Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Q&A with Tziporah Cohen




Tziporah Cohen is the author of the new children's picture book biography On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue: How Milton Hershey Brought Milk Chocolate to America. She also has written the middle grade novel No Vacancy. Also a psychiatrist, she lives in Toronto.


Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of chocolatier/businessman Milton Hershey (1857-1945)? 


A: I was a semester into my MFA for Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and knew I wanted to try my hand at writing a picture book biography but hadn’t figured out a subject.


It was summer, and I was in New York visiting family (I live in Toronto now) and on the way home we took a detour to Hershey, Pennsylvania. I had been there as a kid and wanted to take my own kids there.


We did the usual touristy things, taking the chocolate tour and visiting the amusement park, but we also took a trolley tour visiting historical sites in the town while actors talked about Milton Hershey’s life and accomplishments. I was fascinated by his many failures before his well-known success and his remarkable. I knew I had my subject!


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I had an overview of the town and Milton’s life from our visit to Hershey, and I filled that out by reading several books about Hershey, most importantly Michael D’Antonio’s informative book, Hershey.


I watched every documentary I could find. There is a Hershey Community Archives online which contains an enormous collection of source material, newspaper articles, photos, advertisements and more, which was incredibly helpful. And I ate a lot of chocolate while I wrote—that’s research, too, right?


One interesting fact I learned was that Milton Hershey and his wife had intended to sail home on the Titanic after a trip to Europe in 1911, but changed their plans when Milton needed to return to Hershey, Pennsylvania, earlier than originally planned. You can view the cancelled check he wrote to the White Star Line, the owners of the Titanic, in the Hershey Community Archives.

Q: What do you think Steven Salerno's illustrations add to the book?


A: I was so delighted when Steven agreed to illustrate the book, as he is a master of picture book biographies and had already done several about individuals who lived in the same era as Milton Hershey.


In fact, he illustrated The Fantastic Ferris Wheel, written by Betsy Harvey Kraft, about the construction of the first Ferris wheel. That Ferris wheel made its debut at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the same World’s Fair that Milton attended, discovering and purchasing chocolate-making equipment from Germany. This lucky find was what started Milton on his quest to make the perfect milk chocolate.


But I digress! Steven’s illustrations bring so much feeling to my text, fully rounding them out. For example, the text talks about Milton failing repeatedly in his attempts to sustain a successful candy business, but it’s only in Steven’s illustrations that you see the anguish Milton felt as each business went under.


And my favorite spread is the one where Steven depicts the older Milton, now a successful and wealthy man, watching some less fortunate children stare at treats behind a bakery window. You can almost hear the thoughts in Milton’s head as he remembers what it felt like to be a hungry child with no money for such luxuries.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “What sticks out, however, is the sheer amount of trying and failing that led to his [Hershey’s] ultimate triumph.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you think that persistence says about Hershey?


A: I think they were spot on. For me, that was something I wanted to emphasize for kids reading the book. When we hold a finished product in our hands, whether it’s a chocolate bar or an iPhone (or a picture book!), we don’t appreciate the years of failed attempts behind that finished product.


When I learned about Milton’s parents and childhood, I learned that his mother was very pragmatic, valuing education and hard work, while his father was more of a dreamer, experimenting constantly with new business ideas, but never sticking them out long enough to be successful.


Milton seemed to have the perfect balance of both of these traits, always dreaming big but then putting years of hard work into making these dreams a reality.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been working on hard on a second middle grade novel for a while now about a 12-year-old boy whose sister was killed in a car accident. It’s about grief and baseball and time-travel and it’s taking me way more years to write than it took Milton to crack the recipe for his milk chocolate! 


I’m also currently working on another picture book biography, but I’m going to keep the subject of that one to myself for now. And, like any picture book writer, I have a laptop full of new picture book ideas in various stages of development. Check back in five years and we’ll see which ones made it to the finish line.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m thrilled to share that I have two other picture books coming out this spring. Afikomen (Groundwood Books, March 2023) is a wordless picture book about a Passover seder time-travel adventure, illustrated by Yaara Eshet, and City Beet (Sleeping Bear Press, March 2023) is a celebration of gardening and community and one very large beet, illustrated by Udayana Lugo. I’ve been so lucky to work with so many talented illustrators.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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