New Voice: Jane Kohuth on Estie the Mensch

Jane Kohuth is the first-time author of Estie the Mensch, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Random House, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

What’s a mensch, and why does her family keep telling Estie to be one? She’d much rather be a jungle cat, or an alligator, or an octopus. But if being a mensch means helping a new friend, then maybe it’s not so bad after all?

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

Like many people who go on to be writers, I had an outsized love of books from the beginning. I maintain vivid memories of my earliest reading — specific images from picture books and collections of nursery rhymes, snippets of sound that still roll around my inner ear, characters who still make surprise visits.

My childhood reading experience was so powerful, so overwhelming to the senses, that I admit to not really having grown up properly as a reader. Sure, I went to college, majored in English and read literature I loved, but in that deep place of the imagination where my reading mind lurks, I still identify most powerfully with children’s books and the characters in them.

The child who loved rhymes and filled notebooks with poems fell easily into the short form, the rhythmic lines, the minute attention to language that picture books and poems share. So when I decided to move from writing poetry for adults to writing children’s books, I felt most natural working with the picture book form.

My debut picture book, Estie the Mensch, has its roots in a particular childhood reading experience. When I was about ten, I was very disappointed to discover that Anastasia Krupnik (by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin, 1979) celebrated Christmas. Anastasia seemed Jewish to me, her name sounded Jewish, but, it turned out, her mother was Christian, and the family put up Christmas decorations.

I am an omnivorous reader, and that was true when I was a child as well. I liked realism, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, even the occasional sports story if it was written well (despite the fact that in real life I detested sports). I enjoyed reading about children from other places and times, but I was also very interested in reading about children like me. That meant Jewish, observant but not Orthodox, city dwellers.

But I couldn’t find any books like that. I’d settle for Jewish non-city dwellers, but there weren’t any of those either. There was a handful of excellent historical fiction, the already thirty-year-old All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (Follet, 1951) among them. I loved the family of five sisters and the way the books were not about being Jewish, but showed how Judaism was important to the family’s rhythm of life.

But when characters were Jewish (or half-Jewish) in books about contemporary life, Judaism itself rarely made an appearance.

When I began writing for children, I knew from my continued reading of children’s books (I spent time as a children’s bookseller and library assistant) that the type of Jewish-oriented books available hadn’t changed much since I’d been a child. Jewish-themed picture books were (and are) still dominated by holiday stories, folk-tales, and historical fiction, while contemporary realism in all ages ranges featuring actively Jewish characters was still rare. I wanted to write the books I’d longed for as a child, both for Jewish children growing up now, and to add to the growing collection of multicultural books for children of all backgrounds.

But when I showed my manuscript for Estie the Mensch, a story which features a contemporary Jewish family, to agents, I heard the opinion that Jewish-themed books wouldn’t sell to major publishers.

After the acceptance of my first book, the early reader Ducks Go Vroom (Random House, 2011) my agent Becca Stumpf (the Prospect Agency) submitted a number of my manuscripts to my editor Christy Webster (PDF). We were both quite surprised that the one the Random House team chose was Estie!

So while my picture book manuscripts cover all kinds of subjects and themes, Estie the Mensch, holds a special place in my heart, and I’m very pleased that it will be my first published picture book.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

After my undergraduate years as an English and Creative Writing major, I chose to pursue at Master’s in Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. This was an intense and thought-provoking experience which informs my writing, but it did not teach me the nitty gritty details of crafting a book. So when I decided to “switch careers” only a couple of years in to working in Jewish education, and not being in a position to take out more student loans for an M.F.A., I set out to teach myself.

I had never stopped reading children’s books, but I stepped up my reading drastically. I joined SCBWI. I attended the New England Regional Conference every year. I joined a newly forming critique group, which continues to meet twice a month. I’ve learned so much from my fellow writers, whose various backgrounds offer a great variety of strengths. I read articles and books on writing, and I practiced. I figured out what it felt like to write a picture text, what sort of thought process I needed, what sort of ideas could work. I generated ideas by the dozen and got into the habit of thinking all the time about whether there was a story in a particular word, feeling, image, or memory. I began to read picture books like a writer of picture books, and that made my reading all the more helpful.

My natural strengths are a facility with poetic language — rhyme, meter, rhythm, assonance and alliteration. I’m good at writing short too, which is key to writing publishable picture book manuscripts.

My greatest challenges are crafting a narrative structure for my stories and creating enough conflict and suspense to sustain a listener’s interest.

When I first received comments about not having enough conflict in my manuscripts, I was confused. I didn’t necessarily want to write loud blustery stories. It took me some time to learn that conflict didn’t mean scary, intense, or angry, it meant a challenge that a character faces, internal or external, that drives the story and makes the reader want to find out what happens.

I was also relieved to learn that some books are concept books rather than story books, and that the rules of narrative structure you hear about don’t always apply.

I am still very much in the process of learning my craft, still looking for opportunities to learn more. I’m fairly sure I’d be fooling myself if I looked forward to a day when I’d be ready to approach writing with complete confidence. But complete confidence is boring. Much better for each new project to be an adventure.

Jane’s workspace.

Cynsational Notes

Take the Mensch Challenge for a Chance to Win Estie the Mensch from Jane Kohuth. Peek: “Send me a short description of a way you’ve been a mensch and, if you have one, a photo, and you could be my Mensch of the Month!”

Jane looks forward to the release of Duck Sock Hop (Dial, 2012).

2 thoughts on “New Voice: Jane Kohuth on Estie the Mensch

  1. I very much enjoyed Ducks Go Vroom and I know that it's become a favorite with my nephew, who is 2. I can't wait to share Estie with him!

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