Alan Silberberg, MEET THE MATZAH

Alan Silberberg, MEET THE MATZAH

“It was a healing, life-changing process of creating art.” Alan Silberberg and Zibby talk about his new picture book Meet the Matzah, approaching grief with humor, and the importance of sharing diverse stories for children throughout all mediums.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alan Silberberg: It is a pleasure to be here in this new year. New things are happening.

Zibby: Yes.

Alan: I don’t know what to say about today.

Zibby: I know. We are recording this on the morning after the insurrection in the capitol building. We’re going to ignore our huge feelings about what’s going on and talk about fantastic children’s books and humor and laughter and family and all the great things included in your book.

Alan: Let’s do that. Thank you.

Zibby: We’ll divert ourselves to that.

Alan: Yes, let’s divert.

Zibby: As you know, my kids are obsessed with your books, your first book, but now the anticipation of the second book, Meet the Latkes. Tell us about Meet the Latkes. Tell us about Meet the Matzah and all the rest. I know you have other books. Let’s start with those two.

Alan: Here’s the thing. I am a Jewish man. I was raised Jewish. I never expected to be a Jewish book writer. When I started to think about Hanukkah, all the kids’ books that I read to my kid were shtetl books. There are other books out there. Hanukkah, to me, became these dark, really cool books, but I wanted something light and silly. I came up with this idea based on little holiday card I made using flash animation to send to my agent and my friends. It was just a little latke family saying, “Happy Hanukkah.” My agent, after getting it five years in a row, said, “Why don’t you turn that into a kids’ book?” At first, I was like, “That’s not me. No.” Then the more I thought about what I just said, why not have a silly, funny way to look at Hanukkah? I started this book. No publisher, I will say on earth, I won’t say in New York, no publisher wanted it because mostly, my first draft had it being about a latke family having a latke party which meant they were making latkes. All the editors were like, “We can’t publish a book about latkes eating latkes for Hanukkah.” There was one editor, Leila Sales at Viking, who said, “You know, there’s something really funny here. If you work with me and if you’ll just be patient, I know we can find a book in this.” Together, we created a funny way to tell a story about Hanukkah through this absurd family which I already had through the greeting card and through my first draft. I realized that I could be a little irreverent. I grew up on Rocky & Bullwinkle. Irreverent humor, to me, works on many levels. I wanted adults to like this. I wrote this Meet the Latkes book. I had no idea it was going to take off. I was just thrilled that I was getting something into the world.

Suddenly, I became, as my publisher said — I tried pitching them new things. They said, “No, no, no, you’re the funny Jewish book guy.” I’m like, oh, okay. I had no intention of doing a second book. To me, it was not a series. It was like, done. Once they said to me, “You’re the funny Jewish holiday guy,” I started ruminating. Passover seemed like the next holiday to do, but I had no idea for it. One thing was clear. The format for Meet the Latkes is Grandpa Latke comes into the family. It’s a family story. The grandfather tells a tall tale about, as he would say, Chhhhanukkah. It’s up to the family dog to dispel his story and get the real story out. I didn’t want to do another matzah family. I had no idea what to do until it popped into my head, the name Alfie Koman. For anyone who’s not Jewish listening to this, and I know you’re there, in Passover, the holiday we’re talking about, one of the rituals — I’m sure as a kid you hunted your home for the afikoman — is to take one of the ceremonial matzah and you break it in half. One half gets hidden. Later in the seder, which is the meal, the kids go look for that. Anyway, I loved the idea of a character called Alfie Koman. Once I had that idea in my head, I pitched them the idea of making it a school story where Alfie Koman is a kid who loves to hide. It’s his escape mechanism. He’s charged with telling the Passover story, but the school bully who’s also — everybody is bread at this school. Loaf, the school bully, takes over Alfie’s story and takes the class on this wild Passover story that Alfie gets to correct. I loved it. The editors loved it. It’s coming out this spring. I’m very excited about it. You were one of my first readers.

