The Jewish Board Book Experience: Five Children’s Book Creators Answer Questions About This Dynamic
If you know me then you know that I’ve an inordinate fondness for board books. I round up my favorites every year but that hardly encompasses how interesting I find them. Often I feel that they have so much untapped potential. A potential that, in the right hands, could yield wonders.
So it wasn’t long ago that author Vivian Kirkfield, knowing my predilection for the form, came to me with a proposal. Vivian’s a former kindergarten and Head Start teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education and is part of a group of authors who all have #JewishBoardBooks launching in 2023. These include:
- Nancy Churnin with her first board book from Kar-Ben, Counting On Shabbat
- Author/illustrator Ann Koffsky with five board books coming out this year!
- Author/illustrator Varda Livney with a board book from PJLibrary called Challah!
- Sarah Aroeste with one from Kar-Ben that touches on Sephardic customs called Mazal Bueno
- And, of course, Vivian herself with a board book version of Pippa’s Passover Plate from Holiday House.
These five Jewish board book creators were willing to speak with me today about the process, the importance, and the work itself. An opportunity, I assure you, that I was willing to take full advantage of:
Betsy Bird: Thank you all so much for talking with me today! First and foremost, I wonder if you might tell me about the board books you have coming out and how they came to be. What made you want to make a title for this specific genre of children’s literature? What was the lure and what is your hook?
Vivian Kirkfield: Thank you so much for having us here, Betsy. Pippa’s Passover Plate launched as a picture book in 2019. I was happy when a paperback version came out in 2021 – and I’m totally tickled pink to see a board book version this year. Back in 2013, when I first started writing for children, a Kar-Ben editor put out a call for more Jewish holiday stories. And immediately, an image of a busy little mouse came into my mind. I sat down and a story about a missing Seder plate poured from my pen…in rhyme! As it happened, that editor didn’t acquire it – but a few years later, one of my local author/illustrator critique buddies read the manuscript and fell in love with it. She brought it to one of her editors at Holiday House – and it was acquired immediately. It’s a story about courage, friendship, hospitality and charity – four very important values in the Jewish religion – and there’s a little bit of a mystery as Pippa’s search for the plate unfolds. It’s got rhyme and repetition and is a rollicking read-aloud.
Nancy Churnin: My mother is elderly now and lives on her own with the help of caregivers. It’s hard for her to get out, but I see the joy on her face when family comes to visit, especially when they bring the babies and toddlers along. I wrote Counting on Shabbat for those babies and toddlers that make her so happy, and as a quiet reminder of all the people who are alone on Shabbat – and other days. I hope it will make young parents and their little ones think about how much pleasure it would bring to have someone visit, bring cheer and perhaps a special meal to our seniors.
It’s a short rhyming book that uses a counting framework of One to Ten. It opens with one elderly person on his own, setting “ONE table draped in white.” He sets out “TWO candlesticks set to light” and “THREE braids of challah bread” and takes care of “FOUR kittens to be fed” before we get to “FIVE knocking at the door.” The joy increases number by number as the family knocking at the door enters, with the adults heating up dinner and the children drawing pictures and playing with the kittens. I wanted to write a board book that focused on caring for others because I think that the earlier in our children’s lives that we model kindness, the better. I hope Counting on Shabbat, which references two meanings for the word Counting, will raise awareness and encourage families to pay visits that lift the spirits of those who are alone. I hope it offers a mirror to the beauty of Shabbat for those who celebrate and a window for the curious, showing that what lies at the heart of this weekly tradition is the opportunity to treasure each other, be thankful for all that we have been given and consider how we can bring light to the world.
Ann Koffsky: So I’m gonna need a little time to answer this one, because I actually have 5 (!) board books coming out this Fall.
- Four are a set, and called My Mezuzah, My Shofar, My Dreidel and My Matzah. The idea behind each of these, as you can tell from the titles, is to introduce a Jewish object in a kid friendly and accessible away. I also tied each object to toddler friendly ideas. So for example, a rabbit jumps UP to kiss the mezuzah, and falls back DOWN. A friendly monkey searches for the missing matzah up HIGH, and then down LOW.
