Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Q&A with Bonni Goldberg




Bonni Goldberg is the author of the new children's picture book biography Doña Gracia Saved Worlds. It focuses o the life of Doña Gracia Nasi Mendes (1510-1569). Goldberg's other books include My Jewish Holidays Journal.Also an educator, she lives in Portland, Oregon.


Q: What inspired you to write a picture book biography about Doña Gracia?


A: The inspiration came the moment I realized that it wasn't just me who had never heard of this amazing Jewish woman.


I was in a mother-daughter Bat Mitzvah course about Jewish women through the ages (created by the incredible HaRabbinit Oshra Koren of Matan HaSharon). Our group spanned the range from secular to orthodox Jewish girls and moms.


The session about Doña Gracia Nasi Mendes was the first time any of us had heard of her. I couldn't believe it. Several of the moms in the class had an extensive Jewish education and were lifelong Jewish learners.


To be honest I was upset that Gracia had been skipped over, especially (and unbelievably) considering her heroic actions and the Jewish values she embodied. And especially because she was a woman and a Sephardic Jew.


I decided right there that I had to introduce her to children in a picture book so she wouldn't be left out of our Jewish story and identity.


I was also inspired by the challenge of introducing Gracia to young children without bringing in the horrors of the Inquisition. In fact, the Inquisition is never mentioned in the story (it is in the backmatter).


During a writing conference pitch session, an editor told me that one couldn't write a picture book about the Inquisition. That was never my goal. The circumstances weren't the point. It was the actions of this determined and trailblazing woman.


But I wasn't only trying to make sure Gracia wasn't left out of history. What she did and the values she lived by felt so contemporary to me, so relevant today for all people.


Gracia ran an underground railroad to save secret Jews. She defied laws, putting her own life in danger multiple times. As a refugee, she was forced to keep relocating across Europe until she found safety in the Ottoman Empire. The whole time she also ran a successful international business at a time when most women weren’t independent.


In Istanbul, she was finally free to live openly as who she was. She dedicated the rest of her life to restoring Jewish culture by supporting the printing of books and the building of synagogues and yeshivas (Jewish schools).


Gracia understood that laws don't change beliefs or identity. She took responsibility for the wellbeing and safety of others and embraced the Jewish teaching that every person is like a world; so if you save even one life, you save a whole world.


This is such an important perspective for today, to see a single person-- you or someone else, even a stranger -- as a whole world. None of us are just one belief or one of our actions. And each of us carries the past and future generations (by influence even when we don't have children) with us. Everyone matters. 


Some people think that young children don't understand such concepts. I believe they might not always have the words to articulate them, but they do understand. 

Q: What do you think Alida Massari's illustrations add to the book?


A: I know it sounds cliche, but Alida's illustrations are what make the story come alive. The historical setting comes entirely from her illustrations. They are what transport you to the time and place. 


Alida also makes Gracia as a character accessible. And her color palette celebrates the richness of Sephardic culture and the blending of the Iberian and Middle Eastern influences.


In this way, the illustrations speak to the same themes of community and identity and just as importantly celebrate the contribution of Sephardic Jewish history and resilience on Jewish identity. 


Q: How did you research Doña Gracia's story, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I'd already become fascinated with the life of conversos, or secret Jews like Gracia, living double lives in Spain and Portugal during the Renaissance. In fact, I was researching the period for a middle grade historical novel. Even though I'd read quite a number of books and documents, I hadn’t come across any mention of Gracia.


Once I knew who she was, I was able to find papers and books, both nonfiction and fiction about her. But nothing for children. Now Gracia is also a character in my novel.


There aren't many primary sources I could find that mention Gracia and some secondary sources contradict each other. 


The most surprising thing I learned about Gracia is that she was responsible for the first new settlement of Jews in what is now Israel. She wanted Jews, including herself, to have a home where it would never be illegal to be Jewish.


She leased Tiberius from the Sultan. It was reportedly in a state of ruin and required extensive rebuilding. Gracia planned to move there, but she died before she was able to make it.


Q: You've written for children and for adults--do you have a preference?


A: We both write for children and adults. I don't know about you, but I love the balance. I think I write to empower readers with perspective and help them to connect to their best self.


For me, it's harder to write for children than for adults. I'm constantly drawn to the challenge. I think one reason is that even though the main audience for a picture book is children, adults are an audience as well.


Writing something as condensed as picture books so that both the child and the adult are impacted, entertained, or both is incredibly satisfying. And efficient too (that's my neurodiversity speaking up).


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm always working on multiple projects at once. It takes me at least 20 revisions to finish something, so I have multiple children's book manuscripts at various stages in the process and a few ideas that require finding likeminded collaborators. For adults, a novella and a musical are in the works.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I've been an educator of one kind or another all my life. As an author that means I also love creating resources and related activities for my books. 


I’ve created a free Teaching Guide, activities geared for Jewish educators, and many other fun and engaging activities focused on values, identity, and social emotional learning. They’re all available on my website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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