Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Coming of Age: 13 B'nai Mitzvah Stories + Interview

As a Jewish author I was excited to see a book aimed at kids during the time of their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs (the ceremony in which a Jewish child enters into adulthood). It's an exciting and sometimes confusing time in a young Jewish individual's life. I would have loved to have had a book like this to see myself in during that time in my life.

Coming of Age: 13 B'nai Mitzvah Stories is filled with vignettes about B'nai Mitzvahs and no two are alike. It covers everything from international experiences, pandemic bnai mitzvahs, exploring crushes, time travel, and even the Jewish customs on planet Latke with a race full of octopus-like aliens. And each story captures the range of emotions surrounding the important event in many Jewish children's lives as they are called to the Torah and transition into adulthood.

Whether you're Jewish or not, this is a great resource to help kids understand B'nai Mitzvahs in a variety of fun and interesting ways.

I have the pleasure of talking with one of the authors Nancy Krulik, about the anthology and some of the aspects of her story, The Contest.

Nancy it's so nice to chat with you today about Coming of Age: 13 B'nai Mitzvah stories.

Tell Middle Grade Minded readers a little bit about Coming of Age: 13 B'nai Mitzvah Stories and more specifically what your story is about.
Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories is a collection of stories about Jewish teenagers who are each havng having one of the most monumental and meaningful experiences of their lives—their bar or bat mitzvah. Some of the stories are funny, some are serious, and some are a little of both. Some take place in the past, some in the present day, and one even takes place in outer space. The one thing all the tales have in common is that they represent the true emotions 13-year-old Jewish kids feel. It is very much a book of shared experiences.  My particular story, T”he Contest,” is about a boy who has a very difficult time sitting still in synagogue.  He also has a whole lot of b’nai mitzvah to attend. So, to make things a little more interesting, he and his friends come up with a contest to see who can be the first one to be asked by the ushers to leave services.
How did you come up with the idea for your story? Have you ever been kicked out of synagogue before?
I was a bit of a chatterbox as a kid (I still am, but I can control myself a little better now).  I was definitely asked to leave services from time to time. But the whole concept of an actual contest is actually my son’s experience. The first line of the story is, in fact, the first line of his bar mitzvah speech: Shabbat Shalom. Welcome to my Bar Mitzvah. Today I promise to make it all the way through the service without getting asked to leave the sanctuary.”  I was pretty mortified by that line when I first heard it, but the rabbi thought it was hilarious. Turns out the rabbi had a lot of trouble sitting still in synagogue when he was a kid as well. 
How did you get involved in this book?
I met Jonathan Rosen, one of the editors/authors of the collection, on a trip to Israel sponsored by PJ Library. We traveled with a group of children’s authors, which was a remarkable experience. To see Jerusalem with people who are like-minded and care about the same things I do was very important to me. I’d been to Israel before, but never in this type of setting. I made lifelong friends, and Jonathan was one of them. We had all been thinking of ways to reach out to Jewish kids and Jonathan, along with Henry Herz, came up with Coming of Age. When they asked me to be part of a project as important as this one, I jumped at the chance. 
What does it mean to you to be a part of a book that celebrates coming of age in Judaism?
I think it’s incredibly important for Jewish kids to see themselves in literature. It’s important for all kids to feel represented in the culture, particularly in books.  I think it’s also important for people of other faiths to understand what the experience is all about. I think the more we read about the lives and traditions of one another, the less hatred there will be in the world. Let’s face it, today’s 13-year-olds will be tomorrow’s leaders. So why not help them have pride in themselves and understanding for one another?

What do you hope readers get from this collection of stories?
I hope they laugh, and I hope they learn. As for Jewish readers in particular, I hope they take great pride in what they will have accomplished when they stand up at the bimah and read from the Torah. It takes a lot of work and a lot of guts to get up there in front of friends, family, and the congregation.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers about this story or your other work?
“The Contest” is actually the first Jewish story I ever wrote, and it has inspired me to play around with other ideas based on Jewish protagonists. Still, anyone who knows my books knows that I write funny. It’s just my thing. So although The Contest does take a serious turn, I kept it funny.  Kids who have read my Katie Kazoo Switcheroo, George Brown Class Clown or Princess Pulverizer series know no one loves putting a good burp into a story more than I do.  Kids who read “The Contest” will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

 Hooray! Author Elly Swartz has a new book out today!

      Elly is one of my favourite middle grade authors, so I jumped at a chance to read an advance copy of her latest books and ask her all kinds of questions!


But first, a little information about the book:

      When Autumn becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper she is faced with a dilemma--can she give fair advice to everyone, including her friends, while keeping her identity a secret?

Starting Middle School is rough for Autumn after her one and only BFF moves to California. Uncertain and anxious, she struggles to connect with her new classmates. The two potential friends she meets could not be more different: bold Logan who has big ideas and quiet Cooper who's a bit mysterious. But Autumn has a dilemma: what do you do when the new friends you make don't like each other? 

When Autumn is picked to be the secret voice of the Dear Student letters in the Hillview newspaper, she finds herself smack in the middle of a problem with Logan and Cooper on opposite sides. But before Autumn can figure out what to do, the unthinkable happens. Her secret identity as Dear Student is threatened. Now, it's time for Autumn to find her voice, her courage, and follow her heart, even when it's divided.

The interview!

      Hi Elly - Congratulations on DEAR STUDENT, which is such a heartwarming story!  One of the things that I really loved about this book is that almost nothing in this story is black and white, from Autumn’s family situation to her friendship with Logan and Cooper, to even the animal testing issue. Can you talk about your decision to dive headfirst in gray areas?


I love this question. The gray matter was intentional. I feel my readers are the age when you start realizing the world is not neat. It is not all right or all wrong, all good or all bad. There is this middle ground you need to wade through and decipher. This space is blurry. And navigating it really pushes you to find your heart, your voice, and what matters to you.


2. Autumn uses a technique called Fearless Fred when she is especially in need of some bravery - do you have similar techniques?


Ha! I guess I haven’t thought about it that intentionally before, but I suppose Autumn’s Fearless Fred came from me. Not just me, the author, but me, the person. I do feel there are times I need to dig deep with purpose and find the part of me that fear can boss around. The part of me that’s bigger than my worry. 


We all have fears and worries and things that make us anxious. It’s what we do about it in those moments. And for me, like Autumn, I try to find my Fearless Fred.


3. One thing that I really love about this book is that it addresses full on the fact that most people think other people have it more together than they do. Autumn starts to realize this when she begins to write the advice column. Was this really important to you, to help kids see that their assumptions may be wrong.



Yes! Kids today often only see the shiny penny version of their friend’s lives on Snap Chat or TikTok. They see the manicured moments and curated pictures. They don’t see what’s underneath. They don’t see that we all have fears and worries. That we all are working on something. So I wanted to explore this in Dear Student. Take Autumn, for example, she assumes Logan is brave and fearless because she is popular and involved in many activities at school. When, in actuality, Logan doesn’t feel brave or fearless. Her popularity and involvement stems from a place of wanting to fill a void left by her mom’s other commitments. When Autumn realizes this, she is better able to empathize and understand. 

That’s the magic of pealing back the layers and getting rid of assumptions. It allows us to take the perspective of others, helps minimize misunderstandings, and allows space for empathy.  

In school visits, I often share this idea with an activity called, 5 Reasons Why. It goes like this, one’s first conclusion is not always the correct one! Challenge yourself to move beyond your first assumption by coming up with five different reasons why a person might:

      Be late for school.

      Not attend the school dance

      Eat lunch alone.

      Get in fights.


It’s amazing how the empathy and understanding grows as kids are encouraged to look beyond their initial assumptions. 


4. An interesting part of this book is that several of the parents are pursuing causes and self-actualization that may not be ideal or even good for their children. Can you talk about the decision to include such complicated narratives?


You truly picked up on all the things that touched my heart as I wrote. This decision harkens back to the first question you asked about the gray matter. I wanted to show that not every decision is right or wrong, sometimes it truly is both. For instance, Autumn’s dad is doing something really noble, volunteering for the Peace Corps, and Logan’s mom is doing something incredibly important, fighting for women and girls’ rights everywhere. The world needs people like them, but so do Logan and Autumn. And when I wrote these characters, I respected them as people, but was mad at them as parents. Again, nothing is all one thing. It’s all a delicate balance. 


5. At the end of the book, we don’t know that everything will work out for Autumn. How important was it for you to leave some things dangling?


Hope and authenticity drove the end of this story. I wanted the conclusion to be hopeful. Autumn not only found, but used her voice to share her heart. To me, that was everything. 


As for her friendship with Logan and her temporary house with no lilac bushes, time will tell. It felt authentic to leave some things unresolved. After all, that’s real life. We don’t know how it all turns out. But we can be hopeful!

6. Love Elly books! What’s next????


You are so sweet. Thank you. That means so much to me. And I am happy to share there is more on the way.

I have another middle grade novel entitled, HIDDEN TRUTHS, coming out in 2023 with Random House. HIDDEN TRUTHS is a story told in dual pov between best friends Danielle – a star baseball player – and Eric – her forgetful, but kind, goofy, crossword-loving neighbor. 

Their friendship has begun to shift when a terrible accident happens, accelerating their rift. 

At its heart, this story asks how far you’d go to keep a promise to a friend. And if forgiveness can really heal the hurt that comes when trust is broken. 

I’m also working on a picture book and starting a new middle grade that I am bursting with excitement to write.

Lots more to come. Woohoo!

Want to learn more about Elly? Visit her website!