Sydney Taylor Blog Tour: THE TOWER OF LIFE by Chana Stiefel and Susan Gal
It’s the 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour (click here for the full schedule) and I’m honored to talk with Chana Stiefel and Susan Gal, author and illustrator of Sydney Taylor Picture Book award winner, The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs .
Travis: Chana, how did you find out about winning a Sydney Taylor Medal for The Tower of Life? What was your reaction?
Chana Stiefel: My husband Larry always says I get great news while on vacation. (It’s true! We need to go away more often!) We were in St. Martin and I hopped on a scheduled Zoom with our team from Scholastic. (Yes, I know…I took a work call during vacation. It seemed important.) Luckily, I didn’t show up in my bathing suit. A moment after Susan and I logged on, the entire Sydney Taylor Awards committee joined the Zoom. I was shocked and overwhelmed with gratitude. This book has been on quite the journey! When my husband and son came upstairs, I was laughing and crying at the same time. There have been A LOT of tears in the making of this book.
Travis: What was that like for you, Susan?
Susan Gal: I was at a loss for words and could only manage a heartfelt “oh my gosh!” and “thank you!” I appreciated being able to see the faces of everyone in the meeting, especially Chana’s amazement and joy. It filled me with such wonderful emotions.
Travis: Chana, what was the initial inspiration for the book?
Chana Stiefel: I first learned about Yaffa Eliach when I read her obituary in The New York Times in November 2016. I was so moved by her messages of hope, empathy, and resilience in the face of unbearable tragedy. The Tower of Life that she created in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, with more than 1,000 photos of the people of her Polish town, is one of the most heartrending exhibits I have ever seen. Because Holocaust survivors like Yaffa are passing away, I felt an urgency to share her story with the next generation.
Travis: Susan, how did you come to illustrate the book?
Susan Gal: My agent Gail Gaynin sent me the manuscript along with photos of young Yaffa with her grandmother’s chickens and Yaffa in her father’s arms. Those images touched my heart and I couldn’t wait to learn more about Yaffa and her incredible life. Both of these photographs appear in the book.
Travis: Chana, since The Tower of Life is a picture book biography of Yaffa Eliach, I’m curious: What’s the best part about writing a picture book biography? What’s the most challenging part?
Chana Stiefel: The Tower of Life was my first picture book biography. (I tested the waters with my previous picture book, Let Liberty Rise: How America’s Schoolchildren Helped Save the Statue of Liberty, which I suppose you could say is a biography of Lady Liberty.) Let’s start with the most challenging part: When you’re writing about a character living during one of the most difficult and tragic times in history, it’s hard not to get lost in the mountains of research and become overwhelmed with grief. To add to that challenge, how do you make the story accessible for children? The key, at least for me, is to focus on your one character and how the events of history affected her—or better yet, how she made an impact on history.
The best part? Seeing your story come to life with the most stunning art by your dream illustrator—and then sharing that story with children.
Travis: What about the illustration side, Susan? What are the fun parts of illustrating a picture book biography? What are the most challenging parts?
Susan Gal: The Tower of Life is my first picture book biography. In the beginning I was anxious about making sure that my drawings would capture Yaffa’s likeness and the shtetl of Eishyshok. I read Yaffa’s book, There Once Was a World and spent time gathering as many images as I could of Yaffa’s life and the people of Eishyshok. The US Holocaust Museum has a remarkable archive of photos available online. Learning about Yaffa and what life was like in that part of the world at that time was fascinating. The difficult part was researching WWll and Nazi imagery. Working with those photos was heartbreaking and often brought me to tears as I was illustrating that part of Yaffa’s story.
Travis: Last question for both of you: What snack puts you in peak creativity mode?
Chana Stiefel: Great question! Blueberries have been my favorite food since my mom read me Blueberries for Sal when I was a child. While writing, I can finish off a whole basket of blueberries within a minute. Kerplink! Kerplank! Kerplunk!
Susan Gal: Ah ha! My favorite way of getting the creativity flowing is with a big cup of steamy coffee with frothy milk.
Travis: Chana and Susan, thank you both for taking my questions! You can check out the rest of the Sydney Taylor blog tour here.
Filed under: Authors
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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