The Mixed Up Files Blog is proud to be a host for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries since 1968, the award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category. To learn more about this prestigious award and to see a list of all of the winners, please visit this website: https://jewishlibraries.org
Today we are thrilled to introduce Sofiya Pasternack, author of the author of Anya and the Dragon a Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the
In this book, headstrong Anya is the daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family’s livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of Fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus.
This seems easy enough—until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn’t as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family.
Anya is a new and memorable Jewish character who has forged her way into fantastic literature. Anya and the Dragon is highly recommended, not only for children but also for adults eager to find high-quality fantasy books with Jewish themes. — Jewish Book Council
With this clever, fast-paced debut, Pasternack draws upon the myth and folklore of Kievan Rus’ to deliver a delightful tale filled with supernatural creatures…a tale that never loses its sense of fun or wonder. –Publisher’s Weekly
An irresistible blend of moral quandaries, magic, humor, danger, and bravery. Imaginative details bestow a fairy-tale-like quality to the story, which will effortlessly ensnare historical fantasy fans.– Booklist
This delightful series opener is an exciting blend of Russian and Jewish traditions. –Kirkus
The plot keeps readers on their toes with skillful pacing … [it] puts a spin on the usual dragon story without losing its excitement. –Center for Children’s Books
Thanks so much for joining us today at the Mixed-Up Files, Sofiya
What inspired you to write this story?
One of my favorite fairy tales of all time is wrapped into this book, and I spent a long time trying to retell it for adults. Once I finally realized that it was a children’s story, it really started to flow.
Why did you decide to myth and folklore of Kievan Rus’?
Russian folklore is told largely in byliny, or oral epic poems. These were grouped into cycles depending on the area the stories took place, and all my favorites are in the Kievan Cycle. The general time period was around the reign of Vladimir I, who ruled Kievan Rus’ from 980 to 1015 CE, so that’s why I picked that era and those specific stories!
Your book has such a wonderfully well-constructed setting, do you have any tips for writers on how to world-build?
You boil some water! Seriously. A friend of mine introduced me to this method of worldbuilding and it’s been so amazing for really forcing me to think through the entire world. I just ask myself the question, “What has to happen to allow my character to boil some water?” That seems really simple, right? Put some water in a pot and throw it on a stove and turn the heat on. Okay. Where did the pot come from? The store? A blacksmith? Handed down through the family? How? From who? From where? What’s the water source? Is it safe? Was it dangerous to get? Are waterborne illnesses a concern? Why? Who made the stove? Is the stove gas? Electric? Wood? Nuclear? Magic? Where did the gas come from? The electricity? The wood? What’s the deal with magic? And so on. You just keep asking yourself questions, and you keep answering questions, until your world is fleshed out.
I love how you weave the magic throughout your story, and dragons! Did you do a lot of research on dragons before writing this book?
I’ve kind of been a dragon nerd my whole life, so I didn’t have to do a ton of research. I knew exactly what kind of dragon Håkon was before I started: a lindwurm! And then I had to ask myself, “Well, if he’s a lindwurm, he must be Scandinavian, because that’s where lindwurms are from. Why is he in Anya’s Russian village?” And that’s why Kin is from where he’s from, why Håkon has a Scandinavian name, and why he has ties to Istanbul/Constantinople. Dragons are important in Russia, but I didn’t want Håkon to have multiple heads, as most Russian dragons do. I wanted him to be unique and unexpected, and I think a lot of people are pleasantly surprised by him.
Kirkus said of your book, “This delightful series opener is an exciting blend of Russian and Jewish traditions.” How important was it to you to include your heritage in this book?
