Q: You note that your story is based on I.L. Peretz's The Magician. How did you come up with your own version, which is set in Washington, D.C., in 1933?
A: I first encountered Uri Shulevitz’s picture book adaptation of The Magician when my mom read it to me as a child. I just fell in love with it. There was something so magical in the idea of a couple actually getting to meet Elijah.
Many years later as an adult, I came across the book again and fell in love once more. It was fun to be able to make some changes, including setting it in my hometown of Washington, D.C., which has a vibrant Jewish community.
My editor Neal Porter came up with the idea of the Great Depression being a good fit for a penniless family who couldn’t afford a seder.
Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: As a librarian, the hard part wasn’t doing research, it was knowing when to stop.
I researched absolutely everything, from the monuments that were there at the time, to the cherry blossoms and the Lincoln Memorial, to the D.C. Jewish community and where they lived and worshipped, to Elijah and I.L. Peretz and the details of the Passover table, to the Great Depression and Hoovervilles, and so, so much more.
Q: What do you think Sean Rubin's illustrations add to the book?
A: I don’t have words to express how amazing the illustrations are. Sean’s work on this book is just beautiful and enhances the story so much.
I cried every time I saw a new illustration and am completely overwhelmed with the final book. He really understood what I was trying to say with the manuscript and he added so many visual moments that made it a better book.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?
A: That no matter how bleak things might look, there is always hope. We may not be able to control everything, but we can control our own actions and sometimes something as small as putting a penny in a hat can make a big change happen.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Several other Jewish picture books and a middle grade novel with a Jewish protagonist. I am very committed to telling Jewish stories.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb