Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A is for Abraham and an interview with Richard Michelson

Last month I read and reviewed A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet. This special alphabet book looks at many aspects of Jewish life and I was delighted when the author, Richard Michelson, agreed to be interviewd.

Was A is for Abraham your idea or did the publisher suggest that you write it?
Why do you think a book of this kind is important?

I was contacted by the publisher about my interest in doing a Jewish Alphabet book, as part of their larger cultural alphabet series on March 1, 2006. I enthusiastically accepted the challenge. Though culturally Jewish, I did not grow up with a religious education of any kind. But I married a Methodist who felt strongly that children should be raised with a religious foundation. Jennifer converted to Judaism (going into labor while in the mikvah, but that is a different story), and it was her questioning me about Jewish traditions that made me realize how little I knew about my own history. I wanted to write a book that would have been both helpful to me at that time, and later to my children. I think it is important and empowering to teach kids (and adults) the long history and the reasons behind much of what they are learning about their heritage.

Did you write the poems in the book all in one go and then the prose, or did you mix it up?
At first I jotted some quick notes listing every Jewish subject I felt needed to be considered. Jewish Holidays; Famous Jews from the Patriarchs to contemporary Rabbis, artists, entertainers; Diaspora Judaism, Israel Judaism, Foods, Language. Religious beliefs, etc.-- And of course, within each category, the word choices were endless. Chanukah under C or H? Under M for Menorah, D for Dreidels, L for Latkes, G for Gelt, etc. The list got completely unwieldy, and I reached a state of total despair. But I worked for months writing individual verses, often using 3 or 4 words and concepts under each letter. I sent my editor a draft, but each letter seems crowded with info that didn’t necessarily connect to make a greater whole. It felt disorganized. Too much info was crammed into too small of a verse, and that the language was too complicated.

My wonderful editor's response: If someone said to list the 26 most important things to know about Jewish-American history/culture, is this the list you would give? Make sure all the topics for each letter are grouped together in the best way possible.

So I started a long rethinking process, which was much like putting together a puzzle: Grouping foods (kosher, etc.) under one letter; Literary Arts under another; Prayer under another. If one letter changed, I had to shift numerous other letters. It became addictive? I can’t tell you how many nights I fell asleep or woke up trying to fit the puzzle pieces together.Then, of course, I needed the right balance of serious and fun; Religious, cultural, and historical.

Finally I had to make the poetry simple enough for young children, and interesting enough rhythmically and conceptually for parents and older kids. After all the poems were written, the side bars allowed me to expand on the subject. I tried to boil down sophisticated ideas, and explain them as simply as possible within a specific given # of words to fit the book's format. More than two years later, my final draft was submitted.

Do you enjoy speaking to children in schools? If so why?
I am pleased to say that the book is selling well, and has been added to the essential PJ Library booklist; also the Jewish Book Council has sent me on tour to speak with kids at book festivals and schools around the country, where I have a lot of fun interacting with kids. Meeting the kids, and their families is an honor and more importantly, it is fun. The kids and I read together, we laugh, we discuss, and we have a great time. The enthusiasm of children, when they learn something new, or understand something for the first time, or think about something they'd not considered before, is wonderful to witness and be a part of. I get to be the good guy, and then, when they or I get tired and cranky, I get to leave them with their parents and teachers. What's not to like about school visits? Writing for and speaking to kids is a dream job.

Many of your books have a historical element to them. Why do you choose to write books of this kind? Is there a time in history that you are particularly interested in?
I write both fiction and non-fiction; I write for kids and for adults; and it all interests me equally. In fiction and poetry, I get to exercise my imagination, and in non-fiction (though it is also an imaginative undertaking in so far as I try to put myself in the mind of the individuals during their historical moment), I get to learn about what makes us who we are, which of course, helps me understand myself, and others, and where we might be going. I can't conceive of "specializing," and the past interest me as much as the future.

What do you think parents and teachers can do to encourage their children to read more books that are history based?
It is a constant challenge to see the world as if for the first time, or in a new light, and if a parent is truly interested in a subject, their enthusiasm will encourage their children. When my own children were in college, I always suggested that they choose their courses based on the teacher, more so than the subject. A good teacher is even more important for younger kids.

I write the books I write because something captures my attention, and I want to share that feeling or knowledge with others. It is creating a community, which is why Jews pray together in synagogue, or in a minyan. Plus I write because I am in love with words, and their possibilities. What a parent or teacher can do to encourage a love of history, is to choose the right books that make history fascinating; and to read the books themselves, or along with their children. How many times have you heard parents complain that their children aren't reading, or interested in learning, while they themselves are plopped in front of the TV.

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a child?
Unfortunately, I did not read much as a child. I really fell in love with books, under the guidance of a wonderfully enthusiastic teacher in high school. I did not realize there was a whole world of children's books out there. So when my kids were young. I was reading the classics: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Kafka, Singer, and these are the books I would read to my children at night. My daughter tells me now that I used to embarrass her by reading long passages Kafka's Metamorphosis to her and her 2nd grade friends when they came to our house for sleepovers. It wasn’t until my children were older that I discovered children’s literature. I had become social friends with writers/artists like Jane Yolen, Barry Moser, Maurice Sendak, and so I read their books, and I was astonished by the richness of their best work for children. Later, when my children brought friends home with them from college, I would insist on reading them passages from, for instance The Stupids. So I continued to embarrass them. Most readers move from children's books to "adult books," but great books are great regardless of the age they are supposedly geared toward, and the time in life you encounter them.


The publisher of this book, Sleeping Bear Press, has sent me some give away copies of this book. If you would like one drop me a line.

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