Q: What inspired you to write A Bear for Bimi?
A: Several reasons. During the last administration the images of children walking borders in places around the world to take refuge to a safer place. Being a parent, it is unimaginable to me the strength and resilience it must take to endure such a passage with very young children.
Having said that, my mother came over on a boat from Poland with her parents to escape religious persecution and was quarantined alone for a few weeks when she became ill.
So she was an immigrant and I was conscious as I say in the dedication that it never left her – and if she did not come to America then of course I would not be here as well as other generations that have come from me and my husband. We are both first generation.
The images of children separated at the border of Mexico and the heartlessness of how it was done were heartbreaking. I wrote the book several years ago to that act.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it “A lovely story about friendship, welcoming the other, and winning people’s hearts with kindness.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?
A: Empathy for others who are different than us; we all share feelings and emotions and need to feel loved and protected in this large world of ours. Although it takes place on one small block, neighbors of different nationalities help Bimi’s family since they too came either directly or indirectly from another country before they became Americans.
The book was just put on the list of the Best Jewish Children’s Books 2021 for Tablet Magazine and also the Anti-Defamation League List 2021 for “Books Matter” that are written on social justice and diversity. (Bimi is Muslim and Evie is Jewish. The neighbors are from all over – like in Queens, N.Y., where I was born.)
Q: What do you think Yevgenia Nayberg's illustrations add to the book?
A: Well, I chose her to be the artist and never had anyone else in mind. I am an artist first, before a writer, (now, both! I write young adult novels, chapter books, cookbooks, poetry, and so on…) but she was the perfect person for me to do this project – always.
We never met – except via email and then on a Zoom event after the book was published, but I find her style so interesting. She is also an immigrant and would bring something to this story, I felt.
I am very pleased with the final art.
Q: How did you first become interested in creating books for young readers?
A: Oh, gosh, that would take a book. (I probably have info on my website at: www.janebreskinzalben.com). I have done over 50 books and been doing this a long time, to say the least.
I was a fine arts student – an etcher/ abstract painter - and still am. I took a course in college with an illustrator who had been runner-up for the Caldecott. He encouraged me.
Out of college I worked for Dial Press and the art director I worked for also designed Maurice Sendak’s books. I learned everything from her about typography and the look of well-made books.
I taught for 18 years at the School of Visual Arts on creating picture books. And was also the art director at Scribner’s for books for young readers. My mother ultimately became a children’s book librarian and her love for reading and art was a factor.
There are just too many answers to that complex question if we had a few hours...I am sure online there are various articles and interviews that would fill in some of the dots.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote 10 short story picture books. I was working back and forth with an editor from years ago. It was encouraged greatly and it was a joy to write while being isolated.
This past fall, the project was signed up and expanded on the publisher’s directive, and to my surprise to a 144-page book full-color book that I am illustrating with over 100 illustrations. It is quite a massive project and it should be coming out in 2023. I am very excited about it and am passionately working away every day.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am intrigued that since I have been painting contemporary canvases these past years and showing in galleries – with a break in my illustration career – although another book I wrote (A Moon for Moe & Mo, also illustrated by another artist in London) that it vastly affected these new illustrations.
I think they show more confidence and a bolder sense of color than I had in prior books. My linework seems stronger even though I use a triple zero brush or pen.
People talk about age in our culture, and the fact is if you continue to work and hone your skills, you always get better, and have a greater sense of the whole. Just from living a life.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb