Saturday, December 8, 2018

Q&A with Anna Levine

Anna Levine is the author of the new children's picture book All Eyes on Alexandra, which focuses on a family of cranes. Her other books include Jodie's Hanukkah Dig and Freefall. She lives in Jerusalem.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for All Eyes on Alexandra, and for the crane family you write about?

A: There’s a bed and breakfast in northern Israel by the port of Acre (where Napoleon was defeated in 1799) owned by Evan Fallenberg, a writer and a friend. I needed to get away from my routine and decided to stay there for two nights.

The first evening he invited all the guests up to the roof to join him for a spectacle he promised would impress us. At 6 in the evening I climbed up on the roof of the hostel with Evan, his son, two translators from Germany, a writer and her husband, a couple from Paris with two rambunctious young children and a friend of mine who’d come to visit.

As the Muezzin sounded over the loudspeakers, calling the religious to prayer, the birds on their way south began to gather above. At first there was only a handful. Gradually, the cloudless evening sky filled, in what can only be described as a Hitchcock-like flock of thousands of beating wings circling above, turning the sky into a dark thrashing cloud.

The swallows landed on electricity wires strewn haphazardly between the closely crowded buildings. We watched as they perched, settling in for the night, nudging the ones beside them to move and make room, hinting at an unknown hierarchy of who had rank to the better spot, as they nudged off fledglings to stake their claim.

It was while watching these birds that I first imagined Alexandra, a bird who was part of a flock who at the same time wanted to assert her individuality.

Evan’s artist haven is a tribute to what can be achieved when a dream is pursued with the right balance of love and respect to the world it inhabits. His deference to his neighbors, their acceptance and regard for him and his enclave, is a living example of what co-existence can look like.

The experience took root in my imagination. Our motley crew on the roof were like the birds from all over who flock together and live, albeit noisily, but in harmony.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I live a short drive away from the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. The researchers and volunteers are enthusiastic about the work they do and about helping people like me who have a million questions. I also drove up to the Hula Nature Reserve to see the birds at sunrise and sunset, their busiest and noisiest times of day.

I really prefer the hands-on approach to research if and when it’s possible.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: First of all, I hope they identify with Alexandra’s spirit and that their take-away is “be yourself.” Be independent. Someone will recognize your spirit and encourage you to fulfill your potential.

The second has to do with where I live and the conflict which surrounds me. When I visited the Hula Nature Reserve and I saw all the different birds from around the world swooping in to chat with each other, sharing food and finding a pace to rest, I thought of how much we could learn from nature about living together peacefully, even if the “peace” can get quite noisy.

Q: What do you think Chiara Pasqualotto's illustrations add to the book?

A: Chiara’s illustrations give so much heart, character and personality to the text. When I saw her illustrations I was thrilled. I looked at Alexandra and thought, “Yes, that’s her!”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I have a cozy detective novel in submission. I love reading detective novels and whenever I travel I always pop into the local book store and ask for the local detective fiction.

Writers in the genre are wonderful at catching all the nuances and hidden secrets of the city where they write. The novel I’m working on takes me back to my home in Montreal, Quebec.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m not teaching at the junior high in my neighborhood, or writing, I help translate texts for my neighbor who is an historian of the Holocaust. Her expertise is the Lodz Ghetto. I have been translating many fascinating memoirs and journals that I’m putting aside as research for a novel that will eventually take shape.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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