Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
We are in for a treat today! I am thrilled to welcome a good friend and fellow Mixed-Up Files member, Meira Drazin, whose new Middle Grade novel, Honey and Me, was released this week!
JR: Meira, thanks so much for joining us!
MD: Hi Jonathan, I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to be here on the Mixed-Up Files as an author for the first time!
JR: To start with, can you tell us a little bit about Honey and Me, and what prompted the idea to write it?
MD: I’d love to. Honey and Me is a coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old girl going through sixth grade in the shadow of her fearless best friend. Milla envies Honey’s confidence, her charm, and her big chaotic, loving family—especially when they provide a welcome escape from Milla’s small family and their silent house. The two friends do everything and go everywhere together. So when Honey joins Milla’s school for sixth grade, why is it not as great as Milla expected? Will she ever find the courage to step out of Honey’s shadow and into her own spotlight?
Honey and Me is the first contemporary realistic middle grade novel that I know of that is set in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community and published by a mainstream press. I was inspired to write it when I started reading some of my own childhood favourite books to my daughter— Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family—as well as some new ones I was just discovering, like The Penderwicks, and later, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street. To me, what connects these books are writers who understand the magnitude of the small dramas of everyday life. I especially love how the All-of-a-Kind Family books focus on the small dramas in everyday Jewish life. I wondered if I could do that too, but in a modern way and with contemporary characters.
JR: I also love that we get to see a side of Judaism that isn’t often represented in mainstream books. Tell us a little bit about Milla, the main character of the book.
MD: Milla is 11 when the book opens, about to start sixth grade. She’s reflective and observant, a reader, and she often sees herself in a foil position to her best friend Honey. Honey is the type of kid who’s totally confident calling grown-ups directly by name; Milla is the type of kid who says “um” awkwardly until she gets the grown-up’s attention. Milla thinks that these kinds of things mean Honey has more to offer than herself, but Milla realizes over the course of the novel that their friendship in fact is more evenly balanced, each one supporting and filling in the other.
JR: Milla is such an endearing character. How much of you and your experiences are in her?
MD: Thank you! Honey and Me is not autobiographical but I definitely relate to Milla’s character. (I was not a child who could call grown-ups by name!) And I definitely borrowed certain experiences I had myself in order to explore aspects of Milla’s character or to work through things from my own childhood. For example, like Milla, I was in my school’s speech contest when I was in sixth grade and it shifted something for me in realizing that I could be creative, funny, and extroverted in a way I never knew I had in me.
Another example is that Milla’s relationship with her teacher was inspired by a teacher I had briefly in eighth grade who left after the first term due to a disagreement with the school and then tragically had a fatal heart attack a few months later. When I began writing Honey and Me, I used fiction to try to grapple with some of the feelings I was left with all that time ago, loosely basing a character, Mr. Sandler, on Mr. Waldman, and giving Milla a chance to have an inspirational relationship with a teacher, in a way that I myself had not had a chance to. Incidentally, I love this review of Honey and Me (https://jewishjournal.com/culture/arts/books/350959/friendship-judaism-and-all-the-feelings-a-welcome-addition-to-the-middle-school-canon/?fbclid=IwAR121MaR2EIiBBB6olpUjTLulRYxFuizKTV5iNwG4MkqarTcZbmcSgrPKJ8) by Dr. Karen E.H. Skinazi, a professor of English and who coincidentally went to the same junior high as me, although a grade above, and describes in the review how her life’s work was inspired by having Mr. Waldman as a teacher.
JR: We’ve spoken about the need for Jewish representation in Middle Grade, and Honey and Me definitely fits that criteria, especially since, as we said, it’s rare for books to portray more orthodox perspectives. You come from an orthodox background, why was it so important for you to include that perspective in your book?
MD: Thanks for asking this question. I speak about this in depth here (https://oomscholasticblog.com/post/jewish-joy-meira-drazin-author-honey-and-me) but basically when I was growing up, I didn’t see anything in children’s literature that reflected my own community and home, other than the All-of-A-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, or the Holocaust books that as the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, I devoured as a means of understanding what my grandparents went through but never spoke about. I am a staunch advocate for children’s Holocaust literature, and see below about how meaningful the All-of-A-Kind Family books—which take place on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s and were written mid-century— are to me, but at the same time neither of these reading experiences portrayed examples of life that looked anything like mine in 1980s Toronto.
When I began reading middle grade books to my daughter, I was shocked to realize the landscape hadn’t changed in terms of seeing religious Jews in children’s literature. And when I first started trying to write my own books for children, I think it became apparent that I had internalized a certain idea that religiously observant Jews didn’t really “belong” in books unless it was historical fiction, or the characters were victims of persecution. In the first stories I wrote I sent my characters to regular public schools, not a Jewish day school; I had them dress up for Halloween, not Purim. And I think my writing suffered for it. Only once I had the idea of these two girls, Milla and Honey, who I knew were Modern Orthodox, and I opened that world up, did my writing begin to take life.
I would also add that only once my editor asked me to think about it for the Author’s Note, was I able to look back and begin to understand that reading over and over again about my people being victimized, rather than also having the experience of watching them live lives in which their Judaism wasn’t a source of conflict, left a psychological impact.
JR: Speaking of, All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, you have often spoken about how much you loved it. How much of an influence was that book to your own work?
MD: I am, and it was quite a big influence. I really loved the whole series growing up and read them over and over again. They were so warm and family oriented, while also dealing with the natural conflict that comes up between siblings, friends and day-to-day life. It’s also hard to overstate what a kick it was to see them practicing their Judaism—it was like, wait, they’re celebrating Purim and eating hamantaschen and dressing up, just like we do. Wait, this part of my life is in a book. And in a book read not just by Jews. That must mean it’s not so weird.
Recently I was blow away by the warm and effusive comments left on an article in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/books/review/from-sarah-to-sydney-june-cummins-alexandra-dunietz.html) about a new biography of Sydney Taylor, the author of the All-of-A-Kind Family series. So many of the comments were of the tenor that when reading these books as a child it was the first time they saw Jews, like themselves, joyfully and incidentally practicing their religion. Or that it was their first introduction to Jewish people and what it might look like to be Jewish. When I had the idea to write a coming-of-age story set in a modern orthodox community, creating a book that did this too, and that might one day have this kind of impact, was my dream.
JR: I do love the relationship between Milla and Honey. There are some humorous elements in the book, as well as some sad ones, which I was angry with you for. How difficult was it for you to strike that balance?
MD: Haha! In my first draft of the book I just made each chapter a different episode of one of Milla and Honey’s escapades — their adventures brought out the different aspects of their personalities, and to be sure there was some tension, but I was steadfast in their loyalty to each other and loved their friendship so much I couldn’t bear for them to do more than raise their eyebrows at each other. But then the teacher for the workshop I was doing at the time said “Meira, they need to get in a fight!” I hated to do it, but she was right: the inevitable tension between Milla and Honey, that exists in every friendship, needed to be explored—both for the sake of the narrative arc, but also for the sake of Milla’s emotional journey, and for them to continue to stay such bosom friends, as Anne Shirley would say, when we close the book.
In terms of balance in general between funny and sad, I really wanted there to be both—as those are the kinds of stories I like most—and I found that writing it that way came naturally. The hardest balance for me to strike was in creating the character of Milla’s mom, Lori. Much of the feedback in early drafts of the book was that she was too awful, which wasn’t my intention at all. But the things I was having her say came off as way more harsh than they were meant to. It took a lot of revision and trial and error to get her character right and to show where the tensions were in her and Milla’s relationship that weren’t just in a one-way direction.
JR: A lot of the book deals with Milla’s Bat Mitzvah. Any good anecdotes from your own Bat Mitzvah that you’d like to share?
MD: Oh boy. At my bat mitzvah my father told a really embarrassing story about me in his speech (no, I will not say what it was!) Recently I was at a friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah and he did something similar. He got the laughs and maybe his daughter was less mortified than I would have been, but all I’ll say is: dads, DON’T. Just don’t. Your daughter may not remember all the nice things you say about her in your speech, but they will probably never forget the humiliating ones.
Another fun anecdote from my own bat mitzvah is that apparently I took one of my younger brothers’ can of silly string to give to a friend who hadn’t gotten one and my brother stewed about that for many months, all the while planning his revenge which was eventually revealed to be hiding my bat mitzvah present, a new pale yellow landline phone that matched my room. Ah, siblings. Hmm, maybe I’ll use that story in my next book.
JR: What are you working on next?
MD: I have a few projects at various stages of draft that I am excited to get back to work on, but at the same time Honey and Me was such a long journey that I am trying to be very in-the-moment with it right now, very present to all the excitement of it coming out and working on publicizing it, getting ready for school visits and any other speaking opportunities, and just trying to enjoy and feel grateful for this dream come true.
JR: Meira, thanks so much for joining us today!
Well, Mixed-Up Filers, that’s it for now. Make sure you go out and get a copy (or two) of Meira Drazin’s, Honey and Me!
Until next time . . .