A Purim Novel for Early Readers, Meet Leah Sokol

One of my favorite holidays, Purim, is just around the corner. I love the story of Queen Esther, the kids dressing up in costume and giving out Shalach Manos (or Mishloach Manot depending on how you say it.)

This year I’m also pleased to introduce you to a newish writer, Leah Sokol. Leah is the author of several books for the mainstream YA market, but is branching out and has her first Jewish children’s book, The King’s Horse, out now just in time for Purim.

What is your book about?

“The King’s Horse” is the story of Purim told from the point of view of Achashverosh’s horse. It’s an early reader, which can be either read as a picture book to very young children or read independently by early elementary school children.

Why did your write a Purim story?

I have always wanted to write a Purim story. First of all, the megillah is so fascinating, you would think you could get a hundred stories from it! Every Purim, during the second reading, I would come up with ideas — telling it from the point of view of a stableboy, of one of Queen’s Esther’s ladies, a book about a modern-day girl solving a mystery whose clues were in the megillah, etc. I had a couple of false tries, and then, when my children were very little, I got the idea of writing it as a children’s book about Achashevrosh’s horse. I had never tried to write any picture books or early readers before, so I had to do a ton of research about writing for that age group. It took over a decade for “The King’s Horse” to be both finished and published.

What is your favorite Purim memory? 

Who has ONE favorite Purim memory? As a child, all I remember as a kid is fun memories from Purim. (As an adult, I wonder how I blocked out all the time spent driving around in traffic. But I seem to have!) I do particularly remember one year when I dressed up as a pirate — I think that was my favorite costume ever.

You have a biography coming out this spring from Menucha Publishers, can you tell us about it? 

Yes! “No Day Without Torah: The Story of Rav Meir Shapiro” stemmed from my own personal curiosity about how the Daf Yomi program started. It’s the story of Rav Meir Shapiro, the incredible person who started the Daf Yomi, and how the program came about and took off. (Well, to be honest, I still don’t know exactly how; there was clearly siyata dishmaya involved, when you think about the fact that by the end of the second cycle of Daf Yomi, World War II was breaking out. But my book ends before that. Like “The King’s Horse,” it’s an early reader.

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?

My main piece of advice is to focus on the writing. I find that a lot of aspiring writers spend a lot of energy thinking about publishing — which is normal and natural; that’s the end game, after all! But you always have to remember that the writing comes first. If you can’t find joy in the writing, the whole enterprise is not really worth it. I also publish books for the secular audience, and I’ve collected a page of advice for writers there: https://www.leahcypess.com/advice-for-writers/

Meet Author Tovah Yavin

I had so much fun interviewing author Ellen Roteman a few months ago, that I’ve decided to make author interviews a regular part of my blog. This time around, I’d like you to meet Tovah S. Yavin, author of “All-Star Season,” written as T.S. Yavin. Yavin’s new novel, “The Free and the Brave,” is a Jewish historical novel for kids set during the War of 1812.

Faygie: Hi Tovah, your new book looks great. Are you a history buff? What appealed to you about the time period?

Tova: I have no formal education in history , but I always loved visiting historical sites. Standing a few feet away from a desk used by Thomas Jefferson or running my hand on a stair rail that had been touched by George and Martha Washington always sent tingles up my spine. 

One day, we visited Fort McHenry with our grandchildren and as we were leaving, I wondered if there was a Jewish connection to the battle fought there. So, I did a little research and the answer was ‘yes.’ I looked further and discovered more and more about that time and place and eventually, I wanted to tell the story. But beyond that, I had become interested in the question – is there a Jewish connection? And the answer is ‘yes.’ Pick any time period, any place in American history and the answer to the question of whether there is a Jewish connection is ‘yes.’ So, now I’m hooked. Everywhere I go, I look for stories and everywhere I go, I find them!

Faygie: Can you tell us a little about The Free and the Brave?

Tova: There were three young Jewish men (teens actually) who fought at Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore Harbor. For those who haven’t read the book yet, that is the battle that inspired the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner and it was a major turning point in the War of 1812. I discovered as I read more and more that those Jewish men played important roles in that battle but at the same time, ate kosher and maintained their lives as Jews. Learning about this war was interesting because it was very different from wars we know of now. This war took place in everyone’s backyard. The enemy and the fighting were all around the people who lived there. And the community had to pitch in and help or the war was going to be lost. But I won’t give out any more details – for that, you’ll have to read the book. 

Faygie: Do you have any other books in the works? How can readers get in contact with you?

Tova: I have just finished another historical novel. This one follows a family who lives and works on the C and O Canal (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal) as they make the trip from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C. and back. They take along a young 12-year-old boy, who happens to be Jewish, to help bring home a badly injured mule much loved by their daughter. Everything that could happen on such a journey will happen – so it should be an exciting two-week ride. I can’t tell you the title of the book, yet, because we are still working on that. 

The canal story is set in 1909, a time when the canal was still an important waterway. When we do have a title for this book and revisions are finished, I am going to move forward to 1940. My next work will be set in Abilene, Texas during World War II. 

Readers can join me at my website and learn more about how I research and write stories from past times.