Interview with author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Susan Gal of JOYFUL SONG

It is my pleasure to welcome author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Susan Gal. In their picture book, JOYFUL SONG: A NAMING STORY (Levine Querido, 2024), Zachary eagerly awaits his sister’s baby naming ceremony. Along with his moms, he excitedly invites friends and neighbors on their walk to the synagogue, where her name will be revealed. Featuring beautiful, vibrant illustrations, this charming story offers insights into a Jewish tradition and the importance of community. I’m thrilled to learn more about this truly joyful book from Susan and Lesléa.

Lesléa, in JOYFUL SONG, you create a beautiful sense of community with Zachary, his Mama and Mommy, and their neighbors while sharing the tradition of a Jewish baby-naming ceremony. What inspired you to write a baby-naming story for young readers?

About 15 years ago—maybe even longer—I was attending Shabbat services and towards the end of the morning, two moms and their baby daughter were invited up to the bima. The baby’s name was announced and the rabbi blessed the family. I am old enough to remember when women, let alone a lesbian couple were not allowed up on the bima. Witnessing this joyful celebration brought tears to my eyes. It took me many years to write this story. I finally decided to tell it from the point of view of an older sibling and then it all came together.

Lesléa Newman

What do you hope young readers take away from JOYFUL SONG?

I hope readers will feel a tremendous amount of joy from reading the book, to realize the importance of family tradition and community, and to become curious enough about the origin of their own name to ask about it.

You and Susan are such a perfect pairing. What were your thoughts when you first saw the illustrations for JOYFUL SONG? Do you have a favorite spread?

Susan’s artwork is so beautiful, I literally gasped when I first saw her illustrations. And then I cried. And then I rushed to show them to my spouse, saying, “Aren’t these absolutely perfect?” Everyone I’ve shown the book to comments on Susan’s gorgeous illustrations. I am so grateful to her for bringing my story to life in such a magnificent way.

Susan, your illustrations for JOYFUL SONG feel like a celebration of their own. What inspired you most about the story?

When I read Lesléa’s manuscript I was intrigued by her fresh interpretation of the classic narrative of a character going on a journey and gathering friends along the way. I admired her intention of having diverse people coming together to celebrate the birth of a new member of their community. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to imagine these characters and create an interesting setting for them. 

Susan Gal

What is your creative process once you receive a manuscript? 

For this story my first concern was getting the characters just right. I wanted the moms to be diverse and believable as a loving family. My art director, Jacqueline Cote, was very important in this process. We collaborated on how the moms should look to what type of home they would live in. Once we established their look the setting for story started to come together. Our editor, Arthur Levine, added his perfect sense of timing and narrative and kept us on track so the story seamless flowed from one neighborhood to the next. 

I grew up in the suburbs of Southern California and loved roaming my neighborhood as a child. I wanted to capture that feeling of being part of place where neighbors looked out for each other and were like each other’s extended family. I’m also the oldest child in my family so I could relate to the emotions that Zachary would feel for his new sibling. 

Much of the story takes place outside so I thought that springtime would be perfect for the setting. The neighborhood would be bursting in blooms while the family makes their way to the synagogue and a spring rain shower hurries them back home. I enjoyed rendering the stucco houses and delightful gardens that I’ve loved since childhood. 

Can you tell me a bit about the beautiful color palette for JOYFUL SONG? Is it inspired by stained glass, like we see in the synagogue scenes?

That’s a great question! Thank you for noticing the connection of the stained glass and the palette. I worked hard to capture a sacred space that was filled with light, color, and the spirit of the people gathered in that space. The book is titled JOYFUL SONG so why not fill it with joy and color! It worked out well having the story take place during a season that would be filled with color too. I hope the reader can feel the same joy and love that Zachary and his family feel for each other and their connection to a loving community. 

Thank you, Lesléa and Susan!

Lesléa Newman is the author of more than fifty books for young readers, including Heather Has Two Mommies, Sparkle Boy, and Mommy, Mama, and Me. Among her many accolades are the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award, two National Jewish Book Awards, two Stonewall Honors, and a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Massachusetts with her spouse and their cat, Mitzi.

Susan Gal has written and illustrated several picture books including Night Lights, Please Take Me for a Walk, and Twogether. Her illustrated books have been recognized with the Sydney Taylor Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and most recently a Robert F. Sibert Honor and the Russell Freedman Nonfiction Award for a Better World for The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs by Chana Stiefel. Susan lives in Berkeley, California with her family. You can see more of her work at

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