Graphic novels are a growing genre in children’s literature. Steve Sheinkin has created a series young readers love. He is the writer and illustrator of The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey (Jewish Lights), for which he won Moment Magazine’s Emerging Writer Award in children’s literature in 2006. The new follow-up, Rabbi Harvey Rides Again, was published by Jewish Lights in March 2008. Steve lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn, NY. I recently met Steve at the Jewish Literature for Children conference in Los Angeles. Be sure to check out his newest book!
Tell me a little bit about your latest book. Why you were drawn to write about a Jewish theme or character?
Rabbi Harvey Rides Again is a graphic novel of Jewish folktales, creatively retold and let loose in the Wild West. Harvey’s part old world rabbi, part western sheriff. He protects his town and delivers justice wielding only the weapons of wisdom, wit, and a bit of trickery. This book is a follow-up to The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, for which I was honored to win Moment Magazine’s Emerging Writer Award in children’s literature in 2006.
I grew up loving both Jewish folktales and stories of the American West. So I guess Jewish and American folklore were mixing in my head for years, and these Rabbi Harvey stories are the result. One thing I love about retelling these classic tales is the opportunity to add my own characters and dialogue—and lots of jokes.
What type of research was involved?
The “research” was a pleasure. Basically, I read every book of traditional Jewish stories, Talmudic wisdom, and Hassidic tales I could find. I started with my own books, most of which once belonged to my father—the real Jewish scholar in our family, and a major inspiration for the Harvey character. Then I branched out to libraries and on-line searches. What I love to do is find a few great stories or gems of wisdom, and then figure out a way to weave them into a single narrative.
How did you become a children’s writer?
For years I researched and wrote history textbooks for a living. And time after time, I watched nervous editors cut out all the best stories. This was so frustrating that I finally started writing my own history books for kids, packing them with all the amazing, funny, and gross stories and quotes that never make it into textbooks. A couple of these books will be coming out with Roaring Brook Press later this year.
My approach to Rabbi Harvey has been kind of similar. I would never set out to preach to kids about Jewish ethics. But I do love to take this wealth of material, and figure out ways of making it funny and accessible to young readers. My favorite quote about the first Rabbi Harvey book came a from Publisher’s Weekly reviewer, who said: “Harvey’s adventures are so much fun, you hardly realize you’re learning anything until it’s too late.”
Was it difficult for you to get these books published?
The first Rabbi Harvey book went through about eight years of steady rejections before it was finally published by Jewish Lights in 2006. The concept of setting Jewish folktales in the Wild West, and doing it all in graphic novel format, is a bit strange, apparently. At least, that’s what publishing companies told me. But I just kept thinking about myself as a kid, picturing myself reading Rabbi Harvey. I knew I would have liked it, and that encouraged me to keep trying to get it out there to other readers.
What are you working on now?
I hope to begin work on a third volume of Rabbi Harvey stories later this year. My goal is to keep the series going, so we’ll see… And I’m always plugging away on new history projects, hoping to prove to kids that history is actually exciting (they never believe it when you just tell them).
What are a few fun facts about you?
I live in Brooklyn, NY, with my wife, Rachel, and our young daughter, Anna. Anna’s not exactly a Rabbi Harvey fan yet. In fact, when I showed her the first book, she attempted to eat it. I love to get out of the city and into nature whenever possible, and I help maintain a hiking trail along the Hudson River about an hour north of NYC.
What is your favorite holiday?
My favorite has always been Pesach, because it’s so much about telling and re-telling wonderful stories. Sure, my uncle offers the same exact commentaries year after year, but even that’s part of the fun. And every year, before the seder, I can research some new angle, some new interpretation or insight, and use it to spark conversation and debate. I think Rabbi Harvey would lead a great Seder, though I’m not really qualified to say exactly what he might do.
Steve, thanks for visiting! To learn more about Rabbi Harvey visit www.rabbiharvey.com