The Picture Book Buzz - Interview Melissa Stoller, Lisa Goldberg, and Review Sadie's Shabbat Stories
Melissa Stoller is a former practicing attorney and legal research and writing instructor. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. When not writing, she can be found taking long walks in Central park and at the beach, enjoying museums, and researching genealogy.
Melissa is the author of the chapter book The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection: Return to Coney Island; three picture books: Sadie’s Shabbat Stories; Ready, Set, GOrilla!; and Scarlet's Magic Paintbrush; and many parenting articles. For additional information on Melissa, see our earlier interview (here).
Lisa Goldberg is an illustrator with a background in architecture. Her second illustrated picture book, Teddy, releases in 2021. She lives on the Lower East Side of New York City with her husband, daughter, and two spoiled cats.
Their newest picture book, Sadie's Shabbat Stories, released October 20th.
Welcome Melissa & Lisa!
MELISSA: First, I’m so happy to be chatting with you again, Maria. And it is such a treat to share an interview with Lisa! Thanks for hosting us!
LISA: Thank you so much, Maria, for having us on your blog!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)
MELISSA: I have been writing for a long time – I’ve been a member of SCBWI since 1997! And my first book, The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection: Return to Coney Island, was published in 2017! In between, I wrote many parenting articles, a resource book about organizing family book clubs, spent time with my three children, and volunteered for many organizations. I have many book drafts – some that are filed away and many that are still active works in progress. I write at my desk with my dog nearby! I am lucky to be a full-time author and I divide my time between writing, revising, marketing, and school visits. And of course, I spend tons of time connecting with the amazing KidLit community!
LISA: As you mentioned, my background is architecture, so illustration is a second career for me. I rediscovered my love of picture books when my daughter was little and we were reading them constantly. During that time, I took some art classes, and at one point a classmate commented that a painting I’d done looked like a children’s book illustration. A lightbulb went off for me. I knew I adored picture books but it wasn’t until that moment that it occurred to me to try illustrating them myself. Since then I’ve taken some wonderful illustration classes online, joined the SCBWI and become part of a local critique group. I work at home which I love, but it has its challenges. For one thing, I’m constantly competing with our two cats for space on my desk!
So, basically, everyone needs a furry editor, or two. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
MELISSA: Most people don’t know that I’m an attorney and that I met my husband in law school! My training as a lawyer has helped hone my research, writing, analytical, and communication skills – all key tools that I use every day as an author!
LISA: People may not know that I’m a huge animal lover and very passionate about animal rights, especially for farm and lab animals. I have an ongoing project creating artwork around this theme which I hope may help raise some awareness about the issue.
Thank you both for sharing a little of your stories with us. Melissa, what was the inspiration for Sadie's Shabbat Stories?
MELISSA: Sadie’s Shabbat Stories is all about Sadie, who loves hearing her Nana’s stories about their ancestors and Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest) and hopes to tell her own unique stories one day, just like Nana. I was inspired to write this book after hearing several stories over the years from the storytellers in my family. My father told stories about how he and his mother were separated from his father for almost ten years during World War 1, and I heard stories about my husband’s grandfather, who left Russia in 1917 when he was a teenager. He and his younger brother travelled alone to find a better life in America. Also, my Nana told me many stories about how she grew up in New York City. I wove these threads together, always keeping in mind the inspiration of my own three daughters. I try to always encourage them to use their strong voices, just like Sadie.
I love that the book is based in your family stories. Lisa, what about the Sadie's Shabbat Stories manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?
LISA: I immediately loved it because it conveys so beautifully the power of storytelling to keep the past alive. Stories that are told and retold, along with meaningful objects like the family heirlooms in Sadie’s Shabbat Stories, or a scarf or piece of jewelry inherited from someone special, can all evoke such vivid memories and help us feel continued connection to those we’ve lost and to the past that is always contained within our present. It’s such a valuable thing to keep in mind to help us make sense of life, love, and loss.
That's beautiful Lisa. And perhaps especially poignant right now as families are separated and dealing with loss and fear. Melissa, what's something you want your readers to know about Sadie's Shabbat Stories?
MELISSA: I want readers to connect with the idea that we are all storytellers and we have unique heritages and family heirlooms that make up the fabric of our lives. We all have our own voices that we can use to tell stories, sing songs, create artwork, and more. Whether you voice is big or small, loud or quiet, it’s your special voice. I tell that to students when I do virtual school visits. Also, especially now, it’s important for children to connect with older family members to hear and record their voices and their stories. I hope that Sadie’s Shabbat Stories will encourage families to have conversations about the stories and the storytellers in their families.
I do too. Lisa, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Sadie's Shabbat Stories? Could you share one or more with us?
LISA: Yes! That’s such a fun aspect of illustration. Sometimes they’re side stories not mentioned in the text, and sometimes they end up being central to the way the written story is conveyed visually. For example, the bird that appears throughout Sadie’s Shabbat Stories does figure in Melissa’s text: it’s part of the embroidered pattern on the challah cover made by Sadie’s great grandmother. Her great grandmother chose it as a symbol of peace and freedom. The bird pictured throughout the book takes flight off of the challah cover as Sadie frees her imagination and finds her own voice as a storyteller. There’s also a visual side story about the family cat, though she’s not mentioned in Melissa’s text. She’s the only character that actually sees the bird and, being a cat, she chases it!
I love how, eventually, the cat becomes a part of Sadie's tales as well. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?
MELISSA: Last time, I shared that one of my favorite books is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. I always wanted to sleep in the Metropolitan Museum of Art like the siblings in that book. I have not slept at the Met, but I have done several “Night at the Museum Sleepovers” with my youngest daughter at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC (it’s amazing to sleep under the big blue whale and visit the dinosaurs with flashlights!). Also, I was so lucky to share my impressions (and some of my secrets!) about From the Mixed-Up Files at the University of Pennsylvania’s “Sensible Nonsense” Kelly Writers House event – check out the video here https://www.melissastoller.com/events-sensible-nonsense.
LISA: As far as picture books, I remember loving Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig, and I specifically remember being so moved by the page where Sylvester turns from a rock back into himself, and the emotional hug that follows with his parents. Corduroy by Don Freeman was another favorite, I think in part because the main character shared my name, but I also really related to her intense love for her bear and her feeling that he had real emotions - and who can resist the incredible idea of wandering through a dark department store in the middle of the night! I know I read those two books about a million times, along with Madeline and Babar and so many others.
Both great books! What is the hardest thing for you about writing or illustrating picture books? How about with Sadie's Shabbat Stories in particular? And what is your favorite spread?
MELISSA: For me, the hardest part about writing picture books is making sure that each scene moves the story along. I always pay close attention to pacing and page turns. Also, I always check to make sure the story has enough heart – that moment where the reader says, “Oooh” or “Ahhh” or “Aha” or “Wow.” I hope that readers feel a tug at their heartstrings when Sadie gathers her courage to tell her tales, just like her Nana.
Text © Melissa Stoller, 2020. Image © Lisa Goldberg, 2020.
I love every spread in the book – Lisa’s illustrations are stunning. I am so blessed that our wonderful art director and editor, Mira Reisberg, paired us together. I love the work of painter Marc Chagall, and I was so delighted that Lisa’s artwork is Chagall inspired. The spreads with Sadie and her ancestors dancing and Sadie telling her stories are brilliant. I especially love the three vignette spreads where Nana tells Sadie stories about their ancestors relating to the candlesticks, the Kiddush cup, and the challah bread. On those pages, the spot illustrations of the boat arriving in New York, the Statue of Liberty, and the wedding, make my breath catch every time. And of course, I love looking for the cat and dove that Lisa included throughout the pages . . . and kids will too!
LISA: I’d say one of the hardest parts for me is staying loose through the process and not letting the artwork become too precious along the way. Just as important – or maybe more important - than whether an illustration is working aesthetically is whether it adds to the story, or makes the reader laugh or fall in love with one of the characters, or adds detail that makes a reader want to return to the book again and again. I work rather slowly and have to fight my tendency to focus too soon on refining small details that are better left for later. Then again, sometimes you need to refine something in order to really see it, and then, when you realize it needs to change, that’s another hard part of illustration: “killing your darlings!”
Text © Melissa Stoller, 2020. Image © Lisa Goldberg, 2020.
As for my favorite spread in the book, I like different spreads for different reasons. Maybe my overall favorite though would be the one where Sadie watches as her ancestors seem to dance in the candle flames. This is where we first see Sadie’s imagination at work and have a glimpse of her interior experience of Nana’s storytelling. The sketch for that spread was actually one of my earliest and was one that I sent to the Art Director, Mira Reisberg, for her sign-off on the direction I was going. The art for that spread came to me rather quickly and didn’t change much through the illustration process. It just felt right from the start – which isn’t the way it usually goes for me. Usually there are many versions and revisions!
