Interview with author Ariana Mizrahi and illustrator Siona Benjamin of THE BLUE BUTTERFLY OF COCHIN

THE BLUE BUTTERFLY OF COCHIN (Kalaniot, 2024) by Ariana Mizrahi, illustrated by Siona Benjamin, follows Leah, who immigrates from her beloved home in India to Israel. Along the way, she is escorted by a lovely blue butterfly who gives her hope. Featuring gorgeous illustrations, THE BUTTERFLY OF COCHIN is a spectacular book that utilizes Nanographic printing, a cutting-edge technique that makes the illustrations pop with color. Learn more about the process here.

I had the opportunity to interview Siona for my 2020 nonfiction book DIJ – DO IT JEWISH: USE YOUR JEWISH CREATIVITY, and I am delighted to interview her again, along with author Ariana Mizrahi to learn about the creative team behind this beautiful book.

Welcome Ariana and Siona!

Ariana, what sparked your interest and inspired you to write about the Jews of Cochin?

When I discovered the rich history of the Indian Jewish community of Cochin, I was fascinated. My choice to tell this story through the eyes of Leah, a young girl was prompted by my own move from Buenos Aires to the United States. I can relate to Leah’s complex emotions related to identity and the meaning of home. Additionally, using the symbol of the butterfly seemed like a natural representation of the strong and beautiful spirit of these dynamic people.

As an educator it feels like a duty for me to help children explore the diversity of the Jewish experience. It is crucial to make sure the entire mosaic of Jewish experience is acknowledged and celebrated. I feel truly blessed that I had the opportunity to write this story.

Ariana Mizrahi

Siona, what were your thoughts when you first read the manuscript for The BLUE BUTTERFLY OF COCHIN?

I was immediately drawn to this story because it highlights a lesser-known Jewish community from India. Many people are unfamiliar with Jews of color and their origins, customs, and rituals. This project was an excellent opportunity to make children and the adults who read to them aware of the diversity within the Jewish community. While this story focused on the Indian Jewish community in the Cochin area, I was inspired by my own background as a Bene Israel Jew, a group originally from the Mumbai area of India. In fact, I have just finished illustrating another children’s book that focuses on this group that will come out this fall! Of course, getting to know, author Ariana Mizrahi and seeing how her own diverse background informed the story was an inspiration as well.

Siona Benjamin

Ariana, what were your thoughts when you saw the illustrations by Siona?

I was thrilled with Siona’s interpretation of the characters and I immediately fell in love with every single illustration. The vibrant colors and dramatic brush strokes truly brought the story to life. Siona is an incredibly talented artist!

Siona, you have been a successful artist for many years, but most recently you have illustrated several children’s books. Can you tell me a bit about your journey working on children’s books and how it differs from other projects you do?

Illustrating children’s books is relatively new to me. I had always wanted to do it and now I have had several opportunities! I would love to do more as all the experiences have been wonderful ones. I enjoyed the process, the research and the opportunity to work with the authors and publishers. The publisher especially directed me through the process wonderfully. I feel lucky for these opportunities and the variety of commissions I have had the chance to accomplish. I love doing my own paintings and exhibiting but I also love doing commissions for both public and private clients.

Children’s book illustration requires a lot of research when making the scenes for the story. I enjoy this process as I like to get deep into the characters: where they come from, what they wear, and their environment. I like the process of making the sketches and adjusting on them. I have studied theater set design and that involves reading the play and making the set and environment for that play….well, story telling and illustrating is similar. It is important to get the essence of the story understood first and then the illustrations flow!

Ariana, are there any interesting facts you discovered in your research that didn’t make it into the book?

Yes, indeed! I was surprised to hear that there has been a Jewish presence in India for so many years. Unlike many Jewish stories of immigration, the Jews of India didn’t experience persecution in the same way. In fact many Indian rulers favored them and considered them allies. For example there were sultans who allowed Jews to ride elephants, an honor usually given only to Indian nobles. In addition, there were rulers who chose not to go to war on Shabbat because they wanted the Jewish community to join them in battle.

My research for the books was very extensive. Listening to the stories of the members of the Jewish Indian Heritage Center in Israel was incredibly important and personally inspiring. The members if IJHC were very generous with their time, sharing memories of their own journey from Cochin to Israel many years ago. Additionally I am indebted to my colleagues at Be’chol Lashon for their input. This organization celebrates and prioritizes diversity as a Jewish value by uplifting the historic and contemporary racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the Jewish people.

Ariana and Siona, what do you hope young readers take away from the book?

Siona: I hope that children begin to understand the concept of true diversity in our world and the fact that religions and cultures are not homogenous. Diversity resides in multiple cultures living together in harmony. I prefer the word harmony, rather than tolerance. I believe we need to model understanding and acceptance between cultures for children. And a good children’s book is a great way to do this!

Ariana: I hope readers feel inspired, to have their curiosity sparked, and for them to continue exploring other diverse Jewish stories. It gives me tremendous joy to share the history of this beautiful community. I hope this book will encourage people to learn more about our rich Jewish past.

Thank you, Ariana and Siona!

Ariana Mizrahi is an author and educator originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her writing is informed by her diverse background as a proud Hispanic Jew. Ariana lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and three children.

Siona Benjamin is a fine artist from Mumbai, now living in New Jersey. Her work reflects her background as a Jew raised in a Hindu and Muslim India. Siona does private and public art commissions, while also selling and exhibiting in galleries and museums all over the world. 

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