I look at the shelf with my childhood books and see the world. By the time I was ten years old, I’d made friends with children living in Scotland, Africa, and Tibet, among other countries. Some introduced me to everyday lives that were both different and the same as mine. Others, showed me that not getting along with people who are different is a global problem.
Wee Gillis in Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf brings his lowland-highland family together…
Marcel in All Alone by Claire Huchet Bishop brings a French village together…
and fighting koala bears in The Bear Party by William Pene Du Bois get along when they dress up in costumes from around the world.
In Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden, I felt Nona’s loneliness as she struggles to adapt to living with her English relatives, missing the life she knew as an only child in India. Together we built a Japanese dollhouse and navigated sibling relationships.
At a young age I absorbed concepts many adults still haven’t grasped. If all children grew up with these or similar books, we might live in a world in which all people are welcome and treated with respect.
Here are a few more books that made me who I am:
Post a comment with the title of a multicultural children’s book that made a lasting impression on you…or send me an email!
Since ancient times, Jews have celebrated the New Year of Trees on the 15th of the month of Shvat (February 10 at sundown in 2017). In Israel, the cold, rainy winter is coming to an end and flowering almond trees announce the arrival of spring.
Today, in Israel and the diaspora, TuBishvat has become the Jewish Earth Day and I’m pleased that Jewish educators are planning to include What On Earth Can We Do? in their Tu BiShvat and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) programming.
In honor of Tu BiShvat, I’ve compiled a selection of my photographs and drawings of trees.
It’s been 15 years since Scholastic Inc. published Hanukkah: A Counting Book in English Hebrew, and Yiddish. In 2011, with over 170,000 copies out in the world (hardback, paperback, and board book), I felt it was time to create a book for older children. The result was Hanukkah Coloring & Activity Book.
Never satisfied, this year I created seven new activities that led to a cover redesign. Now children — and adults — will have even more fun learning key Hebrew words and symbols in the Hanukkah story. There’s even a tzedakah activity to encourage families to donate food and toys to those in need.
Back in 2004, I thought hard to come up with a family activity that would be in the spirit of playing dreidel and complement Hanukkah: A Counting Book in English Hebrew, and Yiddish. One card game grew to three as a way to teach numbers, colors, and Hanukkah symbols in English and Hebrew, the final product being Hanukkah Card Games.
After all my thinking, what did I discover? Playing card games on Hanukkah is an old Jewish custom!
“In all the communities they decreed not to play cards all year long except for Hanukkah and Purim when they allowed it.” —R. Yosef Yuzpe Kashman Segal of Frankfurt, 1718
This is the first of posts about the people to whom my books have been dedicated.
My dedication in The Kids’ Fun Book of Jewish Time reads, “Dedicated with love to my mom, my first and best editor.” This wasn’t a slight to my Scholastic and Jewish Lights editors, who were great, but my mom brought constructive criticism to another level. Accepting the criticism wasn’t easy, but it was what I needed to hear. “The pictures are great, but the text?” Growing up, my sister and I knew that showing homework to our mom — only double-spaced on a yellow legal pad — meant we’d have to rewrite it, at least once.
After we went to sleep, my mom worked late into the night copyediting hefty manuscripts, aided by cigarettes and coffee. As a freelancer, she worked on books by Joyce Carol Oates, Robertson Davies, Dick Gregory, and others. I knew she’d worked with Saul Bellow on The Adventures of Augie March on-staff at the Viking Press, but it wasn’t until a friend asked, “Have you edited any authors we might know?” that I heard her say, “Steinbeck.” Working with Steinbeck on East of Eden, she managed to sneak his dedication past Pascal Covici (Steinbeck’s editor and my mom’s boss), to whom the book is dedicated.
My mom’s library was arranged alphabetically, so my literary education began with Anderson and moved on to Austen, Bellow, Brontë, Davies, Dos Passos, Eliot, and on. Until her death at the age of 96, she was still reading books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and giving editorial advice to anyone who dared ask.
