Celebrating Jewish Holidays All Year Round: An Interview with Jane Breskin Zalben About Beni’s Tiny Tales
Imagine, if you will, a children’s book that encompasses not simply one or two Jewish folktales but a wide range of them. A huge swath, all contained in a single location, complete with adorable illustrations of several generations of a family. Years and years ago Jane Breskin Zalben created the “Beni” series, and now, twenty-five years later an all new collection is available to readers in BENI’S TINY TALES: AROUND THE YEAR IN JEWISH HOLIDAYS (available everywhere August 8th).
Betsy Bird: Jane! Thank you so much for joining me here today! And while I’m at it, congrats on the new printing of BENI’S TINY TALES: AROUND THE YEAR IN JEWISH HOLIDAYS. This feels very much like the culmination of a longstanding series but I’d love for some people to get a little background before we dive in any further. Could you tell us a little about Beni, his family, and his books. More than twenty-five years ago, how did this series start?
Jane Breskin Zalben: My first “Beni” book was published in 1988, Beni’s First Chanukah. It was about bears (Beni and Sara) and squirrels (Christopher and Sasha) sharing each other’s holidays. It was my ode to all the Christmas trees, red-and-green sprinkled cookies, and pine wreaths I never had. A Jewish girl growing up in a non-Jewish world. I desperately wanted to spray-paint snowy reindeer on my bedroom window, praying for Santa to show up at our small ranch house in Queens, bringing me a Patty Playpal doll.
Cut to my older son asking when he was little as we were driving up Main Street of our town, “Why aren’t there any Chanukah decorations?” And years later, my younger son stating, “If I can’t have a tree, then I’m going to marry a girl who isn’t Jewish so I can have one.” Around that same time, the early 1980’s, one of my best friends, head of the children’s room at our local library, who eventually sat on the Caldecott committee, suggested I write a Chanukah book. “We have nothing really good to read for Chanukah Story Hour,” she told me over lunch. To which I replied, “All those books look like they dropped off a truck in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Black-and-white line drawings with a lot of sand, sandals, and a few desert palm trees thrown in.”
I had been writing YA novels, and illustrating my own stories about love, friendship, sibling rivalry, resilience after trauma, so it took a lot of lunches and urging. With resistance, I wrote my first ‘religious’ picture book, starring a bear named, Beni.
The path to publication wasn’t easy. I showed the dummy to Mark Chesire, who had just released The Walrus and the Carpenter, a poem by Lewis Carroll that I had turned into a picture book. He loved both the manuscript and a sample painting. But Talmudic discussions went on for a half a year in the publishing house: How would Jewish people take to anthropomorphic animals? You mean cute mice were okay for Christmas books, but Jewish children shouldn’t have cute bears? Was I missing something? The sales department said, “Have her draw people instead.” Huh? “Have someone else do the art,” I responded. They came back with a definitive, “No!” The manuscript was then sent to a Rabbi, who sent it to the head of a Jewish book club, who asked around. Classic Chelm story. The decision: “Make sure it’s clear that the different religions have different animals. Separation, even in the animal kingdom?
When I was at my drafting table, my son leaned over. “How come the squirrels aren’t wearing yarmulkes?” “They celebrate Christmas. See their tree in the forest,” I answered. He looked perplexed. “I didn’t know squirrels aren’t Jewish, and bears are.” I was told Beni was “groundbreaking and created a new genre.” The book sold out in three weeks. Cute animals are now abundant in Jewish picture books. But I have been told that Beni was the first in mainstream literature.
The way things happen, my editor left just as the book was released. I inherited another great editor, Brenda Bowen. She was a wonderful promoter. I pitched her the idea of doing a boxed set of four funny poets. She had the foresight to say, “Why don’t we turn Beni into a series for the big holidays instead? We’ll do each title separately, and I promise we’ll eventually put them in a slip-cased box set.” I was in heaven. We went on to do the Chanukah book in different sizes, more holidays with other characters related to Beni, and she upheld her promise. Her ultimate goal was to make Beni “even bigger.” Then she left. So those plans evaporated. Her young assistant became my editor, Christy Ottaviano. We finished Beni’s Family Cookbook, did Beni’s First Wedding, and a spin-off, Beni’s Family Treasury. In 2020, she went to another publisher to begin her own imprint. And with that, a new life for Beni began.
BB: Fast forward to 2020 and we were in the midst of a pandemic. Some of us coped by making sourdough and some folks, like yourself, created. How did Beni return to your life?
