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After eight years in Bellingham, my husband Alanís job came to an end, and he applied for an opening in the soil science department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I was thrilled when he was hired. I would be living near Jane Yolen, my Centrum teacher, and much closer to my parents and extended family. One big garage sale, lots of good-bye parties and farewells, frantic packing and we were in Western Massachusetts.
Photo © Ellen Augarten
I was happy to be back east, but Alan was not. He wanted to take a different job and move again just a year later. I had had too much of moving and very much wanted to set down roots. The little girl in me, who had moved from New York to Philadelphia and been picked on for being different, had had enough of being the new kid on the block. Eventually, Alan and I separated and then divorced. Though my personal life was difficult at that time, my writing life blossomed. I continued to work hard at my writing while teaching in a synagogue preschool. Deborah Brodie at Viking liked my Hanukkah story Just Enough Is Plenty and accepted it for publication. I was thrilled!
She also accepted my Purim story Cakes and Miracles, which is about a blind boy who realizes in a dream that he can "see" in his mind—and that he should act on what he "sees." He uses his skills with his hands to shape Purim cakes and cookies that sell well in the marketplace. I dedicated this book to my son Jeremy because, as he says in his own words, "I like to make cookies and I like to eat them."
Another book I wrote for Deborah Brodie was about the holiday of Passover that could be used at the festival meal called a seder. This book took a long time because first I read many books about Passover and many Haggadot, the books used at the seder. The hardest part of doing this book was figuring out how to organize all the material that I had accumulated in an interesting way. At last, I had the idea of looking at the book as being about two journeys, and so I divided A Passover Journey: A Seder Companion into two sections. The first is about the Israelites' journey from Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land. The second is about our own journey which we take during the Passover seder when we relive the journey of the ancient Israelites in our own way.
The picture book Magician's Visit was originally part of the larger Passover book, but when we cut it, Deborah thought my retelling would make a good picture book on its own.
Another idea Deborah gave me was to write for the Viking series of Once Upon America. She knew how much I enjoy doing historical fiction and research. Two Janes—Jane Yolen and Jane Gronau—gave me the idea for Fire: The Beginnings of the Labor Movement, which is a story based on the Triangle Factory fire in New York City in 1911. This idea seemed a natural for me since my mother's family lived on the Lower East Side of New York City near the factory during the early 1900s. Also, my grandpa Joe had been a garment worker, a presser of ladies' cloaks and suits, and the Triangle Factory was part of that garment industry. Here I was mining my family's past once again, a comfortable feeling.
I loved doing the research for this book-I walked the streets of the Lower East Side, the names of which have not changed over the years. I found the Triangle Factory building, which still stands near New York University and has a plaque on its corner dedicated to the 146 workers who died in the fire. I visited a fire engine museum and a tenement museum, and read many memoirs to create the story about a girl named Rosie whose older sister works in the Triangle Factory on the day of the big fire.
Facts that I read about influenced my plot. For instance, I read that victims of the fire were sometimes identified by their jewelry. So early in the book I introduce Rosie's cousin Celia who has just become engaged. Later, it is this cousin who perishes in the fire and is identified by her engagement ring.
At about the same time that Deborah Brodie accepted Just Enough Is Plenty, I met a bookstore owner named Sondra Botnick. Remember that idea for a book of stories from Midrash? Well, this is where Sandra fit in. Sandra guided me through her bookstore, helping me select those books that would teach me more about Midrash and how and where to find these classical rabbinic stories. I learned that Midrash are those stories rabbis and others told and still tell about the Bible—to explain or explore the characters, events, and laws found there.
Barbara, daughter Josee and son Jeremy - Photo © Ellen Augarten
Another person that I met at this time, at a conference, was Arthur Kurzweil, who was an editor at Jason Aronson Inc., Publishers. I asked him if he would be interested in a book of Midrash retold for children, sent him a proposal, and got a positive response. I tremendously enjoyed working on the book that resulted from this proposal. It is A Child's Book of Midrash, later reissued with the new title of The Family Book of Midrash. I dedicated this book to my daughter, Josee, since it was she who partly started me on this search to begin with—to find a book like this to read my own children.
