1. Can you remember when you first read the I. L. Peretz story for The Magician’s Visit?
I don’t remember the first time I read this story. My family had a pamphlet, which was all of nineteen pages long, called The Story of Pesach published in 1947 by the B. Manischewitz Co. The pamphlet was in with all their haggadot, and this is where I first saw the story. Somehow I ended up taking the pamphlet with me when I moved out of my parents’ house and I’ve had it all this time. I’ve always enjoyed this tale. I’m so glad this thin pamphlet didn’t get lost along the way. What a journey it’s had following me wherever I set up house, living alongside all my haggadot.
2. Following on, can you remember when you decided to update it and present it to a new audience – and did you feel nervous about taking on such a classic work?
Because I always loved this tale, I was eager to retell it for today’s audience; I believe it was originally written as a story for adults. I first had the opportunity to do the retelling for Viking, and it was published in 1993. I was hoping to relate it in picture-book form in a way that would appeal to contemporary families. At the time, I had a copy of The Magician by Uri Shulevitz which had been published twenty years earlier in 1973; I admired all of his amazing work. So I did feel a little nervous about retelling the story because of his version: I didn’t want to step on his toes. Yet his version had been out of print for a while. I wasn’t that anxious about retelling such a classic work in general because I had been retelling Eastern European stories for a while and was totally immersed in the shtetl culture. My first published book, Just Enough Is Plenty, 1988, was an original Elijah story set in Eastern Europe. When Michael Leventhal of Green Bean Books asked me to revise the story, I was excited to work with one of my favourite tales again and retell it for yet another generation.
3. Which other I. L. Peretz tales do you like?
Truthfully. this is the one I. L. Peretz story that I’m familiar with. I’ve read many stories by other Yiddish writers, including Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Now I’m curious. I’ll have to check and see if he wrote other stories. I know he wrote plays.
4. Why has this Peretz tale – and others by him and other authors – stood the test of time while others have been lost? What ingredients does a story need to make it timeless?
What makes this story timeless for me is the magic, mystery and wonder of it. Characterization, scene, plot, suspense, playful language are all here, too. The story opens with the enigma of a magician. The townspeople wonder, ‘Who is he?’ ‘Where did he come from?’ He could vanish and show up across the marketplace. He could strike his shoe and bring forth coins, yet he couldn’t pay his bill at the inn. Peretz talks to the reader. ‘Let’s leave the Magician,’ he says in the story. Then Peretz brings us to the husband and wife who have fallen on hard times. But the husband Chaim Yoneh has great faith that God will come to their aid and they will be able to celebrate Passover.
As the couple are about to look for a neighbour who will invite them to a seder, there is a knock on their door. Again, Peretz presents another mystery here. In the darkness, the couple do not know who the guest is, but he brings them everything they need to have a seder, including candles. In the candlelight, they recognize the guest as the Magician. The couple worry whether they can eat this food that was provided by magic. A dilemma. They seek advice from the Rabbi, who answers with this wise advice. If you can crumble the matzah and pour the wine, then the seder is a gift from God. Magic is an illusion and what it brings isn’t real.
When the couple return home, the Magician is gone. But they can crumble the matzah and pour the wine. It’s then that they realize the Magician is none other than Elijah the Prophet. I still find this ending touching every time I re-read the story. Besides all of the above – the wonder, magic and mystery of this story – Peretz’s language is very evocative, often humorous, very specific to the time and culture, but also universal in its appeal and wisdom. Peretz’s story makes me think of the O. Henry stories I’ve read, full of warmth, humour, real characters and wisdom. (Just a note here: I read this story in an English translation, not the original Yiddish.)
5. Is The Magician’s Visit a Jewish tale or are there universal lessons?
I believe The Magician’s Visit does have universal lessons and appeal. Here is a couple who have fallen on hard times and, even then, show their good natures by giving to charity. They are willing to ask their neighbours if they can join their seder when, instead, they receive a miracle in the form of a visit from the Prophet Elijah. Many of the traditional Elijah tales show the Prophet helping those in need, as well as sometimes teaching people needed lessons. He comes in disguises – in this case as a magician. These Elijah stories bring hope, a sense that there is justice in the world, which are age old and universal feelings.
6. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
My advice – read as many children’s books as you can, especially in the genre you plan on writing. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attend their conferences. They are virtual now, but when in person they are a good place to connect with other authors, and to meet agents and editors. I’ve always been in writing groups and find them very helpful. I met the people in my writing groups at SCBWI workshops and meetings. Write as often as you can and be willing to revise and revise again what you write. I’ve learned that if I listen to critiques of my writing in writing groups, I can choose comments that sound true to me, and then work with those comments to revise my manuscripts.
