The ProsenPeople

Birthright Israel Alumni, Come Read With Us!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

Ready for a whole new way to enjoy your summer reading? Invite your friends to join a NEXT book club!

Boston and Bay Area Birthright Israel alumni, we have your next book right here! JBC and NEXT have teamed up to help  alumni like you organize book clubs for your friends in the Bay Area and Greater Boston Area this summer. Call a few friends, choose a great book (don't worry, there's a book for everyone on the list), then grab a bottle of wine or some tasty snacks for your book club, maybe call the author up for a video chat Q&A, and don't forget to snap a picture to send in. If you registered your book club meeting before August 31, NEXT will reimburse you for the cost of the books that you bought! To find out more about the program, see the recommended book list, or register your book club, visit the NEXT Book Clubs page here

Only in Israel

Tuesday, July 02, 2013 | Permalink
David Ehrlich has published two books of short stories in Hebrew, 18 Blue and Tuesday and Thursday Mornings. His newest book, Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, is now available. His bookstore-cafe in Jerusalem, Tmol-Shilshom, is a haven for avant garde artists and writers, hosting readings by authors such as David Grossman, Etgar Keret, and A. B. Yehoshua. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Here's something that just happened to me. I was walking with an American friend in the picturesque quarter of Neve-Tsedek in Tel-Aviv, looking for an ice cream place called "Savta" (Grandma). We asked someone where it was and he showed us the way, just two blocks from there. "But you know what," he confided, "There's an even better ice cream place in the other direction, also very near." We still continued to Savta's, either because of the attractive name or because we saw from a distance the beautiful setting in a shady, flourishing side alley. Ice cream is not only ice cream, it's also the experience around it, right?

As we took our seats, my American friend said, "I can't believe it. In the US they'd have told you exactly how to get there and that's all. Here, they'll tell you that there's a better ice cream."

"Of course," I said, "and I'm surprised this guy didn't recommend the flavors."

It reminded me of an incident that Amos Oz shared when he spoke at my bookstore café, Tmol-Shilshom, a few months ago. According to Oz, a plane full of vacationing Israelis had landed in Cyprus. One of them spotted a distinguished fellow traveler walking into the terminal by him—the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fisher (who just terminated his term last month). "Aren't you the Governor of our central bank?" he asked. "Yes I am," said Fisher. Lo and behold, the man asked: "Out of the Change places here, where will I get the best rate for my money?"

Only with Israelis this could happen, concluded Oz.

He sure is right. Only Israelis would lead you to the best ice cream place even if you didn't ask. For better or for worse, only on an Israeli street would total strangers tell you that your kid should be wearing another layer (when it's cold) or one less layer (when it's hot). "If I were to drop dead on the street," said Oz, "it'd better be an Israeli street, where people would care."

I agree, even though we pay a toll. People here think your business is their business. Only here you'd be asked very personal questions by people you hardly know. You could even be asked how much your salary is, believe it or not. But like Oz, I like living in a place where people care. Moreover, there's a sense of an extended family. People care about you because it's (still) a small place, and in a strange way, they kind-of-know-you even if they don't. We Israelis share special culture and language and fate. We have been together through wars and more wars but also some exhilarating times. We're still surrounded by borders that we can rarely cross, so we mix with each other (unless we buy a vacation deal in the nearby Cyprus, but even then we end up mixing with our own). We live under an existential threat. We fear we might be wiped out at some point. Some of us will never admit this anxiety, and others will talk about nothing else. In any case, to me, being an Israeli is a unique experience which a stranger will never understand.

The first story in my new book is called "To The Limit," and it couldn't take place anywhere else in the world. It’s about two drivers who experience road rage all the way from one end of this small country to the other. The last story in my book (which gave its name to the collection), "Who Will Die Last," is more universal. I feel that my book exists in the tension between these two poles, and so do I.

Check out David Ehrlich's collection, Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, here.

Interview: Maryann Macdonald

Monday, July 01, 2013 | Permalink

by Michal H. Malen

Maryann Macdonald is the author of Odette’s Secrets (Bloomsbury).

Michal H. Malen: Please tell us some more about the real Odette Mey­ers, the person on whom your fictional character is closely based.

