Posts Tagged Jewish

Agent Spotlight: Rena Rossner

Literary agent and author Rena Rossner is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars Program, where she majored in poetry and non-fiction writing. She also holds an MA in History from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She lives in Israel where she works as a literary and foreign rights agent at the Deborah Harris Literary Agency in Jerusalem. Rena’s debut historical fantasy novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, published in September, 2018.

Rena says: “You can usually find me cooking or reading, but I also do ceramics (in my non-existent spare time) and have been known to do yoga and take walks with my pug, Pablo. Did I mention I have five kids? Yeah. That too.”

Find out more about Rena and how to query her at www.renarossner.com.

Hi Rena! I know this is a crazy busy month for you—thanks so much for agreeing to chat with us. What have you been up to lately?

Most recently, I finished writing my second novel. But before that I returned from a five-week trip to the USA, a combination of being on book tour for my own first novel, The Sisters Of The Winter Wood, combined with editor meetings in New York City on behalf of my clients. I attended World Fantasy Con in Baltimore, YALLFEST in Charleston, and the Miami Book Fair – where various authors of mine were speaking and signing books.

Talk to me about middle grade novels in verse. I know you studied poetry at Johns Hopkins. What do you think a verse novel can do for middle grade readers that a prose novel can’t?

Well, novels in verse have a very special place in my heart. I was a poet first, before I decided to try my hand at fiction, and The Sisters Of The Winter Wood is written in two voices – one sister narrates in verse and one sister narrates in prose.

I also represent two middle grade novels in verse – Rachel Toalson’s The Colors of the Rain which came out in September 2018. And the upcoming ALL OF ME by Chris Baron which comes out in June 2019.

Something about novels in verse can be more dramatic than prose. Verse leaves space on the page, room for breath, room for thought. Room for the reader to fill in the blanks. Novels in verse can be more emotive than novels in prose because they take readers on an emotional journey. I absolutely love working with writers who were clearly poets first. You can tell, on the sentence level, that there is something different about their work.

I just finished reading ALL OF ME. I read through tears for the last hundred pages. This was easily the most moving MG book I’ve ever read about being a “big” kid. You’re right, the emotions just cut right through in a good verse novel, because it’s so spare.

2019 is going to be a big year for you! You represent three of my new middle grade debut pals, Cory Leonardo, Chris Baron, and Sofiya Pasternack whose first books for middle graders are publishing in 2019. Cory’s THE SIMPLE ART OF FLYING features a poetry-spouting parrot who eats the Norton Anthology of Poetry page by page. Sofiya’s 9th century historical fantasy ANYA KOZLOVA AND THE DRAGON has Vikings! And a water dragon! Can you tell us more about them? What did you love about each of these novels when their queries first hit your inbox?

2019 is going to be a great year for middle grade! Both Cory and Sofiya came to me as a result of PitchWars, actually! Cory and I connected back in 2016 as a result of the contest. I fell madly in love not only with her parrots (I am a bird lover and was the owner of a very precocious cockatiel when I was a teen) but her poetry and wit. Her book reduced me to a blubbering mess of tears, absolutely had me hooked. (Also, cherry crumble pie.)

Sofiya and I connected in 2017. Her story about a little Jewish girl who must choose between saving her home and protecting a water dragon blew me away with its originality. But it also hit my sweet spot – bringing more Jewish fantasy to the world, especially more diverse Jewish fantasy set in all different places and time periods. Her main character Anya has spunk, but she also bakes challah. I mean, what could really be better than that?

Chris was a cold query, but when I read his book, I was instantly smitten. I had never been reduced to tears in the space of a few lines of poetry before! ALL OF ME is about a boy around the time is his bar mitzvah who struggles with his weight. As someone who has struggled with her weight her whole life, and who has boys who have struggled with the same issue around the time of their bar mitzvahs – this book really hit home for me in a very deep way.

There’s been a lot of discussion among Jewish children’s authors of late on social media, particularly in light of anti-Semitic acts both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Do you think Jewish writers are underrepresented in kid lit? What kinds of books by Jewish authors or about Jewish characters would you like to see more of?

