there.
Yeah, so about three years ago... so I teach high school, Jewish Community High School of the Bay, and one of my amazing colleagues who teaches a class on social justice went to do a maternity leave, and she trusted me with her class to take it for a semester. And suddenly, I was in a situation of not just having feelings about feminism, and I've thought of myself, I guess I would say like a striving feminist since I understood what the word really meant, probably in college. So going from just thinking about it or like wanting to be or like intending to be, to having to impart what it means to me into a roomful of teenagers, girls who like already know the advanced calculus of what gender is all about, because they're confronted with it and the messaging and the limitations of it from a very early age, and boys who are thrown into the gendering box but are not always as conscious of how it operates as girls are, I think girls speak it as a first language and boys get clued into it sometimes against their will a little later on, and generalizing, of course. So there I was having to learn how to do that. And I found that as I was reading, and watching and learning about feminism and how to teach it and the boxes that genders are in, starting to understand non binary gender better. And just realizing like I'm really at the beginning of a long journey of understanding things that I've just been waking up to slowly over the course of my life. And now I have to teach it, that responsibility really shifted my gear. I was like, there is no time to waste. There are students waiting for us, there are young people who are seeing toxic messaging all over the place. And we are all they have. It's urgent. And so however ill equipped I might have felt to solve the problem, it's a little like Lo alecha ham'lacha ligmor, right. I'm not going to solve the problem, but we can't put down the task. So as I was setting out to write the story, I think I was pulling from my experience in the classroom and trying to bring my passion for helping people to become who they are, and to fight a broken patriarchy, like passion to fight that, channel that into some of my writing.
I love that. Evan, tell us about Bim Bam.
Bim Bam is an incredible website, and they don't exist as an ongoing organization. But the mission was ,we need to create content that is deep and current and super relevant for young people to learn about Jewish civilization, but also that won't be oversimplified, stuff that'll be intriguing to adults. It started as G-dcast, my friend Sarah Lefton started this incredible organization. And it began just with like a Parsha Shavua, an animated parsha. And the thing that stood out was, each one was unique. Some of them were musical. Some of them were poetic, but a lot of them were just great animation. And just to give you an example of one, she would bring in to to speak about the parsha, there were some rabbis and some professional Jews, but also she would find people who are in the field that the parsha might kind of tangentially connect to and they would talk about it. So my favorite one was about the Mishkan. So the Mishkan is this portable temple that a big chunk of the Torah is about. Not particularly exciting to read about, but he's a furniture designer, so he explained the concept of form and function. And the animator, who's incredible, had the little parts of the Mishkan lined up and the pieces fit together like Legos. And he talked about the symbolism of, the bronze is on the outside, then it's the silver, the gold is on the inside as you go inside, that's where the valuable stuff is, how it's portable, allowing for creativity and adaptability. I remember seeing that and just being blown away by how relevant Bim Bam was making Torah, for people who might be either new comers to learning it, or to people who've been learning it for a long time, but needed a new perspective. And eventually, they branched out and started doing other things as well. Great workshops, bringing people in to do fast animations, teaching kids to do claymation and by the time they were done, they have an entire vault of fantastic resources. And I'll just put a plug in, the Sukkot one I got to be turned into a Lego avatar. So you get to see me as a stop film animated Lego guy explaining Sukkot. It was super fun to make, I got to design my own Lego dude, I picked out what colors, I wanted it to match my own sense of style. And it was really fun to make. And I felt like it's some of my best Torah for Sukkot. So I'll definitely put in a recommendation for that. And that's actually how I ended up getting the audio book opportunity to narrate my own book because I'd already had the experience of doing a voiceover for Sukkot. And I used that to try something new to do an audio book for Turtle Boy.
That's cool. That was one of my questions, was about the audiobook, and how that came about.
