I am delighted to share this interview with Pamela Ehrenberg, author of Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas. Pamela graciously took time to answer some questions I had. Among other things, I asked what she was like as a kid, how she became a writer, and her inspiration for writing this book. My questions are in bold and Pamela’s answers follow.
What were you like as a kid?
My earliest memory was about a week or two into my first experience in preschool (which used to be called “nursery school”). I remember my dad picking up and explaining that they were actually paying to send me there, so I really should think about playing with the toys and the other kids. Until then, that thought hadn’t occurred to me: there was so much to watch and take in that it hadn’t crossed my mind to interact. To some extent, that continued to define me as a kid through college, at least.
What was one of your favorite picture books?
My first grade teacher had a book left over from her kids in the 1950s called The Oldest, The Youngest, and the One in the Middle. It was the first time I’d seen a character in a book who was an only child like me–and she had this triumphant moment at the end where she had a lollipop in her mouth and one in each hand–a separate lollipop for each of her statuses as oldest kid, youngest kid, and middle kid. I read that book over and over again all year.
How did you become a writer?
In kindergarten, we used to dictate stories to our teacher and classroom volunteers, then illustrate them on this special paper so we could share them with the class. One day I shared this elaborate story about a big family who was trapped in a house with a witch, and at the end a boy named Michael shouted, “Because the witch ate everyone!” Which was totally not the ending I intended, but that was the moment I became a writer–when I realized that the “actual” story isn’t the one that lives in my head but the one the reader perceives on the page. Being a writer is about working in partnership with the reader, to create the story together. And with a shift to picture books, it’s been such an eye-opening experience to bring in an illustrator as a whole new partner with this.
What inspired you to write Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, and what was your writing process like?
Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas was inspired partly from the food–experimenting with my kids to make dosas and having it remind us of making latkes for Hanukkah. But in a broader way, it was inspired by our diverse Jewish community at Tot Shabbat, and at my kids’ diverse Jewish summer camp–and seeing that in all the conversations around diverse books, we weren’t yet seeing as much progress in Jewish books reflecting the diversity of the Jewish communities around us.
In terms of writing process–my first approach was a rhyming board book called Hanukkah Dosas! that was basically just the recipe in verse. But in talking with PJ Library, which is a nonprofit that mails out (free!) Jewish books to subscribers, they were concerned about a mismatch between rhyming board books going to younger kids but a book with Indian-cooking vocabulary (plus Hanukkah vocabulary) needing to be for older kids. So I ended up combining the idea of the dosa book with the plot from another manuscript that PJ Library had previously rejected–a story about a family making a different recipe for another Jewish holiday, where the younger sibling was causing chaos at every step of the way.
What do you like most about how Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas turned out?
I love that I’m starting to hear from readers how much it means that a family like theirs is included in a book. Anjan Sarkar did an amazing job with the artwork, capturing details that make the characters easier to connect with–we had one compliment recently from a reader who liked that the grandmother was wearing both a sari and a puffy coat.
Anything else you’d like to say to kids (or parents and educators) around the world?
I loved hearing from some kids who expressed so much better than I could our need for diverse Jewish books! You can hear from them in the video on my website at: http://www.pamelaehrenberg.com/queen-of-the-hanukkah-dosas
To see more of Pamela’s work, visit her website: http://www.pamelaehrenberg.com/
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