Interview with Caroline Kusin Pritchard, author of WHERE IS POPPY?

Caroline Kusin Pritchard’s new picture book WHERE IS POPPY? (Simon & Schuster, 2024), illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte, follows a child struggling with the loss of her beloved grandfather on the Passover holiday. The young protagonist ultimately finds comfort in family and traditions that help her hold on to Poppy’s memory. The black and white illustrations with lovely washes of color are perfect paring for the text.

I look forward to learning more about the story. Welcome back, Caroline!

WHERE IS POPPY? Chronicles grief and loss in an accessible, child-friendly way. What inspired you to tell this story, particularly through the use of Passover Seder customs and family traditions? 

I tend to “write” stories in my head for a long while before ever putting pen to paper. I’ll have a spark around a character’s motivation or overhear a bit of dialogue at a restaurant and know I need to build something around it… but then it will take months, sometimes years, to figure out exactly what it wants to be. But it was nothing like that for WHERE IS POPPY! My grandpa Poppy was my guy, and he played a particularly meaningful role in my own understanding of my Jewish identity. He’d been leading his family’s seder ever since his dad died when he was just a kid. Passover always carried a special weight for our family, and Poppy’s role at the helm was an inevitability. So when he died at 94 years old, amidst all the sadness and grief, my mind kept coming back to the seder. It was heartbreaking that he was gone, but almost impossible to imagine Passover without him. 

 Soon after his death, the story poured right out of me. At first it read like a mad dash to replicate my own childhood experiences for my kiddos and their cousins— to show them what a “real” seder was, because our Poppy was so integral to that feeling of realness. It didn’t take long for me to understand that trying to exhaustively capture Poppy on the page came from that piercing desperation of early stages of grief. When I pulled myself up a bit, I could see how honoring Poppy’s legacy mirrored the tradition of Pesach itself. We tell stories— of the Exodus, of each other— as a way to keep memory alive. Not to preserve a static moment or person, but to let them do work in our hearts and hands. Structuring a child’s journey around the seder felt like a natural and important way to hit on these themes that (hopefully!) feels child-centered. 

Once I finished the original version, I recruited my wildly talented friend (Annie Bowler, don’t miss her work!) to illustrate it. I then surprised my family with printed out copies at our seder, which took place a few months after Poppy died. Reading the first iteration of WHERE IS POPPY together has become a new family tradition ever since.

Caroline Kusin Pritchard

As you indicate in your back matter, Poppy is based on your own beloved grandfather. Are there any stories or anecdotes about Poppy that didn’t make it into the book that you’d like to share? 

I love this question. There are too many anecdotes that come to mind, which I know is a shared experience when we lose a grandparent or elder. But more than any one given memory, I love remembering the way Poppy looked whenever he’d watch us grandkids get into some sort of trouble or another. He’d lean back in his chair with his hands on his lap, his mouth pressed in a tight, wide grin. Then he’d suck in a rapid series of quick breaths and hold them for a few seconds before letting out a full-bodied sigh. There was nothing better than that sigh! Every once in a while I’ll catch myself recreating the very same one, and it fills me right up.

What were your thoughts when you saw Dana Wulfekotte’s illustrations?

Dana and Jessie Oliveros’ THE REMEMBER BALLOONS is one of the first picture books that really brought me to my knees. (If you haven’t read it, please go find a copy immediately!!!) It’s about a child coming to grips with their grandfather’s rapidly developing memory loss, and Dana brought it to life with such tenderness. It’s a real masterclass in intergenerational storytelling about hard life transitions that’s engaging for kids while never talking down to them. I mean people have TATTOOS of scenes from the book… if that’s not a metric of a true classic, I’m not sure what is!!!

All to say, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that Dana signed on to this project. And when I first saw her sketches of the story… oof. It was the best kind of gut punch. Her use of color profoundly shapes the story from the first page, and it’s an approach to picture book setting I’d never considered until now. We watch how this purple spirit of Poppy stretches from the narrator’s memory into her lived experience of the seder— everything from the food to the rooms to the faces of her loved ones. There’s one spread that so powerfully captures the turning point in the young child’s awareness, and it gives me goosebumps with every single read. It’s been such a gift to read the story out loud to kids and see the visceral impact of Dana’s vision, especially when we land on that spread. Dana’s mind is brilliant, and I feel enormously grateful that I had the opportunity to partner with her on this book. 

 What do you hope young readers take away from WHERE IS POPPY?

I hope it can help them make sense of what grown ups mean when we say that people we love live on in our memories. It can all feel so abstract— death… l’dor v’dor… the idea of carrying memory inside of us. But when it’s right there on the page, I hope it will make these ideas feel not just accessible, but also imbued with a real jolt of wonder. 

The Jewish people have handed down the Passover story for thousands of years… that’s a miracle in and of itself! And I think the real magic is in all the ways the story has gained even more texture and life with each telling. I hope kids see that the same is true for those we’ve loved and lost. If we look— really, really look!— we will find each other again in our traditions and in one another.

Do you have a favorite Passover tradition?

I include some of my favorites in WHERE IS POPPY, everything from dipping fingers in grape juice to singing Dayenu as a family to sneaking games of tic-tac-toe in my Haggadah. But this year we are releasing more and more leadership over the seder to the next generation of kiddos, which feels like a new favorite ritual in the making. Letting them in on the co-creation process is a bit of a dream. Who knows what will come of it, which is all part of the wonder and fun. What I do know is that if Poppy was here, he’d be watching the chaos from his chair with his hands in his lap, taking those choppy breaths in and letting out one heck of a proud sigh.

Thank you, Caroline!

Caroline Kusin Pritchard grew up as the youngest of four children in Dallas, Texas, and spent her childhood sneaking extra helpings of noodle kugel from her bubbe’s kitchen. Where is Poppy? is Caroline’s second picture book following her debut Gitty and Kvetch which was a Tablet Magazine Best Jewish Picture Book of 2021. Caroline lives in the Bay Area with her husband, three kiddos, and their 120-pound dog.

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