Readers and friends please welcome to the blog, Sheri Sinykin, author of Zayde Comes to Live!
“Why would a children’s book writer decline to read her first picture book to children?” I’ve been asked this question several times since Peachtree released Zayde Comes to Live (illustrated by Kristina Swarner) in October. As the author of eighteen other novels or chapter books for young readers—Giving Up the Ghost is the most recent—I have always been happy to talk about or read from any of them at school visits or libraries. With the publication of my picture book, however, I share a sensitive topic—death and the afterlife—with a tender-hearted audience. For this reason, I think Zayde Comes to Live is best introduced to young listeners by parents and educators who know and love them best.
As a former hospice volunteer who cared for my dying mother in our home, I am aware of the fact that young children may be at different stages, developmentally, than older readers. Beyond that, some may be facing illness themselves or the impending death of loved ones. Others may be extremely fearful, reactive or excitable. Still others may be just healing from a recent loss. Can I, the author, anticipate how Zayde Comes to Live might affect each young listener, despite its sensitivity, glowing reviews, and honors? No. I can’t. And I don’t believe it is my place to initiate this intimate and difficult conversation.
For this reason, I have elected to introduce my picture book to adult audiences with a Power Point presentation, “GOOD GRIEF: How to Talk to A Child about Death,” which concludes with a reading of Zayde Comes to Live. In this talk, I share how I—a person who was always terrified of death—came to write two children’s books on the subject, as well as offer specific ideas about how to talk to children about death. Were it not for my mother’s devastating late stage cancer diagnosis in 1997, I would never have written Giving Up the Ghost (a suspense novel for ages 10-14) or Zayde Comes to Live (for ages 5-9). I would not have undergone hospice volunteer training, in part to conquer my own fears, as well as to serve others. Nor would I have met and cared for an amazing man at the end of his life who became an inspiration for Zayde, the character. My patient was Catholic, however, not Jewish.
The instinct to tell my story through Rachel, a young Jewish girl, came from several sources. The first was a hospice rabbi in Arizona who shared his experience that Jewish hospice patients have a more difficult time at the end of life than patients with other religious beliefs. I could relate to what he said: We Jews do tend to focus on Mitzvah—doing good deeds—and on the Here-and-Now, not the Hereafter. Most of us don’t even know whether Jews believe in an afterlife and, if so, what it’s called.
As one who never knew how to respond to well-meaning friends of other faiths, I thought, “If only children learned early on that many people believe different things about death
--and that’s okay--perhaps they wouldn’t be so fearful at the end of their lives.” I hoped to tell a compelling story that would give Jewish children a specific belief system, while at the same time providing hope and healing to all children that a loved one’s spirit will live on through love and memories. The hospice philosophy that people are not dying, but rather living until the moment they die, provides a backdrop and an impetus for making every moment of life count. It also suggested my title, which can be understood on several levels.
My greatest challenge was to avoid being didactic and to let Rachel’s character propel the action. As a novelist, I was conscious of the need to “write spare” with honesty and grace and to filter the story through a much younger character’s heart, mind, and words.
I am grateful that Peachtree did not regard Zayde Comes to Live as a book only for Jewish children, but rather for all children. A recent Parents’ Choice Recommended Award seems to validate that editorial decision. The publisher’s inspired selection of Kristina Swarner as Zayde’s illustrator expanded and transformed Rachel’s story into so much more than my original vision. Kristina’s exquisite watercolor-and-linoleum-block images of Heaven, Paradise, and Olam Ha-Ba capture these unknowable mysteries in ways that will surely soothe readers young and old alike. And her expression of love between Rachel and Zayde on every page shows rather than tells what mere words cannot. Zayde Comes to Live has been truly blessed by this partnership with Kristina Swarner; she shares equally in whatever Good might come its way.
Though my mother never lived to see either of my Peachtree books published, she flouted her doctor’s prognosis by living eight-and-a-half years instead of two. Just as she planted a seed for Zaydein the beginning, she also seems to have an unseen hand in the “fruits” of its publication. I can’t help but feel that her loving spirit has been guiding Zayde’s warm welcome in this world from that other world, Olam Ha-Ba.
Kristina Swarner, illustrator of Zayde Comes to Live, was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about her illustrations! Welcome, Kristina!
1. How did you get into illustration? Did you always aspire to illustrate books?
I've made illustrated books ever since I was very young. One of my grandmothers used to make little books and illustrated letters for me, and the other had a house full of old illustrated children's books-- I think books are part of me.
2. What is your favorite technique or medium for your work?
I usually work in a combination of printmaking, drawing, and watercolor. I also enjoy painting with oils and acrylics. I don't really have a favorite medium, but I always love the surprise of lifting the paper off the plate when I'm making prints.
3. What is the first thing you do when beginning a new piece?
After reading the text, I make lots and lots of rough sketches of whatever comes into my mind. They look like stick figures that somebody drew with their toes, but they help me sort out the final piece in my head.
4. Describe the illustrations in Zayde Comes to Live – where did you look for inspiration for these characters?
I'd describe the art in Zayde as warm and intimate. I was thinking of the way memories exist in your head as random pictures of moments, and the memories I have of my grandfathers, whom I was close to.
5. What is your biggest challenge when illustrating a picture book?
My biggest challenge is always time--I used to be able to stay up until 2 or 3 am working, but I just can't any more! Consequently the days, and my deadlines, seem much shorter.
6. How would you describe your artistic style?
It's been described as whimsical, dreamlike, peaceful, Chagall-like, and sensitive. To me it's always changing--I'm always trying to get it to look like what's in my head, and it usually comes out pretty differently.
Thank you to Sheri and Kristina for hanging out on the blog today! Make sure you check out their other stops on the tour!
Sheri is also featured over at Read, Write, Repeat
and Kristina Swarner is featured at Writing and Illustrating!