Sunday, March 9, 2014

Exploring nature with Israeli author/illustrator Miri Leshem-Pelly

I have to admit, I debated putting the word “Israeli” in the title of this post.  Kids are kids, writers are writers, and illustrators are illustrators.  There shouldn’t be any distinctions based on where they live.

But I’m also a happy, proud citizen of my new country, and I love both discovering and sharing the best of its culture.  So I approached a couple of well-known authors here and Miri Leshem-Pelly, reigonal advisor of SCBWI’s tiny Israel chapter (SCBWI is the of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) actually agreed to “chat” with me.  I’m so honoured!

I also discovered a couple of key differences between the children’s writers’ market here and in the U.S. – including a possibly-unhealthy obsession of American publishers.  But more about that a bit later on.

Israeli author, universal themes

I’m not sure what comes to mind when I say “Israeli author,” but Miri’s work is so much more universal than whatever that phrase invokes. 

Most of her books are about nature, reflecting the beauty, innocence and fun of wildlife – along with a hint of the challenges that nature holds for these young creatures.

One of her books has been translated into English already – Lon-Lon’s Big Night, about a little sand fox living in Israel’s Negev desert.  There are many more available in Hebrew only, including her most recent, Luti and Tery the Otter Cubs.

Because so many of her books deal with the local critters here in Israel, she hasn’t really tried to take them beyond the borders.  But she hopes that will change in the near future, and she has several English manuscripts in the works.

Miri’s also (so far) the only Israeli author participating in Authors for Earth Day, a global event that will get authors out into schools during the month of April, while the proceeds of the author visit go to conservation charities – as voted on by kids in the school.  She’ll be reading at the Naomi Shemer school in Tel Aviv (a name close to my heart since I wrote a book for my daughter Naomi about this famous Israeli songwriter, her namesake).

The Interview

I was very, very grateful that Miri answered my questions in her excellent English.  That made things much easier!

The first question is a standard one I like to ask everybody who agrees to chat with me.  The second (suggested by Miri based on her own publishing experience) reveals key differences between the kids’ book market in the U.S. as compared to here in Israel.  And the last question reveals the sources of inspiration that Miri has drawn from the land itself.

All emphasis in bold is mine.

WriteKidsBooks (WKB): How is a kids' book different from an adult book?

Miri Leshem-Pelly (MLP): Children’s books, especially picture books, are visual books, with fewer words and more pictures than an adult book. Writing a picture book is [hard…] you need to find a way to create a world and a plot using a very limited number of words. This makes each word "weigh" a lot more than a word in an adult book… As an author, I must inspect each and every word in my story and ask: “Is this word really necessary? Is it the best fit or should I replace it with a better one?” And, since I'm also the illustrator I love the part where I can tell the story not just in words, but also in pictures, something that isn't very common in adult books.

WKB: As an Israeli author who is also published by an American publisher, are there any differences between the children’s publishing industry in the U.S. and here in Israel?

MLP:   We all know there is a big difference in the size of the two markets, but there are many other differences. First – the categorizing in the American market is very distinctive – Picture books, MG, YA, chapter books, fiction and non-fiction, and so on. All these categories don't exist in the Israeli children’s books market! We have all of those different kinds of books, but we don't use the titles of the different categories – we say “children’s books” and “youth books,” and that's it. One more difference is the word count. In America, all publishers count the number of words in every submission, and there are unwritten rules for authors, such as “picture books should have no more than 600 words.” In Israel, publishers don't count the words, and more importantly – readers don't care about it either! Some very successful and bestselling picture books in Israel have a lot of words in them and nobody complains. I sometimes feel that word count had become an obsession in America… is it really all that important? I wonder.

WKB: How has growing up and living in Israel affected what you write and draw?

MLP: I grew up in a nature-loving family, and during my childhood, we went on trips in nature almost every weekend. I love nature in Israel; it’s very diverse. Within a small area, we have such different landscapes and climates: high snowy mountains and hot, dry deserts, lots of beaches, forests and rivers, lakes, caves, craters, ancient cities, and even the lowest place on earth – the Dead Sea. It's all here in one small country, and those conditions also create a great diversity in species of plants and wild animals. So this is my favorite subject for writing and illustrating. Actually, 9 out of my 12 published books are about Israeli nature topics.

You can visit Miri and see samples of her work at her website, which has an English page here.

SCBWI has also published a longer interview with her on their blog here.

So… what did you THINK an “Israeli writer” would be like?  Does Miri fit the stereotype?


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