Welcome back to CHELSEA’S WORLD OF BOOKS. I'm your host, Chelsea DiCicco. This month, I’m pleased to introduce you to another wonderful children’s book author. She will be the highlight of our April FEATURE INTERVIEW. Please welcome Ellen Leventhal. Ellen’s Bio Ellen Leventhal is an author and educator in Houston, TX. DEBBIE’S SONG: THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN STORY is her fourth published picture book. 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, you can visit her website, www.ellenleventhal.com. So, Ellen, the first thing I’m always itching to know is the “HOW” AND “WHY” of what led you into the exciting and challenging journey to publication. What got you here? What inspired you to keep going? How long did it take you to get here? And all the bits in between. First of all, thank you so much for having me here! So, the HOW and the WHY are kind of intertwined. WAY back when I was a kid, I was constantly writing poems and songs. At the beginning, they were silly rhymes (not very good ones!), and then, of course, as a teenager, my writing was angst-filled. I never really stopped writing, but I also never thought I would write kids’ books. Then when I was teaching, I realized that I could make the curriculum more interesting and just add fun to the day with my writing. My friend Ellen Rothberg and I would go into bookstores and think, “We could do that.” Of course, we had no idea how difficult it really was! But one day, she saw a contest, we entered and won! The prize was publication. After what felt like a gazillion revisions, our debut picture book, Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets, was born. After that, I was hooked. I got involved in the kidlit community online and, when possible, in person. Through that, I found a group of wonderfully supportive people. Of course, there have been many ups and downs and lots of adventures along the way…good, bad, and ugly. And really funny! I’ve learned to just go with the flow. I laugh when I think about two specific times during a reading at Barnes and Noble. Once, I was trying to read to a group, and some clown (yes…a literal clown who was supposed to do something after me) just started doing his thing while I was reading. Then there was the time during a reading with Ellen Rothberg when, in the middle of our reading, someone drove a scooter around in front of us calling for someone. We both sincerely hope the missing “Shelby” was found. One of the funniest things happened when during a school visit, a few teachers dropped their kids off before there were other teachers to take over. It was the day before winter break, the kids got to wear pajamas, AND Santa was on the other side of the room. HOW could I compete against Santa?! Before the teachers came back, a little boy and girl were having an argument about whether that Santa was real. The girl, who said he wasn’t, turned to me to support her claim. I was in panic mode and not sure what to do. Luckily, that same little girl blurted out “That Santa can’t be real because the real one is at the mall!” Whew! And then we had a great time. Sounds like a close call! Haha. While we're on the track of school... could you tell us a little bit about your history with education and working with kids? I’ve always worked with kids in some capacity. In fact, my husband and I met when we were working together at a day camp. I taught special ed back in the70s and loved it. When I moved to Texas, I had two little ones, but I was lucky to find part-time work with kids. Then when my own kids got a bit older, I taught mostly fifth grade for many years. I “retired,” but I was back at the same school working part-time within a few months! Now, although not working at a school, I tutor and enjoy my author school visits. So yes…kids (including my own and, of course, my four adorable grandkids) have always been an integral part of my life. Here’s a hard question. Do you have a favorite manuscript/story that you’ve written? And is it one that’s currently published? If so, which one? Don’t worry, you can tell us! We won’t tell your other stories… Ha! Yes, that is hard! At this point, I think A FLOOD OF KINDNESS and DEBBIE’S SONG are my favorite published stories, but that’s probably because they are my latest. I still like my others! However, I do have an unpublished story that I love. I wrote what I thought was a picture book years ago, but it was way too long. I love the story and have been trying to weave it into a chapter book or do something with it. It’s still one of my favorites, and I hope at least some of it will appear in something else. So, as far as children’s books, I know you have DON’T EAT THE BLUEBONNETS, which came out in 2017; LOLA CAN’T LEAP, which came out in 2018, A FLOOD OF KINDNESS, which came out in 2021 (and is one of my favorites by the way) and you have another story coming out this month, April of 2023, DEBBIE’S SONG: THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN STORY. Which I’m SO excited to read! Can you tell us a little about this story and what it means to you? Thanks! I’m excited about this one too! Here's a blurb giving you a glimpse of what DEBBIE’S SONG is about: When Debbie Friedman was a little girl, music bubbled up inside her. Notes and melodies. Loud and quiet. Fast and slow. As she grew, she saw things that she believed should change. Debbie dreamed of making music that would include everyone, especially women and young people. It was difficult, but with determination to overcome obstacles and ignore those who sought to deter her, Debbie stuck to her belief that she could make the world better. Debbie's dream came true, and her transformative music changed the landscape of Jewish music forever. However, this book means so much more to me than that blurb. When I was teaching at a Jewish Day School, we sang Debbie Friedman’s music all the time. I met her briefly once but really never got to know her. As it turns out, many people here in Houston did know her, and she touched all of their lives. I’ve always loved the inclusive music she created and sang, but as I dug deeper, I learned about her struggles, which weren’t insignificant, and how she was still there for everyone during their difficult times. Had Debbie lived, she would have been the same age as I am now. Her songs were the soundtrack of my children’s education, and I felt strongly about making sure this generation learned about her and how through her story, they’ll learn that they each have a special spark inside them. Though it may not be the same, through Debbie’s story, they’ll learn that they, too, have the power to make a difference, just like Debbie did. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of publishing, and the most rewarding part of publishing? For me, there are two parts that I find very difficult, and they’re related. I have a hard time letting go of my manuscripts and sending them off. I am never sure they’re ready to go, but I’ve learned that it is possible to over-revise and lose the heart, so I’m constantly working on that balance. Then once I jump that hurdle, I find the waiting hard as well as the lack of control. I’m getting better at that second part, but it’s difficult. The most rewarding is, of course, seeing children enjoy my books. That thrill of seeing a child read one of my books will never go away. The other rewarding part of this journey is my connection to the kidlit community. There is no way I’d still doing this if it weren’t for my critique groups and friends I’ve made along the way. If you could share one piece of advice with other writers on this journey, what would it be? This is one that I need to remind myself of sometimes. Enjoy the journey. It’s a tough business, and if you are only focused on the publication, it’s easy to get frustrated. It’s important to step back and just have fun with the process. Don’t let the business aspect zap your joy of writing and storytelling. Now, because I’m a big-time lover of all things educational and a Children’s Librarian, I have to ask, what are your school visits like? And… do you do library visits too? My school visits are hopefully educational and FUN! Although I have a description of my presentations on my website, I let the librarians/teachers know that I mix and match and will do whatever I can do to support the teachers in the classroom. I always have some type of interaction with the kids. The goal of pretty much every presentation is to let them know that they all have stories to tell and they are all storytellers. And yes, although I haven’t done a lot of library visits, I’d love to do more! Here’s where you can find more about my School Visits. What was your hand’s down best experience when doing a school and/or library visit? Hmm…I’ve had so many good ones. One memorable visit was years ago when the first version of DON’T EAT THE BLUEBONNETS came out. A school in El Paso, TX, made it the monthly read for all their grades, and I was welcomed with writing and art having to do with their book and even a cake with the main character on it! The kids and staff were amazing. This was more than a normal visit because it was the 100th anniversary of the school, and we had a big celebration. We wrote stories and songs together and had a great time. BUT…that is not to say that I don’t love all my school visits. Every one of them has something wonderful and magical about them that I keep with me. Sharing my love of literacy, kindness, and inclusion is definitely my favorite part of this business. For other authors who may be interested in offering library or school visits, what recommendations would you give them on where to start? Honestly, I still struggle getting visits sometimes, so I don’t want new creators to get down on themselves. Most of my school visits have come from personal connections. You need to put yourself out there and meet people at conferences, etc. For me, word of mouth is the best thing. When librarians and teachers like what you do; hopefully, they will pass on your info to others. Don’t be afraid to ask! But honestly, I’ve gotten visits from cold emails too, so you never know. I’d say to start small. When you first start out, you’re honing your presentation skills. Maybe don’t take on a whole school at once. Start with a grade level or two and see what works. Whatever you do, I’d say to be yourself. We all have different personalities, and as with other parts of life, trying to be someone you’re not never works. And this is a new question that I want to start asking to help spread love and support for our wonderful independent bookstores. What's one (or more) local bookstore(s) that you love? Name it(them) below! I love Brazos Bookstore in Houston! Wonderful! Thank you for sharing, Ellen. As writers we know just how important indie bookstores are and we appreciate all their efforts to keep their doors open. I've gone ahead and added quick links to Brazos Bookstore's Twitter, Instagram and official website. If you live local, why not check them out?! And if you don't... you can always order from bookstores online through Bookshop.org. Okay, now for some silly/fun questions: If you were a color, what would it be? Hmm….maybe purple? No real reason except that I love it! If you could only eat three foods for the rest of your life, what would they be? So I’ll pretend there is no such things as cholesterol or anything like that for this one. I think I could eat pizza, pasta, and Chinese food. Clarification: I don’t eat a lot of these things, but one can dream. Favorite song? That all depends on my mood. Sorry…can’t pick just one. Favorite dessert? Anything that combines chocolate and ice cream together. Cat or dog? Dog Beach or mountains? For years I’d say the beach, but now I’m thinking mountains. Thank you, Ellen. We loved having you with us. But wait- it’s not over. It’s that time. Do you know what time it is? It’s time for our giveaway prize! YAY!
This month for our GIVEAWAY PRIZE, Ellen is offering a signed copy of her book DEBBIE'S SONG OR an Ask Me Anything zoom call. Winner's choice! How can I enter? The winner will be selected from COMMENTER'S below at random. (That's right, all you have to do is leave a COMMENT with your prize choice. That's it!) Please ONLY comment ONCE. Winners will be announced before or by April 15th, 2023. Thanks for joining us today! Be sure to like and subscribe to stay up-to-date with all our wonderful Feature Interviews and other blog posts. To find out more about Ellen, you can visit her website. Or find her on Twitter or Instagram Find her newest book, Debbie's Song at the links below! Brazos Bookstore (Hard cover) Brazos Bookstore (Paperback) Or Bookshop.org And most anyplace books are sold. Books by Ellen Leventhal Debbie’s Song: The Debbie Friedman Story(2023) A Flood of Kindness (2021) Lola Can’t Leap (2018) Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets (2017)