There have been days when I’ve come close to throwing my computer out the window. Like the day the mouse no longer moved the cursor. With a new lightweight laptop for travel and back-up, I wasn’t overly concerned. But when I turned on my back-up computer, its cursor didn’t move, either. Having been my own IT department for 26 years, I had a slew of solutions for earlier problems. None worked. So I brought both computers to the local repair shop. Of course, once there, they worked fine. Home again in my office, neither worked. It’s a good thing my blood pressure makes my doctor envious. After an hour wasted on the phone with tech support, I had a brilliant idea: I walked one computer to another room. Voilà! The cursor moved! The mouse had been trying to connect to both computers. Where were the days when mice didn’t have blue teeth? Give me back my Rapidograph, t-square, and triangle!
But, wait, isn’t that drop shadow cool? I change colors with a click and play with fonts. My design playground is huge. When I draw with a pencil on paper, I miss the “Undo” command. I can erase, but not bring back what I erased or save multiple versions. And, my digital photos aren’t dusty or scratched. Magic.
And the Internet. So much information waiting to be found. Online tutorials, forums for troubleshooting, and search engines make the impossible possible. At first, the Adobe Premiere Pro workspace made as much sense as the control board of a rocket ship. But, with tutorials, I found my way and created my first YouTube video for What On Earth Can We Do? Miraculous! And, before I forget everything, it’s time to make a video trailer for Follow the Yarn.
My photos will be on display through the end of December at True Bistro, an upscale vegan restaurant in Somerville, MA, so I’m dedicating this post to photography.
I’ve stopped thinking in 36’s. Frame by frame for almost 40 years, I counted the shots. I watched the numbers on the camera’s dial to know how many shots were left on the roll of film. Then, one day, poof! No more film. No more counting. I still tell myself, “Film is cheap,” but it doesn’t matter really how many shots I take. Oddly, I don’t take more photos than I used to. Factoring in the “delete” button, I may end up with fewer photos at the end of a shoot.
These days, I work in waves, bouncing between my book projects, freelance graphic design, and photography. Sometimes it takes a trip for me to pick up my camera, which helps me focus. That said, my iPhone is always with me and I use its camera almost every day. I’ve even sold photos taken on my iPhone.
In seventh grade I was among a small group of students plucked from art class to learn photography. Seth Joel came down from the high school to teach us. I’m not sure where the darkroom came from, but the school needed students to use it. That’s how photography became my passion, leading to taking a workshop with LIFE Magazine photographer Yale Joel and then studying photography at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
RISD wasn’t about practical photography. It was about art with a capital “A.” But not too abstract, which is what I was doing. Living in Providence, there wasn’t much in the way of nature so I found nature in cars and walls. My photos fell into groups: underwater, on land, and outer space, so I called my senior show at Woods-Gerry Gallery “Unreal Reality.” In 1981, I called an exhibition of the RISD photos at the White Gallery in Tel Aviv “Games of the Imagination.”
During my years in Israel, where I worked as a graphic designer, some portraits crept into my body of abstract work. Thinking my photos were actual landscapes, a question I heard often was, “Where did you take it?”
In New York, Maine, and Massachusetts, I continued to shoot walls and cars, leaving it up to the viewer to interpret my images. It’s only been the past 10 years that my photos have become more realistic, though still abstract. I continue to explore layers: reflections on glass, what’s inside, and what’s beyond.
Even with a realistic twist, my photos may make the viewer wonder what’s real or not, even though they are single exposures, not sandwiched together in Photoshop.
The star of Follow the Yarn is Batman Wilcox-Warren. The idea for a concept book about colors, that would also be a game, had been kicking around my head for a few years, but I hadn’t found a kitten to photograph. Then my friend Bob told me his family had adopted a kitten. My first question was, “Can I come photograph your kitten playing with a ball of yarn?”
A few days later, I headed down the street with my camera equipment and a ball of yarn. My new lens turned out to be slow for Batman, a fast kitten, but I managed to get the shots I needed to illustrate the book.
