Interrogating the Passover Guest: A Susan Kusel and Sean Rubin Interview
Too much of my life consists of me coming up with kooky theories about different things. For example, is it possible that as a holiday, Passover yields more interesting picture books than Hanukkah? Then again, it’s not exactly a competition and the more Jewish holiday titles we find on our shelves the better. I have always found that Passover books tend to be particularly creative, though. Case in point, The Passover Guest, on shelves today (ain’t that a coincidence?). Do you know it? You should. Here’s a summary from the publisher:
“Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.
It’s the Spring of 1933 in Washington D.C., and the Great Depression is hitting young Muriel’s family hard. Her father has lost his job, and her family barely has enough food most days, let alone for a Passover Seder. They don’t even have any wine to leave out for the prophet Elijah’s ceremonial cup.
With no feast to rush home to, Muriel wanders by the Lincoln Memorial, where she encounters a mysterious magician in whose hands juggled eggs become lit candles. After she makes a kind gesture, he encourages her to run home for her Seder, and when she does, she encounters a holiday miracle, a bountiful feast of brisket, soup, and matzah. But who was this mysterious benefactor? When Muriel sees Elijah’s ceremonial cup is empty, she has a good idea.
This fresh retelling of the classic I.L. Peretz story, best known through Uri Shulevitz’s 1973 adaptation The Magician, has been sumptuously illustrated by noted graphic novelist Sean Rubin, who based his art on photographs of D.C. in the 1930s. An author note with information about the holiday is included.”
The book has been on my mind for a number of reasons recently. Not least of all because of Rubin’s glowing images of the Capitol Building:
It’s the only book published in 2021 that’s really contained such images. But long before the siege took place, I had a chance to ask both Susan and Sean about this title. And really, they had some interesting things to say . . .
Susan Kusel: Betsy, thank you so much for having us here today. I remember meeting you at a blog event during my first ALA about 15 years ago. It feels very full circle to be talking with you about my debut book all these years later.
Betsy Bird: Oh my! Well, the pleasure is entirely mine. Okay, so now I’m going to level with you. Half the time, I really feel as if publishers haven’t a clue what to do with religious holidays. Some of the picture books I see about Passover, for example, are so overly purposeful in their presentations that there’s little room for creativity. This book has a much bigger, overarching and interesting story. It doesn’t skimp on the Passover details (I particularly liked that Muriel was so hungry she could even eat the horseradish) but couches the details within the larger story neatly. Susan, where did you get the idea for this book in the first place?
SK: The idea started a long time ago, when I was a child and my mom read me The Magician by Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. Some books really stay with you your whole life and this one did for me. When I rediscovered it in a Jewish library as an adult, I still loved it but wanted to make several structural changes to it. I’ve been working on doing that for about 10 years; 5 of those with our incredibly insightful editor Neal Porter. He really guided the manuscript into what it is today. For example, his suggestion about making the food descriptions more sensory led me to writing that horseradish line.
BB: Sean, you seem to have a connection to the material in this book above and beyond the usual my-editor-showed-me-the-manuscript story. You yourself have an Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and to the best of my knowledge this is the first children’s book you’ve done in reference to anything Jewish at all. What drew you to this material? How was it presented to you?
Sean Rubin: Well, for the record, my character Bolivar does live on corned beef on rye (with Russian dressing), ordered from Kanofsky’s Deli on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, so I would argue there have been at least some Jewish references in my work! Seriously though, you’re right that this is the first book I have illustrated about Jewish people doing Jewish things, and it was a privilege to be able to do it. I hope it’s not the last one, either.
Susan and I have the same agent, the great Marietta Zacker. Marietta recommended me to our editor, the legendary Neal Porter, I think partially because I had sent her a list of (really vague) story ideas, and one of them involved a family of Jewish characters in the Depression. I’ve always been drawn to movies, books, and especially comic books from the 30s, or set in the 30s, so I was excited to illustrate a book set in that decade.