I also wrote a second book for Jason Aronson called Creating Angels: Stories of Tzedakah in which I retold stories from classic sources as well as from Hasidic rabbis and folklore. All the stories are about some aspect of charity, or acts of giving, of loving kindness. These two books that Jason Aronson published are now available from Rowman & Littlefield, Inc. Besides Viking and Aronson, I have also been fortunate to have had books published by Harcourt Inc., including the two retellings of Native American stories. Jane Yolen, who at one time had her own imprint at Harcourt, was my editor for The World's Birthday: A Rosh Hashanah Story. The idea for this story began years before at an Or Shalom Rosh Hashanah children's service. As part of the service, Hanna Tiferet Siegel presented the children with a round challah birthday cake for the world that they loved. Emphasizing that Rosh Hashanah is the world's birthday struck me as an appealing start for a picture book story. The characters in the book evolved from earlier stories I had written and never sold.
Years before, when my children were young, I came across Sydney Taylor's Danny Loves a Holiday. I loved Danny—his honest emotions, humor, warmth, and love of the Jewish holidays. Inspired by Taylor's stories, I developed my own characters, a brother and a sister, and wrote a collection of Jewish holiday stories. As it turned out, this was a practice collection, because it never sold. But I used the characters and some plot ideas in later stories. These characters popped up in a March 1992 Highlights story called "Brave Like Mordecai" about the holiday of Purim, in The World's Birthday, and in Night Lights: A Sukkot Story which I worked on with Elizabeth Van Doren at Harcourt. In Night Lights, the idea as well as the characters evolved from this earlier collection. A boy Daniel is both eager and afraid to sleep outside in the family's sukkah, a temporary shelter set up for the holidays, with only his big sister Naomi.
Because of my children Josee and Jeremy, I found myself writing in odd places. I became adept at packing my bags with research materials, rough drafts, tablets, and setting up a temporary work area in a chilly ski resort restaurant and other unlikely spots.
One summer, for her sixteenth birthday present, Josee wanted me to take her and three friends on a camping-hiking trip to Acadia National Park in Maine. At the same time, I had a deadline for my Hanukkah collection called While the Candles Burn. All the stories were complete for the collection, but the long introduction to the book and the shorter introductions for each story were not yet written. Undaunted, we packed up the car and off we went, Josee, three friends, me, tents, sleeping bags, cook stove, clothes, rain and writing gear. We set up in a campground near Southwest Harbor, Maine, and I cased the small town nearby for a possible writing spot. I found it-a restaurant called the Deacon's Bench that opened up early, very early. Each morning, while the girls slept in, I drove into town and set up at one of the tables in the homey restaurant. I felt like I was in someone's living room. I learned all the local gossip, even got included in a couple of conversations, and wrote all those introductions. Now, whenever I look at the book While the Candles Burn, I think of Maine and harbors and fishing boats, of homemade muffins, and a wonderful vacation by the sea.
Other books I have written besides the above include: Coyote and the Fire Stick and Journeys With Elijah: Eight Tales of the Prophet that I worked on with editor Liz Van Doren at Harcourt; The Girl Who Lived with the Bears and A Mountain of Blintzes with Anne Davies at Harcourt; and Bat Mitzvah with Deborah Brodie at Viking. Iíve also written two more collections—Ten Holiday Jewish Childrenís Stories for Pitspopany Press, and 101 Jewish Read-Aloud Stories for Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, plus over a dozen classroom readers for Wright Group/McGraw Hill, Options Publishing, and Zaner-Bloser. These readers range from biographies of Louis Armstrong and Fannie Lou Hamer to stories about the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and students who adopt a nearby river and become river pollution activists.
As you can see from what I've written, the ideas for my stories come from many sources—from real life incidents, experiences with my children, childhood experiences, family stories, from my readings and research, from things that fascinate me that I hear, come across or read about, from dreams, daydreams, conversations, and issues that concern me.
You can also see that I like to do a variety of different kinds of writing. I love finding wonderful stories and retelling them. I enjoy writing original picture book stories, as well as stories for older children. Historical fiction, nonfiction, and books based on interviews as well as research are all a welcome challenge for me. My editors stretch me and I stretch myself to try new things. I have also found that my agents have helped me make sense of the business as well as the creative side of being a writer, first Virginia Knowlton and now Scott Treimel. I am also part of two writing groups and enjoy their critique sessions, retreats, camaraderie, and support.
