As a lifelong learner, I have frequently called upon librarians for assistance. These individuals are an amazing resource that too frequently are neglected in the computer age. Not surprising, many librarians use their extensive love of books to create their own works. Such is the case with my guest today, Martha Seif Simpson. She has authored several notable books. Her latest, The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin: A Toyshop Tale of Hanukkah was released just a couple of months ago. Later this week, I will be reviewing this book. In today’s blog, readers will learn more about Martha and background information about her latest book. She will also share some of her book recommendations.
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by December 28, 2014 will be eligible for a random drawing. The winner will receive a copy of The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin.
Decades ago, you became a children’s librarian. Why did you choose this career path?
I have always loved to read and considered becoming a librarian, but after 4 years of college I was not ready to go back to school for another 2 years to get a Masters in Library Science degree. I taught English for a year and had several other jobs during the next few years but was not happy in any of them. I rediscovered the Children’s Department when I became a mother and brought my children to the library. There was so much going on – wonderful books and programs – much more than when I was a child, and I decided I wanted to be a part of that. I obtained my MLS after the birth of my youngest child.
As a librarian, can you share one of your most rewarding experiences?
One reason I love being a children’s librarian is the wonderful, busy madness known as the Summer Reading Program. The kids are out of school, and we librarians work hard to provide activities and incentives to get children into the library and reading so they keep their brains engaged during the summer.
The first year I became Head of Children’s Services at the Stratford Library, we had our teen volunteers create a paper chain with one link for every book read by the children. This chain grew so long that it took over all the walls of the Children’s Department. I bragged to the library director that the kids would read so many books that the paper chain would stretch all around the outside of the building. It took a lot of convincing and cooperation from all the staff, but on the day of the summer reading program party, we had the kids march out of the building holding on to part of the paper chain. It encircled the library one and a half times! That was almost 20 years ago, and our program has grown immensely since then, thanks to the dedication of my terrific staff. But that particular success was a huge point of pride for me as a new department head.
Many primary aged children are not committed to reading. Can you recommend 5 authors that may inspire a reluctant reader to become more engaged?
For new and beginning readers, I like the books of Eric Carle, Bill Martin Jr., Mo Willems, Kevin Henkes, and the photo-game books of Walter Wick (I Spy, etc.)
In 2003-04, you were one of the 15 people honored to be part of the Newbery Medal Committee. As a member of this committee, you critiqued hundreds of children’s books. Can you share 3 criteria that you used to cull out the exceptional from the great chapter books? Were there any books that you felt did not receive the merit that they deserved?
The committee looks for books that have a well-defined setting, distinct characters, a plausible and well-developed plot. The author’s style should be engaging and suitable to the story. The book should be appropriate for and appeal to its intended audience.
Members of award committees are not supposed to share and of the deliberations, so I can’t really talk about books that I thought did not receive recognition.
Can you share your list of top ten children’s books? (The list can cover all children’s literature or you could narrow to particular genres- picture books, chapter books or YA.)
It’s hard to narrow it down to 10, but I have to start with the original Henry Huggins book by Beverly Cleary because that is the book that turned me into an avid reader!
My favorite picture books include Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, Aunt Isabelle Tells a Good One by Kate Duke, Black & White by David Macaulay, Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathman.
Chapter book favorites include Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, The Lightning Thief (and other Percy Jackson books) by Rick Riordan.
Favorite YA books include The Queen of Attolia (and other books in the series) by Megan Whalen Turner, Everlost and other books by Neal Shusterman.
In addition to being a librarian, you have authored several books. What prompted you to enter the field of writing? Why did you initially choose to focus on an adult audience? (Feel free to talk briefly about your books.)
More recently, you have shifted your attention to a children’s audience. What steps did you take to make this transition? (Writing classes, writing groups, or just your background knowledge) What was the greatest challenge that you faced as a new children’s author?
This answer is for both questions –
I have been writing children’s books for about 30 years but did not have much luck in getting them published until recently. So I didn’t really start with books for adults.
I got the idea to write my first book for librarians when I was working on my MLS. I wanted to write about summer reading programs and realized there had never been a book written for public librarians on that topic. So I submitted a proposal to McFarland & Company and they sent me a contract within a week! Summer Reading Clubs was published in 1992 followed by 4 more books for librarians and teachers. StoryCraft was co-authored by Lynne Perrigo and was based on an award-winning program we did at Stratford Library. Bringing Classes in to the Public Library was co-authored by Lucretia Duwel, Head of Teen Services at Stratford Library, and provides detailed instructions on how other libraries can duplicate the program Stratford Library has been doing for almost 30 years. Every second grade class comes to the Children’s Dept. and every sixth grade class visits the Teen Dept. annually for a formal introduction to the library.
