I met Barbara Krasner at one of Editor, Carolyn Yoder's writing retreats and we've attended several together since then. During our "open mic" sessions, I love listening to Barbara's stories which are infused with a quirky sense of humor. Perhaps I love her "old Jewish man's" voice best. Although not Jewish myself, I resonate with the deep sense of history she brings to literature and appreciate the opportunity to benefit from a perspective that is different and yet similar to my own.
Recently Barbara conducted her own workshop for Jewish writers and agreed to guest blog about it here.
For about two years, Kent Brown, head of the Highlights Foundation, and I had been discussing the possibility of bringing a workshop for writers of Jewish-themed books to the line-up of the Highlights Foundation workshops. We finally scheduled it for May 23-25, 2010.
Intended for ten participants only (okay, we let an extra person in for a total of 11), this three-day conference in an intimate workshop setting featured:
• Lisa Silverman, children’s book review editor of Jewish Book World and director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles
• Peninnah Schram, master storyteller and professor at Yeshiva University’s Stern College
• Jane Yolen, award-winning author of some 300 books
• Devorah Leah Rosenfeld, editor, Hachai Publishing
• Françoise Bui, executive editor, Delacorte (Random House)
• Rubin Pfeffer, agent, East/West Literary
• Mary Kole, associate agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
• Carolyn Yoder, editor, Calkins Creek Books
• Debra Hess, senior editor, Highlights for Children
While it was not the intention of the workshop to focus on history or research, both came up time and again. For example, Lisa Silverman started us off with a comprehensive overview of Jewish children’s literature, starting with the 1930s Adventures of K’ton ton and moving through each decade to today’s contemporary YA.
Peninnah Schram talked about getting oral tradition down on paper—the stories passed down to us from generation to generation.
Our second day began with an editors/agents panel, each one stating what he or she looks for. Editors Françoise Bui and Carolyn Yoder were interested in historical fiction. Françoise showed us books of Jewish interest she had edited—these books took place outside the U.S. Carolyn focuses on U.S. history. (These talks will be available soon on my blog, The Whole Megillah, in video format.) Each workshop participant had a scheduled time to meet with an editor or agent to discuss her work in depth. By late afternoon, we gathered as a group once more to hear about writing Jewish fiction from Jane Yolen.
Jane was joined by Highlights senior editor Debra Hess in providing critiques in an after dinner group critique session. One author was working on an historical novel based on a biblical story. Another was writing a family saga that spans America and the Soviet Union based on her own family’s story, beginning in the Bronx of the 1920s. A third was writing a Second World War story and a fourth, a Holocaust-related story.
Says workshopper Viccy Simon, “What really stood out for me at the workshop were Jane Yolen's comments about writing The Devil's Arithmetic. She told us she had embarked on months and months of Holocaust reading—biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and letters—to the point where a rabbi advised her to stop before she went mad. But once she began writing, she discovered a surprising synchronicity in the process of personalizing the story with specific details. She described this experience as a matter of “giving yourself up to the numinous,” and said it was the writer's duty to stay open to these kinds of surprises. Her words really struck a chord with me. In my own research, I've found sources almost by accident that invited to the table certain characters. Those characters were not the ones I envisioned populating my novel. But they are determined that their own stories be told.”
Another workshop participant, Ellen Halter says, “What I learned from the time I spent at the workshop is how much history there is that is totally unfamiliar to me, that I never learned, never even heard of before. Also, I heard of historical resources I was totally unfamiliar with.”
Carolyn Yoder had said that writing history—fiction or nonfiction—was not for the feint of heart. Says participant Dorothy Goldstone, “My big wake-up call came from our visit to Highlights, and our visit from Debra Hess at Highlights. The degree of recordkeeping they wanted, not just my notes, which I have been taking, but actual photocopies, and even better, to have had my manuscript already vetted by at least one expert! It was quite a bracing piece of information, and I was happy to get it early on in the writing of my novel.”
We devoted our remaining time together to a discussion of each individual’s challenges and goals for the next 12 months. The participants now have a Yahoo! Group to exchange ideas and manuscripts for critiques. Says workshop participant Nancy Beasley about her experiences at this workshop, “I’ve realized as well that the history we are actually researching lives within our minds, becomes a part of us and comes forward a bit at a time to enlighten us along the way.”
Will this become an annual event? If this year’s participants have anything to say about it, the answer is yes.
So, for those of you who write Jewish-themed children’s books, stay tuned. Also be sure to be on the lookout for more information about the one-day conference in New York City, now sponsored by the Jewish Book Council and held on Sunday, November 21 at the Center for Jewish History. We’ve got a great agenda lined up for you!
Barbara Krasner is an award-winning author and speaker based in New Jersey. She blogs at The Whole Megillah: The Writer’s Resource for Jewish-themed Children’s Books and has an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.