THE BOOK OF LIFE - Little Jews of Color: Ezra's Big Shabbat Question
8:16PM Feb 15, 2021
[TEASER] I really thought there should be a book out there about Jews of color, that little Jews of color can relate to today. And of course, later on, it occurred to me that the book isn't just for Jewish kids of color, but that was my initial thought.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Today we're going to talk with Aviva L. Brown about her picture book, Ezra's Big Shabbat Question. This book gives me life, because it's an #ownvoices portrayal of an ordinary Jewish family of color, something we don't see often enough in children's literature. This book and Aviva's next, called Not Now, Mara!, are based on her own biracial Jewish family. We had an interesting conversation about the genesis of Ezra's story, about self publishing, and about Aviva's winning Mother of the Year Award for the state of North Carolina. If Aviva's books give you life too, please recommend this episode to your friends. Word of mouth is the best way to help us find new listeners! Send your friends to bookoflifepodcast.com.
Tell us about Ezra's Big Shabbat Question.
Ezra's Big Shabbat Question is the first book that I wrote, it's about my now 10 year old son; his actual name is Evan, I just picked the Hebrew name that started with E. And it turned out to be wonderful because Ezra means helpful or helper, and he is the sweetest, most helpful child. When I wrote the book he was eight and full of questions. He's got high functioning autism spectrum disorder, and he loves the minutiae of anything. So it was really fitting that the character would fixate on such a small question to the people around him, but it was a big question for him, like can I tie this knot on Shabbat.
What was the initial inspiration for this book?
I had just had my fourth child. Her name is Miriam. She's almost two now. Lots of late nights, early mornings. And while she would be awake, I would be picking up, cleaning house, and I tripped over a stack of Jewish themed books. Most of them were from PJ Library but some of them I had purchased myself. And as I was picking them up and going through them, just to refresh my mind about titles and things, I noticed that almost every single one didn't feature any Jews of color. We did have a few, but they tended to be not contemporary like Yuvi's Candy Tree, which is about an Ethiopian Jew, being rescued and being taken to Israel, but that happened so many years ago. And it's important history but I really thought there should be a book out there about Jews of color, that little Jews of color can relate to today. And of course, later on, it occurred to me that the book isn't just for Jewish kids of color, but that was my initial thought, when I got inspired to write.
Well, that relates to the question I was about to ask you. I think it's fair to say that the world didn't necessarily have a burning need for books about tying knots on Shabbat, but it does have a burning need for books about black Jewish families. So can you talk about that?
I really wanted there to be a book about a black Jewish family. In our case biracial Jewish family, although for the most part we're dark skinned. But I didn't want it to explicitly mention race, while I think it is important that there are books to celebrate different skin tones and ethnicities and races, if you want to call them that, although we know race is a social construct. I wanted it to be presented as a normal Jewish family that just happened to be black. So yes, I feel that there was definitely a need. I wanted my children, and other children like them to be able to see themselves on the page. But, it needed to be organic, I mean, you don't read a book like Jumping Jenny, and have it pointed out to you that Jenny and her family are white-passing Ashkenazi Jews, so I didn't want that for my book, it was important to me to show, rather than tell.
It makes good sense. How did you land upon the question of knot tying as the one that Ezra would explore?
This is so silly because people ask me and they expect me to have a profound answer. It rhymed. That is exactly how I came up with it, knot and Shabbat rhyme. There are rules about knot tying and keeping shomer Shabbos, so I was like, well it rhymes, and there's an answer. So, let's go with that.
Okay, great. What was the hardest part of the story to write and what was the easiest?
The most difficult part of the story to write was all of the parts that are not dialogue. I needed to set scenes, and get characterization in without using so many words, because I'm very verbose, but the dialogue came easily because the characters are all people in my life, they're my kids, my rabbi. My oldest son, whose character is Nehemiah, he read the book for the first time and there's a scene where he's playing video games and Ezra comes to try to talk to him and he's like, "Oh, go away You're making me lose!" My son said, that sounds just like something I would say, and I said, Yes, I know, I'm your mother, I have heard you say it repeatedly. Please stop!
You deliberately chose the self publishing route.
Yeah, so even though, you know that self publishing doesn't get a lot of respect, why did you choose that? Talk about that decision.
