Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive » The 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour:A Q&A with Khoa Le and Jane Yolen

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(Click cover to enlarge)

 

I’m happy to be a part of the Association of Jewish Libraries’ 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour with a visit today from author Jane Yolen and illustrator Khoa Le. Their book, Miriam at the River (Kar-Ben, 2020), won a 2021 Sydney Taylor Picture Book Honor.

1701753164 838 Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blog Archive The“I creep to the riverside in the soft dark of night’s end,” the book opens. “In a woven basket lies my little brother, so young ….” Here, Yolen introduces readers to brave young Miriam and her brother Moses in a lyrical retelling of the story from Exodus. Miriam places her newborn brother in a basket into the river Nile. “I am afraid and not afraid,” Miriam says, as she hides her brother from the oppressive pharaoh and his men. She is carrying out a mission from God: “God’s law is what I follow. And God’s voice is the one I hear.”

Illustrator Khoa Le brings the story to the page with vivid copper, teal, and sapphire tones. I asked each of them via email about this book and their 2021 Sydney Taylor Honor.

I thank them for visiting. Let’s get to it. …

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Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blog Archive TheJules: What does it mean to you to win this Sydney Taylor Honor for Miriam at the River?

Khoa (pictured left): I’m very grateful that all of the committee members for the award have considered me for this Sydney Taylor Honor. The award is a great recognition for me, and not only do I feel honoured, but I also see it as a way for people to see me as a good illustrator. Hopefully, that will get me to work with even more interesting projects in the future.

Jules: What was the most joyous part for you of bringing Jane’s story to the page with your art?

Khoa: I think it’s about the chance to learn about new things and discover new tales. Before working on these illustrations, I didn’t have much knowledge of Jewish culture or religion. However, to express my art the best way for the story, I started to read a lot related to this story. It’s like a whole new world opened before my eyes, and I learned so much from illustrating this.

Jules: Can you talk a bit about how you chose these beautiful colors for this book’s palette?

Khoa: I wanted the book to vibrate with strong colors, as the character is so alive and full of power herself. She was a young girl with so much determination and faced harsh conditions, having to decide about such an important task that usually only adults can deliver. So, I used patches of intense colors, intertwined with soft blue tones, to depict her amid moments of worries and confusion.

 

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Two images above are the sketch and final version (sans text) of the book’s first spread:
“I creep to the riverside in the soft dark of night’s end. In a woven basket lies my little brother, so young, he does not even have a name. He sleeps, and in his dreams
his legs and arms move as if he is swimming.”

(Click each image to enlarge)

 

Jules: What was your favorite spread to work on?

Khoa: I think I have two! One is the beginning, when Miriam comes to the river, and the other is the last one. They are completely opposite sentiments, yet were very satisfying to work on, and I’m very pleased with how the artwork turned out.

 

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Two images above are the sketch and final version (sans text)
of one of the book’s spreads:
“I look up the water and down, then to the hiding place I have chosen.
Sedge, bulrush, papyrus, reeds, all I need to hide my brother from the Pharaoh’s men,
and hide me from prying Egyptian eyes.”

(Click each image to enlarge)

 

Jules: What do you admire most about Miriam?

Khoa: Her determination and wisdom! That’s something I feel myself is lacking.

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Jules: Jane, what does it mean to you to win this Sydney Taylor Honor for Miriam at the River?

1701753166 773 Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blog Archive TheJane (pictured right): It means folks who know children’s books — and specifically Jewish children’s books — have pointed a finger at the book, saying, “Don’t miss this one.” After that, it is up to the book — the words and stories and pictures working together to show the readers, young and old, just why the book has a silver sticker on it.

Jules: This text is filled with such beautiful imagery (“The basket skims past a yellow-billed stork who stands with angel wings held high”). Do you think you always see the world through a poet’s eyes?

Jane: Yes. And sometimes too much so, and I have to pull back a bit and let the story makes its own voice. You may have guessed that my family and I are great birders and nature-watchers and walkers. So, it is the natural world that takes over when I introduce it into a book. And of course the story of Miriam and her baby brother Moses in the basket is really all about nature plus nurture.

Jules: Can you talk about your choice to place the story in Miriam’s first-person narration?

Jane: I wish it had been a choice, but the story spoke to me that way from the very first sentence. I knew the story well, because I had recently written a book about the girls and women in the Hebrew bible — Meet Me at the Well. I wrote it with dear friend Barbara Diamond Goldin. It came out two years ago for middle-grade and YA readers (bar and bat mitzvah ages). But this was to be a real story-telling for younger children of Miriam as a child and the heroism it included. So, here she is speaking child to child.

 

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“One quick push and the basket sails towards the middle of the reeds where the water is coolest. Mother has woven the basket so tightly, it does not sink, but skips over little schools of fish, glossy as silver bangles. Then the sun comes out and the bangles
turn the color of Pharaoh’s jewels.”

(Click spread to enlarge slightly)

 

Jules: What was it like for you to see Khoa’s illustrations for your text? Do you have a favorite spread?

Jane: Aren’t the pictures gorgeous! You feel the river, the birds, the reeds, the waves. I think the sunrise picture is my favorite — the one with the yellow-billed storks and other Nile birds, like careful angels surrounding Moses in his basket.

Jules: What do you admire most about Miriam?

Jane: Her casual heroism. She never seems to worry, but in a childish way she simply does what needs to be done. However, remember that Miriam, even from childhood, was a seeress and a beloved of G-d, or so says Torah. So, perhaps she knew that she was being watched over by angels, just as the birds watched over her baby brother. Or maybe she was just a whole lot braver than I would ever have been — as is shown in the rest of her life’s story as related in Torah.

Or maybe it is a simple tale of a child’s honor and heroism that reminds us that we can all do greater deeds than we ever dreamed of. If we put our hearts in the right place, all is possible.

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For the rest of the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, click here.

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Photo of Jane Yolen taken by Jason Stemple.

MIRIAM AT THE RIVER. © 2020 by Jane Yolen. Illustrations © 2020 Lerner Publishing Group and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Kar-Ben Publishing, Inc., an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., Minneapolis.

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