Barbara Bietz is a name in the world of children’s literature that you may not recognize... but you will. From having served as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award to pioneering a revitalization of diversity in children’s picture books with a focus on Jewish literature, this emerging writer has not stopped in her advocacy for building a more connected community. With the release of her second title, The Sundown Kid: A Southwestern Shabbat, we sat down with her to get a better understanding of what people can do to nourish the thrill of history and appreciation of diversity in young readers.
Raven: What motivates you to be so active in children’s literature and education?
Barbara: I’ve always been a reader so it’s just something that happened organically. When I was young, reading was everything to me, and I loved the worlds that I read about in books.
I was a little bit nervous to call myself a writer. I think it took a long time to get to this point. Being a reader helped tremendously, and I’ve been very lucky the way things have evolved.
For me, it’s the craft, it’s the passion that I have for reading and writing, but it’s also the community that comes with it. It’s been so satisfying to me. Giving back to that community just feels right because I’ve gotten so much out of it.
R: How did being part of a community affect the story of The Sundown Kid?
Barbara: Something that I loved about creating The Sundown Kid, is reaching back into different times in history or to people who might be in your family – whether it’s fictional characters or people who actually existed—just finding that core commonality. Learning about the people of the Southwest, the Jewish community of the Southwest, and the struggle those people went through, and the triumphs, and how they worked together – it just really touched me.
R: What was the time period for The Sundown Kid?
Barbara: I left it somewhat vague because I didn’t want to be too tied down to a specific time frame; however, there is a train, so it had to be beyond the date when the trains were established. I’m thinking early 1900's, but it’s completely open to interpretation.
We didn’t specify what town it was in either. I have a vision in my head, but my goal was to leave that somewhat open because the story is more about what this family goes through than really grounding it in an absolutely specific time and place.
R: Did you come across something unexpected when you were doing your research for this book?
Barbara: I was actually working on a completely different manuscript. The fun thing about research is sometimes you’re looking for something, and you find something that wasn’t exactly what you were looking for, but it turns out to be something even better.
I started reading about these families and especially about the pioneer women in these communities. It kind of coincided. Serendipity happens when you start investigating something—this “magical thing” happens and it starts coming into your life more and more.
Then I visited a couple of museums that had exhibits, and I was reading some books about Jewish families that settled in the West. What struck me was how diverse these communities were and how people from different backgrounds came together. At first, these communities were small, so it’s not like you had crowds of people that you could draw from. What ultimately happened is that people worked together to build stronger communities.
That really touched me. It became a passion. Even though The Sundown Kid is a 32-page picture book, there’s probably ten years of research and reading and engrossing myself in all the information that I could gather.
R: Was there a particular event that you especially wanted to capture or celebrate in your writing?
Barbara: There were a few things that became significant. One was a young girl in Tucson—this was several years ago—who as part of her bat mitzvah project, the family commissioned a series of dolls. These dolls all represented women of the southwest, pioneer women. I actually wrote an article about it for Doll World Magazine. I thought that it was so fabulous that this young girl cared so much about the history of her community that she would take on this project.
Then there was another woman who did another project, but she did it with quilts. She created these quilts honoring a similar group of women.
They used traditional “women’s” art forms – dolls and quilts – to honor these women who came from so many generations before. I would like to think that The Sundown Kid is continuing that tradition of celebrating history in an art form that is accessible today.
R: Did learning about these art forms impact your collaboration with John Kanzler, the illustrator?
Barbara: John is just a gem. It almost felt magical. He was so kind and so generous and very gracious about asking questions when I know he also did some of his own research.
I think his art is stunning, it’s beautiful, and everyone who’s seen the book is blown away by how beautiful the illustrations are. John was so sensitive to the details and committed to making sure everything was accurate, historically and religiously. I couldn’t be more delighted with the art work.
R: You mention specific images and symbols in The Sundown Kid: the kiddish cup, the mezuzah on the doorway, and the father puts on his yarmulke. Can you explain their meanings?
Barbara: A kiddish cup is usually silver and holds the wine – or sometimes grape juice – that you give a blessing over at the beginning of Shabbat. It sanctifies moving into this holy day of rest. It’s a very traditional part of the Shabbat celebration.
Inside the mezuzah is a little scroll that has a blessing. It’s a blessing for the house, and it’s also a daily reminder as you come and go. Some people as they walk out and pass the mezuzah they’ll touch it or kiss their hand to it and touch it because it’s a reminder that “God is in your home” from a religious perspective. But it’s also a way to tell the world that this is a Jewish home. I’m sure there are lots of different interpretations for why we do it, but it does have a biblical base. The blessing, the prayer inside on the scroll, is the same in every home.