Very good. Yeah, that's really cool. So Joanne, what was the hardest part of the story to write and what was the easiest,
Some books are just magic and they write themselves. It does not happen very often. Usually, there's a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into every book and every word. This one was not that book. This book just fell into place. I'm not an outliner. But it just worked. So please don't hate me, other writers, it never happens. It won't happen again. But this one really worked. So I'd have to say the book as a whole. The hard part was checking my own biases. It really came into clear view, where I stand on things and my assumptions growing up in a family, I was the youngest and the only girl, three older brothers. And you know, my parents always said, you can do whatever you want, you can be whatever you want, and they were always extremely supportive that way. But there was a lot of differences in how we retreated. It was always expected that my brothers mowed the lawn and did outside work. And it was always expected that I clean the kitchen and just little things like that. And it occurred to me as I was writing this book, that these are the little things that we don't notice, but the kids do, and kids don't come into this world knowing about bias. They Learn from these little things and as well meaning as they may be. So this really gave me the opportunity to examine where I'm coming from and the things that I say and even the way I look at things because you just, you don't even notice. And it's so subtle sometimes that it really opened my eyes to how I look at things and how I treat myself and others and how I think about what we say to kids.
Joanne, I've seen your amazing felt creations on Etsy. So tell us about felting. Is it related to knitting?
Not at all, not at all. You take wool roving, which is, if you think of wool as a fiber, and what people use to spin into yarn, I use that raw material and I have these special needles that are barbed and when you stab the barbs into the wool roving, it knits the fibers together. So it's kind of a weird craft. I do have a couple of videos on my website, if anybody wants to know what felting is about. I came to felting in the last couple years, and it's my meditation. It's what I do to keep my hands busy. And it's just a really fun craft. And actually right above me, I did that rooster, your listeners won't be able to see the rooster, but I did a rooster. And my house is filled with felt creatures and plants and all sorts of weird stuff.
Awesome. And just to describe the rooster, it looks like a framed rooster who is sort of 3D coming out of the picture frame.
And there's a terrible story behind it. I sent a manuscript to my agent. It was Tree of Life, that's coming out next year, and a character looks up at a clock on the wall. But there was a typo. So I ended up with a chicken on the wall... That explains it without explaining it, right? Yeah.
Yeah. Yes it does.
So I made a chicken for the wall. Anyway.
A male chicken for the wall. Yes.
I follow somebody on Instagram that does stop film animation felt creations, these beautiful scenes of like cooking.
I've seen that one.
... a kitchen. So I was like, I want to learn how to do that!
I have tutorials on my website.
Oooh! I want to learn, I'm gonna, I'm gonna watch that.
Yeah, yeah, for sure.
And next time we do this, they'll be a shark on my wall.
Yes. Very cool. Looking forward to it.
I'm so happy that you're making friends because I asked you both to join me at the same time because when I read these books that have so many similarities, I wondered what questions you might have for each other.
Okay, my question for you, Joanne: I've been thinking about this, is a lot of people learn a lot of things through their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Some of them are like that's what they're supposed to get out of it. And some of them are kind of a private thing they learn about like an accidental thing they learned. What is one personal thing or kind of internal thing or accidental thing that you learned from going through the process?
It was a long time ago. I guess, I think going back to what you said about it being a process becoming an adult, it's not like you wake up one day and you're grown up. And I think that the realization that that's not the way it is, and that grownups even don't always feel like grown ups all the time.
So Joanne, do you have a question for Evan?
I do. I actually prepared two. I want to talk about the audio, because I'm a very, very slow reader. And by the time I ordered Evan's book to read it, it wasn't going to arrive in time once I realized how big it was. So I got the audio book, and I loved it. And I'm so glad I actually had the joy of listening to it on audio for a couple of reasons. It allowed me to feel extremely productive, both by listening to the audio and weeding my backyard at the same time, and I loved that. I didn't realize when I ordered it that you narrated it yourself and I thought that that was an extra bonus because hearing how your characters sound in your head isn't something that we normally get when we read a book. So I loved hearing that. I thought it gave an authenticity to the characters and also hearing the Hebrew was nice too. And you know, the mourners Kaddish, I know it off by heart, unfortunately, but not everybody does. And not everybody knows what those words sound like, especially if some non Jewish kids who've never been to services like that. It just gave it an extra oomph. And I really enjoyed that. And the drumming parts, listening to the drumming, one of my brothers is a drummer, so I really heard that in my head and it took me back too, so hearing that, I thought gave the novel an extra depth. So you sort of answered this before about how it came about that you narrated it. But did you always want to? Was that your hope when you heard there was going to be an audiobook?