- The fifth is called Sheep Says Shalom, and gives kids the opportunity to learn the Hebrew word “Shalom” and its meanings. It’s an accordion book, so on one side of the pull-out, sheep says “hi/ shalom!” to all her animal friends, and on the reverse side she says “goodbye/ shalom!”. I loved using the physical structure of the accordion as a way to reinforce the different meanings.
Varda Livney: Challah! begins at Shabbat dinner, when Louis (a baby bunny) says his first word EVER, which is… “Challah!”. As the week progresses, there is speculation as to whether Louis will ever want to say any other word. Spoiler alert: he will. I like trying to say something with as few words as possible, I like drawing simple drawings, I like making little books, AND I only know so many words. I am a white mom of black kids. It is crucial to me for my kids (and all kids) to be seen and to see others as a natural part of the Jewish landscape. That needs to be instilled from babyhood. Board books are a good way to start. Thus, when I make a Jewish board book, there WILL be kids of color in it. Unless it’s a book with only bunnies. Then they might be blue, green or pink.
Sarah Aroeste: Mazal Bueno (Kar-Ben 2023) is a book that celebrates the milestones in a child’s life – from first giggles, to first foods, first words and more. So many people – whether Jewish or not – are familiar with the phrase, mazal tov, which is the Hebrew (and sometimes Yiddish-pronounced) phrase to connote congratulations. However, in the Sephardic experience, which is my own, we say mazal bueno! While it looks like Spanish, the phrase is a combination of Hebrew and Spanish, which is also known as Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish. Ladino is the language of Sephardic Jews, those who can trace their ancestry back to 15th-century, pre-Inquisition Spain. It is still spoken today! Sadly, however, many Jews and non-Jews alike have never heard of it. So my board books purposely shine a light on Ladino and Sephardic culture. In Mazal Bueno, I try to show that the beautiful moments of a child’s life (and that of its parents) can be celebrated Jewishly with a mazal bueno, and not only with a mazal tov. While the story isn’t overtly Jewish (unlike my previous board book, Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom (Kar-Ben 2020)), that is the point. Ladino phrases are just part of everyday life for Sephardic Jews! We can say mazal bueno for even the mundane. The book is about normalizing the Sephardic experience and exposing more families to the many ways Jews look, speak, and live!
Betsy Bird: These are all great answers. Now tell me a little bit about your own board book experiences. Did you ever use them with your own kids? How did you become familiar with them? And, are there specific board books that you yourself prefer and think work particularly well?
Vivian Kirkfield: During my years as a kindergarten and Head Start teacher, I read many board books. Eric Carle’s were always big hits with the kids, and when my own three children were infants and toddlers, board books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See and all of Sandra Boynton’s were read on a daily basis. I found that very young children love rhyme and repetition, and characters they recognize. They also love bright bold illustrations. And sparse text definitely seems to work best.
Nancy Churnin: I am the third of four children so my books, like nearly everything else, were hand-me-downs and if there were any board books that survived the journey to me, I don’t remember seeing them. The first book I do remember my mother reading to me was The Wizard of Oz – which forced me into becoming an early reader because after she hooked me, I didn’t have the patience to wait the interminable hours until the next night for the next chapter. Sneaky, Mom! But while I don’t recall growing up with board books, I wanted my kids to have them. I always wanted my children to have books in their hands. We started with soft fabric books so they wouldn’t hurt themselves and graduated to board books so they wouldn’t hurt their picture books. I even remember buying waterproof books so they could turn pages in their baby baths. Pat the Bunny was an early favorite as it allowed them to feel and associate different textures with words, which brought the immediacy of words home to them. I used board books to teach language, shapes, numbers, letters, and holidays. My son Sam’s first word was duck because of Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings by Matthew Van Fleet (Dial Books, 1995); he hadn’t seen a duckling outside of a book when he said it! I loved all these board books, but I always wished there had been board books that taught social emotional learning and kindness, too. I think my longing for a book like that is what inspired me to write Counting on Shabbat.
Ann Koffsky: For sure! I read board books to each of my three kids when they were young. And I certainly had a dramatic parenting moment with them. One of my kids was speech delayed, and just wasn’t talking. He could say Mommy and Daddy—but not much more. I wasn’t really reading to him yet, because I didn’t know that he would “get it”—I mean, he couldn’t talk, I just didn’t think he would understand yet. But a speech therapist who worked with him suggested we start reading to him. So I pulled out the very simplest of board books, and we cuddled and read: BLOCK. BANANA. Lo and behold, his vocabulary started to build nearly overnight. It was quite something! By the way, he’s now taller than me and a writer and great public speaker–amazing with words. But it all started with board books!
Varda Livney: Yes, I read board books with my kids. One of the great things about board books is that because they are small, and virtually indestructible, even the littlest kids can take them in their hands and “read” them by themselves. As to what works particularly well, there IS research on development of baby-brains and books (black and white pictures, big faces, bold colors). But I am not a researcher, so I’ll just say, my kids liked everything! In our house we read the ones with bells & whistles (Ten Little Ladybugs, The Hungry Caterpillar, Pat the Bunny), the basic ABC or pictures-of-objects books, and the ones with rhythm or cadence, which were fun for ME to read, because, let’s face it, I had to read them millions of times (We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Moo, Baa, La La La!).
Sarah Aroeste: I’ve always loved board books! I’m drawn to their interactive nature, the tactile chunkiness, and often the big, bright pictures. I have an affinity for some of the classics: The Snowy Day, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Jamberry, and the silliness of Sandra Boynton! I also appreciate some of the quieter books, like Runaway Bunny which convey such calm and warmth. In Jewish board books, Baby Be Kind, My Face Book, and Todah were favorites in my house.
BB: Jewish children’s literature has been interesting to watch over the years. Certainly there have been Jewish board books in the past but often they were primarily focused on holidays. Holidays are a good use of the form, though there are other directions as well. As you consider your own book, if it’s a holiday title, what is your specific take? And if it’s not a holiday title, what gap in the marketplace do you feel that it fills?
Vivian Kirkfield: Pippa’s Passover Plate is certainly a holiday title, but if someone asked me what the book is really about, I’d say it was about friendship and courage and being willing to ask for help. And that there are always helpers you can turn to when you are in trouble. I think that’s a really important concept for children because although we want them to become independent, everyone, no matter how young or old, needs to know there is help available.
Nancy Churnin: Shabbat is, to me, one of the most wonderful of Jewish holidays in part because it comes every week! You’re never far away from Shabbat. Even if you’re not Jewish and don’t celebrate Shabbat, I think you may appreciate the essence of Shabbat which is, after all, a reminder to take 24 consecutive hours once a week to rest, to reflect, to turn off the noise, to enjoy your family and loved ones, and to be thankful for all that we are given. Another reason I wrote this book is that there is another part to Shabbat which sometimes gets overlooked in books that focus on the family celebration: the importance of welcoming guests. In the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish law, it is said that “hospitality to travelers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” (Tractate Shabbat 127a).
There are books about welcoming the stranger at Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, particularly Passover, Hanukkah, and Sukkot, and I am glad that they are there. But I haven’t seen stories about being proactive in reaching out to others who are alone at Shabbat and other times. It may be my mother’s situation as an elderly person who lives alone with caretakers that makes me hyper-sensitive to this. But I have also spent time in senior care facilities over the years reading to residents, mailing cards to seniors, or organizing my children’s service groups (when they were younger) to present programs. I know how much seniors and those who need assisted care appreciate visits from people who enjoy being with them.
My book includes the rituals and traditions of Shabbat – the candles, the challah, the kiddush cups – but I hope it also reminds us that the rituals and traditions are tools we use to celebrate, not unlike the way we use words as tools to tell stories. Rituals and traditions are fun, meaningful, and beloved tools, but they are tools. They don’t, on their own, get us to why we celebrate, just as words alone, jumbled in a pile, don’t get us to a story. Welcoming others and being kind to others is what truly puts us in touch with the spirit of giving and sharing that fills our hearts and replenishes our souls. One of my dreams for Counting on Shabbat is to see it shared across generations and for a toddler to sense, on some level, and even, possibly, to be empowered by seeing ways that a child can bring happiness to an elder. I want then to see that sometimes all it really takes to make a difference is to be there and to be glad to be there. Years later, those memories of being together may be among the dearest treasures you own.
