BLOG TOUR: Lesléa Newman

I am very pleased to be a stop on the Sydney Taylor Blog Tour!

I got to e-chat with the Sydney Taylor Book Award winners in the Younger Readers Category:

The creators of Ketzel the Cat who Composed: Author Lesléa Newman, illustrator Amy June Bates.

Ketzel book jacket

Come have a listen:

 

Hi, Leslea.

Thanks for jointing me here on my blog, and agreeing to answer a couple of my questions!

Looking over your more than 70 (! wow) books, I notice that you have a number of Jewish books, and a bunch of cat books too! What about Judaism inspires you to create stories? What about cats? 

 

Being Jewish is such a core part of my identity. I was very close with both my grandmothers who came to America from “the old country” and whose first language was Yiddish. I learned basic Jewish values from them such as be kind, take care of those less fortunate than you, respect your elders, protect your loved ones, don’t only think of yourself, do your best to repair the world. I also learned about Jewish culture, holidays, and customs from my grandmothers, including the best chicken soup with matzo balls recipe ever. So naturally, when I started writing, these experiences influenced my subject matter and voice. It’s just who I am. I feel that every book I write is Jewish, even if it has no overt Jewish content, because it is informed by my being a Jew and carrying that identity with me wherever I go.

 

To answer the second part of your question, I have always been an animal lover, and have co-habitated with cats since I graduated from college. (I don’t say that I have owned cats because as all cat-lovers know, the human is owned by the cat, not the other way around). Since I spend so much time in the company of cats, it is natural for me to write about them. They are an endless source of amusement and joy; every cat I’ve ever known has given me the gift of unconditional love. I have written a funny book, called “Cats, Cats, Cats!”  which is about a woman who lives with sixty cats, a sad book called “The Best Cat in the World” which is about a boy named Victor whose cat Charlie dies, and what I hope is an inspiring book, Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

 

Are there any connections for you between cats and Jewish tradition?
What an interesting question! I think cats force us to be in the moment, and Judaism also asks us to be in the moment, to be aware, be present, be joyful and grateful to be alive. That’s where the two intersect.
I loved hearing that this story was actually based on a real life, “cat who composed”. How did you first hear about that real cat? 
I was having a nonproductive writing day, and to distract myself from the blank page, I picked up my synagogue’s newsletter. The rabbi’s column mentioned Ketzel’s New York Times obituary and spoke about Moshe Cotel and how he lived his life with kavanah (intention). Mr. Cotel was open to the beauty and magic of ordinary moments that are actually extraordinary moments, and which are all around us, including his cat’s stroll across his piano keyboard. I was completely charmed by this story and knew it was a children’s book waiting to happen. Like Mr. Cotel, I also seized the moment, and started doing some research immediately. I never know where a story idea will come from. I feel like Ketzel chose me, not the other way around, just as various other cats have wandered into my life and worked their way into my heart. 
 Lesléa and Sheba
What about that true story spoke to you and made you want to retell it and share it with children?
I just loved that a composition composed by a cat had received an honorable mention in a contest. I usually start a writing project with a question, and my question was: why, on this particular day, did Ketzel stroll down Mr. Cotel’s keyboard? I don’t know the answer to that question (only Ketzel knows!) so that’s where the fiction writer in me gets to work. And I decided to have Ketzel stroll down the keyboard out of kindness. In my book, Mr. Cotel is unhappy because he can’t compose a short piano solo for a contest. Ketzel decides that if she destroys the letter about the contest (the source of Mr. Cotel’s unhappiness), he will feel better. So she dashes down the keyboard out of love.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the book, or your writing?
I’m just so thrilled that Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed has been recognized in this way and I am grateful to the Association for Jewish Libraries for this wonderful honor.

Liked that? Check out my chat with Ketzel’s illustrator, Amy over here.

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