For my final post of 2019, and in honor of Jewish Book Month, I’m happy to bring you this interview with Perfect 2020 PBs member Joy Nelkin Wieder. Her picture book, The Passover Mouse, illustrated by Shahar Kober, releases from Doubleday (Random House) on January 28th, 2020.
Tell us a bit about your story, The Passover Mouse.
The Passover Mouse is a rollicking, funny, and ultimately inspiring story that weaves together the themes of community, kindness, charity, and forgiveness. In this charming Passover story, a little mouse disrupts a town’s preparations for the holiday when it steals a piece of leavened bread–or chometz–just as all the houses have been swept clean in time for the holiday. On the morning before the start of Passover, all the villagers have swept their homes clean of leavened bread, in keeping with the traditions of the holiday. Suddenly, a small mouse steals a piece of bread and tears through the town, spoiling everyone’s hard work. But just when it seems as if the townsfolk will never be ready for their Seder, the little mouse’s actions unwittingly bring everyone together, to work as a group to save the holiday.
Sounds like a lot of fun! This is your very first picture book, and it will be out in a little over a month. What can you tell us about the journey to publication? How long have you been pursuing this dream?
I have been pursuing this dream most of my life, and I can’t believe it’s finally coming true! This particular book’s journey took 18 years from concept to publication. While I had several chapter books published previously, this is my first picture book and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
How did the idea for The Passover Mouse come to you?
I was inspired to write the story while I was doing research for another book in 2002 and came across an interesting passage in the Talmud, which is a collection of Jewish laws with commentaries by ancient rabbis. It won Best Picture Book Text at the Jewish Children’s Bookfest Writing Contest in 2004 and was considered for publication by two Jewish publishers and two mainstream publishers at that time. When they all turned it down, I was crushed. I put the files away in a plastic bin in the basement where it stayed for many years. It wasn’t until the story won another award for the SCBWI/PJ Library Jewish Stories in 2018 that it got traction and it will finally become a published book on 1/28/20!
Gasp! I guess your book’s time had finally come! How great that you didn’t give up on it completely! Describe for us that magic moment when you found out The Passover Mouse would be published at last?
I was doing an errand and pulled into a parking lot. I decided to check my phone and saw an email from PJ Library. When I read that my story won Honorable Mention, I burst into tears! I knew that this was the break I had been waiting for all those years, because having the stamp of approval from both PJ Library and SCBWI would finally open all the doors that had been closed previously. With award in hand, I sent my manuscript off to an agency and landed my wonderful agent Barbara Krasner at Olswanger Literary. Now, we could submit to publishers who only accept agented work and it was accepted by the fabulous Frances Gilbert, Editor-in-Chief at Doubleday Books for Young Readers. It couldn’t have been in better hands!
From what age did you consider yourself a writer? What spurred you to pursue this path professionally? What other fields do you work in (professionally or otherwise)?
I’ve always been creative and wanted to write and illustrate books since I was young, but I didn’t have the confidence to pursue it until I had my own children. I studied graphic design in college and had a flourishing freelance design business for many years. Now I design custom wedding invitations in my small business called Joyously Yours Custom Invitations. I’m also a freelance copy writer, and I write articles for the local newspaper, quarterly newsletters and monthly blog posts for my clients. Additionally, I teach creative writing in a before-school enrichment program at my local elementary school, which is a lot of fun.
In terms of your art, what are your preferred media and techniques?
I’m a watercolor painter, and I love to paint landscapes as well as children’s illustrations. I’ve taken several plein air workshops in beautiful locations such as Maine, Italy and France—including Monet’s Garden and Lake Como! Being outdoors and painting in watercolor is a pure pleasure for me, and it hones my skills as a watercolorist for my children’s book illustrations. I’ve recently started playing around with digital illustration on my iPad Pro and I’m working on a board book dummy in Procreate.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
Being a freelance artist, I don’t really have a typical day. But I often start the day with a water aerobics class at my health club. It’s great exercise, and I frequently work out story problems either as I exercise or on the way home. It’s a great way to clear your mind and be open to creative solutions! When I get home, I have to attend to whatever job has the most pressing deadline. If I don’t have an invitation to design or copy to write, I can work on my own stories and illustrations!
What feeds your creativity? Or helps you out of that “funk”?
I already mentioned exercising and painting outdoors as ways of refreshing my creative energies. I also love to take baths in my whirlpool tub—another place to work out story problems or get new inspirations. I attend closely to my nightly dreams, which is a way to tap into our intuition and unconscious selves. I keep a dream journal and meet with a dream circle every other week to discuss our dreams. I often get ideas for stories from my dreams!
That’s fascinating! What other advice would you have for fellow creatives?
Don’t give up on your dreams! While most creative people need to have a day job, it’s important to make time to pursue your creative interests and continue to “fill the well” so your creative energy doesn’t dry up. Journaling is one great way to do both—keep your dreams alive and keep the well full at the same time.
Now, back to your debut. You mentioned coming across an interesting passage in the Talmud that originally inspired The Passover Mouse. Can you give us the details?
While reading the tractate in the Talmud discussing all the laws and rituals of Passover, I came across a discussion by the rabbis about the possibility of a mouse bringing bread into a house that had already been searched for chometz, leavened food, which is prohibited during Passover. They wondered if the house would have to be searched again and came up with several scenarios – what if a mouse with a piece of bread went into a house, but a different mouse came out of the house carrying a piece of bread? Is the second mouse carrying the same piece of bread or a different piece? The rabbis went around and around the issue, but in the end, they never made a decision. I was in shock! How could the rabbis take so much time to discuss an issue and then leave the question unanswered? I knew I had to come up with an answer, and I immediately imagined this troublesome mouse running amok through a Jewish village just before Passover.
Ha! Love it. Flash forward to today, and your dream of publishing your first picture book is about to come true!
Yes, and I’m thrilled to report that The Passover Mouse received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, indicating a book of exceptional merit. The Kirkus Reviews star is one of the most prestigious designations in the publishing industry. Kirkus Reviews says: “A book that fits moving scenes, puzzles, and mice into the same story is an excellent addition to the Jewish tradition. (glossary) (Picture book. 4-7)” Read full book review here.
Congratulations! That’s wonderful news! What’s next? What do you still hope to accomplish in the future?
There are several projects in the works. The last time I went to New York City, I had the pleasure of meeting my editor at the Random House headquarters. She mentioned that she would love to have another book set in the same world as The Passover Mouse, so I’m working on a Purim story set in the same village with the same characters. My agent has submitted two picture book manuscripts and a board book manuscript to several publishers, so keep your fingers crossed for me!
We wish you plenty of future success, Joy! Are there any upcoming events where we can look forward to meeting you?
Yes, the Launch Party for The Passover Mouse will be held on Sunday, February 9 at the Concord Bookshop in Concord, MA. The first Sunday after publication, Feb. 2, is Super Bowl Sunday, and we couldn’t take the chance that the New England Patriots would be in the Super Bowl and then no one would show up to the launch! I will also be doing Story Time at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA on March 29 and Barnes & Noble in Framingham, MA on April 5. I’m really looking forward to reading my book to kids!
Readers can also connect with me on the following social media sites:
Wonderful, Joy. Thanks for being with us today and sharing all your debut news!
These days, preorders are vital to a debut author’s career. To support Joy Nelkin Wieder and her new release, preorder The Passover Mouse through any of the following retailers: