It’s been a good week for Jewish authors.
Writers across the country are celebrating receiving honors from the annual Sydney Taylor Book Awards, recently announced by the Association of Jewish Libraries — including two locals.
Katherine Locke was driving to work one day when “99 Red Balloons” came on the radio. In her head, she saw a girl going over a wall, carried by a red balloon, and let her imagination run with it.
That chase “down the rabbit hole” resulted in the Kennett Square resident’s young adult novel, The Girl with the Red Balloon, which was awarded a Sydney Taylor Honors silver medal.
It follows 16-year-old Ellie Baum, who accidentally time travels via magical red balloon to 1988 East Berlin. The story is narrated through three perspectives across three timelines: Ellie’s, in present day as well as 1988; her grandfather’s, in 1941 and 1942 as he escapes a concentration camp; and Kai’s, a Romani teenager in Berlin Ellie meets during her journey.
“I’m really interested in the way memory and identity interact with each other, and I wanted to find a story where I could explore that,” said Locke, who belongs to Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington.
The research process to inform the world of East Berlin in 1988 was quite involved, Locke admitted, but she found stories she’d never heard before, like the skateboarding culture among teenagers in East Berlin in the 1980s.
“I didn’t learn about East Berlin in school growing up,” she noted, “so it was a really fun process for me to learn about the resistance and the ways people rebelled and found joy and hope and community in a climate that was not set up to foster that type of community.”
A young adult writer, she wanted to write a story that appealed to teenagers in a new way. Namely, with a Jewish character whose story was not set in the Holocaust.
As Ellie was pulled back in time, Locke deliberately did not want her to be transported to the time of the Holocaust.
“I really want more books where Jewish teenagers are heroes of their own story and are not victims of a greater tragedy,” she said. “I want that to be something that we’re writing and giving teenagers is that we are more than our victimhood and we have the same adventures and the same romances and the same trials and tribulations as our American teenagers get in young adult fiction.”
Being named to the Sydney Taylor awards list was a dream for Locke.
“You’re not supposed to make external goals in publishing … like winning awards — but I really, really wanted to be on this list,” she laughed. “The Sydney Taylor Book Award list every year has guided my reading and I’ve discovered so many wonderful Jewish books through it I would never have found on my own.”
As she prepares for the October publication of The Spy with the Red Balloon — the companion book to The Girl — she’s also looking forward to continuing work on an anthology of Jewish young adult short stories, written by Jewish young adult authors, that she is co-editing for a fall 2019 release.
“I am super excited that it is going to exist in the world,” she said. “It’s exactly what I would have wanted and needed as a Jewish teen.”
Meantime, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher Judith Pransky was named the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award winner for The Seventh Handmaiden. The award is given “to an unpublished manuscript that has broad appeal to readers aged 8-13 and presents Jewish life in a positive light.”
Her novel follows Darya, a young girl in Persia who becomes an enslaved handmaiden to Queen Esther. Mixed with the fictional characters Pransky created are also those of the Megillah.
When she teaches ancient history to her students, she tries to do something her own teachers didn’t do when she was a student: blend secular history with Jewish history.
As they were learning about ancient Persia, she thought of the story of Purim and was influenced by a historian’s work fitting the story of the Megillah into ancient Persian history.
“I started thinking about how do I bring this to life and who are these people, and I had the idea of writing about this girl who ends up in the palace and what is her story,” Pransky said. “The book is about the girl, it’s not about Queen Esther, but of course the whole Purim story is in the background.”
Its title was chosen as per the Megillah, Queen Esther had seven handmaidens, one for each day of the week, which became her method of tracking the days so she could observe Shabbat. In the story, Darya becomes her seventh handmaiden, thus marking Shabbat.
As it is geared toward young readers, she hopes prospective future readers will gain from the novel what she hopes her students learn in her classroom. Her grandchildren who have already read it were immersed in the story, she said, adding with a laugh they had to keep reminding themselves their grandmother was the author.
“I’m hoping that my students and other young people will read it, get involved in it, and absorb the history along with it — the secular history and the Jewish history,” she said.
As she continues to search for a publisher for Handmaiden, she was thrilled to be chosen as the award winner and hopes it will help the novel find a home. That she found out she won the same week she learned a children’s book she wrote was headed to bookstores didn’t hurt either.
“I did not expect to win this award, I really didn’t, and it was amazing,” she enthused. “I hope that whenever it gets published that they enjoy it, just like you want people to enjoy any novel that’s written.”
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