I am delighted to be a stop on the 2024 Sydney Taylor Book Award 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.
I would like to welcome Susan Lynn Meyer, winner of the STBA Silver (Honor) Medal for her middle grade novel A SKY FULL OF SONG (Union Square Kids, 2023), which follows a young girl named Shoshana and her family who have fled their home in Russia to create a new life in North Dakota. Like all pioneer families, they face challenges as they settle into their new home so far away from all they know. Despite numerous obstacles, Shoshana and her family find ways to hold on to their Jewish traditions as they build a meaningful life in a new land.
I was lucky enough to interview Susan about A SKY FULL OF SONG when it was first published. Now, it’s a pleasure to learn more about her wonderful novel, her writing process, and what it means to be honored by the Sydney Taylor Book Awards.
What does it mean to you to be honored by the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee for SKY FULL OF SONG?
It is a great joy to me! I loved the All-of-a-Kind Family books when I was a child, so it is really meaningful. In fact, when I learned about Jewish homesteaders on the prairie and decided that I just HAD to write a novel about a girl in such a family, I often thought of the book I was writing as something like All-of-a-Kind Family meets Little House on the Prairie. I re-read both book series from beginning to end during the writing process for inspiration and as a break from writing.
While writing A Sky Full of Song, I was trying to craft a book that would have the same feeling of being a timeless, classic story with an emphasis on joy and family closeness. As I worked, I came to realize, though, that the episodic plots of both older book series wouldn’t work well in a novel written now. I needed to create more of an overarching plot for my novel in order to keep the attention of a present-day reader. And a bit of somber social reality also tended to creep in to my writing. But I wanted the book to be strongly inflected with gladness. Throughout her struggles, Shoshana has a deep love for the prairie, for her animals, and for her family.
SKY FULL OF SONG is the story of a Jewish Pioneer Family in North Dakota. Why do you think it’s important to share stories about lesser-known Jewish communities?
There are infinitely many different stories and experiences of Jews throughout the history of our country, and I have an intense desire to know all of them. I want to read them if they have been written. And I want to write them myself. I’m eager to make some of the lesser known corners of history better known.
The cover of SKY FULL OF SONG is beautiful. What were your thoughts when you saw it? Does it match your picture of the setting you created in the book?
I adore the cover. I love the way it conveys the aliveness and energy of the prairie, and I love the way it evokes classic children’s novels. I adore the image of Shoshana (though I did need to remind the artist that she has dark, curly hair!). The dugout is a little prettier and fancier than it would be in reality, but that’s typical of a book jacket image and is absolutely fine with me. Ramona Kaulitzki did an outstanding job. I feel so lucky that she created the cover art.
You have written many Jewish stories for kids, including BLACK RADISHES, which was also honored by the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. What inspires your passion for the stories you create?
I suppose different books are inspired by different strong feelings in me. My first two novels were born out of an intense desire to understand and come as close as I could to experiencing what it was like for my father to be a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France (Black Radishes) and then an immigrant child in America (Skating with the Statue of Liberty), having lost his homeland, worrying about those left behind, and trying to find his way in a new country. A Sky Full of Song wasn’t inspired by my own family’s history but more by a great interest in learning about and imagining this little-known aspect of American Jewish history. And then my picture book Matzah Belowstairs—well, that came from sitting at the seder table wondering what would happen if the person who hid the afikomen fell asleep before the meal was over and we couldn’t find it! (And from sweeping up crumbs during Passover. Is your floor, like mine, always full of crumbs that week? I always think that mice must love Passover.)
What is your favorite thing about being an author?
A few times I have come upon a child who is in the midst of reading one of my books. And sometimes people have sent me photos of children reading my books. To see a child who is right there in front of me, immersed, with my words, turned into a physical object, right there in their hands–that is the most amazingly wonderful feeling!
Thank you, Susan. Mazel Tov!