Thursday, April 3, 2014

Deconstructing the story: Mini-Interview with Writer/Illustrator Rinat Hoffer


Rinat Hoffer is probably the most popular and perhaps prolific children’s-book author in Israel today. But for me and my kids, she’s something more – a friendly, fun bridge to Israeli culture and life in this strange, busy, modern country.

We first “met” her books back in Canada at our local public library. I can’t tell you how long it would take me to pick books from their Hebrew books shelf.

Before continuing, I just want to show you what MOST of the Hebrew kids’ books that I found looked like inside:


Yes, they really were this bad.  And this is one of the good ones.  I mean, the bunny and girl are kind of cute.  It’s just dated, with little sense of design and overly dense text.

The language inside (and these are kids’ books, not War and Peace!) was almost as incomprehensible to me as it is to you (unless you’re fluent, in which case, skip to the end – there’s a video). And the art… well, growing up with many of the classics of modern kidlit, something was definitely lacking.

Even back in Canada, Rinat helped change my mind completely.

Sweet and surreal and funny

imageComing across Rinat’s books was an eye-opener. Hebrew books didn’t have to be dull! They could be as good as any other kids’ books we had enjoyed in English. I know this now that I live here, but at the time, with limited access to great books, it was a revelation.

The first one we found at our library (in Canada!) was Hanan Haganan, “Hanan the Gardener.”


(note:  as “Giddy the Gardener,” the English translation rights are apparently still available)

Short on text, long on great rhymes and subtle humour – now this was a book I could read with ease, and love. It’s the tale of a gardener who sells fruits – many varieties of weird fruits, but all with a “treasure” at their heart.

The kids buy the fruits, eat them, and then come running back to Hanan to yell at him: “where’s our treasure?” Hanan shows them how to plant the seeds and where each was planted, a tree sprouts, bearing dozens of fascinating new fruits in every colour of the rainbow – each with a treasure at their heart.

Here’s a sketch from the book’s interior as a work in progress:


This story is sweet, and funny, too – among the multi-coloured “fruits” growing on the trees are boots and corn-on-the-cob.

A touch of the surreal

All of her books are like that, whether they’re centred around a big purple monster or a boy and his snail or this little girl named Ayelet (pronounced ah-YELL-ette) who goes for a walk and ends up strolling with a snail on her shoe and a giraffe perched on the tip of her nose.

image  image

Whether human or animal, all of Rinat’s characters have a touch of the surreal and a great big splash of whimsy and fun. They’re the kind of illustrations you want to come back to again and again, as are the words, with their rhyming predictability (often carried over from one page to the next – so fun!).

And by the way, as a newcomer to the language, rhyme in Hebrew is sometimes hard for me to read. Not with Rinat’s books. You get the feeling she’s practiced reading the books over and over, many times, or that somebody has, because the rhymes are perfect and the reading is easy – even for a dummy like me.

If you write rhyme, there’s a lesson for you here – make it clear, make it readable, even for non-native speakers.

And if you draw pictures, make them deep and full of detail; as I’ll let Rinat herself tell you in a second.

The Interview

Beyond the Hebrew thing, I’m always intrigued by the process of writing and illustrating your own books, so when I started doing interviews for my blog, Rinat was one of the first writers who came to mind. Happily, she agreed to chat with me – via email, in Hebrew.

I have translated her responses myself, and I hope I’ve done some justice to her intentions.

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

Rinat Hoffer (RH): The books I create are different from adult books mainly in the great importance of the books’ illustrations, and the unique combination of words and images. In books for preschoolers, the text must be very short , and the illustrations contribute additional meanings. [Kids’ books must be written with] accuracy and depth, allowing them to be read and re-read over and over, and always remain interesting and challenging.

WKB: What are your favourite children’s books of all time?

RH: I’ve always really liked the children's poetry books of Nurit Zarchi, and the stories of Leah Goldberg.

[inconsiderate blogger interrupt begins]

Unfortunately, neither of these authors is currently available in English, that I could find.


It is worth noting, however, that Rinat recently help turn Goldberg’s beloved 1949 song The Magic Hat into a delightful children’s book


The song lyrics read: “Every day, every day, I dream of a magic hat. A little hat with a feather that does everything I want…”

[inconsiderate blogger interrupt ends – just in time for the last question!]

WKB: Your characters always seem very interesting and special. In general, what do you create first of all? Do you begin by drawing the characters of the story, or by writing the words of the story? Or do you imagine them both at the same time?

RH: When I create a book I usually write and draw simultaneously. I develop the characters and the plot by writing rhyming passages and drawing sketches. Even at an early stage, I’m already creating visualizations that help me to decide on the structure and design of the book. I deconstruct the story into scenes and then decide how each two-page spread should look. Books usually start from the seed of a very general idea, and the illustrations turn the characters and their surroundings into a reality.

Thanks for “chatting” with me, Rinat.  I apologize again for my lousy Hebrew!!!

Deconstructing the story

Rinat’s last point is so important I want to revisit it for a second.

Too many writers (and illustrators!) of kids’ books don’t seem to know what a children’s picture book is actually supposed to look like when it’s complete – nitty-gritty, like how many pages they need, and how they should be laid out. Here’s a good post (in English!) that shows you a tantalizing slice of the process.

And her point up above about accuracy and depth – well, that’s exactly what drew me to her books in the first place, so I was astounded when I saw her articulate it that precisely. Obviously, she’s put a lot of thought into her craft – and it shows.

More about Rinat

If you understand Hebrew and want to hear Rinat talking about the process of creating books and the inspiration she draws from the everyday life of children (or just watch her doodles in action, which is something special even with the language barrier), here’s a short video interview:

Beyond her kids’ books, Rinat has also put out an album of her songs for kids (not sung by her) and won the Zeev and Gutman prizes for illustration.  Her work was presented as part of a collection of Israeli children’s illustrators at the Bologna Book Fair last month. 

My 6-year-old son was peering over my shoulder as I wrote this post and chose illustrations, and I asked him which cover picture I should include, out of all the books we now own and have read from the library here. 

He picked this wonderfully detailed purple monster, and I agree with his choice.  This was actually his “Shabbat book” to borrow and bring home from his kindergarten last week.  The illustrations here perfectly highlight Rinat’s style… they’re complex and full of details you miss on the first reading, which just means you have to read it again and again and again.


Here’s a link to Rinat’s author page at her publishing company. However, because that’s all in Hebrew, and because I’d love it if you could check out more of her work, here’s a Google Image Search link so you can see more images from some of her dozens of books. I wanted to include a representative sample, but not to overwhelm you – and perhaps leave you hoping to see more (even in English?) sometime soon.

If you’re from another country (almost everybody is!), who are the truly beloved writers there?  What would you ask him/her if you could?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing! Your post has been included in Haveil Havalim: a weekly roundup of what’s best from the Jewish / Israeli blog world.


As always, I love to hear from you.