Cel­e­brate Jew­ish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invit­ed an author to share thoughts on #Jew­Lit for each day of Jew­ish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and dis­cov­er! 

Today, Sylvia Rouss, author of many books for chil­dren includ­ing the Sam­my Spi­der series and The Lit­tlest booksshares the sto­ry of the birth of Sam­my Spi­der and the book that inspired her. 

The sto­ry of Rab­bi Eli­jah of Vil­na influ­enced my deci­sion to become a Jew­ish edu­ca­tor and ulti­mate­ly, a writer. He is often referred to as the Vil­na Gaon or Genius of Vil­na. Born in 1720, he was study­ing the Bible and Tal­mud by the age of 6. Although he grew to be pro­fi­cient in all things Jew­ish, he con­tin­ued to study 18 hours a day. Accord­ing to a pop­u­lar Jew­ish leg­end, a young stu­dent asked his Rab­bi why he stud­ied so much. He answered, If the Vil­na Gaon stud­ies Torah 18 hours a day, the rab­bis in Poland will study 10 and in the more enlight­ened cli­mate of Ger­many, the rab­bis will study 6 and the rab­bis in Eng­land will study 2, then the Jews of Eng­land will at least keep the Sab­bath. But if the Vil­na Gaon only stud­ies 10 hours a day then the rab­bis of Poland will study 6, and the rab­bis in Ger­many only 2, and the rab­bis in Eng­land only ½ hour, what will become of the Sab­bath obser­vance of Eng­lish Jewry?”

As a Jew­ish edu­ca­tor, keep­ing Jew­ish learn­ing alive has been a pri­or­i­ty. Ear­ly in my career, I taught two-year-old chil­dren and I want­ed to find a way to engage them in learn­ing about Jew­ish hol­i­days and tra­di­tions. I was famil­iar with sec­u­lar rhymes and fin­ger plays and saw how they delight­ed young chil­dren. So, I decid­ed to write Jew­ish rhymes to intro­duce the hol­i­days to the chil­dren I was teach­ing. For each hol­i­day, I cre­at­ed new rhymes and accom­pa­ny­ing fin­ger pup­pets as well as flan­nel board props to engage the chil­dren. The col­lec­tion ulti­mate­ly became my first pub­lished book, Fun with Jew­ish Hol­i­day Rhymes.

Lat­er, when I began teach­ing old­er chil­dren I used the lim­it­ed resources avail­able to me at the time. One of my favorite sto­ries was The Mouse in the Matzah Fac­to­ry by Francine Med­off, a won­der­ful sto­ry that allows the read­er to observe the process of mak­ing matzah. Through the eyes of a lit­tle mouse, we watch the care that is tak­en from grow­ing and har­vest­ing the wheat, to trans­port­ing it to the matzah fac­to­ry and final­ly, bak­ing it into matzah. 

I think this sto­ry more than any oth­er inspired my writ­ing. I want­ed to cre­ate a relat­able char­ac­ter that would engage young chil­dren —a char­ac­ter who exhibits child­like curios­i­ty and who wants to dis­cov­er and par­tic­i­pate in the events occur­ring around him. And so, Sam­my was born! 

The first Sam­my hol­i­day adven­ture was Sam­my Spider’s First Hanukkah. Although Sam­my spins webs, he has a desire to spin drei­dels like the child in the sto­ry. At the time, I nev­er dreamt I would be writ­ing addi­tion­al Sam­my Spi­der sto­ries. I was thrilled when my pub­lish­er want­ed me to write more Sam­my hol­i­day books and today there is an entire Sam­my Spi­der hol­i­day series fea­tur­ing the pre­co­cious lit­tle spi­der. Sam­my has been trans­lat­ed into French, Dutch and Span­ish, and one day I hope the sto­ries will also be pub­lished in Hebrew.

Although I have writ­ten pic­ture books about oth­er char­ac­ters, Sam­my Spi­der remains my favorite. Today, I am hap­py to see that there are many won­der­ful Jew­ish Children’s books and that Sam­my is in good com­pa­ny. The Mouse in the Matzah Fac­to­ry that so inspired me, has been repub­lished with col­or­ful illus­tra­tions in place of the mono­chro­mat­ic sepia col­ors of the orig­i­nal. I shall for­ev­er be grate­ful to the lit­tle mouse that took me on a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery and led me to Sam­my Spider.