Interview with picture book author Susan Weiss and illustrator Deborah Gross-Zuchman

Susan Weiss and Deborah Gross-Zuchman are the author/illustrator duo behind two charming picture books, A LIGHT FOR MEIRA, A Chanukah Story, and BECKY’S BRAIDS, a sweet story of a young girl and her wise grandmother. Both books feature colorful and kid-friendly collage art. I’m excited to learn more about their creative collaboration. Welcome Susan and Deborah!

You have created two picture books together, A LIGHT FOR MEIRA and BECKY’S BRAIDS. Can you tell me a bit about your partnership and how you began working together?

The story behind our collaboration starts with Deborah’s Haggadah. Deborah wrote and illustrated a beautiful Haggadah: The Essential Sedar: A Contemporary Haggadah. I wanted to purchase additional copies and contacted Deborah. She suggested I come to her home to pick up the additional copies. At that time, I completed the text for Becky’s Braids and was searching for an illustrator. When I met Deborah, I explained the situation. I thought as an artist she might know someone interested in my project. Deborah suggested I send her a copy. I was delighted to hear from her very shortly after she received the book text and said she wanted to work on the book with me. There are matches made in heaven and Deborah and I just clicked immediately. We have become close friends, and it often feels like we have been long lost sisters. Since the book came out, we went on a book reading and signing campaign. We went to numerous Jewish Day Schools and preschools. Together we talked about the process of illustrating and writing a story.  We read the story and signed books. We received such wonderful feedback from the children and parents it gave us the encouragement to work on a second book, A Light for Meira: A Chanukah Story.

Susan Weiss

A LIGHT FOR MEIRA is a Hanukkah story about a moth and a little girl who are afraid of the dark. How was this idea developed? What do you hope young readers take away from the story?

A Light for Meira was inspired by my thinking about the dark and who else might crave light other than a frightened child. I knew I wanted to do a holiday story. Chanukah, a festival of light, conquering fear along with a light-seeking creature fell into place. Again, once I told Deborah about my idea, she encouraged me to begin to write the text. She was already thinking about Meira and how to bring her to life in artwork. Together we worked on the final text and Deborah worked her wonders with her craft. We have a very easy and open work relationship. We critique each other’s work without a hint of struggle. Mostly, we have such fun working out the details we forget how difficult writing and illustrating a children’s book can be. We hope that readers not only learn the story of Chanukah but see they can move beyond the fear of the dark. It also introduces children to the Eternal Light and of course the driedel game.

BECKY’S BRAIDS tells the story of a little girl who doesn’t like to brush her hair. It’s so relatable! There is a very clever twist at the end when her grandmother suggests braiding her hair like a challah. What inspired Becky’s story?

Becky’s Braids was inspired by making challah with my twin granddaughters. I make challah and love to teach friends how to make it. I was making it with my then young granddaughters and their hair was everywhere! I quickly braided their hair and in passing said something about braids on their head and challah braids. A light went off and I knew I had a story.

Deborah Gross- Zuchman

Deborah, what is your process for creating the art for the books? What materials do you use?

I make a lot of collages from papers that I paint and then cut up and put back together in various ways. I love the “happy accidents” that happen unexpectedly when colors and textures meet each other on the page. 

When I start an illustration, I first sketch out everything in small blocks (storyboard) and see how the story flows. I want to see if I can tell the story in pictures without words. Then I decide how the characters will look and the background. I usually place a unifying band of color or something that repeats in each picture to unify the story. After I have it all placed (and check with Susan), I start gluing. I often add small details to put on the finishing touches.

Do you plan to work on future projects together?

Our readers have asked for other books, and we would love to oblige. I have a third book in the works based on an old Jewish tale. I don’t want to give spoilers, but the story teaches empathy and wisdom from elders. Becky and her brother again appear in this story. As you know self-publishing is difficult and we continue to search for a publisher that is willing to assist us so we can continue with Jewish children’s books  that are educational, fun and beautiful.

Thank you, Deborah and Susan!

Susan Weiss is a retired psychiatric nurse and psychopharmacology researcher. Susan Weiss has published in her professional field and has published for the Jewish Exponent. She has written numerous articles for her synagogue news paper and Torah commentary presented to her synagogue community. She presents Torah and Jewish commentary through unique connection to known literature or feminist perspective. Lipstick on My Shofar, she wrote after several years of being her synagogue’s High Holiday banal tokeah. A more serious commentary presented to her congregation compared two characters that had run-ins with whales. She used the Pinocchio story to compare Jonah’s lack of moral development to Pinocchio’s assent to Tzadik.  Becky’s Braids was her first children’s book. Her twin granddaughters inspire her to write stories that capture their interest.

Deborah Gross-Zuchman, a Philadelphia painter, was an art teacher in the Philadelphia public schools. She also worked as a Project Manager for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Gross-Zuchman uses the technique of collage as painting with paper, cutting up her hand-painted papers creating interesting and surprising effects. A book of her poems and paintings, Windows Into War (A Mother’s Lament) is published by Abingdon Square Publishers, NY. Seder for the 21st Century, a Passover Haggadah, has an emphasis on social justice and freedom and is illustrated with her collages as is Becky’s Braids.  Published by ASP.

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