I chose to self publish my book because I have mental health issues. I am very honest about that, that's something that I do talk about, I feel very strongly that people who manage their mental illness well, and are what others would consider high functioning, speak out about the fact that we deal with mental health disorders. In particular I have obsessive compulsive disorder, it's related to anxiety. But it means that I have obsessive thoughts, not an obsessively clean house, unfortunately. But obsessive thoughts about whatever topic it may be, in this case, I could not stand the thought of putting my book, my metaphoric baby, in the hands of someone else, and to allow them to cut the words down or choose the illustrator. I was worried that if I submitted it to a publisher, even if it was picked up, I wouldn't have any say in what the finished product looked like. And we may wind up with another book about white-passing Ashkenazi Jews, and it was very very very important to me that this book represent me, represent my family. And so I just decided to do it myself. And I did. I researched both traditional publishing and self publishing. I know that it doesn't get a lot of respect, and it became part of my mission to change that. I have read a ton of self published books, and many many many of them are terrible. And that's why they're self published. But there are also some real gems in there, if you can find them. So I like to amplify anyone who self publishes great work. and hopefully change that narrative, a little bit. I read a statistic that said most self published books sell 250 copies, and that's if they're meteorically successful. I talked to my friend and mentor, Lauren Ranalli, she wrote a wonderful book, also self published, called The Great Latke Cook Off. And I said, Lauren, how many copies of this book have you sold? And she said, "I have sold 500 copies," she was almost sold out and she was going to order more. And I said, Well, if she can work hard and hustle and sell 500 copies of her self published book, I am sure that I can do the same thing. So I just went for it. I didn't realize it was going to be quite so much work and so much time, but it's worked out for me. I'm really happy with the finished product. I've met and exceeded all of the goals that I set for myself. And it's just been wonderful to hear how well the book has been received.
From this experience, do you have any advice for other authors who are considering self publishing?
The mantra that I used when I was self publishing, was that if I was going to ask an audience, a parent or grandparent, whomever, to purchase my book, it needed to stand up quality wise next to anything they could purchase in any bookstore. That drove the decisions that I made as far as illustration, whether to print in soft cover or hardcover, and I spent a lot of time in bookstores, looking at the market, like what did the books that were being marketed toward my audience look like. And that is something that I would encourage people to do. Many people self publish books, and they either don't edit them, or they edit them themselves, and you can tell. For the demographic that my book is aimed at, children age four to eight, maybe nine, most traditional publishers want your manuscript to be no more than 600 words. So my advice is, if you are going to self publish a book, look at what a traditional publisher's standards would be, and try your best to make your product fit those standards. Do your best work, because we really need it. I want more people to self publish but I want them to self publish good work. Also, I will not be printing a second run of Ezra's Big Shabbat Question because of costs, and I had been trying to figure out how to make them available in paperback. And this is a self publishing pitfall, I didn't do my research on the dimensions of books, it's called trim size. I thought, Oh well, a landscape book eight inches by 10 inches that's standard. I will be able to put it on Amazon Kindle print on demand and then people can print it in paperback. I didn't actually research that and KDP, Amazon's print on demand service, doesn't actually do landscape books, they only do either square or portrait. So I am currently having Ezra's Big Shabbat Question reillustrated in a square format so that I can make it available in paperback soon. And my original illustrator is unavailable. So I had to go with a completely different illustrator, and it will be a second edition of Ezra's Big Shabbat Question that will be available in paperback, hopefully, early 2021.
So, because you have the opportunity to illustrate, are you trying to reproduce closely what you've had done before or are you going in a new direction? or how are you taking this opportunity to change things?
What I asked, Is that the characters and the scenes stay the same. So like, Ezra still needs to look like Ezra because he's based on a real person. Rabbi Andy, who's the real celebrity of Ezra's Big Shabbat Question, needs to still look like Rabbi Andy. If a scene takes place in a kitchen it still needs to take place in the kitchen. But other than that, let's just go for it and completely redo it. It's going to have a lot of the same feel, because as I said we're going to be in the same spaces, but the new illustrator has put her own stamp on it, and I love the direction that she's going. And it's really awesome because I'm gonna wind up with two copies of a book that I wrote, a book that I love, and they're both awesome in different ways. They look great, my original illustrator Anastasia Kanavaliuk is from Belarus, and I love the illustrations that she did, and the new illustrator Catherine Sipoy, is from the Philippines, and I love the illustrations that she's doing. So it's double the love for me. And I just hope that the people who are getting the second edition of Ezra's Big Shabbat Question, love it as much as people have loved the first.
That's great. What are you working on next?
Now, I am currently promoting my second title, it's called Not Now, Mara. It was released in October of 2020, and the main character is based on my toddler, Miriam, and it's about a precocious toddler who spends the afternoon of her parents' preparing for Shabbat, getting into all sorts of trouble. And it's really cute. I also am working on publishing my third title, hopefully sometime this spring. It's called Ora, Summer Camp Stowaway. It's about a little girl who wants to go to Jewish summer camp, and has been told that she's too young, and she decides this year, she's going to stow away to camp. And while she's planning and scheming, she doesn't realize that her parents are packing. So the big twist there is that she gets to go to camp. Yay!
So those are the two things that I'm working on, promoting my current book and getting ready to release my third.
All right. I read on your blog that you are working on building an "intentional bookshelf." So can you talk about what that means and how you do it?
