by Chana Stiefel & Picture the Books Friends

Recently, I was listening to a podcast when the interviewer asked, “When was the first time you saw yourself in a story?” And I thought to myself: NEVER! I’ve never seen myself in a character in a book. And isn’t that one of the main purposes of our writing: for kids to see themselves in books and to learn and grow from the experience?

Looking back to my childhood, it’s possible that I saw myself in books by Judy Blume. And maybe little Sal collecting blueberries in Robert McCloskey’s classic picture book is me.

But the question got me thinking: How can we as authors create characters or tackle subjects so that our audience can see themselves and be inspired? The answer: Start with yourself. Write your truth. Write the stories inside you that no one else can tell.

When I wrote the picture book MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH (illustrated by Mary Sullivan, HMH), I channeled all of my feelings of growing up with a hard-to-pronounce name. I used to get so frustrated when people mangled my name and called me Shayna, China, and Kahana. Plus, I could never find my name on a T-shirt. But I reflected on the power and kindness of my namesake, my great-grandmother Chana, and the Hebrew translation of my name, which means “charm” or “grace.” Now I wear my name proudly and hope that other kids with hard-to-pronounce names will too.

Recently, I dug even deeper. For the first time in my 30-year writing career, I have two Jewish-themed books coming out. This coming fall, THE TOWER OF LIFE (illus. by Susan Gal) will be published by Scholastic. It’s the true story of Yaffa Eliach, a Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor who traveled the world for 17 years to rebuild her town in stories and photographs, creating the Tower of Faces in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Tragically, like Yaffa’s family, my mother’s family was decimated during the Holocaust. Yaffa’s courage and hope in the face of unbearable tragedy spoke to my heart. Here’s a sneak peek of the art by Susan Gal (Scholastic).

On a much lighter note, this fall I’ll also be launching MENDEL’S HANUKKAH MESS UP co-written with my husband, Larry Stiefel (illus. by Daphna Awadish, Kalaniot), a funny Jewish holiday story about each of us having a spark no matter how much we mess up. Both stories are uniquely Jewish, but they also share the universal themes of empathy, community, and lifting each other up.

I can’t explain why it took me so long to write Jewish stories. But one thing is certain: I am now putting my heart on the page and expressing my true self. My Judaism is a major part of my life—it’s my heritage, my culture, my religion, my upbringing, my values, my family, my community. And I hope that by sharing my Jewish stories, not only will other Jewish kids see themselves in books, but children from ALL backgrounds will hopefully learn from them too.

More Personal Picture Books From the Heart

To help spark more story ideas, I asked my wonderful Picture the Books launch partners: How do you see yourself in your books coming out in 2022?

I hope their messages inspire you to dig more deeply and find that piece of yourself to lift up others. Only you can tell your story.

TOGETHER WITH YOU is a lyrical trip through the seasons with an adult and child. Together they face all kinds of weather and discover, in the end, what matters is being with each other. Authored by Patricia Toht and illustrated by Jarvis, it will be published by Walker Children’s Books in the UK in August 2022 and Candlewick Press in the US in January 2023.

Patricia says: Many of the seasonal activities in this book are those I shared with my own children. And now, as a grandparent, I hope my grandkids will make these fond memories with their parents and grandparents, too.

A PERSON CAN BE… (Kids Can Press, fall 2022) written by Kerri Kokias, illustrated by Carey Sookocheff, addresses ways kids can be different, seemingly contradictory things at the same time. Excited and nervous. Brave and afraid. Imperfect and treasured.

Kerri says: I wrote this book because when I was a kid I didn’t have the vocabulary to identify all of the things that I was, and all of the things that I was feeling. I love that emotional intelligence is more highly valued in today’s society and I wanted to contribute to kids developing in this area. I’m especially fascinated with how a person can feel seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time and so I thought it would be fun to expose kids to this concept.

HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR! written and illustrated by Jannie Ho (Penguin Random House, Fall 2022) is a story about the zodiac animals getting ready for Chinese New Year.

