Sunday, November 5, 2023

Q&A with Elissa Brent Weissman




Elissa Brent Weissman is the author of the new children's picture book Hanukkah Upside Down. Her other books include the middle grade novel The Renegade Reporters. She lives in New Zealand.


Q: What inspired you to write Hanukkah Upside Down, and how did you create your characters Noah and Nora?


A: My family and I moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, and Hanukkah Upside Down was inspired by our first Hanukkah in the southern hemisphere.


Celebrating Hanukkah in summertime made me realize the degree to which books, movies, greeting cards, and pretty much everything about the holiday season are filled with snow and other wintery things, despite December being summer for half the world!


So, I thought it’d be fun to write a story about a kid who celebrates Hanukkah in Aotearoa [the Māori name for New Zealand].


My family actually spent our first Hanukkah in a town called Wānaka, which was such an irresistible rhyme for a picture book title: Hanukkah in Wānaka.


It took quite a bit of trial and error before I hit upon the idea of two kids—cousins Noah and Nora, who live on opposite sides of the world—comparing their holidays, with some friendly competition.


This allowed me to show the ways the characters and their celebrations are unique while also highlighting the things they share.


As a bonus, this premise also allowed me to show that family and friends can retain strong relationships no matter how far apart they live, which is another thing my family’s been thrilled to find true since our big move.

Q: What do you think Omer Hoffmann’s illustrations add to the story?


A: Energy, humor, depth, warmth, and vibrancy! He did such an incredible job bringing to life Noah, Nora, their families, and their very different settings. It’s Omer who made Noah and Nora fully developed characters with clear personalities, and he fleshed out their worlds by creating their siblings, parents, and friends.


He uses different color palettes for New York and New Zealand, and his clever approach to laying out the illustrations really highlights that idea that some things are different and some are the same. The strong connection between the families shines through all the pictures. It’s magical.


Q: This is your debut picture book--how would you compare writing a picture book with writing for older kids?


A: I found it so much harder! Picture books are a fraction of the length of novels, of course, but that means every single word counts. And as an author, you need to leave enough space in the words to allow illustrations to meaningfully enrich the storytelling.


It was a huge challenge for me to be so focused and precise—I’m typically pretty long-winded!—yet still have all the elements of fiction feel rich and complete.


That said, once I had a draft I was satisfied with, the process of revising the book was much quicker and easier than with a novel, because the story was much shorter and simpler. It was nice having so few words to revise.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: I hope it encourages them to step outside their own experience and think about how their life might seem upside down to someone else.


Maybe kids in the US will be inspired to learn about New Zealand or other places far from home. Maybe they’ll find new ways to connect with family or friends they can’t easily see in person.


And for kids for whom Hanukkah is only about receiving presents, I hope they notice that that’s not the case for Noah or Nora. (The parent in me knows they might notice this, but that’s about it!)


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve got a new middle grade novel coming out in 2025, so I’m hard at work on that. It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but it’s about two girls whose mothers are both momfluencers.


I’ve also been working on the script of a middle grade graphic novel that I’m excited about. It incorporates New Zealand again, along with some more countries and cultures, which is fun. Writing a graphic novel script is a completely different way of thinking and writing than a regular novel or a picture book—another challenge, for sure!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Hanukkah Upside Down features some of my family’s favorite things about New Zealand. Like many Kiwis, Nora is often walking around in bare feet, even on city streets. She eats hokey pokey, which is an ice cream flavor (vanilla with pieces of carmelized honey).


And she practices her te reo Māori, the language of the Indigenous people of New Zealand, by using the Māori word for one of New Zealand’s many native birds: pīwakawaka (pronunciation here:


Here's another Māori word worth knowing, and it fits this story well: whānau (pronunciation here: Whānau means family.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elissa Brent Weissman.

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