Emi­ly Schnei­der spoke with children’s author Amy Hest about her most recent book, The Sum­mer We Found the Baby, along with her ear­li­er works which reflect the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence as well as her own life.

Emi­ly Schnei­der: There’s a lot of ongo­ing dis­cus­sion, among both authors and read­ers, about the need for Jew­ish sto­ries with char­ac­ters who are only inci­den­tal­ly Jew­ish, as well for oth­ers where Jew­ish iden­ti­ty real­ly defines who the char­ac­ters are. You’ve giv­en us both kinds of books. I’d like to begin by ask­ing about your most recent nov­el, The Sum­mer We Found the Baby. For read­ers who haven’t yet read this ter­rif­ic book, it takes place dur­ing World War II. It’s about two sis­ters, Julie and Martha Sweet, who are eleven and six. Their moth­er has died, and their father takes them from New York City to spend the sum­mer in a small Long Island community.They meet a boy their own age, Bruno Ben-Eli, and they all become friends, with a lit­tle dis­agree­ment now and then. It sounds like a typ­i­cal mid­dle-grade story…until they find the baby! How did you come to write this story?

Amy Hest: I guess it all start­ed with my aunt Har­ri­et, who was a nice Jew­ish girl from the Bronx. I was a great spy as a lit­tle girl. I always loved lis­ten­ing to the grownups’ sto­ries. Those were the most inter­est­ing to me and I man­aged to hear a lot of sto­ries that I prob­a­bly was­n’t sup­posed to hear. One of them was about Aunt Har­ri­et and how she had gone to this par­ty as a teenag­er and met a nice Jew­ish boy. One thing led to anoth­er and it was 1942. He went off to, what is it called, boot camp?

ES: Yes, boot camp or basic training.

AH: To basic train­ing in Mis­sis­sip­pi. They had dat­ed a while, but after he left she was very sad and there were let­ters back and forth. And then one day Har­ri­et, unbe­knownst to any­one else in the fam­i­ly, board­ed the train to Mis­sis­sip­pi and she met up with her boyfriend there; she was like eigh­teen years old. And, a few days lat­er, she came back to the city and she was mar­ried. There was a big brouha­ha in the fam­i­ly. I learned all this from my moth­er, who was very judg­men­tal, because Har­ri­et went there, and she insist­ed on get­ting mar­ried; he was so young, and he was going to war. All I could hear was the I love yous” in that sto­ry; I was maybe five or six or sev­en when I first heard it. When he came back from the war, they were togeth­er for­ev­er until every­body died in their nineties. They had the best mar­riage. So, it turned out to be very good. But that roman­tic sto­ry was in the back of my mind when I wrote this book, and I added a baby to the mix. And a library and all the things that are very famil­iar to me, that make me com­fort­able; that’s where it began.

ES: So, you, as a child, were not going to be as judg­men­tal as your moth­er. That was a great qual­i­ty for a future writer! You nar­rate the book, as you’ve done in sev­er­al of your oth­er works, from the per­spec­tive of the three chil­dren. It struck me how com­plete­ly authen­tic those voic­es are. You don’t allow an adult per­spec­tive to intrude in an arti­fi­cial way. Why do you think that you often pre­fer writ­ing from the point of view of a child?

AH: It’s inter­est­ing. I guess I real­ly get into the head of the child. I am that child, def­i­nite­ly. With each of those three chil­dren and, and in all of my books, there were pieces of me. Each child is very, very much me. I can go back in time. I had this facil­i­ty, I don’t know why, but I had this facil­i­ty to be able to go back in time and to get into a par­tic­u­lar voice for a par­tic­u­lar age. I know how the voice sounds. I talk out loud a lot when I’m writ­ing, so I hear how it sounds. I hear how an eleven-year-old sounds. Every­thing in that book is authen­tic to me. Camp Mitchel is based on Mitchel Field. I grew up in East Mead­ow, Long Island, and there was an Air Force base blocks from my home. It was called Mitchel Field. I used the name to get me clos­er to that Air Force base, the army base that I com­plete­ly made up in the book. When I was writ­ing, I could actu­al­ly see it. This is very unusu­al for me. I’m not real­ly a visu­al per­son, but I could actu­al­ly see it as if a movie were unfold­ing in front of my eyes. I can see the whole sweep of that beach, and the army base at the end of the beach and the kids on the beach. I could lit­er­al­ly see it. I had to watch the movie in my head and then fig­ure out how to write it.

ES: It’s unmis­tak­able when you read this book how very cin­e­mat­ic it is. The read­er has the same sense you just described, like watch­ing a movie. It has some of the tropes from movies about World War II made dur­ing that time. But those movies nev­er show the per­spec­tive of a child the way you do. How did you decide to bring in find­ing the baby on the steps of the library?

AH: It was the first sen­tence of the book. I should find the lit­tle scrap of paper from 2005; that’s when I start­ed this book. That’s where I wrote, I’m the one who found her.” I knew the whole sto­ry before I wrote a word. I just knew it. And that’s very unusu­al for me. I just had to spend the next ten or twelve or four­teen years fig­ur­ing out how to write it.

ES: I have to ask you about the Ben-Elis. Their name is unmis­tak­ably Jew­ish. In fact, it’s even full of Jew­ish sym­bol­ism, because there’s Bruno and his old­er broth­er, Ben­jamin Ben Eli. Ben” means son of” in Hebrew. But you chose not to make that iden­ti­ty part of the plot in any overt way.

AH: It was not delib­er­ate. They just are — they just exist — and, in my brain, they are Jew­ish. Every­body’s Jew­ish in this book. Julie and Martha are also Jew­ish. But noth­ing in the sto­ry need­ed their Judaism to come out. There was no Jew­ish hol­i­day, no bar mitz­vah com­ing up. They just are Jewish,their man­ner­isms, every­thing. The name, Ben-Eli? Okay. I stole that name… my son, who is now near­ly forty-two years old, went to nurs­ery school with a girl whose last name was Ben-Eli. And I loved that name. I’ve been wait­ing all these years to use the name Ben-Eli and it just had to be that name.

ES: Anoth­er Ben-Eli I’d like to ask about is Mrs. Ben-Eli.

AH: I love her.

ES: There’s a lot of moth­er­hood in this book. And in many ways, Mrs. Ben-Eli seemed to me the ulti­mate Jew­ish moth­er. I don’t mean that in a stereo­typ­i­cal, patron­iz­ing way. I mean it as an homage. Could you talk a lit­tle bit about the char­ac­ter of this won­der­ful­ly strong mater­nal woman, who’s also suf­fer­ing her­self because she’s wor­ried about her son in the service?

AH: She’s just, maybe the moth­er I would like to be. Maybe she is my moth­er. The World War II back­ground is my par­ents. I’ve always want­ed to empha­size that. My dad went to war for three years, but they did not get mar­ried till after­wards. And I have every sin­gle let­ter that my father ever wrote to my moth­er for three years.I have a book­let of them right here behind me. I have nev­er read through them. It’s very hard to read that about your par­ents. I was born in 1950, after the war, but that whole era is so roman­tic to me. My mom used to talk a lot about it. My dad, nev­er. But my mom would talk about what it would be like, what it was like to be here while the love of her life was at war, and how she wrote to him every sin­gle morn­ing. It was the first thing she did when she got to work. I knew a lot about his home­com­ing at Penn Sta­tion. So, every time I’m in Penn Sta­tion, I’m awash in what it was like to come back to Penn Sta­tion that day. I loved weav­ing these char­ac­ters’ lives togeth­er so that there was an under­stat­ed under­stand­ing of what each one need­ed. Mrs. Ben-Eli seemed to know what those lit­tle girls need­ed with­out falling and fawn­ing all over them.

I had this facil­i­ty, I don’t know why, but I had this facil­i­ty to be able to go back in time and to get into a par­tic­u­lar voice for a par­tic­u­lar age. I know how the voice sounds. I talk out loud a lot when I’m writ­ing, so I hear how it sounds.

ES: There is one more moth­er in that book, some­one many of us hold in such high esteem, Eleanor Roo­sevelt. And she’s not just a cameo. Martha actu­al­ly wish­es that Eleanor Roo­sevelt could be her grand­moth­er. How did you decide to bring Eleanor Roo­sevelt into this book and make her a linch­pin of the plot?

AH: Years ago, I used to go vis­it schools all over the coun­try. I was at a school on Long Island, in Car­le Place, maybe twen­ty-five years ago. Hav­ing grown up in East Mead­ow, I was always very hap­py to go on the Long Island rail­road. It made me very nos­tal­gic. So, when I got to Car­le Place, the librar­i­an hap­pened to men­tion that in this very old school, there was a library, and that Eleanor Roo­sevelt had ded­i­cat­ed the library.

ES: Just like in the book.

AH: I remem­ber think­ing, Oh, this is going to go in a book some­day.” It’s at least twen­ty-five years ago that I heard that tid­bit. And it just went in here and stayed there for all those years. Who could not love Eleanor Roo­sevelt? And then I did a lit­tle read­ing. Not a lot. I don’t usu­al­ly do research on my books. My research is here, my heart. Or I look at pic­tures of myself when I was a cer­tain age, or my moth­er at a cer­tain age. That’s my research. But in this case, I need­ed to find out some­thing about her, what kind of desserts Eleanor Roo­sevelt liked. And I was able to find out that she loved pink clouds on angel food cake. And I got the recipe on the internet.

ES: That was the cake they serve at the library. One of the rea­sons why the book is so acces­si­ble and uni­ver­sal is that it’s rel­a­tive­ly light on the his­to­ry. There is the let­ter that Mrs. Ben-Eli writes to Mrs. Roo­sevelt thank­ing her for vis­it­ing the troops. That took place in 1943; she went to the Pacif­ic. We were talk­ing about your par­ents’ let­ters. Anoth­er nov­el that you wrote in 1991 and set dur­ing World War II, is Love You, Sol­dier. It’s the first in a tril­o­gy about Katie Roberts, a young Jew­ish girl liv­ing in New York in the first book. In the sec­ond book, you actu­al­ly schlep her to Texas, but in all three of these books, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is much more overt. Where did this book begin?

AH: That idea came when I was hav­ing lunch one day, maybe in 1988, with a woman who told me a sto­ry about her own child­hood. She was on a long train trip with her mom, dur­ing World War II. She was very lit­tle, maybe four or five. At the end of the train trip, her mom got remar­ried. In the back of my head, I said, there’s a sto­ry here.” And of course, World War II is so dear and so close to me. I feel like I almost lived in the for­ties. That’s how close it is to me. I love every­thing about that era.

ES: Because we expe­ri­enced that part­ly through our par­ents, and we inter­nal­ized it, in a way, almost as if it were a part of our own lives

AH: Yes, and I said, that sto­ry that is me, Katie Roberts is Amy. Every­thing about her is Amy: every­thing she says, every­thing she wears, the col­or of her eyes, her hair. I set this sto­ry in my grand­par­ents’ apart­ment on 109th St. and River­side Dri­ve, in apart­ment 3C, because I know that apart­ment. I know how it smells, how it looks. I know what the stair­case and the ele­va­tor looked like. I can still close my eyes and see every bit of it. In fact, I walk up there often. All I have to do is walk up the steps into the lob­by and I’m there.

ES: Who was Mrs. Leitstein?

AH: That’s my grand­moth­er, her maid­en name is Leitstein.

ES: So, she’s anoth­er moth­er and grand­moth­er fig­ure, going back to The Sum­mer We Found the Baby. What made you include, in this book, more explic­it­ly Jew­ish scenes, the Shab­bos din­ners and a Seder?

AH: It’s a good ques­tion. And I don’t real­ly have a very bril­liant answer for you. It just felt like I need­ed to talk about it more in those books. I need­ed those peo­ple who cel­e­brat­ed Judaism in their lives, that it was so mean­ing­ful to them that it need­ed to be said. There was so much else going on in The Sum­mer We Found the Baby, but you knew, you just knew — of course they’re Jewish.

ES: Each sto­ry had its own demands.

AH: I did add some Jew­ish con­tent to a dif­fer­ent book, Let­ters to Leo, the sequel to Remem­ber­ing Mrs. Rossi.

ES: Those books dealt with grief.

AH: Yes. PJ Library want­ed to include the book, so I added a few very sub­tle things in Let­ters to Leo, because they worked with­in the book.

ES: You’ve also writ­ten the text for pic­ture books which raise the same issue. You’ve worked with many won­der­ful illus­tra­tors, includ­ing one of my favorites, Amy Schwartz. I’m think­ing of The Pur­ple Coat from 1986, Gab­by Grow­ing Up, from 1998 and, Fan­cy Aunt Jess from 1990. The Pur­ple Coat has beau­ti­ful, evoca­tive pic­tures of mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry New York.

AH: I think she did the best job ever. I just love it! It’s still in print, which is amaz­ing. Amy just got it. And she did­n’t even grow up in New York. She grew up on the West Coast, but real­ly she got it.

ES: It’s a won­der­ful sto­ry about a lit­tle girl whose grand­fa­ther is a tai­lor, and she does­n’t want the ordi­nary navy-blue coat which he usu­al­ly cre­ates for her. She wants a pur­ple coat.

Every­thing is a sto­ry and the char­ac­ters. It’s the peo­ple I write about. I have to love them, and to real­ly care about them. If I’m not wor­ry­ing about them and falling in love with them, I have to throw out the manuscript

AH: That sto­ry is mine in so many ways. I had a navy-blue coat my whole entire life, and my grand­fa­ther was a tai­lor; he worked in the city and I took the train with my mom. But I nev­er got a pur­ple coat or even asked for one. It was nev­er even on the hori­zon. But Sam, my old­er child, he wore navy blue t‑shirts navy socks and sneak­ers — navy every­thing. And one day when he was just learn­ing to walk and talk, he said to me, Mom­my, I want pur­ple socks.” And I said, Sam, in this house, we wear navy blue.” And he went on and on and on about the pur­ple socks. And I was able to find some. I brought ele­ments from my own child­hood, and the pur­ple socks were the trig­ger to write.

ES: In the book you make the grand­par­ent be the mag­nan­i­mous adult who under­stands that the child needs something.

AH: Yes. And I did­n’t have a grand­fa­ther who made all my prob­lems go away. But he and I did used to eat togeth­er, which I put in the book.

ES: Anoth­er book which does have direct Jew­ish con­tent is Fan­cy Aunt Jess.This time it’s not a grand­par­ent, but an aunt. She’s a lit­tle bit of a non­con­formist, very glam­orous. She’s not going to get mar­ried unless she meets some­one who gives her goose­bumps. Then she meets a nice man in syn­a­gogue, and on the last page of the book, they’re under the chup­pah get­ting mar­ried. But I have to believe that Fan­cy Aunt Jess is not going to give up her dreams. How did you come up with the idea for this free spirit?

AH: On an air­plane in 1987, when my daugh­ter was five. I have a cousin, Jes­si­ca, who’s very fan­cy, and my lit­tle daugh­ter was just mes­mer­ized by Jes­si­ca, who was­n’t mar­ried. The whole fam­i­ly was push­ing her, look­ing for a man for Jes­si­ca, but no one was accept­able to her. My daugh­ter was just in love with this glam­orous woman who could do no wrong!

ES: In the book, they meet in the syn­a­gogue and get mar­ried there. When she finds some­one who gives her goose­bumps, it hap­pens in a Jew­ish con­text, with no expla­na­tion need­ed. Fam­i­ly is also a big part of your immi­grant nar­ra­tive, When Jessie Came Across the Sea, illus­trat­ed with strik­ing paint­ings by P.J. Lynch. This kind of sto­ry is still painful­ly rel­e­vant. You also have a Jew­ish grand­moth­er in that book. Why did you decide to take on writ­ing an immi­grant sto­ry and mak­ing it your own?

AH: It start­ed as two dif­fer­ent sto­ries. At first, it was called The Girl Who Sold Lace and The Shoe­mak­er’s Son.

ES: That sounds more like a fable.

