Interview with JCBA judge, author Eric Kimmel
What do you think makes a great children’s book story?
It should be a story! The problem with a lot of kids’ books is that they are written to show children something, teach them something, make them do something. I don’t believe in that. A good children’s story should be a great story to begin with. Tell me a story that I want to hear, give me some characters that I care about, give me an interesting problem to solve, and a clever way of solving it, and I’m yours, I’ll be with you from the first page to the end. If it starts to seem like a teacher at school or a grownup giving a lecture, you lose the kids after the first page. Too many grownups telling them what to do as it is.
What do you think is important to bear in mind when working on kids’ book artwork?
Great illustrations come from great kids’ books artists. The artist needs to get the story, to
understand it, and the artwork needs to expand the story, explore its ideas in ways that the author might not have seen. That’s why it’s always a pleasure and a surprise to see what artists do with my works, because they come up with things I would have never thought about. People sometimes ask me, “Have you ever been disappointed in the artwork?”, and I say, “Never”. “But what if the artist’s pictures are not what you had in mind?” Well, they never are! If I want my own imagined illustrations, I need to go to arts school, because the only way I’d ever get that is by drawing them myself.
On another note, a lot of people think an author and an artist of a picture book work very closely together. In fact, often they never meet. My job is done when the story is written, and then the artist takes over. And I am always astonished and delighted when I get my first look at the book, which is usually when the artwork is finished and the book comes to me in the mail. Am I ever disappointed? Well, as I said, you don’t like it, go to arts school and do it yourself.
What advice would you give to those setting out to write a Jewish kids’ book?
First of all, you have to know children. You can be a teacher, a parent, you can volunteer, you can be closely in touch with your own childhood, remember the child you used to be. When I was growing up, my parents were lovely people, but they were very bossy, and my best friend was my old-country grandma who told me lots of stories. And it was that sense of story, that secret place that was just mine, where I could experience all those adventures, do things that I was never allowed to do in the real world. And I think that’s what a great children’s book does, it takes readers to a different place where they can be the king, they can be the hero, they can be the winner. We do in our imagination the things we cannot do in our real life, but at least we can do them in our imagination.
What is one feature of your workspace you cannot do without when writing?
That’s an easy question – it’s my banjo! I have no musical talent at all, I do not play in public, but I enjoy surrounding myself with musical instruments – I also have a harmonica and a concertina. And when I get stuck in my writing I practice a song. Trying to do something else frees up your mind, and by figuring out a piece of a song all of a sudden you figure out a piece of a story. My wife thinks playing the banjo is a great way to waste time, but I believe that time is not wasted – I am thinking, my mind is working all the time.
What’s your favourite Jewish kids’ book?
I have several from my childhood that I never threw away. The Book of Legends by Hyman E. Goldin is a funny little book I had when I was a kid. It’s full of legends and stories from the Bible and the Talmud, and it was as good as my other favourite book, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When I first read it I thought, “Wow, we have got stuff that’s as good as the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen and the Arabian Nights!” I think that’s an important thing for Jewish kids to realize – we have wonderful stories that go back thousands of years. There was another book I loved, a collection of biographies, all about famous Jewish people. And I thought, “Why, all these people were Jewish! Musicians, military leaders, scientists, actors… Wow, we’re pretty cool!” Once you have that sense of cultural heritage you are ready to take on the world.
Why do you think it is important to support and develop Jewish children’s literature?
Because if we don’t do it, nobody else will. I don’t know what the situation is in other countries, but in the US there are only three types of Jewish stories – a Hanukkah story, maybe an immigration story and a Holocaust story. And my biggest complaint about that is, where is Israel? Where is the rest of Jewish history? Where are the Hasidic tales? None of it is available, and why should it be? Why would publishers who publish for the mainstream audience be interested in this tiny niche? There is no money in it. So if we want it to happen, we make it happen. You want there to be Jewish children’s books for Jewish children, you have to write them, you have to publish them, and as parents and teachers you have to buy them and support them. If Jewish kids don’t read Jewish stories they would think nobody knows anything about us, we have nothing to say and nothing to contribute, and boy is that not true. Our kids need to know who they are first. Know yourself as Jewish people and then you can open yourself up to appreciate the whole world out there. Taking pride in being Jewish doesn’t mean you have to put somebody else down. It means, “Wow, I am very proud of what I’ve got, I’ve got some marvellous stuff, and I want to share it with everybody else, and I want to see what you have too!” The goal of all children’s writers is to open up our world. Not to say “We are the greatest”, but “We have some great stuff, and so do other people; we appreciate what is great about ourselves and what is great about others”.
What drew you to children’s literature that made you want to work in this genre?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in kindergarten. Our teacher read us a
wonderful book, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg, and she explained that there is a man named Dr. Seuss who made up this story and drew the pictures. And I thought, “Oh, so that’s where books come from!” So all my life I wanted to be an author. When I finished college, I didn’t know how one became an author, so I just started writing everything – I wrote for magazines, wrote detective stories, all of which were pretty dreadful. I was going into teaching and had a wonderful professor of Children’s Literature, Winnie Ladley, in the School of Library Science. When she heard I wanted to be a writer, she said, “Why don’t you write children’s books?” I said I didn’t know much about them, so she started giving me books, and I just fell in love. It was like a door opened, like in the movies, like Dorothy walking into Oz, and everything becoming technicolour. I said to myself, “These are wonderful, I can read these books all day and night! I want to do this”. That’s when I knew it fit, and I never wanted to do anything else. People sometimes ask me if I write for grown-ups, and no, why would I do that? Kids are fun, kids are interesting, kids believe in magic. If you share a book with kids and they like it, they’ll jump up and down, they’ll clap, they’ll bark like a dog, they’ll mew like a cat, they are in the story with you. Grownups just sit there, saying, “Yeh, very nice. Does the book come in paperback?”
I’m seventy-five years old, but in my head I’m still twelve years old. I never saw any advantage in growing up, and never really wanted to be a grownup, and I think that’s what you need to be a children’s writer. Children’s artists and writers I know are just big kids in grownup clothes.’