Q: What inspired you to write Honey and Me, and how did you create your characters Milla and Honey?
A: Like many parents who spend a lot of time reading picture books aloud to their children, I came up with my own picture book idea and tried to write it. It was AWFUL. And I knew it was awful, I just didn’t know how to fix it.
But I discovered that children’s book writing courses exist, and I took one, determined to make my book better. I did not make it better! In fact, I never touched it again. But I did re-discover my love of writing, as well as how hard it is to write a picture book.
Somewhat un-intuitively, I had the feeling that what I needed was to give my words and stories a little more room to breathe and that writing a full-length novel for older children would be a way to do that. A friend from the picture book writing class told me she was doing a young adult writing class that summer and said I should join her, which I did.
At the same time, my eldest daughter had reached the age where I could read her some of my favourite childhood novels —Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family—as well as some new ones I was just discovering, like The Penderwicks, and later, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.
To me, what connects these books are writers who understand the magnitude of the small dramas of everyday life. I especially love how the All-of-a-Kind Family books focus on the small dramas in everyday Jewish life—which wasn’t something I had seen anywhere else before. I wondered if I could do that too, but in a modern way and with contemporary characters.
Soon after, an image flashed in my mind of two girls on a school bus, best friends. I knew one came from a big family, was spunky and sporty, not shy although sometimes put-upon by her family.
The other—who I knew right away would be the narrator and main character—was quieter and more reflective. She thought her friend had more to offer, but in fact their friendship was evenly balanced, each one supporting and filling in the other.
Most importantly, I knew they came from Modern Orthodox families and went to a Jewish school as I did, and my own children do now. And as soon as I acknowledged this aspect of them, their escapades and stories just began to flow out of me.
During that novel writing course I wrote a chapter of Milla and Honey’s adventures each week, and by the end of the summer I had the very first draft of Honey and Me.
Q: Can you say more about the dynamic between the two girls?
A: The dynamic between the two girls has a lot of push and pull, and in many ways Milla and Honey are foils to each other. One of the main character arcs of the novel is Milla needing to realise that as much as she admires Honey with her brash, can-do, not-overthinking-it attitude, she provides just as much to the friendship as Honey does, and that Honey admires her right back.
As the character of the elderly neighbor Agineni tells Milla, “you can only be a truly good friend if you think of yourself to the same standard as you think of your friend. Friends aren’t meant to be statues you admire on a pedestal.” As Milla steps out of Honey’s shadow, the friendship is strengthened even more.
Q: The writer Madelyn Rosenberg called the book “At once Jewish and universal. I finished this book with some of the salt-water tears that normally come with Passover, along with the warm, potato-kugel feeling of celebrating family life and Jewish joy.” What do you think of that description?
A: First of all, I was so honored that Madelyn Rosenberg read Honey and Me and agreed to blurb it as I am a huge fan of her book with co-author Wendy Wan-Long Shang This Is Just a Test.
I was also extremely gratified by her description, for a few reasons. The goal of writing Honey and Me was to write something that was both very specifically Jewish—in which Jewish children could recognize something of themselves and their religious practice on the page—and also something universal, that would touch the heart of anybody reading it, whatever their religion or religious practice (as Judaism is not a monolith and while Honey and Me is set in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community, I wouldn’t purport to be representing all of Judaism!).
Another reason Madelyn’s description is so powerful to me is how she connects her words back to the Jewish holidays in such a deliberate way, so that the metaphor of Passover’s “salt-water tears” and the “warm potato-kugel feeling” uses its specificity to create a meaning that is broadly evocative. (Even if one might not know exactly what potato kugel is!) Again, “Jewish and universal” :) (As I do a close reading of her words you can probably tell I went to graduate school for English and Comparative Literature.)
I also love that she mentions “Jewish joy” because as I have written before (https://oomscholasticblog.com/post/jewish-joy-meira-drazin-author-honey-and-me), I read a lot of Holocaust books when I was growing up, and the only other setting in which I saw religious Jews in children’s literature was historical, nothing that looked at all like my own life. When my own kids began to read, I was shocked to see the landscape had not changed.
And I think that I for sure internalized the idea that the only times observant Jewish practice could really be in books was if there was persecution, some kind of conflict about it, or it was set in the past.
So writing a children’s book that was set in the present day, in a religious community in which characters’ religious practice and interaction was both integral, yet incidental, and guided generally by joy rather than persecution or conflict, was a big goal and touchstone for me.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: In my first drafts of the book, Honey and Me was more of a series of interconnected stories, each chapter a different episode of Milla and Honey’s 6th grade year, with the Jewish holidays working as tent poles holding up the structure, and Milla’s own bat mitzvah as culmination.
All the characters were there, and the overall narrative arc of Milla stepping out of Honey’s shadow and beginning to discover her own strengths was there from the beginning, but with each draft the episodes were smoothed out to feel more like a novel with cause and effect, and the through-lines strengthened to connect Milla’s journey from beginning to end.
It’s funny, because once the book sold to Scholastic I actually re-wrote it from scratch, and yet it is really still the same story. (I’ve been calling the final version of Honey and Me the grown up version—wiser, more experienced, more polished, but with the same heart as when it was a child. :))
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a few projects at various stages of draft that I am excited to get back to work on, but at the same time Honey and Me was such a long journey that I am trying to be very in-the-moment with it right now, very present to all the excitement of it coming out and working on publicizing it, visiting schools and presenting on panels and other events, and just trying to enjoy and feel grateful for this dream come true.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It has been really exciting in these weeks since the book has come out to hear from all the different people reading it and connecting to it.
Although it is geared for 9-12 year olds, and it is my dream come true and even more exciting than I could imagine to talk to kids who have read Honey and Me, and discuss the characters and Milla and Honey’s adventures with them, I have been pleasantly shocked to hear from tons of adults too, women and men, who perhaps felt like I described their childhood, or a friendship they had, or knew a family like the Wines, or had parent-child friction (either with their own parent, or with their own child).
It’s been truly fascinating and wonderful, and it’s something I need to sit on still a little bit to try to understand better. Stay tuned!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb