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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Rebecca Gardyn Levington and Review of Afikoman, Where'd You Go?

Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines.

Author photo of Rebecca Gardyn Levington.

Rebecca has a master’s degree in magazine journalism from NYU and a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, with a specialization in business administration, from UCLA. In her life B.C. (“Before Children”), she was a freelance magazine and newspaper journalist, writing feature articles and cover stories for The New York Observer, Ladies Home Journal, Working Mother, Bride’s, New York Newsday and The Chronicle of Philanthropy, among many others. Prior to that, she was Senior Editor at American Demographics (a now defunct marketing magazine that was far more interesting than it sounds!) where she wrote and edited stories about what motivates people’s purchasing decisions and lifestyle choices. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys.

Collage ot the covers of Rebecca's two picture books.

She’s the author of Whatever Comes Tomorrow, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa (2023) and Brainstorm! Illustrated by Kate Kronreif (2022).


For more information on Rebecca our earlier interviews (here) and (here).


Her newest picture book, Afikoman, Where'd You Go? A Passover Hide-And-Seek Adventure was released on February 20th.


Rebecca, thank you so much for stopping back by to talk about your newest book and writing.

 

Thanks so much for having me again, Maria!

 

My pleasure. What do you like to do outside by yourself or with family and friends?

 

I love taking long walks around my beautiful NJ suburban neighborhood! I typically make a point to squeeze in at least a ½ hour walk each morning and evening. I particularly enjoy my morning walk because I do it with my 12-year-old son, who still invites me along on his walks to school (I’m hanging on to these walks for dear life because I know all too well -- because I also have a teenage son -- that very soon he’ll no longer want to be seen anywhere near me!).

  

What wonderful moments to treasure. What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Afikoman, Where'd You Go? A Passover Hide-And-Seek Adventure? And how’d you come up with a Where’s Waldo twist on Passover?

Book cover - five kids in a treehouse looking for the Afikoman, while it's hiding from them on the roof.

Just to back up a little for those who may not be familiar with Passover. I like to describe it as “Jewish Thanksgiving.” It typically takes place in March or April and we all gather together around a big table, eat great food, sing songs, say prayers, and express gratitude for our freedom and for all the good things we are blessed to have in our lives. This gathering is called a “seder.” One of the rituals that takes place about halfway through the seder, after the meal, is called “searching for the afikoman.” This is when a piece of broken matzah cracker – called the “afikoman” – is hidden somewhere in the home and all the kids embark upon a manic search to find it and win the coveted prize (in my house it was always a dollar, which was a lot of money in those days!).


During my own childhood seders, I have fond memories of my sister and I (and other family friends) tearing through the house, upending couch cushions, throwing open cabinets, and digging through drawers! (My guess is that my mom has less fond memories of this! Lol). [😊 - Ha!]


These memories were the impetus for this story, along with a longtime desire to do a fractured fairytale version of The Gingerbread Man. Once I’d written the first draft, I thought about how fun it would be if I could also find a way to involve the reader by making it a seek-and-find, much like the Where’s Waldo and Richard Scarry books I enjoyed reading with my own two boys when they were little. I’m so thrilled that Noa Kelner was chosen as the illustrator because her cleverness in hiding the Afikoman in the pages of this book is just brilliant!


Sounds like lots of fun for kids! How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Afikoman, Where'd You Go?

 

I had to go back to my files to figure this out! Looks like my very first draft of this story (originally titled “Afikoman Hunt”) was dated Jan. 2, 2020. But then I seemed to have shelved it for a year and a half  because my next draft is dated July 20, 2021! I assume the pandemic played a role in that, but it’s all a blur. After that, there are 17 more drafts. It eventually went on sub in January 2022 and within only FIVE DAYS, Lauri Hornik from Rocky Pond/Penguin Random House sent an offer! The book was finally released on Feb. 20, 2024, so it was just about four years from first draft to publication!


Oh, sure seems like 2020 messed with everyone. What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for Afikoman, Where'd You Go?

 

What a hard question! There is so much that is rewarding about ANY manuscript becoming a book! But I would say two things stand out. One is that despite Afikoman, Where'd You Go? being a “Jewish” book (which some might think means it wouldn’t have a very broad audience), it managed find a home with a big, mainstream, traditional publisher. The second is that it has already received excellent reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly AND received a starred review from School Library Journal!

 

These two things are important to me for a couple of reasons. First, growing up Jewish in a predominantly non-Jewish area of suburban California, I often felt like I was “other” and very rarely saw myself in the books I read. So, the fact that mainstream publishers are now excited about creating books about Jewish customs and traditions (I have three other Jewish-themed books in the works with other big publishers!), means (I hope) that today’s Jewish kids won’t feel so overlooked and forgotten. They deserve to know that their family rituals and holidays matter.

 

Secondly, the book’s wide distribution and great reviews means that hopefully this book will find its way into the hands of kids from all different backgrounds who can enjoy reading about and participating in a new (and fun!) tradition. As creators, one of our goals is to help kids understand and have empathy for one another – and the best way to do that is to expose them to stories that highlight each other’s worlds.

 

Both of those are definitely reasons to celebrate. What's something you want your readers to know about Afikoman, Where'd You Go?

 

Dovetailing on the above, I’d like readers to know that this book is for EVERYONE! You don’t need to be Jewish or know anything about Passover to enjoy this story, especially with the Where’s Waldo, seek-and-find element! My agent isn’t Jewish and knows very little about Jewish customs and from the very beginning, even before this book sold or had any illustrations, she told me how much her little girl loved singing the refrain over and over again. And now that she’s able to actually hold the book in her hands and search for the sneaky Afikoman hiding on each spread, she loves it even more!

Title page and glossary

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2024. Image © Noa Kelner, 2024.

 

This book is really for any child who enjoys fun and interactive picture books which ask them to take part in the adventure. But of course, for those who do want to learn more about the Passover holiday, there is a glossary in the front of the book that explains more about the traditions and symbols used during the seder and gives definitions and a pronunciation guide for the Hebrew words sprinkled throughout the book.

 

The glossary is helpful and interesting to have it opposite the title page. Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Noa Kelner's illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

Oh, yes! When I initially wrote this book, I thought of Afikoman as a smarmy, snarky, dislikeable character. In fact, I originally included a back matter “celebrity interview” where all of the Afikoman’s answers were arrogant and condescending (I still think that interview is hilarious, and I may use it as fodder for a future story…who knows?!) 


So yes, I was very surprised at how Noa drew Afikoman more as a silly, trickster, which – of course -- makes so much more sense and works so wonderfully in this book.  In fact, after seeing the illustrations, I changed the first line of the book from: “Have you seen the Afikoman? He’s a smug and sneaky guy” to “Have you seen the Afikoman? He’s a silly, sneaky guy.” 

Internal spread - six kids hunting in the bathroom fo rthe hiding Afikoman.

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2024. Image © Noa Kelner, 2024.


As for favorite spreads, that’s tough. Noa is a master of the fake-out and every spread includes such intricate details, often in browns and beiges to provide camouflage for Afikoman. She included so many red herrings to purposefully trick the reader. Her work really is brilliant! But if I have to choose, I’d say I love the bathroom scene the most, mainly because I originally DID have a bathroom scene in my text but took it out because my crit partners thought it was gross to have food in the bathroom. So, when I saw that Noa (totally on her own!) put a bathroom scene in, I laughed out loud! I also really love the endpapers, where more of Afikoman’s silly personality is revealed.


This is such a funny illustration! What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing Afikoman, Where'd You Go?

 

The biggest challenge was getting the ending just right. No spoilers, but I will say that my original ending included Afikoman being eaten (GASP!). I didn’t feel like there was any problem with this because: 1) if you look at most iterations of the Gingerbread Man, the main character does indeed get eaten at the end; 2) at the Passover seder, the afikoman is meant to be eaten as a symbolic “dessert” after the meal; and 3) as I mentioned earlier, I was initially envisioning Afikoman as a sort of sneaky “villain” character, so I thought kids would kind of enjoy the idea of him getting his “just desserts” (pun-intended) in the end.


My editor, however, thought cannibalism took it a little too far, so asked me to pull back on it. After MANY stressful nights (because changing even one word in a completed rhyming manuscript is torturous!) I managed to come up with what we both felt was an even better twist (which also ended up going through a few revisions until we got it exactly right!).


If you want to find out what actually does happen to our little Afikoman friend, you’ll just have to read the book!

 

Congrats on succeeding in revising a rhyming text. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

 

YES! Thank you for asking! I am excited to say I have another six rhyming picture books being released within the next couple of years. Next up, on Sept. 3rd, is Little Dreidel Learns to Spin, illustrated by Taryn Johnson, and published by Scholastic, which is a Hanukkah picture book about Little Dreidel, who discovers that she needs persistence, patience (and a whole lot of momentum!) if she ever hopes to spin as well as her older cousins.

 

Then, in January 2025, Write Here, Write Now!, illustrated by Andrea Boatta, comes out from Capstone, which presents a plethora of ways for kids to play with words while discovering the type of writing that’s “right” for them.

 

And after that, in the spring of 2025, I Will Always Be…, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell, published by HarperCollins, is an inspirational picture book that encourages kids to celebrate their passions – whether or not they ever make it to Broadway or the big leagues – because doing what you love and loving what you do is what really matters.

 

These sound intriguing. We'll have to keep our eyes open for them. Last question, is there a plant or flower you love growing, or wish you could grow, in your yard or garden?

 

Unfortunately, I have ZERO green thumbs, so I’ve never tried to grow anything myself – inside or out! But my very favorite flower is the hydrangea (specifically when they bloom in purple hues – purple is my favorite color!). I remember at my grandmother’s home on Long Island, NY, she had this HUGE, gorgeous purple hydrangea bush in her backyard that was probably as tall as I am (5’5”) and just as wide! She told me that it had grown from a single stem she’d taken home from a wedding centerpiece decades before. She just decided to stick it in the ground to see what would happen! Maybe I should try that too!?


