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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Lesléa Newman, Susan Gal, and Review of Joyful Song

Lesléa (pronounced “Lez-LEE-uh”) Newman was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up there and on Long Island.

Author photo of Leslea Newman

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 Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing.

Collage of the covers of 13 of Leslea's published books

She is the author of 39 picture books, 2 middle grade novels, 1 young adult novel, and 2 young adult verse novels, in addition to a number of poems and magazine articles. Including the picture books, Like Father, Like Son, illustrated by AG Ford (April 2024), The Fairest in the Land, illustrated by Joshua Heinsz (2023), I Can Be…ME!, illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez (2023), The Babka Sisters, illustrated by Tika and Tata Bobokhidze (2023), Alicia and the Hurricane: A Story of Puerto Rico / Alicia y el huracán: Un cuento de Puerto Rico, illustrated by Elizabeth Erazo Baez (2022), ABC Cats: An Alpha-Cat Book (2021), 123 Cats: A Cat Counting Book (2021), Welcoming Elijah:A Passover Tale with a Tail  (2020), Remembering Ethan (2020), Gittel's Journey: An Ellis Island Story (2019), and Baby's Blessings (2019).


Susan Gal (rhymes with “ball”) completed her BFA at Art Center College of Design and began her illustration career as a poster and calendar artist in Los Angeles.

Illustrator photo of Susan Gal.

Her love of drawing lively characters earned her an internship with Walt Disney Feature Animation and she became a member of the original animation team at the Disney MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida. But the lure of the silver screen was not to last. Susan returned to her native California to follow her true passion of writing and illustrating children’s picture books.

Collage of the books covers of Susan's 9 books.

She’s the author/illustrator of Please Take Me for a Walk (2010) and the illustrator of 13 books, including Dear Stray by Kirsten Hubbard (2023), The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs by Chana Stiefel (2022), Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail by Lesléa Newman (2020), A World of Cookies for Santa: Follow Santa's Tasty Trip Around the World: A Christmas Holiday Book for Kids by M. E. Furman (2017), Bella's Fall Coat by Lynn Plourde (2016), Hocus Pocus, It's Fall! by Anne Sibley O'Brien (2016), Abracadabra, It's Spring! by Anne Sibley O'Brien (2016), and Here Is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays by Lesléa Newman (2014).


Their newest picture book, Joyful Song: A Naming Story, was released May 7th.

Welcome Lesléa and Susan, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.


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?)


LESLÉA – I am an early bird and write first thing in the morning. I am lucky enough to have a writing studio in my home. I sit on my writing couch with my cat Mitzi sleeping beside me, and with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap, I do my best to find words that improve upon the perfect beauty of the blank page before me. I have been writing for 60 years (that’s not a typo!) ever since I was a little girl. When I was 8 years old, my family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island and I missed my grandmother who no longer lived across the street from us but now lived a 45-minute car ride away. Writing made me feel better. It still does!


SUSAN - I’ve been illustrating for about 30 years.  I love creating picture books because there is so much freedom with the words and art. I have a studio in my home and work traditionally with paint, ink, pencil, etc., and collage the artwork digitally.


It's so nice to get to know you both a little better. What helps you to be inspired? (perhaps a certain place, music, activity, etc.)


LESLÉA – When I can’t come up with a new idea, which happens more often than I’d care to admit, I pick up a book of poetry and immerse myself in other people’s work. And that helps my brain get unstuck. I’ll scribble in a notebook, maybe write an imitation of a poem, maybe pick a form such as a sonnet or sestina, and just do my best. As soon as there is something down on the page, I can work with it. Something interesting may or may not appear on the page, but I know from experience that nothing is wasted. I may have a week or a month or longer when the writing isn’t going well, and then all of a sudden, there is a breakthrough. I know that breakthrough wouldn’t have happened without all the previous writing that felt like it was going nowhere. It wasn’t going nowhere; it was leading me to somewhere.


SUSAN - My go-to inspiration depends on the book that I’m creating.  Because Joyful Song is an uplifting story about family and community I was inspired by memories of my childhood neighborhood. While I was drawing and painting the spreads, I listened to music that took me back to that time and I think that joy infused the artwork with color and warmth.


Great ideas for getting unstuck and channeling an emotion. Thank you! Lesléa, what was the inspiration for Joyful Song: A Naming Story?

Book cover - young boy loving holding his baby sister as two dogs scamper at his feet.

