I first met Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh at the Skirball Museum three years ago when attending a children’s book writers’ conference. She had just sold her first book, “Can You Hear a Coo Coo?” to Kar-Ben Publishing. Debuting with a board book is rare for non-illustrators in the children’s book industry so I was intrigued to learn her backstory. Now I’m delighted to share it with you. Incidentally, Jamie will be reading “Can You Hear a Coo Coo?” at Jewish Federation’s PJ Library event on Sunday, January 13 at the Southern California Children’s Museum in Pasadena, from 10:30 am -12:00 pm. There is a $5 admission charge per child and adults are free. PJ Library is gifting each family with a copy of Jamie’s book.
Please tell readers something about yourself that informs your writing.
I studied English Literature at Wellesley College, where I made the lucky decision to take a poetry course with Frank Bidart (2018 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) … Prof. Bidart taught me to take what I’d written and break it out of the molds I’d made. He’d say I was trying too hard to force my poems into forms, and that I needed to let the poems take over.
Another important thing that informs my writing is music. I read all my work aloud, listening for rhythm. I studied Middle Eastern dance for years, and I’ll sometimes tap out complex rhythms while I’m looking for a fresh-sounding way to present a story.
I write lyrics too, and that has taught me the importance of the way words sound. Internal rhyme, vowel rhyme, and prosody make such a difference to both the storyteller and the listener. Frankly, some of the best songs on the radio don’t make a lot of lyrical sense, but they sound wonderful. Our challenge as children’s book authors is to make our books sound that good and make sense, too!
As a parent of a special needs child, do you feel we need more inclusive-themed children’s books?
Absolutely. Inclusiveness is my platform, my passion, and my cause. My daughter is essentially non-verbal, she uses an iPad and gestures to help her speak, and she walks with a walker. She attends a fully integrated preschool, CHIME, in Northridge, California. That means she has both typically developing classmates, and classmates with disabilities. I want all kids to be able to see themselves in books.
And there’s even more to inclusivity than that. I aim to make all my books accessible to kids with and without special needs, meaning that they’re written with kids of all learning abilities in mind. My books highlight rhyme, rhythm and repetition—three elements shown to be easiest for the brain to process.
What motivated the story of “Can You Hear a Coo Coo?”
Joni Sussman, Kar-Ben’s publisher, loved the idea of a board book, and so did PJ Library. Like me, they had been monitoring the board book market and finding that so many were simply board versions of picture books or nonfiction (images with words beneath them). I wanted babies and toddlers to have quality stories created just for them. I was lucky that Kar-Ben and PJ Library shared my vision.
What does it mean to be a
PJ Library author?
I am deeply indebted to PJ Library for giving my books wide distribution. The PJ Library editors are so open-minded, and seeking inclusive Jewish children’s books of all kinds (that includes Jews of color, differently-abled characters, and more). I write the books of my heart, and submit them to PJ Library for consideration … It’s an unbelievable honor when PJ Library chooses one of my stories. I have three more books coming up with PJ Library.
Tell us about your upcoming books.
My next two books, “A Hoopoe Says, Oop! Animals of Israel,” illustrated by Ivana Kuman, and “Listen! Israel’s All Around: Sounds of Israel,” illustrated by Steve Mack, are both board books … coming out in March, 2019. Both books play with rhyme and rhythm.
Next will come “Kol Hakavod! Way to Go,” illustrated by Sarah Jayne-Mercer. That’s a lyrical picture book about the Hebrew phrase “Kol Hakavod!”, which is an idiomatic way of saying, “Way to go!” or “Good for you!” It shows many ways a young child could earn that praise for doing seemingly small mitzvot. Sarah, who lives in England, read my mind when she created the illustrations, and I am bursting with excitement about this book.
Finally, there’s “Construction Kitten.” This is a loosely rhyming picture book about a boy who discovers a stray kitten living on a construction site in Israel. He vows to find it a home even though Israel is overrun by stray cats and it seems no one can find room for another. It’s based on a real kitten whom I met during a trip to Israel.
Do you have a favorite childhood book?
One favorite is “The Carrot Seed” by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. It is a perfect fable for our time. Have faith in your slow-growing project, even if the world tells you, in the guise of kindness, to give up. The results you reap may be bigger than you imagined.
What do you love most about writing children’s books?
I love feeling that I’m speaking and acting my truth. This is a job where I feel I’m not compromised. I’m always aiming to give the most and the best of myself for a greater good, and I feel that the children’s book community encourages and even insists on that!
RONNA MANDEL is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. you can find her blog at goodreadswithronna.com