Ann Koffsky: Some, like My Shofar, My Dreidel and My Matzah are holiday titles, for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and Passover, respectively. The others are all year round.
While I’ve seen some other wonderful books that focus on Judaica, I’m not aware of any others that razor focus in on how kid’s themselves experience them. For example, there are certainly kid’s books about the mezuzah on a doorpost. But I haven’t seen a book that focuses on: hey mezuzahs are put up high and I’m 3 so I CAN’T REACH THEM! Just like that rabbit! So I think that’s what mine add to the bookshelf.
Sarah Aroeste: So many Jewish-themed board books either use words of Hebrew or Yiddish or show a particularly Ashkenazi-centric (Eastern European) view of Judaism. But much of the Jewish population isn’t Ashkenazi! We are not a monolith, and so it’s critical to highlight other parts of Jewish culture, not only for the outside world but also for within the Jewish community. My books all have Sephardic themes, which, as a proud Sephardic Jew, I feel responsible for representing in the marketplace.
Varda Livney: I’d say there’s a gap in the Jewish board book genre for all kinds of books, books with some kind of diversity, funny books, and certainly non-holiday books. If you type “Jewish board books” into Amazon, there are only 292 results, and by page 2, a lot of the results are not even all Jewish books. I see the gap being filled very creatively these days.
BB: Are there any specific works of Jewish literature for kids (not just board books) that particularly inspire you? Any that you love to recommend?
Nancy Churnin: I am truly honored to be presenting my board book alongside this gifted group of kidlit creators. There is so much joy in Vivian Kirkfield’s Pippa’s Passover Plate, Varda Livney’s Challah, Ann Koffsky’s many books that playfully teach Jewish concepts and Sarah Aroeste’s Mazal Bueno!, which offers such a welcome introduction to Sephardic language and culture. It’s been an honor to present Jewish Book Council and Association for Jewish Library panels recently alongside Liza Wiemer, author of The Assignment, an incisive contemporary young adult novel that encourages teens to speak up, Sara Darer Littman, author of Some Kind of Hate, a chilling, cautionary young adult novel about a teen’s turn towards white supremacy, and Chana Stiefel, author of The Tower of Life, the inspirational picture book about Yaffa Eliach’s determination to recreate her destroyed village in meticulously collected photos. I find myself often turning to old book friends, too: Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which reminds me to look for light in even the darkest times; Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer (illustrated by the marvelous Maurice Sendak) – those crazy, mixed-up Chelm stories always make me laugh! and Something from Nothing, a classic Yiddish tale retold by Phoebe Gilman, which comforts with the quiet reminder of how everything can live on in one way or another.
Vivian Kirkfield: In recent years, it’s been a thrill to see many fabulous picture books that focus on Jewish heroes and heroines, exciting narratives that engage the reader – Nancy Churnin’s IRVING BERLIN: The Immigrant Boy Who Taught America How to Sing and DEAR MR. DICKENS are two of my favorites. I also love Susan Kusel’s A PASSOVER GUEST, Chana Steifel’s THE TOWER OF LIFE and Peter Sis’ NICKY AND VERA.
Ann Koffsky: Oh gawd. How much time do you have? I could give you a list 10 miles long! For now, I’ll just give shoutouts to some newer ones that I’ve fallen in love with: The Tower of Life, by Chana Steifel (bring tissues); Porridge Pot Goblin by Jacqueline Jules (So clever) Measuring a Year by Linda Marshall (for Rosh Hashanah).
Sarah Aroeste: So many! I love the universal messages and lessons that can be found in a lot of Jewish kidlit, especially in picture books. For example, It Could Always Be Worse and Joseph Had an Overcoat show how lucky we can be with so little. I adore Bagels from Benny, which highlights the value of giving and sharing. I like recommending The Hardest Word, a lovely book around Yom Kipper but really for any time of year! We’re starting to see more Sephardic representation in picture books too, for example in Ruth Behar’s Tia Fortuna’s New Home or The Key From Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music, which celebrates one of the great Sephardic musicians and her upbringing in Bosnia. Many kids (and their adults) don’t even know that Jews came from Bosnia (and Spain before then)!
Varda Livney: Gathering Sparks by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner. Not funny OR simple, not a book that I could ever write, but it is very lovely, and the illustrations are just to sigh over.