Yes. Okay so intentional bookshelf is actually a term that I first heard from my mentor Lauren Ranalli. When you purchase books for your children in your home, think about what you're bringing in, I mean be intentional. Do your kids know any Muslim families? Do they know any LGBT plus families? If not, maybe the way you introduce them to these issues, is through the books that you bring into your home. When I'm shopping for books, I don't gravitate toward, you know, llama llama pajama drama. Because my, my children get exposed to books about animals and fun little stories just everywhere, the books that I choose to bring in, while not always being educational, are things like Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin, it's about a little girl who wants to be Snow White in her school play, but she is short and black, and a little round, and not quite Snow White. But she's beautiful and talented, and it's a fun story, but I enjoy the message that's there. So I intentionally purchase books that have lessons that I want my kids to learn, intentionally purchase books that show them things that they may not be able to see in our everyday life. I think that's really important. And I am proud of the work that I have done toward that goal. However, the blog post that you read was part one. Part Two... I'm still working on writing part two. After I actually sat down and counted up, how many books do we have on, you know, Hispanic culture or indigenous peoples, things like that, I was surprised by how low those numbers really are compared to the entirety of our book collection. And that's with me actively seeking those books out. I do think part of that though is that we're members of PJ Library, and I have four children, so we have like over 100 PJ Library books and it makes up more than half of our collection. They're wonderful books, but it kind of skews the numbers just a bit.
Interesting. So you were named Mother of the Year for the state of North Carolina, right?
Yes so tell us about that; what, how did you get to win that distinction and what is that prize and, like, tell us more about it.
This is the absolute craziest thing, especially if you know me personally because, mother of the year I am not, I'm not, I'm not that mommy who is like oh no something fell on the floor don't let the baby get it. I you know wave my hand and I'm like oh a little dirt won't hurt or it'll help boost her immune system. But I didn't know that mother of the year was an actual real award, until a friend of mine named Anna nominated me for it. I don't know how she found out it was a real thing that there is an organization called American Mothers Incorporated. I want to say this is their 80th year. People who have been on their board of directors include Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and they give out each year, Mother of the Year awards for all 50 states, and then they have a national Mother of the Year who's chosen from among those. I did not win the national Mother of the Year. The competition was obviously very stiff if I didn't win! But it was really an honor to be nominated and considered, and the process is that someone nominates you, then they send you information about how to put together a portfolio, about what you do in your community, how you make a difference in the world, what it is that you're doing as a parent, they asked for letters of recommendation from people who know you. So I actually asked Rabbi Andy, who makes an appearance in Ezra's Big Shabbat Question, if he would write a letter for me. And I asked my two older son's teacher, Miss Susanne Settle -hi Suzanne!- to write a letter for me because my kids go to a small day school, so she had my oldest son in fourth grade and fifth grade. And then, as he left fifth grade, Ezra entered fourth grade so then she will have him for two years. And so we've been working together in a parent teacher relationship for three years now about to start our fourth. And whatever it is that they wrote in those dynamite letters, I won for the state of North Carolina, I was absolutely shocked and thrilled. And from now on whenever I give out parenting advice I always say, and you should listen to me because I'm a Mother of the Year, 2020.
Yeah, that's great. I'm just picturing like a Miss America kind of thing where there's a stage and you get a crown like, is it something like that?
There is supposed to be that but it was supposed to take place in April of 2020, and it was right after everything shut down due to the pandemic. That was upsetting. I had a whole trip planned. They had a Lobby Day on Capitol Hill planned, and I had my power suit ready to go. And then COVID-19 kept us at home. But I would rather be safe at home mothering my children, right, than not. So, although I missed my crowning moment, although I don't think it's a crown, I think it's like a little pendant or something that you get, it was still just a really cool experience, and still so so funny, because -- me, Mother of the Year? I can't even remember the last time I cooked dinner.
Well, Mazel Tov. It's wonderful.
It's tikkun olam time. So, this is your chance for a little bit of activism. What action would you like to invite listeners to take to help heal the world?
To heal the world right now, I would encourage people to find a synagogue, a nursing home, a church that maybe has a list of elderly citizens who are feeling isolated, not being visited, not necessarily in contact with their family. Just pick up the phone. Give them a call, discuss with them your favorite book, or their favorite book, the weather, the New York Times crossword and just spend a few minutes talking to them, so that they don't feel so alone. You know, if it's someone in your family, wonderful, but I think it would be even more of a mitzvah to contact someone that you don't really know, get to know them.
That's great advice, and it may be a while between the recording of this episode and the publishing of it, but I think that that's great advice, even if the quarantine is over. Yeah, it's always going to be good advice. So thank you. Aviva Brown, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Thank you so much for having me. I really really appreciate it.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] Hi, this is Susan Kusel. And this is Sean Rubin. We are the author and illustrator of The Passover Guest. We'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast, and we would like to dedicate our episode for wonderful editor, Neil Porter.
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