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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Chana & Larry Stiefel + Preview of Mendel's Hannukah Mess-up

I have the privilege today of introducing you to some friends of mine. A wonderful husband and wife team who've created a funny look at how the mistakes we all make can sometimes actually be miracles.

Chana Stiefel is the award-winning author of more than 30 humorous and heartfelt books for children, both fiction and nonfiction. She loves to visit schools and libraries to share her passion for reading and writing with children.

Chana’s recent books include The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, illustrated by Susan Gal (2022), Let Liberty Rise: How America’s Schoolchildren Helped Save the Statue of Liberty, illustrated by Chuck Groenink (2021), My Name Is Wakawakaloch!, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (2019), and Animal Zombies!: And Other Bloodsucking Beasts, Creepy Creatures, and Real-Life Monsters (2018). For additional information about Chana, see our earlier interview (here).

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician and the author of The Maggid of Bergenfield short story blog, from which Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up was created. Chana and Larry have four children and live in New Jersey.

Their first picture book collaboration, Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up, releases on October 25th.

Welcome Chana and Larry Stiefel!

First, thank you for interviewing us, Maria! We’re so glad we both got to meet you in person in the summer of 2021 in Seattle. For readers who may not know, Maria and I have been critique partners for many years and her critiques are spot on!

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate? )

CHANA – I’ve been writing since I was in elementary school. I had wonderful teachers who encouraged me to write short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. I recently found some ancient collections that my mother saved in a folder. I continued writing throughout college and earned a Master’s in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University School of Journalism. An internship at Scholastic inspired me to write for children. I became an editor at Scholastic’s Science World magazine and then began writing books for kids. Although at first I mainly wrote books about science, I soon branched out to history and then funny fiction. I tend to work on several manuscripts at the same time in different genres. And I write everywhere…in several rooms of our house, at the library, and at the supermarket.

LARRY – I started writing when I was in college. I’ve written two novels, one during college and one during my pediatric residency. They are both gathering dust in my closet. I started writing Jewish short stories to entertain our kids at bedtime and it became a blog, which eventually became a local newspaper column. I sometimes write between patients or late at night.

I love the "stolen moments" that you two find to write. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

CHANA – My favorite picture book was Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey. I remember sitting on my mother’s lap while she read it to me. And many years later I read it over and over again to my own children. My favorite MG novel was From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. I still fantasize about sleeping over at the Metropolitan Museum.

LARRY – My favorite books as a child were Go, Dog Go! by P.D. Eastman and Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. In grade school, I could be found anywhere in my parents’ house reading The Hardy Boys.

All such great books. What inspired each of you to write Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up?

LARRY- One Hanukkah, while Chana was away visiting her parents, I challenged myself to write eight Hanukkah stories in eight nights. The original story was called “Miracle on Route 287” and it was the first one I wrote in that series.

CHANA – I love all of Larry’s short stories but this one had a lot of humor, a funny MC, and a lovely arc that I could see rewriting as a picture book.

That's such a cool and different origin for a picture book. How many drafts did it take for you to get the rhythm and refrain established? And how long did it take Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up to go from idea to publication?

CHANA – I don’t recall the exact timeframe, but I remember going on a long walk together to visit a friend in a nursing home and we worked out the basic storyline along the way. I sent a few drafts to our critique group (including you, Maria!) and got some great feedback. It was pretty smooth sailing after that.

LARRY – I remember the walk. It was a beautiful afternoon, and we laughed a lot. The bones of the book came from that wonderful stroll.

Sounds like the perfect way to collaborate on the story and have fun together. If you could meet anyone, real or imaginary, who would that be? Why?

CHANA – Right now, I’d love to have coffee with Judy Blume so she could help me revise the middle grade novel I’m working on. Larry, our son Josh, and I heard Judy Blume speak at her 80th birthday celebration in New York City and she was just as inspiring as you’d imagine.

LARRY – I think I’d like to meet poet and pediatrician William Carlos Williams, one of my heroes, so he could explain how on earth he saw so many patients and still got so much writing done.

Larry - if you ever capture that secret, I hope you share it (in a book of course). Is there something you both want your readers to know about, or take away from, Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up?

