Thursday, February 4, 2010

Interview with Deborah Bodin Cohen {AND giveaway}

Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover StoryI am so excited to bring you this interview with Deborah Bodin Cohen, author of Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story, silver meal winner in the Sydney Taylor Book Awards* younger readers category. This book tour is brought to you by the Association of Jewish Libraries (blog at, and the official Sydney Taylor Book Awards. The full blog tour schedule will be posted at - go see which of my friends are participating and meet some new folks!

Will you share a little bit about yourself and your journey towards becoming a writer?
I am a Reform rabbi and Jewish educator in Cherry Hill, NJ. My husband, David, is a journalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. We have two great kids – Arianna, an inquisitive 2nd grader, and Jesse, our bright-eyed 2-year old. I grew up in Maryland, where my parents and sister still live. I have lived in lots of places – Ann Arbor, MI, Monterey, CA, New York City, Jerusalem, Washington, DC, the Research Triangle of North Carolina . . .
I have always loved writing. From an early age, I can remember writing and illustrating stories. I have also been an avid reader since childhood. As an adult, though, I was inspired by Midrash, the classic Rabbinic technique of finding new stories through hints in the Biblical texts.   

What inspired you to write Nachshon's story? 
The Midrash of Nachshon – the first Israelite to have faith to walk into the Red Sea – has always spoken to me. Because of the Nachshon’s courage, God splits the Red Sea and the Israelites walk to freedom. The Torah mentions Nachshon ben Aminadav only a couple of times. Rabbinic creativity filled in the gaps in the Biblical text and the wonderful, classic Midrash of Nachshon was born. I love the lessons of Nachshon’s story: the power of one person to make a difference, having faith in face of adversity and taking risks for the benefit of the community.   
I thought that the Midrash of Nachshon would make a great picture book. For quite a while, though, I could not find just the right angle to translate it for children. Then I spent a summer watching my daughter Arianna, who was 4 years old at time, struggle to learn to swim. Arianna, typically brave in most situations, was anxious and fearful in the water.  
All children, really all people, are fearful of something. I began to envision Nachshon as a young boy, brave about most things but fearful of the water. I thought that Nachshon’s fear of water made the classic Midrash even more poignant and meaningful.
What kind of input do you have into the illustrations that are chosen for your books?
Before I started writing children’s books, I envisioned the author and illustrator working side by side. In my experience, nothing could be further from the case. I have had five illustrators work on my books and I have not met or even spoken with any of them. At most, we have exchanged a few emails. 
In my experience, once a manuscript is complete, the publisher finds an illustrator. The illustrator may or may not have questions for me. Often, I do not see the illustrations until the project is complete.   
At first, this process felt backward to me. It takes confidence to turn over a manuscript and let somebody else finish the project. After having several books go to print, I have grown to see the wisdom in this process. I have liked the pictures in all of my books. Without my interference, the illustrator can fully develop his or her own approach to the story. The project becomes a true collaboration between illustrator, editor and author.   
Jago, the illustrator for Nachshon, lives in England. We have become Facebook friends.(Jago is being interviewed today over at Jewish Books for Children)

What is your own favorite children's book or books? Do you read and find inspiration in other authors' work? 
I probably have too many to list. My favorite Jewish children’s book is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel. It is fun, well written and has a good message. I read it every year to the whole religious school at my congregation and, at home, to my own children many times during the holiday.
Engineer Ari and the Rosh Hashanah Ride (High Holidays)I read all the time and, over the years, have accumulated a rather large library of children’s books for my children. I am sure that other books have influenced my own. For example, I wrote Engineer Ari and the Rosh HaShanah Ride when my daughter was going through a Thomas the Tank Engine stage. But, I think that other influences – the Biblical text, historical events – have been more significant.

Lilith's Ark: Teenage Tales of Biblical WomenThere's a great deal of variety in the subjects of your books - Engineer Ari is very different from Lilith's Ark. How do you come up with new and different ideas for your work?
I usually have a few different ideas floating around in my mind. I live with an idea for months, or even years, before I actually begin writing. I will take notes, do research, write an outline or rough draft and, then, may leave it for months. This way, I ensure that I really like the storyline and have developed it fully. There are several story ideas that I have researched, begun writing and, then, left without finishing. I am not sure whether I will get back to them or not.
How do you find that you best create a balance for yourself in your family life, the rabbinate, and writing?
All three aspects of my life really support and enrich each other. My children are certainly my greatest inspiration in writing, with my rabbinate being second. I write when I can find the time. I know that I will not get any writing done at certain times of the year, like near the High Holidays. I do not pressure myself to be prolific as an author; if I complete one good manuscript each year, I am content. 

Debbie, thanks so much for participating in the book tour!
Mazel tov on your award! May you continue to inspire us with your writing and your stories.

In honor of the Sydney Taylor Awards book tour...
One lucky reader will win a copy of Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim (in time for Pesach)! 

Here's how you can win:

Leave a comment here with your favorite children's book. 
Make sure I have a way to contact you if you win.

For an extra entry: Post on Facebook or Twitter (or both) and come back here to leave me a separate comment telling me you did this. (Thanks, by the way.)

Comments will close on Sunday, February 7th at 9pm-ish

*The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) since 1968, the Award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category. Thirty-three outstanding books were selected from among the over one hundred and twenty titles evaluated by the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee during 2009. The Committee recommends them for library, classroom, and home use. List of all 2010 Award, Honor, and Notable Books.


RivkA with a capital A said...

My favorite children's book?

That's tough!!

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.


RivkA with a capital A said...

Also: Where the Wild Things Are

Barbara Bietz said...

Thank you for sharing this lovely interview. Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim is a delightful book! It's wonderful to learn what inspired Deborah to write the story.

Anonymous said...

A solid interview! I thought the question about balancing all of the author's responsibilities was an insightful query. Thanks for the post!!!

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

Great interview, and how exciting to offer a giveaway too! (Don't enter me though, I already have the book.) Thanks for being part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour!

Jacqueline Jules said...

Thanks for the great interview. This Sydney Taylor blog tour has given me the opportunity to learn about fellow Jewish children's authors and illustrators in a direct and insightful way. I am impressed by how Deborah writes so much with a full time career and young children in the house.

shk42 said...

Favorite children's book...that's a bit like saying favorite child - each has it's own special traits. In honor of the Sydney Taylor Awards, perhaps it should be All of a Kind Family (after whom I was going to at one time name all my future children); or maybe in honor of Pesach it should be Yertle the Turtle the PERFECT metaphor for the freedom celebrated when recalling the Exodus, but it might have to be Grandad's Prayers for the Earth, which never fails to make me teary.

Unknown said...

Favorite children's book - very tough.
But favorite Jewish children's book is easier.
My son's favorite is Engineer Ari - and the inspiration behind our littlest boy's name.
My daughter's favorite is The Matzo Ball Boy.
And, for now, my favorite is Bagels From Benny - it always makes me cry.

(I posted on twitter and FB too.)

Unknown said...

Oh yes, contact info:
@imachai on Twitter
MariaElena Jarson on FB

Anonymous said...

I've always loved "Where the Wild Things Are"--from my childhood it's one of those great classics!
june_spirit2628 at hotmail dot com

Kathy B. at forwordsbooks said...

I am so impressed by Deborah's range of books from Lilith's Ark to Engineer Ari. I thoroughly enjoyed Nachshon and loved hearing about her process in writing it. Thank you for a great interview.

Anonymous said...

I love IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE. Special favorite!
bethnaf at hotmail dot com