Revision is such an integral part of the process for illustrators and authors. Thanks Lisa for helping writers see an illustrator's challenges. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)
MELISSA: All the storytellers in my family are my greatest inspiration. My parents told me a running story about the animals in my backyard – I’m still hoping to turn that into a book one day. And my parents taught me to love reading and writing. That was the perfect inspiration for a writing career. And of course, my children inspire me every day just by being themselves. Finally, I’m always inspired when I do school visits – the kids have such curious minds and imaginations and I want to write more and share more with them!
LISA: My mother and aunt were both storytellers. They told lots of stories, often very funny ones, about growing up as twins and keeping people guessing about which of them was which. They also voiced the very amusing thoughts of our cats throughout my childhood – which funnily is something my husband does too. My daughter has been a big source of inspiration as well, especially the things she and her friends said and did when they were little. Today I’m inspired by so many amazing illustrators, often author-illustrators. I’m in awe of Sophie Blackall and Shaun Tan. And I’m perhaps most inspired by Maira Kalman whose illustrations are so gorgeous and poignant but lighthearted and hilarious all at the same time and seem to just pour out of her.
What awesome experiences you had as children. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started?
MELISSA: I know now that it’s vital to surround yourself with a strong group of writing partners and friends. The publishing journey is filled with rejection – you really need to have a tough skin. My wonderful critique partners are so helpful – we cheer each other on, provide support and encouragement when the journey seems difficult, and offer friendship in what can be a solitary pursuit. I am so thankful for these amazing writers and friends!
LISA: It’s all about producing a lot of work. You just have to keep drawing and painting and accept that there will be false starts and wrong directions and artwork produced that’s just awful. All of this is part of the process to get to something good. This is something I first learned a long time ago, but which I seem to have to keep on re-learning again and again!
Great advice to find your community and do the work. How are you each staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?
MELISSA: These are certainly challenging times. I try to stay creative by taking long walks to clear my mind and observe the world around me (you never know where inspiration will come from!). Also, I love arts and crafts projects and keep art supplies nearby. I really enjoy collecting shells and I string them with beads and hang them to remind me of sunny days at the beach. And I interview other authors on my blog and I ask them about creativity – it’s always inspiring to see what other people do to stay creative as well!
LISA: Well, following up on my last answer, I’m trying to keep on producing work. I have a practice of making what I call “automatic” or “stream of consciousness” drawings, where I start by drawing abstract shapes and after a while look for concrete subject matter to bring out of the abstraction. It’s a bit like looking for shapes in clouds. In my case, I usually see people and animals. It can be sort of meditative and it’s also a practice in staying loose and non-judgmental of my own work, in that it is process oriented and I try to work without a goal in mind.
Seashells and cloud shapes, what perfect ways to spark creativity. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
MELISSA: I’m so excited to be collaborating with Callie Metler-Smith and Shirin Shamsi on a picture book titled, Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom. It’s a story about three girls of three different faith traditions who cultivate plants and friendship on the first day of school. Callie, Shirin, and I are the same faith traditions as the girls, and we have enjoyed researching and writing this story together. Stay tuned for an illustrator announcement soon, and publication in Fall 2021 from Clear Fork Publishing!
LISA: Teddy, my new picture book collaboration with the singer-songwriter Willie Devargas, will be out soon. It’s for very young readers, 0-5 years, and is so much fun because it’s accompanied by an original song by Willie, who is a beloved “kindie” (short for “kid indie”) musician in NYC. I’m actually in the early stages of working on another collaboration with Willie, sort of a sequel to Teddy. Also, I continue to make drawings in my animal rights series. I’ve just opened an online shop at InPrint.com where I have prints of some of these drawings available, with all profits donated to organizations dedicated to helping animals. (I actually have a Society6 shop too, and for the time being prints are available in both shops.)
I'm going to keep my eyes out for both of these books. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Why?
MELISSA: Well, aside from my sweet puppy, Molly (who is a character in my Enchanted Snow Globe Collection time-travel chapter book series), I love seals. During quarantine, my family took long walks along the beach on Long Island searching for seals. I wrote a NF story about one seal in particular – fingers crossed!
LISA: Well, our two family cats, Mittens and Shadow, of course. But as for animals who don’t live with me, cows have a special place in my heart. They’re so loving and playful, and given the chance will cavort around like puppies. When I first saw videos of how fun-loving and sociable they are I was shocked because we learn to think of them as farm animals and therefore somehow different from our companion animals – but actually they have just as much personality as our pets do!
