The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Ellen Leventhal
Ellen Leventhal is an author and educator in Houston, TX.
Her newest publication, Debbie’s Song: The Debbie Friedman Story (Kar-Ben Publishing/Lerner Book Group 2023) is her fourth published picture book. Ellen’s work has also appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. To find out more about Ellen’s books, writing projects, and school visits, please go to her website (here).
Ellen's the author of the picture books A Flood of Kindness, illustrated by Blythe Russo (2021) Lola Can’t Leap, illustrated by Noelle Shawa (2018) and Don't Eat The Bluebonnets with co-author Ellen Rothberg, illustrated by Joel Cook (2017).
For additional information about Ellen, see our earlier interview (here).
Her newest picture book, Debbie’s Song: The Debbie Freeman Story, released on April 4th.
Welcome back Ellen!
Thank you! I’m thrilled to be back! It’s so nice of you to have me again.
What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?
Ha! Well, I don’t think I’ve written a whole manuscript in any fun or unusual place, but I’ve definitely come up with some ideas and have brainstormed in strange places. I started a recent one sitting on top of a picnic table because there were a bunch of hens and roosters roaming around, and to be honest, I was afraid of getting pecked! What I observed from that picnic table has turned into a manuscript that I am polishing now.
That sounds like fun! What was your inspiration or spark of curiosity for Debbie’s Song: The Debbie Freeman Story?
The actual spark was when I heard a class singing her songs, and I realized that I hadn’t heard her music in a while. But Debbie herself was the inspiration. I met her once briefly and felt a connection. Had she lived, she would have been my age. She lived and taught here in Houston for a while, and although I wasn’t here at that point, many of my friends knew her. Debbie’s music was inspired by the folk songs of the sixties which I related to. I’ve always loved her music, and when I was teaching, we often sang her songs. I knew something about the struggles she went through, but I wanted to know more. When I heard those kids singing one of her songs, a light bulb went off, and I knew I had to write about her. At that time, there were no other children’s books about Debbie, and I immediately went home and began my research.
Interesting how portions of our lives can merge at just the right moment. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Debbie’s Song?
I started my research in 2018, but to be honest, it was in fits and starts. I’d begin to research and then get distracted by other projects, so that took a while. My first draft was in 2019 when I started in earnest. I began to submit it at the end of 2020, I signed with Kar-Ben in 2021, and two years later, here it is! This was unusual for me because there was very little time between submission and contract. That is NOT normal for me!
Congratulations! Sometimes the stars just align. Is there something you want your readers to know about Debbie’s Song?
During my research, I found a lot of facts about her, but I was also looking for the emotional component. I watched documentaries about her, spoke to her sister often, and interviewed people who knew her. Much of my story is based on people’s memories. I mention this in my author’s note because I think it’s important. I also want people to know that this is not just a “Jewish” story. It’s a story of a young girl with a dream who pushed through obstacles to make this world a better place. That, I think, is a universal story.
I totally agree with you. How wonderful that you were able to talk with her family and friends. What was the hardest or most challenging part of researching or writing Debbie’s Song? Was there something you wished you had been able to include in the text or back matter?
One of the hardest things for me was setting up interviews. I’m not good at things like that, and sometimes I felt intrusive. It turned out that most people got back to me and were happy to speak with me.
I did have to cut a lot from the text and the backmatter, but it’s not something I worry about. I included places where people could find their own information. However, I do wish we could have included a QR code that would connect to some of Debbie’s songs. My editor tried, but it didn’t work out. However, I will have links to some of Debbie’s performances on my website.
And you can get the kids involved in singing a song or two when you do book talks and school visits! As a nonfiction biography, was Debbie’s Song harder to write than A Flood of Kindness?
Yes, it was more difficult, although they both had their challenges, of course. In Debbie’s Song ,I had to make sense of conflicting information. But even when that happened, I found there was a similar thread that went through all the written information, the videos I watched, everyone’s memories. I tried hard to weave that into the story.
Did anything surprise or delight you when you first saw Natalia Grebtsova’s illustrations for the first time? Which is your favorite spread?
They surprised AND delighted me for sure! I was worried because I didn’t feel like there were enough scene changes, and lot of what is written as Debbie’s internal dialogue and feelings. But Natalia blew it out of the water! She wove the music clef and notes throughout the story which I love!
Text © Ellen Leventhal, 2023. Image © Natalia Grebtsova, 2023.
I think one of my favorite spreads is where I write about Debbie’s rising and falling emotions making her feel like she was on a roller coaster. Natalia drew an actual roller coaster, but it is still whimsical and flowing like all the art.
Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Well, there are a lot of projects on my computer and in drawers, but unfortunately, nothing in the pipeline right now. I am having fun working on a humorous picture book as well as either a chapter book or a lower middle grade. It hasn’t decided what it wants to be yet!
We'll have to keep our eyes open to see what it becomes. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I fell in love with The Grand Canyon when we were there many years ago. The colors and how they change based on the sun and the views
are awesome (using that word in the original sense…looking at the canyon filled me with awe.) I would love to see many others, and we’re planning on going to Acadia National Park in Maine this summer. I need to get out of the Houston heat!
© Maria Marshall
Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Ellen. It was a pleasure spending time with you.
Thank YOU, Maria for this and all you do for the Kid Lit community. I hope we get to meet in person again sometime in the future!
To find out more about Ellen Leventhal, or to contact her: