I am thrilled to be a stop on the 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Awards Blog Tour!
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries since 1968, the award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Check out the blog tour schedule here.
It is my honor to interview Erin Silver for the STBA Blog Tour. Her picture book SITTING SHIVA (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) illustrated by Michelle Theodore won the Honor Award in the Picture Book Category. Erin’s win is well-deserved. This touching story follows the journey of a little girl and her father as they grieve together. SITTING SHIVA introduces elements of the Jewish mourning process, as well as meaningful connections to family and community. It is not an easy topic but the text and illustrations pair beautifully, resulting in a story that is tender, sweet, and comforting. Welcome, Erin.
Tell me a bit about what inspired you to create SITTING SHIVA?
I knew a little girl whose mom died when she was just three. It was devastating and life changing. I began wondering what books her dad would have read to her to explain her grief and I quickly realized there were nothing but pamphlets from the hospital. I wanted to fill the gap and create a story that was relatable, beautiful and also hopeful. Sitting Shiva is what transpired.
In the book, you share some traditional Jewish rituals. Was it difficult to choose what to include?
I had always thought that sitting shiva was sad, but the more I researched and talked to friends about it the more I realized it’s a beautiful tradition. It’s a chance for friends and family to come together to support and nourish one another. And there is meaning behind everything we do when someone dies, from sitting low on the floor to the candle we light in our loved one’s memory. I wanted to explain these details in a way that was meaningful to readers. But I thought about the bigger picture as well. I wanted the girl in the story to realize she was surrounded by people who loved her—and that she could offer comfort to others too. I also came to realize that no matter what culture, religion or background you are, we all have more in common than we might have thought. I was hoping this book would teach people about community and also show them how similar we really are.
What challenges did you have in the writing process?
The process was definitely a challenge, but I was determined to figure out a way to write a book for young children about death and about the Jewish custom of shiva. It took me seven years to write, edit, re-write, edit, and re-write this book. Did I mention I had to re-write the book!? I workshopped it in a children’s writing class, I entered it in a writing competition, and just when I thought nobody would publish it because it was a Jewish book about death, I had two publishers interested. One wanted to change the mother’s death to a grandmother’s death, but Orca wanted to publish it as is. I went with the publisher who allowed me to keep to my original vision, even though it might be harder for children to digest. Even today, I can’t believe this book is out on shelves and being recognized. It’s truly such an honour.
What were your thoughts when you saw Michelle Theodore’s illustrations? Did she capture your vision for the book?
The publisher paired me with Michelle and we went back and forth about the illustrations—making sure the girl and the dad and the details were just right. Michelle did an amazing job of capturing the tone and mood of the book and I couldn’t have been happier with the team effort and how it all turned out. The pictures are such an important part of any picture book and I think Michelle did a fabulous job.
What does the Sydney Taylor Honor Award mean to you?
I’m honestly beside myself. This book meant so much to me and took years of hard work to come to fruition. To have it be recognized with this award (and several others) is really a testament to all the people who value diversity and inclusion in children’s literature. I hope that the attention Sitting Shiva is receiving gives parents and educators a tool to teach children about empathy and the kinds of things they can say to a friend or relative when they’re sad. I presented this book to a kindergarten class and we made cards to brighten someone’s day. This isn’t just a book about death—it’s about being human and how we can all support each other when we’re feeling down.
Thank you, Erin. Mazel Tov!
Erin Silver is a children’s author and freelance writer/editor with more than 20 years of professional industry experience. Her books for children include Just Watch Me (Common Deer Press), What Kids Did: Stories of Kindness and Invention in the Time of COVID-19 (Second Story Press), Proud to Play: LGBTQ+ athletes who made history (Lorimer Kids), Rush Hour: Navigating Our Global Traffic Jam and Sitting Shiva.Several more titles are on the way.Her journalism work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Washington Post, Today’s Parent and Chatelaine, among others. Erin has a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from King’s College in Halifax, a postgraduate journalism degree from Ryerson University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto. She’s a member of IBBY, The Writers Union of Canada, Children’s Booking Centre, CANSCAIP and SCBWI. Erin is represented by Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists. She lives in Toronto with her family. Visit her online at ErinSilver.ca.