The yarmulke is worn by Jewish boys and men in a religious circumstance. Very religious men may wear them all day, every day—it serves as a reminder that God is above you in a sense. Then in some families when Friday night comes, it’s totally different from the rest of the week. For the family in The Sundown Kid, the father wears a hat during the week, then for Shabbat he puts on his yarmulke.
R: Was there a particular reason why you chose these specific elements to incorporate into your story?
Barbara: Because they’re very traditional. It is a Shabbat story, so we needed to include what is typically present during a Shabbat celebration, such as the kiddish cup, the lighted candles, and the challah, which is the bread. For the yarmulke, with this particular family, it just felt right for what they would do. For the mezuzah, an interesting thing is when I was in my writer’s group and I first brought this story focusing on Shabbat, a friend of mine who’s not Jewish said, “They need a mezuzah on their door,” and I said, “You’re right! They do, what a lovely thing to include in the story.” I really like that it’s included because that’s the item that will make your house feel like a home, and I think it’s also a nice thing to share with readers who might not be as familiar with Jewish traditions.
R: Maintaining histories seems to be a prevalent theme in this conversation. What is something that you want to come across to your audience, no matter their age?
Barbara: To understand that we all have more similarities than we have differences. Even with different belief systems, different communities, we all want a sense of connection. There’s just so much that we can all learn from each other. I think that’s why at the end of the story I have everybody sharing a meal. I think something like sharing a meal breaks down barriers. When we actually get to talk to each other, we find that there’s so much more that we have in common than our differences.
An important theme for readers, especially kids, to understand is that technology changes, fashion changes, fads come in and out, but emotions stay the same from generation to generation. Feelings are timeless and universal. The feelings that we may have about certain things, that kids may have about certain things – to know that your grandparents felt that way, too. It might have been a little different. The context might have been a little different, but we all want a sense of belonging. We all want friendship. We need to feel part of something. We all want love. We all want family connections.
Raven: Did you have a target audience in mind for this book?
Barbara: You know, in my mind I was thinking more traditional – what the typical picture book would be, anywhere from Pre-K to Grade 1. I get really excited about it because in some cases the kids might be able to read it themselves, and that would be terrific. I think of the book as a read-aloud, as well as something the kids can read on their own.
What I love about picture books in general is that anyone can enjoy a picture book. Sometimes I think we forget that. A parent or an adult might forget how much there is to learn from a picture book. It can be for any age, so I even like picture books for high school kids! The art is beautiful and the writing is pretty tight. It’s real storytelling with something to offer anyone. Picture books truly are ageless.
Even as kids get older, it’s fun to read what they’re reading. That way you can talk about it and share that experience with them. Some of the best books written today are children’s books.
R: In your workshops, you discuss reading the book and how you wrote it. What are some key techniques that you employ during your school visits?
Barbara: The workshops as they’re designed are typically for Kindergarten through 6th grade, but I can work with any age group. My background is in education, so it’s a comfortable fit for me to be in a school. Of course it varies for different age groups, but one thing that’s really important is for kids to understand a little bit about story structure – that a story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end – at whatever level they’re able to understand that.
Kids need to know that writing isn’t just a talent. Yes, some people have more of a knack for it, but it’s a skill that can be developed. Even the most proficient of professional authors and journalists have to revise their work and work with editors. No matter how old or experienced you are, your first draft is a first draft, and you have to edit and edit again and edit again. I know kids sometimes get frustrated with that, but it’s not just because they’re kids. We all need to revise our work and make it better.
Lastly, I want to emphasize, if you want to be a good writer, be a reader. Reading is always the most important thing that a writer can do.
R: What is a typical lesson that you share with teachers to help their students learn to love reading so that they can develop their writing skills?
Barbara: I am a big supporter of teachers, and I think teachers have great gifts. Different teachers do things in different ways to reach their kids, but the one thing that I think kids really love and that can turn students into readers is to be read to.
I still remember in 4th grade, my teacher would read to us every day after lunch, and we couldn’t wait for the next chapter. I think that’s something parents can do, too. Kids are never too old to be read to! I think a lot of times parents stop reading to their kids when they start reading on their own and can do things more independently, but being read to is so lovely. It takes away the pressure of performing and the feeling of homework, and I think that’s the most important thing that a parent or a teacher could do to encourage kids to read, to read to them, or spend time reading with them.
Buy the book:
The Sundown Kid: A Southwestern Shabbat
By Barbara Bietz
Illustrated by John Kanzler