My writing life is a full one—rewarding and busy. I also have my day jobs. I continued teaching until 2001—a total of 11 years in preschools and 10 years teaching English in the secular department of a Jewish Day School Middle School. I mainly taught creative writing and literature there—the world of words. My students and I worked together on their stories, poems,and essays; on brainstorming ideas, following through, revising, and forming their own peer critique groups. My students put together yearbooks, shared their poetry in classroom "cafes," taught me how to use computers, wrote graduation speeches, argued with me about books and grammar rules. We went through the ups and downs of submitting stories to magazines and writing contests, since some of them chose to pursue the process of trying to get their own work published. From the spring of 2001 until 2011, I was the youth librarian in a small public library. I ran summer reading programs, ordered and weeded books, helped patrons find just the right read, cleaned up after art projects at story hours, set up displays. My job was full of variety, challenge, fun, people, books, and surprises. As my director said, "Everything is in the job description."
During this time, my book, The Best Hanukkah Ever, was published in 2007 by Marshall Cavendish (now owned by Two Lions, part of Amazon). It's a picture book with illustrations by Avi Katz. I have long been a lover of stories about the town of fools called Chelm, and the books about the Stupids by Harry Allard (The Stupids Step Out is one title). It was probably inevitable that odd characters like the Knoodle family would pop into my head and start to do outrageous things that demanded my putting them into a story. In this book, my silly family, the Knoodles, learn all about giving gifts on Hanukkah.
In 2008 I entered the MLIS (Masters in Library and Information Services) program from Simmons College held at the Mount Holyoke campus. For three years I continued in my day job as children's librarian and also took courses in Young Adult literature, technology, academic libraries, management, reference, serving the underserved (which included a visit to a prison library), preservation management, web design, etc. It was a stimulating experience that pushed me to grow as a librarian. After receiving my MLIS degree, I became the director of a Western Massachusetts public library and have enjoyed the change. I now order and weed adult books, do state reports to earn certification for our library, do the budget reports, participate in town meetings (local democracy at work!), and oversee the upgrade of the HVAC system. Once again, "Everything is in the job description." I enjoy our staff and patrons and love talking about books in whatever form (audio books, ebooks, book books).
I've continued writing. From 2008 until recently, I worked with Jane Yolen on Meet Me At the Well: The Girls and Women of the Bible, with illustrations by Vali Mintzi (pub date January 2018, publisher Charlesbridge). The book took longer to write than we expected because of my entering graduate school and then changing jobs. It also took longer because of the scope of the book (Women in the Bible!), the research that it required, and the planning and design of the book with all its moving parts. The parts include retellings of the Bible stories, historical facts, folktales, midrash, an Imagine piece for each woman by me (like a diary entry), a poem for each by Jane. Charlesbridge did an amazing job of designing the book, editing it, and finding a talented illustrator. I learned so much by working with Jane, my mentor and dear friend. I had never collaborated on a book with someone before!
Other developments with my writing during this time included a new edition of Cakes and Miracles with a revised and shortened text, illustrated by Jaime Zollars, published by Marshall Cavendish in 2010 (now owned by Two Lions, part of Amazon). A new edition of Night Lights was published by URJ (now published by Behrman House) in 2002 with illustrations by Laura Sucher. And a picture book, Never Too Tired, illustrated by Amanda Hall, was published in 2016 by PJ Library. PJ Library also has paperback versions of 6 other picture book titles of mine on its list. PJ Library offers free books on Jewish subjects to families who sign up for its program.
In February of 2017 another picture book of mine, The Passover Cowboy, was published by Apples and Honey Press, illustrated by Gina Capaldi. I love writing stories set in different places where Jews have lived and discovering what their lives were like. This book takes place on the pampas (plains) of Argentina in the late 1880's, where Jews from Eastern Europe settled. They were able to move there through the philanthropy of Baron de Hirsch because their lives in Eastern Europe were so hard. The story is about the friendship of the main character, Jacob, who befriends Benito, an Argentine boy. Benito teaches Jacob how to ride and care for a horse, and to love the plains as he does. In return, Jacob shares one of his favorite holidays with his new friend—Passover.
And a new and happy development in my life has been spending time (in one case mostly Facetime) with my two grandchildren. I'm looking forward to all the fun experiences with them and developing the new ideas for stories that are already bubbling up.
Most of this autobiography appears in Volume 26
Something About the Author: Autobiography Series
Joyce Nakamura, Editor
Published by Gale Research
Farmington Hills, Michigan, 1998
This biography webpage was updated November 8, 2017.