A picture book about a woman pioneer in computer programming.
A murder mystery about a man who isn’t sure if he killed his girlfriend.
A fictional story based on a real woman who, along with her son, helped a Sudanese refugee reunite with his family.
These are a few of the premises of books written by local authors — many of whom were Jewish — who gathered at the Katz JCC on Sept. 13 as part of an event celebrating area talent with a keynote evening featuring perhaps the most well-known local author, Jennifer Weiner.
It was a chance for local authors to get to share their stories with the community ahead of the JCC’s annual Bank of America Arts, Books and Culture Festival, which will head into its 27th year in November.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve gotten so many requests from so many people here in the community that we just don’t have enough spots in our one-week festival to highlight the local authors,” said Katz JCC Cultural Director Sabrina Spector. “The goal and objective of this particular event was to give more local authors more exposure and perhaps be able to stand out on their own.”
Laurie Wallmark came from Hunterdon County, N.J. to share her book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, a picture book detailing the accomplishments of the first woman computer programmer — something close to Wallmark’s heart as a former computer programmer who teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College.
Ada Byron Lovelace — who was Romantic poet Lord Byron’s daughter — was “one of the many unsung heroes of women in science,” which prompted Wallmark to write about her.
“I thought this was someone whose name needed to be known, and I want to encourage children — both girls and boys — to realize that women can be mathematicians, women can be scientists,” Wallmark said.
Next to Wallmark was a cheerful explosion of yellow as Colleen Rowan Kosinski discussed with readers her book, Lilla’s Sunflowers, while surrounded by vases of sunflowers and donning a floral headband to match.
“It’s about a little girl whose father went away to serve in the military, and they used to enjoy planting a sunflower garden, and when he leaves she gives him a seed,” said Kosinski, who lives in Cherry Hill and did all of the illustrations for her book as well. “When he’s over in Afghanistan, he plants it and when he comes home, she starts getting letters from all these people that he served with because he gave seeds from that plant to other people, so it spread across the country.”
Since its publication in July, she has received feedback from families with members serving overseas who said the book has helped them.
“I had a veteran who almost started crying because he said he was away during the Korean War, and he would like to read this to his grandchildren and explain why he was away from their mother,” she said.
Attendees headed into the auditorium to hear from another local author who was there to discuss her newest books as well as talk about truly anything the audience wanted: Jennifer Weiner.
Weiner — who has dipped her toes into middle grade books with the publication of The Littlest Bigfoot and has a set of personal essays, Hungry Heart, out in October — brought laughs and insight as she talked candidly with the audience. She discussed everything from how she decides what to write for her New York Times opinion pieces to her mom falling in love with a woman at a JCC pool.
She read an excerpt from The Littlest Bigfoot — the first in a trilogy — introducing the audience to its main characters: an aspiring singer who feels stuck in her Bigfoot skin named Millie, and a clumsy and lonely human (or a No-Fur as the Bigfoots call them) named Alice, both of whom feel out of place in their worlds until they find each other.
So how did the Jewish Philadelphian who wrote Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, among many others, get into writing a book with Bigfoots for 8- to 12-year-olds?
Her 8-year-old daughter, Phoebe, helped plant the seed with her obsession with a show called Finding Bigfoot on the Discovery Channel. From there, they imagined what Bigfoots would be like and if they would sell goods on Etsy and how they would interface with humans.
Readers — kids and adults alike — will soon be able to see the story on the big screen, as the book is in the works to become an animated movie.
But even though it’s animated, she said not to expect to see Selena Gomez in the lead.
An advocate for body representation and confidence as seen through her recent movement on Facebook where she encouraged women to post photos of themselves in swimsuits to feel confident, Weiner said she hopes the characters will remain true to their “spirit and size” in the movie.
“It was an interesting negotiation because I was like, ‘Look, this is about a big girl and a Bigfoot,” she said, “and the big girl can’t be played by someone who looks like an Olsen twin and the Bigfoot cannot be played by Selena Gomez with bedhead.’
“I do believe representation matters and I do think that the fact that every once in a while, whether it’s Melissa McCarthy or Ashley Graham, you can glimpse somebody bigger out there in the world, that’s a good thing and it can make you feel less alone in your own skin.”
She shared anecdotes about her two daughters and how she hopes that maybe they won’t be interested in reading her books (especially her 13-year-old, who keeps trying to sneak a copy of the very personal Hungry Heart), her love for The Bachelor and whether Good in Bed was autobiographical (“I think it was me at 28. It was me after a really bad breakup. It was me at my most sarcastic and bitter, and I’m not that way anymore,” she said to laughs.)
Weiner’s just happy to be able to continue doing what she’s always loved.
“Since I was old enough to know what jobs were, this was the job that I wanted,” she reflected. “I’m so incredibly lucky I got to do it when I grew up … Children’s book, adult book, opinion piece — it’s all good. It all makes me happy.”