Yeah, yes. So when I started the process of writing this book, I was very aware as I was writing that I hadn't written anything in the middle grade genre before, I needed to be a student of the art form. So I needed to read more. But you know, I teach high school and I had a baby at home at the time now, you know, a toddler. And when am I going to do this? So what I started doing was listening to audiobooks while I would run, while I would wash dishes, while I would work in the backyard, exactly what you said. And I found that I fell in love with audiobooks as their own form of book. They are both books and they are a thing that is not a book, and I loved them and I would just look forward to... Okay, I'm not gonna say I look forward to washing dishes. That's a little much, but I would enjoy my time, you know, time of solitude my headphones on and I started to discover that there were audiobooks that I loved and I felt passionate about how they were voiced. And I started to feel like wow, wouldn't that be incredible if I got to do my own audio book? I basically queried my editor like, is this a thing that might happen one day, you know, I've done voiceover. So she passed that along, she made the connection. I suddenly one day got this email saying, you know, we'd like to consider you to do this. And I mean, like, I jumped up and down. I was so excited. The interesting thing is, the voices of the characters as you hear them is not how I thought they would sound. Yeah, isn't that incredible? And which I think mirrors so much of the artistic process, things often don't end up the way you imagined them at the beginning, which is the whole artistic journey. Your art needs to be set free to become who it is. I had an amazing director Leeza Watstein, and she would be in my headphones, and she would say, like, okay, bring it down, bring it in, bring it more internal. Where are you now? What are you doing? What are you feeling right now? So like Will's voice would, I think I pictured him being more like loud and brash and kind of obnoxious more often. And it was her touch that made him come more in. And I pictured RJ being kind of grouchy and gruff. And she guided me from that into an RJ who's a little bit more like a young Owen Wilson or like a young Keanu Reeves or something like that. Like I think that's kind of how he sort of sounds. I mean, he is from Hawaii, he's got a little bit of aloha in him, you know, and he brings that out. I totally owe those characters to my director. It was a challenge to let go of my old sense of how it was going to be, but it was like I've come this far in the process, trusting the kind, thoughtful feedback of good editors. I'm not going to stop now because I had something else in mind. And then you commented on the Hebrew and the drumming. That was the area where I really had in my mind like ba ba dum ba, ba, ba dum, boom, boom, boom, you know, for the Kaddish and I just dreamt about what it would feel like to say that into a big microphone in a recording booth. But what I didn't know would be that I would be crying while I did it. And you can hear my voice and some of the scenes, you can hear me choke up a little while I was reading and tears and I'm like starting to choke up, she would be like, bring it back. She'd be saying it while I was talking, bring it back, bring it down, keep going, keep going. And I would just keep reading it was like she was like holding my hand. I'm actually feeling choked up while I'm talking about this, it was like it was like she was holding my hand on a tightrope with a very tall pole. And that's how I got safely to the other side, but also created something that a listener would be able to hear and not feel overwhelmed by my emotion and it was very powerful, very exhausting. And a lot like Yom Kippur. When it was over I was drained and I gave it everything I had. And I'm so glad that you got to hear it. Thank you for listening to it.
Yeah, knowing that now makes it even more meaningful, but it was such a great listen and I really, really enjoyed it. So kudos well done to you and your director.
Thank you. I am very proud of that. Thank you.
Well, I only read it on the page. Now I want to listen to the audiobook.
And also, I would just want to make sure that listeners know who RJ is because he is such a special and pivotal character. So RJ is the boy in the hospital that Will visits initially because it's his assignment as a bar mitzvah project. And then they actually do become friends and RJ teaches Will how to become a drummer. And that becomes a really great way for him to have some self expression.
Will as an introvert who has the freedom to go wherever he wants in the world but doesn't want to. And RJ is an extrovert who wishes he could be out there in the world swimming in the ocean, but is confined to a hospital room. So in a sense they sort of complete each other.
I have another question and I have just a comment. It was so important to me to make this comment that I actually put it in my little cheat sheet here. Just about grief. So often kids don't have the language or don't understand their own grief. And that was so obvious here for Will in his fractured memories of his dad and even denying that he had grief. But as the book unfolds, it's obvious he does and then it's brought to the forefront when something terrible happens. I'm not gonna give up too much. But I think you did a beautiful job identifying that grief that he couldn't identify in himself. And I think that kids will look at that and get the sense that it's okay that you don't know how to identify your feelings, even though they're there. I think about this a lot, not to plug myself but I have a book coming up next year that's set in a Jewish funeral home. So I think a lot about grief. My dad is a funeral director. So I think a lot about death and grief in the Jewish way and how we talk about grief and death. So I thought it was a beautiful way to really get inside the character and show that he just didn't know how to process it, and he didn't even necessarily know that he had it. But well done. I thought that was really great. So that's, that's my comment.
