The JPS Illustrated Bible for Children
Sydney Taylor Notable Book for All Ages
In January, the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) recognized thirty-three outstanding books for the Sydney Tylor Award.
Today, I have Ellen Frankel, author of The JPS Illustrated Bible for Children Sydney Taylor Notable Book for All Ages here with me today.
JRM: So please tell me, how did you find out about be honored with this award? Did you get a phone call, did someone tweet you?
EF: Wednesday, January 12, was a magical day for me. First, I received an email from Laurie Schlesinger, Marketing and Sales Director of The Jewish Publication Society, letting me know that my book, The JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible, had been named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for All Ages. Then I got a call from Naomi Firestone, Program Associate at the Jewish Book Council, that my book had won the National Jewish Book Award for Illustrated Children’s Book and had been named a finalist in the category of Jewish Family Literature. I’m glad I was at home writing that day!
JRM: I have been looking at the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible online. (My local library has not acquired it yet. Thank goodness for Google books). The stories are retold is such a splendid way and the illustrations are so beautiful. How did you decide that now was the time for creating an illustrated children’s Bible?
EF: Actually, I started thinking about this book more than fifteen years ago, a year after I became Editor in Chief of JPS. I was very fortunate to have as my editorial mentor Chaim Potok, who had been JPS Editor from 1966 to 1974, and had remained connected to the Society since then. When I began in 1991, Chaim served as Chair of the JPS Editorial Committee, and I raised with him the idea of my writing The JPS Book of Bible Stories. He was very enthusiastic about the idea and encouraged me to develop a proposal to present to the JPS Editorial Committee. I wrote up a few sample stories—“Cain and Abel,” “The Binding of Isaac,” and “Elisha and the Shunamite’s Son”—in addition to a formal proposal, which the committee members reviewed—and approved for publication.
In preparing for this interview, I reread my original proprosal and was astonished to discover that the blueprint for the 2009 book was already sketched out in that first proposal: to preserve the feel and literary artfulness of the original Hebrew and the JPS translation while at the same time making the text accessible to contemporary American children.
Why didn’t I write the book in 1992 instead of waiting fifteen years? There were a number of reasons, some of them personal, some professional. But I think the main reason had to do with what one of the early readers said. Although most of the members of the JPS Editorial Committee were scholars, one of them was Esther Hautzig, z”l, a renowned author of children’s books, and a devoted library volunteer at the New York Public Library. Critiquing my proposal and sample stories, Esther identified my basic ambivalence in attempting this project: Was I to act as translator or storyteller? Was I striving merely to abridge the original stories or to retell them in my own voice? In her report, Esther urged me to “give it [my] own heart and soul, and use words which are true to the text, yet direct and simple.” I guess when push came to shove, I didn’t yet know how to meet Esther’s challenge.
So, I let the idea percolate for fifteen years, in the meantime writing and publishing a number of other books for adults. Yet I never stopped thinking about the children’s Bible, and kept recalling Esther’s trenchant observation that currently available children’s Bibles, whether Christian, Jewish or ecumenical, “seem bland and prosaic. Not a single true voice in the tangle of titles.” Since that situation didn’t change over time, I decided about two years ago to take another crack at writing a children’s Bible myself.
Back to your original question: Is now the time for creating an illustrated children’s Bible? Absolutely! Even more to the point, now is the right time to create an illustrate Jewish children’s Bible. I’ll talk more about that later on.
JRM: I am a K5 public school librarian with a very tiny population of Jewish families (maybe 1% if that). Yet, I am thinking that this title might make a good choice for the library. My 200 section of nonfiction has a variety of books on the different faiths including a Bible with the teeny tiny print. I have previewed many of the stories in the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible. Would this be a good addition for a school library? Are there many differences in the stories that children would notice? What are the differences?
EF: Since the Hebrew Bible is the foundational text of the three main monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as well as one of the basic touchstones of Western culture, I think that every library should carry a number of different translations as well as children’s versions of the Bible. Being familiar with the biblical text as literature is essential to being culturally literate in our society.
When you ask about differences in the stories, there are two ways to answer that. First, there are definitely differences between Christian versions of most Bible stories and Jewish ones. Let’s take one of the most famous stories: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Christian tradition, this story, often referred to as “the Fall,” is understood as the source of original sin, proof that human nature is inherently inclined toward evil. And it’s women who get most of the blame for the story’s bad ending. Christian pictures of this scene sometimes depict the serpent in the garden as well as Eve as female temptresses. And both the text and pictures depict the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge as an apple, a notion that arose from the Latin pun on the word malum, meaning both apple and evil.
Jewish tradition puts a different spin on this tale, one truer to the Hebrew text. The fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is referred to by the generic Hebrew term, p’ri, and the Midrash proposes a number of candidates: fig, grape, wheat, carob, and etrog—but not an apple. As for the interpretation given to Adam and Eve’s actions, their sin (although it’s never labeled that) is rebellion against God’s instructions, not a fall into temptation, and their punishment is really a mixed blessing—to suffer the pain of labor (earning a living and giving birth) in exchange for knowledge and free will. In Jewish tradition, this story does not brand human nature as essentially sinful.