JBZ: Well, there was a lot of homemade pizza, scones, but alas, no sourdough starters during 2020. Yeast was handed from under the counter at the supermarket, quite suspiciously. My husband turned to me one night at our big event of each day – dinner, and asked, “What ever happened to Beni?” Honestly, I hadn’t thought about him for decades. Time had passed with other projects with other publishers as life goes. Novels, peace trilogy, a picture book on modern art on the Calling Caldecott list which led me into returning to doing wall-sized, mixed-media abstract paintings after my mother, a school librarian, had died. I spent several years showing in galleries and libraries. Fine art is another competitive world. I wrote A Moon for Moe & Mo, and A Bear for Bimi for other artists to do, (from Iran, and Ukraine) who were better suited than me to illustrate those – the former art director in me kicked in. So Beni had been on the back burner.
Isolated and holed up in a room, without any outside distractions, ideas swirled; I began to write. The premise: Beni and Sara, and their cousins were all grown up with children of their own. Christy loved the idea. She said, “Make sure the brand-new stories reflect the times we are living in now.”
Many things are said on their new family tree, and within the stories themselves, without being said. Cousin Rosie is single. Cousin Molly is divorced. Cousin Max lives with Avi. They want to have a child someday. Cousin Sam has an interfaith marriage with Luna. There are babies, like Becky. With one on the way. So there’s a pregnant bear. And new bear children: Penny, Milo, Liam, Noa, Sophie. The tales are told through their lens. During the High Holy Holidays, a woman is leading the synagogue. (Not allowed, still, in some temples. She is shown in the art, where the podium (bimah) is, pointing to and reading from the Torah. This has feminist significance.) For Tu B’Shevat – a holiday for tree-planting, I have integrated a maple tree mystery story with Indigenous Peoples. Described tree-planting globally. And in terms of climate change. Besides a how-to on making syrup from a maple tree, which we have done as a family, and with a boy scout troop in our backyard. Pancakes included.
The characters are on zoom. Have laptops. Great-grandma Mindel has a cell phone. She directs how to make vegetable latkes when they can’t get together in-person during a snowstorm. I wrote it that way, hoping there wouldn’t always be a pandemic and only weather challenges in the future. (Although her screen is blank during zoom. Without her grandkids present she has trouble getting online!) There’s a comedy club in the bear’s basement at the end of the book. (My older son who had first posed the question, was in sketch comedy and theater for twenty or so years, so a lot of my jokes ended on the cutting-room floor!)
They live in mid-century modern homes. With my own huge modern art paintings, reduced in size on their walls. Not Victorian wallpaper anymore. I’ve given air and white space as well as detail, using a triple zero brush in watercolors that I paint with on opaline parchment. Chanukah and Shavuot are done in a graphic novel style with an inked pen and captions. Different bolder linework. (Although I illustrated a comic strip form picture book by Jan Wahl with 109 illustrations in 1974.) I’ve indulged in my often described Persian miniature / illuminated manuscript type borders on many pages. Tradition lives on in the framework of a contemporary setting and mind-set. Their design sense is eclectic, like mine. Bauhaus to Byzantine. This Beni book is heartfelt. It goes to the core who I am.
BB: And now the ten stories you created have been beautifully bound in a book worthy of gifting. It’s rather gorgeous. I hesitate to ask, but what were the logistics of getting something 133 pages long and fully illustrated into print?
JBZ: I find this an interesting question, because given such cost-conscious times, they went all out on this in terms of the production. So here goes: Originally I thought of a 96-page book. 3 signatures equivalent to 3 separate picture books. I chose ten holidays. Imagine ten short story picture books with back matter for each one. I laid out the pagination on large sheets of paper like a storyboard and spread it across the floor where I work. There wasn’t enough room to do what I needed to say. So I added a half of signature. 112 pages. I squeezed, cut, and tried. Then I did it again to 128. Still, like in Goldilocks, it was too small. But I said nothing and tried again. Pared it down. Having been a book designer at major houses, and an art director at Scribner’s, I knew production-wise this could be a problem. I sent the layout to Christy’s home office. She said, let’s do 144 pages after a few attempts. Whoa. Just right. And later on, she added, we’ll add a silk ribbon book marker, spot lam jacket, and a special case binding. I did ask for thick gorgeous paper stock. (I personally have been collecting paper from around the world since I was 17! Many are in this book.) Like an editorial genie, she granted that wish.
Since a book isn’t just about the text and the art, but the whole package, a marriage of three different elements, I was jubilant. I was told when the illustrations were returned from the printer, there were 139 pieces of full-color art. Over the course of three years, this was a true labor of love. And the price is almost equivalent to a typical picture book, so don’t ask me how they did it. Magic?
BB: Magic. Yes. You cover Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Passover, Lag B’Omer, and Shauvuot in this collection. Was there any holiday you thought about including but didn’t, for one reason or another? Or was this the plan from the get-go?
