Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Q&A with Jacqueline Jules

Jacqueline Jules is the author of the new children's picture book Drop By Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva. Her many other books for young readers include the Zapato Power series, the Sofia Martinez series, and Never Say a Mean Word Again. She is also a poet, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Balloons Lit, Cicada, and Cricket. She lives in Northern Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this picture book about Rabbi Akiva?

A: In June 2015, I was the moderator for a panel on children’s literature at the Association of Jewish Librarians conference. The program ended with a spirited discussion about topics needed in Jewish children’s literature.

Several librarians said we needed more books on Biblical and Talmudic heroes. This interested me. I have four other books with Kar-Ben Publishing about Biblical figures: Abraham’s Search for G-d, Sarah Laughs, Benjamin and the Silver Goblet, and Miriam in the Desert. Could I find another Biblical figure to share with young readers?

I went home from that conference and started looking for subjects. It wasn’t an easy task. There are not too many kid-friendly Bible stories for the picture book crowd. For the most part, the Torah depicts complex characters with adult flaws engaging in adult activities.

So I did quite a bit of searching online and in various texts, rejecting one idea after another until I came across the story of how Rabbi Akiva learned to read. It was not the first time I had heard this tale, but the first time I had considered retelling the story for children.

Q: You focus on the idea that he learns to read at the age of 40. What do you hope young readers take away from his story?

A: Akiva was originally an illiterate shepherd who married the wealthy daughter of his employer. It was his wife, Rachel, who encouraged him to study Torah at age 40.

Akiva was dubious at first. He questioned his abilities, afraid he was incapable of learning. Many kids with learning delays or disabilities feel that way about themselves.

Akiva’s epiphany—the moment he decides that he is capable—is not only inspirational, it is poetic. While out tending his sheep, Akiva observes a phenomenon in nature, how water can slowly carve a hole in rock. Akiva sees a metaphor and makes a connection to himself. He says:

“My mind is not harder than a rock! I can learn—just like water cuts through stone—a little bit each day.”

I am hoping that after reading Drop by Drop: The Story of Rabbi Akiva, children will draw parallels to their own challenges. Complicated subjects can be tackled in small pieces, a little bit at a time.

It takes persistence to acquire a new skill and it doesn’t happen overnight. We learn just like water wears down stone, a little bit at a time. So this book offers an important role model. You can always learn new things if you are determined and patient with yourself.

Q: How did you decide on the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: As a rule, I struggle with titles. Many of my books have been re-titled by my editors because the titles I came up with were entirely too bland.

The title, Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva, was different because it comes directly from the text of the traditional story. Akiva’s realization that he can learn to read, just like water erodes stone—drop by drop—is an essential part of every version of this Talmudic tale.  

Q: What do you think Yevgenia Nayberg's illustrations add to the book?

A: Nayberg’s illustrations are stunning. I love the warm earth tones and the angular lines. It is always exciting to see how an illustrator interprets the text I write. They often add dimensions I had not imagined and Nayberg’s illustrations certainly do that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the midst of several projects right now. I am happy to say that I have a new book in the Zapato Power series, Zapato Power #7: Freddie Ramos Hears It All, coming out in 2018.

I also have two new titles in the Sofia Martinez series, Hector’s Hiccups and Sofia’s Party Shoes, coming out in January 2018. I also have a new Hanukkah book in the works and two new picture books under contract.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva is a fairly faithful retelling of a traditional tale. Some versions say that Akiva saw the erosion in a well and other minor variations, but the arc and chronology of the story are generally consistent.

Unlike most of my manuscripts, this book only went through seven drafts. Most of my work goes through 20 or 30 drafts. Many of them go through so many revisions over a period of years that the final published product bears no resemblance to the first draft.

But the source of the Rabbi Akiva story was pure in the original, and already child-friendly, making it relatively easy to write. Still, a picture book is like a poem. Every word must be justified. And I agonize over every word, changing things over and over.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jacqueline Jules.

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