AH: Yes, and I remem­ber my edi­tor called me on a Sun­day morn­ing and she said that the man­u­script had been hang­ing around in her office for a long time. She said, you know, I’m sit­ting here with anoth­er edi­tor, and we’re look­ing at this man­u­script. But we need you to pull it togeth­er and make it her sto­ry, not two dif­fer­ent sto­ries. Can you do that? And we have a fab­u­lous artist from Ire­land, P.J. Lynch. If you can do that, Amy, we can get him on board. I did­n’t know the artist. But some­thing clicked in my mind; it’s based on my own fam­i­ly. Jessie is the name of my great-grand­moth­er. My moth­er used to talk about her moth­er a lot, and her hus­band’s name was Lou.

ES: The shoe­mak­er in the book.

AH: Right. Actu­al­ly, he was a tai­lor for gen­tle­men in Par­lia­ment. That’s what I was told, but I had to make it my sto­ry. I had to find the me” in this sto­ry, and I could­n’t find it, at first. It was­n’t work­ing until I wrote some­thing about Jessie wear­ing her moth­er’s wed­ding band. That’s because I wear my moth­er’s wed­ding band; that makes me close to her. And I wear my father’s watch. That’s all I need­ed. As soon as I had some­thing about the wed­ding band, I was in the sto­ry. I knew who she was. And I also knew she hat­ed sewing, because there’s noth­ing I hate more. My mom was a great seam­stress. But I am the worst. So, it was easy to make Jessie unhap­py about sewing. There’s also a lot about read­ing in the book, and there’s the sep­a­ra­tion, which was very hard for me to write. In the scene aboard the ship, rain pours down Jessie’s back. I recon­struct­ed that scene from some­thing my mom once told me about my dad, whose moth­er died when he was very young. She and my dad were dat­ing then, and my moth­er went to the funer­al. She was stand­ing to the side and watch­ing my father bury his moth­er and it was rain­ing. The rain went down the back of his col­lar. I couldn’t lose that image. That’s why it’s rain­ing in that wrench­ing moment in the book when she leaves her grand­moth­er. When I bring them back togeth­er at the end, it was my way of bring­ing my grand­moth­er back into my life. My grand­moth­er died many years ago, but I was able to bring her back and to be with her in that scene.

ES: This is anoth­er one of your books with a sup­port­ive grand­moth­er, who insists that Jessie also learn when the boys in the vil­lage are learn­ing. She wants her to learn to read and also to sew. And Jessie wants her grand­moth­er to be lit­er­ate. These two dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions sup­port one anoth­er, a qual­i­ty that comes through in all your work.

AH: Yes, under­stand­ing each oth­er and push­ing, but not too much.

ES: Before we end our con­ver­sa­tion, I’d like to ask you to com­ment on what you think it means to be an author of Jew­ish themed chil­dren’s books today. Is it at all dif­fer­ent from when you start­ed writ­ing, in terms of stan­dards of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or is still just a ques­tion of writ­ers being faith­ful to their own ways of imag­in­ing characters?

AH: I think that’s what it is for me. I can’t speak for oth­er authors. I can only write the books that make me com­fort­able. And the only way I can be com­fort­able is if I write about myself real­ly, and my fam­i­ly and the things I know; the things I rec­og­nize, the things that are impor­tant to me, the things that I val­ue. I keep going back to the same themes and maybe that’s bor­ing. Here’s Amy writ­ing anoth­er book about a nice fam­i­ly! But these are the things I know, and that are so very impor­tant to me. My Jew­ish roots are so very impor­tant to me. I can’t pre­tend that they’re not.

ES: And they’re still impor­tant to chil­dren, both Jew­ish and from oth­er back­grounds, relat­ing to the sto­ries you write.

AH: For me, I guess it’s a sto­ry first. Every­thing is a sto­ry and the char­ac­ters. It’s the peo­ple I write about. I have to love them, and to real­ly care about them. If I’m not wor­ry­ing about them and falling in love with them, I have to throw out the man­u­script. Then it’s not a book worth writ­ing. I peel away at the lay­ers until I get to the most basic part, what it is what hurts them. I know what hurts me, what trou­bles me, and that’s the only thing I can write about.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.