JBZ: I featured the major ‘popular’ holidays that I celebrated both as a child, and with my sons, and young grandchildren. The ones most Jews celebrate. I knew the emotions, the smells, the idiosyncratic ins and outs of these holidays. They felt alive with dialogue that feels real. There are three I did not include, like Holocaust Remembrance Day, but I did mention them on the calendar page and with definitions in the glossary. I gave careful consideration to this in a thick inclusive work with history and tradition.
BB: The book is full of crafts and songs and stories galore. I could easily see this as a standard bearer in a lot of homes. How many of the crafts and recipes came from your own personal experience and how many did you have to seek out?
All the recipes, I made up. I am an intuitive, experimental cook. I cook pretty much every night. For me, it is another expression of being creative – making something out of nothing. The recipes were tested over and over by me, and my close friend, Roberta, who was a special ed teacher and is a fabulous baker. I have done two large cookbooks for children. Often, I put recipes in the back of my picture books if it is relevant. And, they are extremely thought out for children to make along with an adult.
My younger son is a composer, so he handled the musical arrangements – and setting the score and the lyrics – based on favorite songs sung during the holidays.
The crafts I had made with my kids when were they were little, or they brought them home from Hebrew school over the years, so I knew a lot of different projects to choose from. I sought out my own experience and knowledge, and relived the crafts once again with my young grandchildren. And some, even from my childhood, like the Good Deed Coupon Booklet.
BB: To be honest, if someone were to try to come up with any other longstanding series featuring Jewish characters, animals or otherwise, that isn’t All-of-a-Kind-Family, they’d be hard pressed to do so. Why do you think Beni continues to be such a standout and rarity in the scope of children’s literature?
JBZ: I’m not being coy. Is it? I am told that, but seriously, thank you! It is so rewarding and gratifying to hear that from you, because I spend most of my life alone is room, working. For me it’s the process. The interior joy of the act of creating. But a favorite was when the head of PJ Library said to me, “Beni is the Mick Jagger of Jewish children’s books.” Now that was a huge compliment. So you would have to give me a clue as to why.
I can try and answer it like this: Maybe it is because I love being in his world. And that comes through in a visceral way. I loved returning to it. But in a new way with new characters. Maybe he brings me closer to home in my own childhood? Although mine was much crazier than Beni’s. (That’s why there are novels to write!) I am first generation. My mother was born in Bialystok, Poland. She spoke to her mother and sisters over the phone in Yiddish so I wouldn’t understand. Her uncles became pretty famous rabbis. I no longer have much of my family or extended family who I see. I am closer to my husband’s. His parents were named Ben and Sara. We recreate in fiction sometimes what we desire. And certainly, what I tried to recreate in my own life with my sons. It’s a gift to them who started this whole Beni idea brewing. And certainly for their young children who are named, Penny, Milo, and Liam – like some of the new characters.
Beni’s Tiny Tales: Around the Year in Jewish Holidays reveals Jewish people in a positive, unbiased way, without all the typical clichés. It would be satisfying if it remains in literature as it did for the parents who read the series decades ago, and are now reading these newly-written stories with a new focus to their children for the first time.
BB: Finally, what do you have coming to us next?
JBZ: My new picture book is Gingerbread Dreidels, illustrated by Thai Phuong. (Charlesbridge / Penguin Random, Fall 2024.) It’s about two families of different faiths coming together to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah. Both these holidays take place on the exact same day next year! December 25th. It is for my son, Jonathan, and his wife, Kate. From day one, I suggested that the Jewish grandmother in the book be of a diverse background, an Ethiopian Jew, since I was invited to speak in Addis in 1995. After several editors in the publishing house worked on this book, I finally got a “yes” when I suggested the artist “show it” without me “telling it.”
I am also working on manuscripts for several picture books. Nothing like Beni. I have another idea like Beni’s Tiny Tales for a broader audience, although I feel this Beni book is for a broad audience. I mean, who doesn’t like rugelach or a good juicy brisket? (Well, my husband who’s a vegetarian.)
And I am in the middle of rewriting a horror, mystery, middle-grade novel that is funny, and at times, sad. Layered. When I am inside a novel, I am more there than here. I simply love the process of editing, polishing, tightening, and seeing all the holes in a story. I feel as if I am the camera, filming. I hope it gets greenlighted. I would love to do some art for it.
There is one I am excited about— combining my large abstract paintings and my illustrative style. It would be a passion project, the icing on the cake. We’ll see…I’m never going to put down my brush. Or pencil. I want to always make art and write. That is who I am. It makes me feel whole. Why shouldn’t it?
And as an added bonus, here’s the book trailer for Beni that Jane just shared with me:
I’d like to thank Jane for taking so much time and care to answer my questions today. You can find BENI’S TINY TALES: AROUND THE YEAR IN JEWISH HOLIDAYS on shelves as of August 8th. Feel free to pre-order your copies today. After all, there are holidays all around us, all the time. Best to be prepared!
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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