11 December 2014
Eric Kimmel's HERSHEL AND THE HANUKKAH GOBLINS - Guest Post and Giveaway!
Some books become classics and need to be shared again and again. Such is the case with HERSHEL AND THE HANUKKAH GOBLINS written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina is no longer with us, but I’m thrilled to have Mr. Kimmel here today to talk about the book…
Q. Mr. Kimmel, Hershel of Ostropol is so clever he even tricks the King of the Goblins. Tricksters fare strongly in so many classic tales (and in many of your books). Did you shape him after any in particular? A. I didn't have to do much shaping with Hershel. He comes fully formed. Hershel of Ostropol or Hershele Ostropolier is a traditional Jewish trickster character. He's based on a person who actually lived during the early 19th century. His character contains a number of subtle nuances. He's not just a poor guy trying to earn a living. He's a Jewish man living in Czar Nicholas I's Russia. All of Russia's czars were Jew-haters. Nicholas was one of the worst because he saw himself as a "reformer." Among his "reforms" was a program for drafting Jews into his army. Drafted soldiers served 25 years. They were as good as dead. Most never saw their homes or families again. Nicholas added an additional 6 years of service for Jewish recruits. He stuck this number at the beginning so they would go into the army at age 12. Even worse, Jewish community leaders were responsible for providing a certain number of recruits. They automatically sent off orphans and the children of the poor. If there weren't enough 12 year olds, they sent even younger children. They weren't above hiring kidnappers to fill their quotas. The Russian writer Alexander Herzen writes of encountering a convoy of 8, 9, and 10 year olds on a march down a road in winter. Even the hard-bitten sergeant was moved by their plight. He confessed to Herzen that these children were useless to the army. They should be with their mothers. Nearly all would get sick and die. What was the point?
The point was sheer oppression. Hershel lived in a world where everything was stacked against him. If he survived, it would be through his own wits. That's exactly how he gets through those eight nights with the goblins.
Q. You have been writing children’s books for 40 years! How many books have you created in total, do you know? A. I recently was asked to do a count, which I hadn't done in years. I was surprised by the number. It's 106 separate titles. But they're short. And they have pictures.
Q. What drives your passion for children’s books? A. I was a voracious reader as a child. I still am. I was hopeless at sports. Books were my friends. I could lose myself in the world of books for hours. A great deal of that passion comes from the joy and adventure that books gave me. I want to share that with children. Secondly, I despise the way reading is taught today. We don't learn to read so we can pass tests. We learn to read so we can read books. Explain to me how you can have a reading program without a well-equipped library and a trained librarian. Most schools today think they can do it. I think they're fantasizing. It's not enough to hand a child a book. You have to hand the right book to the right child at the right time. That's what makes a reader. That's why we need teachers, librarians, and parents who know and love books themselves. Don't worry if you weren't a reader as a child. You can start now. As I used to tell my children's literature classes at Portland State, "Don't worry about doing all the reading in this class. Your problem will be doing the reading for your other classes because you'll find these books so interesting and wonderful that you won't want to read anything else." That's how I feel today.
Q. The text for HERSHEL AND THE HANUKKAH GOBLINS was copyrighted in 1985. What was the industry like back then and how has it changed? A. It was another world. The industry has vastly changed…and not for the good. The industry was much more stable. An editor could expect to spend her entire career working for one publisher. She could develop authors who might be with her for decades. Not every book had to be a best seller. Editors had the freedom to publish a book because of the quality of the manuscript; because it filled a need; because they saw promise in the author. Margery Cuyler was my editor for Hershel and Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock when she was at Holiday House. I wrote some of my best books with her. I followed her to four different publishers over 25 years. She was my editor at Amazon when she retired last year. I miss her terribly.
I don't think that kind of relationship is possible these days, although there are a few exceptions. Holiday House is one. Editors acquire manuscripts. They rely on agents to do most of the editing. Their jobs hinge on acquiring books that make money. A couple of losers and they're gone. So is the author. The flip side of that is if a book is successful, the agent may offer the next manuscript to other publishers and go with the one who offers the most money. There's no loyalty and nothing long-term. The publishing industry has become like the movie industry. You're as good as your last film.
Margery made an interesting comment when I saw her in February. I had come to New York to accept the National Jewish Book Award for Hanukkah Bear and we had a chance to get together. Margery said: "In retrospect, I don't think Harry Potter was such a blessing. We had this tiny little industry that was off in a corner. Nobody knew we were here and no one bothered us. Harry Potter proved there were vast amounts of money to be made in children's books. The people who run media companies like to make vast amounts of money. Children's books suddenly began to catch their attention. That's when our world began to change."
I think she's right.
Q. Trina Schart Hyman illustrated this book. Did you know each other? Were you blown away by her illustrations? A. We knew each other in passing. We had been introduced at a reception hosted by Cricket Magazine. She was wearing a pair of antennae on her head. We became close friends after having dinner together one night at a conference. She was one of the most remarkable, wonderful people I've ever known in my life. A true artist; totally dedicated to bringing all her talent and skill to whatever project she undertook. Trina wanted to illustrate the story from the start. She grabbed it when she was art editor of Cricket Magazine. The story first appeared in Cricket in December, 1985. As Trina told me later, she was getting so tired of drawing knights and princesses. Hershel was a bit of a rogue, a welcome change, and the goblins were pure fun. She confessed that she fell a little bit in love with Hershel as she drew him.
Was I blown away by the illustrations? Who wouldn't be? And to have Trina write to me, saying that she felt this was the best work she had done in years! That was one of the high points of my career. I seriously don't think anything else ever equalled it.
What would Trina think of developments in publishing today if she were still alive? I can tell you: not much. She would easily have a profitable career drawing covers and interior art for endless fantasy series if she wanted to do it. She had no equal at that. She owned the brand. But Trina was not about brands. She was about art, integrity, creativity. She despised computers, digital art, and illustrators who had not mastered their craft and were cruising along on hype. Toward the end of her life she spent a lot of time painting with artist friends. They would sit in a studio and just paint. I don't know where those paintings are. I imagine Trina's daughter Katrin has them. I've seen some of them. They're scary, disturbing; not at all what you'd expect. That was her real art and what she took the most pride in.
I could go on and on. Let's just say I was honored to have known her and to have her consider me a friend. (Although I think she liked my wife Doris better.)
Q. Are there any subjects for a book that you haven’t covered yet and feel the need to? A. I have a lot of stories I want to write. Unfortunately, I can't find much of a market for folk tales and story picture books for older children. Editors have told me to keep the text young and short. Aim for a reader between 3 and 6. No stories about children in foreign countries. No folk tales. That pretty much leaves me out. Margery is convinced that market will come back. I'm not so sure, but I'm willing to wait and see. Meanwhile, I'm working with smaller presses. A small book is better than no book at all.
No matter what happens in the future, I'm fortunate in that I've had a great career and that I've written books that have given children lots of pleasure. A few, like Hershel and the Anansi stories, are finding a second and even third generation of readers. It's not how many books you write. What matters is how good they are. As I often tell children when I visit schools, Harper Lee only wrote one book in her entire life. As long as that book is To Kill A Mockingbird, you don't have to write anything else.
I like to think I've written a couple that might almost be that good.
Thank you so much for being so candid, Mr. Kimmel. It's been an honor to have you drop by.
Holiday House has kindly offered to send a free copy of HERSHEL AND THE HANUKKAH GOBLINS to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US to win - enter below.
Illustrations © 1989 by Trina Schart Hyman Used by permission of Holiday House.