Afikomen: Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2024

Welcome to our stop on the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour! Author Tziporah Cohen and illustrator Yaara Eshet were kind enough to answer my questions about Afikomen, which received a Sydney Taylor Honor in the Picture Book category and was on the Horn Book’s 2023 Fanfare list. This inventive wordless picture book (it is a wordless book — see below for the author’s thoughts!) uses graphic-novel conventions to tell a story of time travel between a modern-day Passover Seder and biblical Egypt. It all starts with the afikomen, a piece of matzah that gets broken off for hiding, stealing, bargaining, and/or play-acting, and generally serves as a highlight of the Seder.

Shoshana Flax: What is the origin story of this book? What role did each of you play in conceiving it?

Tziporah Cohen: I wrote the first draft of Afikomen initially in 2013 for an assignment in my MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was in the Picture Book Intensive my first semester, and our preceptor (to whom I will be forever grateful!) assigned us to write a wordless picture book. It was shortly before Passover, so I had the holiday on my brain. That, combined with a fascination with time travel and the use of portals in picture books, birthed the idea of children at a Passover Seder being transported to biblical Egypt with the help of a magical piece of afikomen. A mere seven years later, my agent submitted the book to Groundwood Books in Toronto, where my wonderful (future) editor shared my vision for the book.

SF: Was it always going to be a picture book–length work using panels like a graphic novel?

TC: The book was always meant to be picture-book length, and always meant to be wordless, but Yaara was the mastermind behind the layout, and deciding how to illustrate the story. That is the magic of co-creating picture books: as the author, you conceive of the story and write the words (if there are any), and then you hand over creative control to the illustrator, whose different set of talents brings new layers to the book.

Yaara Eshet: Unlike traditional picture books where text acts as a bridge between illustrations and the narrative, this project presented a unique challenge.

To accurately convey Tzippy's script without the aid of written words, I found that adopting a graphic novel/comic–style layout was the ideal solution. This format allowed me to seamlessly bridge the gap between the illustrations and the narrative, ensuring a faithful representation of the story.

The use of comic strips in Afikomen draws a direct parallel to the visual storytelling seen in ancient Egyptian art, particularly in the tombs of kings and on papyri. The compositions in these historical artifacts unfold stories and situations in a manner remarkably similar to contemporary comic strips.

SF: What made you think of incorporating time travel into a Seder?

TC: At Passover, we Jews are tasked with imagining that we, ourselves, not simply our ancestors, were enslaved in Egypt. Reading the Haggadah, we say, “This year we are slaves; next year we will be free.” I wanted the children in the story to go back to Egypt not simply as observers, but as participants. They arrive to see Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’s mother and sister, placing baby Moses in a basket to send him down the Nile River to save him from Pharoah’s decree that all male Jewish babies be killed. The children, familiar with the Passover story, would know what they are witnessing, and they would know what needs to happen — Moses making it safely downriver to Pharoah’s daughter — in order for them to exist thousands of years later. They follow the basket, distracting Egyptian children playing on the banks, chasing off a crocodile, and getting the basket unstuck from the reeds, until the basket reaches its destination. They become participants in their own history.

SF: This book is nearly wordless, except for some Hebrew/Aramaic in the illustrations. How did you make that choice? And how do you describe this book to others — do you think of it as a wordless book?

​​​​​​​TC: I absolutely think of it as a wordless book, and while the Hebrew and Aramaic writing give clues to where in the Seder the participants are, it isn’t necessary for understanding the story. I love wordless picture books — they play a vital role in developing literacy in young children and they have universal accessibility, amongst their other virtues. But beyond this, I felt that the wordlessness invites a child reader to actively help tell this particular story, much the same way as we are asked to retell the Passover story out loud each year at our Seders.

SF: Which was more of a challenge to create, the scenes set at the modern-day Seder or the ones set during the biblical Passover story?

YE: The scenes set at the modern-day Seder were definitely more challenging to create. In the sections of the story set in ancient Egypt, there was a sense of freedom to let my imagination soar. While I aimed to be faithful to the landscape and period characteristics, I found a sense of agency in actively infusing creativity into those scenes.

SF: There are so many different traditions for how the afikomen fits into the Seder. How do you incorporate it?

TC: In my family of origin, the kids “stole” the afikomen and hid it, retrieving it and “selling” it back to my father, who led the Seder, in exchange for a silver dollar. If memory serves me, a two-dollar bill was the ransom one year. I remember that after the breaking of the matzah and after the afikomen was put aside, my mother would call my father into the kitchen for some made-up task so that we kids would have the opportunity to sneak off with it. One year we hid the afikomen in the piano, just feet from the dining room table where we held the Seder.

YE: I grew up on a kibbutz, and the Seder I knew didn't include the afikomen. After all, it's a bit difficult in a Seder of a thousand people! When I left the kibbutz, I encountered a different tradition surrounding the afikomen. In this variation, the leader of the Seder hides the afikomen, prompting children to seek it out. Once found, the leader redeems the afikomen from them with a gift.

Interestingly, when illustrating the book, I found myself turning to the internet to understand what an afikomen pouch is!

SF: What does the Sydney Taylor Honor mean to you?

TC: I think every Jewish writer of my generation grew up reading Sydney Taylor’s All-of-A-Kind Family books. As a parent, many years later, I read books with Sydney Taylor Award stickers to my children. Having that sticker on my own book is the culmination of two dreams: one of being a published picture book writer, and the other of making a contribution to Jewish children’s literature. It doesn’t get much better than this!

YE: Receiving a Sydney Taylor Honor holds immense significance for me. It's always incredibly exciting to receive recognition from an organization dedicated to the professional evaluation of books. Winning a Sydney Taylor Honor carries a profound meaning, particularly in terms of visibility and exposure.

When I initially embarked on illustrating the book, there was a lingering concern about the potential limitations of its audience. I feared that amidst the vast sea of children's books, this unique work might fade into obscurity. However, receiving this Sydney Taylor Honor assures me that the book has found a place of recognition and distinction within the literary landscape.

I am truly honored to have the book acknowledged in this way. It not only validates the creative effort poured into its making but also serves as a testament to the idea that unconventional stories can resonate and find appreciation in the broader literary community. The Sydney Taylor Honor has given this book a platform, ensuring that its voice reaches a wider audience, and for that, I am sincerely grateful.

Visit the Association of Jewish Libraries website to see where the other gold and silver medalists will be interviewed over the next few days.

Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, associate editor of The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. She has served on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and Sydney Taylor Book Award committees, and is serving on the 2025 Walter Dean Myers Award committee.

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