Sue Macy is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come. Her many other books include Miss Mary Reporting and Wheels of Change. She lives in Englewood, New Jersey.
Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Aaron Lansky?
A: When I was in college I focused on American Jewish history. Since then I’ve written close to 20 books for kids and young adults, but until now, not one of them was on that subject. I got to the point where I looked back on my career to date and felt it was time to return to my roots.
At the same time, my dad passed away and our family was making charitable donations in his honor. We gave money to the Yiddish Book Center and I had an ah-ha moment.
The idea of saving books and honoring books really appealed to me, and I thought kids of all backgrounds could relate to that. And Aaron talks eloquently about what those books represent—the history and culture of the Jewish people.
His story seemed like an accessible way to explore the importance of literature as a means of cultural transmission.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: I started by reading Aaron’s book, Outwitting History, which is a fantastic account of his experiences with the Yiddish Book Center through 2004. I also spoke with folks at the Center and had a wonderful interview with Aaron.
I read the newspaper and magazine articles about Aaron and the Center that have appeared over the years, and interviewed Amanda Seigel, the librarian at the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, who brought me up to date on the state of Yiddish today.
And of course I visited the Yiddish Book Center several times. I even took a weekend course on Jewish photographers from the 20th century there last fall. They have wonderful programming focusing on history and culture, as well as the Yiddish language.
As for surprises, working on the book made me realize how many Yiddish words and phrases I know. I am not a Yiddish speaker by any means, but I grew up with a grandmother and mother who spoke Yiddish, and I guess more of that imprinted on my brain than I realized.
I spend a lot of time reading lists of Yiddish expressions, to make sure I was using words correctly. I was surprised that even though I don’t use those expressions in everyday speech, they’re still a part of me.
Q: What do you think Stacy Innerst's illustrations add to the book?
A: Stacy’s illustrations add dimension and depth to the story. Some of them, including the shtetl landscape and the Holocaust spread, are poignant and emotional, while others, like the “Dumpster dive,” have just enough humor to lighten the mood.
I also love that he included a cat throughout. I didn’t mention a cat in the manuscript and in fact, we later found that Aaron is allergic to cats, though he said he has no objection to pictures of cats! I wrote the manuscript with my late cat, Annabelle Lee, by my side, so it’s a nice memory for me.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from reading about Lansky and his Yiddish book collection?
A: Aaron’s story shows that one person can make an enormous difference on a global scale. He set out to satisfy a personal need for reading material in Yiddish, but he was astute enough to realize his difficulty in finding books was part of a bigger problem.
Through his own determination and sechel (wisdom), he ended up preserving a vital resource for understanding the culture of Eastern European Jews.
I also hope that The Book Rescuer will inspire kids to consider the place of books in their lives, how books feed their imagination and present information that helps them understand the world. Maybe the next time they look at a book they will see it a little differently. I know Aaron’s story had that effect on me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a book coming out in February from National Geographic called Breaking Through: How Female Athletes Shattered Stereotypes in the Roaring Twenties. It’s young adult nonfiction, focusing on a watershed period in both women’s sports and the changing narratives about women and femininity.
I am also working on a few picture book projects focusing on Jewish women. More will be revealed soon!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I think the hardest part of producing this book was making sure every Yiddish word was spelled and defined correctly. Fortunately, Dr. Asya Vaisman Schulman, the director of the Yiddish Language Institute at the Yiddish Book Center, reviewed those words and definitions many times. I’m glad we had an expert onboard!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sue Macy.