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Cover Reveal Q&A: THE PASSOVER GUEST by Susan Kusel and Sean Rubin

Pardon me while I reminisce about the beginnings of children’s literature blogging for a sec.

In the mid to late aughts, kid lit blogs began popping up all over the place. Tea Cozy, Mother Reader, Book Buds, and A Fuse #8 Production to name a few. Children’s literature aficionados were coming online and it began to feel a bit like a community. Remember dis?

It was around this time I first met Susan Kusel, who wrote the great Wizards Wireless blog.

I was thrilled to hear that Susan was set to publish her first book, and that Sean Rubin would be illustrating it. Now that picture book, The Passover Guest, is coming out in January and I get to chat about it with Susan and Sean and share the cover.

Travis: Susan – I know this story has evolved over the years – what was the initial spark and how did it change?

Susan Kusel: Yes, this story has had a very long gestation period. When I was little, my mother read to me every night. One of my favorite books was The Magician, a Passover story by Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. She read me a picture book version translated into English by Uri Shulevitz.

I never forgot it, and many, many years later, probably about 15 years ago, I saw it again in a Jewish library and decided to turn it into my own version. I added a child protagonist and made several plot changes. When Neal (Porter, editor) and I started working together in 2015, we moved the book from an Eastern European shtetl to Washington, DC during the Great Depression. And then it just kept evolving. But the bones of the original story I love are still there and I am overjoyed to see it as an actual book all these years later.

Travis: Sean, as Susan mentioned, the story takes place during the Great Depression (specifically, 1933). What sort of research went into the illustrations?

Sean Rubin: Great question. One of the many benefits of collaborating with an author-librarian was that Susan sent me a lot of materials–postcards, tourist guides, maps, photography, you name it. At least once I just received an overstuffed package in the mail and, when I opened it, a few paintings’ worth of research tumbled out. This was super-important because I didn’t (and still don’t) have anywhere near Susan’s knowledge of DC or the DC Jewish community. Taking long walks around the area of the capital where the story took place, both with Susan and by myself, also helped.

That being said, I think one of the reasons our agent, Marietta Zacker, thought I might be a good fit for the project is because she knew that I enjoy the 1930s as a visual environment. I hope this isn’t the last story I illustrate that took place in that decade.  

Travis: Susan – what was the collaboration process like with Sean, and with your editor, Neal Porter?

Susan Kusel: As you know, the author and illustrator don’t usually meet while creating the book. Sean and I did meet during this process, and while everything still very much went through our editor, we also talked with each other. Most of the conversations were about food, and it was fun to talk through our different Passover traditions. I asked early on if Sean would include my Passover dishes on Muriel’s seder table, and he did! Those blue dishes you see are the same ones I use every year. Sean also sent me research questions. As a librarian who researches everyone else’s questions, it was a joy to research ones for my own book. As a result, this feels like our book, not mine or his, but one we are putting out together. 

I have been so lucky to be able to work with Neal on this book. He always knows what works and what doesn’t. One time I turned in a draft that I was happy with except the last sentence. His response was that he liked it, all but that last sentence. He is insightful and focused on what’s right for the book. Once we were meeting in New Orleans for ALA, and we spent 20 minutes together in a hotel lobby going back and forth just to make sure one word in the story was just right. He’s kind and gracious and always makes time for me and the book when I know he doesn’t have any time to spare. We’ve been able to do a lot of the work on the book together in person, and having a discussion with Neal is always delightful.

Travis: Sean – it seems like this story has some good opportunities to try some new things visually. Was there any experimentation or new things you tried for this book?

Sean Rubin: Our editor, Neal, asked that I make things a bit less cartoony with this project. I think we all thought that meant drawing more naturalistically but, if anything, I went hard in another direction. As the story involves more and more magic, I started using richer, more opaque coloring, and began creating (and getting lost in) phantasmagorical dreamscapes inspired by Marc Chagall. I think that elements of this style of art are present in some of my other work, but it’s been under the surface. I love breaking perspective and giving things weird colors, but I’ve typically been more subtle about it. Instead, “The Passover Guest” features at least one blue cat, and the Lincoln Memorial appears either electric blue or copper orange. 

Travis: Okay, a very important question: What snack puts you in peak creativity mode?

Sean Rubin: Popcorn, which I like to make on the stove or an air popper. And there is always a jar of pretzel rods in my studio. 

Susan Kusel: Fruit. My favorite thing to eat. I love peaches, nectarines, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, oranges, watermelon, grapes, pomegranates, apricots, plums, apples, cherries….  and now I’m hungry.

And now the cover for The Passover Guest, published by Neal Porter Books (Holiday House). It arrives on January 19, 2021.

And here are a few spreads from the book (click to enlarge):

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About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.

Comments

  1. Fran Manushkin says:

    This book looks absolutely terrific! Congratulations!

  2. Thank you so much for posting this interview. I was looking forward to reading and writing about this book, and this conversation has just increased my interest! As some readers may know, there had been three picture book versions of this I.L. Peretz tale; this new one, and another new interpretation coming from Green Bean, will add up to five:
    https://www.greenbeanbooks.com/the-magicians-visit/
    Each version is unique. Here is a link to my Passover article discussing Barbara Diamond Goldin and Robert Parker’s version:
    https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/pb-daily/waiting-for-elijah-passover-in-times-of-adversity-in-childrens-picture-books
    It’s wonderful to read Susan Kusel’s tribute to Uri Shulevitz.
    I always appreciate reading a comment, or anything else, by Fran Manushkin.

  3. What a great interview! I can’t wait for Susan and Sean’s Passover Guest! They will appear as guests on my Book of Life Podcast just before Passover 2021!

  4. Gorgeous illustrations! Susan and Sean, you both must be thrilled with the way the book turned out. I’m looking forward to reading it.