The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Lesléa Newman & Review of Remembering Ethan
"CHANGING THE WORLD, ONE BOOK AT A TIME"
~ Lesléa Newman
Lesléa (pronounced “Lez-LEE-uh”) Newman was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up there and on Long Island. She now lives in western Massachusetts, and from 2008-2010 served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she teaches writing for children and young adults at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program.
She is the author of 75 books - from picture books to young adult novels, in addition to a number of poems and magazine articles. Her newest picture books are, Welcoming Elijah (Jan. 2020, Charlesbridge) and Remembering Ethan, which released yesterday.
Welcome Lesléa, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.
It’s a pleasure!
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
LESLÉA: My goal is to write first thing in the morning. I am lucky that I have a writing room with a very comfortable couch (I still write with a pen and notebook). I have been writing for more than half a century! And I love any kind of writing—books for kids, books for adults, prose, poetry, nonfiction—you name it! The only think I haven’t written and probably won’t ever write is a cookbook (I’m not the world’s greatest cook).
That made me smile! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Well, if I told you, then many people would know! But here’s a “fun fact” -- I can turn a canoe on a dime.
True enough. But, that's pretty cool! How has your experience as an instructor at Spalding University influenced your writing?
Teaching makes me think about writing in a very different way. I mostly write by instinct, so I have had to think in a conscious way about form, technique, etc. and figure out how to explain the “method to my madness.” And I take that knowledge back to my own writing. I can hear myself saying things to myself that I often say to my students. Which is very helpful.
Interesting. I guess sometimes the best way to learn something is to try and teach it to someone else. Would you say there is a common thread in your picture books?
I try to convey the message to the child reader, “you are a wonderful human being, just the way you are” in everything that I write.
That definitely shines through in these two books. I love cats and immediately fell in love with both of these covers. What was the inspiration for Welcoming Elijah and Remembering Ethan?
Welcoming Elijah: When I was a child, my favorite part of the Seder was opening the door for Elijah the Prophet. It was such a relief to finally be able to get up from the table! (My childhood Seders lasted for hours.) There was a sense of mystery about staring into the dark night, wondering if this year, Elijah would come. Over the years, I’ve heard about people opening the door and dogs showing up, people showing up, wind blowing in, and since I am a cat person, I thought, what if a cat showed up? One of the most important things about Passover is “welcoming the stranger.” So of course, the family I created would welcome a cat into their home.
[What a great premise built on the tradition of this holiday.]
Extra bonus: Listen to Lesléa read Welcoming Elijah - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bpi6QjK4Eg.
Remembering Ethan: A long time ago, a group of librarians published a list of subjects they would like to see written about as picture books and “death of a sibling” was on that list. Then I had a friend whose child died. She told me one of the hardest things of all was telling her other child that their sibling was not coming home from the hospital. Sarah, the child in my book, was actually inspired by Judy Shepard, who has spent the last 21 years speaking out about her son, Matthew, who was killed in a terribly brutal way. She inspired me to create a character who uses her voice to make sure that a loved one will never be forgotten. [This book is SO powerful; both heart-rending & uplifting!]
Was your experience writing Welcoming Elijah easier or harder than Hanukkah Delight! and The Eight Nights of Chanukah? Is it harder to write the “heavier” books like Remembering Ethan and Hachiko Waits versus books like Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed or Skunk’s Spring Surprise?
It’s really hard to compare books. To me writing is writing. Each book presents its own joys and challenges. In a way, I think of all 75 books that I’ve written as one continuous book—the story of my life.
I've not heard it described as such before. What a great notion. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I loved reading Dr. Seuss. I loved The Cat in the Hat especially. That cat was such a troublemaker! Though my absolute favorite book was The Golden Treasury of Caroline and Her Friends by Pierre Probst. It’s an oversized Golden Book that few people have ever heard of. I loved it because all Caroline’s friends were animals: Bruno the Bear, Leo the Lion, Puff the Cat, Rusty the Dog. They all had amazing adventures and the illustrations were charming.
With such a diverse spectrum of work, what or who is your greatest source of inspiration?
I am inspired by life! Everything I have ever done, imagined, dreamed. And stories that I hear from other people or read about. The poet Muriel Rukeyser said, “The world is not made of atoms. The world is made of stories.” And I think that’s true.
I love that quote! What was the toughest aspect of writing Welcoming Elijah and Remembering Ethan?
The toughest part of any book is getting the words right. I usually revise at least 20 times before I am satisfied.
Was it serendipity or planning for both Welcoming Elijah (January) and Remembering Ethan (April) to release so close together this year? You’ve had a number of years where you released two or three picture books, do you find that they compete against each other for attention?
My job is to write the books. Then it’s my agent’s job to find the perfect editor. Then it’s the editor’s job to find the perfect illustrator. Then it’s the illustrator’s job to create wonderful artwork. All these things take time and all these things are out of my control. So, publishing both these books this year was not anything I planned. I don’t think the two books will compete with each other because they are so very different.
