Thursday, May 14, 2009

Past STBA Winner Sarah Darer Littman Speaks

2006 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner Sarah Darer Littman graciously agreed to be interviewed for the STBA Blog. We hope to bring you more blast-from-the-past interviews in the coming months, so we can catch up with our favorite authors and see what they've been doing!

Sarah, you won the Sydney Taylor Book Award (in the Older Readers Category) in 2006 for Confessions of a Closet Catholic, your first published book. Tell us about the experience of having your first book receive this kind of recognition.

It was a tremendous honor and for someone as deeply insecure as I am, it was very affirming. I'm sure winning the Sydney Taylor Award brought the book to the attention of people who might otherwise have given it much consideration, particularly because the title. I really enjoyed getting out on the road to visit Jewish communities that had embraced the book. Plus, I got to wear a tiara! Life was good. I Of course, I then proceeded to have a dreadful and I'm sure completely unrelated case of the Second Book Blues.
Confessions of a Closet Catholic is about a Jewish girl, Justine, whose family gives her mixed messages about "how Jewish" she should be, so she tries on Catholicism for a while before returning to her roots. What was the inspiration for this unusual storyline? Do you think many kids question their faith in this way?
Growing up, I often felt there was an unspoken message to be Jewish but not "too Jewish", whatever that was supposed to mean. I don't know if that was because my parents were part of the post Holocaust generation that understandably felt there was an inherent danger for Jews in putting their heads above the parapet, or something else altogether, but the mixed signals confused me. That and the fact that I had many Catholic friends (and a serious case of Christmas envy) were sitting there in the back of my consciousness when I was taking a workshop with the late Paula Danziger and she asked the question, "What does your character have hidden in the closet?"

Now I'd been fascinated with all the rituals of Catholicism as a teen, but I'd never gone as far as sitting in my closet practicing confession with my teddy bear. Yet somehow the vision of this character, Jussy, doing just that came into my mind when Paula asked that question. When I started the book, I didn't really have any idea where it was going, but it ended up being an answer to the questions of my teenaged self.

I think that being a teen is a time of forging one's own identity, and so it's natural to question all the assumptions in one's life. I went through an agnostic phase in college, but realized that faith was important to me once I graduated and was living in New York in my 20's. If we question and still believe then our faith is an even deeper one than it was before, because we've come to it not just by rote, or because our parents sent us to Hebrew School, but because we've realized that faith is integral to living a meaningful life.
What was the reaction to this book amongst Jewish readers versus Catholic readers?
I was thrilled that Confessions had the distinction of winning the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Older Readers AND was named one of the Top Ten Books Suitable for Christmas Gift Giving by the Catholic News Service. I'll be willing to bet that hasn't happened too often in the history of the Sydney Taylor awards :-) I've had wonderful emails from readers of many denominations, and Confessions was put on the reading lists of several parochial schools. Interestingly, I found that some Jewish readers were put off by the title. I was at a Jewish Book Fair in New York City and a young girl wanted to buy the book. Her father looked at it and came over, very concerned that reading it would encourage her to leave the faith. I had a long conversation, assuring him, "Don't worry, she's Jewish at the end!"
You've got a new book out called Purge. Tell us about that.
Purge is a YA novel which tells the story of a teen girl's recovery from bulimia. Told through journal entries and scenes from her time in a psychiatric facility, readers follow Janie's journey from denial to the realization that maybe she does actually belong there, and does want to get help.

It's a very different book from Confessions, but it's a book that I felt that I needed to write. I suffered from poor body image my entire life, and was actively bulimic as an adult (I've been in recovery for seven years now). I have a daughter, and I see the tremendous pressure on girls the emphasis on looking good and being thin as opposed to being smart and achieving things. My hope in writing the book was that it would help to generate discussion about body image and eating disorders. I've got a downloadable discussion guide on my website to help get things started.
What's up next?
My next book, LIFE, AFTER, which comes out from Scholastic Press next year, returns to a more Jewish theme. Set during the Argentinean economic crisis in 2002, it follows the struggles of Daniela Bensimon, whose aunt was killed in the AMIA bombing, and her family's eventual emigration to the United States, where memories of 9/11 are fresh and being an outsider isn't easy.
Have you seen the Sydney Taylor Book Award winners for older readers that have come out since you've won? (Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse, The Entertainer and the Dybbuk by Sid Fleischman, Julia's Kitchen by Brenda Ferber) If so, what do you think of them?
Of those, I've only read Julia's Kitchen thus far, which I loved. I'm thrilled that the Sydney Taylor Committee established the award for Teen Readers. The inaugural book, The Book Thief, is one of my favorite books ever, (not to mention that I have a huge author crush on Markus Zusak) and this year's winner, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, was beautifully written and incredibly timely - I've been recommending it to everyone.
The newest crop of Sydney Taylor Book Award winners will be recognized at this summer's Association of Jewish Libraries convention. Tell us what it was like for you when you won, and tell this year's winners what they should expect!
My call couldn't have come at a better (worse?) time. If this doesn't come under the "TMI" category, a) I was having my legs waxed (never my favorite activity) and b) had just read an "I'm dumping you" e-mail by some jerk guy I'd been dating (seriously couldn't he been man enough to call?) so I'm lying there all teary eyed thinking, "Yeah, not one of my better days," and my cell phone rang. It was Heidi Estrin, who introduced herself and asked if she could record the conversation. "Yes..." I sniffled. Then she told me the good news - that'd Confessions had won the Sydney Taylor Award for Older Readers. I think the leg waxing lady thought I was nuts, because I went from sniffly and sad to happy and giggly and "OMG!OMG!" in the space of seconds!

Later that evening, I went out in New York City to celebrate with some friends, and one of them bought me a tiara. I was walking around Greenwich Village wearing my tiara and people kept coming up to me asking me if I was getting married. "No," I'd tell them. "It's much better than that - my book just won an award!!" New winners should expect to be welcomed a wonderful and supportive group of librarians. It's a fantastic experience. Mazel Tov!

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