The Passover Guest: Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2022

Welcome to our stop on the 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour! Author Susan Kusel (my own former STBA committee chair) and illustrator Sean Rubin were kind enough to answer my questions about The Passover Guest (Porter/Holiday), this year’s Gold Medal winner in the Picture Book category. In this hopeful adaptation of the short story “Der Kunzen-Macher" ("The Magician") by I. M. Peretz, a Depression-era family doesn’t have food for their Seder…until an encounter with a mysterious stranger. To quote the Horn Book review, “In the book's stunning mixed-media art, each double-page spread conveys emotion through color and light.”

Shoshana Flax: What does winning the Sydney Taylor Book Award mean to you?

Susan Kusel: It means everything to me. It is a committee I served on and one I chaired. It is named for the quintessential Jewish children’s book author. I have always seen the Sydney Taylor Book Award as a true mark of excellence, and I am humbled and astonished to have received one. I can’t think of anything better.

SF: Susan, what did you learn as STBA committee chair that informed your writing?

SK: I learned the importance of setting a Jewish book in a different place and time period. When I was on the committee, I read so many books over the years. Many of the historical books fell into the patterns of Holocaust, Lower East Side/immigration, Inquisition, and the shtetl. When it came time to figure out where to set my own book, I really wanted to try a place and a time where we see fewer Jewish stories. Washington, DC, during the Great Depression felt like a good fit, and it worked well thematically with the I. L. Peretz story I was adapting.

SF: There’s so much detail in this book’s illustrations — details of Washington, DC; details of a seder table. Sean, what was involved in your research? 

Sean Rubin: Fortunately, I know a lot about Jewish food from a lifetime of eating it, so there was less formal research involved there. For DC, Susan was incredibly helpful, as she mailed me years’ worth of research, photographs, postcards, guidebooks, street maps, etc. — she’s a librarian! — so that I could better visualize DC in the thirties. My favorite detail in the book is probably the National Archives being under construction, which was a historical note I'm sure Susan discovered at some point.

SF: Favorite Passover tradition?

SK: Passover is my favorite holiday, partly because I met this cute guy at a seder and then he proposed three years later during the Four Questions. That night was definitely different!

As far as traditions go, it’s got to be the scallions. It’s a custom among some Jews to hit the person next to you with a green onion during the singing of “Dayenu” — you whack them every time the word “Dayenu” is sung. It represents the whips the Israelites endured during slavery. This has the tendency to turn a bit violent, depending on who exactly is sitting next to you. But absolutely memorable and great fun. If you celebrate Passover and have never tried it, I highly encourage you to get some scallions this year. (You can do it even if you don’t celebrate Passover, but you might get questioned about why you are hitting people with a green onion.)

SF: Sean, you say in the illustrator’s note that your illustrations “became a tribute to the paintings of Marc Chagall.” Are there other artists whose work you might like to pay homage to?

SR: All of them! Seriously though, I do enjoy incorporating references to other artists in my illustrations — there's a lot of Edward Hopper in Bolivar, for example. My next book is an exploration of the history of paleoart — dinosaur reconstructions — so there are homages to several artists in that title, too.

SF: What do you want Horn Book readers to know about Jewish books?

SK: Jewish books are diverse books. Please include Jewish books, authors, illustrators, editors, and agents on diversity panels, add Jewish books to diversity lists, and promote them alongside other diverse books. Jewish books cover an extremely wide range of topics and practices. The field is expanding and is quite extensive and exciting. Please invite us to the table and include us in the discussion.

On a personal note, Shoshana, I want to thank you for doing this interview. I was lucky enough to be the chair when you were on the Sydney Taylor committee, and this feels like a very full-circle moment. You were an amazing committee member, and I am forever impressed with your Jewish articles, reviews, and advocacy. And your puns!

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.

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