Just remember to enjoy the writing process and put your critical voice aside during the first draft. Just write. I love it when I can write often. Then I find ideas popping up about what I’m writing while I’m walking, sleeping, dreaming, reading. I carry paper and pen around and write these ideas down. One of my writing teachers said, ‘Remember the three Ps: Practice, Persistence and Professionalism.’ I find those are good words to go by.
7. Which Jewish children’s stories do you remember enjoying when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of any children’s stories that had Jewish content. I wish I had known about the Sydney Taylor All of a Kind Family series, but I didn’t. Instead I read books about English children who went on adventures by Enid Blyton, and all the Nancy Drew books, and more. I was an avid reader and frequented my local library, which was a mile’s walk from my house in Philadelphia. I had a good grounding in Judaism in general from the Hebrew School I went to that met after my public school day. But it would have been wonderful if I could have stumbled across some novels that reflected my life as a Jew growing up. I’m glad that there are many available for today’s reader.
8. How many stories have you written? Can you say how long each takes?
I’ve had twenty-two books published and some of them contain multiple stories, such as my One Hundred and One Read-Aloud Stories. My book The Family Book of Midrash has fifty-two stories. You can tell I enjoy doing collections of stories, some retellings and some that I create. Plus I have many stories I’ve worked on that are still in my filing drawers, some waiting for me to revise them, some that I’ve just filed away for one reason or another. This is a long way of saying that I don’t know how many stories I’ve written. Many.
How long does each take? That’s another tough question for me. Since I work full-time, I write whenever I can, and I don’t keep track of the hours I put in. Plus, once I write a story and it has been accepted by a publisher, it goes back and forth with the editor for revisions. I’d estimate that my picture books take an average of a year or two. Some books take longer. Meet Me at the Well: The Girls and Women of the Bible, which I wrote with Jane Yolen, took much longer. It involved a lot of research and planning. Plus I was in graduate school at the time we started working on the book. This has never been an easy question for me to answer, though I’m often asked this.
9. What would be your dream project as an author?
I was lucky to see one dream project be published. As you can tell from The Magician’s Visit, I love Elijah stories. My idea was to retell Elijah stories and set them in different places around the world where Jews have lived. One story was set in China, another in Argentina, others in the Caribbean, North Africa, Persia and more. The book is called Journeys with Elijah: Eight Tales of the Prophet, with paintings by Jerry Pinkney, now out of print.
Another dream project that hasn’t been published yet was inspired by my love of Sydney Taylor’s book Danny Loves a Holiday, published in 1980. My idea was to write a picture book for each Jewish holiday with the same family in a contemporary setting. I did write several picture books with the same family. The first one, The World’s Birthday, was published. But then the second one, Night Lights, was published, but with a different illustrator. So there went that series idea. I still like the idea of that project.
10. Where do you stand on the ‘Own Voices’ debate? Is it important for Jewish stories to have a Jewish author? (Similarly, for a Buddhist tale do you need a Buddhist illustrator or writer?) Do you need an intrinsic understanding of the topic or can a responsible writer research everything?
I could write a lot about this subject. Let me start by saying that I think this movement, Own Voices, is needed right now to help bring more people of under-represented groups into positions in publishing as editors and publishers, and to enable more to become published authors and illustrators. For example, the Caldecott Award winner in 2021 is We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaele Goade, both members of the Tlingit and Haida tribes. This is the first Caldecott Award won by a Native American. Things are changing in the world of publishing. I believe this is a good thing. Do I think that an author must be from a particular group to write about that group? I think it is possible to write about another group if the author does deep research, is sensitive to that group, perhaps has a person from that group read the manuscript. It is a bit tricky to do this right now. But my hope is that as more people from under-represented groups become recognized, then there will be room for a writer to write about other religions, cultures and groups that are not his or her own.
11. There’s a good deal of discussion about diversity, not just in Jewish children’s books but in all books (and films) – do you have any thoughts on how writers should approach diversity?
I like the idea of including diversity in Jewish children’s books in that Jews have lived and do live all over the world. Jews around the world have a variety of ways of celebrating the holidays, with lots of different foods, sometimes different folk tales and even languages, etc. One of my picture books, A Persian Princess, published in 2020, is about a family who live in a Persian Jewish community on Long Island and how they celebrate Purim. For this book, I worked very closely with a woman from the Persian Jewish community in New York and also visited that community. The Passover Cowboy, published in 2017, centres on a family from Eastern Europe who move to the pampas of Argentina in the late 1880s to escape persecution. In this Passover story, two boys, one Jewish and one native to the pampas, become friends. Both books required a lot of research because of the different cultures and historical backgrounds in the stories.
The Magician’s Visit is a wonderful, inspiring Pesach tale – thank you!