BB: What do you feel is the role of a Jewish author/illustrator in 2023?
Vivian Kirkfield: Most importantly, I think the role of any author and/or illustrator is to share the stories that they are passionate about. If they are stories about Jewish heroes and heroines or if they are stories about events in history involving Jewish people, I think that can help Jewish children feel seen and that can also help non-Jewish children learn about the Jewish culture. There is a lot of hatred in the world – and a lot of hatred stems from ignorance. But no matter what we write about, we need to write authentically, accurately, and from the heart – and we need to provide that doorway through which the reader can enter the story and connect with the characters.
Nancy Churnin: In a world that is increasingly polarized and where antisemitism is on the rise, I think one of the most important things a Jewish author/illustrator can do is to provide mirrors so Jewish children can see themselves represented in a way that fills them with pride and windows so that their friends can feel a connection and understanding with them. Hatred flourishes when people are strangers to each other. Only about 2.4% of the United States is Jewish. I often find myself presenting in schools where I am looked at with curiosity as the only Jewish person. Books offer the opportunity to see and appreciate the beauty of each other’s traditions. Knowledge can dissolve fear, build curiosity and lead to love, and inclusion. That’s why books and education are so important for all who want to live in a more caring world.
Sarah Aroeste: We have so many important stories and values to share – both within and outside the Jewish community. With so much misunderstanding, and even hatred, in the world, we have a deep responsibility to tell stories that enlighten, uplift, humanize and celebrate the Jewish experience.
Ann Koffsky: To do excellent, great work that connects and inspires!
Varda Livney: Edutainment
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
Vivian Kirkfield: Oh, my goodness…thank you for asking, Betsy! I’m the type of writer who has multiple projects going on at the same time. I have three picture books in the pipeline right now: PEDAL, BALANCE, STEER: Annie Londonderry, First Woman to Cycle Around the World (Calkins Creek/Astra, Spring 2024); PIPPA’S HANUKKAH HUNT (Holiday House, Fall 2024); and ONE GIRL’S VOICE: How Lucy Stone Changed the Law of the Land (Calkins Creek/Astra, Spring 2025).
And I also have R&Rs with two different editors. The first manuscript is about a woman who fled to America as a little child during the Russian pogroms in 1905 and who positively impacted the lives of thousands of disadvantaged kids as she coached them for over 40 years while cruising on crutches or rolling along in her wheelchair. The second manuscript is the story of an amazing young woman who published the very first Hebrew picture books in 1917 as the Russian Revolution raged around her. I feel so blessed to be living my dream, uncovering these golden gems and writing stories that will hopefully engage young children, encourage them to dream, and inspire them to make the world a better place.
Nancy Churnin: I am deeply honored to have been selected to be one of 20 kidlit creators on the 2023 Israel Author Adventure, sponsored by PJ Library. I have a project that I will be researching in Israel, but I am also hoping that this amazing opportunity will fill my heart with many more stories I will feel compelled to tell. The week in Israel is part of a year-long intensive experience that allows me to spend time with other Jewish kidlit creators, librarians, educators, editors, artists and representatives of PJ Library that care deeply about their mission of supplying Jewish children with free monthly books with Jewish characters and themes. PJ Library has revolutionized the publishing industry by showing that there is an audience for these books. I am honored by their support and belief in me. I look forward to coming through with books that I hope will help them continue to make a positive difference in children’s lives.
Ann Koffsky: Ooh, thanks for asking this. I’m excited to share that my new picture book, Under the Sea Seder just came out, hot off the presses! (pub date is Feb 1, 2023.) It’s about a girl named Miri, who is having trouble focusing during her family’s Passover seder. Her parents would like her to sit quietly, but she just CAN’T. So, she slips under the table and takes an imaginary journey under the sea, with some friendly, very colorful sea monsters as her guests.
Sarah Aroeste: I always have a few new board books up my sleeve! But I’m actually tackling my first middle grade novel now, with a Sephardic protagonist of course. Stay tuned!
I would like to thank Vivian, Nancy, Ann, Varda and Sarah for taking the time to answer my questions today. You can find all their books coming out in 2023, and clearly more are on their way. Thanks to all of them and thanks to you for reading today!
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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