CHANA – Like Mendel, everybody messes up at some point. And sometimes those mistakes can be marvelous, especially if you learn from them. I also love the character of Rabbi Klein, who has faith in Mendel no matter what.

LARRY – Do your best and have some fun along the way. Oh, and try not to sit on any jelly doughnuts!

Ha! I think I'm good on the last one! What a great gift for readers young and old - do your best, have fun, and don't stress the mess. What is the hardest or most challenging thing for each of you about writing children’s books? How about writing Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up in particular?

CHANA – For me, the hardest part is waiting. Many people don’t realize that picture books can take years from idea to publication (if they get published at all). But when the books finally arrive, seeing the smiles on children’s faces makes you feel like it was all worthwhile. Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up has been a pleasure from start to finish. I’m grateful to our agent Miranda Paul for connecting us with Kalaniot. Larry and I loved writing together and working with our editor Lillian Rosenstreich. She was invested in every word of the book and did a lot of research for the scenes of New York City. And she’s a marketing genius! We’re very grateful.

LARRY – I’m very lucky. I’m a dreamer who’s married to a really good writer. I just came up with a fun idea and she brought it to fruition. I’m also very grateful to Miranda and Lili and her team for the amazing energy and efforts they put in our behalf.

Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Daphna Awadish’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

CHANA – Daphna Awadish did a fantastic job bringing Mendel to life with her vivid watercolors. Even though she lives in Amsterdam, her vibrant scenes of New York City are spot on. My Grandma Sylvie grew up on the Lower East Side so the street scenes are poignant for me. It’s hard to choose a favorite spread, but the final illustration (which I won’t spoil) warmed my heart.

Text © Chana & Larry Stiefel, 2022. Image © Daphna Awadish, 2022.

LARRY – Daphna’s illustration of the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue is really beautiful. It’s a synagogue that has personal meaning for me as someone who grew up in the New York area. It really brought the project home.

Seemed like a good spread for both of you. What’s your favorite thing to do when you need inspiration or help feeling creative?

CHANA – I love to swim—more for my brain than my body. I’ve written entire drafts of picture books in the pool. I just have to remember to write them down. 😂

LARRY – I eat elbow macaroni with marinara sauce.

CHANA – Ha! Larry’s an idea machine. You could wake him up at 4 a.m. and say, “Tell me a funny story” and he would!

That's funny and what a great gift to be married to an "idea machine"! Chana, you’re having a busy month! Your nonfiction picture book, The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, illustrated by Susan Gal released October 4th. Do you want to share your inspiration, something special about the book (what you hope the readers take away, something about researching or writing it…), and your favorite spread?

CHANA – Thank you, Maria! Publishing is funny in that every book has a different timeline and there are long periods when nothing happens, but then there are times when everything happens all at once. I have two very different picture books coming out within three weeks of each other. I know these are good problems.

I was inspired to write The Tower Of Life when I read Yaffa Eliach’s obituary in the New York Times in 2016. I was amazed by her ability to exhibit hope and resilience in the face of unbearable tragedy. Yaffa’s mission was to restore humanity to the victims of the Holocaust. She accomplished this by traveling the world for 17 years and collecting stories and photographs of nearly every man, women, and child who had lived in Eishyshok, her beloved Polish town that was destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yaffa displayed these photos in the Tower of Life, a permanent exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Yaffa’s message was universal: The world needs empathy. I hope that all children will see themselves in Susan Gal’s stunning portrayals of the people of Eishyshok and learn to respect and appreciate our shared humanity.

Text © Chana Steifel, 2022. Image © Susan Gal, 2022.

It’s hard to choose a favorite spread. Here’s one that I would definitely frame.

What a stunning image and poignant book. Are there any new projects either of you are working on now (another collaboration, maybe?) that you can share a tidbit with us?

CHANA – I’m working on a middle grade novel—historical fiction that takes place in Miami in the 1970s. (Yes, my childhood is now history.)

LARRY – I’m working on a series of doctor stories. We haven’t decided on our next collaboration yet.

Well, we'll keep our eyes open to see what you both do next. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

CHANA – We just returned from Lake Clark National Park in Alaska, where we saw lots of brown bears digging for clams on the beach. It was awe inspiring. I’m hoping to write about that trip someday.

