Interview with Erica Lyons, author of COUNTING ON NAAMAH

Erica Lyons’s picture book COUNTING ON NAAMAH: A MATHEMATICAL TALE ON NOAH’S ARK (Intergalactic Afikoman, 2023) illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles, is a clever midrash tale that focuses on Naamah, Noah’s wife, and her talents as a mathematician. In the story, Naamah’s skills play a significant role in building the ark and creating space for all the animals. The colorful illustrations offer a playful subtext to this thought-provoking story. I’m delighted to learn more about the book’s creation. Welcome, Erica!

What inspired you to create a midrash about Naamah?

I’ve been part of a women’s study group for many years. For Bereshit (Genesis), we divide it up and are each responsible for presenting our own material. Since this has been our practice for many years, I’m always looking for new insights or interpretations. A few years ago, I presented the portion of Chapter 4 that lists genealogy and includes the accomplishments of Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain, Naamah’s brothers. Jabal is essentially credited with the creation of animal husbandry, Jubal with music, and Tubal-cain with copper and iron tools. We are then merely told that the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

It wasn’t my first time presenting this section. It is one of my least favorites because it is tedious and the names are largely unfamiliar. I started to think more about why it was even included and then about what Naamah’s contribution might have been had she been born in time period when women had greater opportunities or one where their accomplishments would have been recorded. Given her brother’s achievements, I would assume Naamah’s to have been at least as great.

I also thought about how Naamah, being a survivor of the flood, is ultimately responsible for continuing this detailed lineage, yet her name is entirely omitted from the section on Noah. Jewish commentary on this tells us that she was his unnamed wife in the story.

It follows that we likewise simply refer to it as Noah’s ark. Reimagining Naamah, made me question whose ark this really was and what her role might have been.

Erica Lyons

Naamah’s math skills allow for a fresh interpretation of the story of Noah. How did creating COUNTING ON NAAMAH help you “fill in the blanks” about the story of Noah?

It started with an exploration of who Naamah might have been and what her talents might have been given the details provided about her brothers, Tubal-cain, Jabal, and Jubal. They were innovators, creators, and thinkers. I can only assume that Naamah was as well. When it came to the story of the flood, I thought about how a woman of such talent and intelligence might have contributed. God commands Noah with specificity on some matters, but so many essential details are omitted in the text. Who would be responsible for these matters? Without food, they wouldn’t survive. Without order they wouldn’t survive either. How would repairs be made? How would work be divided up? I have five children and a cat and know how complicated that can be and how long a single day inside can feel. What would it be like to have to coordinate all of those animals and sons (and their wives) on an ark?

I imagined the conversations between God and Naamah and also between Naamah and Noah. My Naamah was much more than a helpmate or mere passenger on the ark. She was a genius in math and engineering and an independent thinker. This was what defined her. We don’t know that the real Naamah wasn’t brilliant too.

Did you do research for this story? How did you balance your creative storytelling with your research?

This section in the Torah (Hebrew bible) was one that I had studied many times. I had also read much of the related commentary as well so it was a matter of then imagining what Naamah could have had the potential for. I also drew on other midrash that I had read to add in some of the small details throughout the text. The 32 cubit ramp race, for example, isn’t random.

What were your thoughts when you first saw the illustrations by Mary Reaves Uhles?

I was so amazed by how she elevated the story. Mary brought Naamah to life and made her cool. I love the anachronisms that Mary added. These touches of modernity add to the playfulness. Even Naamah’s clothing is cool. As great as Naamah is though, the duck might actually be the best character in the book. The duck has its own narrative and is entirely born from Mary’s imagination. He even ages as Naamah does!

I think Noah’s ark is a particularly difficult story to illustrate given the crowd scenes and the fact that it has been told so many times, but Mary interpreted it in an entirely new and fresh way.

What do you hope young readers take away from COUNTING ON NAAMAH?

I hope that readers take away the idea that they can be anything and everything. I hope the story inspires them to question and to imagine and then to reimagine.

Naamah’s name meant pleasant, but she was so much more than that. In the Torah, we see only a glimpse of the woman that is married to Noah. We are only told that he was instructed to bring her and his sons and their wives aboard. These were all people capable of great things with roles to play and inner lives as well. While I imagined a special role for Naamah, who were the other women on the ark simply referred to as the wives of Noah’s sons? What are their stories? There was so much more to their lives than that which is presented on the page.

Thank you, Erica!

Erica Lyons is a Hong Kong-based children’s book author focusing on picture books through middle grade novels. She has a preference for historical fiction, creating stories from the footnotes of history books. She is the chair of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society and the founder and director of PJ Library Hong Kong and the founder of Asian Jewish Life – a journal of spirit, society, and culture. In addition to writing, she has been a speaker for various platforms including TEDx Victoria Harbour (Hong Kong) and the SEFER International Conference for Judaic Studies (Moscow). She is the mother of five children and two cats. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. 

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