Sydney Tayor Book Award Blog Tour – Welome Winner Karen Hesse!

Karen Hesse’s books have entertained and enlightened countless readers. I have been a great fan of her work for many years. I’m delighted that she has been honored with the Sydney Taylor Book Award for her historical novel Brooklyn Bridge. I first read Brooklyn Bridge when I reviewed it for the Association of Jewish Libraries and again for the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. I was captivated from the first page. In the book, Joseph Mitchom is a fourteen-year old boy growing up in Brooklyn in 1903. His parents have created a cottage industry with their creation of the original Teddy Bear. The Jewish immigrant experience in New York comes to life, including a sense of extended family that is so reflective of the time. In spite of the family’s growing wealth, Joseph is the unlucky kid who has never been to Coney Island. There is an element of mystery and the supernatural in a sub-plot that Hesse uses as a vehicle to share the plight of homeless children. Brooklyn Bridge is a beautifully crafted story and a great contribution to children’s literature.

I am thrilled to welcome Karen Hesse to my blog and officially launch the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour!

In Brooklyn Bridge you tell the story of Joe Michtom and his parents who created the Teddy Bear. What about their story inspired you?

I’m always interested in exploring stories with Jewish themes. So when I came across the teddy bear entry in Bill Slaven’s book I was taken not only with the step-by-step description of the construction of a teddy bear (I really am fascinated by how things work, how things are made, etc), but with the back story, the story about how this beloved toy came into creation as a result of the inspired vision of an immigrant Jewish couple struggling to make a living in America. There are millions of immigrant stories and each one is a testament to individual courage and hope. I’m so fortunate that twice now immigrant stories have come to me at a time and in a way that I was able to receive them and make literature out of them.

You created a unique subplot about the children under the bridge. Was the spiritual aspect something you initially planned to include in the story?

I wish I could claim to know what I’m going to do with a book when I start it. I don’t. The book evolves with each revision as I go deeper into character and theme. When I begin a book I rarely, rarely know how it will end. I suspect, with my particular set of writing skills, if I knew from the beginning how the book would climax and resolve, the reader would know, too, and would therefore be deprived of the joy of discovery and surprise that comes with the ideal reading experience. When the book began to reveal itself to me, I conceived of it as a sort of three-ring circus, with Joseph’s story in one ring, the bridge children in another, and Coney Island in the third. The audience, by turning its attention from one ring to another gets an evening of entertainment that is bigger and more eye-opening than if all their attention had been paid to one ring alone. I don’t think every book should be told this way. But this particular book seemed to demand such an approach.

How much research was involved in writing Brooklyn Bridge?

I scoured the pages of the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1903, 1904, and 1905. I delved into business records to better understand the Michtom’s Ideal Toy and Novelty Company. I read about the period and watched early video. I listened to music from the period. I got to know Prospect Park intimately, and Brooklyn Bridge, and Coney Island, first through books and video, then through time spent walking, riding, and breathing in these settings. My research brought me to Brooklyn during a fierce rainy spell and I went through two umbrellas, discarded in trashcans in front of the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Public Library. I must give a big shout out to the museum and the library and their extraordinary collective staff who could not have been more helpful. And thanks also to the Brooklyn Historical Society. And to Paul Zelinksy and his wife, Deborah, who allowed me to intrude on their busy lives and opened up Brooklyn to me in a way I could never have done on my own.

Did you have any contact with the Michtom family?

Yes, I interviewed several members of the Michtom family both early on in my research, and again, a year or so later, near the end of the project. Everyone had different memories to share with me, each member of the family I spoke with contributed to my understanding and enhanced it. The Michtom descendants were generous, warm, and supportive. I hope I have not disappointed them with the fiction spun from their family story.

What are you working on now?

I’m reluctant to talk about projects in progress. They are so fragile during their formative stages.

Karen, thank you for sharing your insights about your writing process. Congratulations on your much deserved award!

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