Working with photographs of a black kitten wasn’t easy. I kept the kitten black to contrast the different colors of yarn. At first my illustrations were solid black, but I realized tones and details would help define the kitten’s body. While I was at it, I gave Batman a pair of blue contact lenses!
White, the final color, was tricky, but when you look through the book, you’ll see my solution…and Batman doesn’t suddenly turn white, as in an early iteration.
Follow the Yarn is dedicated to Batman and Dipity. Now you know who Batman is, but who’s Dipity?
Growing up, near where my family lived, there was an egg farm. One day, we went to buy eggs and came home with a kitten! We named her Serendipity, which got shortened to Dipity, and, at times, Dip.
I was walking down the street thinking about ways to engage kids during my upcoming presentation about What On Earth Can We Do? at Newtonville Books when I found myself thinking about Pete Seeger and realized the roots of my book go back to my childhood in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. I’ll still ask questions: Do you take your own bag to the supermarket? Does your family have a compost bin? Who wants to join me for lunch at the Worm Café? But, there’s more to tell.
The dedication to What On Earth Can We Do? reads: Dedicated in loving memory to my parents, Rose and Roy Sper, who chose to bring me up in a house surrounded by trees. When I wrote these words, I was thinking how wandering in the woods on the hill behind my house gave me a strong connection to nature. Perched on my favorite rock, when the trees were bare, I could see a sliver of the Hudson. Deer roamed the hill and were common sight in our backyard. Birds were plentiful. Hedgehogs, too.
My house was a mile from the Croton Reservoir, which at one time was the main source of New York City’s drinking water. Everyday, my school bus drove over the Croton Dam. When the reservoir was low, we’d watch the water inch up to the top of the spillway until it crashed down over the massive stone steps of the spillway. We’d rush to the right side of the bus to see the dam overflowing.
The water that didn’t travel the aqueduct to New York City flowed down the Croton River. The village swimming hole, Silver Lake, was on the river below the dam. There we swam in water that made ice cubes feel warm. The early Tarzan movies were filmed a bit farther down the river, which eventually empties into the Hudson River.
Nobody swam in the Hudson. The river was polluted. I couldn’t see the toxins in the river or the striped bass full of PCBs, but when we had picnics at Croton Point Park, there were small dead fish washed up on shore. It turned out that some people not only put a toe in, but their whole bodies. In middle school, I was invited out on my friend Nancy’s motorboat. If I wanted to water ski, there was no way around jumping in. It was scary. The incentive to stay up was huge.
Pete Seeger believed we could bring the Hudson back to life and set out to bring people, up and down the river, together to take action. I remember Pete at the New York Boat Show, where he sat at an information table talking to people about building a sloop to sail the Hudson, educating people of all ages about the river. Those of us living along the river helped fundraising efforts by attending Hudson River Sloop festivals from Irvington to Poughkeepsie. Performers ranged from Pete and Arlo to counselors from Camp Trywoodie performing a Croation folk dance. When enough money was raised, the Clearwater was built. We felt a part of it.
The small festivals consolidated into one big annual festival at Croton Point with multiple stages and famous (and some local) musicians. Today’s Clearwater Festival takes place along a river where swimming, fishing, and boating are not horror film material. And today the Croton Dump is landfill. In the early years, when the festival abutted the dump, every now and then a breeze filled my nostrils with a putrid smell. “If you get lost anywhere in the county,” a friend’s mother said, “get on a dump truck.”
For an eighth grade English project, I wrote the screenplay for a film set at the Croton Dump. Nobody stopped us from climbing onto the piles of garbage.
Black-and-white: A girl is walking in the dump with a fishing pole made out of the garbage, a pole and string. She sits down on a pile of garbage and casts her line.
Cut to color: The girl is sitting on a rock at Silver Lake. She catches a fish (bought at the Grand Union supermarket) and is about to grab it.
Cut to black-and-white: The girl is back in the dump and grabs a piece of garbage. Disgusted, she throws it down and walks away.