© NPS/T. Vaughn

Thank you Chana & Larry for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your newest picture book collaboration.

Maria, thanks so much for this interview

To find out more about Chana Stiefel, or contact her:

To find out more about Larry Stiefel:

Review of Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up

Although this humorous and heart warming picture book doesn't release until the 25th, I get to offer you a sneak peek. So buckle up for an unusual Hanukkah bash.

Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up

Authors: Chana & Larry Stiefel

Illustrator: Daphna Awadish

Publisher: Kalaniot Books (2022)

Ages: 4-8



Hanukkah, making mistakes, humor, and making a difference in the world.


Mendel is always messing up. So, no one is more surprised than he, when the rabbi asks him to drive the Mitzvah Mobile through the streets of New York’s Lower East Side and invite everyone to the Hanukkah Bash. What if he messes up again? But as Mendel begins to spread the joy of the holiday to his neighbors, he learns that mistakes can happen and sometimes that’s not so bad.

Opening Lines:

Of all the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah was Mendel’s

favorite. The yummy food, the glowing candles,

the magical miracles, the glorious gifts!

What I LIKED about this book:

From this idyllic opening of a happy family starting the celebration of Hanukkah in modern day New York city...

Text © Chana & Larry Stiefel, 2022. Image © Daphna Awadish, 2022.

we quickly discover why his family and community's refrain is - "Oy, Mendel." He switches the proportion of onions and potatoes in the latkes, uses a sparkler instead of a candle, and of course is the reason for Larry Stiefel's earlier warning not to sit on jelly donuts!

Text © Chana & Larry Stiefel, 2022. Image © Daphna Awadish, 2022.

And no one could forget the time Mendel goofed

and left a tray of jelly donuts on Rabbi Klein’s chair.

SPLAT! “Oy, Mendel!”

Chana and Larry have created a wonderfully funny picture book sprinkled with fun onomatopoeia (sizzle, twizzle, splat), dripping with figurative language ("He felt as soggy as a leftover latke"), and stuffed with emotion. Following this third Hanukkah catastrophe, Mendel "tried to hide behind the scenes." But Rabbi Klein believed in Mendel and asked him to drive the Mitzvah Mobile through town, sharing the story of Hanukkah and an invitation to their holiday bash. After all, “What could possibly go wrong?" Rabbi Klein asks. I love the humorous touches Daphna Awadish adds to the mobile - a dreidel and the wording "Out for a spin" on the sides, a "LATKELV" license plate, and springy, bobbing stars on the roof! Daphna's colorful illustrations do a good job of capturing the diversity, cityscape (including the ferry and the Statute of Liberty), and energy of New York City.

Impossibly, things seem to go right. Mendel brought smiles & dancing with the music playing from the mobile's speakers, shared chocolate gelt with kids at the park, and played dreidel by Noshy’s Deli. Until . . .

Text © Chana & Larry Stiefel, 2022. Image © Daphna Awadish, 2022.

This time his mistake is very big and very public. When a reporter asks, "What's the story here," Mendel's "words began to flow like silky sour cream" and he described the miracle of Hanukah. Then almost on cue, as the mobile was pulled screeching from under the bridge, the menorah on top was still glowing. The ending is joyous, heartfelt, and a bit of a miracle for Mendel. I think you'll agree with Chana that the final spread is awesome.

It's a wonderful book for families celebrating Hanukkah, for others learning about the miracle and some features of Hanukkah, and for helping kids realize that everyone makes messes and mistakes. That sometimes all we can do is try our best, have fun, and don't stress the mess. Engaging back matter includes a history of Hanukkah, a Yiddish glossary, and a holiday recipe, it's a heartwarming story with modern Hanukkah miracles.


- make your own menorah and other Hanukkah crafts.

- can you think of a mistake you made that turned out all right in the end? Draw a picture or write a short story of your experience.

- check out the back of the book for "How to Play Dreidel," a "Hanukkah song," and a "Recipe for Potato Latkes."

- pair this with Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka and Sadie's Almost Marvelous Menorah by Jamie Korngold, illustrated by Julie Fortenberry.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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