Green Bean Books

Q&A with Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh for Ask Again!

1. This is not your first book for children! Can you please tell us a little about what other works you’ve written, and how you got started?
I wanted to become a published author ever since I was in kindergarten and read ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ to my class. The heady rush of sitting in a chair while all my classmates sat on the floor was good, but holding up a book with my name on the cover would be even better! By the time I was in fourth grade, I was co- writing a serial adventure story with a classmate. Classmates begged us for new instalments, and I was hooked.
In high school, I was published … by my local newspaper. This is still not a book, I thought. But I won awards for journalism, which made me pretty confident that book authorship must be near.
Alas, it turns out that books are really hard to sell. I kept writing and reading. I went to Wellesley College and was published by the college newspaper. I was published by a rock music magazine called Lollipop. I went to London and was published by a travel magazine called Footloose. I graduated and was hired as the managing editor of a suburban New York newspaper called Women’s News. My cover stories were regularly published. I even got published by National Geographic Kids magazine (and I still am!). But I hadn’t sold a book.
When my daughter was born, my husband suggested I try
writing children’s books. Children’s books are known to be the hardest books to get published! So I said no. Yet I was reading piles of children’s books to my daughter daily, so ideas started to come to me. Ideas … of publication! Could I write books like these?
I started composing verses while I was nursing. When my
daughter napped, I wrote them down. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I met agents and editors. I submitted my writing to anyone who would look at it. I still didn’t have a published book.

Then one day, I took my daughter to a meeting of the
Friendship Circle LA, which is a Jewish support group for parents of children with special needs (there are Chabad-run Friendship Circle groups like this one all over the world). I met the group leader, Chanie Lazaroff, and mentioned to her that I really wanted to publish a children's book. She said, ‘Oh! You have to talk to Marc Lumer. He’s an amazing Jewish children's book illustrator.’
I’d learned by now that publishers prefer to assign their own illustrators, and that authors should not submit artwork unless they are professional illustrators, themselves. So I was pretty sure that this was a dead end. Yet I talked to Marc, and he mentioned he had some illustrations on his website that might inspire a story. I looked and discovered a few animals he’d drawn in the style of Indonesian paper cuts. And I had an idea. I wrote Can You Hear a Coo, Coo?, a
rhyming board book about pairs of animals that ultimately board Noah’s Ark together. Marc and I submitted the manuscript to Kar- Ben, a Jewish publisher. Within one week, publisher Joni Sussman wrote back to say she would like to publish our book, with Marc as the illustrator! It was rare to do this, Joni acknowledged, but Marc is an experienced illustrator, and she felt he was perfect for this project.
Can You Hear a Coo, Coo? went on to become a PJ Library pick … three times! PJ Library bought tens of thousands of copies that were distributed in the US, and PJ Library’s Israeli programme, Sifriyat Pijama, translated the book into Hebrew and distributed it in Israeli preschools, which each did a month of activities centred around the book. Since then, I’ve written and had many more books published, several of which have become PJ Library picks. Because of PJ Library, about 100,000 copies of my books have been given to kids!

2. Can you offer any tips for aspiring writers? Read. Reading is what teaches you how to write a story that works. How long should it be? Is it dragging? What makes a good ending? You will learn all that, even subconsciously, by reading. And read your work aloud. This tip came to me from Marc Lumer, and it changed the way I write. By reading aloud, you will find things in your writing that you could not find in silence. Sometimes, I write while I’m speaking the words!

3. Which Jewish stories do you remember reading as a child? Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Chelm’ stories were some of my favourites. Also, Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. Study the artwork and you’ll see that it is filled with semi-secret messages about Jewish New York City.

4. Was the main character of Sami inspired by anyone?
Sami was inspired by the many amazing, neurologically atypical kids I’ve met since my daughter was born. My daughter attended a preschool that integrates kids with and without disabilities, and I got to know a lot of children whose brains work differently to the majority of folks’. I’ve always been drawn to people who are ‘different’, and I see Sami, with his fast thinking and rapid-fire questions, as a different kind of thinker.

5. You have written about writing ‘for all kids, which means both differently-abled and typically-abled children’. Can you expand on that?
When I write, I think about how the words on the page are being processed. I think about how ‘natural’ the language is, how easy it is to read and say, and I try to make its meaning easy to understand through context. I also try to include characters who have atypical abilities and behaviours, so that all readers can see themselves in a book. I make a point of including atypical characters without calling out their differences. After all, kids are kids and people are people.

6. The three women are based on real people. Can you explain who they are, and why you chose them?
Mom is a skilled cook like real-life celebrity chef and Jewish food ‘influencer’ Eden Grinshpan, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and host of the TV show Eden Eats. Grinshpan asks questions about how we can make foods taste bold and original. Grandma Shirley is an architect like Elsa Gidoni, who planned skyscrapers that still stand on New York’s Park Avenue and Broadway. Gidoni asked questions about how architecture could make life easier, especially for women. Great-Grandma Lee is an artist like abstract impressionist painter Lee Krasner, whose colourful works are displayed all over the world. Krasner asked questions about how to make art more creative and exciting.