There’s that moment in the day, particularly for parents of small children, when the frenetic activity calms down and that small child, or sometimes more than one, cuddles up, resting head on shoulder for the bedtime story. It’s a nighttime ritual that’s repeated the world over — and, clearly, during the day as well. But it is that evening reading, the bedtime story that’s often handled by the parent returning home from work, that has impressed several generations of Israeli novelists.
It’s perhaps the reason many Israeli fiction writers have written children’s books. They’ve spun their tales, conjectured writer Meir Shalev, because of the magic they’ve experienced as parents themselves, reading to their own children. And it’s possible that more of the writers are men, because — in the still-traditional society that is Israel — it’s often the fathers who aren’t always home until late. Reading those books at bedtime is what reconnects them to their kids, said writer and editor Dov Elbaum.
We wouldn’t dare suggest which children’s books are the best from these prodigious novelists, but having spoken to a handful about why and how they began writing kids’ books, here are the top five reasons why busy novelists spend time writing children’s stories.
1) Meir Shalev began writing novels at the age of 40, and first wrote three children’s books before he even ventured into the world of adult fiction. The impetus came from his memories as an avid young reader, when each book offered a kind of magic and escape from reality. “No novel for adults, even the best ones, moved me or excited me the way a good children’s book did when I was 5 or 6,” said Shalev, who waxed poetic about an original translation of Huckleberry Finn into biblical Hebrew. “A book is the creation of the writer and the reader, and there is this magic in children’s stories.”
Shalev has written 14 children’s books, including the popular series about Kramer the cat (although his personal favorite is How the Neanderthal Discovered the Kebab). Some are written for one of his children or grandchildren; others were drawn from an incident or conversation. He also tends to write children’s books as a break from writer’s block: “When I get stuck with a novel and hit my head against the wall, I leave it and write a children’s story and it changes my mood completely,” he said. For Shalev, it’s also getting to work on the punctuation, collaborating with the illustrator and reading the final product to kids, who, he says, are wonderful critics: They know instinctively how to sense the story’s direction and whether the book is any good.
2) For Liad Shoham, a prolific attorney and thriller writer, the impetus for writing his first children’s book, Abba Built a Cake, came from knowing that his young children wouldn’t be able to read his Tel Aviv-based thrillers for some time: They deal with brutal rapes and violent murders, subjects that most parents want to withhold from their children as long as possible. “My kids were born into a reality in which they take for granted what their parents do,” said Shoham. “My daughter asked if all the other lawyers in my firm are writers. I can’t read my books to my kids, but here’s something that I could offer them.”
Shoham’s first children’s book is a thriller of sorts, he described. It deals with a little girl who wants a dollhouse, which becomes her “metaphorical smoking gun” as her father and grandfathers begin building something for her, and she tries to figure it all out. He wanted to bring in the father and grandfathers, characters who are seldom part of children’s books, playing mixed-up men who aren’t really mixed up, helping a little girl realize her dreams. The process, however, unlike his thrillers, wasn’t as smooth, explained Shoham. His first draft was a bust, according to his wife — who is his first reader — and it took several drafts until it was deemed ready for publication. “A kids’ book has to be a diamond,” he claimed. “Kids don’t say, ‘Let’s give this another page.’ ”
3) Shalev and Shoham’s books are more or less cemented in reality; they offer real-life situations that happen to children, or sometimes animals, and push the child who is reading — or hearing — to figure out what should happen next. For David Grossman, the writer and political activist, there’s a particular pleasure in offering the surreal and imaginative in his children’s fiction.
“Kids have a huge ability for surrealism, maybe because their world isn’t so stabilized and rooted in reality, and there’s a struggle to understand the codes of reality,” mused Grossman. He has written nine children’s books, including The Hug, which includes haunting line drawings by artist Michal Rovner. When writing a children’s book — a task that Grossman often thinks of as an Israeli tradition, handed down from the first generations of writers who felt it was “almost a national responsibility” to write and translate Hebrew children’s fiction — he said he often thinks about the situation in which the parent reads to the child, the critically important “Good night” story.
“There are so many issues between an adult and children, and the “Good night” story is such a moment, when they come together and give legitimacy to the fantasies and wishes,” said Grossman. “They’re tourists in the same story.”
4) “In our house, I tell the stories,” said Dov Elbaum, whose most recent children’s book is The Eagle’s Island. “Not because I’m a writer, but because bedtime is the moment when Mom is tired and I want a few minutes with my children. This ceremony, of the story before bed, is more male than female. It’s an amazing trigger because when you do it, it’s the time that you don’t have to write or think seriously; it’s much more spontaneous and true. It’s a moment of time off.”
Elbaum remembers writing books as a child, creating a “salad of stories” that he would tell his fellow classmates in the Haredi school he attended. That skill for weaving a tale only returned when his own children were born, as he began telling his four daughters stories each night, sometimes repeating a tale, or inventing a new one.
“There are some we keep telling, with many, many chapters,” said Elbaum. “But what I wrote for them is the stories that are tied to them and their personalities, and the issues they’re dealing with,” a reality that they both love and find difficult as some of the stories eventually make it into print. “Sometimes they feel like it’s too personal,” he said. “Everyone can read their personal story and there’s a certain embarrassment. It’s complicated.”
5) For literary agent Deborah Harris, who handles the publication of Israeli authors abroad, the fact that many of her esteemed novelists take time to write children’s stories is part of the country’s consciousness. “It’s just another facet of someone who’s a talented writer,” she said, ticking off the various writing projects tackled by her writers — Grossman’s political essays and plays, Shalev’s books about the Bible, Elbaum’s pieces on religious and secular thought. And what about the women writers? Check out the young-adult fiction, said Harris; that’s where the women shine.