Thank you. Maybe I'll just riff on that for one second. And I would say, I think that any good middle grade book is going to involve transformation. They have to because it's about an age when everything is transforming. Your body's transforming, your way you see yourself is transforming. And just like you said, that Will doesn't really know how to name what his grief is, or let alone what to do with it. I think that's true, whether you don't know how to name what your gender is, or what kind of do you want to be or what kind of person you want to be or you don't know, like, everything that you thought was the way it was in childhood is now kind of loose and unmoored and floating and there's both the opportunity but also the crisis, right, of what are you going to do with all these floating pieces, and whether that grief for you is about a loved one dying, thank God that did not happen to me, but I did have a lot of grief because I was grieving the childhood that wasn't quite what I wanted it to be because of the medical condition that I had been diagnosed with and the social difficulties that I was experiencing. It just wasn't the childhood I wanted. And so I was angry about that. And I was confused about that. And I was like, why would I want to be an adult now, I didn't even get the childhood I wanted. So I think that grief is one of these things where it takes different shapes for different people. But ultimately, it's all about the fact that we don't have control. And we can't hold on to the things that we want to hold on to because it changes the one constant. And I think that I saw in your book as well, a character who was grieving in his own way to discover that the adults in his life didn't see him for who he was. But it's redemptive because at the end of the story, he's able to move the needle and he actually leads more adults. His grandfather, I think, is a great example, is able to become a better grandfather and probably is proud of who he's becoming, but probably locked up in that man is a grieving person who wishes they could be something else. But we're told-- Oh, it's like the Barenaked Ladies song What A Good Boy, right? We have chains hanging around our neck. We all do. We all have these chains, and they're suffocating us and we suffocate each other with them because we don't have the language for it. So if our books can help give language to suffocating people to grieve, and I want to be respectful of that terminology, especially right now, but also give honor to that terminology right now, I mean it both humbly but also aware of the larger implications. But if we can find ways to help society to give people the air to breathe, the language to say what they're feeling, the space to become who they want to be ,the lane to drive in, right, to learn how to navigate on their own. I think that we can support each other in that grief rather than become yet another obstacle. And I think that authors and teachers and parents and the role models in kids' lives have that awesome responsibility, which is, I see you're grieving. I see you're in pain. I see you're in transition. And I will be here to hold your hand through that process.
Yes, absolutely. And thank you for the caveat about breathing as a both literal and metaphorical issue is is a very fraught concept at the moment. I just wanted to mention a podcast about death that you both might be interested in, if you haven't heard it. It's called Death in the Afternoon. And the host is a very, very funny woman who I think is a mortician or works in the industry. I'm not sure if mortician is technically what she is, but she's something in that realm. It's a really good show.
Just to mention that. Did either of you have any other questions for the other?
Yes, Joanne, I have a question for you. Okay, so that curveball that I threw at you earlier was about the unintended lesson of the b'nai mitzvah process. My other question for you is, what was one moment, and you said that this book was like one that sort of wrote itself, the miracle, right. It's like a unicorn book. But probably there was also something that was stuck at some point. And then like, the stone got loose and you were able to make it for the next stage. Could you tell us about one of those stuck moments?
Honestly, I didn't. It was just such a wonderful experience. And it was almost like a meditative state that I just wrote this book and it created itself. I feel terrible that I can't even come up with... I mean, there was something, there was a joke that me and my editor had, she wanted to take out Carla's purse, the bus driver, and it was sort of the running gag through the book, that Fish had to sit beside this purse. And she's like, Oh, we have to take out the purse. And I'm like, no, it makes me laugh when I think about the purse. So we left in the purse.
Okay, then I then I have a backup question. Okay, so names are obviously important in both of our books will as an anagram of Matt, my first name, and I even have a little trinket that sits here it says on one side I can and on the flip side, it says I will. And that ties back to Heidi, you asked about the Carpe Diem like about the urgency that we have to transition from can to will for so many things in our lives. So my question Joanne is, his name's in Fish Out of Water, obviously, and that's one of the main metaphors. But I'm wondering, how did you come to that name? Did the name breed the idea for the book or did the book set it up and then you came to the name or is there something else to it?
I love playing with names. I love shortening names. All of my characters I think have a shortened name. And there was a book I wrote called Birdbrain. While I was writing it, I wanted to name a kid Cabbage. For some reason, it just came into my head. I wanted to name this kid Cabbage and it was the best friend. I made his mother French so she called him mon petit chou which is French for cabbage, and the book never sold. And it really bothered me that I named a kid Cabbage and it never got out in the world. So I wanted a really weird name. And it just worked, Fishel and I knew he was a Jewish character and I wanted him to have a Jewish name. I think I was on a Jewish baby naming website and I saw Fishel, and I thought Fish, I am naming this kid Fish. I just like weird names. I don't know.
I was struck by that both because of the metaphor of "fish out of water." But also like in the Torah tradition, fish are associated with righteous people.
Didn't factor in at all. I just wanted to name a kid Fish and Fish Out of Water as a title worked. I wasn't even sure that they would let me keep that title, it's on a few different books, but they loved it. And the cover really worked with the purple fish and that's one of his favorite colors and it all just sort of fell into place like everything else with this book. I had one more question for Evan, if that's okay. One of the things I loved about your book is that so many of the parts of the book were so personal for you. The music obviously was personal. And you could tell by the audio book that you're a musical person, Will's, health issues and your connection to Judaism. Was there any part of the book that was difficult for you to write because it was so personal?
Yeah, the part of the book that I fought against the longest was probably how to construct Will's mom. My parents are great people, and I grew up in a very loving home, but also they were unable to save me from my adolescent suffering. And I think that's always going to be the case. So I think at some deep level that only therapy and writing and maybe dreams get to, there's some unresolved stuff that I have about who my mom is and who my dad is. Interestingly, in all the fiction that I wrote in my 20s there's not a lot of dad characters. There's some interesting male mentor characters, but they're usually not a dad, even though my dad was a mentor for me. And the mom characters in many of my stories tend to be kind of abrasive, even though my mom is actually very gentle. So I think that when I am writing parents, there's like constraints in me that don't want me to write certain versions of parents because I think I have like an allegiance to who my parents were. And I want to do them justice, but I feel a little controlled by it. And in my editor, Beverly, she actually like, threw it down about six months before the final edits would even be possible. So like the Neila doors were closing, if there's going to be any changes they need to be now, in the momentum towards wrapping it up and getting it off to the printers we're starting to build up. And she called me one day and said, I need to tell you something. Will's relationship with his mom is not going to work. His mom has to unplug and she's too disconnected. Will is too grouchy at her. Their dynamic needs to shift because the first readers of books are not going to be your target middle school kids, they're going to be parents. They're going to be teachers, they're going to be librarians. And if parents, teachers and librarians pick this up and say, All I see are adult characters who don't understand the kids, they're not going to put that in kids' hands. Now, that's a logistical concern. But it did also ignite in me this feeling of like, Well, I do want to have adult characters that adults can feel intrigued by and that are not one dimensional. So it was really hard to create a mom who was trying as hard as she could, and yet was limited by her grief and was limited by her fear about the world. She's longing to connect for Will but Will is pushing her away, but they so clearly love each other and need each other, but they can't get into harmony. And it was hard to get the balance of like, one is pulling, the other is pushing and then the reverse of that. And by the end of the book, I think you can start to see the beginning of a sort of equilibrium, but it took a lot of revisions. A lot of drafts. I'm not even sure what the mom's name is in right now. I think it's Erica. It changed so many times. Because every time I reimagine her, I would have to give her a different name just to like start over with a different mother. But I'm really happy with who she is now, whatever her name is, I think. I think it is Erica. I know it's only used once in the whole book. But that was hard to come to. I think I have a lot of feelings about who my parents are and trying to create a fictional parent is not easy.
That's interesting. That's a great answer. If you want to know what my mom is like read Small Medium at Large and the ghost grandmother is my mom. Totally.
I actually have that downloaded now.
That's my summer reading. I'm looking forward to it.
Speaking of your other books, I wanted to give you both the chance to tell what you're working on next.