For me, it’s less that Jewish writers are underrepresented and more that certain types of Jewish stories are underrepresented. I think we need to showcase more of the multiplicity of Jewish experience in children’s literature. Jews have literally lived in almost every country in the world, and I want us to see more of their stories. Jews from Shanghai, Morocco, Cuba, Ethiopia and Yemen all have stories to tell. But their stories are not well represented in the canon of Jewish children’s literature.

I also think we don’t see enough diverse Jewish families and stories about all the different ways in which people identify as Jewish – including blended families, unaffiliated families, LGBQT Jewish families, Jews who have converted to Judaism, and more.

So much Jewish children’s literature tends to be about the Holocaust. And while that’s always going to be super important (I even sold a Holocaust memoir that came out last year called Claiming My Place by Planaria Price and Helen West), Jewish history is full of so many stories – some tragic, others full of incredible moments of resistance and heroism. I want to see more of those stories told as well.

On a personal note, I’m a huge fan of Jewish fantasy and SciFi, and I’m always looking to see more of that. We haven’t scratched the surface of what Judaism has to offer the SFF world. I can’t wait to bring more of those types of stories onto the shelves of bookstores.

What’s on your wish list for middle grade now? Why?

I’d love to see more novels in verse. I’m a huge fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy of all types. Books that make me cry:  so, real, heartfelt middle grade stories that turn me into a blubbering mess of tears. I’m a sucker for beautiful writing, strong female (and male!) characters, and stories based on different mythologies and folklore. I love a good fairy tale re-telling, but bring me fairy tales from all over the world that and retell them in a way we haven’t seen before.

I love stories full of puzzles and whip-smart kids – like the books that another one of my authors, Ben Guterson, writes. His Winterhouse series (THE SECRETS OF WINTERHOUSE comes out December 31, 2019!) is a perfect example of that type of middle grade story that I love and would love to see more of! And of course, any middle grade that showcases the multiplicity of the Jewish experience.

Any genre you simply can’t stand?

I don’t know if there is any genre that I can’t stand – I read pretty widely. But I’m not the best person for a book about sports or for most straight non-fiction. Having said that, I’d love to be proven wrong! I never know what I will see in my inbox and what I will fall in love with. So I don’t really like to make any kind of absolute statements. I like to be surprised.

Are you an editorial agent? Is there any one piece of advice you give to middle grade authors? In other words, are there any common kinds of problems that you are good at helping MG authors fix?

I’m a super editorial agent (as many of my authors can attest to).  I’m not afraid to cut a novel in half, if that’s what’s needed. I think that many novels in verse tend to be too long – those are often the ones I end up having to do the most work on.

Middle Grade is tough to write because it’s hard to nail the right voice. It’s important to talk to kids that age – but I mean, really talk to them. Find out what they’re thinking, what’s important to them, what they find funny. I’m lucky to have middle graders who live with me, and my kids are an invaluable resource to help me know what will or won’t work for kids their age.

What’s missing in the middle-grade marketplace now? The big sinkhole in the room that we’re not seeing?

Well, once upon a time I would have said: more books for middle grade boys, and especially for boys who are struggling with their weight. More books about body positivity. But I am so happy that Chris Baron’s book ALL OF ME is now going to be out in the world, because I think it fills a big hole in the MG space.

We need to make sure that every kid can see himself or herself reflected in fiction, to do so much more work to bring diverse stories and diverse voices to MG shelves. I’m super proud of a book that came out in October 2018, Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo. We need more books like that.

How does what you do as an agent influence your art as a fiction writer, or vice versa?

Sometimes people think it gives me an edge in the industry. But the truth is, I went through just as much rejection (if not more…) as anyone else. When The Sisters of the Winter Wood sold, it was with my third agent, the third book I had been out on submission with.

Having said that, I definitely saw a hole in the market and decided to fill it. I wanted to write a fantasy novel about two Orthodox Jewish teen heroines – the kind of book that I wish had been around for me when I was a teen. But I don’t think you need to be an agent to know what’s missing from bookstore shelves today. You just need to read a lot and pay attention. I do think that my authors benefit from my being able to have a lot of empathy. I know what they are going through, often intimately.

Anything you’d like to elaborate on that I haven’t asked you? How’s life treating you?

