Sunday, November 13, 2022

Q&A with Barbara Bietz




Barbara Bietz is the author of the children's picture books The Sundown Kid and Sweet Tamales for Purim. Her other books include Apples, Apples, All Year Round. She lives in Southern California.


Q: Your books The Sundown Kid and Sweet Tamales for Purim look at Jewish life in the American West more than a century ago. What inspired you to write these stories, and how did you research them?


A: I was born and raised in California and attended college and grad school in Arizona. Growing up, I learned so much about the Jewish history of immigrant families, including mine, who came through Ellis Island and settled in New York or neighboring states.


I was curious about the history of Jewish communities in the West, a history that reflected my life, and the communities that were familiar to me. I stumbled upon some archives and it became a lifelong passion.


I read Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West, by Harriet and Fred Rochlin, and later had the opportunity to see Harriet Rochlin speak at an event. In reference to Jewish communities in the West, she said, “We were there, too.” Those four words resonated with me and gave me an even deeper desire to share untold stories about Jews in the Southwest.

Q: The Kirkus Review of The Sundown Kid said, in part, “Bietz uses an oral storytelling style with repetitive phrasing to introduce the arrival of Shabbat, enfolding both details of the hardworking life of homesteaders with Jewish cultural details.” What do you think of that description?


A: Oh, my. I just love this description. It warms my heart. Interestingly, August House (the publisher for both books) is best known for publishing folktales and it was an honor for me that they considered my stories to meet that criteria. More than anything, I consider myself a storyteller so I am pleased that comes through in my work.


Q: The Midwest Book Review called Sweet Tamales for Purim “Charming, entertaining, and with an important social/cultural message that will have special value for young Jewish readers.” What do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: Most of all, I hope young readers enjoy the story and feel connected to the characters who are in a bit of a pickle when the goat eats their hamentashen (Purim cookies) and they need to a new plan or they won’t have anything to bring to the Purim party. 


On a deeper level, I’d love kids to recognize that we can celebrate our differences and our commonalities, and doing so enriches us all. In the story, Luis is joining Rebecca’s Purim celebration, but it’s the sweet tamales that save the day.


Q: What do you think John Kanzler's illustrations add to both books?


A: I love John’s illustrations. They feel like historical oil paintings. The texture on each page is so beautiful, almost like a tapestry. His research was so impeccable, especially with the setting. He brought my stories to life in such a lovely way.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a new picture book that just came out, Apples, Apples, All Year Round (illustrated by Ruth Waters, Apples & Honey Press ) that I co-wrote with my friend June Sobel (known for her Goodnight Train series). We are now working on another project together and it’s lots of fun! I am also knee-deep in a middle-grade novel manuscript that I am excited to finish.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I really appreciate your thoughtful questions and the opportunity to chat about my work. Writing can be isolating. Sweet Tamales came out in February 2020, so I didn’t have the opportunity to attend events. Thank you for helping me celebrate today!


All of the books we chatted about are PJ Library selections. PJ Library is a philanthropic organization that provides books to Jewish families every month. Parents and grandparents can learn more about this amazing organization at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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