Maryann Macdonald: Odette Meyers was a woman described by those who knew her as having a generous and courageous heart. Her child­hood was just as it has been described in Odette's Secrets. She was born in Paris in 1934, the daughter of Polish immigrants Berthe and George Melszpajz, secular Jews and socialists. They lived in a small apartment in a working class neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement on what was then called the rue d’Angouleme (now the rue Jean Pierre Timbaud). Just one flight below lived the building’s concierge, Marie Chotel, a Catholic, who was their close friend and the self-proclaimed godmother of Odette. As Odette wrote in her autobiography, “In the upstairs-down­stairs world of my early childhood, I went up and down like a yo-yo, at home in either place.”

When WWII broke out, George joined the French army, was captured by the Germans, and became a prisoner of war. Berthe continued work­ing in a knitting factory to support herself and Odette, and also became involved in the Resistance. Before dawn on July 16, 1942, the Vichy police arrived in the neighborhood to arrest all the Jewish people living there. Madame Marie was able to hide Odette and her mother in her broom closet, while distracting the police from their job with wine and conversation. After their departure, Berthe left to try to warn her sister about the round-up. Odette then had to travel to the remote French countryside where she would “hide in plain sight,” posing as a Catholic schoolgirl and living with a foster family. Berthe later joined her in the country where, despite many difficulties, the two survived until the end of the war.

In 1949, concerned by the Cold War, Odette and her family left Paris and moved to California. Odette went to college, became a university professor of literature, married the poet Bert Meyers and had two children, Anat and Daniel. She was active in her community, speaking about her childhood experiences in schools, churches and synagogues, and making many devoted friends. She made several trips back to France, and visited those she knew during the war years. She died in 2001 and was much mourned in her community in Berkeley.

MHM: How closely is the fictional Odette based on the real one?

MM: My goal in writing Odette’s Secrets was to paint as true a picture of Odette’s life as possible. When I first discovered Odette’s memoir, Doors to Madame Marie, on a visit to the American Library in Paris, I was fascinated by it. I pored over the photographs of her and her family and friends. I read and reread her adventures, especially the passages where she described what it was like to switch selves, not once but twice, both in the remote countryside of the Vendee where she hid and then back in Paris again after the war. I learned that thousands of French children had had similar experiences. I visited the street where Odette’s family lived, and sat in the square opposite studying the door and their apart­ment window. I searched for her school. I explored the alleyway where her dear cousins lived, the cousins who left France weeks after their ar­rest and never returned. I strolled in the park where Odette played, and in the cemetery where she went with her mother to honor the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.

One night, I told my husband Odette’s story. Together, we took the Metro to the 11th arrondissement and stood outside Odette’s apart­ment building. “I so wish I could go inside!” I said, looking at the oak door at the front of the building, a solid street door of the type that is always locked.

“Let’s see if we can,” my husband said, and pressed his fingertips against the door. It swung open! In moments we were standing in the tiled hallway where Odette had played with her red rubber ball. I couldn’t believe my luck…it seemed like a sign. I just had to write the story of Odette’s remarkable life for children.

But how? I knew I would need the permission of her family. And I knew she had a son, and he lived in Paris.

I found Daniel’s number in the Paris telephone directory. With my heart in my mouth, I dialed the number. I left a message, explaining who I was and what I hoped to do. Then I waited. A few days later, Daniel called me back and invited me to lunch in his sunny apartment on the rue Rambuteau. He listened to my request and made his decision almost immediately. He was sure his mother would want her story to live on. As her literary executor, he gave me permission to use the facts of her life as the basis of a book for children.

I was thrilled, but wanted to learn as much as I could about Odette and her family and experiences first. Daniel gave me his grandmother’s autobiography and some of his mother’s poems. He showed me film clips and more family photographs. He also told me that although Odette and her three friends thought they were the only Jewish children in their small village in the remote country area of the Vendee, in fact, more than forty children were hidden there by local families.

I decided I needed to visit the Vendee. I took the train to Nantes, as Odette did at the time of her escape from Paris. All the way I studied the farmhouses, the villages and the train stations passing by. What was there in 1941? Did Odette see it as I did? Then I drove to Chavagne-en-Paillers, the first village where Odette was hidden in plain sight during the war. My husband and I were standing outside the house she lived in when a kindly old man appeared at the upstairs window and invited us in. He was Jaques Raffin, one of the children in the family who had taken Odette in. He showed me the garden where they played together on the swing and fed the doves. Afterwards, we visited the school Odette attended with her friends Cecile and Paulette, and the church where she went to Mass every Sunday. Finally, we went to the hamlet where Odette and her mother lived together under assumed names. We saw the forest and the square where she played hide and seek and hopscotch and the pathway she took walking to school in the town of St. Fulgent. The fields, the cows, and the cottages were all still there. Now that I had seen as much of Odette’s wartime world as I could, I was ready to write, ready to bring Odette’s childhood to life, as best I could.