Thank you Melissa & Lisa for stopping by to share about yourself and your newest picture book.
To find out more about Melissa Stoller, or get in touch with her:
Website: https://www.MelissaStoller.com Blog: https://www.MelissaStoller.com/blog Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MelissaStoller Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/melissastoller Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/Melissa_Stoller Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/melissa_Stoller
To find out more about Lisa Goldberg, or get in touch with her:
Inprint Shop: https://www.inprnt.com/search/products?q=lisa+goldberg
Society6 Shop: https://society6.com/lisagoldberg
Review of Sadie's Shabbat Stories
I've always enjoyed hearing stories about my grandparent's ability to dance on opposites sides of a room and come back together in perfect step, my husband crawling outside the barrier of the Eiffel Tower as a child, and my mother-in-law's prowess on the piano. And telling stories of the adventures I and my family experienced in our many travels - a brush with a grizzly, watching whales play in a moonbeam, riding out 6' ocean rollers in a disabled sailboat, or visiting a Kimono museum in Japan.
Stories help us connect with family, remember lost loved ones, and vicariously experience a rush, wonder, agony, or fear. Right now, it's especially important to connect and to remember (and record) our family's stories. This book is an empowering celebration of sharing one's family history and traditions and discovering one's own voice.
Sadie's Shabbat Stories
Author: Melissa Stoller
Illustrator: Lisa Goldberg
Publisher: Spork, Clear Fork Publishing (2020)
Shabbat, family, intergenerational, and storytelling.
Sadie loves listening to Nana's tales, especially about the traveling candlesticks, kiddush cup, and challah cover they use every Friday night. Will Sadie ever be able to tell her own special Shabbat stories, just like Nana? Based on true stories in the Author Melissa Stoller's family, this book celebrates family history and connections.
Every Shabbat, Sadie and Nana baked challah
together for the Friday night blessings.
They set the table with silver candlesticks,
a sacred kiddush cup full of wine or grape juice,
and a challah cover to honor the special bread.
Every shabbat, Sadie asked Nana to tell her a story.
Sadie loved hearing Nana’s stories, over and over.
Could she ever tell tales like Nana?
What I liked about this book:
This is such a beautiful, intergenerational story of the connection between a grandmother and granddaughter and their time spent together telling stories as they weekly prepare for Shabbat. Exploring their family history (and briefly brushing the history of World War I & World War II), Grandma tells Sadie how one Great-Grandpa helped bring the silver candlesticks to America tucked in his mother's suitcase, how the kiddush cup travelled in another Great-Grandpa's pocket - as he fled Russia for America, and how Grandma's mother hand-stitched the flowers, birds, and Shalom on the challah cover.
Grandma's stories are vivid and come to life for Sadie as she examines the special items. With stunning, folk art-like illustrations, Lisa Goldberg captures Sadie's imagination as she sees "her ancestors shimmering in the flickering flames" of the candles, "glimpse[s] her ancestors reflecting in the tangy grape juice" within the kiddush cup, and "almost view[s] her ancestors weaving among the swirling cotton threads" of the challah cover.
Text © Melissa Stoller, 2020. Image © Lisa Goldberg, 2020.
Wishing to "tell tales like Nana," Sadie shares a tale of her ancestors and family sharing a magical Shabbat meal. Sadie discovers her own voice and way of storytelling. The final spreads are glorious and lively as Sadie shares more and more stories throughout her life.
Text © Melissa Stoller, 2020. Image © Lisa Goldberg, 2020.
I love the way Lisa inserted a dove into almost every page, often carrying and entwinning a branch around the family. Humorously, the dove is not seen by any of the family, except for the cat. It's touching how eventually, even the cat is part of Sadie's tale, too. Not being Jewish nor having experienced Shabbat, I did wish for a brief note explaining this important part of Sadie's life. The pronunciation glossary on the dedication page was much appreciated.
This is a sweet story, both poignant and timely, about valuing family stories, holiday traditions, and the importance of sharing these memories and spending time with family. It's fun to note that the book is based on true tales passed down to Melissa and her husband. Overall, it's a special book on Shabbat, storytelling, intergenerational relationships, family, and love.
- make your own popsicle stick Star of David (https://www.dltk-kids.com/World/jewish/m-hanukkah-popsicle-star.htm).
- write your own tale, or draw a picture, about a special meal at your house or a special story about a relative.
- does your family have a special item? Write the story about, or draw a picture of, this item.
- create your family tree or make a family drawing like one Sadie's at the end of the book.
- check out the coloring pages and curriculum guide (here).