Sarah Aronson started writing for kids and teens when someone in an exercise class dared her to try—and she’s been challenging herself ever since. Her books include the early middle grade series The Wish List and nonfiction picture book Just Like Rube Goldberg. Her latest picture book, Brand-New Bubbe, is about a girl who grapples with getting a third grandmother after her mother remarries. Aronson is also a writing teacher and mentor whose newsletter, Monday Motivation, celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. We spoke with her about the power of play, writing Jewish characters, and how children’s books can help fight antisemitism and other forms of hate.
What led you to write Brand-New Bubbe and who was the audience you had in mind?
About five years ago, my stepson and his wife told us they were expecting a baby, and I couldn’t wait to be a bubbe! One of my friends said, “Is it a little weird for you, since you’re technically not related?” I disagreed with that—we are a family. Then I started to think about blending a family from a child’s point of view. I thought about all the things my character, Jillian, would have had to live through and accept about her new growing family, and that sparked my imagination. I realized I wanted to write a story about that. Focusing on the relationship with the grandma made it easier to add humor to the story—and more diversity, too. I thought that would make it feel safer for readers from families who are blending, but also for kids from families who are not blending and want to know what it’s like.
What do you hope children take away from the book?
I hope children understand that all families are awesome and that families are made of love, and children are an important part of that. They receive love and give love and that makes all of us stronger. Also, I hope they try the soup recipes in the back of the book!
This is your second picture book, following Just Like Rube Goldberg, and you’ve also written middle grade and YA. What made you decide to write across genres?
What I’ve realized about my writing life is that I can’t say no to an idea. Inspiration is such a precious thing, and when you find an idea, you shouldn’t be limited by your brand or your curiosity! When I first started writing, I thought I was going to be a young adult writer, and when I hit some bumps in the road, as we all do, I reassessed and instituted a challenge to myself to embrace the power of play and write everything I thought no one thought I could write. I realized I do my best work when I am exploring different genres and inviting myself to take that inspiration and turn it into a story.
Your books have Jewish characters but don’t focus on their Jewishness per se. Why is that?
I believe strongly in putting Jewish characters on the page both for Jewish readers and readers who are not Jewish. In my books, I’ve focused on what some call casual representation. I want to show Jewish kids doing things like playing soccer or wishing for happiness or dealing with challenges with a friend. In many of my school visits, the children have never met a Jewish person. Being able to answer their questions is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.
I grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., where Jews were a distinct minority. Especially in elementary school, I was often asked to be the de facto Jewish representative and that led to some alienation and fear both on my part and my classmates’ part. I hope my books serve as an introduction to Jewish kids and decrease fear so that Jewish kids in the classroom feel more open and safe to discuss who they are, how they’re the same, and what makes them unique.
At this moment in the We Need Diverse Books movement, do you feel more comfortable speaking out about the need for more Jewish authors and characters?
It’s exciting to be writing during this time period. When I first started writing, Jewish books were mostly marketed to Jewish kids, and it felt like a separate market. Now we are all empowered to share who we are in our hearts—our practice, our faith, our rituals—and the diversity movement allows everyone to have a chance to create their stories. As a writer who helps other writers, that permission slip means we must be brave and reveal who we are through our characters. It means that we trust the reader to read us authentically. The more books we see about diverse characters, the more authentic those characters will remain on the page.
Why is representation of Jewish characters important for all children?
The Anti-Defamation League has seen a huge rise in antisemitism and violent acts this year. I know that other diverse communities are experiencing this rise of hatred themselves. Introducing characters of all races, all ethnicities, and all backgrounds will help reduce fear. It’s our responsibility as writers to share ourselves and our hopes and dreams and get rid of stereotypes. I truly believe that kindness is innate in all people, and that it is fear and hatred that is taught. So, let’s read and teach children how important empathy is and teach what tolerance is and celebrate our differences.
A self-described “book bubbe,” you take great joy in being a writer who inspires and encourages other writers. Why has that been so important to you?
Being trusted with someone else’s story is an honor that I have a hard time putting into words. It’s scary to share new writing, and when someone asks me for help, I never take that for granted. I believe there’s room for all stories, and I want to help writers find their voices and what they have to add to the growing body of literature. I love teaching at the Highlights Foundation because it’s their mission to amplify the voices of all storytellers. And they can see their effect in amplifying historically underrepresented creative people through scholarships, partnerships, diverse faculty, and diverse staff. Having a supportive community lifts and inspires us all, and as a teacher, when I see another writer reaching and failing and getting up again, I reach and fail and get up again, too. This community is my blended family that’s full of love and support. Together, we all win, we all help each other, we all get there.
What projects are you working on next?
In my quest to write all genres, I’ve written an adult novel that I’m very excited about. The book that’s next on the horizon is Abzuglutely!, a picture book biography of my childhood hero, Bella Abzug. As a little girl, seeing her speak loud—like me—and be Jewish—like me—and be politically progressive—like me—and getting up there and trying to change the world, having success and failure on the podium, inspired me to be who I am. I’m delighted to bring her to young readers.
Brand-New Bubbe by Sarah Aronson, illus. by Ariel Landy. Charlesbridge, $16.99 Aug. 23 ISBN 978-1-62354-249-8