Jannie says: I’ve always wanted to write a story that related to my own culture and upbringing. When I had my own child, I saw a huge need for these types of books as an immigrant parent. Many details in the art/setting are from my parents’ house; it is very special for me to share a bit of my own childhood with the world.

WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER written by Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan, illustrated by EG Keller (Viking, October 11, 2022).

Gretchen says: I grew up in a culture so underrepresented in children’s literature that I never saw myself in print as a child. It wasn’t until I read MILITARY BRATS: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress by Mary Wertsch as an adult that I felt that lightning bolt experience—an experience so profound that it forged in me a goal that I would do the same for military children. In 2022, Viking will release my picture book WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER. I am a daughter of a soldier and veteran of three wars. Choosing an illustrator with family military ties was essential to my editor, and illustrator  EG Keller is the son of a veteran too. It is my deepest hope that military brats young and old alike will find themselves in this heartfelt story about a boy whose father goes off to war.

THE BEST BED FOR ME (Candlewick, Spring 2022) by Gaia Cornwall, is about a little girl pretending to be different animals instead of going to sleep. She really needs more room to spread out–like a whale in the ocean! Or maybe upside down like a bat would be better?

Gaia says: As the bulk of this story was started and completed during Pandemic Family Time at Home the increasingly frustrated Mama character is definitely based on myself, though I don’t always hold it together as well as she does.

While I think bedtime struggles are pretty universal, really I wrote this book for kids who have two moms. Though family structure is purposefully not the focus, this book is a big, giant hug to similar families in my life. I am lucky to see parts of myself represented in all kinds of books and I really want that experience for every reader.

WOVEN OF THE WORLD (Chronicle, Fall 2022) written by Katey Howes and illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova, is a picture book that explores the global artform of weaving, while presenting each person as a tapestry, woven of many influences, their pattern and purpose unfolding in time.

Katey says: When I was small, I was certain I knew what I would become, what my life would look like “when I grew up.” But as time passed, and as I was blessed in the many people, values, traditions, artforms, and cultures that influenced my life, I watched my pattern and my purpose unfold in unexpected ways. I saw how intersections brought strength, and how beauty could be found in contrasts. I saw how the ties that bind us stretch through space and time. This book celebrates the epic art of weaving while also assuring each reader they are a work of art, a work in progress, a thing of beauty, warmth, and strength—a message I long needed to hear, and want so much to share.

VIP: STACEY ABRAMS – VOTING VISIONARY (HarperCollins, January 18, 2022) written by Andrea J. Loney, and illustrated by Shellene Rodney is a middle grade biography about lawyer, voting rights advocate, and bestselling novelist Stacey Abrams.

Andrea says: When I was young, most books about female Civil Rights leaders featured strong, bold, charismatic women who protested, struggled, and even bled for freedom and justice. While I admired their courage, I silently wondered, “Yeah, but what if she was just a quiet little kid like me? I want a fair world too, but I’m too little to change anything.”

So I was fascinated by Stacey’s journey from a tiny town in Mississippi to the halls of Georgia state politics and beyond. She’d felt the same way I’d felt—the way many kids may feel while reading about famous people—but she still found a way to make things happen. This book is all about a painfully shy girl learning how to hone her various talents, overcome her fears, and connect with unlikely allies in pursuit of freedom, justice, and fairness for all.

Chana Stiefel is the author of 30 books for children, both fiction and nonfiction. When kids read her books, she wants them to say, “Wow! I never knew that!” or “Awww!” or “Ha!” and always “More books, please!” THE TOWER OF LIFE: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs (illustrated by Susan Gal, Scholastic) and MENDEL’S HANUKKAH MESS UP (co-written with her husband Larry Stiefel, illustrated by Daphna Awadish, Kalaniot) will be coming out in Fall 2022. Learn how to pronounce Chana’s name (and more) at Follow Chana on FB, Instagram, Twitter @chanastiefel.

Chana will be giving away a signed copy of her 2021 picture book, LET LIBERTY RISE! How Schoolchildren Helped Save the Statue of Liberty (illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic Press).

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.