In Memory of Paula Cohen

One of the things I love most about my job as Children’s Programming Director here at Brazos is creating wonderful author events for all authors, but particularly for debut authors. There is such a happy magic in celebrating the arrival of a new book, letting people know why we at the store love it, putting it in customers’ hands. This is especially satisfying when it’s a book I particularly love or which I feel a personal connection to in some way.

So it was with great pleasure that I was working with our partners at the Houston JCC on an event for author-illustrator Paula Cohen’s debut picture book, BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH, a joyfully Jewish yet also marvelously universal tale of a little girl who knows she can make a difference for her family’s store… if only she gets the chance. It’s a lovely, sweet book, with whimsical illustrations, also by Cohen.

And then, in a tragic, cruel turn of fate, Paula Cohen passed away suddenly last week, just days before her book debuted on March 1st. I heard the news and was dumbfounded. How could this talented woman be gone -- one with so much to offer the world, who had put her author dreams on hold as she worked as an illustrator, raised a family, and did so many other things, one who was only 57 years old?

Interviewing her editor, the renowned Arthur Levine, seemed a way I could celebrate BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH and let everyone know how wonderful it is. I hope you enjoy our conversation and I very much hope -- in fact I openly ask you -- to get your family a copy of BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH, and help keep Paula’s dream alive.


Joy Preble: BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH is such a joyful book, so delightfully and thoroughly Jewish at the same time as it is universal, with Shirley proving to her parents that yes, she is absolutely more than capable of helping run the store. Can you tell us about what drew you to the project for the Levine Querido list, the connections you felt with Paula’s world and story, and anything else you want to share about acquiring Paula’s debut picture book?

Arthur Levine: One of my passionate goals for the Levine Querido list is to find excellence in a far broader spectrum of creators than has been historically true. Tied to that is the desire to smash the “single story” trap that so many under-represented groups have been subject to. There are more stories about Black people than ones that show suffering and enslavement. There are more stories about Jewish people than those taking place in the Holocaust or 17th century Poland. Paula’s tale places Jews in a time in American and Jewish history. And while our culture is a prominent and central aspect of the book, it’s also a joyful, relatable tale of a smart little girl with bold ideas and kishkes, (metaphorically; literally it’s gefilte fish) who just needs the opportunity to shine!


JP: Joyful truly is the best word for BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH. And yes, I absolutely agree aboout smashing the ‘single story’ trap in all regards. No group is a monolith and our stories need to reflect that. Paula does such a lovely job here.

For those like me who had not yet had the pleasure and honor of meeting Paula in person or working with her, I’d love to hear about the creative process between you as editor and Paula as both author and illustrator. 

AL: She was no neophyte to the world of professional art but this was her first book as an author-illustrator. So she approached the process with a wonderful combination of skill and wide-eyed wonder. I loved working with her.


JP: All of what you say comes across in the book, from text to illustration to Shirley’s moxie and certainty that she can make a difference! Another thing that makes a difference is the book’s inclusion of Yiddish words. Can you talk some about how BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH fits Levine Querido’s mission which you mentioned above, by its organic inclusion of Yiddish words into the text? Did both you and Paula decide on creating the glossary of those words in the back? It’s something I wonder about a lot: whether just to immerse readers and let them work for the meaning if it’s culturally unfamiliar to them, or (particularly with a children’s picture book), give a bit of guidance. 

AL: It’s our philosophy at LQ not to take the distorted view that English is the only language spoken by folks in the United States broadly, and our readers specifically. Why should we assume that a reader DOESN’T know Spanish or Yiddish or… If you were at a friend’s house and their family was speaking a language you didn’t, you wouldn’t expect them to stop every three words and translate. So we prefer to try for an approach that makes the general meaning clear in context, without italics or indications of “othering.” The glossary is there to help in case someone draws a blank. Paula and I had lots of discussion about this but no real disagreement.


JP: All that, exactly! Yes! Finally, I’d love to hear any other stories you have about working with Paula. I have done a rather deep dive these past days reading interviews and articles and familiarizing myself with her life and work and how many people she has deeply touched with her art and her words. And obviously, you are one of them.

AL: Well, sadly I was just beginning to get to know Paula and was looking forward to a long relationship and many books in which we’d get to understand each other’s feelings and experiences.  But what I can say was that I LOVED the fact that Paula was a fully grown woman who had raised children and worked professional jobs but had not given up her lifelong dream of publishing a book of her own; and that at 57 she was finally getting to do it! For great reasons we all get very excited about new, young talent. But here was a woman whose work was as fresh and full of vitality as anyone’s. I will try to think of this as a gift she left for us, a blessing we got to hear and see and feel, rather than focus on what might have been.


Copies of BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH are available in store and online below. Paula's family have asked that you please consider memorial contributions in Paula’s name to the Yiddish Book Center.

Big Dreams, Small Fish By Paula Cohen Cover Image
ISBN: 9781646141265
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Levine Querido - March 1st, 2022

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