January Author of the Month Joel ben Izzy

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Photography by Ahri Golden
Photography by Ahri Golden

Joel ben Izzy, one of our favorite award-winning travelling storytellers, has put aside his recordings for the moment and taken up the pen. With his usual warmth and engaging humor, ben Izzy shares his semi-autobiographical story of 12-year-old Joel, master magician and nerd incarnate, who is looking for a Hanukkah miracle.

Be sure to look for our review of his new book, Dreidels on the Brain, which received a highly recommended rating in the January-February issue of School Library Connection. Subscribers can see our complete archive of reviews at reVIEWS+.

If you’re not acquainted with Joel ben Izzy, you—and your students—have been missing out on some of the best storytelling to be found.

In Stories from Far Away, a recipient of the ALA Notable Recording Award, ben Izzy takes you with him as he goes from Turkey to Tel Aviv, China to Tokyo and places in-between, presenting us with folktales embellished with his own personal touches as we travel through these foreign lands. And it’s quite obvious why How I Learned to Love Liver: And other Tales too Tall to Tell received the Parents’ Choice Honors award; the stories are full of that type of gross humor that makes kids squeal “ewwww!!!” as they giggle and quiver with delight, and those same kids can be found quivering with horror and suspense as they listen to the stories in The Green Hand: And other Ghostly Tales from around the World, recipient of the Film Advisory Board Award of Excellence.

Given his success with storytelling, we were curious as to why ben Izzy decided this particular story—Dreidels on the Brain—needed to be published in print. We’ll let him take over the story from here:

When I hear a story I like, my natural tendency is to turn right around and tell it right away. As we say in the storytelling business, “Hear today, tell tomorrow.”

But the story in Dreidels on the Brain, which came to me duringDreidelsontheBrain_2-17_2 Hanukkah, 1971, was different. Even then, I realized I’d been handed something precious, a gift in the form of a story. Without giving the story away, I will say it was about an orange – which is why you see an orange on the cover. As soon as I heard this story, I knew it was different. It was something I needed to hold onto it until the time was right for telling.

It’s funny how stories work – they seem to have their own sense of timing, and this one wanted to wait. Then, about ten years ago, I heard from a publisher in New York, Lauri Hornik of Dial Books (Penguin Random House). She had read my first book, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, a memoir which recounts the adventure that began for me, as a storyteller, when I awoke from a surgical procedure to discover I could no longer speak, sending me off on a journey as wild as any tale I had ever told – but that’s another story. [Editor’s note: We recommend The Beggar King for your personal enjoyment, a moving and heartwarming read].

She said she really enjoyed that book, and asked if I’d ever consider writing a book for younger readers. I told her the story of “The Orange” and she got it. I went on to tell her a little more about the time in my life when the story takes place – when I was 12 years old, the nerdiest of nerds, stuck in the suburbs of the suburbs of Los Angeles. I was also a magician, performing all over town. But what I really wanted was an actual miracle, and it had to happen during the eight nights of Hanukkah, 1971…

“Sounds great!” she said. “Send me a sample chapter.”

So, we had to ask, was this difficult to write?

At first it was really hard. For several years I kept writing and rewriting that sample chapter, trying to find the right voice. It kept coming out as this faux-nostalgic drivel: “Now, years later, as I look back upon that Hanukkah of my youth….”  It sounded like “A Child’s Haaanukkah in Los Angeles,” and it was just wrong. It had no edge, no humor. [Editor’s note: You’ll understand the various spellings of Hanukkah when you read the book].

Then, one day, I realized just how angry the narrator – that would be me, young Joel – was. That anger turned to humor, and it came out in two words. It was like Proust eating that madeleine, only it was more like biting into a stale bagel. In those two words I found my voice, my character, his humor – and the book grew from there.

Those two words went on to become the first chapter of the book, the name I give to the exact opposite of a miracle, something you really, really, really need, so you hope for it and then you pray, begging God, just this one thing, and I’ll believe in you for the rest of my life. And then, in the end – it doesn’t happen…The two words I found were the words for that: Chopped Liver.

Well, that explains one of the chapter titles, but how did you come up with the title for the book?

The chapter titles were easy and fun: “In the Land of Shriveled Dreams,” “The Difference between My Grandmother and Houdini,” “A Tiny Shred of Something to Believe In,” and so on.

But the title of the book was another story entirely. Throughout writing I always thought of it as Snow and Oranges. Then, as we neared the final draft, my editor, Lauri, called and said “Look, I’m worried about the title. I love the book – it’s funny, quirky, Jewish, about Kchaanukkah – but I don’t get any of that from Snow and Oranges. “

I realized she was right and went to work. Given the tone and the narrator, I tried out Kvetcher in the Rye, but it seemed like it skewed too old – and was derivative. Likewise with Shortboy’s Complaint and Inglorious Boychick. They also said nothing about Hanukkah.

small dreidelRealizing that, I decided that the title should include the word “dreidel,” the spinning tops that go with the Hanuka game. They come up throughout the book, like early on where the narrator explains that no one can agree on the rules, which is how you know it’s a Jewish game.

