Ever picture your kids as fictional characters? Neither did Dori Weinstein, a stay-at-home mom of three in Minneapolis, Minnesota, until she was manning the Jewish book table at her youngest son’s preschool book fair, some eight years ago.
An elementary school teacher by profession, she immediately noticed the hefty number of illustrated children’s books, but saw that nearly all the Jewish books for older kids were focused on the Holocaust or Jews at the turn of the century.
“It was all old, heavy stuff, living back in the shtetl, nothing about Jewish life today,” said Weinstein, 45, speaking via Skype from her home in Minneapolis.
“I was thinking, ‘There needs to be Judy Blume meets ‘All of a Kind Family,’” she added, referring to the famous children’s writer and the beloved 1950s-era series by Sydney Taylor about a turn-of-the-century Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of New York City.
“I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t out there; I thought it should be,” said Weinstein, a native New Yorker whose own kids attend the local Jewish day school in Minneapolis. “I figured someone’s going to be wanting that kind of book… schools will want them.”
And so Weinstein created YoYo and YaYa — or Ellie and Joel Silver — a twin brother-and-sister pair living in a North American suburb with their parents and older brother. Much of what takes place in “Sliding Into the New Year,” the first in the series, and “Shaking in the Shack,” which just came out last spring, is similar to the tone and routine of Weinstein’s own family, which includes her husband, Gary, and their three kids (no twins, though).
“One of my big goals with the books is to celebrate all that is great about Judaism and to focus on — and send out positive messages to — kids,” she said. “Being Jewish isn’t all about rules and restrictions. There’re a lot of beautiful and even fun traditions.”
Another plus has been Weinstein’s partnership with her kids on the project.
“My kids have gone through this with me,” said Weinstein, noting that they were in preschool, first grade and fourth grade, respectively, when she began writing the first book. “So much of the books are what we do.”
Like the Weinsteins, YoYo and YaYa’s family scramble to finish their sukkah in time for the fall holiday, toss cornstalks like javelins onto the sukkah roof and shop in the local farmer’s market just before the holiday.
So, thanks to her kids, who were her very first advisers and continue to assist with many aspects of the series, from design — her daughter, Ilana, helps lay out each book — to video promos to ongoing literary criticism — “Mom, we would never say that!” — Weinstein’s characters are a set of believable, relevant 11-year-olds, conversant in all matters, whether tween, sibling or religion-related. In fact, now that her two oldest are in high school and her youngest is in sixth grade, Weinstein joked that she’ll have to begin hiring other kids to be her first readers.
What has surprised her is how the storytelling and writing have gone relatively smoothly. She points to her experience as a schoolteacher and mother, but found she also used her own recollections and memories.
“So much of YaYa is who I was,” she said. “Writing a boy was much more challenging. I have two boys in my house who set me straight, though.”
Besides the adventure of writing fiction, promoting and publicizing the series has become an entire business. Weinstein published the first book with Yotzeret, a small Jewish press. “Shaking in the Shack” and its successors will be published by Five Flames Press, Weinstein’s recently created self-publishing house, which sells the books primarily through Amazon.
“It’s a big learning curve,” said Weinstein of the publishing business. She travels frequently for readings and book signings at Jewish day schools and bookstores across the country, and is constantly posting, updating and sharing on her official Facebook page.
Now that Weinstein has published the second book in the YaYa and YoYo series, she’s hoping to publish one each year, aiming for a total of 12 — one for each month of the year. She knows from her own kids that they eagerly await the next book in any series, and she needs to keep readers interested while they’re still the right age for YaYa and YoYo’s adventures.
“I love when kids come running up to me and tell me how much they love YaYa and YoYo,” said Weinstein. “It’s the best part of this business.”