The Mixed-Up Files is thrilled to be a part of the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! (For the full schedule click here.)
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. As someone who has followed the award closely for many years (and was honored to be a past winner of their manuscript award which recognizes unpublished manuscripts) as well as a member of the review team for the Sydney Taylor Shmooze, a ‘mock’ version of the awards, I am especially thrilled and delighted to welcome author Tziporah Cohen, whose debut novel No Vacancy —about an 11-year-old Jewish girl who, with her Catholic friend, creates a Virgin Mary apparition at a drive-in movie theater to save her family’s failing motel—is a 2021 Sydney Taylor Award Honor Book in the middle grade category.
SEE BELOW for a chance to WIN A COPY of NO VACANCY by Tziporah Cohen!
About the book:
SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD HONOREE!
Shortlisted for THE NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE!
“With effortless mastery, Cohen weaves the opposing forces of innocence and corruption, right and wrong, love and hate.”—Inderjit Deogun, Quill & Quire starred review
Buying and moving into the run-down Jewel Motor Inn in upstate New York wasn’t eleven-year-old Miriam Brockman’s dream, but at least it’s an adventure. Miriam befriends Kate, whose grandmother owns the diner next door, and finds comfort in the company of Maria, the motel’s housekeeper, and her Uncle Mordy, who comes to help out for the summer. She spends her free time helping Kate’s grandmother make her famous grape pies and begins to face her fears by taking swimming lessons in the motel’s pool.
But when it becomes clear that only a miracle is going to save the Jewel from bankruptcy, Jewish Miriam and Catholic Kate decide to create their own. Otherwise, the No Vacancy sign will come down for good, and Miriam will lose the life she’s worked so hard to build.
And now, here’s No Vacancy author Tziporah Cohen joining us here on the Mixed-Up Files!:
MD: Hi Tzippy, what inspired you to write this story?
TC: The whole idea began while on a mini-vacation in Hershey, PA, where we stayed a couple of nights in a tired motel one summer while I was working on my MFA degree. There was a boy hanging around—maybe 7 or 8 years old—and it turned out he had moved there with his family and they were running the place. I thought it made a great, unique premise for a middle grade novel—a kid living in a motel that her parents were managing. (Kelly Yang’s fantastic novel, Front Desk, hadn’t come out yet.) The boy we met was South Asian, and Hershey is a pretty white town, and I wondered what that was like for him and his family. I had been thinking of writing something from my own Jewish experience, so the boy became an eleven-year-old Jewish girl named Miriam. I wrote the first chapters in that hotel room after my kids went to sleep!
MD: As a debut author, can you tell us about your journey to publication?
TC: It was a long one, as they usually are! I had an idea for a picture book back in 2006 and took an adult education course on writing picture books, which led to some online writing courses, which eventually led to an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I never saw myself writing a novel, but since you can’t do a two-year MFA just writing picture books, I wrote the first draft of No Vacancy over three semesters there. It took several more years of work after graduation before it was ready to submit. I had started looking for an agent but had also submitted the manuscript to Groundwood Books in Toronto, where I now live. When Groundwood sent me an offer of publication, after screaming with excitement, I approached the agents I was interested in with the offer in hand. So my road was a bit backwards at the end.
(The irony is that I never did write that picture book idea that started this whole journey!)
MD: I loved your interview on the Book of Life podcast where you talk about mentor texts—can you briefly explain what a mentor text is, and how you used them when writing NO VACANCY?
TC: Mentor texts are books (in this case) that a writer studies to learn how another author tackles a topic or how they use their craft to form a story. In my case, I wanted to see how other writers tackled the topic of religion and faith in their middle grade novels. There weren’t many out there, but I went back to a childhood favorite, Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and the more recent Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman, both of which feature girls struggling to sort out their religious identity and what role they want Judaism to play in their lives.
MD: How did you choose the setting of upstate New York?
TC: I love upstate New York. I spent four years at Cornell University, in Ithaca, and while that’s not a small town, it was certainly very different from where I grew up on Long Island, about an hour’s drive from Manhattan. I’ve done many drives through upstate New York since then, going back and forth from Toronto to Long Island, and so it all felt very familiar and easy to picture in my mind.
MD: Are any of these events true to your own life?
TC: Unfortunately, the only event in the book that’s true to my life (outside of the religious observance) is the anti-Semitic experience that Miriam’s mother had. While I was never assaulted like she was, I had the experience of having pennies thrown at me in the halls of my junior high school. Like Miriam’s mom, I remember feeling ashamed. I wish I could redo that moment by confronting the person and—best case scenario—educating them about the hateful origins of that stereotype. And I would have liked to have felt proud rather than ashamed.
MD: I really love how you show both interfaith and interdenominational cooperation between Jews and Christians, as well as how even within Judaism that there are differences of observance such as between Miriam’s immediate family and her Uncle Mordy. Can you talk a little about that?
TC: It was important to me to show some of the diversity of Judaism—how differently people who identify as Jewish see their relationship to Judaism and how many different ways people practice it. I wanted Jewish children from a variety of religious backgrounds to see themselves and their families in the book, and I wanted non-Jewish children reading it to understand that there isn’t just one Jewish experience. So it was very intentional that the different members of Miriam’s family observed Judaism in different ways. My extended family’s Judaism is just as diverse as Miriam’s!
In the book, Miriam’s Christian neighbors support them after an act of anti-Semitism. My favorite stories, in real life and in fiction, are when different communities come together to fight hatred, because we are so much stronger when we are there for each other.
MD: What does it mean to you to win the Sydney Taylor Honor Award?
TC: I grew up reading Sydney Taylor’s All-of-A-Kind-Family books, which were probably the first books I read that were about a Jewish family, if you don’t count The Carp in the Bathtub! I grew up reading books with the Sydney Taylor Book Award stickers on them, and I’ve read innumerable winners to my children. I never even imagined I would write a book for kids, let alone one that would have its own Sydney Taylor Award sticker. It’s mind-blowing and humbling to me that I’m part of this club. I’m still pinching myself!
MD: Wow—congratulations and Mazal Tov, Tzippy! Thanks so much for these thoughtful responses and for sharing your journey with us here on The Mixed-Up Files! Readers can find Tzippy on Twitter at @tzippymfa and on her website http://www.tziporahcohen.com.
Giveaway! Enter! Win!
To enter for a chance to be the lucky winner of a copy of Sydney Taylor Honor Book NO VACANCY by Tziporah Cohen, click the link below and you can: comment on this blog post, tweet it out and tag us at @MixedUpFiles, or like our post on Instagram at @mixedupfilesmg. (US and Canada winners receive a hard copy, international winners receive an e-book and signed bookmark.)