I'd like to welcome children's author, Ellen Leventhal to The Storyteller's Scroll. Ellen has a new picture book releasing next month and has graciously offered to give away a picture book critique along with an "Ask Me Anything" Zoom call. Just make a comment below and subscribe to this blog to be eligible to win.
Can you tell us your latest news?
I’m excited to tell you that my newest picture book, Debbie’s Song: The Debbie Friedman Story is releasing from Kar-Ben Publishing (Lerner Publishing group) on April 4, 2023. It’s a book of my heart. I just got a box of advance copies today, and I love how they turned out.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Although I mostly write picture books, I also dabble in writing middle grade. So, for my (still unfinished) MG, Kate DiCamillo is who I look up to. I once had an editor tell me that my writing reminded her of Kate’s. But of course, not anywhere as good, which is why none of my middle grade stories are published! 😊 As far as picture books, I have a lot of mentors. Honestly, there are too many to mention, but every member of my critique groups (which includes the talented Gayle Krause!) are mentors for and inspirations to me.
What inspired you to write Debbie's Song?
I’ve loved Debbie Friedman’s music for a long time. Had she lived, she would have been my age, so both our musical tastes include folksingers from the 60s and 70s. When I first heard her Jewish music, I was immediately drawn to it. We sang Debbie’s songs often at the Jewish Day School where I taught, and my own kids grew up with her music. Although it is “Jewish” music, it is inclusive, and you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it. One day, years later while I was at that same school, I heard Debbie’s music coming from a classroom. I realized that I hadn’t heard it in a long time, and even though Debbie spent a few years here in Houston, her name hadn’t come up for a while.
There is a line in that song “…and you shall be a blessing.” It hit me that Debbie herself was a blessing for so many people. I knew a bit about her story and her struggles to be taken seriously, so I decided it would be great for children to know who this amazing woman was. Of course, I was concerned that I wouldn’t do justice to her story, but I have to say, I am happy with how it turned out and so thankful for all the people who shared their memories of Debbie with me. I need to put a plug in for the talented Natalia Grebtsova who beautifully illustrated the book.
What was the best thing about getting Debbie's Song published?
The best thing about getting DEBBIE’S SONG published is that it is personal to me. She touched so many people, both here in Houston and all over the world. Her songs bring back happy memories for a lot of people I know, and I want to keep her legacy alive for this new generation.
What was the hardest thing?
The hardest thing about writing DEBBIE’S SONG was that there wasn’t a lot of different information about her. There was definitely information, but it seemed to me that it was mostly the same. Because of that, a lot of this story is based on interviews. I had to double and triple check to make sure everything was true. If I got too many differing “facts” on a specific part of Debbie’s life, I left it out.
How have you changed from your first published book to now?
I’ve changed in so many ways! My first published book was so much fun to work on because I did it with a friend, Ellen Rothberg. We loved going places, signing, etc. However, it was just the two of us. We were not involved in the kidlit community at all at that point, and we were novices. Now, so much of my life revolves around the kidlit community and writing. I’ve become a better picture book writer, I think, and I’ve learned the market. I also have a support system to pick me up when I’m feeling down about the business. (I literally just got a rejection as I was writing this! Phone beeped. I looked. I popped a piece of chocolate. Moving on.) I changed in that way too. Of course, I am not happy when I get a rejection, but I try not to dwell on it. It took many years to get to this place. I remember years ago when I got a rejection from a local magazine, I could barely get out of bed for a few days!
What are your current projects?
Right now, I am working on several picture books and either a chapter book or lower middle grade. The project hasn’t decided which it wants to be, but I’m sure the characters will take me there eventually. 😊
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
If you are working on getting a story published, it can be a hard road. I’d say that it’s ok to get frustrated and have a bit of a pity party. But when that happens, know that you are not alone. Taking a step back and doing something else I love has helped me get back on track and not wallow. (But of course, wallowing and having chocolate is just fine for a while). Frustration is part of the job, and you can let it take over or help you push through. I’ve done both.
Bit of wisdom to share:
This is really new bit of wisdom that I’ve learned. Don’t’ always focus on who you are going to submit to, what the royalties will be when you get a contract, how you will market, etc. All of that is important, but so is writing for the joy of writing. Publishing is a business, but don’t let the business end of it pull you down. Find a writing group who you enjoy being with and just enjoy yourself. Find your inner child and tell a story.
And for fun, something that not a lot of people know about you.
I’m really not that interesting, but I will say that I am totally directionally challenged. I can get lost in a city (or even a building) where I’ve been many times. One time in Disney World, I walked about the wrong door of a gift shop and thought I’d have to sleep in Cinderella’s castle for the night. If I could find it.
Gayle, thanks so much for having me!
Happy for you to join us.
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