The ProsenPeople

Interview: Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly

Wednesday, February 08, 2017 | Permalink

with Teri Markson

Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly’s new book The Inquisitor’s Tale recently won The Sydney Taylor Award in the Older Readers Category and was named a National Jewish Book Award Finalist for Children’s Literature and a Newbery Honor Book. Jewish Book Council talked to the writer-illustrator team to discuss the book and their approaches to creating compelling literature for young Jewish readers.

Teri Markson: In addition to receiving many starred reviews and accolades, The Inquisitor’s Tale has won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers category and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Yet the book isn’t singularly focused on the Jewish character or Judaism itself. How do you account for the reaction from the Jewish community?

Adam Gidwitz: This has been one of the most satisfying elements of the recognition The Inquisitor's Tale has received. It's always a dangerous proposition to try to explain why someone likes your work, but I think the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the Jewish community derives from at least two sources:

So much of the children's literature featuring Jewish characters that receives national attention concerns the Holocaust. But Jewish history is so much richer than that! Jews have been writing and learning and praying and inventing for, by our count, over five millennia. I think people are appreciating a rich and detailed account of a period other than the Holocaust—an account that describes a very different kind of persecution of Jews; and also features and celebrates one of the great accomplishments of Jewish culture: the Talmud.

Secondly, in all literature—and especially literature for children—bad guys are usually stereotypically bad, and good guys are perfectly good. This is exaggerated in cases of persecution, such as the persecution of Jews. In The Inquisitor's Tale, I tried to depict the Jewish community with some complexity—we're definitely not all sages and saints—and, more crucially, I tried to portray the persecutor, King Louis IX, with realistic complexity. Louis was so beloved that he was sainted, and has a major American city named after him. Having read a number of sources on him, including critical sources, I understand why: he was in many ways a wonderful king and a wonderful man. But he was also viciously anti-Jewish. How could he be both? He said he hated the Jews, and supposedly claimed he would happily see a Jew stabbed in the stomach, yet he largely prohibited violence against them in his kingdom, unlike other monarchs of his time. Humans are complex, and my goal was to depict them in all their complex glory. Why would this appeal to Jewish community? You know what they say: two Jews, three opinions? We revel in complexity.

TM: One of the protagonists in the book, William, is biracial, of both African and European descent. How likely would it have been for that to have happened in the Middle Ages?

AG: It was certainly rare to see someone with brown skin in Northern France in the thirteenth century, mixed race or not. But there was a great deal of cultural interaction, in all senses, along the cultural borders of Europe: in the Middle East, along the edges of the Byzantine Empire, and in Spain. My character William is based in part on Guilhem d'Orange, a ninth-century Paul Bunyan-type figure who fought to take Spain from its Muslim rulers. I certainly didn't like the idea of a religious warrior as the star of my book—it would defeat the whole intent of the story—so I thought that it would be interesting to focus on one of the little-talked-about (and, frankly, ironic) products of this religious war: a child of both sides.

TM: Many of the details in your book are based on your extensive research into the history and lore of the Middle Ages. What do you find most compelling about this era?

AG: The Middle Ages is a remarkably surprising period. I think most of us think of that time as boring and homogenous, constricted and made ignorant by faith. But in reality this couldn't be farther from the truth! It was an age of invention, of great philosophy and architecture, a time of cultural collision and collaboration. Also, they told amazing stories, like ones about holy dogs, and dragons with deadly flatulence. How can you not find that compelling?

TM: What kind of response have you received from children and teens who have read the book? Do you think they’re more focused on the history or the humor?

AG: Mostly, young people are focused on the adventure. The most compelling aspect of any novel is suspense—be it a romance, a comedy, a horror, what have you. Suspense is the engine that drives a novel. There are certain adult novels that eschew suspense, but those seem to lack an engine altogether, and mostly ramble randomly down the side of a steep hill. The suspense of The Inquisitor's Tale comes in the form of adventure. But humor is important, too, and the big questions that I pose, about history, philosophy, and cultural difference, make the novel something that, I hope, young people will return to.