Life is incredibly busy, but great! I can’t wait to see what 2019 will bring, but I certainly hope it bring more great middle grade authors my way!

Huge thanks, Rena! It was great to speak with you.

Happy Chanukah and Jewish Books!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Hope you’re all well! This is a little bit of a departure from my regular posts, but I felt it was important. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of Chanukah or Hanukkah, depending on the way you spell it, because there is no wrong way, even though Chanukah is the right way, because that’s the one I use, but anyway, no matter the spelling, Jews all over the world are celebrating. It’s a beautiful holiday, filled with joy, lighting candles, singing songs, giving gifts, and perhaps the best part of all, eating latkes and jelly doughnuts. And yet, this year feels different. This year feels a little sad in many ways, because I don’t recall a time in my life where anti-Semitism was so prevalent. Don’t get me wrong, because people who hate Jews have always been there, but yet over the last ten years or so, it’s seemingly been increasing in numbers and intensity every year. I’ve faced it a lot in my life, and still don’t feel any of the instances are as bad as they are now.

This can’t go on and change needs to occur. It can’t begin with the adults who won’t change opinions, but it can with younger kids who are impressionable. If they learn hate, they’ll grow up hating. If they’re unfamiliar with something, it’ll seem strange and alien. If they see more stories with Jewish characters and see Judaism as part of the world around them, there’s a chance they won’t grow up hating the unknown. So, this post is basically a call for more Jewish characters for younger readers, and especially for Middle Grade. It’s important for parents, teachers, and librarians, to promote books with Jews in them. Jewish books are Diverse books.

So, for this holiday season, while you’re sitting there and fretting over what to get, don’t worry any longer. Because, I now have fantastic news for you! I’m going to tell you about some really great books to go pick up just in time for the end of the Chanukah, which also make for wonderful reading for Christmas!

Now, admittedly, there aren’t a lot of Middle Grade books which are Chanukah-based. There are plenty of them for younger readers who like picture books, but not for the older ones. I’m going to have to rectify that. Get me my agent on the phone! But, to fill in the void, I’m going to suggest some great books by Jewish authors, which would make great gifts for the bibliophiles you care about.

So, without further ado, we’ll start with a couple that are actually centered on Chanukah. I haven’t read this one, but it looks like so much fun!

Dreidels on the Brain, by Joel Ben Izzy:

One lousy miracle.  Is that too much to ask?
Evidently so for Joel, as he tries to survive Hannukah, 1971 in the suburbs of the suburbs of Los Angeles (or, as he calls it, “The Land of Shriveled Dreams”). That’s no small task when you’re a “seriously funny-looking” twelve-year-old magician who dreams of being his own superhero: Normalman.  And Joel’s a long way from that as the only Jew at Bixby School, where his attempts to make himself disappear fail spectacularly.  Home is no better, with a family that’s not just mortifyingly embarrassing but flat-out broke.

That’s why Joel’s betting everything on these eight nights, to see whether it’s worth believing in God or miracles or anything at all.  Armed with his favorite jokes, some choice Yiddish words, and a suitcase full of magic tricks, he’s scrambling to come to terms with the world he lives in—from hospitals to Houdini to the Holocaust—before the last of the candles burns out.

No wonder his head is spinning: He’s got dreidels on the brain. And little does he know that what’s actually about to happen to him and his family this Hanukkah will be worse than he’d feared . . . And better than he could have imagined.

The next one is:

Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake by Rebecca O’Connell

FRESH, FEISTY, FUNNY.

In this Hanukkah story, Penina fi nds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn’t looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and her best friend is deserting her to go on a dream vacation to Aruba. Then Penina discovers why Mrs. Brown must go away and hears that a snowstorm may ruin Zozo’s trip, and Penina knows she’s the one who must bring some holiday spirit to her friends. Readers of all backgrounds will relate to Penina as she turns a pile of problems into a Hanukkah to remember.

 

How I Saved Hanukkah by Amy Goldman Koss

 

Marla Feinstein, the only Jewish kid in her fourth-grade class, hates December. While everyone else is decorating trees, she’ll be forgetting to light the candles and staring at a big plastic dreidel. The holidays couldn’t get much worse. So Marla decides to find out what Hanukkah’s really about—and soon she and her family have made the Festival of Lights the biggest party in town!

