In Praise of Jewish Women

Fran ManushkinAfter working as a children's book editor from 1968 to 1977 at Harper & Row, Fran Manushkin felt it was time to begin writing her own children's stories. Colleagues Charlotte Zolotow and Ursula Nordstrom encouraged her transition from editor to author, and under their guidance Manushkin wrote Baby, Come Out! (1973), about a baby who does not want to be born (it will be reissued this year by Star Bright Books). More than two decades later, Manushkin has more than 30 titles to her credit, including books that have covered a vast range of secular and religious themes.

Yet despite all of her experience and success as an author, Manushkin is nervous about Daughters of Fire: Heroines of the Bible (Harcourt/Silver Whistle, Sept.), a collection of 10 illustrated stories based on central female figures in the Hebrew Bible. "I was terrified to do this book," she says. "I thought only men with gray beards were allowed to write Jewish books." Even though she was born and raised in a Jewish household, Manushkin's first books dealing with religious themes were Christmas titles. They were playful stories--with characters named after members of her own family--and did not broach theological topics.

Manushkin is less comfortable working in her own tradition. As a girl, she did not receive the Hebrew education her brothers did, and she found Judaism presented from the male perspective. It was not until she was inspired by a Cynthia Ozick essay establishing the biblical figure of Hannah as the model for Jewish prayer that Manushkin felt she had the right to engage in the ongoing dialogue that is her heritage.

With Daughters of Fire, Manushkin wanted to celebrate the richness of the Torah, the legends and the rabbinic interpretations over the centuries, while telling the history of the Jewish people from the women's point of view. "I loved these women and I wanted to communicate the difficulty of their lives and their contributions to the history of Judaism. They are the hidden women of history," she says. In 10 chapters, Manushkin recounts the stories of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam and others whose actions formed the foundations of Judaism. Illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Uri Shulevitz accompany each story.

Sarah Shealy, senior publicist at Harcourt Children's Books, says the book will be featured on the cover of their Judaica for Children brochure. A set of 25 bookmarks with illustrations from the book will be distributed to booksellers who order three or more copies. With a first print run of 17,500 copies, both Manushkin and Shealy anticipate that Daughters will interest both Christian and Jewish readers.
--Kathleen O'Grady

For and About Boys

Jean ElsterWrite what you know, writers are told. Jean Alicia Elster would add a second proviso: Write what you believe. "Faith has always been an essential part of my everyday life, in my childhood and with my own children," Elster says. "It's just what you do. I couldn't imagine writing a book that didn't honor that."

Elster honors the strong, everyday faith of African-Americans in Just Call Me Joe Joe (Judson Press, Sept.), her first illustrated children's book. The main character, Joe Joe Rawlings, is a 10-year-old African-American growing up in a big city. Facing the challenges of urban America, Joe Joe finds guidance from books, historical African-American figures, his family and God. Judson Press, affiliated with the American Baptist denomination, describes Joe Joe as a children's book written with "Christian themes." But the portrayal of faith in Joe Joe's story is soft, subtle and fairly generic. "We wanted the book to have a strong moral, and we wanted Joe Joe to be part of a praying family," Elster says. "But we also wanted all parents to be comfortable with the book, regardless of their beliefs."

In Just Call Me Joe Joe, the first of a series of Joe Joe in the City books to be released during the next year, the local grocer accuses Joe Joe of doing something he didn't do. Joe Joe's father suggests he go back to the grocer and work it out himself. "Before you go to sleep tonight, just pray that you'll know when you're ready," his father says. Joe Joe doesn't wait. He closes his eyes and says a little prayer: "Dear God, I don't think I'll ever be ready, but if Dad is right, please let me know when you think I'm ready."

Elster was more than ready to write her first children's book. After earning a degree in English from the University of Michigan in 1971, she went to law school because she didn't know how she'd make a living as a writer. But after seven years as a lawyer and seven more in full-time parenting, Elster began putting her love for writing into words. She moved from technical writing into editing. She helped prepare the manuscript for the award-winning Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today's Youth (Lee and Low, 1996) by Rosa Parks. She edited Building Up Zion's Walls: Ministry for Empowering the African-American Family (Judson, 1999).

When Judson asked her to write an African-American children's book, Elster knew exactly who her main character would be. He'd be an avid reader. He'd live with his mother and father. He'd live in a praying home. And most important, he'd be a he. "There's such a need for positive male role models, especially for boys," she says. "And I know 10-year-old boys. In fact, my son was about 10 when I started working on Joe Joe. I let him read each volume I write. If he has a good feeling about it, I send it on."

The first Joe Joe book, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, will be available in October; three more are scheduled to follow in 2002. "These books fill a huge void in the children's book market," notes Linda Peavy, Judson's associate publisher and director of marketing. "It's a unique blend of African-American faith, family and history."

Peavy says the publisher plans to spend about $20,000 marketing the series in major African-American newspapers, magazines and other media outlets. There will also be a direct-mail postcard campaign that targets churches, schools and public libraries. With a first printing of 10,000, Judson hopes to interest both Christian and general interest bookstores.
-- David Waters

The Picture of Faith

Tim LadwigTim Ladwig traces his spiritual awakening to a children's picture book he read at about age nine. Now 49, Ladwig illustrates his own books, hoping they will help other children experience mystical moments. "Telling stories is just a way to get a window into that world without having to preach or teach," he says.