Although I am proud of my professional books, I decided to focus solely on children’s books recently. There is a lot of competition in publishing, and it’s not easy to break in, especially if you don’t have an agent. It took me a while to connect with the right publisher for my books.
Some children’s authors opt not to use a traditional publisher. Have you reviewed any self-published children’s books? Can you recommend 5 titles?
I know some people have found success with self-publishing but I my experience as a librarian is that these books are generally inferior to books published by traditional means. Every author can benefit from a good editor. Many of the self-published books I have seen are too wordy and unfocused with poor illustrations. The paper quality and binding are usually not very good and would not hold up to heavy use. The self-published books I saw as a member of the Newbery Committee were painfully awful.
Obviously, your first children’s picture book, What Not to Give Your Mom on Mother’s Day, is a resource for Mother’s Day. Why did you choose to focus your attention on this special holiday?
I am always looking for a good book to read for Mother’s Day, and I got frustrated when I realized that every picture book had the exact same plot – a child (or animal) wants to figure out what gift to give his/her mother. So I thought it would be fun to turn that around and write a story about what NOT to give mom. The animal facts also offered an easy teaching opportunity as well as humor.
Your most recent book, The Dreidel that Wouldn’t Spin: A Toyshop Tale for Hanukkah, showcases another holiday, Hanukkah. Did your family’s background help you create this story?
My parents were Jewish and my brother and I were raised in that faith. My mother’s parents came to America from the USSR prior to World War I. They met, married, and raised a family in the Boston area. Grampy had a grocery store and my mother undoubtedly had to work there. My father was born in Poland and was a holocaust survivor who came to America after WW II. When I was 10 years old, my parents bought a little Mom & Pop variety store which they called Dotty’s Variety. They never hired any help – it was just them, my brother and I working there. They owned the store for 18 years. Although my book takes place in a toyshop, the experience of growing up in a small family store definitely influenced my book. The story is set in an old fashioned eastern European town because I wanted to imagine a simpler time and what life might have been like before the wars. That also gave the book a folklore-type feel which enhanced the message of the story.
How does this book differ from other Hanukkah picture books?
Most Hanukkah books tend to fall into one of three types: retellings of the origins of the holiday, or silly tales such as dancing latkes or signing menorahs. Occasionally you would find a folkloric tale such as those written by Eric Kimmel. I wanted to write an original story that had a heartfelt message and was different from anything else. I purposely kept away from retelling the story of the Maccabbees (except for the Author’s Note.)
Communication between authors and illustrators varies. Can you describe your relationship with your illustrator, Durga Yael Bernhard? How did she capture the essence of your story?
I have not met Ms. Bernhard, although we have conversed by email. Wisdom Tales held onto my manuscript for almost a year before they offered me a contract because they wanted to find the perfect illustrator for the book. It was well worth the wait. Ms. Berhard and I communicated via our editor throughout the entire editorial process and she added so much to the story. I had intentionally left out the precise setting of the book, and she chose the perfect place – Prague. (You will not see that written anywhere in the book, but look at the bridge in the opening spread.) She added so many interesting touches, such as the expressions on the dolls’ faces. She noticed several things about my story that even I had not realized when I wrote it! I hope we will have the opportunity to work together on another book.
Jewish picture books usually fall into three categories- holidays, the Holocaust and biographies. Controversy surrounds the topic of introducing young children to the tragic aspects of the Holocaust. As an experienced librarian and parent, do you have any thoughts about the wide selection of Holocaust picture books?
As I mentioned before, my father was a Holocaust survivor. Many of my parents’ friends were also survivors so I grew up knowing the people, if not their particular stories. My father never wanted to talk about it and didn’t open up to us until Schindler’s List was made into a movie and the local newspaper wanted to interview him.
My brother and I, and then our children, grew up knowing about the Holocaust, but most people have not. I think it is important to tell these stories, along with other important events in history. Horrible things do happen, even to children, and perhaps if kids read these nonfiction and fiction books they will empathize with the people who are victims. Hopefully they will understand how these events came to be and use that knowledge to create a better world.
Looking back on your writing career, is there anything that you would have done differently?
It took a long time for me to publish my first children’s books, and I wish that had happened earlier. But meanwhile, I wrote and published 5 professional books, concentrated on my library career, and raised four children, two of whom are librarians!
Are you currently working on your next book? If so, are there any details that you would like to share with my audience?
I am always working on other books and sending them to publishers. I don’t have any under contract yet, but I will keep working at it.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with my audience?
Perhaps you could mention my web site: Martha-Seif-Simpson.com and encourage people to send me their comments.
Later this week, I will be reviewing The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin.
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, December 28, 2014 will be eligible for a book giveaway. Martha will send the randomly selected winner an autographed copy of The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin.
In exchange for an honest interview and review, I was sent a copy of The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.