MHM: What are the parallels between the Madame Marie of the book and her real-life counterpart?

MM: Again, I have tried to stay as close as possible to Odette’s own descriptions of Madame Marie and her actions. She was a woman who had experienced pain and difficulty in her early life in the Lorraine. She met Monsieur Henri during WWI and joined him in Paris after the war. Later, she became the concierge in Odette’s building and also her self-appointed godmother, caring for the little girl, teaching and guiding her in her early life. As Odette wrote of her in her book, “…my godmother…had indeed fulfilled her role, not only in shaping my soul but in saving my life and that of my mother.” Madame Marie was also responsible for helping to save others. Her name and that of Monsieur Henri are recorded at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, at Yad Vashem, and on the wall of Righteous Gentiles in Washington, D.C.

MHM: Madame Marie is a marvelous character, warm, loving and caring. Although a believing Catholic, she risks her life to help Jewish families survive. Can you tell us a bit about the interreligious relation­ships of the time and place? Where do you think she found the cour­age to act as she did?

MM: The French motto, “Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite” attracted large numbers of immigrants to France, including many Polish Jews in the 1930s. In fact, immigrants constituted 70% of the Jewish population of 350,000 before WWII. Immigrants, as is often the case today, were com­monly thought during this period to be responsible for taking jobs away from the rest of the population. They were also sometimes suspected of being spies. When the Vichy government came into power, Jews and communists—and many working class Jews from Easter Europe were communists or socialists—were both considered enemies and targets for persecution.

Catholic church leaders took a passive attitude towards the Vichy regime until the mass deportations of Jews began in France in the summer of 1942. But at that point, the Bishop of Montauban wrote a letter denouncing “the uprooting of men and woman, treated as wild animals.” This letter was read in churches throughout France, and over the BBC’s daily broadcasts, encouraging the French, most of whom were at least nominally Catholics, to protect Jews. It may have had some of its intended effect. Three quarters of the French Jewish population survived, including 84% of French Jewish children.

But free thinkers among the French population who acted to save the lives of Jews before that time acted according to their own consciences, as did Madame Marie. According to Odette, when Madame Marie was asked by Berthe why she had hidden them when the Pope had not spoken out on behalf of Jews, her friend replied, “Don’t worry. Popes and governments come and go; only God is eternal. This is between me and God. If he thinks I’ve done wrong, He will let me know.”

MHM: Odette is afraid to leave her comfortable surroundings for a new and uncertain life in the country yet she adjusts to country life and, returning to Paris finds her old life unfamiliar and strange. What can today’s children learn from Odette about security and permanence and adjusting to the unexpected?

MM: Odette’s story is partly a coming-of-age one, and in coming-of-age stories I think children learn about the inevitability of change. But earlier on, Odette is seen to grow in the resilience that brings security by responding with child-appropriate courage and determination to the needs of each new situation in which she finds herself during the war years. Later, she also learns to find security in family and community. “I’m a child of my family, a child of France,” she says after the war, “But more than these, my heart now tells me, I’m a child of my people.” Last but not least, Odette demonstrates that she has developed a conscience of her own and has learned to trust it in dealing with the unexpected, as in when she is suddenly confronted by the woman in mourning at the Pere La Chaise cemetery. “My heart tells me what to do,” she says. “It’s so simple. Let this woman be your mother. Be her daughter. So I hug her. I stroke her back as a lost-and-found daughter would. I am every Jewish daughter who has died. She is every Jewish mother who has lost a child.” Odette’s compassion for this grieving woman helps her get past what might otherwise have been a traumatic confrontation.

MHM: The book is written in a gently flowing free verse. Why did you make this literary choice in the telling of this story?

MM: At first, I tried to write Odette’s story as a straight biography. This seemed too dry. Then I remembered that Odette loved poetry. She believed the beauty of poetry was one of the things that helped her to survive her experiences in the Vendee. She even wrote poetry in her later years. So, I began trying to write her story in first person, in free verse, imagining insofar as I was able, the childhood voice of Odette, a poet-to-be.

