Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the February edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).
My Q&A this month is with author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Amy June Bates, creators of the new picture book Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, which is officially published today by Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Based on Lesléa’s own family history, Gittel’s Journey tells the story of a child’s immigration across the Atlantic — on her own, after a dramatic separation from her mother — and the compassionate welcome she receives from a port worker upon her arrival in America. This second collaboration by Lesléa and Amy has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal.
I’m giving away one copy of Gittel’s Journey to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on February 28, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates.
Chris: Gittel’s Journey isn’t your first collaboration. How have your experiences of making this book and bringing it into the world compared to those of your previous effort together, Ketzel, the Cat who Composed?
Leslea Newman. Photo by Mary Vazquez.
I started writing Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed
and Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story
in the same way I always start writing: from a deep, heartfelt connection to the subject matter.
Ketzel and Gittel have a lot in common: Both books are based on true stories, both books contain Jewish themes that translate into universal themes, and both books are about finding home.
In the case of Ketzel, a homeless cat is taken in by composer Moshe Cotel. Because of Mr. Cotel’s kindness, Ketzel’s life is changed and in turn, she rewards him in a completely unexpected and delightful way. In the case of Gittel, persecution forces her to leave her home and journey to a new land. Her life is also changed forever because of the kindness of strangers she meets along the way.
In terms of writing, the idea for each book came about in a totally different way. Let’s start with Ketzel:
I found out about this story purely by happenstance. One day I was sitting in my writing room with a blank piece of paper in front of me and not an idea in my head. Bored, I picked up my synagogue’s newsletter from the coffee table in front of me, hoping for distraction. The theme of my Rabbi’s monthly column was the concept of being open to the unlikely opportunities that lie in every moment and which offer delight and surprise.
As an example, he cited the true story of Ketzel, who ran down Moshe Cotel’s piano keyboard one morning for no apparent reason. Mr. Cotel jotted down what he heard and sent it into a contest, and lo and behold, Ketzel’s composition won honorable mention and Ketzel became world famous! Before I even finished reading the Rabbi’s column, I knew this was a children’s book waiting to happen.
The story of Gittel is one that I have known all my life.
My Aunt Phyllis’ mother, the real Gittel, came to America at the turn of the 20th century by herself when she was just a child. She was given a piece of paper with the name and address of a relative written on it and told to hold that piece of paper tight and give it to an immigration officer when she got to the USA. She did so, but to her surprise, all the ink had worn off on her hand and the note could not be read. Her photo was put in the newspaper and her relatives recognized her and came to Ellis Island to claim her.
In 2015, I kept seeing images of Syrian refugees in small boats washing ashore with fear, relief, sorrow, and hope etched on their faces. I kept thinking of the fact that my own grandparents traveled across an ocean with the same hopes and fears. And that’s when the story of Gittel resurfaced in my heart and my mind and I knew it was time to tell this story.
I wrote many many drafts of both books and did a great deal of research, so that I could get the details right. The absolutely gorgeous illustrations for both books added so much depth and brought the stories to life in a way that I never could have imagined. I know Amy June Bates worked very very hard on both books, and in my opinion, she is a genius!
Amy June Bates
I love hearing these stories, Lesléa. Lesléa is an amazing genius writer and I have been profoundly lucky to work with her on these two books.
In the case of Ketzel: The year I illustrated Ketzel, I did two books back to back about stray animals being befriended. Now I have two dogs.
It’s a funny process illustrating a book, getting into the mind of the characters, sympathizing with them and imagining how they must have felt. One of the things that I love about Ketzel is that the two, they save each other. Moshe saves Ketzel, but Ketzel also saves Moshe. I really feel like that is what animals do for us. Especially when you rescue an animal, it is A LOT of work to rehabilitate an animal, but I also feel like it is repayed in full.
I took piano lessons for 18 years, and my mother was very happy to learn that I put my piano knowledge to good use. For example, in the spread where Ketzel the cat was across the keyboard, the keys that the cat is walking on are the notes in the music.
I want to emphasize, however, that dogs should not play the piano. If my dog Chester walked across my keyboard, we would none of us recover.
Gittel’s Journey is such an important book for this time, and for all times because it is the story of so many Americans, no matter if you immigrated today or hundreds of years ago. Many don’t want to leave their homes, but are forced to leave because of danger or economics. Either way it is difficult and dangerous.
In light of recent events it is particularly excruciating to think of the fear that Gittel must have felt with no way to communicate or find her mother or family. Terrifying. Her story is everyone’s American story. Every immigrant is America’s story.
I enjoy illustrating history. I love doing the research. I found travel logs of boats that carried immigrants like Gittel and traced their routes. I could look up a specific steamer, find its brochure with pictures of the bunks and and even menus. Sometimes I do fall down a rabbit hole…but that is the fun of it, I guess.
Chris: Your dedications for this book each seem so fitting. Amy, you dedicated Gittel’s Journey “For all children who come to this country seeking freedom and safety,” and Lesléa, you went with “For Aunt Phyllis — I love you to pieces!”
I’m curious — whenever either of you dedicates a book to a specific person, as you both did with Ketzel, when and how do you let them know? Or do you let them discover that for themselves?
Amy: This is dedicated to the one I love:
Usually when I do a book there is a sentiment or a feeling, or something going on in my life that connects me to this book at this time and in a specific way. Sometimes that is outside my immediate friends and family, for example in the the case of Gittel’s Journey. I have ancestors that crossed that ocean to escape famine and hunger and economic despair or religious freedom, and I am grateful for their sacrifice, but when I was making this book I was thinking of the people that are going through those same sacrifices right now.
When I dedicate a book to a specific person, I like to let them find it themselves.
Lesléa: I never realized how much a book dedication meant until a book was dedicated to me (Cat Talk by Patricia MacLachlan). Usually I know to whom I am going to dedicate a book the moment I start writing it. Though I keep that knowledge to myself until the book is published (which in at least one case took ten years!). Luckily I am very good at keeping secrets! When the book comes out, I send a copy to the person named in the dedication.
In the case of Gittel, the choice was obvious. The book is about my Aunt Phyllis’ mother, so of course I dedicated the book to Aunt Phyllis, from whom I heard the story. My Aunt Phyllis ends every phone call (and I speak to her almost every night) with the words, “I love you to pieces.” I presented the book to her in person, and when she read the dedication she laughed and then she cried. Being able to give my aunt that much joy is one of the highlights of my literary career.