Interview with Brenda & Esme

This blog post was originally published in The Prairie Wind, newsletter of the SCBWI-Illinois chapter, of which authors Brenda Ferber and Esme Raji Codell are both members.

Please see for the original post.

Award-Winners Brenda and EsmeBy Jenny Meyerhoff

The Sydney Taylor Book Award is given annually by the Association of Jewish Libraries to celebrate outstanding books that authentically portray the Jewish experience. This year two of its recipients hail from our very own Illinois Chapter of SCBWI. Brenda Ferber (pictured at left) received the gold medal for her heartbreaking and uplifting
middle-grade novel Julia’s Kitchen. And Esme Raji Codell’s thought-provoking and lively book Vive La Paris! was a Sydney Taylor honor book. Riverwoods author Jenny Meyerhoff interviewed both of them in January for the Spring 2007 issue of The Prairie Wind.

Jenny Meyerhoff: Will you describe for readers what it was like finding out your book won a Sydney Taylor award? How did you react? How did you feel?

Brenda Ferber: I received an e-mail from Rachel Kamin, the chairperson of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. The subject line said Great News from the Sydney Taylor Book Award, and the e-mail asked me to please call or e-mail them my phone number. I e-mailed my phone number and, seconds later, Rachel Kamin called me back. She told me I’d won, and the first thing I said was, “Stop it! That’s impossible.” I really felt that was true. There were so many great books that could have been the winner. She answered, “Yes, but yours was the best.”

I really felt validated. As a first-time author [winning this award] meant that I did what I set out to do: write a mainstream novel about a Jewish girl and her experience with grief.

Esme Codell: To tell you the truth, Rachel Kamin e-mailed me with the cryptic message that she had something wonderful to tell me, and I got so excited because I was like, “I BET BRENDA FERBER NAILED IT!” since she knows I am such a huge fan of both her and her first novel. So I called her back and indeed, Brenda Ferber had won the award, but it took me a few minutes for it to sink in, or for me to even acknowledge, that she had also said my book won an honor. I had to backtrack. “Ahhh…excuse me, would you repeat that?”

My reaction was twofold. One was just crying, and hardly believing Vive la Paris would wear the award that bears the name of the great Sydney Taylor, who wrote that beautiful All of a Kind Family series, and would be in the company of other works and authors I so respect. The other very big feeling I had was that of admiration for the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). The protagonist of my book is African American, and being a white author, my book does not meet criteria for some other awards. I thought the AJL was very progressive and set a standard for other awards to follow, just by considering my book, let alone giving it an award. Their willingness to celebrate diversity makes me feel all the more honored to be recognized by this group of readers.

JM: How does that rate with other exciting phone calls and e-mails you’ve received as a writer?

EC: It’s up there.

BF: It was definitely equal to finding out I was going to be published.

JM: Brenda, what inspired you to write Cara Segal’s story?

BF: In 2001 I was living in Austin, Texas. There was a house fire in my neighborhood, and a father and son died in that fire. To make matters worse, the mother had died two years earlier in a car accident. Two brothers survived the tragedy and went to live with relatives. Even though I didn’t know the family, only their story, I would see their house everyday and wonder how the boys were doing. Then I started to wonder how I would have coped. This was right at the same time as 9/11, and I was thinking about the question of why G-d lets bad things happen. I started to think I might be able to answer this question in a book.

JM: Esme, Vive La Paris! is a companion book to Sahara Special. What made you want to go back to the character of Paris? And what made you link this young African American girl’s story with that of a Holocaust survivor?

EC: When I wrote the rough draft for Sahara Special, it was 400 pages, and I cut half before publication. In the process of writing a book, there’s a lot of back story that the reader doesn’t necessarily see but that the writer needs to do in order to know the characters well enough to present them in a finished product. From those drafts, I knew Paris was charismatic. I knew she was a proper girl, a pious girl, well-loved by a large family. I also knew she cared a lot about justice, especially in the context of the laws of the church. So I thought she could possibly be the one to take on the questions that make up the nexus of this story: How hard is it, really, to love thy enemy? How hard is it, really, to be your brother’s keeper? Paris’s gentle older brother is taking beatings from a girl in Paris’s class, and Paris can’t figure out why.

She longs to take on the battle. Enter Mrs. Rosen, who had been through Hitler, surviving the man who was emblematic of the invention of enemies, the celebrator of our deepest divides. At the end of the day, this is a book about bullying. I don’t mean to be flippant, here. I used a problem that is familiar to a lot of kids and tied it in to a period of history, so that they can see they aren’t the only ones to face these kinds of conflicts and decisions. By reading Vive la Paris, I wanted children of any faith, race or ethnicity to be able to explore the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk when it comes to right and wrong. How do we choose who to come down on? By the color of their skin? By age or religion or gender? Gays? Immigrants? I wanted kids to see that these decisions, their decisions, about who they call an outsider will reverberate throughout their lives and possibly for all time. I also hoped to show the possibility for connections. Paris and Mrs. Rosen ultimately connect through music, despite their initial differences.

There were personal reasons for combining African American and Jewish people in this book, too. The characters very much represent my upbringing and my voice, which reveal both culturally Jewish and urban African American influences. From growing up in Chicago’s Uptown, from my experiences as an educator, it’s hard for me to extricate one from the other; they often intersect, and so they do in my book.

JM: Esme, can you describe the path of experiences that led to your first publication?

