Eric Kimmel is a Caldecott Honor Medal-winning children’s book author of such beloved titles as Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins and The Chanukkah Guest. He has a long, varied career as a writer, elementary school teacher, librarian and college instructor. The Oregon writer of more than 50 books and numerous prestigious awards is the only author to win the National Jewish Book Award for picture books twice.
As we mark national Children’s Book Week, here’s an interview with Kimmel from the PJ Library in West Springfield, Mass., a nonprofit organization that sends Jewish children’s books as gifts to more than 110,000 children across the nation each month so that they can learn about their heritage while reading with their parents (in their PJs!):
You’ve been a teacher, a librarian and an author. You hold bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Do you think these experiences have helped you write so many award-winning books?
Writers write out of who we are. We’re shaped by our experiences. It’s impossible to say that one kind of experience is better than another. I’ve had a lot of formal education. The advantage of that is that I was exposed to books from an early age. As a graduate student, I was introduced to children’s literature at the University of Illinois library school by two of the masters of the field: Winifred Ladley and Alice Lohr. Working as a teacher, librarian and storyteller gave me a sense of how to tell a story and the kind of stories and books that work with children of different ages. All of it was extremely valuable. And yet the exact opposite works just as well – even better. Mark Twain didn’t have the equivalent of what we would call an elementary education. Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss didn’t especially like children. So what can you say? If it works for you, it works.
You’ve also lived in many places and traveled extensively – from Texas to Spain to Baghdad to the Ukraine. Is that a conscious decision as an author?
Not in the sense that I undertook these experiences to become a better writer. I like visiting different places, especially when I can get off the tourist track and have people who live there show me around. I’m a big sponge. I’m looking around, watching, listening, taking in the sights, sounds and smells around me. If I can handle the language, I listen to stories. I buy guidebooks and folktale collections. I sort it out when I get home and see if I can distill a story out of all I’ve done.
You are part of the pantheon of Jewish authors in PJ Library. How has being part of PJ Library – with books being mailed to more than 110,000 children each month – changed your work as an author?
It’s made me take a second look at Jewish stories or at least stories that would appeal to a Jewish audience. Face it. Before PJ Library, most publishers were only interested in Hanukkah and Holocaust material. The market for anything else was very small. The smaller Jewish presses were a possibility. They always put out fine books. The problem was that they were small: small advances, small printings, small budgets. The coming of PJ Library breathed new life into Jewish themes. I love PJ Library. They have been very good to and for me.
How did you come to write so many Jewish children’s books?
I love Jewish stories. I grew up with them. I had an old country Grandma who told me lots of these tales in Yiddish. I went to a fine Hebrew School, where I had great teachers and access to a fine Jewish library with an extensive children’s section in both Hebrew and English. Bible stories, aggadot, midrashim were all second nature to me. My favorites were the demon stories about King Solomon and Ashmodai. I assumed every Jewish kid knew this material. However, growing up, I found that was not the case at all. So I began writing Jewish stories based in the folklore traditions, like my heroes I.L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, and I.B. Singer. What began as a whim turned into a career. It wasn’t really planned. You write what you know and love. Sometimes it leads somewhere.
After publishing more than 100 books over nearly four decades, how are you feeling about the state of reading among children in our society?
Abysmal. We give it lip service, but that’s all. Most children don’t read. Why should they? Their parents don’t. Children are so over-scheduled that they’re running from one activity to the next from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed. Is reading time part of that schedule? Not often. How do children spend leisure time? For most, it involves interaction with a screen: TV, video games, etc. It’s fun, it’s easy. The figures move around. You have to work to read a book. It requires thinking and concentration. That’s an effort for a lot of kids. And schools, with their emphasis on testing, are themselves part of the problem. The effort to achieve high reading test scores has the effect of teaching children to hate reading. I can’t blame them. I’d hate reading too if all I knew of it were drill and test.
What would you say to parents and families about the value and joy of reading with children, and how would you encourage consistent family reading?
Do I have to tell them this? It’s like telling them about the advantages of breathing. What does your family do instead of read? Watch TV? Play video games? Is that a valuable use of time? Will that develop skills to help children achieve in school and in life? The time to start making a change is now. Turn off all electronic devices. Visit the library. Come home with an armload of books that look interesting. Then sit together and read them. Or have one family member read to everyone else. It’s not hard. It’s just a matter of doing it consistently. Also, children need to see their parents reading. If you talk about reading but don’t read yourself, the kids will see through you right away. Remember these words: if you don’t, they won’t.
Is it challenging to hold children’s attention for books with so many other digital and technological options, from cell phones to tablets?
Not for me. I’m a good storyteller. I know what kids like and what they’ll listen to. If you want children to focus on books, turn off the other distractions. And don’t hesitate to take them away if necessary.
What are your next books or projects?
I just published my own first ebook on Amazon’s Kindle format. It’s called Magic, Unlimited! and it was great fun to write. It didn’t fit into any genre and I could never interest editors in it, so I finally published it myself. I’m preparing two other manuscripts for the Kindle. Another one, The Tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, will be on the iBooks platform soon.
Will ebooks replace print books? Who knows? They’re here and they’re not going away. Ultimately, both digital and print media are delivery systems for delivering content. What’s the content? For me, it’s the story. As long as I keep writing good ones, I’ll still be here.
The PJ Library is poised to mail its 5 millionth book by the end of 2013 after just eight years. Learn more about it at www.pjlibrary.org.