BB: Susan, you mention at the end of the book that Passover has always been your favorite holiday. Why is that?
SK: I find Passover to be a joyous celebration of springtime and a signal that winter is over. I love all the details that go into preparing a Passover seder. I glory in sitting down, usually exhausted from getting everything ready. I enjoy being with family and friends, and retelling stories and experiencing wonderful traditions, old and new.
Passover has become an even more special holiday for a personal reason. Many years ago, I invited my friend Carmen to my Passover seder. She called about an hour before it started to ask if she could bring her friend Ken. I said of course, Passover is about all doors being open.
Three Passovers later, we sat in the same house for a seder, and I asked the traditional question “How is this night different from all other nights?” Ken replied, “Because tonight I’m asking you to be my wife.” We’ve been hosting Passover seders together for over twenty years and now our kids ask the four questions.
BB: Aww! Darn it if that isn’t the most romantic Passover story I’ve ever heard! But let me turn this around and change the subject entirely. Sean, I know that Marc Chagall was a big influence on your art here, and indeed I’ve never seen your work come off as quite as luminous as it does here. There’s a glow that just suffuses so many of these pages with light. In what way was Chagall’s painting a palpable influence?
SR: Thanks so much, Betsy. That’s definitely what we were going for! Marc Chagall, for those who don’t know, is probably the most famous Jewish painter of the 20th century. There’s something about his work that is incredibly Jewish, and it probably has something to do with his use of light–no matter how fraught, fragmented, or disorienting his compositions can be, light always breaks through and holds it all together. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate metaphor for the Jewish experience than that.
Aspects of Chagall’s art show up throughout the book, but I definitely leaned on his vibe when the proceedings became more magical and miraculous. Chagall’s surrealist approach was the perfect inspiration for those scenes, especially his color palette.
BB: Susan, this book exhibits such love for Washington D.C. I had no idea, though, that there was a large Jewish community there. Was that the primary reason for setting your book in that city, or were there other reasons?
SK: Betsy, you’re right that I love Washington, D.C. and I’m so glad it comes out in the book. I’ve lived within close proximity of the nation’s capital nearly my entire life. Spring in DC is about the beautiful cherry blossoms, which become a local obsession when they are in bloom. I had visions in my head of setting the book among pink blossoms and stately white buildings and I think Sean realized that beautifully.
The DC Jewish community is one of the larger ones in the country but I’ve rarely seen in it in a picture book. It was a delight to highlight it and be able to show historic Jewish landmarks such as the Sixth and I Synagogue. Wendy Turman of the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum helped me plan Muriel’s route through 1930’s Jewish Washington. Using addresses found in archival photos and oral histories, she marked up my Depression-era map with places Jewish homes and businesses had been. I also did a lot of research about which buildings and landmarks had been in existence at the time.
Neal and I walked the entire length of Muriel’s trip, doing what Neal called location scouting, on a memorably cold January day. It was really fantastic to be able to have discussions about DC architecture and which step of the Lincoln Memorial was the best place for the juggler. Later I went on the same walk with Sean. We looked at different things such as the Archives building and the interior of the synagogue, both of which ended up in the final art. I feel I know Muriel’s Washington now and I love watching it unfold when I read the book.
BB: Well, this seems as good a time as any to ask him about that. Sean, when you illustrated the Bolivar books, I remember having this palpable sense that you not only knew NYC well, but that you respected it enough to render it accurately on the page. Now you’ve been handed Washington D.C. What’s your relationship to the city? How did you go about researching it for this book? Susan’s already given us a clue.
SR: Someone once suggested to me that Bolivar was created in order to capture the mood in upper Manhattan in late September on an overcast Tuesday afternoon. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but I think that reader was right. For better or worse, I knew I could never be that specific with DC. And I didn’t really try. Instead, the art became about capturing key locations. Susan was able to take me on a tour of the book’s neighborhood before I started drawing, which helped a lot. She also sent me multiple envelopes of historical resources, postcards, and a huge map. There are significant benefits to illustrating with an author who is also a librarian.