 

Now, some non-Chanukah books by Jewish Authors, which feature Jewish characters:

 

Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske

Kat Greene lives in New York City and attends fifth grade in the very progressive Village Humanity School. At the moment she has three major problems—dealing with her boy-crazy best friend, partnering with the overzealous Sam in the class production of Harriet the Spy, and coping with her mother’s preoccupation with cleanliness, a symptom of her worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder.

With nowhere to turn, Kat reaches out to the free-spirited psychologist, Olympia, at her new-age private school in New York’s Greenwich Village. Olympia encourages Kat to be honest. Eventually, Kat realizes that sometimes asking for help is the best way to clean up life’s messes.

 

 

This is Not the Abby Show by Debbie Reed Fischer

Abby was born for the spotlight. Now it’s her time to shine!

Abby is twice exceptional—she is gifted in math and science, and she has ADHD. Normally, she has everything pretty much under control. But when Abby makes one HUGE mistake that leads to “The Night That Ruined My Life,” or “TNTRML,” she lands in summer school.
Abby thinks the other summer-school kids are going to be total weirdos. And what with her parents’ new rules, plus all the fuss over her brother’s bar mitzvah, her life is turning into a complete disaster. But as Abby learns to communicate better and finds friends who love her for who she is, she discovers that her biggest weaknesses could be her greatest assets.
Hilarious and heartwarming, This Is Not the Abby Show is for everyone who knows that standing out is way more fun than blending in.

 

Apple Pie Promises: A Swirl Novel by Hillary Homzie

Lily has lived with her mom since her parents got divorced several years ago, and her dad has recently remarried to a woman with a daughter her age named Hannah. But now, Lily’s mom has gotten a once-in-a-lifetime work opportunity in Africa and she’ll be gone for a year, so Lily is moving in with her dad―and new stepmom and new stepsister. It’ll be as easy as apple pie, right?

Wrong. Lily promises her dad that she’ll try to get along with everyone, but she is not happy about it. Her stepmom is nice, but she’s no replacement for her real mom, and Lily feels like she barely gets any one-on-one time with her dad anymore.

The real problem, though, is Hannah. What starts out as tension between the new stepsisters becomes a full-on war, both at home and at school. Harmless pranks turn into total sabotage. Can Lily survive the year―or is her family fractured beyond repair?

 

Takedown by Laura Shovan

Mikayla is a wrestler; when you grow up in a house full of brothers who wrestle, it’s inevitable. It’s also a way to stay connected to her oldest brother, Evan, who moved in with their dad. Some people object to having a girl on the team. But that’s not stopping Mikayla. She’s determined to work harder than ever, and win.
Lev is determined to make it to the state championships this year. He’s used to training with his two buddies as the Fearsome Threesome; they know how to work together. At the beginning of sixth grade, he’s paired with a new partner–a girl. This better not get in the way of his goal.
Mikayla and Lev work hard together and become friends. But when they face each other, only one of them can win.

 

In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart

Miles is an anxious boy who loves his family’s bowling center even if though he could be killed by a bolt of lightning or a wild animal that escaped from the Philadelphia Zoo on the way there.
Amy is the new girl at school who wishes she didn’t have to live above her uncle’s funeral home and tries to write her way to her own happily-ever-after.
Then Miles and Amy meet in the most unexpected way . . . and that’s when it all begins.

 

These are just a few, and there are many more that I don’t have space for, and if I forgot some, it sincerely wasn’t intentional, but please consider getting books with Jewish characters in them, or supporting Jewish authors. Because again, Jewish books are Diverse books. Say it with me. Let’s all remember it. Jewish books are Diverse books.

Anyway, I want to wish all of our readers a very Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and everything else under the sun!

With that being said, I need to go, because Dorian Cirrone warned me not to make this post longer than the eight days of Chanukah, and I think I might’ve failed that edict.

But before I go, there’s one more thing! If you want a Christmas book written by a Jewish author, you can go pick up my own Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies! (Shameless insertion of self-promotion now complete)

 

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever? This is a very funny “scary” book for kids, in the same vein as the My Teacher books or Goosebumps.

Again, I thank all of you for reading, and until next time . . .