EC: I was a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools – with a lot of children’s book manuscripts shoved in a drawer – when a lot of my fellow educators came under intense fire because of “academic probation,” wherein a lot of administrators, public figures and politicians aired grievances about low standardized test scores. To me, their comments seemed based on an antiquated idea of school, and I resented not having a contemporary urban teacher’s voice in the mix. So I went to my NPR affiliate with the diary I had kept as a first year teacher and pleaded the case for it as a news piece, not a human interest story. If they were willing to air everybody else’s POV, were they willing to give a teacher equal time? They were. They found funding for an hour-long dramatic reading from my diary, titled “Call Me Madame.” It won first place for National Education Reporting from the Education Writer’s Association.

So I thought maybe it was something that could be published. My diary was still rejected about 35 times. As one editor put it to me, “I laughed, I cried, I smoked a cigarette. But at the end of the day, who wants to read about the everyday life of a teacher?” The tape did help me land an agent, though, who submitted my manuscript to Algonquin Books. The funny thing was, the editor wouldn’t listen to the tape. She said the book would have to stand on its own. I’m glad she thought it did; Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year was published in 1999 and is in its eighth printing. I’d say, though, that it still was no piece of cake getting published after that, even though I thought it would be. I think everyone imagines that once you are published, ta-da! You’ve arrived. That’s what I thought, too. But each book really does have to stand on its own and has to be sold on its own merits.

JM: Brenda, could you describe for us how you first found out you were going to be published?

BF: Before I found out, I felt like I was getting close because Beverly Reingold told me she was taking my manuscript to acquisitions. Then I got an e-mail from Beverly making me an offer. It was a truly unbelievable moment – every cliché you can imagine. I was jumping for joy. The e-mail came with an invitation to lunch because I was going to be in New York to accept the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award. (The Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award is an award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries for an unpublished book. Brenda won this award in 2004. Julia’s Kitchen is the first book to win both the manuscript award and the book award.)

JM: If your multi-published and award winning self could go back and have a conversation with your pre-published self, what would you want to say to her?

BF: I would want to tell her to believe in herself. To dig deep in her writing. To make sure that all her characters are rounded out, not just the main character. I would also tell her to imagine that she has the power and control to do this. Sit down everyday and know that you can write crap, because you can revise it when it’s done. It might take forever, but five years from now you’ll be five years older and you’ll either have a book written or you won’t.

EC: Scary question, there! I’d say: Imagine yourself 10 years from now, and act like you’re already there. Then my published self would bore my unpublished self with a lot of pragmatic advice like get an agent before you get a publisher, keep all the rights that you can, plan on dedicating yourself to your own publicity and don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud about joining a group.

JM: What is the best advice you ever received as a writer?

EC: I put some of the best advice I’ve received as writer in the mouth of Miss Pointy, the teacher in Sahara Special. One of the most salient to me has always been, “If it comes out of your mouth, it won’t come out of your pen.” My high school English teacher, Mrs. Robinson, told me that. She warned us, “There are people who talk about writing, and there are people who do it. Which are you going to be?” This was a kind of a curse; I became afraid to tell anyone what I was working on, and I still am very superstitious about it. As an adult, I had to hunt down Mrs. Robinson to lift the curse when an editor asked me for a proposal.

Mrs. Robinson also told us that when we grow up to be writers, we should have submissions all ready to go in envelopes with stamps on them, so we wouldn’t get discouraged and come to a standstill after a rejection. I was inspired by her story of Charlotte Bronte being rejected 60-some times for Jane Eyre. Whenever I would get a rejection, I would be sad, but another part of me would be so excited. . . I mean, they couldn’t all say no, could they? With every rejection, I had to be much closer to an acceptance!

BF: I love Linda Sue Park’s advice: You can learn everything you need to know about writing by reading the great books that are in your library right now.

JM: What would you say is your recipe for success as a writer?

BF: I try to keep writing until it’s true. Then I cut out all excess words, try to hook my reader right away and think in terms of scenes, every scene moving the plot forward. Also, find a fantastic critique group that will push you to the limit. I couldn’t have done it without a great critique group.

EC: Chair + butt in it. I can have a pen or an idea or a new computer or a day off, but if I don’t have these two ingredients, I don’t have a book. It’s like having flour and eggs and sugar mixed in a bowl, but if you don’t bake it in the oven, you just don’t get the cake.

JM: What else do you have going on in your life, and how do you balance that with writing?

BF: I have three kids and a husband and a house, and they all require my attention. Luckily my kids are in school, and my husband has a job. I try to make every day from 9 to 12 my sacred writing time. I turn off my Internet connection. I don’t answer the phone. I start by having a cup of coffee and writing in my journal, then I open up the file and go!

EC: I currently work full-time as a school librarian, and before that, I ran a resource center and literary salon. I still tour nationally and advocate for literature-based learning. I blog regularly and run my own website. I’m also mother to a wonderful son. I spin plates. I never just have writing going on, and I guess, on a level, I like it that way, even if it isn’t always graceful. I can’t rationalize writing as an isolated activity. What’s the point of writing books if people in our country don’t read? So I try to create a balance between creating readers and writing things that I hope they will enjoy.

JM: What’s next for you as a writer?

BF: I have a new book coming out in Spring 2009. It’s called Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire. It’s about friendship, sailing and growing up set at an overnight camp.

EC: Ummm….hmmmm. Chair + butt in it, and then I’ll find out. I have ideas. Sorry. That’s all Ms. Robinson would allow me to say.

Jenny Meyerhoff is a full-time writer of middle grade and young adult novels. She is also a full-time mom, which means she never sleeps. She lives in Riverwoods, Illinois, with her husband and three children. You can e-mail her at



Filed under Authors

2 responses to “Interview with Brenda & Esme

  1. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Thickness.

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