It’s really hard writing a book that doesn’t fall anywhere into any mainstream categories. Take, for example, my emo science fiction picture book The Gobblings, which just came out. It does happen to be a retelling of a Baal Shem Tov story, but not in any recognizable form that you can be like, “Here’s the Jewish content!”
This is the Baal Shem Tov. According to folklore, he performed holy somersaults as he prayed.
I once submitted a book to PJ Library, the amazing program that sends free picture books to tens of thousands of Jewish kids. It was rejected — the reason given was, the family in it went to synagouge; it was too Jewish. I submitted another book. It was called The Blackout and it was about a family who never spoke to each other; one night, the lights went out and they had to have dinner and tell each other stories and sing songs — essentially, they had to do Shabbat. Their reply? It wasn’t Jewish enough. Man, I felt like I was back on the Jewish dating scene.
This is Herbie, hero of The Gobblings. He might be opening the gates of heaven, but you really can’t tell he’s Jewish.
Somebody said to me in an interview that they’d heard Gobblings was based on a Jewish story. But there was nothing in the art that said that; no moral; no one had Jewish names or were wearing yarmulkes. “Was that intentional?” they asked me. I didn’t have a good answer; I didn’t want to say that I didn’t tell Rohan, the artist, that the book had anything to do with the Baal Shem Tov (I didn’t) (and if he’s reading this, he’s probably just finding that out now) (hi, Rohan!). But the truth was, the story’s roots as a “Jewish folktale” were never part of its Jewish identity to me. It was its spirit, the idea at its heart of doing something impossible and of a kid’s simple belief changing the world and saving his family.
One day, I’d love to write a story that helps my kids understand the idea of praying, and changing the world that way, and of the gates of heaven being forced open by one person’s words. One day I hope to understand that much. Honestly, the only thing I’ve ever written that might come close is another picture book, one called We Are in a Pot of Chicken Soup—it’s about two kids cooking soup and adding all the ingredients out of their imagination.
That one, I completely plagiarized — I stole the story (and the title) from my kids. If there’s one person (actually, three people) who I trust to get my prayers through the gates of heaven, it’s them. They might not be very good at bedtime rituals, but when it comes to believing in things, they could move mountains.
Matthue Roth’s first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was a NYPL Best Book for the Teen Age and an ALA Best Books nominee. His latest is The Gobblings, illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. By day, he’s a video game designer. He lives in Brooklyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com