BB: Librarian hat time. Susan, can you recommend other Passover-related books for kids to pair alongside this?
SR: Thanks for asking, Betsy! As a synagogue librarian, this is the kind of thing I do all day, so this question makes me feel right at home. There are many excellent Passover picture books and it was hard to just pick a few. I selected these because I think they are a good introduction to the holiday.
Welcoming Elijah by Lesléa Newman
Is It Passover Yet? by Chris Barash
The Story of Passover by David Adler
BB: Sean, what are you working on these days?
SR: Thanks for asking. This Very Tree, which is a story about the 9/11 Survivor Tree, is also coming out in 2021. That will be the first picture book I both wrote and illustrated. I’m finishing it up now. It’s been both an honor and a challenge to work on. I can probably guess what you’re thinking and yes, for my next project I’m trying to do something a little lighter…
BB: Okay, finally, this one is to both of you. It seems to me that a book set in 1933 is particularly timely considering the state of the world in 2020/21. Sean, you yourself say as much in your note at the end when you say, “Passover is a story of faith – faith in the promise of a bright future while still contending with a grim present… As humanity prepares yet again for a struggle against plague and financial uncertainty, the message of Passover remains a light in darkness: evil comes and evil goes, but we’re still here.” As publishers struggle to meet this unprecedented time with literature, no one knows what exactly it is that children need right now. This book, though, seems to give us a glimmer of an answer. So my question to the two of you right now is this: What did this book do for you to write it, and what do you hope it will do for others?
SR: Great questions. While I of course knew about the Depression as a historical period, this project really brought me into the Depression as an emotional space. The epiphany came while I was still trying to understand the mood of DC in the 30s, sans time machine. I didn’t really have a great plan for this, but how could I? Eventually I found myself stranded at the FDR Memorial, in a downpour, empathizing with various bronze depictions of Americans in the Depression. This doesn’t generate a sunny headspace. I also spoke to my grandmother, who was born in 1929, about her childhood. I had heard some of her stories before, but not since becoming a parent, and her memories of her parent’s struggles to put food on the table were heartbreaking. This gave me a deeper sense of how miraculous the magician’s gift really was.
I’m proud that we dealt with the darkness of the Depression head-on in this book; I just wish it felt less timely. But including that history only makes the scenes about the holiday shine even more brightly in contrast. I hope this book, and the story of Passover, inspires readers to find that light in their own lives. I’m glad Susan wrote this story when she did. I think we needed it more than she realized.
SK: Writing this book was quite a process. As I said above, it took nearly a decade and went through three writing groups, classes, workshops and countless readers. I’ve lost track of the number of drafts but I think it is well above forty. What I got from writing it, after so many years on the librarian and bookseller side of the street, is that writing is truly a collaboration. It is so important to listen to the ideas of others and take them in. I am grateful beyond what I can say to everyone involved. I am especially indebted to everyone at Holiday House, our wonderful agent Marietta Zacker, Jennifer Browne for her inspired design work, Sean, who made Muriel’s world far more beautiful than anything I ever could have imagined, and Neal Porter… well, there are no words for my appreciation for Neal and what he did for the book.
To me, the book is ultimately about tikkun olam (repairing the world.) It’s about small acts of kindness such as giving a penny when you don’t have one to spare. It’s about welcoming a stranger to share your meal, even if your repast is meager. And it’s about coming together as a community in a time of need. It’s about making the world a better place, which I think each one of us can do, no matter how young or old we are, or how large or small the action is.
I can’t thank Susan and Sean enough for these marvelous, beautiful answers. Thank you to them and to Holiday House for the interview. The book The Passover Guest is out on shelves nationwide today. Go find yourself a copy. And for another interview, be sure to check out this one between Susan, Sean and Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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