Food and Family are Universals: Joy Interviews Emily Jenkins, Author of ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY HANUKKAH

One of my very favorite series growing up was Sydney Taylor’s ALL OF A KIND FAMILY, about five Jewish sisters growing up at the turn of the 20th century in New York City’s Lower East Side. The stories are delightful-- vivid and funny and warm, with clear Jewish representation and plots that are about everyday life adventures, not issues. I read them over and over. So imagine my excitement when I saw that one of my favorite authors for young people, Emily Jenkins, had been asked to write the  ALL OF A KIND FAMILY HANUKKAH picture book! And I was even more thrilled when Emily agreed to this interview. Here’s what she had to say:

JOY: What drew you to giving us a new version of the series? And why a picture book rather than a chapter book? Were you nervous about putting your own spin on such beloved titles? What kind of guidance did the Sydney Taylor Foundation offer?

EMILY JENKINS: My editor, Anne Schwartz, invited me to write this book.  I had previously done a picture book (TOY MEET SNOW also illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky) connected to the chapter book series I had written. That series was the Toys Trilogy (which begins with TOYS GO OUT). Schwartz felt I understood how to translate chapter book characters to a picture book story.  Plus she knew I was a longtime fan of ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY. The Sydney Taylor foundation was nice enough to let me tell the story in my own way, which was to center on the emotional life of Gertie, the youngest of five sisters.

JP: And in a related question, why a Hanukkah book? Did it just seem a natural extension of the stories?

EJ: The biggest reason is that I love making latkes —  and writing about food. Taylor’s books are full of wonderful food descriptions, and I thought food would be a way to connect my story to hers — and to connect children of all faiths to a Jewish holiday.  Everyone loves to eat. Food and family are universals!

JP:  Who was your favorite character in the original series? Did she remain your favorite character as you were writing? Was there a particular character who wrote easier for you than others?

EJ: Henny is the rebel sister and she was always my favorite as a kid because she got in the best scrapes. I identified with bookish Sarah, but I admired Henny.  Still, it was only natural for the picture book to center on Gertie, who is four years old. I really tried to get into Gertie’s emotions as she watches her family prepare for the celebration.  She feels left out. All her sisters are doing big-kid things, cooking, and she’s not allowed to, yet. So now I love Gertie most.

JP: So many of us loved these books as children, but what about these characters and their world did you most want to bring to a new audience?  

EJ: Sydney Taylor’s stories are timeless because they center on the joys and troubles of a family, the struggles of poverty, the feelings of children. They’re full of joy but also emotionally honest.  Those last two —joy and emotional honesty —those are what I wanted All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah to have. Paul O. Zelinksy’s pictures really bring out those qualities in my text.

JP:  I’d also love to talk a bit about process, since you write across age groups and genres. In what ways does  the creative process differ for you when you are writing a picture book as opposed to when you are writing middle grade? In what ways is writing simply writing? (not that writing is simple!)

EJ: For All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, I wrote the central story first. When I had the emotions right, I began my research. I had to make sure I was being accurate about the foods the family would serve along with the latkes, how they would decorate the table, whether they would be putting their menorah in the window, as my family does — stuff like that.  I also wrote the back matter, which involved research into the history of the lower east side, learning more about Sydney Taylor, and finding a good way to represent the story of Hanukkah for very young readers of all faiths. Then I returned to my text and revised it many times, keeping the same emotional through-line as I had originally laid out. I also added some call-backs to the original stories for people who grew up with them.  Ella sings Rock of Ages. Gertie and Charlotte have cookies stashed under their pillow. Uncle Hyman shows up just in time for dinner. Those elements will be familiar to series fans.

JP: Finally, in a picture book related question, Paul Zelinsky’s illustrations are so delightful and colorful and add so much to the story. Can you address that part of the process? Did you work in direct collaboration at all? Whatever the method, the final book is impeccable!

EJ: Thank you!

Knowing I would be working with Paul, I was comfortable leaving my text open in some places.  In the emotional crisis of the book, there’s very little text — I just left it to Paul to render it powerfully.   He is so amazing at that. He did it in Toys Meet Snow as well — filling in the spaces left by my text with so much humor, pathos and character.  Zelinksy also did tremendous amounts of research on lower east side tenement architecture in order to represent the apartment as accurately as possible. We had a lot of amusing, historically geeky emails going back and forth.

JP: Anything else you want to tell us about Emily Jenkins?

EJ: Book 5 of the funny and magical middle-grade series I co-write with Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle — Upside-Down Magic — is in stores now!  It’s called Upside-Down Magic: Weather or Not. I’m really proud of this series. It is hilarious and heartfelt and good for kids grades 2-5. Oh! And there’s a teacher’s guide for All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah.  It has all kinds of useful discussion questions and activities. You can find in on my website.

JP: Thank you so much for this great interview, Emily!

ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY HANUKKAH is on our shelves now, and perfect not only for the holidays but really for any time. Whether you celebrate or not, Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte,and Gertie’s adventures are for everyone!

Want to know more about Emily Jenkins and her books? Check out her website here.

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah Cover Image
By Emily Jenkins, Paul O. Zelinsky (Illustrator)
$17.99
ISBN: 9780399554193
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Schwartz & Wade - September 11th, 2018

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