Ladwig's latest effort is due out this holiday season. Titled The Shine Man and written by Mary Quattlebaum (Eerdmans, Sept.), it's a Christmas story about a down-on-his-luck shoeshine man during the Depression. While aiding a boy even less fortunate, the old man comes to see the grace and power of giving.

For the front cover, Ladwig painted a tight closeup of the man's craggy, bearded face, with beams of light playing across the profile. The image's strong realism, surprising perspective and striking use of light are typical of Ladwig's work. Since his first children's book was published in 1993, the Wichita, Kans., resident has lent his brushes to about a dozen titles and snagged several honors along the way.

Psalm Twenty-Three (reissued by Eerdmans in 1997), a picture book of the famous Bible verse, and Probity Jones and the Fear Not Angel (Augsburg Fortress, 1996) by Walter Wangerin were finalists for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association's Gold Medallion awards. Both Psalm Twenty-Three and Silent Night: The Song and Its Story (Eerdmans, 1997) by Margaret Hodges were selected as Picks of the List by the American Bookseller's Association in 1997.

For a celebrated illustrator, Ladwig has unusual roots. He earned a degree in graphic design, but says some of his greatest teachers have been comic book authors. He also credits an accident as an eight-year-old that cost him an eye, but opened his mind to the wonder of sight: "After I lost my eye, I was kind of fascinated with vision."

Ladwig also became fascinated with art thanks to that injury--that's when his father gave him a set of paints, brushes and a canvas. But soon after college, Ladwig set aside art to pursue a religious calling. He spent 17 years working in an inner-city Christian ministry. There he realized children's books often don't speak to urban youth. So he took the pastoral words of Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd... ") and illustrated them with scenes from a day in the life of two city children.

That book's success kicked off his career as an illustrator. And last year Ladwig created a sequel of sorts with The Lord's Prayer, which juxtaposes the prayer with images of a father and daughter helping an older neighbor. Having sold close to 30,000 copies since its September 2000 release, it may be the fastest-selling title ever for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, says Sally Bulthuis, sales and marketing director for this Eerdmans Publishing imprint.

To score another hit with The Shine Man, Eerdmans is placing ads in regional ABA holiday catalogues and in trade publications. The target audience is everyone four years old and up. "We call this an all-ages picture book, because we think it's a great family story," Bulthuis says. Eerdmans has already presold half of a 10,000-copy print run.
--Ed Frauenheim

Rabbi and Author

Sandy Eisenberg SassoAs only the second woman in the U.S. to be ordained a rabbi (in 1974) and the first rabbi to ever become a mother, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is no stranger to unique challenges. So when she penned her first children's book, God's Paintbrush (1992), and had it rejected by 18 publishers in six years, she didn't give up. Sasso submitted God's Paintbrush to Jewish Lights, then only two years old--even though they had never done a children's book. Publisher Stuart Matlins remembers, "I fell in love with it immediately." It turned out to be a match made in heaven: There are 90,000 copies of God's Paintbrush in print, and more than 300,000 combined copies of Sasso's eight books. Her newest, Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace (Jewish Lights, Oct.), is designed to stimulate conversations with children about anger and how they can channel it in constructive ways.

Although she writes out of a strong Jewish tradition, Sasso's books are targeted to children of all religions, and they are often endorsed by Protestant and Catholic religious leaders and enthusiastically handsold by booksellers across the faith spectrum. Sasso says, "I don't want to preach--I want to open up a conversation with kids about issues that are really important."

Sasso and her husband, Dennis, celebrate their silver anniversary this year as co-rabbis at the Indianapolis Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, where they share the pulpit and pastoral responsibilities. Her work as a rabbi--writing sermons, giving eulogies, teaching, performing weddings--keeps her in the habit of writing, as does composing liturgy and interpreting Torah. She also coauthors a monthly column with Dennis for the Indianapolis Star called "Now and Again," which focuses on faith, and is editor of an adult essay collection, Urban Tapestry, which Indiana University Press will publish in 2002.

But Sasso's greatest love is writing for younger readers. Although she just became an empty nester, her adult children are still willing to listen to her book ideas. The kids in her congregation are also a good sounding board for new writing. "Many times the feedback will change the direction I'm going with the story," she says, remembering in particular God Said Amen (2000). "I originally had it end in a sad way, with the prince and the princess turning into mountains," Sasso says. "My daughter read it and said, 'That's all? You can't end it that way!' "

Matlins says Jewish Lights has budgeted $30,000 to advertise and promote Cain and Abel through print, radio and television media, and a campaign is in the works to help teachers in both religious and secular schools use the book to open conversations about violence and anger. With an initial printing of 12,000, the title will also be promoted on a 12-city tour, with Sasso speaking to congregations of all faiths. Sasso's books continue to help Jewish Lights reach outside of traditional Jewish publishing boundaries, and, says Matlins, "Sandy has really helped people understand that children have a spiritual life."
--Cindy Crosby