In this ongoing series of interviews, former SCBWI Israel Illustrator Coordinator Liora Grossman shares fascinating stories of SCBWI Israel members and their writing journeys. Liora has chosen each member to shed light on a different aspect of children’s writing and illustrating here in Israel and around the world.
This month I’m proud to interview Tzivia MacLeod. Tzivia recently won a 2018 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for her book Yossi and the Monkeys (Kar-Ben) as well as a 2018 PJ Library Author Incentive Award for an upcoming board book also being published by Kar-Ben. Tzivia volunteers at our Israeli chapter of SCBWI for several years, and this year she took on the role of Assistant Regional Advisor.
She has worked as a journalist, blogger, editor, and translator, created innovative curriculum materials for Jewish homeschooling, and has written many children’s books. Tzivia made aliyah from Canada in 2013 with her family, and currently resides just north of Haifa. It is fascinating to follow her unique journey as a writer, and learn what it really takes to build a successful career in this field.
Please tell us a little about yourself – where are you from? Where and what did you study (college/university)? When did you make aliyah?… And anything interesting you might want to add.
I made aliyah from Toronto (Canada) with my family in 2013. I had dreamed of living in Israel for 20 years before we actually came. It’s been an incredible adventure.
As for my studies… I’m still in school! In 2016, I decided to go back and do a Master’s degree. I have a BA in philosophy from the University of Toronto and I’m almost finished an MA in Integrated Studies with a specialty in Writing and New Media from Athabasca University, an online university in Western Canada. I hope to finish by January 2019.
In my adult life, there has rarely been a time I wasn’t studying something. Mostly writing: fiction, journalism, science writing, memoir. But I also spent three years studying American Sign Language, an amazing introduction to a fascinating culture and history.
At what point did you know you wanted to write, and how did you start writing for children?
That’s like asking, “At what point did you know you wanted to breathe?”
Professionally, I started 20 years ago, when I was a single mother with two kids. I was working full-time but needed to make more money. Writing was the only career I could do in my spare time, at night, without paying a babysitter. I also started writing fiction, and even a few stories for kids, but they were pretty bad!
I started writing more for kids while we were homeschooling our younger children. I couldn’t find what I wanted—Hebrew and English curriculum materials that were religious and fun, full of the joy of discovery and learning and living with spiritual purpose in this a world full of wonder. There’s lots of material for Christian homeschoolers, but for Jews there wasn’t much.
So I started creating worksheets and other materials that parents and teachers could use and sharing them. They’re still up on my site, though I’m not creating more now. I also started writing poems for kids, some of which I eventually turned into books and self-published.
Oma is 100, with illustrator Lisa Larsen (self-published, 2017), Penguin Rosh Hashanah (self-published, 2014),
Kosher Monsters, with illustrator Yurika Antonius (self-published, 2015)
You’ve done many kinds of professional writing. You’re an editor and a journalist, you write marketing content and translate books for kids and adults. What skills have you found most useful in your career as an author?
An experienced journalist once told me her secret: find the concrete details. If you’re interviewing someone, don’t let her say she “enjoys helping people”—ask her to explain how she enjoys helping people. Maybe she reads books to older adults; maybe she drives cancer patients to their chemo appointments. Whether you’re writing marketing copy or a story for kids: make it concrete. Don’t tell us “He was nice.” Show him cuddling a puppy, or kissing a baby, or helping a blind person cross the street. Don’t tell us “She was evil.” Show her kicking a panda and we’ll figure it out for ourselves. It’s called “Show, don’t tell,” and it applies in everything from journalism to nonfiction to memoir to board books.
In your experience, what makes a children’s book great?
Wow. A good solid story, twists and turns, fabulous art, a pinch of the unexpected. Beautiful rhyme almost makes me weep. So does horrible rhyme, but for different reasons.
What are your favorite children’s books, and why?
There are too many to list! I’m not going to mention classics, because anybody who hopes to write for today’s kids needs to read today’s kids’ books. This is a real challenge here because we’re so far from the U.S. market, bookstores, and libraries.
Two favourite recent (ish) picture books are I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen and School’s First Day of School, by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson (illustrator). I fell in love with the second one because of the title—you can instantly visualize the whole thing and wonder why nobody ever wrote that before. The first is wickedly funny and quietly subversive, a breathtaking feat for a book with fewer than 100 words. I’m in awe.
Two favourite recent (ish) older kids’ books are The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate and Patricia Castelao (illustrator), and The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt. Both deal with serious issues in a fun, readable way. We’re also huge fans of almost anything by Raina Telgemeier and Jennifer Holm, both of whom are creating fantastic, fun, contemporary kidlit.
Where do you go for inspiration?
So far, finding inspiration hasn’t been a problem. There’s too much! Look around—the world we live in is unbelievable.
Fast Asleep in a Little Village in Israel, with illustrator Tiphanie Beeke (Apples & Honey, 2018)
As an illustrator I sometimes felt I had a better understanding of kids’ world when my daughter (now 19) was very young. Do you think being the mother of young children is crucial to writing children’s books? Do you get ideas from your children? Are they aware of what you do, and give you feedback?