Zibby: Aw, I’m so honored. I loved it. It’s different enough. It has the same sensibility, as you were saying, but more jokes, more clever things hidden in there, a different story. Loved it. Fantastic.

Alan: Humor’s so important. You have younger kids. My kid is all grown up, but you have younger kids. You know when you are laughing along with them reading a book, there’s such a wonderful connection. That’s something that I always had with my son when he was growing up and we were reading books. I like funny. I won a humor award for the Milo book. Funny is in here. It’s important and healing.

Zibby: Especially around holidays. As you said, a lot of the picture books are very didactic and trying to teach you. They’re not history books, per se, but they’re not fun. It’s like, okay, a holiday’s coming, and so I go to that section of my bookshelf, if they’re actually organized, and pull down. I’m like, all right guys, now we’re reading about this. Now finally, there’s these new entrants that are bright and cheerful and clever. It’s just great. Not to say anything negative about the other ones.

Alan: No, of course not. There’s a place for all of those. Every book that talks about diverse holidays in any way, I don’t care how you do it, it’s important. It’s nice to get some humor out in a storytelling way that kids can embrace. Now that the book has been out — it’s hard when you do a holiday book because you basically have a week of attention. I’ve had three weeks of attention because it’s been out for three holidays. I’m now getting a lot of really positive feedback from families. “This is our family holiday book.” Parents write me and say, “My fourth grader takes this book into the second grade and reads to them.” What is better? What is better for an author or for —

Zibby: — What you have to do now is write one about shabbat because then it’s every week.

Alan: All right, hold on.

Zibby: Seriously? I thought maybe you had it, you were going to show me.

Alan: No. Actually, I might as well say it. I am working on the third in the series which will be out next spring which is Meet the Hamentashen. I have a Purim story, silly, totally different setup. It’s three hamentashen detectives who have to solve the missing Purim story. They go to a party. They think everything’s happening for real, but they have to piece together all the clues to create a Purim story.

Zibby: Interesting. Then maybe after that you could do Meet the Challah.

Alan: We’ll work something out afterwards.

Zibby: Okay. This is not all you do. You sent me your book at a very important, sad time for me about what was clearly your own experience masked in middle grade fiction, which was so — I have not stopped thinking about your own story. Tell listeners a little more about that book and how you channeled your own childhood loss of your mom into this beautiful middle grade novel.

Alan: Thank you. First of all, forgetting COVID, I know it’s been a very tough time for you. Every time you post, because your heart is out there always, I just feel you. I think that’s what inspired me. I wanted to write to you. Knowing that the book I wrote called Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze was ten years old or eight years old, I just wanted to reach out to you and say moms don’t have time to grieve. I get you. I get the pain that is. My background is basically in children’s television. This leads to it, really.

Zibby: No, go from the beginning. Start from the beginning of your career here.

Alan: I worked in children’s television for years working for Nickelodeon and Disney and all those folks. Once I had a kid and my wife and I read to him constantly, the storytelling I was doing, as my wife would say, was mostly on the page on my scripts. All the description in my scripts was so beautiful. She said, “Why don’t you start thinking about writing a book?” I had a kid. We loved reading. I transitioned slowly into writing a middle grade novel. The first middle grade novel was called Pond Scum. It did okay. It was a funny book about a transformation of a kid who’s lonely in the woods and turns into animals he touches. It published. I was now an author. Time for my second book. What do I do? I was having a very hard time coming up with an idea. Around that time, Wimpy Kid had just really hit big. I am a cartoonist. I’m a doodler. A bookseller in Wellesley, Massachusetts, said to me, “Why aren’t you doing a funny book with cartoons in it?” I’m like, yes, that would be great. I started a book about a middle school, geeky, anxious kid named Milo who is the new kid. That’s all I had in my head. I did the first chapter. My own personal story wasn’t even on the horizon. I had to start thinking of what it was like being twelve.

The more I had to access that part of me, it wasn’t like I had shut out my life, but I had to really acknowledge my own past. My mom unfortunately died when I was nine of a brain tumor. It was the traumatic event of my life. It happened very quickly. As I thought more about Milo, I realized, if I’m telling what’s in me anyway, what if Milo had lost his mother? Once I opened that door, it was literally a floodgate of catharsis, but pain, but also was such a blessing. I started writing things. The book became lyrical. The book became poetic. What happened is I realized I could still keep the book being funny. It wasn’t an intentional thing to say I’m going to make a funny book about death or grieving, but I was a funny kid. If I’m telling my story, everything that was coming out of me was very autobiographical even though the story veered away from some of the things that happened to me. I just poured through this story of Milo coming to terms with the fog that is always around him. It was a healing, life-changing process of creating art. I don’t know what else to say about it. Selling that book, I believe in these things, I was blessed. It was kismet, beshert. The editor, Liesa Abrams at Aladdin, Simon & Schuster, got it instantly and wanted this book. No one else wanted it, but she got it. We connected on such a deep level to create this book. I’m so proud of this book.

Zibby: The book is amazing. Not the least of which, you can tell that it’s real emotion. That’s why when I didn’t even know your backstory when I read it, I was like, oh, my gosh, this had to have happened to him. It’s too real. There’s no way you could imagine. Then the authenticity that comes through every page, it’s like your heart is out there as well. The reader is just immediately bonded to you and Milo by association, what happened in his journey. It’s hard for kids that age to put their feelings into words and express. It’s hard even as a parent sometimes to connect with your child who’s going through something like that in their own liminal brain space. Having a book, it’s the translation vehicle. It’s like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. He always had that translator on the phone. “Soufflé means soufflé.” It’s like one of those old-fashioned machines where you would type in a word and get something else. It’s like the translator of grief from childhood to adulthood, the intermediary if you will.

Alan: That’s a tough age because it’s an age that often I think with grief — I grew up in a different time. Grief for my father was, “You’re okay. Everything’s fine.” I see now, kids who have lost a parent in more recent years. The surviving parent is talking, is looking at therapies. I’m not saying that across the board. There’s no one size fits all. It’s traumatic. When you have something traumatic happen, it affects a kid. That kid needs something, whether it’s therapy or talk or love or understanding. That’s what I hoped the book would do.

Zibby: Or cartoon latkes. Who knows?

Alan: That’s it. I didn’t even know this award existed, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I got a phone call. It was like, “Hi, this is Lin Oliver. Milo won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award this year.” For a book about a mom’s death to win the humor award, it was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to use humor to really look at something so heartfelt and deep. It was quite an honor.

Zibby: It’s a well-deserved honor. I really think humor does have such a role in grief. It doesn’t stop. The huge sadness has to be tempered by the absurdity of some of the moments. I think a lot of memoir about grief, for instance, that I’ve been reading lately include all these absurd, funny moments because you have to laugh.

Alan: You have to.

Zibby: My husband and the grief of his mom, there were so many times he and his sister and I were hysterically laughing within days after and then feeling bad. It’s like, no, no, no, this is part of it. The range of emotions don’t stop. You still have the full gamut. It’s just different pieces have highlights on them at different times.

Alan: They don’t stop. They rumble forever. It’s a question of how you feel during rumbles. If you giggle during a rumble, that just means you’re remembering something that’s really sweet, I think.

Zibby: I’m sorry that that happened to you in your life, and the pain of that. I feel awful for you and your family. I’m sorry that that happened.

Alan: Thank you.

Zibby: But I am glad that you turned it into a book that the rest of us can take —

Alan: — When I do school visits or someone writes me and says — I remember one particular — right when the book came out, a girl walked up to me very shyly and quiet, wouldn’t look at me but said, “I lost my mom too.” Just to know that she was able to say that to me meant that she was able to talk about it and that the book touched her in a way that was part of my intention.

Zibby: Wow. Going back to your career for two seconds, so you finished Milo. You win this award. Then what happened?

