PJ Library & the Gift of Jewish Books
by Ann Koffsky
I am an illustrator and/or author of books for children, many of them for URJ Books & Music. Because I am a storyteller, I thought I would – you guessed it – tell the story of how my book Noah’s Swim-A-Thon came to be.
Once upon a time, I lived in the suburbs with three young children. Come summertime, I had to get them out of the house, and I wanted them to go to summer camp. I became a lifeguard at Ruach Day Camp on Long Island, and alacazam! Every summer for the past 10 years, my kids have gone to camp there.
Fast forward to a Jewish children’s book conference in 2007 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where I was schmoozing with a friend about how difficult it can be to find illustration work. I told her I was thinking of writing a story so I could illustrate it, something for my portfolio to show that I could take a character through different emotions and settings. Searching for an idea was proving impossible because I needed some kind of guidance as to where to start; my brain was running in circles.
Then (cue angelic music) Natalie Blitt, then-program director at the PJ Library, got up to speak. PJ Library’s mission is to share kids books with positive Jewish content to families across the United States. It is so cool – and it’s free. Yes, free, with no strings. If you have not already signed your kids up for the PJ Library go to www.pjlibrary.org and do so right now! (Then please come back so you can hear the end of my story.)
Oh, good, you’re back. As I was saying, PJ Library sends books out to all these kids, which, for authors, presents an amazing opportunity to have your book read by the families you are writing for. In other words, when somebody from PJ Library speaks, I listen.
I can’t remember most of what Natalie said, but one sentence still rings in my ears: “PJ has noticed that there are not many Jewish summer camp stories,” she said. Ding! “I know about camp,” I thought. “I’m gonna write about camp.” Thank you, Natalie! Thank you, PJ Library!
The next morning, I was on my treadmill thinking, over and over: What’s Jewish about the summer? What’s Jewish about camp? What makes a Jewish camp different from all other camps? Any holidays? Well, in the summer, we have the the Nine Days and Tisha B’av, but, uh, no. A more courageous author than me is going to figure out how to make the destruction of the ancient temples an appealing children’s book topic. So I kept treading, and I got it: swim-a-thons. Every year at the pool where I am a lifeguard, campers do a swim-a-thon for Chai Lifeline, a wonderful tzedakah. Once I determined a setting, I needed a character & a plot. Because I had been coaxing kids to dunk their heads for years, I chose my character to be a reluctant swimmer named Noah, who, through persistence and generosity, learns to swim just in time for the camp swim-at-thon.
Then the most wonderful thing happene: I sent my manuscript over to Michael Goldberg, editor at URJ Books and Music, and he decided to turn it into a book. It had to go through several zillion committee meetings first, but by 2011, I was holding a copy of Noah’s Swim-a-Thon in my hands – and so were about 15,000 Jewish children, because PJ Library selected it for distribution.
Then they selected it again the following year, and 15,000 more kids got to see it.
Then last month – and this was truly an honor – PJ Library selected Noah’s Swim-A-Thon as the book to give away as the organization’s 3,000,000th (!) title, personally presented by founder Harold Grinspoon himself to a lovely and bright girl named Jordana. I was fortunate enough to be there for the presentation and to get lots of nachas.
Thank you, PJ Library, for making my Noah available to wonderful children like Jordana, and mazel tov on your 3,000,000th book. I look forward to seeing what great stories you pick for the next 3,000,000.
P.S.: If you’d like Jewish coloring pages for your kids, I send them out about once a month – for free. I’m very into the ‘free’ concept. To receive them, visit www.annkoffsky.com, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will sign you up.
Ann Koffsky has illustrated and authored more than 20 books for children, including “Noah’s Swim-A-Thon” and ”My Cousin Tamar Lives in Israel,” which was given a Notable Book designation by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Visit www.annkoffsky.com for more.