Interview with Michael Leventhal, JCBA judge, publisher at Green Bean Books and author
What do you think makes a great children’s book story?
I am always looking for something genuinely original, something I haven’t seen a hundred times before, something that makes me want to keep reading, to turn the next page. Kids need a reason to turn another page. It’s nice to be informative, but I want to entertain kids, I want to publish books that kids have fun reading and want to read again and again and again because they are fun.
What do you think is important to bear in mind when working on kids’ books artwork?
Kids like searching through pictures and finding little details. I love artists who hide small elements on each page. Laura Catalán, who illustrated The Chocolate King and is now doing a book on Houdini, has done that. You can spend hours looking at any one spread because she has thought so much about each element of the page.
I think kids want some bright colours as well. They want things that are fun to look at!
What advice would you give to those setting out to write a Jewish kids' book?
It’s important to bear in mind that children’s books are sometimes only a thousand words long, so every single word matters. And kids have to have a reason to keep reading, you have to keep them excited. You need to come up with things that kids want to read, that they are excited about and they would want to come back to again.
What is one feature of your space you cannot do without when working?
When I am working on a book I cannot stand having noise around me, I need perfect silence. I cannot work in a café, I need to blot all the noise out to actually write or edit anything.
What’s your favourite Jewish kids’ book?
The sad thing is that I cannot think of a single Jewish children’s book from when I was a child. And I don’t know whether it is because I have a terrible memory, or maybe because there weren’t many brilliant Jewish children’s books in English. And what I am trying to do with Green Bean Books is publish English language books with Jewish content that people will remember. I fall in love with every book I publish so it’s a difficult question for me to answer. But at the moment my favourite is But Perhaps Just Maybe by Tuvia Dikman Oro, illustrated by Menahem Halberstadt. The message of the book is to think the best of people. Why be negative? Always try and be positive and give people the benefit of the doubt. I rarely see this message in books, and my kids really like it too. So at the moment this one is my favourite, but ask me again in six months.
What drew you to children’s literature that made you want to work in this genre?
For twenty years I had been publishing military history books and I hadn’t looked at children’s literature for forty years. Then, when I became a father, I started looking at what was available and there are some wonderful books, but not that many. And that’s what I want to do, I want to publish books that I will be proud to read to my own children.
Why do you think it is important to support and develop Jewish children’s literature, for instance through literary awards?
I think it is incredibly important. There are wonderful authors and illustrators in the US, but the problem is that there are also wonderful authors and illustrators in Europe, but we rarely see their work. Because of the way the publishing market works, it is not commercially viable for them to work on books of Jewish interest. The point of the Awards is to get some of these brilliant creative people working on things of Jewish interest, to provoke them to tackle Jewish content. I want to see more Jewish stories from Europe. Hopefully we can publish some of them so that they reach an international audience and these works get seen.