I love Will but I'm a little done with him right now. Maybe later on I'll come back to him. I am actually curious like what he would turn into as a older teenager and beyond. But the character that I feel the most strongly about right now is Shirah. So I'm a draft into a story about Shirah and her relationship with her dad and her grandfather. She has strong feelings about ethics, strong feelings about efficacy, strong feelings about her fist, you know, she's a volleyball player, and she can slam that ball really hard. And she goes through her life knocking down walls. So I need to come up with what is the barrier that she comes up against, that's going to take everything she's got to punch through it. Her slogan in Turtle Boy before a really important serve as she learned from her bubbe, which is "is the heart willing? come what may!" And the working title of Book Two is Come What May.
Awesome. It'll be great to go back into that world and live with those characters some more. Joanne?
My next book coming out, I've just learned it's getting a new title and I don't know what it is yet. It's a summer camp story but a very shy girl who is planning to go to sleepaway camp with her best friend. At the last minute her best friend bows out and decides to go to horse camp. So it's all about her summer by herself. And she's very much an introvert and how she gets along at summer camp. And then my book after that is Tree of Life, which I talked about, set in the Jewish funeral home. That's the book of my heart. My dad came to working in the funeral home later in life, I think he was in his 60s when he started, he was part of the chevra kadisha for a while, and then he started working there and managing funerals. So it was something that I wasn't exposed to as a kid. But it's fascinating. And I wanted to show kids what happens at funerals. So it's set at a family run family owned funeral home where Evie grows up, and it's just another job and she dusts caskets and she hands out tissues at funerals, and it's just her part time job and she meets a boy that comes in after a trauma of losing his parents. It's in a car accident, and how they become friends and learn together about the funeral process and grieving and trauma and all that sort of stuff. So I'm super excited about this book.
That sounds fascinating.
I hope so.
And very unusual.
Yes, it's dark, but funny, mostly dark, but honest. There's no trauma on the page. But parts of it can be a little scary, but I thought it was important. Kids are so curious about funerals and what happens, not just when we die, as far as grieving, but literally what happens at funerals. And a lot of kids are protected from going to funerals. And my dad keeps saying, you know, you're not doing any service by protecting kids from funerals and death, as long as it's age appropriate. I'm not talking toddlers, but kids want to know what happens at funerals and what happens to the bodies and what happens in a casket.
Right, thank you. I mean, it almost sounds like a public service in a way to reveal those things that nobody will talk about.
Nobody wants to talk about. Yeah, but they happen, right? Every day. Yeah.
Is there anything else that either of you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Oh, maybe just this. I think there's a myth that readers like to read and kids who don't like to read, don't like to read. The thing that I would like to just put out there is that while some kids pick up books and run with it from an early age, I was not a big reader until pretty much high school. I found it sort of overwhelming to pick up a book and not know what was going on for 20 or 40 pages. My life was disoriented enough as it was, I didn't need more disorientation. I was looking for like, structure. I wanted to know what was happening. You know, in some ways, a movie seemed easier because at least the disorientation only lasts five or 10 minutes and then you understand what the movie is about. But what I would like to suggest is that I think that there's a keyhole for every key. Kids learning to pick up a book, read 20 pages, and go blech, not for me, but that doesn't mean I'm done with reading, it means I'm done with this book. And to model what it looks like to be like, yeah, I didn't like this book, I put it down. It's not something to suffer through. It's not something to waste your time on. I understand with school, obviously, you often don't have choices, but to encourage young people to try something different and to accept when they say that a certain book isn't working for them. And that really what that means is this flavor, the taste of this thing, and to be open to trying something new.
Absolutely. I think there's a lot of teachers and educators and book people out there that say that kids that say they don't like to read haven't found the right books yet, be it length, or topic or just something that they get to choose themselves that they're interested in. So absolutely, absolutely. And, and I think that's one of the interesting things about our two books is that some kids love books that are super long, they can't get enough of a book they want like a 400 page book. You have a long book, and I have a tiny short book. And there's something out there for everybody. One thing I wanted to add to is talking about our books being similar. Can we have a shout out for cool rabbis? Because both of our books have cool rabbis. You don't always see a lot of that. And it was important to me and the rabbi in my book was inspired by an actual human. He's the new Rabbi at my parents' synagogue, and he's just a cool, young, really engaged, community focused, smart guy. And I wanted to show a young, cool rabbi, and you did that too. Maybe not as young as my rabbi, but you had a cool Rabbi too. I like that.