LESLÉA – I was sitting in synagogue on a Saturday morning and the service was almost over. The Rabbi invited a lesbian couple up to the bima so their new baby girl could be blessed and welcomed to the community. Now I am old enough (see question #1) to remember when women were not allowed up on the bima, at all, so to see this lesbian family proudly standing in front of the whole congregation moved me to tears, and that is when I decided to write a book about this very special and joyous occasion.


Wow. I love learning it was inspired by real-life. Susan, having worked with Lesléa on a few books before, what about the Joyful Song manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Title page - a baby stroller with a little dog on either side.

SUSAN - Lesléa has such a lovely way with words. The first time I read Joyful Song, my mind immediately lit up with images. This story is filled with many expressions of  love—the love of family, community, friendship, and faith. She cleverly tells a story and leaves space for an illustrator to interpret her words and enrich her story.  To me, those are the most satisfying manuscripts to illustrate.


And the two of you do such a wonderful job creating picture books together. What is a (or the most) fun or unusual place where you’ve written a manuscript or created an illustration?


LESLÉA – One of my favorite places to write is on an airplane! There’s something about being 30,000 feet up in the air that loosens my pen. I once wrote an entire picture book manuscript while flying over the Atlantic!


SUSAN - I can do a sketch just about anywhere but to complete a finished piece of art I really need a studio setting. A few years ago, I had a book illustration project that I had to complete while dealing with the passing of my father. I moved in with my parents for several months to help them and set up my studio in my childhood bedroom. At first, it was traumatic trying to work in that situation. But eventually I realized that I had become the artist that I had dreamed about becoming since I was a child. Being in that space gave me a sense of security and strength while enduring one of the most difficult times of my adult life. Somehow, I managed to both deliver the book on time and be there for my family.

Susan, I am so sorry. Lesléa, what was the toughest part of writing Joyful Song? How long did it take from the first draft to publication? 


LESLÉA –  This was one of those books that took a very long time to write. The hardest part was figuring out what Zachary was going to say up on the bima. I wanted to get his words just right, just as he wanted to get his words just right as he stood in front of his entire community during this very important moment in his family’s life.


You did a great job Lesléa! Susan, what’s the hardest part about illustrating picture books? Was it harder to be the author/illustrator?


SUSAN - It’s much easier for me to illustrate a book than to write it. Visualizing the pictures comes naturally to me but I have to really search for the perfect words when writing. What I love about illustrating is the opportunity to bring characters and a story to life. If the characters aren’t real to me then they won’t be real to the reader. That’s the most stimulating and satisfying challenge.


You're an amazing illustrator, Susan. Lesléa, having worked together on a few books previously, did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Susan’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

LESLÉA – Everything about Susan’s illustrations amazes me! And everyone I show the book to literally gasps at the beauty of  her artwork. I was surprised—and delighted—by the bright colorful palette of the book. My favorite spread is the one in which Zachary is standing up on the bima holding his baby sister in his arms. He is looking down at her and she is looking up at him and the way Susan portrays the love that they feel for each other in that moment takes my breath away.

Internal spread - young boy lovingly gazing at his baby sister in his arms, as she she places a hand on either side of his chin.

 Text © Lesléa Newman, 2024. Image © Susan Gal, 2024.

I agree with you, it is such an emotional and stunning spread. Susan, is there a spread of which you are especially proud? Which is your favorite spread?


SUSAN - The most challenging spread to render shows Zachary holding his baby sister when he reveals her name to the congregation. I knew I wanted to have light shining through stained glass windows, but the designs of the windows were too distracting. I wanted to focus on that sweet moment of Zachary with his baby sister. When I omitted the window designs and just left shapes of vibrant color then the spread fell into place.

So interesting you both picked the same spread. What's something you both want your readers to know about Joyful Song?


LESLÉA – It is a book that truly celebrates the beauty and diversity of community.


SUSAN - It was very intentional that Lesléa and I depict families and neighbors of all genders and backgrounds. I hope the reader will feel the joy and love that Zachary and his family have for each other and their strong connection to a diverse, loving community.


That definitely shines through the book! Susan, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Joyful Song? Could you share one or more with us?


SUSAN - I grew up in the suburbs of Southern California and used my favorite neighborhoods as inspiration. Much of the story takes place outdoors so I thought that springtime would be the perfect season for the setting. The neighborhood would be bursting in blooms while the family makes their way to the synagogue and a spring rain shower hurries them back home. I had a lot of fun rendering the stucco houses and verdant gardens that I've loved since childhood.


I love the rich colors and the plants in the community. Are there any new projects you both are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


LESLÉA – I’m working on several new picture books that are told in rhyming couplets, and just like Joyful Song feature Jewish LGBTQ+  families. I am also working on a book of poetry for adults that I hope to finish by the end of this year.

SUSAN - I’m currently finishing up the art for a picture book with Little, Brown and Company. I’m also excited to be teaming up again with Chana Stiefel to illustrate her story for Scholastic Inc.


Ooh, exciting. I can't wait to see these books! What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of Central Park.

LESLÉA – I love Central Park in New York, the city of my heart. It’s a wonderful place to relax amid all the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.

Photo of Yosemite National Park.

SUSAN - I live in Northern California so I’m able to visit Yosemite National Park. It’s one of my favorite places to backpack. Hiking among the majestic peaks and stunning waterfalls continues to inspire me and fill my soul.


Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not ?


LESLÉA – From my mother: “Don’t fill up on the bread.” Because then you’ll be too full to enjoy your meal, and you won’t have room for dessert!


SUSAN - Advice from my favorite painting teacher in art school: The beauty is in the journey.


Love those nuggets of advice. Thank you, Lesléa and Susan, for stopping by to share with us about yourselves and your newest picture book.

To find out more about Lesléa Newman, or to contact her:


To find out more about Susan Gal, or to contact her:

Review of Joyful Song: A Naming Story

This stunning picture book surrounds a special naming tradition with a loving celebration of family, diversity, and community.

Book cover - young boy loving holding his baby sister as two dogs scamper at his feet.

Joyful Song: A Naming Story

Author: Lesléa Newman

Illustrator: Susan Gal

Publisher: Levine Querido

Ages: 4-8



Family, community, traditions, and faith.


What a happy day! Zachary’s baby sister will have her naming ceremony. In the temple! With his moms, the congregation, and all their friends! He’s so excited he can barely contain it. On the walk from their home, they meet neighbor after neighbor who want to know the baby’s name. But – not yet! – his mothers tell him. The tradition is to have a great reveal at the ceremony. So they invite each neighbor to come along. A colorful, diverse parade blooms along the route, until…At last it’s time, and Zachary gets to reveal his sister’s name…What is it? A truly joyful moment for everyone.

Opening Lines:

Shabbat is the best day of the week and

today is the best best day of all.

It’s my baby sister’s very first Shabbat

and we get to stand on the bima with

the Rabbi in front of everyone and

announce her name to the world!

What I LOVED about this book:

The declaration that today is the best day of all is accompanied by a touching scene of Zachary holding his baby sister as the family's two dogs rest their heads on his legs and his mothers are busy in the kitchen. It is such a wonderfully loving, colorful, and cozy opening spread.

Internal spread -  a young boy holding his baby sister as the family's two dogs rest their heads on his legs and his mothers are busy in the background.n

Text © Lesléa Newman, 2024. Image © Susan Gal, 2024.

Once the family dons their "dress-up clothes," they head to the  synagogue. Strolling through a gorgeously colorful and diverse community full of flowers and animals, they encounter three special neighbors. And with a wonderful series of refrains and a cumulative format, Mama and Mommy humorously interrupt Zachary's excitement in sharing his sister's name with sweet nicknames ("Little Babka" and "Shayneh Maideleh"). Then each time, Zachary invites the neighbor to come with them to the naming ceremony.

Internal spread - young boy and his mothers talk with a neighbor and her daughter.

Text © Lesléa Newman, 2024. Image © Susan Gal, 2024.

“Want to come with us to her

naming ceremony?” I ask.

“That’s when her real name

will be announced.”

And as each neighbor joins, creating a colorful procession, Zachary announces, "We walk on." I love how Susan Gal's loose lines, clothing textures, and her patchwork of colors in the backgrounds create a sunny, relaxed, tropical (Southern California) feel. Arriving at the temple, the patchwork of colors become the stained glass windows and then flow across the page to surround the family and the Rabbi as Zachary announces "“Because you make our hearts sing with happiness,” I begin, “we decided to call you…” This is such a powerful and very precious moment between Zachary and his baby sister.

Internal spread - young boy lovingly gazing at his baby sister in his arms, as she she places a hand on either side of his chin.

 Text © Lesléa Newman, 2024. Image © Susan Gal, 2024.

Following a community lunch, the procession returns each neighbor in turn to where they began and Zachary continues the refrain "We walk on," until. . . in addition to discovering the baby's name, you'll enjoy the twist to the refrain and the wonderfully, loving, joyous ending for the family. An author's note explains the naming ceremony and the special care given to choosing a baby's name. A tender and inclusive tribute to families and community.


  • think about the question at the end of the author's note - "Everybody’s name has an interesting story. What’s the story of yours?"

Collage of two versions of tissue paper stained glass projects.
  • make your own stained glass window with tissue paper using water or glue.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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