I have so many book creator friends, including the brave, resilient and funny Laurel Snyder. Today she is sharing a bit about her newest book, Orphan Island (HarperCollins ). *ahem* I was there when Orphan Island almost wasn’t. Over dinner in Baltimore, Laurel and I chatted about how tough this creative life is. She told me about being drawn to this story, despite huge roadblocks. I am so proud she persevered and so in awe of this amazing new book. Take it away, Laurel!
About a decade ago, when my first middle grade book (Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess) was coming out, I recorded a podcast with a wonderful Jewish librarian named Heidi Estrin. I didn’t see it coming, but that interview ended up being an important turning point for me. Because Heidi asked me, reasonably, what made my book Jewish, and I found I didn’t have an answer for her.
As a human, I was Jewish. My adult poetry and essays engaged with Judaism. But somehow, when I wrote for kids, I washed the Judaism out of my writing. I don’t have time today to explore why I did that, but I thought about it a lot that year, and realized that I wanted to change it—to bring my full self into my books, somehow…
But here’s the thing—the novels I want to write are rarely about the experience of being Jewish. Judaism is an integral part of who I am, but it’s not all I think about. And so, Judaism has slipped into my next books quietly. In Bigger than a Bread Box, Rebecca’s dad is Jewish, and she engages with that occasionally. In Seven Stories Up—set in 1937, Annie and Molly meet a Jewish refugee named Bayla. Neither of these books was about Judaism, but I wanted to be sure that Jewish kids reading them might find themselves in the pages.
Then I started writing Orphan Island, and it posed a new challenge. None of the kids could exactly have a religious identity, since none of them were being raised by anyone who would know what that might mean.
So to make Orphan Island Jewish, I had to go into the very structure of the book, I had to think about the HOW of the island. The nature of rules. Judaism is a faith built on rules—laws we follow (or don’t) without fully understanding their purpose. I spent a lot of time thinking about how an adolescent relates to rules, breaks them or hungers for them, questions them or accepts them. I thought a lot about how we build whole societies on laws that are often sort of arbitrary. And yet those rules are what bind our world (and us, as people) together. I thought about the Torah.
None of my Jewish thinking is overt in the book. No reviewer has called it out, and nobody has asked me about it. But it’s there. I know it’s there. Orphan Island is not Jewish because the characters eat bagels. Orphan Island has Jewish bones.
And for the careful reader, there are other details too. The Jewish practice of burying prayerbooks when they’re worn out is part of the island. The importance of gathering together each night when three stars appear in the sky comes from the way Jews measure the day. And the three big things each Elder needs to teach their Care (to read, to swim, and to feed themselves) are adapted from a Talmudic understanding of what parents are commanded to teach their kids.
I don’t think any of this announces itself as religious at all, in the pages of the book. I certainly hope it doesn’t! I don’t want these details to feel like decorations. Just the opposite. In writing Orphan Island, I set out to create an entirely new world. But if a world is going to feel real it needs routines, rules, myths, philosophies, and underpinnings. I anchored my island with Judaism. I suppose because it’s my own anchor.
And I’d like to close by thanking Heidi Estrin, if she’s reading this. She could not possibly have known, when she asked me that question a decade ago, what journey she was sending me on. The power of the right question is a mighty thing.
Laurel Snyder is the author, most recently, of Orphan Island, as well as a picture book, The Forever Garden, and an early chapter book, Charlie and Mouse. Originally from Baltimore, she now lives in Atlanta with her family, and online at http://laurelsnyder.com. Follow her @laurelsnyder