Friend Friday

Susan Kusel

I have many jobs related to books; I’m a librarian, a book buyer for a bookstore and have served on many book award committees. 

Now I have one more job: children’s book author. It has been perhaps the most elusive title to get.

When I was a child, I loved listening to the books that my mom read to me every night. One of my favorites was The Magician by I.L. Peretz. We had a picture book version that was adapted from the Yiddish by Uri Shulevitz.

I never forgot the book and when I found it many years later in a Jewish library, I became fascinated all over again. I still loved it but this time I saw changes I wanted to make. About ten years ago I began to write my own version. 

I worked on it for a long time and took it to classes and several writing groups. I kept revising it and changing it and turning it into my own story. I added a child as the main character, which I thought was important for a picture book. The original story is about adults. 

After I had worked on it a few years, I served on the 2015 Caldecott committee. And that was how I ended up at the Caldecott Honor dinner that year sitting next to my friend, editor Neal Porter. I happened to mention the Yiddish book I was adapting, and to my surprise Neal was intrigued and asked to see it. 

Susan Kusel and Neal Porter

We worked on it together for a while and then I was absolutely thrilled when he bought the book. It has really been a joy to work with such a talented and brilliant editor. He has guided me through this entire process and the book is so much better because of him. We had a wonderful walk around Washington together on the same route the main character takes in the book. I think this is when we both truly visualized the book for the first time.

Neal loosened his rule about keeping authors and illustrators apart and artist Sean Rubin and I walked around DC together like I had done with Neal. We discussed aspects of Passover that had been important to each of us. Sean even included my Passover dishes in the book. It has really been amazing to watch the art unfold and to see the images in my head become so much more beautiful on the page.

Susan Kusel at the Lincoln Memorial

Each one of my jobs has been relevant as I worked on this book. As a librarian I immersed myself in research from everything to the exact locations of Jewish homes and businesses in the 1930s to the peak blooms of the cherry blossoms during the Great Depression. As a bookseller I thought about marketing and sales, probably more than I should have! And as a former award committee member, I thought about every word and detail in the book and strived to make it all as accurate as possible.

Standing at the end of this decade long journey, I am absolutely humbled to hold this book finally in my hand and to be able to share it with children. It feels like a miracle.

The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel, Illustrated by Sean Rubin

Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching and of course, reading. The Passover Guest (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House) is her debut book. To learn more, visit Susan on Twitter, Instagram, or her Website.