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Mar 15 2013

PJ Library Corner: Interview with Laurel Snyder, Author of The Longest Night

By at 9:39 am

the longest night laurel snyderOne of the most unique Passover children’s books we’ve seen yet is the new picture book from Laurel Snyder, The Longest Night. Like many books of the sort, it retells the story of Exodus, but it’s told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl. And where other kids books may skip or doll up some of the more violent/sad parts of the Passover story, Snyder stays pretty true to the script. It makes for a compelling read, and we were lucky enough to sit down with Laurel and ask her a few questions.

**The Longest Night is a PJ Library book, as well as Snyder’s previous children’s book, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be KosherTo get great Jewish books like these for free every month, sign up for PJ Library. If you’re in the New York metro area, sign up through Kveller here. If you live elsewhere, check out this map to find your local PJ community.**

It seems like the plagues get a lot of attention when it comes to celebrating Passover with kids, but they’re usually cutesied upplague finger puppets, plague masks, plague bowling set, etc. The plagues in your book are decidedly not cute (no offense). Why did you choose to present a more realistic view of the plagues, and do those cutesy products mentioned above bother you?

Honestly, there’s something fascinating about taking the gruesome and making it playful. I’m not offended at all. But we should ask what we’re trying to accomplish when we do that.

I think the approach contemporary Judaism takes to “engaging” kids is often: “Hey! Look! Judaism is fun! It’s just as fun as Christianity! Now here, have a bagel!” So I think the plastic plagues scattered on the seder table is part of that, and more related to Easter eggs (a fun part of an equally serious/gruesome holiday) than it is to Passover.

But there’s another way of engaging, which is content-based, and more about exploring history, or mythology, or human nature, or mystery, or text. A deeper way. I like to think that kids respond just as well to well-told stories, to big ideas, as they do to fun plastic toys. In my experience, kids like scary stuff, they like knowing about “once upon a time.” But you have to flesh the story out, make it real for them. My kids are currently obsessed with Norse mythology, and that stuff is DARK.

The harder part is actually the next step, helping them leap from the intense image of frogs covering the earth, or rivers of blood… to the decision to act, to leave Egypt, and the experience of that journey. How to make that meaningful for them, in their life?

While reading, I wondered how you would handle that whole killing of the first born thing. Your description is certainly creepy and dark, but the actual killing is never mentioned–”Till–the saddest sound, so stark. Cries like knives that split the dark.” Why did you decide not to overtly mention that final plague, and when do you think is the right time for kids to learn the truth about that one?

This was something I agonized over. And in the end, I had two reasons for my decision.

laurel snyder with sons

Laurel with her sons

First, I think kids can handle darkness, but there’s a limit to what they can handle alone. We aren’t always with our kids when they look at a book the first time, and I didn’t want to give anyone nightmares. I hate the idea of a kid seeing THAT image, and not having someone there to explain it. It’s not productive or kind. So I chose to be vague, to limit that 10th plague to the sound of mothers crying. Parents can choose to flesh that out as they like, for each kid. My boys know. But my boys like to watch bloody nature shows. Each kid is different.

Second, there is this thing I like to call the “under the table experience.” By which I mean that kids see things from a different vantage point than grownups. They miss details we catch and they catch details that we miss. I wrote this book from a child’s perspective, and in the end, I found myself thinking that a parent living through the plagues would be trying to shelter their kids from some of the horror. The way all parents living through horror try to protect their families.

Think about the last time you were listening to NPR in the car, with your kids in their car seats, and a scary news item came on, so you shut it off quickly.  I don’t think the speaker of the book knows what the sounds are either.

Have you been able to hear any kids’ reactions to the book? Curious if they find it scary, cool, sad, etc.

Yes, all of the above. They like the frogs, and the wolf.  I actually read it, pre-publication, for a large group of kids at a JCC event, and they were utterly silent. It was very strange. That’s the power of heavy meter, and rhyme. The drone of it. There is something prayer-like, I think, about the book. It makes people quiet. Is that weird?

There’s no mention of God in the book, and I’m guessing that was on purpose… so, what was your reasoning behind that choice? Have you had to have the “god talk” with your kids yet?

Yes, intentional. Moses too. People are quick to pick up on that.

But this isn’t meant as a big social commentary, it really isn’t. This story is being told by a little girl, one small person in a big herd of people. God and Moses and Pharaoh, they’re doing their thing in the background. Kids can play Where’s Waldo with them if they want, but this book isn’t their story.

laurel snyder playing ukeleleAnd I think this was the point of the project. Everyone matters. Everyone who lives through any event has an equally important experience of that event. That goes for kids too. As an author, my job is to do the best job I can of writing the book in front of me. I wasn’t writing Moses’ story. Someone already did that!

I’d like to think this is actually a very Jewish approach. Religious experience being individual in this way. Each person being of great importance.

What is your favorite part about celebrating Passover with your family?

Ahhh, honestly, it’s a hard time for me. Because I live very far from my parents, so there’s always the scramble of “Who are we having seder with this year?” Though of course, it’s always wonderful once we get there.

But I love the dailiness of Passover. I love the way my kids are alert, careful about food. The way it makes them feel very Jewish, to pack their little lunches, decline treats their friends are having. They like to explain it to people. It’s sweet.

Being a Jewish parent has been the most meaningful Jewish experience I’ve had yet. Seeing how interested my kids are, how much they own it.

Do you put anything strange on your seder plate? I mean it’s all a bit strange, but you know what I mean.)

It’s always a little bit of a hodgepodge here. One year we had dinner on the floor, Japanese style, because the kids couldn’t see everything when it was up on the table.

I’ll admit, we don’t do the shank bone. The kids draw a picture of a shank bone and we use that instead. Is that weird? Probably it is.

You can enter to win a copy of The Longest Night here!

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