A Conversation with Author Michael J. Rosen

September 2012

A Conversation with Author Michael J. Rosen

Zelda Shluker

Author Michael J. Rosen.
Michael J. Rosen, 47, collaborated with artist Robert Sabuda to create Chanukah Lights (Candlewick Press), a keepsake Hanukka book of spare text and intricate, pop-up paper-cut scenes of historic Jewish life. Rosen is a prolific editor and author of books for both grownups and children, more than 80, in fact. For nearly 20 years, he was the literary director of The Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. A poet and illustrator, his three previous books for Jewish children include the multi-award-winning Elijah's Angel: A Story for Chanukah and Christmas (Sandpiper).

Q. How did this book come about? Whose idea was it? How did you get involved in the project?
A. I’ve admired Robert’s work from his very first books. I approached him to contribute to two benefit books that I created: One donated its profits to Share Our Strength’s fight to end childhood hunger; the other supported a variety of animal welfare agencies. Through that, and an exhibit of Robert’s work that I hosted at The Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, we became friends.

When he published his first pop-up book—the sensational and sensationally successful Twelve Day of Christmas—we had an easy connection…and once again, I approached him about doing an obvious follow-up to that holiday book. He was all in. And so was Candlewick Press. But, as publishing entanglements go, it took another 15 years to clear the path for our collaboration.

Q. The book is all about the Hanukka candles, their flames, a people moving from place to place, taking the flames with them wherever they go. How does this reflect what you think Hanukka means? What do the candles stand for?
A. Many conversations with rabbis and friends later, I arrived at a few key ideas that provided the underpinning of the book. To cite just two: The “stage” of Hanukka is set at the end of a battle that historians often cite as the first "war" over religious freedom. The Festival of Lights is a recognition of the lastingness of one burning lamp but, moreover, it’s a recognition of the lastingness of the Jewish faith.

So Hanukka celebrates the fact that throughout the ages, under a variety of oppressive regimes and amid so much hate-fueled zealotry, the Jewish people persisted in rededicating themselves to their faith. It could be said that the history of the Jews centers around making peace with larger cultures while maintaining their own identity.

Second, the lights of the menora are not meant to provide illumination. They aren’t to see by; they are to be seen themselves…by those in the house, and by all those passing by. I wanted the book to capture an element of that: to be an illumination itself, something to show others proudly.

Q. How did you choose the eight scenes represented in the book?
A. The first scene, the desecration of the Temple, was the obvious first window. Otherwise, I chose seven other scenes that would provide the most varied and distinctive “windows” that cross the span of centuries; scenes that allowed Robert to create a dramatic, surprising pop-up; scenes that might invite a young reader to be delighted, yes, but also inspired to ask questions. For instance, the scenes are not labeled with a specific place and time. There’s a refugee ship—but it was our intention that it might stand for any of the many, many voyages Jewish people undertook. There’s a shtetl in the shadow of towering architecture that could be any number of Russian or Eastern European places and time periods.

Q. I know you have created other Jewish books. Why did you want to do this one?
A. Guilty as charged! In fact, I’ve done three other Hanukka books, including Elijah’s Angel: A Story for Chanukah and Christmas, which won the Jewish Book Award—my first book! And it has remained in print since 1992.

Teaming up with a creative genius like Robert provided a unique opportunity and challenge. I remember our first conversations very vividly. We started by considering a Hanukka alphabet book. And Robert sent me a kids’ book with photo illustrations. The pages were scrawled with his writing: “Oh, please!” and “Oy!” and “Stop torturing me!” and “The worst!” accompanied the illustrations that assigned “umbrella,” “vest,” “xylophone” and “zebra” to the Hanukka alphabet.

But then Robert charged me with creating a story that would be different from the crowded shelf of Hanukka books out there—my own included. “And keep this in mind,” he said, “I am not illustrating latkes, presents or families lighting candles.”

We also wanted to create a gift that families could share and cherish. The very fact that this elaborate and fragile book needs a grown-up to share it with a very young child, makes it an intergenerational experience. Like lighting a menora, it’s a chance to share awe.

Speaking of fragile, you’ll be amazed to learn that Chanukah Lights is created with 201 pieces of paper, 647 folds, and 392 dots of glue—in 187 minutes!

Q. Robert Sabuda’s intricate paper-cut pop-ups represent different periods of Jewish history. Did he have to do much research to create these illustrations in such detail?
A. Robert and the members of his studio spent many weeks pouring through visual representations of each scene. They offered alternatives, raised questions (“Would it be sacrilegious to show a monkey posed on the roof of the synagogue in Brazil?” They moved it to a nearby palm.) That research wasn’t just for authenticity and integrity. Those details give him inspiration, creating directions and possibilities that weren’t a given at the outset. For instance, I suggested a scene of Jews setting off for the New World; Recife, Brazil, being the first Jewish settlement here, seemed ideal. But I didn’t remember (Sunday school was many years ago!) that the people were Dutch…and that they did, in fact, have windmills, which Robert’s team documented. And so that spread shows the architecture amid the tropical palm trees, and then, yes, a windmill that spins as the page turns.

Q. Do you have any other Jewish projects on tap—like Passover?
A. I’d very much like to do a book for the Seder. A pop-up book that could be a beautiful centerpiece. Over lunch a few months ago, I mentioned this to Robert. His eyes lit up at the idea of engineering the parting of the Red Sea! The ten plagues…not so much. We’ll see how this book fares, and hope for another chance.

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