I began to read everything I could on Eastern European life, especially memoirs and fiction by great Yiddish writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shalom Aleichem. I looked at old photographs of small town shtetl life. Quite a few of my picture book stories came from this period of time when I read and thought about Eastern Europe and my grandparents-books like Just Enough Is Plenty: A Hanukkah Tale, Cakes and Miracles: A Purim Tale, and The Magician's Visit: A Passover Tale.
Once I brought my first published book, Just Enough Is Plenty: A Hanukkah Tale, to my cousin Sarah to show it to her. By this time, she was my only relative still alive who had lived in Eastern Europe before World War II. She looked at the book, looked up at me, and said, "This is just the way it was." Her words made me feel so good.
Another story based on my early years called "Ketsele's Gift" was published in Cricket in April of 1989. The girl in the story is based on me and the grandfather on my grandpa Joe. When I do school visits, I like to read this story and talk about what is true in it and what is fiction. I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with my grandfather from writing this story. And I find that the discoveries I make when I write are one of the most exciting parts of being a writer.
This incident-making a present for my grandfather for his first visit to my new house in Philadelphia—was a memory that had stuck in my mind for many years. By writing the story, I discovered it had stayed with me for a reason-there had been something unresolved that continued to bother me over the years, something I did not understand. I had worked for days on the present-a notebook full of Hebrew words-and thought my grandfather would be so pleased and would love the fact that I was learning his language in my new Hebrew school. But when I gave him the notebook, he hardly paid any attention to it. I was very disappointed and never knew why he didn't react the way I had expected.
In writing the story, I realized that as a nine year old I hadn't understood that he spoke Yiddish and not Hebrew. They are two very different languages that use the same alphabet. I wondered if he would have been excited if I had done the notebook in Yiddish instead. So, in my story, the girl figures out this difference in the two languages herself and starts a new notebook for her grandfather with Yiddish words. He is very pleased and ends up teaching her more and more Yiddish. Much to my surprise, this story turned out to be all about communication between a girl and her grandfather, and the frustrations of a granddaughter who can't speak to her grandfather in his language. Ketsele's Gift has a happy ending and I felt a lot better after writing it. I couldn't change the past by writing about it, but I could certainly understand it better. I find I often work out questions I have, and problems I am thinking about, through my writing.
One idea for a book that was specifically inspired by being in Bellingham is called Red Means Good Fortune: A Story of San Francisco's Chinatown. The idea for this story came from a conversation I had with a friend there about prejudice and minorities in the Northwest. She related some stories her grandmother, a native Bellinghamster, told her about the Chinese who worked on the railroad line that ended in Bellingham. Her grandmother said that when they finished the line, the opening to one of their tunnels was purposely blocked up so that the whole crew was killed. I was horrified by this story and always meant to look up the incident in old newspaper files in Bellingham to see if it was a true story. I never did. But her story led me to do research on the Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. I was curious to find out if there had been this much prejudice against the Chinese and discovered that there had. I wove this research into the story for Red Means Good Fortune about a boy Jin Mun who lives in San Francisco's Chinatown, whose father owns a laundry, and whose brother helps build the railroad. The plot revolves around Jin Mun's accidental meeting with a Chinese slave girl Wai Hing and his plans to buy her freedom.
As it happens, I knew nothing about Chinese slavery until I came across stories about it in the books I read. Originally, I thought my book would be about a boy who worked on the railroad. Only after doing all the research did I decide to focus the story on Jin Mun and Wai Hing. This is one of the interesting aspects of researching an historical fiction story--the research can influence the plot and change its direction.
In looking back now after I've written a number of books, I realize that much of my writing grows out of my interest in my own cultural background and religion, and in others'. When I think of myself as that sixth grader who read every book I could find on ancient Egypt, I realize that it wasn't archaeology that I was interested in so much as people and the way they have lived and do live in different times and places, and how they do when they're transplanted from one place to another, just as I seemed continually destined to be.
This interest periodically pops up in my life in the form of actually "exploring" (to use my father's term) different people's neighborhoods or villages, attending a variety of places of worship, and talking to a mix of spiritual leaders. Never having taken a formal comparative religions course, I have often created my own. During my first year of college, I remember dragging friends to different kinds of Services-Lutheran one week, Ethical Culture or Quaker another, once even to a mission on skid row in downtown Chicago where we were given free doughnuts and coffee and preaching besides. I still am very much interested in religions, my own and others', in what people believe, how they pray, how they celebrate, how they try to answer the "big" questions.
In Bellingham I picked up on this "exploring" of religion again, this time within Judaism. I had lived in places that were very isolated as far as my own religion was concerned, places that did not even have a synagogue. Now I lived close to cities like Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, which had many choices.
One Saturday, I drove up to Vancouver to "try" a service at Or Shalom, a Jewish group. I remember entering a dark hallway, standing there transfixed, as I listened to a man with a deep and rich voice tell a story from the Old Country, a story about faith and magical prophets and charity.
Over the next eight years, I heard many more stories from Rabbi Daniel Siegel and his wife Hanna Tiferet Siegel. As it turned out, the Siegels and Or Shalom opened a whole new world to me within my own religion.
The stories the Siegels told drew from many sources, including Talmud and Midrash (terms I wasn't too sure about), Hasidic and contemporary rabbis, and religious leaders of all paths. As I learned more and more stories and commentaries, I decided that someday I would like to collect a group of these stories and retell them in a way that would appeal to children and their families today. This idea was to simmer on the back burner of my mind for years, as I went about learning where and how to find these stories to retell.
Besides searching for wonderful stories to retell from classical Jewish sources, I also began to write my own Jewish holiday stories that weren't too informational, too teachy. I knew from all my submitting and rejection letters that editors were looking for Jewish holiday stories, but not ones "bogged down" with information. I worked hard on trying to make a story move, not just telling about a holiday, but telling a good story that happened to involve a holiday. When I finally started to sell to children's magazines, I knew my stories were getting better. I was also writing articles for Jewish newspapers about how to celebrate the Jewish holidays with children. These articles fed into my fictional holiday stories as background information and a source for ideas.