Curiously, the short answer is no. There are great writers and illustrators who never had kids, and many people with kids and grandkids who create terrible books! I started out writing the kinds of books I wanted my kids to have that didn’t exist—books about Jewish holidays, for example, that aren’t the standard tedious “introduction to the holiday” kind of books (“On Rosh Hashanah, we dip an apple in honey.” – so boring!!!). I wanted to create books that put Shabbat, kashrut, holidays, in the background of good and interesting stories. But in the end, I didn’t share most of them with my kids and still don’t.
I’m weirdly shy about sharing my stories at home. I have maybe a dozen manuscripts on the go and have only read a couple to my kids. When I got a PDF proof of my upcoming book, Fast Asleep in a Little Village in Israel (2018, Apples & Honey), I read it to them for the first time and it was awesome because my 10-year-old was literally rolling around laughing.
The upside is that when a story gets published, everybody at home is surprised because they usually didn’t even know it existed. The downside is that nobody sees my struggles to write, revise, submit, over and over, year after year. It’s a very tough slog.
As a writer and editor, what advice would you give to people like me, who are taking their first steps in writing children’s books? What are the major do’s and don’ts of the trade?
Awesome advice I came across in a course on writing memoir: write about the main thing people ask you about. If you are missing an arm, write about that. If you’re an immigrant, write about that. If you grew up with a domineering Chinese mother, write The Joy Luck Club. Amy Tan is awesome because her voice is so authentic. That’s true for fiction, non-fiction, kids’ books (all of which Amy Tan has done well!). You don’t only have to write what you know, but if you know who you are and what you hope to create, your journey may be easier.
A side note here that I hope someone will translate into Hebrew! I see many Israeli authors trying to create “mainstream” American books because they’re scared to seem “too Israeli.” I would love to see books in English about what it’s really like to grow up or live in Israel, rich with the colours, flavours, and textures of this country. Maybe it’s because I’m a crazy immigrant, but I truly believe that people love reading about worlds that are exotic and distinct, articulately told by native voices. Sure, some people out there hate Israel, but is that who you want reading your books? Forget the haters. Don’t pretend you’re American—embrace being Israeli, because it’s something unique that you have that nobody else in the world does.
You immigrated from Canada to Israel in 2013. It’s hard to think of two places that are so different. What do you think of life in Israel and has moving here had any impact on your writing… and if so, how?
I knew almost nothing about Israel before we moved here! I couldn’t have found Haifa on a map if you’d paid me, and was pretty hazy about Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, too. As a journalist, I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to travel and meet extraordinary people here—students studying water in a little kibbutz in the southern Arava, psychologists working with kids living on the Gaza border, Arabs working with Jews to bring tourism to the Galil, a little college that’s bringing life to a tiny town on the Lebanon border. It makes me want to tell as many of this country’s wonderful stories as I can.
Yossi and the Monkeys, with illustrator Shirley Waisman (Kar-Ben, 2017)
Congratulations on winning the Crystal Kite Award (not to mention the PJ Library Author Incentive award earlier in 2018). You’re a very active and prominent member of SCBWI. Has it affected your career, and if so, in what way?
Thanks! Being part of SCBWI has helped me directly and indirectly. Directly, because those two awards in particular came about through SCBWI, and then the PJ Library award got me a publishing contract for an upcoming board book (Kar-Ben, 2020)! Also directly through the Red Pencil, our awesomely supportive critique group. And indirectly, because keeping children’s publishing at the forefront of my mind has made me far more career-focused. I’m a huge believer in CAREER over STORY. I’ve come across many authors who write one story and that’s it. Maybe they self-publish it, they try to promote it, but most are disappointed because their story doesn’t succeed. They just keep posting the one link to their one book on Facebook or wherever. You can’t build a career around a single story (forget J.K. Rowling for a second, but even she followed up with a ton of other books!). SCBWI encourages us to take a career focus. Instead of looking at just one story, you’re looking at all the components of the big picture: craft, critique, editing, market, illustration, publishing, promotion.
What are your dreams for the future?
I’m super excited to be travelling to the SCBWI summer conference in LA this August! I hope I’ll get to travel more, meeting and learning from others involved in the world of children’s books. It’s a wonderful privilege and opportunity.
I’d like to help create more opportunities for children’s writers and illustrators here. In the U.S. right now, there’s a big movement in children’s literature called “We Need Diverse Books.” A 2012 study showed that 76% of protagonists in kids’ books were white and only 7.6% were black. Here in Israel, diversity is a little different, and it’s not just about race. I’d love to see more representation in kids’ books here of people from Ethiopia and Sudan, Arabs, and Haredim, ideally written by people from those backgrounds, along with books showing people with disabilities living fun, ordinary lives. There’s still racism and xenophobia, which must change to bring Israel into the 21st century and make our literature relevant on the global scene.
Wow—is that pompous enough? For myself personally, I’ll be happy just to curl up with more good books that make me and my kids smile!