This week readers get a Q & A between Ann Angel and writer Sheri Sinykin’s transformation from middle grade novelist to picture book author followed by guest writer Donna Pierquet’s heartfelt review of the picture book Zayde Comes to Live. Sheri admits this was a labor of love and such a long time coming. And it will touch the hearts of readers from all generations:
Sheri Sinykin and I (Ann Angel) go back to the late 80’s, at least, as writers with a passion to explore middle grade and young adult social justice issues in our writing. It was a rare treat to ask her about her newest book, a picture book no less, that focuses on aging and three generations of family under one roof. The transition isn’t surprising when readers consider that Sheri has always confronted sensitive topics. The resulting picture book, reviewed by Mount Mary College’s Donna Pierquet, provides a glimpse into the heart of this lovely creation.
Ann: Can you tell readers about yourself and your publication history?
Sheri: That’s a broad question! First, “about myself.” I am the mother of three sons, and now the grandmother of five grandsons. My first books—published between 1990 and 1997—were mostly inspired by my sons’ frustrations, trials, and interests. My first novel, SHRIMPBOAT AND GYM BAGS, grew from my eldest son’s interest in gymnastics and his DIS-interest in reading. THE BUDDY TRAP was inspired by another son’s annoyance at having to play a “war game” at summer camp. THE SHORTY SOCIETY grew out of their having been teased for being short. In the mid-1990s, I was lead author and wrote eight books for early readers in THE MAGIC ATTIC CLUB series of books, dolls, and doll products. After my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4B endometrial cancer in 1997, my writing came to a screeching halt, which I blamed on “writer’s block.” I define that as “wanting to write but being unable to, for unknown reasons.” [That is different from “not writing by choice” which is pretty much where I am right now and which I will explain in the last question.] I became a hospice volunteer, selfishly hoping to overcome my own fear of death so that I would be able to care for my mother when she needed me.
Over the next few years, I decided to earn my MFA in Writing for Children at Vermont College (2001-2003). There I learned that my writer’s block was likely caused by not writing out of my core, out of my deepest fears. While my creative thesis has not yet been published, I did work on another novel there, GIVING UP THE GHOST, which was published by Peachtree in 2007. That advice to write about my deepest fears was at the heart of this novel. Set on a haunted plantation near New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina, it also explores death in a realistic way, which I studied as part of my critical thesis.
GIVING UP THE GHOST and ZAYDE COMES TO LIVE both sold in 2004, while my parents were alive. Mom did not live long enough to see GHOST published. Neither parent will see ZAYDE in print—but I now have five grandsons to whom it is dedicated.
I moved to a lake in Massachusetts and established residency in 2010, in part to be near one son for six months (and have the other sons come here for a family reunion each summer) and in part so I would have the right to buy health insurance without being discriminated against for pre-existing conditions. During the winter, my husband and I live in Arizona near the other two sons and four grandsons—the most ideal, blessed life!
Then, here are the detail questions:
Ann: Zayde Comes to Live feels like such a personal story of connection between a child and grandfather. Is this story based upon your own experiences as a child?
Sheri: No, I did not know my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandfather died at 100, when I was in my thirties. I was not there when he died.
Ann: As primarily a middle grade author, Zayde Comes to Live is a bit of a departure for you. What is it that drew you to tell this story as a picture book?
Sheri: I started out trying to write picture books (doesn’t everyone J), but this book was inspired partly by my work as a hospice volunteer, partly by a hospice rabbi’s comments, and partly by my awareness that Jewish children do not know how to respond when their friends tell them where people will “go” after they die. The rabbi said, in his experience, Jewish hospice patients have a much more difficult transition because our religion tends to focus on the “here and now,” on doing Mitzvah (good deeds) for their own sake, rather than for some eternal reward. He said most Jews have no concept “what we believe” about an afterlife and I found this to be true in my experience as well. It was fairly easy to project my child-self into Rachel and imagine what it would be like to have her grandfather come into their house “because he was dying.” The character of Zayde was inspired by a hospice patient I followed in Wisconsin for the better part of a year.
Ann: While this is a picture book, it seems that reading it aloud could create an emotional connection between the reader and audience. Can you say a bit about this?
Sheri: I have made a conscious decision NOT to personally read this book aloud to child-audiences, but rather to present it to adults who love children—teachers, parents, grandparents, caregivers etc.—through a Power Point presentation called “GOOD GRIEF: How to Talk to Your Child about Death.” It concludes with a reading and an opportunity for discussion and sharing. I feel strongly that it is unfair for me, the author, to thrust such a sensitive subject onto an unsuspecting child audience. I would have no way of knowing “where” each child is, emotionally—whether they have a dying relative, whether they are highly emotional and fearful, whether they themselves might be ill, whether they are developmentally “ready” to talk about death etc. On the other hand, an adult who loves that child and can gauge their reaction better than I can would be in the best position to present it—and I would imagine that a powerful connection could be made if the reader is prepared for the conversations that will likely follow. That is my hope—that the book will bring comfort, healing, and some useful language around the subject of death and the afterlife (no matter what religion the child is). Even though it is told from a Jewish perspective, I hope that its universal value will be recognized.