I realize now that middle school was a time of environmental action. I was among a group of students who, with our science teacher, Mrs. Kaplan, attended an environmental hearing against building the second Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. I remember learning how hot water discharged from the plant’s cooling system into the Hudson killed fish.
It was at a school-wide assembly in 1970 that we heard about the first Earth Day. The seventh graders cleared out garbage from the woods next to our school. A friend remembers some sort of play. After we graduated from middle school, our film was shown on Earth Day.
The highlight of seventh grade was the week we spent at Camp Rainbow, a local camp for city kids during the summer. A whole week without regular classes! We learned about tadpoles, turtles, and the natural world. There was even a hike up Bear Mountain.
And, yes, I was a Girl Scout. The draw was camping at the tip of Croton Point, where we explored the red clay banks, learned to make teepee-log cabin fires, and slept in tents. During the summer at Camp Trywoodie, camping meant dragging our S & H Green Stamps sleeping bags up a hill, building a campfire over which we cooked dinner and roasted marshmallows, singing songs, and sleeping under the stars. At Camp Med-o-Lark, I learned how to sail on Washington Pond. Then in high school I sailed on the Hudson in a program offered by the Croton Recreation Department. I loved to move with the wind over the water.
We also swam in lakes and ponds, and when they froze, we skated. Teatown Lake was the best because, even with kids playing hockey, there was still plenty of free ice. And there were islands around which to skate. I’ve never adapted to skating circles in a rink. Where are the islands? Where are the trees? Where are the birds? When I took up cross-country skiing, I skied the hiking trails around the lake. Just last weekend, on my way to New York City, I detoured to Teatown Lake Reservation. A walk around Teatown Lake is different from hiking in the White Mountains, the Blue Hills, or Middlesex Fells. It’s home.
Does anyone know of a book good for 3-4 year olds about the concept of conservation/environmentalism? I think our kids have not yet hit the developmental milestone in which they understand not wasting water when they play at the sink, etc, but we would love something to help us make it click. We do compost and recycle with them and have even take them to the recycling center/dump once but thought a book might help them put it all together.
The above query was posted to Congregation Dorshei Tzedek’s listserv. I responded that I had just the book Phoebe was looking for. After many incarnations, beginning in 2008, I thought my book was finished. Ha! It took five months of rethinking, rewriting, restructuring, creating new and revised illustrations, and coming up with a new title to complete What On Earth Can We Do? I listened to the wise feedback of colleagues, friends, and relatives.
Six years ago, I was a member of an Eco-team. Working with the book, Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds by David Gershon, we measured our carbon footprints and looked for ways to reduce our impact on Earth. Each week, one of us presented a relevant topic to the group. I brought a dummy of The Cool Earth Alphabet Book, as my book was then titled. It began with “animals” and ended with “zero footprints left behind,” a bit of a stretch for “Z,” as was “oXygen” for “X.”
Next up, The Cool Earth Book focused on problems, which was depressing, as a friend put it. So I moved on to what we can do, a more positive take. The actions in What On Earth Can We Do? are direct and easy to understand, enhanced by colorful graphics. For the child who wants to learn more, the end includes complex information broken down into simple explanations, not too much for four to eight-year-olds (or adults like me) to absorb.
Originally, my book had a Jewish slant, meant to follow The Kids’ Fun Book of Jewish Time (2006, Jewish Lights Publishing) replete with flaps, wheels, and other interactive elements.
There was even a faucet that “turned” the water on and off. You could “open” the compost bin to see what was inside, watch the sapling “grow” into a tree, and spin the wind turbine. Unfortunately, the cost for interactive elements is crazy high, though understandable since real people are gluing the flaps onto the pages, etc.
Protecting Earth is a universal concern (or should be) so What On Earth Can We Do? is for everyone. Looking back on early versions, it’s hard for me to believe how many times I thought my book was finished. I have a hunch that it will never really be finished. Published, but not finished. Already, LED light bulbs are replacing compact florescent bulbs. Some towns have banned plastic bags and bottled water. Finished or not, our work is ongoing. For kids, and some families, my hope is that reading What On Earth Can We Do? will be the beginning.