So, yes, the stories in my book will be different from many of the Christian versions of Bible stories. But they will also be different from other Jewish versions. My goal was to be as faithful as possible to the original Hebrew text, and to take as my model the 1985 JPS translation, which favors idiomatic English over literal or archaic translation. I also try to capture the rhythms, word play, various “registers,” and storytelling style of the original Hebrew version. In addition, my text is gender-sensitive; God is never referred to as “He” nor are male pronouns used generically to refer to all people. I believe that gender stereotypes begin very early, and that both girls and boys should be spared from the myth that God is an old man with a white beard and that only men heard God speak at Sinai.
JRM: I agree that of a variety of translations of the Bible should be available to students. I am always amazed when students and children are surprised to find the Bible in the library. I have to remind them that it is literature. What kind of say did you have over the illustrations? They are really beautiful.
EF: Yes, the drawings are wonderful! The JPS staff selected Avi Katz out of an impressive group of illustrators, and I was part of that selection process. I think he was the best possible choice for this volume. Because JPS is a small non-profit press, it asked Avi to illustrate only thirty of the fifty-three stories to keep costs down, but Avi was so committed to this project that he didn’t stop at thirty but insisted on illustrating every single story. That’s one of the reasons the book is winning such recognition.
JRM: Wow, what a wonderful gift from Avi. How did you select which stories to include? (I’m glad you included one of my favorites, “Jonah and the Whale”!) Is there a story you didn’t include and now wish it was in the book?
EF: It was hard to limit which stories to include in the volume, but I knew that this couldn’t be a fat book. Children’s hands had to be able to carry it and balance it on their laps. I also understood that there is much in the Hebrew Bible that is not narrative: poetry, prophecy, songs, psalms, genealogies, legal material, ritual and priestly material, wisdom literature, and folklore. I left all that out. And I did leave out some stories as being too violent, sexually explicit, complicated, or not especially dramatic. Although I think that the decision to leave out “The Rape of Dinah,” “Judah and Tamar,” and “Jephthah’s Daughter” was the right one, I wonder whether we underestimate our children’s ability to deal with such brutal realities. After all, they see and read about rapes, sexual intrigues, and domestic violence every day on television, the internet, and the news.
JRM: It’s rather sad how much children are exposed to from the media these days. I read somewhere that you are recently retired from JPS. So what is next for you?
EF: I retired from JPS last fall after eighteen years as the CEO and Editor in Chief. My plans are to devote myself primarily to my own writing. I’ve just finished the draft of a libretto for a new opera on the Golem of Prague, based on an earlier oratorio, “The Golem Psalms,” composed by Philadelphia composer, Andrea Clearfield, for which I wrote the libretto. I also have plans for a few children’s books, a family memoir, and a collection of essays. In addition, I’m exploring the possibility of teaching courses on writing and publishing at nearby colleges, and doing some freelance editing and consulting. And of course, there are my two wonderful granddaughters in Maine who need a bubbe’s attention, getting back to my guitar, and volunteer activities in the community. I’ve also agreed to serve on the Academic Advisory Board of Gratz College here in Philadelphia.
JRM: I hope you get to see those granddaughters soon! And finally here are some questions I always ask my guests:
Chocolate: dark, milk. or white?
JRM: What’s on your nightstand to read?
EF: I like to relax with crime and mystery novels, especially police procedurals, the more noir the better. I’ve just finished Michael Connolly’s Nine Dragons. I also like to read nonfiction books about science (especially neuroscience), natural history, and technology. Just finished The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil.
JRM: Ooh, we have some similar reading tastes. Nothing better than a crime and mystery to escape with when school is bogging me down. What was your favorite book as a child? As a teen? As an adult? Any particular genre stand out?
EF: I loved reading folktales, myths, and fantasy as a kid—Bible stories, Midrash, Greek and Roman myths and legends, Andrew Lang’s colored “Fairy Books.” I also loved the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. As a teen, I focused more on science fiction—Stranger in a Strange Land, Asimov, Clarke, Tolkein—as well as progressive and futuristic nonfiction, Growing Up Absurd, The Other America, Marshall McLuhan, existentialism. And my love of reading about science began early. I wanted to be an astronomer or an astronaut!
As an adult, I’ve read pretty widely—feminism, religion, anthropology, books about writing and language, novels of all kinds, psychology, education. Some of my most persistent interests have been books about Jewish thought and history, Buddhism, and contemplative traditions. Because I’ve been a Jewish publishing professional for so long, my Jewish reading has mostly happened “on the job”—and there’s been a lot of it! I’m looking forward to returning to reading Jewish books for pleasure.
JRM: Where do you find inspiration?
EF: From good writing. I love to savor good sentences, artful turns of phrase, vivid metaphors. I’ve gathered a small library of books by writers on writing, which have been both helpful and inspiring. One day I hope to add to this shelf myself.
JRM: Favorite time of the day to work?
EF: I’m a night owl, so I tend to write from mid-morning to early evening. Once I sit down at the computer, I go into what my husband calls “laser beam mode” and rarely am aware of how much time has passed.
JRM: I have experienced that “laser beam mode” as well. However, it is usually very early in the morning. Coffee, tea, or…?
EF: English breakfast tea, with skim milk. Or café au lait, decaf, with skim milk.
A big thank you goes out to the Association of Jewish Libraries for organizing the this blog tour. Hop over to Teen Reads where Annika Thor, author of A Faraway Island Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category is interviewed.