Ann: What do you hope readers can take away from this story?
Sheri: I think I just answered this above. For Jewish children, they will have an answer when well-meaning friends talk about dying relatives going to heaven and paradise—and a sense that it is okay for people to believe different things. For all children, I’d like them to have that awareness, too, as well as an understanding of the “outside part”—the physical death which can be talked about factually—and the “inside part”—the soul, spirit, or “energy” which is a different conversation about belief (which cannot be proven) and would differ from person to person. I hope children have less fear around death and realize that it is part of the circle of life—first breaths, last breaths—and that we all should make each moment count.
Ann: You’re a grandparent yourself. Do you think your own experiences with grandchildren enriched the story? If so, how?
Sheri: I wrote this book before I had any grandchildren, so no, I don’t think so. I do know that I will not read it to any of the boys, until their parents feel they are “ready for it.” They all have two healthy grandfathers at the moment and I don’t want them to take the story too literally.
Ann: What are you working on next?
Sheri: To be completely honest, Ann, I am not actively writing anymore!
I am open to writing again, if the spirit moves me, but for the moment, it seems I have come to a place of “peace and completeness” with my writing career. It still remains a mystery to me why thirty years of passion for this process could have evaporated all at once. Given the timing of it, I have come to suspect that after Mom died in 2006 (Daniel and I cared for her in our Arizona home), after my first grandson was born in 2007, and I was concurrently going through huge emotional upheaval with two members of my birth family, I determined at a deep psychic level that I would rather spend my physical and emotional energy with living children than with fictional ones. And since that time—and the death of my father in 2008—I have pretty much re-arranged my life to make that possible. A kind of making each moment count in my own life, yes?
The exploration with watercolor came about in 2010, because I met an amazing woman who happened to teach watercolor. I followed the “tickle in my tummy” as she talked excitedly about how “anyone” can learn to paint. I told her I probably would prove her wrong, but that I would give painting a try. I have not regretted the decision. I love how ‘in the moment’ I am when I am painting, and how there is no pressure to sell anything, please an audience, or get good reviews like there has been with writing. It’s all been very Zen, and has helped me to see the world through different eyes.
Guest Review by Donna Pierquet
Zayde Comes to Live by Sheri Sinykin with illustrations by Kristina Swarner (Peachtree Publishers) $16.95
In her touching book, Zayde Comes to Live, Sheri Sinykin reminds us that in the eyes of a child death doesn’t need to be something to fear. Rachel’s grandfather, her zayde, comes to live with them. Young Rachel’s first words to readers are that her grandfather is dying. The fact that he is dying is not the mystery of this story. Nothing is hidden from her. The mystery for her is the life and death cycle and what will happen to Zayde once he dies. Rachel’s observations quickly prove to her that this visit with Zayde is different than others. He doesn’t want to play ball or run around. She needs to help him with things when he gets too tired, and he spends all of his time in the sleeper-chair. Honest answers to her questions are explained to her from their rabbi, but it is Zayde’s tender truthfulness that help Rachel understand the bigger picture.
The story is enhanced by the whimsical illustrations from artist Kristina Swarner who said that she “wanted to give Rachel an open and curious gentleness” in the art work. Swarner succeeded. The illustrations enrich Sinykin’s comforting tale of the life cycle, specifically in the scene when Rachel is imagining her ancestors dancing with Zayde in the World to Come. Swarmer explained that she wanted “to give the scene a tinted sepia look with a softer palette, knowing that Rachel would have only known her great aunts and uncles through old photographs.” The result is a thoughtfully illustrated book that matches the world of a young girl searching for answers to questions even adults struggle to comprehend.
Sinykin’s time as a hospice volunteer is apparent in the theme of this book and its empathetic and tender narrative. Zayde Comes to Live would be a great tool for parents looking for a way to talk about the life cycle with a young child. I plan on making sure my brother, a hospice chaplain, has a copy to use while working with families during such a difficult time. Sinykin does a clever job of explaining different faith’s views of the after- life without getting too religious or preachy. Adult readers will sigh heavily at the end of this book adoring how delicately Sinykin handles such a tender topic, while young readers will feel a sense of hopefulness at knowing Rachel is enjoying every moment with Zayde. Breath by breath.