Scratch away at any Jew and you'll find a storyteller. The people of the book dream of spinning out personal memories and Old Country stories to a rapt circle of children. That's why the first-ever Jewish Children's Literature Conference, held in the fall at Sinai Temple through the auspices of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries and the Association of Jewish Libraries, attracted 125 eager attendees. Many were there specifically to grapple with the question: So you want to be a writer of children's books?
Among those offering advice were top-ranked authors who mine their own Jewish backgrounds for material. Eric Kimmel, whose best-known book is "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins" (Holiday House, 1989), said that the writer's job is to tell a story and make it exciting.
"Make your readers care enough to keep on going till they get to the end," he said. "It's as simple as that and as difficult as that."
Susan Goldman Rubin, author of "Search for Anne Frank: Letters From Amsterdam to Iowa," released last month, and other nonfiction for young people, advised would-be writers to look for the untold story.
"See which one gives you shivers, and pursue it," she said. "Don't give up."
Sonia Levitin, whose new young-adult Holocaust novel is "Room in the Heart," didn't start out aiming to be a Jewish writer.
"When I began to succeed is when I began to write my own stories from my own experience," Levitin said. "The more I wrote from my Judaism, the more universally noticed my books became."
Of course, it's a big leap from writing for pleasure to writing for publication. Many professionals swear by the how-to courses in children's literature offered through UCLA Extension. In a long-ago UCLA course, Joanne Rocklin found both a mentor and the will to make it as a writer. Now she's published 20 children's books, including the award-winning "Strudel Stories" (Yearling Books, 2000). Rocklin also recommends the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), an organization that welcomes wannabes as well as pros.
Joining SCBWI was the turning point for Ann Redisch Stampler. Stampler had been writing since childhood, but grew up to practice criminal law, then earned a Ph.D. in psychology. It wasn't until 1993, while recuperating from a serious illness, that Stampler decided she "wanted to do something lasting and creative to give to my children and other children."
The following year, she attended her first SCBWI conference at the Century Plaza Hotel. Returning home to her own youngsters, she found her mother entertaining them with the same wry Yiddish folktale she herself had learned at her grandmother's knee. Suddenly she realized how the time-worn story "connected me to my family, and to our history as immigrants."
Helped along by fellow SCBWI members, she gradually transformed the pogrom fable into a yarn about how a clever dog outwits three cats who've been terrorizing him. "Something for Nothing" was published in May 2003, and Stampler has several more books in the pipeline.
By way of encouraging very young writers to follow their dreams, the Jewish Children's Bookfest recently sponsored a storywriting contest. Overall winners included Nathan Black, Chelsey Sobel, and Leah Carnow.
In the prize-winning "David," 13-year-old Carnow imaginatively probed the feelings of a girl who flies to Israel for the funeral of a cousin killed by terrorists. Like much older writers, Carnow testifies to the value of mentors: She is still in contact with the first-grade teacher who discovered her storytelling skills.