Monday, September 23, 2019

Q&A with Allison Sarnoff Soffer

Allison Sarnoff Soffer is the author of the children's picture book Apple Days: A Rosh Hashanah Story. The book focuses on the Jewish New Year holiday. She has a background in journalism, and she teaches at Temple Sinai Nursery School in Washington, D.C. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Apple Days?

A: The idea for Apple Days is a deep story. When I was growing up, I had wonderful memories of Rosh Hashanah and my family, preparing, cooking, getting ready for everyone to come over. It was a joyful time.

Very sadly, my mom passed away before my children were born. The idea of Rosh Hashanah and how to celebrate was weighing heavily on me. I wanted to give my children the same sense of joy, but the holiday brought up painful memories.

A friend suggested we go to Homestead Farm to go apple picking. It was around Rosh Hashanah. We came home and made everything with apples—applesauce, apple pie, apple cake. It was so much fun, and it smelled so good. It was great to get outside and have this experience. I had a sense I was going back to the earth.

It ended up becoming a tradition. I realized I was starting to look forward to this aspect of the holiday in a new way. It helped me get through the early holidays and turn it into something new.

It was a personal story. I ended up telling the story at a retreat. We were tasked with bringing our favorite fruit, and I brought apples. I found myself telling the story, and people seemed very interested in it.

At the retreat, they ended up making fruit salad. It inspired the idea about all the people bringing something to contribute to a community dish.

Q: What do you see as the role of food-related traditions in the book?

A: I think food is such an intrinsic part of any holiday—Thanksgiving is obvious; others less so, but if you tap into anybody’s holiday experience, there will always be food. The smell, the preparation, the feel of it, the sensory experience has a huge effect on a child. They’re so open to sensory experiences. I was trying to focus on all that.

Q: What does a new year symbolize for your character Katy?

A: When the book starts, it symbolizes the apple picking ritual. But if you look deeper, it means she’s going to be with her family and they’re going to have a meal she’s going to contribute to.

Hopefully by the end, she’s learned more about what it means to be part of a community. Maybe by the time she’s a year older, it will have significance beyond her family.

Q: What do you think Bob McMahon’s illustrations add to the story?

A: Bob McMahon did a really beautiful job capturing relationships between characters, especially the parent-child relationship. It’s a very gentle connection, particularly in their eyes and the way the characters are placed in relationship to each other. The book is a lot about relationships, and that’s not always the easiest thing to convey, and he did a good job.

He also did a particularly beautiful job on the disappointment page, when her mom is talking to Katy about the fact that they’re not going to be able to go apple picking. He really conveyed that sadness—mostly in the eyes, but in the position of the mom. She’s getting on her knees and empathizing.

It’s interesting—the way Katy is drawn is very different from how I originally envisaged her, and in some ways he changed the emotional arc of the story in drawing a very spunky little girl. I originally thought she was more reserved and shy, and what happens in the story brings her out of herself. But now this is Katy!

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

A: What I hope is captured on the page where all the children are handing Katy an apple to put in her backpack—that’s the essence of the story. There’s an illustration on the title page of a child’s hand holding an apple. That pretty much says it all. Children can help, can be part of the community, can make a big difference in their own way.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been thinking a lot as a teacher about kindness, and how to convey the idea of kindness and empathy, even in a very young nursery school class. I came up with an experimental way of taking pictures of the children in moments when they’re being kind to each other—sharing, or comforting each other.

They’re little moments in a school that focuses on social-emotional learning. If I could capture it and bring it back to the children: What do you see here? It inspired the most meaningful conversations, and became a reference point. I’m trying to develop that into a children’s book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My training is as a journalist, so the first thing you’re trained as is to recognize: This is a story. What I realized I’ve done is internalize that as a teacher. I’ve studied the Reggio philosophy—every child is the protagonist in their own story. That really resonated with me. It’s a fun and interesting way to be a teacher—to bring my training as a journalist into the classroom, where news has a different connotation.

What’s news in a nursery school classroom is a child seeing something for the first time, or moments of growth. Each could become a story arc for that child. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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