Monday, January 8, 2024

Q&A with Linda Leopold Strauss




Linda Leopold Strauss is the author of the new children's picture book Everybody's Book: The Story of the Sarajevo Haggadah. It focuses on a Jewish religious manuscript that survived for centuries. Her other books include A Different Kind of Passover. She lives in Cincinnati.


Q: What inspired you to write a picture book about the Sarajevo Haggadah?


A: I honestly don’t know where the idea came from originally, but it wasn’t all that long after 9/11. The book in this version was a long time developing. 


I do know that when I learned a bit about the Haggadah’s history, I thought it would be really timely to have a book for kids about Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians helping to preserve a Jewish book. Hence the name: Everybody’s Book.


And I feel it is just as important today, with all that’s going on in the Middle East – maybe even more important.


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


A: I did research on the internet and in actual books – even some videos. (It surprised me that Ted Koppel’s Nightline team went to Sarajevo during the war to see the Haggadah – and that they were sworn to secrecy about its location and were escorted to see it by individuals carrying machine guns.)


My first version of the book was a middle-grade non-fiction manuscript, and since I was trained as an historian, I was intent on getting everything right, which isn’t always easy (or entirely possible) with an account that depends to a certain extent on recollection and word of mouth. 


And then I had to reduce the very complicated history to picture book length. 


Q: What do you think Tim Smart’s illustrations add to the book?


A: For me, the history of the Haggadah is so visual.  I couldn’t believe it when a previous editor turned it down because s/he couldn’t see the illustration opportunities in the manuscript.


To me (and clearly to Tim!) it is FULL of illustration opportunities, and I think his vivid artwork helps move the story along and brings it to life for young readers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently spending some time going back to earlier manuscripts, seeing if there are any worth reviving.  I’ve been writing long enough that I hope I’ve learned to make things better over the years.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There are a number of sub-stories in the tale of the Haggadah.  One is about Dervis Korkut, the museum curator in Sarajevo who saved the book from the Nazis. 


Korkut and his wife also saved a number of Jews during WWII, one of them disguised as a Muslim servant in their home. The Korkuts were ultimately recognized as “Righteous among Nations” by the Yad Vashem memorial after the war.


Soon after I started researching the book, Geraldine Brooks wrote an adult novel called People of the Book, about the Sarajevo Haggadah. 


When interviewed, Brooks said that the fact that the information about the Sarajevo Haggadah’s travels is spare was, to her, a good thing: “There’s a need for real imaginative engagement to fill the void.” 


I, on the other hand, needed to stick as much as possible to the known information in my manuscript; I think Tim Smart added the “imaginative engagement” through his lively illustrations.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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