TM: One of my favorite moments in the book is when Marmeluc questions Jacob about what makes him a Jew. There are many instances where you have the children grapple with some complex religious ideas, including the death of Jacob’s parents in light of God’s plan. How did you decide what was appropriate for kids?

AG: I didn't. I have a rule for my books: they have to have happy endings, and nothing sexual. Other than that, I think kids can handle most anything. (Okay, I exclude gratuitous torture, too. Mostly.) I taught elementary and high school for a combined eight years, and one thing I learned is that kids love hard questions. Hard questions motivate them and inspire them—not hard like tedious; hard as in challenging the way they've always seen the world. Each and every kid’s job is to grow, and nothing helps a kid grow like questions that make them reconsider what they always believed. Also farting dragons. That helps a kid grow, too.

TM: Whose decision was it to present the illustrations in the style of an illustrated manuscript? Did you consider starting the chapters with large ornate letters like in some old manuscripts? What other decisions did you make concerning the style?

Hatem Aly: The style or form of the book was decided early on. The idea was inspired by illuminated manuscripts, with marginalia specifically in mind. I had thought of starting each chapter’s first letter with a small illuminated character; then it was suggested to work on the “C’s in each “Chapter,” which was the best (and most sensible) way to use this technique for the book! The one decision that I obliged myself to do was inking the illustrations traditionally, using a metal nib or a “plume” like in the medieval times, to keep the artwork authentic to the time period—and have fun with the rest.

TM: Was the use of color considered at any point?

HA: For the interiors there was no intention to use color. However, now that I see it, I think the current form works best with the nature of the book and leaves space for imagination.

TM: Can you tell us something about the processes you used in illustrating the book?

HA:
As I read the book the first time, I started sketching characters while doing some research on the time period in which the story takes place, paying closer attention to the visual aspects of people, places, and books. I made batches of sketches and discussed it with the editorial team, then I revised the sketches with their feedback and new research and started inking and finalizing. I must thank Adam Gidwitz for his expertise on many things I would not have known—like what some current locations or buildings looked like several centuries ago or how monks, peasants, or regular merchants dressed in medieval times.

TM: Most illustrated manuscripts are quite formal, but your style is very fluid—which works wonderfully with the humor in the book. What were you trying to achieve with your illustrations?

HA: Sometimes limitations are a great door to creativity. I used the formal tradition of illuminated manuscripts and the restrictive area of illustrative marginalia as an anchor that kept me in the right direction; within those strictures I allowed any ideas to flow freely, knowing that at the end it would be contained in the proper form. You could say it’s like singing a folklore poem in your own melody but staying truthful to the lyrics. And that works beautifully if you think the text is fantastic. In brief, I wanted the artwork to be both fun and passionate, like the story and characters of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Teri Markson has been a children’s librarian for over 18 years. She is currently the acting senior librarian at the Valley Plaza Branch Library in North Hollywood, CA.

View Hatem Aly's early sketches for The Inquisitor's Tale:

(Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge images and enter the slideshow.)

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2012 Sydney Taylor Book Awards Announced by AJL

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2012 Winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Award are:



Read more (+ see the full list of honorees) here.

2010 Sydney Taylor Book Awards

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards have been announced by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Winners included April Halprin Wayland and Stephane Jorisch, author and illustrator of New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story, Robin Friedman, author of The Importance of Wings, and Margarita Engle, author of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. Please read the full release below:


(New York—January 11, 2010) April Halprin Wayland and Stephane Jorisch, author and illustrator of New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story, Robin Friedman, author of The Importance of Wings, and Margarita Engle, author of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, are the 2010 winners of the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series. The winners will receive their awards at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Seattle this July.

Wayland and Jorisch will receive the 2010 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s Younger Readers Category for New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. The Jewish New Year is a special time of year, with a change in seasons, symbolic foods and other traditions. It is also the time for introspection and the ritual of Tashlich, when sins are symbolically cast into a body of flowing water. Izzy thinks about things for which he is sorry. He “compares Tashlich to cleaning out his toy closet, an example of the wonderful way this story conveys to children, at their own level, a contemporary version of the healthy Jewish way we start fresh at the beginning of each new year,” commented Susan Berson, a member of the Award Committee. Incoming Committee Chair Barbara Bietz noted that the “whimsical watercolor illustrations are a perfect paring for the delightful prose.”

