by Eva L. Weiss
When autumn comes, my name will appear on the cover of a children’s book. But am I really the author? I am not quite sure. Here’s what happened:
I was invited to write a book for Mitchell-Lane, a children’s book publisher in Delaware. My editor gave me the option of choosing among a number of topics planned for a series called Voices from Israel. I chose the title they planned to call “I am Israeli,” because I figured I would enjoy writing about the lives of Israeli children. A glance at their website affirmed that they publish reams of nonfiction children’s books on topics from history and science to world cultures and famous people.
The editor noted that “I am Israeli” was to be an educational book that should reflect the “personal perspectives” of children that I would interview. That said, she was a bit surprised when I asked if I could write the book using a first-person voice. I was even more surprised when she told me that none of the other authors she worked with had ever written a book for them in the first-person. That was odd to me. After all, so many of the children’s books I love most, and re-read often, are stories told in the first person, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park. Not that one would ordinarily compare the two, even though they are both written in the most natural young voices imaginable.
Of course, I understood and accepted that I was a rookie author of a quotidian educational book. But I do believe that it can’t hurt to be inspired by greatness, no matter what the task.
I was also instructed by my editor that the book should be written at a fourth grade reading level. That would be tricky. It’s been a long time since was in fourth grade. Furthermore, I would be writing the book about five different children, ages 5 to 12. I interviewed the children in Hebrew. A few of the children, however, including my son, are growing up in Israel in families with English speaking parents, so our conversations were in English. Among the children I interviewed in Hebrew was an Arabic speaker with a reasonable command of the language because he had attended Hebrew-speaking pre-schools as a young child. So it was up to me to interpret their voices into the vocabulary of American fourth graders.
It turned out that finding the near perfect-pitch vocabulary was the least of the challenges of writing my first children’s book. The most ticklish demand was to transform the conversations with my young subjects into narratives that would be true to each child. The narratives had to be appealing, but not overly foreign, to those intended fourth grade readers on the other side of the world.
“Make sure it has a lot of food and sports,” my eleven-year-old niece coached me. “That’s what kids like.” Adults too, I thought.
My Aunt Mimi, a thoughtful grandmother, reflected, “Children all over the world grow up with the same cartoon heroes and computers these days. It is hard to know what childhood means anymore.”
What I ended up learning was that children, and childhood, speak for themselves. Each conversation reminded me that it was quite a tumble to imagine falling back down into that rabbit hole. How would I describe it? Glorious, but also daunting. It takes such courage to be a child. And I had to acknowledge that it was audacious of me to presume to interpret their words in the first person. Working with my handwritten notes after the interviews was like trying to sketch a snowflake as it melts in your hand.
I discovered that it was very helpful to read the draft chapters out loud to my son. When I read him the story of a child who told me how much he enjoyed his first view of the Red Sea when his family drove to Eilat, my son asked, “Red Sea? It’s not really red. Why is it called the Red Sea?” Well, I needed to find out. After all, I was writing an educational book. So here is the explanation that got into chapter two: “By the way, the Red Sea isn’t actually red. It is a clear, bright blue. No one knows for sure how the Red Sea got its name. In ancient languages, directions were represented by colors. Black was north, red was south, east was green, and west was white. It is possible that the sea was described with the word “red” because it was to the south of the ancient Mediterranean world.”
There were other humbling moments. The eleven year old girl who loved Monopoly let me know that the green properties were the second most expensive rental properties, not the first. She also called me on taking unwelcome poetic license when I put words she didn’t say into her mouth. She had said she was glad her friend suggested she join a youth movement, even though she wasn’t sure whether she would like it. I pedantically added that it is often a good idea to talk with your parents before trying something new. “NO,” I was told, and I duly corrected the phrasing: “Sometimes it is a good idea to try something new. Of course, it makes the most sense to take advice from a person you trust. It is important to use your own good judgment. My parents would like it if I asked them for their opinion, too, but I like to think for myself.”
She is right, of course. I also prefer to think for myself. That is why I became an editor. And then a writer. By the way, if you want to find an academic formula for the estimated vocabulary of a fourth-grader, you may not be surprised to learn that there are any number of resources you can google on the internet.
At the end of the day, I am still left wondering: Is the book mine, or does it belong to the children? Well, like every book, ultimately, it belongs to its readers. Did I do my job? It’s hard to know. Vincent Van Gogh said, “Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is alas, not as easy as looking at it.”