Post­ed by Nat Bernstein

The 16th Annu­al Jew­ish Children’s Book Writ­ers & Illus­tra­tors Sem­i­nar was held on Sun­day, Novem­ber 2nd at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil offices in New York City. An inti­mate gath­er­ing of 30 or so authors and artists spent a full day work­shop­ping and learn­ing about dif­fer­ent facets of children’s book publishing.

Book design­er, artis­tic direc­tor, and children’s author Clau­dia Carl­son kicked off the sem­i­nar with a keynote speech about her per­son­al tra­jec­to­ry climb­ing the ropes in a very dif­fi­cult indus­try. Claudia’s tenac­i­ty — nec­es­sary for any aspir­ing illus­tra­tor, design­er or writer — imme­di­ate­ly struck and res­onat­ed with her audi­ence: unable to find the kind of work she desired upon enter­ing the pub­lish­ing world, Clau­dia enrolled in as many work­shops and cours­es as her sched­ule allowed, took jobs in depart­ments she had nev­er con­sid­ered before, and spent her lunch­es brows­ing book­stores to research” how oth­er design­ers approach books. A good book cov­er will make some­one pick up a book already ask­ing a ques­tion—but none of it can make up for bad writ­ing,” she observed.

Clau­dia named Uri Shulevitz’s Writ­ing with Pic­tures as the ulti­mate resource for illus­tra­tion and book design, and rec­om­mend­ed tak­ing cal­lig­ra­phy cours­es to sharp­en one’s eye across the page. Book cov­ers are more about typog­ra­phy and design than art — Clau­dia recalls a for­mer men­tor repeat­ing, Stop illus­trat­ing the cov­er!” over her drafts — and the inte­ri­ors have to be set to match the sto­ries they con­tain. Good book design is like a table set­ting,” Clau­dia quipped, peo­ple should remem­ber the food and con­ver­sa­tion, not the plates. A good design­er illu­mi­nates the words and pic­tures, nev­er over­pow­ers them.”

Seth Fish­man and Shi­ra Schin­del fol­lowed with a split pre­sen­ta­tion on research­ing and query­ing lit­er­ary agen­cies and explor­ing e‑publishing options. Seth, a lit­er­ary agent and cur­rent JBC Net­work author, offered earnest advice on find­ing the right agent — An agent works for you: if you’re with the wrong agent it can real­ly burn your career. You want to find a part­ner in your agent; edi­tors, pub­lish­ers come and go, but agents take their clients with them wher­ev­er they end up.” — and out­lined the opti­mal query let­ter. Seth has noticed a direct cor­re­la­tion between research and qual­i­ty of writ­ing,” observ­ing that authors who have clear­ly put in the time to learn about the agen­cies their query­ing and the indus­try in gen­er­al ten to prove the bet­ter writ­ers in the slush pile.” Shi­ra, who heads acqui­si­tions for Qlovi, hearti­ly agreed with Seth on the impor­tance of mak­ing a strong impres­sion from the slush pile, men­tion­ing that most firms assign interns to sort through all query let­ters for stand­outs. She dis­cussed the advan­tages and draw­backs of e‑publishing and dig­i­tal­ly-enhanced books, com­par­ing dif­fer­ent sites and sources — and their terms.

Free­lance jour­nal­ist and children’s book review Pen­ny Schwartz facil­i­tat­ed an author pan­el fea­tur­ing Leslie A. Kim­mel­man, Lin­da Mar­shall, and Andria Warm­flash Rosen­baum. Leslie’s career in Jew­ish children’s book writ­ing grew out of a per­son­al need for a vibrant library for her own chil­dren. At the time, there was only Her­schel and the Hanukkah Gob­lins, All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly, and Zlateh the Goat. The only Jew­ish children’s books when my kids were grow­ing up were pedan­tic, dat­ed, and small-press.” She recalled her chil­dren ask­ing her why Char­lie Brown cel­e­brates Christ­mas as an exam­ple of how few lit­er­ary char­ac­ters exist­ed to whom they could relate dur­ing the hol­i­days. I think it’s real­ly impor­tant for kids to read Jew­ish books that aren’t about the shtetl or the Holo­caust — non-Jew­ish kids, too — in order to teach chil­dren about Judaism, and to teach non-Jews about Judaism.”

Lin­da agreed, adding that she fre­quent­ly hands her book to non-Jew­ish par­ents — even ones spe­cif­ic to Jew­ish hol­i­days or his­to­ry. The Jew­ish val­ues and Jew­ish sto­ries I write about are applic­a­ble every­where, to every­one; I’ll hand The Passover Lamb to the man who runs the news­stand on my way to work — and he’s def­i­nite­ly not Jew­ish — and ask him for feed­back, what his kids think of the book.”

I real­ly want to devel­op a library of books that speak to Jew­ish chil­dren,” Leslie fol­lowed up. Books that are uni­ver­sal but just hap­pen to be Jew­ish; char­ac­ters are doing Jew­ish things, but that’s not the focus.”

It’s like a spice when you’re cook­ing some­thing,” illus­trat­ed Andria, whose own desire to be a writer arose out of a love for the sound of lit­er­a­ture from lis­ten­ing to her father read sci­ence fic­tion and Robert Louis Steven­son nov­els aloud. You have this deli­cious spice that will enhance the book, the sto­ry, but you add too much and it tastes terrible.”

I hap­pen to think it tastes great,” Leslie chuck­led, but maybe oth­er peo­ple just don’t like the spice! The char­ac­ters that always stuck out to me — even now — are the vil­lagers of Chelm: every time I read a Chelm sto­ry I think it’s hys­ter­i­cal. Jew­ish humor is so dis­tinc­tive, and such a won­der­ful device for children’s lit­er­a­ture, espe­cial­ly. I could it eat it by the bowlful.”

After bowl­fuls of actu­al food, fol­low­ing the lunch break Vivian New­man from the PJ Library pre­sent­ed on how children’s books teach and trans­mit social and moral lessons. Chil­dren acquire val­ues through dis­cus­sion, role mod­els, and exper­i­men­ta­tion with dif­fer­ent behav­iors — and books serve as a vehi­cle for all three. Read­ing with chil­dren presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring up issues or ideas that might not arise in dai­ly life; char­ac­ters serve as role mod­els and anti-role mod­els; and par­ents can use books to show a child what inter­ests them and oth­er adults in the child’s life, on top of pre­sent­ing new per­spec­tives that the child might not encounter elsewhere.”

Clau­dia Carl­son returned for a Q&A ses­sion togeth­er with Pen­guin Ran­dom House edi­tor Avery Brig­gs to answer ques­tions about what they each look for in a man­u­script and the shift in children’s book pub­lish­ing to accom­mo­date the Com­mon Core.

The pres­ence of sev­er­al Jew­ish Book Coun­cil Board and staff mem­bers — includ­ing Jew­ish Book Worlds Children’s & YA sec­tion edi­tor Michal Malen — exhibits the Jew­ish Book Council’s ded­i­ca­tion to the read­ing, writ­ing, pub­lish­ing, and dis­tri­b­u­tion of Jew­ish children’s lit­er­a­ture. See what children’s and YA titles been reviewed in the most recent issue of Jew­ish Book World and the full index of starred children’s reviews online, and con­tact the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil through the form below for more infor­ma­tion about next year’s seminar!

Relat­ed content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.