I’m thrilled to introduce Brenda Ferber, the author of JULIA’S KITCHEN (Farrar Straus & Giroux), a sensitive novel of love, loss, and healing. JULIA’S KITCHEN was honored with the Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner in 2007. Brenda’s fans will be delighted to learn that she has two more books coming out, JEMMA HARTMAN, CAMPER EXTRAORDINAIRE, (FSG, 2009) and THE YUCKIEST, DROOLIEST, STINKIEST, BEST VALENTINE’S DAY EVER, (Harcourt 2011). Brenda lives in Illinois with her husband, three children, two cats, and one rabbit. Brenda was willing to take a little time away from her busy writing schedule to talk about her work.
Tell me a little bit about your latest book. Why you were drawn to write about a Jewish theme or character?
JULIA’S KITCHEN is about an 11-year-old Jewish girl finding hope and resiliency after her mom and sister die in a house fire. My initial inspiration was to write about grief, about coping in life when the worst possible thing happens. I was interested in the relationship people have with God when tragedy strikes. So often, people thank God for all their blessings in life, but does that then mean God is to blame when something awful happens? That was the question I explored in JULIA’S KITCHEN. Because I’m Jewish, it was natural for me to write about a Jewish character and to have a Jewish perspective on God’s role in our lives.
What type of research was involved?
I spoke with my rabbi and read a lot of books about the Jewish mourning experience. I also spoke at length with a friend of mine whose mother had recently passed away. She showed me how beautiful the grieving process can be. And I interviewed a firefighter to make sure everything about the fire made sense.
How did you become a children’s writer?
I always dreamed of becoming a children’s book author, but I never thought it was a realistic goal. When my three kids were born, I was staying at home, not making any money anyway, so I figured it was as good a time as any to try my hand at writing. I took classes, read practically everything in the children’s department at my library, joined a critique group, wrote, and revised and revised and revised. A few years later I sold two stories to Ladybug magazine. And then I sold JULIA’S KITCHEN to Farrar Straus & Giroux!
What are you working on now?
I have a second novel for kids, JEMMA HARTMAN, CAMPER EXTRAORDINAIRE, coming out in spring, 2009. It’s about friendship troubles, water-skiing fiascos, and sailing adventures at an overnight camp in northern Wisconsin. I also have a picture book called, THE YUCKIEST, DROOLIEST, STINKIEST, BEST VALENTINE’S DAY EVER, coming out sometime in the future.
What are a few fun facts about you?
I’m addicted to my flat iron.
I have never broken a bone.
I once got out of a speeding ticket by singing, “Hail to the Victors” (the University of Michigan fight song) in front of a full courthouse.
What is your favorite holiday?
Thanksgiving. Ever since I was a little girl, our family has had a tradition of going bowling the morning of Thanksgiving. Then we feast that night. I love spending carefree time with my extended family!
What were the challenges you faced in writing a middle grade novel about death and loss?
The biggest challenge was in being honest with my main character’s emotions. I’m a naturally optimistic, cheery sort of person. I wanted Cara, the main character, to be happy, despite her loss. Luckily, my critique group and my editor pushed me to go deep into her grief and to really explore those feelings. And luckily, too, my optimism seeped into the manuscript so that the story has a quality of hope to it, rather than simply being a great big sob-fest.
What concerns did you have for your young readers?
I am concerned that people might think of JULIA’S KITCHEN as bibliotherapy… a kid loses a parent or sibling, and some thoughtful friend or relative gives the kid this book. That kind of thing makes me really uncomfortable. Maybe there are children who would like that, but I don’t know. I think if you’ve actually lived through that kind of tragedy, you might prefer reading about something else entirely… at least until enough time has passed. I think JULIA’S KITCHEN should be thought of more as a vaccination… the kind of book children read before tragedy strikes. Then when they have to deal with something hard (not only death, but divorce, or illness, or any other kind of change or loss), hopefully Cara’s story will be in their cellular memory, in their soul. Cara’s resiliency will rub off on them without them even realizing it. That’s my greatest hope!
Brenda, thank you so much for such a thoughtful discussion. I have no doubt that Cara will leave a lasting impression on your readers. For more information about Brenda, please check out her web site at www.BrendaFerber.com