You have a good point there. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?
I think the most frustrating time for me was the beginning of my career when so many people protested my book, Heather Has Two Mommies. Things got ugly and that was difficult to see.
As far as advice goes: Read as much as possible. Write every day. Find a critique group and listen to what other people say with an open mind. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Believe in yourself! Never give up!
Great advice! And I'm sorry about those protests. We don't have to like every book (just like we may not like every person) but we have to be civil & respectful. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am finishing up two board books that feature cats, a picture book about daddies who teach their sons to be gentle, a picture book that smashes gender stereotypes, a picture book about Hurricane Maria, a picture book lullaby, and a book of fun, Shel Silverstein-type poems.
WOW! I'm impressed. What a great diversity of topics. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?
I didn’t know that illustrators could interpret the story in their own way and add sub-plots that are told through the artwork and how that can enrich the text so beautifully. I didn’t know how hard it was to write a picture book. I didn’t know that from idea to finished book could take years (in one case, a decade!). I didn’t know how rewarding writing children’s books would be.
You've has a career of great discoveries. Here's to many more! What is your favorite animal? Why?
I love all animals. If I had to pick one, I guess it would be cats because they are so beautiful, elegant, mysterious, and their affection, though hard-won is priceless.
I totally agree! Thank you, Lesléa for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
To find out more about Lesléa Newman, or get in touch with her:
Review of Remembering Ethan
Writing a picture book about death can be tricky. There have recently been a number of really good ones - Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, Ida, Always by Caron Levis, The Heart and The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and The Rough Patch by Brian Lies, and Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley.
But these don't specifically address a child's perception of how other family members process their grief. And these other books deal with the loss of grandparents, parent, beloved pet, or friend, but not specifically a sibling. This book adds to and supplements this area of bibliotherapy. As I mentioned above, this book is SO powerful; because it's simultaneously heart-rending & uplifting!
Author: Lesléa Newman
Illustrator: Tracy Nishimura Bishop
Publisher: Magination Press (2020)
Death, grief, and healing.
Ethan. Ethan. Ethan. Sarah misses her adored big brother with all her heart. She wants to celebrate all the fun times she and her parents spent with him. But ever since Ethan died, Mommy and Daddy won’t mention him. Sarah can’t even say his name without upsetting them. Why don’t they want to remember Ethan? Beloved and bestselling author Lesléa Newman offers a tender tribute to a lost family member in this touching story that can help families start to heal.
My big brother Ethan was so tall, he had to duck his head when he walked through the front door. My big brother Ethan was so handsome, somebody once thought he was a movie star and asked for his autograph.
What I LOVED about this book:
Death is a tough subject to address with children, no matter their age. It's hard enough for adults to process. Often people deal with grief by remaining stoic, being there to deal with things and help everyone else, or by completely falling apart. Sometimes, as they attempt to process and deal with deaths, adults forget that the kids have even less (or maybe different) coping skills.
Text © Lesléa Newman, 2020. Image © Tracy Bishop, 2020
When Sarah's big brother, Ethan, dies, her parents can't say his name or talk about him. Sarah doesn't understand. I love how, when Sarah states that her parents "won't talk about Ethan," Tracy Nishimura Bishop created the image of the reader looking through the window, looking into the family's grief from the outside. It's sheer genius and so full of emotion.
Text © Lesléa Newman, 2020. Image © Tracy Bishop, 2020
Convinced that only she and her cat, Button, miss Ethan, Sarah flees to his room. Curled on his bed, she says his name aloud over and over, louder and louder. She writes his name in every possible way and color and draws a picture of Ethan giving her and Button a piggy-back ride. I love Lesléa Newman's seamless weaving of coping strategies into Sarah, and her parent's, reactions to Ethan's death. It's also important that Lesléa left the "reason" open-ended, extending the book's usefulness.
Feeling a little better, Sarah puts the picture on the fridge. Her parents emotionally dash upstairs. Stomping and yelling that no one remembers or even misses Ethan, she burrows into Ethan's bed. However, through "off-screen," her outburst causes her parents to realize that they need to help her; to find a way to heal together as a family.
Text © Lesléa Newman, 2020. Image © Tracy Bishop, 2020
Their solution begins the healing process and brings them closer as a family. Two pages of notes and suggestions from a psychologist offer further thoughts and ideas of ways that kids and parents can address their own grief and heal.
Unfortunately, the world crisis of Covid-19 is going to make this book and the others mentioned above all too useful for parents, grandparents, and other care givers as we piece together lives & families when this is over. But I believe that this book is an excellent book for any family that has lost a child (or other family member) or for their friends. It is powerful, yet gentle.
- check out the information and ideas for helping process grief in the back matter by Elizabeth McCallum, PhD.
- make a drawing of, or write down in a list or word graph, your feelings or memories.
- make something (a photo album, a picture, a clay sculpture, a memory box, or blanket) to help remember and keep them close.
- create a special card or write a letter to them (https://youthlight.com/sample/activities_grieving_children.pdf).