The Art of Writing (Jewish) Books for Kids

As a children’s book author myself, I make the rounds at children’s book fairs and festivals in and around New York City, and so have recently crossed paths with Leslie Kimmelman, a prolific children’s book author with many engaging and witty Jewish-themed books to her credit.  I was impressed by their range and scope, and chatted with her about her writing and how she hopes it impacts Jewish children. 

YZM:  How long have you been writing for kids?

LK: For more years than I’d care to admit to! I had been a children’s book editor for about seven or so years, and I eventually realized that I had my own stories to tell. My first book came out when I was about 30 and an editor at HarperCollins. I should give credit, though, to a number of terrific teachers in grade school and beyond who encouraged me to keep writing.

LK: Had you always planned to write Jewish-themed books? Or did it just evolve organically?

LK: My first Jewish title was Hanukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights; it was my third book overall, written during my time at HarperCollins. I wrote it because–and it was a completely different landscape back then–my daughter was a few years old, and I couldn’t find any Hanukkah title that was appropriate for her age, and also fun and inviting. Not about the historical significance of the holiday, but about what a child would experience. So I wrote my own book. Another indication of just how different things were in my early publishing days: The marketing department was skeptical that it would sell enough copies to make it worthwhile. I replied that though the percentage of Jews in the U.S. might be small, we were all readers! Sure enough, the book sold extremely well. In fact, it eventually had four different editions: hardcover, paperback, board book, and an edition with a little music button. And the publisher then asked me for two follow-up holiday books. So that was how it started. There have been many times over the years when I’ve thought, I don’t have anything more to write about, in terms of Jewish stories. It never lasts. Judaism is an endless well of inspiration!

YZM: Do you have a favorite among them? 

LK: Always a tricky question, like choosing your favorite child! I have a soft spot for the Sam and Charlie series; there aren’t many Jewish early readers. The ones I usually like best are the ones with illustrations I like best. I’m crazy about the fabulously illustrated The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah, Everybody Says Shalom, and The Eight Knights of Hanukkah  (illustrated, respectively, by Paul Meisel, Talitha Shipman, and Galia Bernstein). My current favorite is How to Be a Mensch, by A. Monster  (due out from Apples & Honey Press in September), with hilarious and adorable illustrations by Sachiko Yoshikawa.

YZM: How have your own Jewish roots informed your stories? 

LK: I am a Reform Jew, and I grew up in a family that wasn’t particularly observant. Very typical, I think, for that period. Although, looking back, my upbringing was steeped in more Judaism than I was aware of at the time, including Hebrew school and all the holiday celebrations.  I was always extremely interested in Jewish history, especially as it touched my family. My mom told me of skiing with friends in Canada (where she grew up) and being faced with a NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED sign. That shocked me—it was post WWII, and it was CANADA! And, of course, Jewish contributions to culture. I remember reading Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories (Isaac Bashevis Singer and Maurice Sendak) with my grandmother and being quite moved by the gorgeous, lyrical writing and the often funny stories. That book was a huge influence.

One of the first things I did when I moved to NYC (I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb) was to join a temple, though I have to admit that its initial appeal was a large swimming pool that was way underused; I was a committed swimmer! But it wasn’t really until my husband and I had children that Judaism became more important. Both kids both went to a YMHA/YWHA preschool and then to Jewish camps, and they brought all kinds of Jewish crafts and traditions home with them. We also had good friends–with kids the same ages as ours–who were more observant and were always including us in their celebrations. It felt so good! We started lighting the candles every Friday, and building a sukkah every year in the backyard, and other things I’d never experienced as a child. We really tried to make religion meaningful, but also fun. So I guess it’s mostly my experiences as an adult, and especially as a parent, that have made their way into my Jewish books. That, plus Jewish humor, which has always loomed large in my life, and I hope in my books as well.

YZM: What’s your hope for the children who read them?

LK: Judaism has so much tragedy, so many difficult periods, in its history. They’re all essential to remember, of course. But it’s also a religion with incredible joy and humor, not to mention on emphasis on kindness and activism. Those are the topics I tend to focus on. My hope is that my books help young kids to be excited about being Jewish and to celebrate the richness of the Jewish tradition.  

YZM: Tell us what’s next on your horizon.  

I have a bunch of projects in the works. As far as Jewish titles go, the above-mentioned How to Be a Mensch comes out in the fall. Kar-Ben is publishing A Book About Bubkes early in 2023, and later in the year you will see Eve and Adam (title still tentative), a midrash of the creation story. And stay tuned—there are a few others percolating!