PJ Library, the non-profit organization that distributes more than 245,000 free books each month to families with connections to Judaism, has relaunched a program that brings 20 authors and illustrators to tour Israel with creativity and imagination in mind. And, following a two-year Covid pause, the Author Israel Adventure (AIA) program is expanding the model it offered in 2018 and 2019, whikch featured an eight-day trip intended to spark fresh book ideas. Now, in addition to the tour, they have added a series of eight intensive online workshops on craft, Jewish content, and Israel, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.
Catriella Freedman, director of author and illustrator stewardship for PJ Library, said the program's goal is to create networks and relationships among authors and illustrators who make books with Jewish content, and to broaden diverse depictions of Israel in children’s literature. So far 23 books created by participants have been distributed as PJ Library titles since the initial trips.
This year’s group, chosen from 150 applicants, made their Israel visit in early May, midway through the program. The participants, who are not necessarily Jewish, toured historical, archaeological, and natural sites, and interacted with people who have diverse cultural and religious connections to Israel. And in October, the group, along with the 2018 and 2019 participants, are invited to a celebratory reunion at a Pennsylvania retreat center.
“Israel is the unique setting where the Jewish story was born,” said Simon Klarfeld, PJ Library’s director of content. “My hope is that being on the land, encountering Israelis from all walks of life, exploring past and present will inspire each and every member of the cohort to connect themselves as individuals and as authors to the almost infinite paths that they can follow moving forward.”
Author Alice McGinty calls the AIA “a rich experience” that sparked multiple book ideas. She wrote the first draft of her 2021 title, My Israel and Me, (Kalaniot Books) on the plane ride home from her 2018 AIA.
“I saw incredible diversity, all living together in a very small country,” said Leslie Kimmelman, a 2019 AIA participant. She described meeting secular and observant Jews including people from Ethiopia and Sephardi Jews whose roots trace back to Spain and North Africa. In the aftermath of her trip, Kimmelman wrote, How to Be a Mensch by A. Monster (Apples & Honey Press, 2022), featuring diverse monsters who demonstrate ways to live with respect for others, like a five-eyed-character who teaches not to stare.
For some, the visual details of Jewish life in Israel impacted their work. “I didn’t grow up in a house with mezuzahs,” said illustrator Sean Rubin, referring to the piece of parchment that is inscribed with a prayer and housed in a decorative case that Jews affix to the doorposts of their homes. So, when he illustrated author Susan Kusel’s 2021 book The Passover Guest (Neal Porter Books), Rubin said, “I went through all the final art to make sure there were mezuzahs in the right spot on the doorways of any Jewish residence in the story.”
Other authors were inspired by walking in ancient footsteps. Stuart Gibbs knew he wanted to set part of his middle-grade adventure book, Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation (Simon & Schuster, 2020) in Jerusalem before he went on the 2019 AIA. “The trip had a tremendous influence on what happened in the book,” he said. He set a scene in an ancient Roman water tunnel that runs beneath the Old City. That scene, he said, "would never have existed if PJ Library hadn’t arranged for us to tour the tunnel.”
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh said her board book Rah! Rah! Mujadara (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2021), with young children enjoying a wide range of tastes such as mujadara, a lentil and rice dish, was inspired by her 2018 trip when she was struck by the variety of cuisines, ingredients, and flavors she tasted there. "Here in America, I often say that Israel feels like an abstract concept, even a totem of Judaism. But food makes it real. I love that Israel hosts so many cultures’ cuisines. It shows its inclusiveness and diversity,” she said.
Several authors and illustrators who are veterans of the Israel Adventure program told PW it led to new friendships and professional networks. Some have collaborated on creative projects; 2019 alumni Alan Silberberg and Erica Perl are working on a Jewish comic novel. Freedman says that another layer of success is that authors “have become ambassadors for PJ Library, recommending their close colleagues to apply for opportunities, submit manuscripts, and encouraging students to learn more about our programs and craft books that will work for our curated lists.”
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and coauthor of “The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety.”