Thank you. Yeah, those role models that we either had or wished that we had. In my case, I got a lot of my role models from movies. There's a little bit of Yoda I guess, in Rabbi Harris, a little bit of the hidden trickster. I think that, you know, rabbis come in many forms. Some of them look the way we think they want. Some are small and green and wrinkly, and some might not even be human. So...
That's great. That's a perfect shout out. So my last question: it's tikkun olam time. This is your chance for a little bit of activism. What action would you like to invite listeners to take to help repair the world?
Going back to what I talked about before about the socks, it's kind of cheating taking from my own book, but the little things, you know, just thinking about something that you enjoy doing that is meaningful to you, that can mean something huge to somebody else, like knitting a pair of really good quality wool socks that somebody will cherish and wear all winter and be thankful to have and that they deserve. I like to focus on little things and what you can do and then it doesn't seem so overwhelming that you have to change the entire world in one big step, just little baby steps. And if we all take baby steps, we can all get there.
One form of activism and tikkun olam that I'm very interested in right now is phone calling, phone calling is awesome, because it actually does have a direct impact on the world around us. It can have an impact on legislation, and it can have an impact on how our leaders and politicians see what's in front of them. And I think up until recently, I've always felt a little silly when I would like get on the phone and call and I would be reading off a script and I would just feel like awkward and like, do they even care. But now I've discovered the power of being vulnerable and being open to that. So what I've been doing and I want to offer as a model of activism, choose your cause, obviously, there's some very important ones happening right now. A lot of Instagram influencers who are doing very important stuff will tell you like, here's the number to call for this particular action. And a lot of them, you call it you don't even have to dial any numbers after that. It'll call one number after another after another and all you have to do is say the script. So the vulnerability thing I've learned to be okay with is the phone connects I say my name is Evan, I'm in California, I know I don't live there, but I feel really strongly about this cause I'm about to read a script. But I want you to know that it's really from my heart, I feel really strongly about it. Then I read the script. And then I hit the pound key and it goes on to the next call. I want people to try that. That's my activism of the week thing. And I imagine when Anna is a little older, and she can like hold the phone and speak with me, I want to do that with her. And I want to show her that your voice means something and that there are ways to get your voice out there. Some of them involve a megaphone, and some of them involve a telephone. And I want to put that out there as something to try if you haven't tried it yet, pick up the phone, make a phone call.
I love that suggestion of just admitting that you're reading a script, but explaining that you're reading it because you agree with what it says and you think so too. So that's great advice.
It was a big mind shift for me. I no longer feel like I have to read it as if it's my own words because it is from my heart.
So I saw a lot of parallels between the two stories, but it was a happy coincidence that the themes of the books matched as well, because between Turtle Boy and Fish Out of Water, I felt like the whole thing was taking place in a sort of metaphorical pond with all of these adorable creatures...
And cool rabbis!
And cool rabbis, yeah, so, you know, I in my mind, I think of this as the "Pond Life" episode.
Yeah, and a pond is halfway between a puddle and the ocean. So maybe these are stories about you know, the transition to the wider world.
I love that.
That's so smart. You're so smart, Evan.
Joanne Levy, Evan Wolkenstein, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thank you. This was super fun.
I had a great time. And I want to say Joanne, thank you for writing a book that held kind of a mirror up to a book that I wrote, I feel that the two of our books together are good friends. I would like Will and Fish to hang out. I think they'd appreciate each other.
I think they would be best friends. Heidi, thank you so much for giving us both this opportunity to meet each other and read each other's books and find depth in both of them. And I feel like our books are holding hands. And I love that.
That's beautiful. Yeah, thank you, Heidi.
You're very welcome. It was a perfect shidduch.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] My name is Patricia Portillo. I'm a classically trained opera singer, recording, and theatre artist. I'm also a visual artist, fiber artist, and makeup and wig designer, who dabbles in the culinary arts. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast and I'm dedicating the episode to all my beautiful fellow creatives.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473 or BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Book of Life podcast Facebook page, or our Facebook discussion group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too at @BookofLife pod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon, or making a one time donation to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLife podcast.com. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading!