Barbara Bietz, author of The Sundown Kid, talks to Michal Hoschander Malen about the pioneer Jews of the American West, their reception in the wide open spaces of their new homes and the building of new communities.
Michal Hoschander Malen: Among the other fine values peeking out from within the text, the story personifies the Jewish concept of Hachnasat Orchim, or welcoming outsiders, and also highlights the importance of family. What gave you the idea for this particular story?
Barbara Bietz: I have read and researched a lot about the brave families who settled the Southwest. While I am particularly drawn to the stories of Jewish families, what deeply touched me was the way different groups came together in support of one another. I wanted to capture that sense of cooperation in a meaningful way. I have said before that The Sundown Kid is my love letter to all those families that came before me, who created communities that are still thriving today.
When I set out to write The Sundown Kid, my heart was really with Mama, who promises some things will never change, even in a new home far away. How hard it must have been to leave a whole life behind! I flipped the perspective to the boy who wants to help his Mama feel at home in “the wide open spaces,” so he invites their new neighbors for Shabbat dinner. The Jewish value of welcoming strangers is as important today as it was in biblical times. Our differences disappear over a shared meal.
MHM: Have you spent time in that part of the United States, yourself? Did you have a particular town in mind for the setting as you haven’t specified one? Did you do any research on the time period?
BB: I was born and raised in California and went to college and grad school in Tucson, Arizona. My identity is deeply rooted in the Southwest. Many Jewish immigrant stories began at Ellis Island, but not all families stayed in New York. I did extensive research over a long period of time before I wrote The Sundown Kid. I was inspired by Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin. I had the opportunity to hear Harriet speak about the lives of Jewish pioneers. When she said, “We were there, too,” my heart skipped a beat. Moving forward, I was especially interested in the strong women who maintained Jewish rituals in spite of great challenges.
I discovered an anonymous family in Tucson had commissioned a series of dolls to honor Jewish pioneer women. I wrote an article about the dolls for Doll World magazine. A wonderful artist named Andrea Kalinowski did a series of mixed media paintings of quilts to honor Jewish pioneer women, and I was deeply touched by her work, too. I love the notion of using traditionally feminine art forms to share stories of women.
MHM: Do you have a backstory for the family who made the long trek from East to West? What did they hope to find? How did they think life would unfold for themselves so far away from an established Jewish community?
BB: My backstory for the family is about hope — the universal hope that families have shared historically. The hope of being able to support their families, practice their faith in peace, and create a meaningful future for their children.
MHM: You focused on the role of Shabbat and on the role of food as two of the components in the “glue” that binds Jewish communities and here is used to create bonds with others, as well. Why do you think these and other touchstones are so important from generation to generation?
BB: Rituals connect us to one another. The smell and taste of something familiar will always evoke an emotion. Sharing food we love, or food that has a traditional significance elevates the eating experience from biological to spiritual. Shabbat gives us pause to honor a day, and each other, in a meaningful way. The greatest gift we can give our children is the tradition of rituals.
MHM: How do you think teachers, librarians, youth leaders, etc., can use this story to help children develop a sense of community and to help them further understand its value?
BB: My goal as a writer is to share a story that resonates with readers. I am also passionate about educational opportunities for children. I was very lucky to find an educational specialist who created a beautiful educational guide for The Sundown Kid, which is available on my website for any interested parents or teachers.
MHM: A good picture book is a perfect blend between the text and the art. How do you feel about the illustrator’s vision of your idea?
BB: John Kanzler brought this story to life so beautifully. He created subtext that added depth and meaning in such a thoughtful way. I am in awe of his work.
MHM: What can we expect next from the pen of Barbara Bietz? Is there anything coming up in the near future for us to look forward to?
BB: I am working very hard on a few projects, including a picture book biography and a middle-grade historical novel.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to children and books and her greatest joy is reading to her grandchildren on both sides of the ocean.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.