Today we're talking with Bill and Susan Isakoff Berlin, authors of The Kvetch Who Stole Hanukkah.
FQ: Who came up with the idea for writing a book about a kvetch who hates Hanukkah? What was the initial reaction of others?
The idea was the result of a bad back and a happy occasion. Ten years ago, in December 2000, we were visiting our son and daughter-in-law in Brookline, Massachusetts, after the birth of their first child, our second grandchild and first granddaughter. Bill had a bad back, and was resting on the floor to get some relief, while Susan was sitting nearby on the couch. Maybe it was the holiday season, the excitement of the new baby, or Bill's need to “kvetch” about an aching back, but we began to play with the idea of a “kvetch who stole Hanukkah.” We were inspired by both Dr. Suess and Dr. Freud!!
FQ: Would you tell us a little about how the two of you work together? Do you work out the text together or bounce ideas back and forth?
We each wrote a few verses, and when we came home from Brookline we went out for dinner at a favorite local restaurant. With a bottle of wine to accompany our dinner AND inspire us, we wrote most of the story. The book was definitely a collaborative effort, and we completed it very quickly.
At that point, and even later, we were just having fun, with no intention of publishing a book. Susan took the text, sketched some playful rudimentary pictures, and created a binding for the story. Eventually, our grandchildren took the book to nursery school, and the other children seemed to like it a lot. Their parents (our children) would go to school when it was story time during the holiday season, and read the book to the class! We showed it to other members of the family and to a few friends, and again the response was very enthusiastic.
At our annual Hanukkah parties, The Kvetch Who Stole Hanukkah, along with Clifford the Big Red Dog wearing a yarmulke or skull cap (Bill in costume) were holiday staples!!
FQ: How hard was it to work the Yiddish terms into the poem? The whole story flows so well but I suspect there might have been a few difficult stanzas.
Actually, the only stanza that was slightly difficult was the first. Initially, the three children were named Lily, Kate and Joshua -- -- our first three grandchildren. Our own children turned out to be quite blessed and prolific, and eventually the number of grandchildren grew to eight, with a ninth one on the way even as we write this! We realized that we could not use the names of three grandchildren and exclude the other five. We decided to name one of the children, Vicki, after Susan’s 95 year old mother, to both honor her and continue her sense of wonder and joy!! Monica rhymed with Hanukkah and there are several Jewish girls and women named Monica, so it was a natural fit. Max was a name that fit the rhyme, but is also quite popular with many young families!
FQ: The kvetch's cat has no name. If you could name him/her, what would that name be?
We like to think of him as Ziggy. One of the reviewers described the story as zany, and Ziggy seems to us like a variation of the word. It also brings back memories of our childhoods, in Brooklyn, NY. Both of us had friends named Ziggy and remember a restaurant of the same name. The cat is really the kvetch's alter ego, forever happy while the kvetch is forever grouchy.
FQ: Do you know Yiddish and if so, how did that guide you in writing the story?
Susan grew up in a household in which Yiddish was spoken by both her grandparents. She understands and speaks Yiddish, and delights in the flavor of the language. The spoken Yiddish word did not guide us in writing the book, but a certain Yiddish sensibility did. A turn of a phrase and a playful way of looking at a situation, clearly impacted our writing!
FQ: There's a lot going on in the background of each picture and again, Yiddish terms, etc. Were those touches your idea or the illustrator's? How closely did you work with Mr. Welling to convey
the mood of each picture?
We did not work directly with Peter Welling, and most of our input was through Pelican Publishing Company. Peter’s drafts were emailed to us and we sent back suggestions and comments, all of which were ultimately incorporated into the final book. Peter did a wonderful job with the pictures that make the book lots of fun to read. All of the playful tidbits and whimsical details (like the cat you asked us about) were solely Peter’s contribution, and he deserves all of the credit for these wonderful additions!!