At this point, since I was imagining Odette’s voice, the work became fiction, although I did not make up any of the events mentioned in the book. What I did was add detail, such as giving Odette’s doll a name, and putting into words conversations alluded to in her book and in her mother’s handwritten autobiography.

MHM: Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story with us.

MM: My pleasure, absolutely.

Michal H. Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the children's editor of Jewish Book World.

Win a Copy of Howard Jacobson's Kindle Single

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Click below enter to win a copy of Howard Jacobson's new Kindle Single for Tablet Magazine, "The Swag Man." Read an excerpt here.

Browse through Jewish Book Council reviews of Howard Jacobson titles here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Consumer Vigilance and the Kosher Cookies-and-Cream Ice Cream Caper

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week Timothy D. Lytton wrote about a recent scandal at a kosher meat market in L.A. and organized crime and kosher food certification. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Kosher food certification has come a long way in the past one hundred years (see my earlier posts on the Baff Murder and the L.A. kosher meat scandal). Consumer vigilance has been a key factor in improving the reliability of kosher certification. Of the estimated 12 million American consumers who buy kosher products because they are certified kosher, 8% are religious Jews who eat only kosher food. This core of religiously observant consumers is highly motivated to monitor the reliability of kosher certification. They call agency hotlines to report improperly labeled products—for example, products with a pareve (indicating the absence of any dairy products) label that nonetheless list dairy ingredients on their packages, packages with agency symbols that appear to be counterfeit, or items that contain ingredients that the consumers suspect are not kosher.

The role of active consumers in helping agencies monitor food companies is illustrated by the story of an Orthodox Union (OU)-certified company that made cookies-and-cream ice cream with cookie pieces in it. One day, the company notified OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov Luban that it had received a new account from a client who wanted cookies-and-cream ice cream made with real Oreos, which at the time were made with lard and were therefore not kosher. The company promised to keep the Oreo cookies-and-cream production separate from the kosher production, and the OU, after much deliberation, allowed the arrangement.

Several months later, a kosher consumer called the OU and reported that while eating OU-certified cookies-and-cream ice cream she discovered Oreo cookie pieces in it. As a religious kosher consumer, she knew that Oreos were not kosher certified. Luban went to the company and requested ten boxes of cookies-and-cream ice cream, took them back to the OU offices, and put them under the faucet to melt off the ice cream, whereupon he discovered Oreo cookie pieces in all ten boxes.

When the OU confronted the company, the manager explained that the account for the Oreo cookies-and-cream ice cream had been cancelled after the company had purchased $25,000 worth of Oreos with a relatively short expiration date. After attempting to find a new client for them, the company decided to use the Oreos in the kosher production.

The OU notified the company that it was terminating the certification. The company owner called OU rabbinic administrator Rabbi Menachem Genack in a panic and explained that he had just acquired the company a few weeks prior for $25 million and had been unaware of the wrongdoing. He explained that without OU certification, the company would be worthless since its private-label business depended on kosher certification. The owner offered to fire the entire staff and start over if the OU would maintain its certification. The OU agreed to continue certification if the owner fired the entire staff and paid for constant supervision to oversee production. The owner eagerly accepted this arrangement.

The consumer vigilance demonstrated by this story provides a much needed layer of additional oversight that strengthens the reliability of kosher supervision.

Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert & Angela Farone Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School. He holds B.A. and J.D. degrees from Yale University and has served as a fellow in the Harvard University Program in Ethics and the Professions as well as the Hartman Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food recently published by Harvard University Press (2013) andHolding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse also published by Harvard University Press (2008). In addition, he has published book chapters and articles on the roots of law and jurisprudence in biblical and rabbinic texts.

A Lonely Golem

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthue Roth wrote about why kids love scary stories. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was trying to figure out how to get people to buy My First Kafka from me directly instead of, say, Amazon. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy when anyone buys my book from anywhere, but it's a nice feeling when you actually sell the copy yourself. (Also, you make slightly more than the 43 cents per copy or whatever that you get from your publisher, but that's a different story.)

So I wrote this tiny mini-book. It's a short story, and it's called "The Last Golem in Prague." It was an eleventh-hour creation in every sense. The books had just arrived in the mail, people were actually buying them, which I couldn't (and still mostly can't) believe, and I had to send out something. For months I'd sat in front of my notebook, page blank, wondering what sort of story I should write for whatever people might buy my weird children's book.

