Sydney Taylor Blog Tour: The Author





Hi, Jaqueline! I am so pleased to have the opportunity to chat with you about your new picture book, Never Say A Mean Word Again. 
It’s feels like such a contemporary lesson, about how to treat others, but in the <ahem> starred review of the book in Publisher’s Weekly, it says that you were inspired by a traditional story/ legend about a Jewish vizier who advised the Muslim ruler of medieval Spain.
What story was that? And, what kinds of details did you alter as you created your retelling?

JACQUELINE: The story is a legend about Samuel Ha-Nagid that appears in the footnotes on page 502 of Pentateuch & Haftorahs edited by Dr. J.H. Hertz. In my synagogue, we affectionately called it the Hertz Chumash. I came across the legend when I was reading about the Torah portion in shul one morning and was immediately drawn to this story of a man who turned an enemy into a friend. Even more intriguing, was the scenario itself. A man in a Spanish medieval court was given permission, in fact, ordered to punish another man. When the Caliph hears that his vizier has been insulted, he tells his vizier, his highest advisor: “Cut out that man’s tongue!” Samuel Ha-Nagid was disobeying a direct order when he chose to befriend his enemy. One generally does not ignore a monarch, not if you want to keep your own head. And Samuel Ha-Nagid was a Jewish advisor in a Muslim court, making his position all that more precarious. I was struck by Ha-Nagid’s dilemma—which soon became my dilemma as well. How could I make this real for young readers?


I tried many different approaches, but finally decided to write the story as if it was taking place between the son of the vizier, whom I named Samuel, and a Muslim boy at court I named Hamza. The vizier in Never Say a Mean Word Again witnesses Hamza call his son, “Donkey Brain! Stupid!” The vizier could have reprimanded the offender himself. However, the vizier sees that Hamza cried out in anger after Samuel accidentally soiled his white tunic. The vizier sees that there is an opportunity make peace.


In my mind, the vizier was hoping his son would be wise enough to make friends rather than punish Hamza. However, I did not let my young character know this. When Samuel is told by his father to make sure Hamza “never says a mean word to you again,” he takes it quite literally. Young Samuel is worried (just like the real Ha-Nagid must have been) that he will be punished for not obeying a direct order.


What is a fair punishment for name-calling? What is the best way to stop someone from calling you names? These are the questions I wanted to explore when I wrote Never Say a Mean Word Again. I hope the book gives young readers and the adults in their lives much to think about and discuss.


ANN: This story is based on a legend, and your very popular Ziz series is based on a legend…you seem to have a knack for finding wonderful stories, and bringing them to modern audiences. How do you find that original story? Where do you look, what source materials? What about it draws you to it, and makes it something you want to work with?


JACQUELINE: First, let me say that I have a Masters in Library Science and I have worked as a synagogue librarian and an elementary school media specialist. As a librarian, I had the pleasure of reading folktales to my students. From the earliest days of my career, I noticed how even squirmy kids would sit up and listen to a folktale. They loved the familiar structure (things happen in threes), the repetition, and satisfying (often predictable) resolution. Like all teachers, I was hungry to find and share books I knew my students would enjoy. So I scoured my folklore sections, reading everything I could. This led me to do a little storytelling of my own.


Storytellers usually research several versions of a tale and combine various elements for an original telling. In my search for stories to tell, I stumbled upon the giant, clumsy Ziz who became the star of The Hardest Word, Noah and the Ziz, The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle, and The Princess of the Ziz. 


One of my jobs as a synagogue librarian was particularly helpful in this regard. When I worked at Adas Israel Congregation, congregants would bring in used books for a sale held every spring to raise funds for the library. It was my job to sort through these books to prepare them for the sale. If I came across a folktale collection, I would purchase it myself and devour the contents. I have been reading traditional literature for years. Folktales are like songs. They speak universal truths that make sense of the world. Since the beginning of time, people have used traditional stories to impart values and wisdom.


ANN: Have you ever found a story that you just love, but knew that there was just no-way a modern audience would be able to connect to it?  If so…what was it?


JACQUELINE: I have a couple of stories in my electronic files that I have picked up and put down over the years. When I fall in love with a story, it is because I believe it has universal meaning and contemporary relevance. If I am not able to translate it for modern audiences, I see it as temporary, something I might be able to accomplish somewhere down the line. Sometimes traditional tales need to be streamlined or updated. But the bones of a good story are timeless. It took me over a decade to figure out how to tell the legend inspired Samuel Ha-Nagid in Never Say a Mean Word Again. I have countless drafts. The story nagged me. Every year or so, I would pick it up and revise it yet again. I always believed that one day, I would find the right words to make this story as meaningful to others as it was to me.


ANN: When you’ve shared the book with others, has it prompted any interesting reactions?


JACQUELINE: I wrote a friendship song called YOU AND I to use in my school presentations for  Never Say a Mean Word Again. You can hear it performed by students at my synagogue at this link


It has been heartwarming to sing this song with students and talk about some of the questions posed in my teacher’s guide for Never Say a Mean Word Again.


Never Say a Mean Word Again explores the challenges of friendship across cultures and social status.  All students have been touched by name-calling, either as a victim or as a bystander. They are anxious to talk about it and how it can be resolved.


ANN: Is there anything else you would like to share about the book that you think folks would like to know about?


JACQUELINE: I am deeply honored by the recognition Never Say a Mean Word Again has received. In addition to a Sydney Taylor Honor, the book was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, and an American Folklore Society Aesop Prize Accolade.


I am very grateful to my publishers at Wisdom Tales who brilliantly chose Durga Yael Bernhard to illustrate Never Say a Mean Word Again. Her illustrations and design take my breath away. My editors at Wisdom Tales helped me to strengthen and clarify the story for publication. They chose a title for me when I couldn’t come up with something that captured the essence of the story. Just about every time I revised the book, I came up with a new title. None of them really worked. The manuscript was sold under the title, The Vizier’s Son, although my editor let me know early on that it needed a new title. We talked one afternoon for an hour, trying to brainstorm something that young readers could connect with AND reflected Medieval Spain. Unable to come to a decision, we decided to hang up and sleep on it. Fifteen minutes later, she e-mailed me with the perfect title: Never Say a Mean Word Again. I loved it immediately, and so did the rest of the team at Wisdom Tales.


Wisdom Tales was also the brains behind the full-page author’s note. Every reviewer has expressed an appreciation for the expanded background provided. It would not have been included without expert editorial guidance.


Please visit me at my website and take a look at the Never Say a Mean Word Again book trailer and some of the other activities I have posted there. And write me! I love to hear from readers about how they have read my book in their classrooms or with their children at home. While I am not always close enough geographically to come for a school or synagogue visit, I am happy to SKYPE with students who have read my book.


Thanks so very much for this interview, Ann, and your thoughtful questions!

ANN: And thank you, Jaqueline, for your wonderful book!

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