Friedman will receive the 2010 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s Older Readers Category for The Importance of Wings, published by Charlesbridge. Ah, the drama of being in eighth grade! There’s the boy you have a crush on who likes someone else. There’s getting dressed in gym class and being picked last for teams. There’s your parents, who are so unlike Mike and Carol Brady and not even like Ma and Pa Ingalls. And there’s your hair, that won’t go in the popular feathered back style that everyone else is wearing. When an Israeli girl moves next door, Liat “not only shows Roxanne how to give her hair ‘wings,’ but she helps her ‘wing’ her way toward maturity and self-esteem,” asserted Debbie Colodny, a member of the Award Committee. Another Award Committee member, Kathy Bloomfield, affirmed this praise: “With appealing and affecting writing, Ms. Friedman grabs the reader immediately and takes her on a journey of self-discovery, confidence building and empowerment that will leave her hoping for a sequel.” Friedman’s book about male bulimia, Nothing, was named an AJL Notable Book for Teen Readers last year.

Engle will receive the 2009 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s Teen Readers Category for Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, published by Henry Holt, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. After Kristallnacht, many Jews tried to leave Germany, but other countries refused the refugees. Cuba agreed to take in some of these people, but at a price. The tension of this era is seen through the eyes of several of the people affected: Daniel, a thirteen-year-old German boy whose parents put him on a boat to “the Americas,” hoping to save his life; Paloma, the daughter of a Cuban official who prefers a dovecote to her home; David, who escaped the pogroms of Russia, sells ice creams, and helps the new refugees; and Gordo, Paloma’s father, who is profiting by charging exorbitant fees for visas to stay in Cuba. “The verse and the different perspectives make the history of Cuba during the Nazi era accessible while illustrating the complicated situations and the twists and turns of political interactions,” noted Kathe Pinchuck, Committee Chair. Ms. Engle is known to readers for her Newbery-Honor book The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, for which she also won the Pura Belpre Award.

Six Sydney Taylor Honor Books were named for 2009. For Younger Readers, Honor Books are: Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim by Deborah Bodin Cohen with illustrations by Jago (Kar-Ben), Benjamin and the Silver Goblet by Jacqueline Jules with illustrations by Natascia Ugliano (Kar-Ben), Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber with illustrations by Adam Gustavson (Tricycle Press) and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter with illustrations and an amazing lenticular cover by Andre Carrilho (Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House). Two works in translation were named Honor Books for Older Readers: Anne Frank: Her Life in Worlds and Pictures by Menno Metselaar and Ruud van der Rol (translated by Arnold J. Pomerans) (Roaring Brook Press/Flash Point, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group) and A Faraway Island by Annika Thor (translated by Linda Schenck) (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House). Lost, a historical novel by Jacqueline Davies (Marshall Cavendish) and Naomi’s Song, a biblical fiction by Selma Kritzer Silverberg (JPS) were named Honor Books in the Teen Reader Category.

The JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible by Ellen Frankel with illustrations by Avi Katz (JPS) was named a Notable Book for All Ages. The Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee was very impressed Ms. Frankel’s retelling of biblical stories. “She succeeds in creating an age-appropriate interpretation of the most intriguing and familiar stories that allow families to gleen the essence of Jewish teachings, ethics, and history,” commented Rita Soltan, Award Committee member. “Readability, faithfulness to ‘idiomatic nuances of biblical Hebrew,’ and softly rendered color illustrations are the main features of this compilation,” noted Susan Berson, Award Committee member.

We will be promoting an author and illustrator blog tour as a way to spread the word and generate interest in these books. The tour will take place February 1st – February 5th, and the schedule will be posted at jewishlibraries.org/blog.

In addition to the medal-winners, the Award Committee designated twenty-two Notable Books of Jewish Content for 2010: eight in the Younger Readers Category, eight in the Older Readers Category, and six for Teens. Notable titles, and more information about the Sydney Taylor Book Award, may be found online at www.SydneyTaylorBookAward.org. A blog about the awards can be found at www.sydneytaylorbookaward.blogspot.com.