And then, at 11:59 or so, everything clicked together.

Here's what I wasn't thinking when I started writing:

a) I should write something that sounds like Kafka.
b) I should write a story for adults, since mostly it'll be adults buying a copy for children and they deserve something of their OWN to read, too, dammit.
c) I should read something Kafka would want to read.

...and a bunch of other stuff, I wasn’t thinking, either. What I was thinking was how I used to live in Prague, in a student dorm that had a country & western dance club in the basement, and a convent surrounded by vast woods next door.

Now, I never went down to the basement club (unfortunately), and I never went to the convent (even more unfortunately), and just saying either of those things in a story is way too unreal-sounding to be true. You can't actually write it because nobody will believe it.

So I kept the details to myself, and I wrote a story that starts when I hear the pounding noise of the club and go down to investigate. And I try to dance. I won't tell you much more about the story, but it does feature my two favorite themes in the world (loneliness/isolation/existential peril and girls) and there is a golem involved.

The Hidden Track, Unfolded

I pulled back when I finished. I realized that maybe I hadn't written the sort of story that Kafka would have written himself, but there was more than a little bit of him that got sucked in. In the end, the story wasn't about the place at all, but the feelings and the thoughts and the experiences.

Matthue Roth's newest book is My First Kafka: Rodents, Runaways, and Giant Bugs. He lives in Brookyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at

Scandal and Self-Correction in Kosher Food Certification

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week Timothy D. Lytton wrote about organized crime and kosher food certification. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This past March, the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, Los Angeles’s largest purveyor of kosher meat, was discovered smuggling repackaged meat of unknown provenance through the back door of his butcher shop. The mashgiach (kosher supervisor), had unlocked the door for deliveries and then, against kosher protocol, left the premises to attend to personal business, leaving the market unsupervised. Erupting the day before the start of the Passover holiday, the scandal cast doubt on the status of thousands of briskets roasting in ovens throughout the city. An emergency council of rabbinic authorities held just in time for Passover seder that consumers could presume that meat previously purchased from Doheny was kosher.

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which provided supervision to Doheny’s came under fire for the misfeasance of its mashgiach.

As a result of the scandal, the RCC’s reputation suffered. Several restaurants under RCC supervision switched to a rival certification agency, Kehilla Kosher. To stem the damage, the RCC called in the nation’s largest kosher certifier, the Orthodox Union (OU), to audit its supervision at three L.A. restaurants and reassure the public of its reliability. According to coverage by L.A.’s Jewish Journal:

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU chief operating officer for kashrut, said that since his New York-based agency got involved in April, he has visited Los Angeles once and [OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov] Luban has visited twice. The OU is the largest kosher certifying agency in the country, but its policy is to leave supervision of local kosher businesses in the hands of local boards of rabbis. In this case, Elefant said, the OU’s intent is to support the RCC, not to supplant it. “To a degree, we’re competitors,” he said. “But as much as we’re competitors, we all understand that we have a higher mission here, and we’re happy to learn from each other.”

Additionally, the RCC asked the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), the national trade association for kosher certifiers, to promulgate a set of standards for all kosher certifiers in Los Angeles.

It now appears that Doheny may reopen under new ownership with RCC supervision.

Although there are occasional scandals today, kosher meat certification has come a long way since the early 1900s when it was estimated that somewhere between 40% and 65% of the meat sold as kosher in New York City was nonkosher. The Doheny scandal illustrates several features of kosher certification that help to account for its improved reliability.

First, kosher agencies are highly brand sensitive, and fierce competition between competing agencies for accounts is the norm. One sees this in the alacrity with which the RCC’s main L.A. rival, Kehillah Kosher, acquired RCC accounts and in the RCC’s readiness to call in external auditors from the OU to shore up its reputation. Brand competition makes certifiers progressively more vigilant over time to avoid mistakes in their own operations and leads them to scrutinize the operations of their competitors.

Second, kosher agencies are interdependent in the sense that a public scandal caused by one agency tends to undermine public confidence in kosher certification generally, which gives agencies incentive to monitor each other and promote uniformly high industry standards. The OU’s willingness to provide an independent audit of RCC operations—free of charge, according to the Jewish Journal—reflects a common interest among rival agencies in reassuring the public that, collectively, kosher certification is reliable.

Third, kosher agencies have developed a shared sense of mission that counteracts incentives to cut corners and promotes cooperation between competing certifiers. Each agency seeks to cultivate among its personnel and in the industry as a whole a religious commitment to what Rabbi Elefant called “a higher mission” of providing reliable kosher certification.

The kosher certification business is far from perfect, but it has come a long way from the era a century ago (see my earlier post on the Baff murder) when widespread fraud and corruption were common.

Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert & Angela Farone Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School. He holds B.A. and J.D. degrees from Yale University and has served as a fellow in the Harvard University Program in Ethics and the Professions as well as the Hartman Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food recently published by Harvard University Press (2013) and Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse also published by Harvard University Press (2008). In addition, he has published book chapters and articles on the roots of law and jurisprudence in biblical and rabbinic texts.

June 2013 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | Permalink
What we're reading this month:

Miri: Goodbye, Columbus (Philip Roth) | Carol: No Joke (Ruth R. Wisse)
Emma: Portrait Inside My Head (Phillip Lopate) | Naomi: A Guide to Being Born (Ramona Ausubel)

Why Kids Love Scary Stories

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 | Permalink
Matthue Roth's newest book is My First Kafka: Rodents, Runaways, and Giant Bugs. He lives in Brookyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My parents are getting ready to move, to abandon the house I’ve lived in since I was born, and we traveled down to Philadelphia to help them. (No, that’s a lie: We traveled down because I had a reading for my new picture book, My First Kafka, and school is out, and we were getting ready to dump the kids with them for a week.) Everything is in boxes. If there’s one thing my kids are good at (there’s a million things), it’s causing chaos. They promptly set to work unpacking the remains of my parents’ life.

My five-year-old daughter promptly uncovered Treasure Island. Yes, the book. It was an illustrated—though uncut—edition. “Read it,” she demanded.

Hey, what kind of father would I be to deny classic literature to my next of kin? I read.

We reached the first death—a gristly scene where Billy Bones, an old seaman, gorges himself on rum, stabs an old fellow pirate, then collapses dead on the floor. “Are you sure you want me to keep going?” I asked her.

“Read,” she urged me.

Similarly, the second death (Old Pew, trampled by horse-hoofs cutting into his ribs) and the third (the night of Long John Silver's violent mutiny aboard the Hispanola—no, actually, there was no death here, but a whole lot of swordfighting). We took a breath, not because she demanded it, but because my lungs were getting tired. "Are you really sure you want to read this?" I asked her. "Do you know what's going on?"

She looked up at me with earnest, pleading eyes.

"The pirates are getting ready to kick off the good people from the ship," she said. "Now they want to decide if they should kill them or hurt them or leave them on the island all alone."

Kids: one point. Me: zero points. Robert Louis Stevenson: having a freakin' veritable party in his coffin somewhere, I'm sure.

In the past few weeks, I've talked a lot about why kids like dark stories. What I told the New Yorker was, it's because they're still trying to understand the world, things like death and disease and renewal. They're still getting used to existence, and they're exploring this existential state as well as its corollary, what it would mean to NOT exist. That's why they become fascinated with simple, pretty things like flowers and animals, as well as why they'll stare in fascination as a just-stepped-upon ant crinkles slowly in its dying throes.

But I also think that the boundary between dark, depressing stuff and normal, happy stuff doesn't exist for them, not the way it does for us. We as adults have a remarkable capacity to compartmentalize—work and home life, cartoons vs. reality. Kids not only don't need to do that, they don't want to. They're more fascinated with the paradoxes of the universe than the idea that these things could be paradoxes. They don't sit around all day talking about what it could mean that a person could be transformed into a giant bug and what it represents symbolically because, to them, it doesn't represent anything symbolically—it's an actual story.

I’ve been avoiding reading my book to my kids lately. It feels too self-indulgent, too performative; I’m much more comfortable with Maurice Sendak or Arnold Lobel. But at my Philadelphia reading last Sunday, I read one of the stories from the book, “Josefine the Singer, or, the Mouse-People.” The ending is really sad, and I almost cried onstage. My kids, sitting about halfway back, had these huge toothy smiles. After everyone had gone, I asked what they thought of that, weren’t they sad? “It was sad when you were reading it,” said my younger one, “but it’s a story. It’s supposed to be sad.”

Check back all week for more from Matthue.