Debbie Levy is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music. Levy's many other books include The Year of Goodbyes and I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. She lives in Maryland.
Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of the musician Flory Jagoda?
A: If I were more musically aware, the answer would be that I’d known and loved her music for years and wanted to bring Flory, her story, and her music to children and adults through a picture book.
But while I did know her famous song, “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”), which is sung at Hanukkah celebrations around the world—I am not in fact all that musically aware.
I was introduced to the wonders of Flory Jagoda by Susan Gaeta, Flory’s musical protégé in the arts of Sephardic music and a musician of great talent in her own right. And I was introduced to Susan by my dear friend of many years, Karen Simon, and her husband, Jon Simon—a jazz pianist and composer who has performed with Susan. So this book came about with a little help from my friends.
Q: How did you research her life, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?
A: Personal interviews, newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, books, existing video and audio interviews—I used all the usual tools of the nonfiction writer. Then there were the recordings on CDs, along with the CDs’ liner notes; the concerts that have been captured on video; and live concerts that I attended.
I was surprised and moved to learn of Flory and her family’s life in pre-World War II Bosnia, in a village where neighbors of different faiths lived side by side, sharing in their different cultures. I loved learning about how her family—the Singing Altaras Family—regaled their neighbors at village celebrations with their music. If only there was video of that!
Q: What do you think Sonja Wimmer's illustrations add to the book?
A: I think Sonja’s illustrations are perfect! She managed to make them intimate and warm, even as they span hundreds and hundreds of years. I love the sense they convey of other places and other times, with people of those places and times that nonetheless are immediately relatable to readers today.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Flory Jagoda's story?
A: I hope readers enter a space that is at once familiar and unfamiliar to them, and I hope they come away with a feeling of delight from being engaged in the Sephardic culture of Flory’s youth. I also hope they emerge with a feeling of curiosity about the Ladino language, Sephardic music, and the long intertwined history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
Finally (well, not really finally, but this list could go on and on, and I’ve got to stop it somewhere!) I hope readers will gain an understanding of the beauty and richness that immigrants—such as Flory!—bring to the United States.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on the final-final elements of a graphic novel-style biography called Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice, which will be published on Nov. 5.
And I’m eagerly anticipating the re-issue of another immigrant story, that of my mother’s last year in Nazi Germany in 1938, The Year of Goodbyes. It originally came out in 2010; it will re-appear on Sept. 24 with a striking new cover, beautiful interior pages, and an excellent foreword by Tom Angleberger.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The book has a QR code on the back page that links readers to a video of Flory Jagoda singing “Ocho Kandelikas.” Do enjoy that, but don’t stop there! There are four Flory Jagoda CDs: “Kantikas Di Mi Nona” (“Songs of My Grandmother”), “Memories of Sarajevo,” “La Nona Kanta” (“The Grandmother Sings”), and “Arvoliko: The Little Tree.” And I love the music of Susan Gaeta and her Trio Sefardi.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Debbie Levy.