I think it's worth a try. Thank you, Rebecca, for stopping by to share with us your newest picture book.


Thank you for having me, Maria! It was a pleasure.  I also wanted to mention, since I know many of your readers are up-and-coming picture book authors, that I have a monthly email newsletter where I offer tips and tricks learned from my own journey and also answer questions from readers. They can sign up by hitting the “Subscribe” button at my website, www.RebeccaGardynLevington.com.

 

To find out more about Rebecca Gardyn Levington, or to contact her:


And for anyone in NY/NJ, please come visit Rebecca at any of the following upcoming events:

**SATURDAY MARCH 30, 202410am-3pm Poughkeepsie Children’s Book Festival

Dutchess Community College’s Falcon Hall53 Pendell Road, Poughkeepsie, NY

**SATURDAY APRIL 6, 20242-3PM Summit Free Public Library

75 Maple Street, Summit, NJ 

Let’s Celebrate Passover! I’ll be reading my new book, Afikoman, Where'd You Go? A Passover Hide-And-Seek Adventure and discussing with kids why this holiday means so much to me! Most appropriate for ages 4-9.

**SUNDAY APRIL 7, 20241-2pm The Curious Reader

229 Rock RoadGlen Rock, NJ

(Same event description as the one in Summit!)


Review of Afikoman, Where'd You Go?

A Passover Hide-and-Seek


Book cover - five kids in a treehouse looking for the Afikoman, while it's hiding from them on the roof.

Afikoman, Where'd You Go?

Author: Rebecca Gardyn Levington

Illustrator: Noa Kelner

Publisher: Rocky Pond Books/Penguin Random House (2024)

Ages: 4-8

Fiction


Themes:

Passover, matzoh, hide-and-seek, family, and adventure.


Synopsis:

Help the children find the afikoman during their seder! It’s a rambunctious Passover hide-and-seek story for fans of Where’s Waldo? and The Gingerbread Man.


This lively, funny picture book brings to life the Passover tradition of searching for the afikoman—literally. When the mischievous piece of matzoh runs and hides during the seder, all the kids in the family (and even the pet dog!) go hunting for it, through every room in the house. Readers can join the hunt and find the sneaky afikoman in each bright and busy scene while enjoying the playful rhyming text. And they’re in for a surprise ending that’s as delightful as this favorite part of Passover.


Opening Lines:

Have you seen the Afikoman?

He’s a silly, sneaky guy.

But together, we will find him.

We can do this—you and I!


What I LOVED about this book:

I love the range of racial, age, and ability that Noa Kelner added to her cheery, pencil, ink, and digital opening illustration. This looks like such a fun family gathering. I'll give you a hint for this first one - look at the chair behind the baby.

Internal spread - mulitgenerational, racially diverse family sitting down to Passover seder.

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2024. Image © Noa Kelner, 2024.


This is an ingenious, rhyming picture book meshes Where's Waldo and The Gingerbread Man, during a Passover seder. Where the children follow Jewish tradition and search for the missing afikoman, a hidden piece of unleavened bread. The reader is encouraged to follow along as the 6 cousins and their dog hunt for the hiding Afikoman. "We can do this—you and I!"


Intially the Afikoman is easy to spot running, with little stick arms & legs across the room, unseen, behind the kids. But as the hunt continues, the Afikoman's expressions get cheekier, and it gets harder to find. I really enjoyed the cut-away of the house showing the places where the kids will hunt. As well as the fun refrain Rebecca Gardyn Levington created and tweaked to great effect at the end.

Internal spread - six kids hunting for the Afikoman in the study.

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2024. Image © Noa Kelner, 2024.


Is he hiding somewhere high?

Is he hiding somewhere low?

Afikoman?

Afikoman?

Afikoman?

WHERE’D YOU GO?


The kids search throughout the house, including the study, narrator's bedroom, and the bathroom [see image in the interview above] and finally outside. But they are unable to find the increasingly sneaky Afikoman. The gorgeous illustrations are full of so many little details kids (and adults) will enjoy recognizing items as they search for the Afikoman. They will also enjoy watching Noa's addition of the dog's antics throughout the search.


And just when it seems "our seder can’t continue, and we’ll miss the greatest part!" Rebecca and Noa playfully weave in a funny twist and an ending you never saw coming. With the help of the glossary at the beginning, it's a fun interactive introduction to a special part of Passover for kids.


Resources:

Photo of a kid rolling out dough and the resulting matzah.
  • make your own matzah and hide the afikoman for Passover.

Photo of matzah bags craft.
  • try some Passover crafts, including making a matzah bag.

  • pair this with Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Susan Gal, Pippa's Passover Plate by Vivian Kirkfield, illustrated by Jill Weber, and Around the Passover Table by Tracy Newman, illustrated by Adriana Santos.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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