I didn’t start this book out as a Jewish story. I was afraid to do that, because in my mind, who would want to read a fantasy about a Jewish girl that had nothing to do with the Holocaust or a specific holiday? So Anya and her family were incidentally Jewish in a way that maybe someone who was Jewish might pick up on. But then after some encouragement from people who knew much better than I did, I added more visible Jewishness to the book until it reached the point it is now. I’m so glad I did. I came to be very passionate about Anya being a visibly Jewish character who wasn’t defined by trauma: bad things happened to her (they happen to everyone!) and she used her unique perspective to manage them. I also wanted to include more Jewish and Russian folklore creatures than people are familiar with. Everyone knows what a golem and a dybbuk are, but do people know about helpful possession? Everyone knows who Baba Yaga is, but do they know what a leshy is? I love learning about the folklore of other cultures, and being able to introduce lesser-known creatures from my own background has been really great.
Anything you’d like to add?
For all the authors out there who are struggling with their story, don’t give up! The world needs your unique perspective. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing!
Awesome! Thanks so much for joining us, Sofiya. Your book is amazing. Congratulations again on your award!
Sofiya has generously donated a copy of her fantastic book to be given away (US only). Please comment below to be entered. You can also tweet it out and tag us at @MixedUpFiles or like our post on Instagram at @mixedupfilesmg
I am so happy to be back at the Mixed Up Files after a hiatus of a few months. I wanted to kick off the new decade of my series Diversity in MG Lit with a look at the numbers. Many of you are familiar with this infographic from Reflection Press by Maya Gonzalez. I like this one because it shows both where we are and how far we need to go to achieve something that looks like equity.
The NY Public Library recently published its list of the 10 most checked out books in NYPL history. Obviously this structure gives great advantage to the oldest books. Even so the number one spot went to The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats first published in 1962. Fifty-eight years ago it was the first picture boy to feature a black boy as a main character. It was popular immediately and has been ever since As a bookseller I listen to authors and illustrators a lot. Hundreds of them over the years and many of our most prominent POC writers and illustrators, black men in particular, have pointed to The Snowy Day as a seminal influence on their work and their belief that there was a place for them in the world of books.
The Flying Start feature of Publishers Weekly is designed to highlight up and coming authors and illustrators. In 2019 the Spring Flying Start list featured 2 of 5 or 40% diverse writers including Tina Athaide for Orange for the Sunset and Carlos Hernandez for Sal & Gabi Break the Universe. The Fall Flying Starts included 4 of 6 or 66% diverse creators: Brittney Morris for Slay, Christine Day for I Can Make This Promise, Joowon Oh for Our Favorite Day, and Kwame Mbalia for Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,
Our newest National Ambassador for Young Peoples Literature is Jason Reynolds, a brilliant choice. Even better, his selection makes 4 of the 7 people (57%) to hold this position Persons of Color. The others are Walter Dean Myers, Gene Luen Yang, & Jacqueline Woodson.
The American Booksellers Association holds its Children’s Institute every spring. In 2019 five out of seven (71%) keynote or featured presenters were POC. Of the 67 authors and illstrators that publishers brought to the conference to meet independent children’s booksellers from all over the country, 38 or 57% were of diverse backgrounds. (including disabled and LGBT+)
The National Council of Teachers of English was held in November of 2019. Seven of their 10 keynote speakers were diverse. If you looked at all 28 of their featured speakers, you’d find 57% of them were POC.
And finally the 2020 midwinter American Library Association will meet in just a few weeks. This year all six of their featured speakers are diverse. 100%!
Buy diverse books from an independent bookstore. Big box and on line retailers are never going to care about the welfare of authors or readers of any demographic. Indie booksellers do care and they have consistently over decades proven the best venue for making best sellers of little known or debuting authors.
Take a moment on social media to call out the folks that are working hard to help diverse books find parity. I’ll start: Hey fellow Portlanders our 2020 Everybody Reads author is Tommy Orange who wrote There There. He is Cheyenne and Arapaho and lives the urban Indian experience in California. His book is amazing! I can’t wait to talk about it with my neighbors and friends.
If you don’t see a diverse book you love in your school or library or bookstore, ask for it. Ask regularly. Schools, libraries and bookstores are here to serve you, the public. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what you want and what you need. Help us out! Change comes when we stand up and say something.