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Tell me a (Jewish) Story

carol-novis Tami Lehman-Wilzig

Who doesn't remember the childhood joys of digging into the "Madeline" books or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or any of a myriad of classics that still enthrall children today?

But what defines a memorable children's book? Is it plot? Character? Timelessness? And is there such a thing as a memorable Jewish children's book?

I asked Tami Lehman-Wilzig, a former New Yorker who has been living in Israel since 1977 and who has written 12 published Jewish-themed children's books, that question. She should know: among the accolades and awards she has received are The New York State's Charlotte Award, The International Reading Association Teacher's Choice Award, Honorable Mention in the Sydney Taylor Award given by the Jewish Book Council and Honorable Mention at San Francisco's Green Book Festival. Several of her books have also been translated into Spanish and Russian. Recently Kirkus Book Reviews gave her book SOOSIE, The Horse that Saved Shabbat a Kirkus Star, which they only award to books that they feel have exceptional merit.

In her view, a memorable children's book has to have many of the same qualities as a memorable book for adults.

"For me, a children's book has to be engaging and fun, with a message that doesn't bop readers over the head. It has to make its point with subtlety," she said. "The story has to hold their interest; to be a page-turner. There has to be a certain degree of tension relayed through humor or drama."

Tami's books all have Jewish content, but they vary greatly. Some are based on history, others inspired by real events and some, such as Passover Around the World, on Jewish holiday customs. Among them are her most recent book, SOOSIE, The Horse That Saved Shabbat, which is about a resourceful horse that delivered challah in Jerusalem during the early 20thcentury; Zvuvi's Israel, about an enterprising fly who goes on a tour of Israel; and Keeping the Promise, the true story behind the Torah scroll that astronaut Ilan Ramon took with him into space.

Another book, Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles, is about an autistic boy, highlighting the need for compassion and inclusion in the community. Tami came to write it when she met a woman with an autistic son who was being given a hard time. The woman approached her and insisted that the Jewish community needed a storybook on autism and how to accept autistic children.

"I asked her to tell me about her son. When she mentioned that the previous year he brought her to tears when he blew out the Hanukkiah lights as though they were birthday cake candles, I said, 'That's the story we're going to build around."

Nathan was chosen by the American Defense League (ADL) as its December book of the month two years ago, and NBC News listed it in its "Best Books 2020: Inclusive Holiday Books for Children."

Five of Tami's books have been chosen as PJ Library selections for their North American market. This is a big deal for any children's book writer, because PJ Library is a nonprofit organization that mails out over 230,000 age-appropriate Jewish children's books to families in the US and Canada every month. Several of Tami's books have been translated into Spanish and Russian for the Central American and Eastern European markets.

You might expect books aimed at a Jewish market to have a strong religious component, but Tami's do not. That is because they are aimed at the North American market, which has a high intermarriage rate but where many interfaith parents nevertheless want their children to have a connection to Judaism.

"Jewish books that are heavy on the religious angle are not going to appeal to interfaith couples. My purpose is to show Judaism as not just a religion, but also as a culture and a life style all together. And I want to show the fun and enjoyable side as well."

Tami write her first "book" when she was nine years old – a whodunit called The Case of the Green Eyes based on the Nancy Drew mysteries she loved.

"I presented the 'book' to my parents who declared it an instant best-seller. After that, creative writing became my passion and I continued writing for myself throughout high school, college and grad school."

In spite of that early effort, she opted for a career in advertising, opening her own advertising and copywriting firm "The Write Stuff in Israel". She also wrote magazine articles and an Israeli cookbook called The Melting Pot.

Then, inspired by an experience of her older son, she wrote a children's book in Hebrew about a silkworm that didn't want to turn into a butterfly, published by Yediot Aharonot. In 2003, she wrote her first book for the English-speaking world, Tasty Bible Stories, which combines bible stories that have food angles with matching recipes. She has been writing children's books ever since.

Tami lives in Kfar Saba with her husband Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, who recently retired from Bar Ilan University. They have two sons and two grandchildren. As well as writing, Tami enjoys creating glass art and photography, and she is full of ideas for her next books.

Just in case you were thinking that writing a book for children sounds easy and that you could do it too, Tami has a cautionary word. "It's hard to get across what you want to say within the limited word count of a picture book. I constantly edit and send my stories out for critique. It can take a long time."

Still, there are compensations. "I remember going to a school to give a reading and one little girl stopped me on the steps, asking 'Are you the author? I love your book.' I saw that my story had made a lasting impact on her. What could be better than that?"

If you want to find out more about Tami and her books please visit: tlwkidsbooks.com

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Saturday, 10 April 2021

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