Once I had “dreidel,” I set about coming up with every title that I could imagine: I Dream of Dreidels, Dreidel Dreams and Delusions, That Hand that Spins the Dreidel, From Dreidel to Grave –  I had a list of about fifty of them, and they were all terrible. What’s more, I couldn’t stop singing that song to myself – you know the one, which I refer to in the book as “The Horrible Song.” I was in New York to meet with Lauri, and I was getting really frustrated, as it was almost time to go to press and none of the titles were any good. Plus, I had the horrible song stuck in my head. [Editor’s note: We apologize that you now also have that song stuck in your head.]

“Lauri,” I said, “it’s hopeless! I’ve got fifty titles about dreidels here and none are any good!  And it’s driving me crazy – I’ve got dreidels on the brain!”

“Perfect!” she said. “That’s what we’ll call it.”

This may seem like an odd question because you obviously love to tell a story, but what is it exactly that you like about your school visits?

As a storyteller, being in front of a room full of kids is my natural element. Back in 1983, just after graduating from Stanford, where I’d studied storytelling and creative writing, I set off to travel the world, gathering and telling stories, mostly in schools. What I love is the way the stories come to life, in real time. I love the humor and interaction, and the questions. There’s room for serious stuff – the narrator in Dreidels on the Brain is struggling desperately to find something to believe in, anything at all, and that brings up heavy questions. But there’s also a lot of room for humor, too, and lots of the other stories that I couldn’t fit into the book.

top hat izzyOne thing that’s been fun with my readings has been doing magic tricks as part of the talk. A lot of the book is about doing magic, and I still have those tricks in my basement, so I’ve taken them out and brought them with me, working them into my talks – even using the hat that I write about in the book.

While I naturally like working with Jewish audiences, at Temples and day schools, it’s really fun to explain the “choliday of Chanukkah” to audiences that are not Jewish. Many have heard about it, but few non-Jews understand it. For that matter, few Jews understand it. Kchannukah can really be a confusing holiday. I suppose I add to that in the book, by spelling it a different  way each time I use it – just as I’ve done here.

But there’s something universal about the holiday as well. I always present it in a non-religious way, focusing on the key question:  How do we find light in dark times? While that’s something humans have always grappled with, it seems particularly relevant now.

It’s also really fun to introduce kids to that era. The book takes place in 1971, when I was 12. I was somewhat disconcerted to learn that a book about my childhood qualifies as “historical fiction,” when I was going for “hysterical fiction.” It was a time when the world seemed to be coming undone, people were protesting in the streets, the Vietnam war seemed to go on endlessly, and we were stuck with Richard Nixon as president. They were dark times, and seemed to be very far away while I was writing the book. Now, however, they don’t seem so far away – and it’s really a pleasure to be able to tell this story from so long ago that might shed some light on the present day.

What would you like students to take away from Dreidels on the Brain?

Hope.

JoelbenIzzy_AuthorPhoto_ThenIt’s my story of being a misfit of a kid, the only Jew in my school, a nerd at a time before anyone ever imagined that a nerd could ever be cool, or even survivable, and of looking for a miracle. Somehow I got through that time, with laughter and magic.

Being a kid, it turns out, is not easy, but great material for writing. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Anyone who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” My salvation came from being able to see life as a story, which led to my career as a storyteller. I hope that reading Dreidels on the Brain will give kids that as well – and lots to laugh and think about.

Keeping in mind that we are a magazine for K-12 school librarians, is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t touched on?

Librarians are the unsung heroes of our time, opening up minds that might otherwise close, then nurturing those minds with great literature. In Dreidels on the Brain, I tell about what having those stories to hold onto meant to me, and the librarian who helped me to discover them: It was Mrs. Molatsky who first introduced me to Zlateh the Goat by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and it was in reading those stories that I learned of Chelm, the mythical Jewish village of fools.

My book pays tribute to that book, and shares stories from Chelm. If that book is in your libraries, please dig it out to share with kids. It’s a Newbery Honor book with gorgeous line drawings by Maurice Sendak. It includes the story of “The First Schlemiel,” a version of which I recount in Dreidels on the Brain, and which led me to my career as a storyteller.

One of the surprising things I learned as I wrote the book was how little fiction there is about Chhhhanukkah. In fact, as far as I can tell, there’s never been another Chaanukah novel published that’s suitable for older kids and adults. That’s kind of wild, when you figure how many Christmas books there are, so I guess this one fills a niche.

Several teachers at schools where I’ve read have asked for a curriculum guide for the book, for seventh/eighth graders. It could be a natural for these classes, as a coming-of-age story that touches on some difficult issues with a lot of humor.

I’ll be putting the guide together this winter, for use next fall. The dates of the holiday change each year and, interestingly, Chaanukkah of 2017 begins on December 12, which is the very same day it begins in the book in 1971. If anyone wishes to know when it’s available for download, please e-mail me at Joel@storypage.com. Likewise, you can reach out to me at that address for information on author visits. My website – storypage.com –  is being overhauled and will be launched in late January. That’s where you can learn about my CDs, too!  Let me know as well if you’d like to be notified when the web site is up and running.

Chappy chhhhhaanukkah!

Editor’s note: Dreidels on the Brain recently received silver honors from both the National Jewish Book Award and the Sydney Taylor Award.

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