by Karen Rostoker-Gruber

Soon after my manuscript FARMER KOBI’S HANUKKAH MATCH was under contract with Apples & Honey Press, the Executive Editor e-mailed me about a book that she wanted me to write for her about mitzvah clowns.

I did a lot of research for this project. I didn’t know much about the topic. I called several organizations to inquire about mitzvah clowning, how one could get involved and what the process entailed. I also interviewed several mitzvah clowns in order to get an insider’s view.

There are several organizations that teach people (and mice, in my case) how to become mitzvah clowns. They teach you how to put on clown make-up, how to make balloon animals and hats, how to sing songs, how to juggle, how to dance, and the most important part of all, how to talk and comfort everyone in senior homes and hospitals. I didn’t realize how much went into the making of a mitzvah clown.

Now, I had the topic. I did the research. I just had to write a great book that wasn’t teachy-preachy. Not so easy.

At 3 am one morning (you can’t rush creativity), I dreamed up a shy mouse named Maddie. But in order to understand my new character Maddie, I had to go back in time to when I was a shy child—so shy, that people used to call me Giggles, because that’s all that I did.

I think that’s also why I became a self-taught ventriloquist at 8 years old. My sister was 5 years younger than I was, so I entertained her by making all of her dolls, stuffed animals, and actually, all of her food, talk. It was fun for me! I used to (and still do) hide behind all of my puppets while they say crazy things that I would never have the guts to say out loud. And I believed then and still believe now, that everything has a voice—a bug, a blanket—even an egg.

Here’s a photo of me and my puppet Maria.

I also remembered that I was hired as a clown for a next door neighbor’s birthday party. And I recalled that once I dressed up and put on clown make-up, I felt like a different person. I called myself Bubbles. So, that got me thinking…what if a shy mouse wanted to become a mitzvah clown? How would that work? What obstacles would she have to overcome? How would she overcome them? And, most of all, how could I get that all into 29 pages (the last page needed to be left for a “Note for Families”) or less?

Then I got to work.

There had to be someone who Maddie (the mouse) could trust and feel comfortable enough to make her do something that she had never done before.

In my book, Maddie is soooo shy, that she can’t talk to Grandma’s friends—until one day a mitzvah clown shows up. His name is Giggles. Giggles the Mitzvah Clown isn’t pushy; he’s very approachable and fun. The more Maddie watches Giggles, the more comfortable she feels. At first, when Giggles asks Maddie if she’d like a balloon hat, all Maddie does is nod. But once Giggles gives Maddie a big red nose, a rainbow wig, and a balloon hat, she no longer looks or feels like herself at all. And that is what dressing up is all about! Once you don’t look or feel like yourself, you can ask or say things that you normally wouldn’t have the guts to say. Also, Giggles’ approachability makes it easy for Maddie to explore her new self. As her new self, Maddie asks Giggles if he could teach her how to be a mitzvah clown.

Giggles teaches Maddie how to put on clown make-up, make balloon hats, sing songs, juggle, dance, and most importantly, how to talk and comfort everyone in senior homes and hospitals—especially Maddie’s grandma and her friends.

By the end of the book, Maddie gains more confidence in herself, and is able to talk and laugh with Grandma and her friends, without wearing wigs, noses, or hats.

Once I had the manuscript ready, I e-mailed it to the Executive Editor. She brought the manuscript to the Art Director/Editor. The Art Director/Editor had a great idea. She wanted the illustrator to take Maddie from black and white (when she is shy) to full color as she gained confidence in herself, which was very clever. The colors, when they do appear, literally “pop” off the page.

It’s always a magical process seeing your characters come to life on paper.

I just did my first live performance (with my puppet) of the book at a JCC with, believe it or not, two real mitzvah clowns–“Big Daddy” and “Professor Z.” It was a blast!

In July 2017, this book became a PJ Library selection and went out to over 21,000 Jewish children in the United States and Canada. MADDIE THE MITZVAH CLOWN was my 14th traditionally published book. But in order to write it, I had to dig down deep, back to when I was shy myself—just like Maddie.

Karen Rostoker-Gruber is an award-winning children’s book author, ventriloquist, and humorist. Karen is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Authors Guild, and was on the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature. She was a guest on the Ricki Lake Show and has been promoting her books on over 62 radio shows around the country. Visit her at and follow her on Twitter 

Karen is giving away a picture book critique. (As one of Tara’s critique group members, Tara urges you to enter for this prize–Karen is an excellent critiquer.)

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!