I am thrilled to feature my dear friend and critique partner Ellen Leventhal on the blog to highlight her beautiful new book, DEBBIE'S SONG: THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN STORY (illustrated by Natalia Grebtsova, Kar-Ben Publishing/Lerner Book Group, 2023). You can read my earlier interviews with Ellen about her other wonderful picture books here and here. Ellen shares about her inspiration and research for her latest book, and chats about stories, creativity, and connection. Welcome back, Ellen!
STORIES – Discuss the inspiration for your ideas and stories, and share the process about your latest projects.
Thank you for having me on your blog again, Melissa!
Most of my ideas come from personal observations or experiences. It can be from noticing something that piques my curiosity or pulling a small memory from my life and then taking off. As my mind meanders and I process feedback from critique partners, the final project sometimes doesn’t even have that initial idea! I actually love how one small spark can morph into something completely different.
Regarding DEBBIE’S SONG, THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN STORY, my inspiration was a little bit of both observation and experience. I’d met Debbie a few times and was always so impressed. Had she lived, we’d be the same age, and she spent some time here in Houston, so I have friends who knew her well. I’ve always felt a connection with her. While teaching at a Jewish Day School, my students and the whole congregation often sang her songs. Fast forward to a few years ago when I was working part time at that same school. I walked past my old classroom, and Debbie’s words and melodies floated back to me. It hit me that I hadn’t seen any children’s books about her, and I felt like there needed to be. I contacted Debbie’s sister, Cheryl, and interviewed several people who knew Debbie, and went from there, digging into articles, films, and books. I am so honored to get the chance to help introduce Debbie to another generation and to have a tiny part in preserving her legacy.
CREATIVITY -- How do you showcase your creative side through writing/illustrating and other pursuits?
Aside from writing with the goal of getting published, I love to write just for fun. Although it’s difficult time-wise, I try to write a short poem at least a few times a week with no thoughts of sending it anywhere. I also like writing poems for friends and family on special occasions. I sure wish I could draw too!
CONNECTION -- How do you connect to your young readers through your writing/illustrating, and how do you stay connected to the KidLit community?
Like many KidLit writers, I love doing school author visits. In order to connect with kids, which is our ultimate goal, I feel that we need to include their teachers and librarians in discussions. They know their kiddos, and as a guest, I don’t, so I try to engage them in conversations before deciding what I will do for a particular school or grade. I found that when I do that, different opportunities arise. For example, I am currently working with a small group of eighth graders on writing their own picture book. My first session was all about connecting with and getting to know them. The kids themselves decided to ask me to teach them to write a picture book. I’m so excited about this program!
As far as staying connected with the KidLit community, I prioritize that too. I have my own blog, where I get to meet a lot of talented writers and illustrators, I belong to 12x12, Courage to Create, and of course, my local SCBWI chapter. And of course, my wonderful critique groups are indispensable. Honestly, there have been times recently when I wanted to give up, but the KidLit community was there to listen and encourage. I have made wonderful friends, like our own Melissa Stoller through the KidLit community, and I believe that connections keep us going.
Ellen Leventhal is an author and educator in Houston, TX. Her fourth published picture book is her newest publication, DEBBIE’S SONG: THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN STORY (Kar-Ben Publishing/Lerner Book Group 2023). Ellen’s work has also appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Ellen’s best days are when she can interact directly with students and spread her love of literacy, compassion, and kindness. To find out more about Ellen’s books, writing projects, and school visits, please go to her website https://EllenLeventhal.com
CONNECT WITH ELLEN: