Shana Tova! Happy New Year! In honor of the Jewish New Year, I have been inspired to reach out to our wonderful community of writers and other supporters of Jewish literature for children. Since the publication of Like a Maccabee, I have had the opportunity to meet so many terrific folks, from librarians to writers and editors. I’m excited to share some of their insights and contributions.
I am pleased and proud to introduce my friend and SCBWI colleague, Michelle Markel. Michelle has written several picture books, both fiction and non-fiction. Her passion for art is evident in her newest book, a colorful biography about artist Marc Chagall.
Why were you drawn to write Dreamer From the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall?
Several reasons. I felt a connection to Chagall because of my Jewish roots, because my grandparents came from the Ukraine, as he did. I thought his art would appeal to children because it’s dreamlike, very emotional, full of vivid colors and flying magical beasts- what’s not to like? Thematically I was drawn to the story because it’s one of perseverance, of believing in oneself even when others don’t.
How did you find the right publisher for the book?
I had a manuscript consultation at an SCBWI conference where an agent told me I’d need to find a Jewish editor for the book, which I ignored. A non-Jewish editor took interest in the story, and had me revise it a couple of times but ultimately passed on it. By total serendipity, the new improved version found its way to the desk of Marc Aronson at Henry Holt. Aronson was named after Marc Chagall- his father, a set designer, knew the artist in Russia and wrote about him before emigrating to the U.S. So the agent was right; the story was destined for a Jewish editor.
Who are some of your influences?
For biography, I was greatly inspired by Jonah Winter’s Diego. I picked up that book in the library when my girls were little. I thought it was as a magical little story about an artist, and it wasn’t until I came to the part where striking workers got shot that I realized it was a nonfiction book about Diego Rivera! It was a revelation to find a nonfiction book with spare, lyrical language.
What are the challenges of writing picture book biographies?
To distill the essence of your subject, you have to do nearly as much research as if you’re writing an adult biography. You have to decide on your themes, and then choose only the facts that support them. It’s hard to part with fun little details you’ve uncovered. It may be interesting that the young Chagall used to put rouge on his cheeks because he thought it made him more attractive. It’s amusing that early in his career he used to paint buck-naked. But when you’re writing a 1000 word picture book bio, you have to streamline the narrative.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
I like the total freedom of writing fiction, and watching my characters sculpt themselves out of thin air. I like the discovery process of non-fiction research, and that moment when I figure out the angle- how to make the subject enticing to kids. My book Dream Town has a little of both, so it’s what you’d call creative non-fiction.
Why did you start writing children’s books?
I loved picture books as a child, especially Madeline. (I loved the spunky heroine and the jewel-tone colors of the illustrations, and found out only recently that Ludwig Bemelmans was influenced by the Fauves, as was Chagall!). After my daughters were born I discovered William Steig, Dayal Khalsa, Petra Mathers, Allen Say and other great writers. Since I’d worked as a freelance journalist, and already had writing experience, I had the nerve to think I could contribute something to the field.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been researching certain Jewish women who fought for a better world. That’s all I can say for now.
What is the hardest part about being a writer?
For me, the challenge has been to find the right editor for my projects. I’ve written in several genres (fiction, non-fiction, creative non-fiction, biography) and have had to find the right person for each one of them.
What is the best thing about being a children’s writer?
Since our audience is at an impressionable age, we’re in the position of making a big impact on our readers. And what a great audience they are! No one is more generous with praise than children. Call me a softie, but after a school visit I can never get enough of those crayon and construction paper cards that say “I Love You.”
What are your hobbies?
I go to art exhibits, concerts, hang around in bookstores, shop at Trader Joe’s.
My newest title is The Shark That Taught Me English, about an immigrant girl from Mexico (Lectura Books). It’s going to be a bilingual picture book, which I think is extremely cool.
Fun Facts about Michelle: She has worked as an au pair in France, and was a translator for the 1984 Olympics!
Michelle, thanks for taking the time to book talk with me. It’s been a pleasure!