Alan: I win this award. Then the pressure’s on for, what’s the next book? I didn’t want to do anything , which may have been a mistake. Maybe I should’ve stayed with that, pushing those strings. I wrote a middle grade novel called — they changed the title — The Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz which is the same vein of a book with cartoons all through it. It’s the story of two best friends who are the school cartoonists, but they want to be better. They find a way into getting a magic pen that turns everything they draw into reality. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” story. Their whole world gets turned upside down by themselves. They have to figure out how to fix it and save their friendship and save the school and the world. It was just a silly book. It’s also filled with heartfelt things. There are parent problems. There are sibling problems. It’s a little bit more silly.

Then I took a break to go back into TV. Then I went to the picture books. The piece I didn’t say about the latke book, which was the first book of the picture books, grief is tied into that as well because I lost my sister about six years ago. It was at a point where I was doing another TV job. I won’t lie and say that — I will tell you, I hated it. I was miserable. I was making okay money. I kept thinking, I want to do something for myself. I need to do something. Life is short. I can’t do this. With the support of my lovely wife who’s like, “Life’s too short,” I quit that job. You don’t quit these jobs, but I quit the job and poured myself into getting the latke book ready to try to sell it. Great decision, but it came from wanting to give myself something.

Zibby: Wow, and giving everybody else again.

Alan: It eats itself as it goes in a circle.

Zibby: Having done all these different types of writing from TV, cartoons, writing and drawing — you’re not just a writer. Artistic expression, I would say. What advice would you have to somebody who’s starting out, perhaps, or who’s struggling to be a writer or who wants to tell a story or can’t find their way in or any of that? What would you say?

Alan: First of all, finding your way in, that’s a great way to put it. It’s a tough way to get in. Getting in is hard. I would always say to anybody, it sounds a little pat, but don’t give up. Don’t give up. Believe in what you’re trying to do. Keep reaching out to other people. Keep looking for openings. Keep getting used to the word no because you’re going to get a lot of nos. I say this to the third graders, but it only takes one yes. I believe in talent. I believe in storytelling. It’s not magical. I don’t believe there’s a way to get published or a way to get a job. I do believe if you believe in yourself — you also have to work at it. It’s not like things happen because I want it to happen. I do believe a little of that, but you also have to kick at the door and reach out to people and, I hate the word network, but know people, talk to people. Believe in yourself. I really believe to believe in yourself.

Zibby: Very good advice. Plus, now these should be — you should do a whole TV series on Jewish holidays from this point of view. Are you working on that?

Alan: Funny you should say that. I am working on it. I am working with people one works with, agents and producers. I want Meet the Latkes to be the first — I did a whole PowerPoint presentation for when I pitched this in Los Angeles. There has never been a Hanukkah animated special. There are tons of Hanukkah episodes and Hanukkah mentions in other shows, but there’s never been a standalone Hanukkah animated TV show. We are trying desperately. It’s hard because as much as people want to be diverse and inclusive, they always pull out the, “Well, how many people are actually Jewish? Who would actually watch it? The percentage is actually…” My feeling is, with all of these outlets, it is time for diverse stories, diverse television, diverse media. Thank you for saying that. I am trying to do that. I have some connections. I’ve met with some pretty big people. They’re really into it until they have to go, “The business model doesn’t really support…” I get that. I’m trying. I’m working. Thank you.

Zibby: I don’t think it should just be — I’m sorry. I just keep forcing my views on people. I don’t think it should just be Hanukkah. It should be all through the year. As with every holiday, we sit down and we all try to find a good show. The only ones we found, by the way, are Sesame Street because they do have a whole series. Sometimes we’ve even had to watch the Sesame Street in Israel once.

Alan: Rechov Sumsum? I forget the name.

Zibby: It has some sort of name. They were DVDs. I used to show them to my older kids. I was like, no, no, we have to watch Looking for the Afikoman. Don’t worry, half of it is actually in Hebrew, but whatever. It’s a funny song. Yes, it’s time. There have certainly been TV shows for smaller groups of people. Come on.

Alan: It is what it is. I’m working on that. I’m working with a producer in Los Angeles. We’re trying to sell Milo as an animated series not just about grief, but a funny way to look at anxiety and social/emotional issues but through the character of Milo. We’ll see.

Zibby: Lots of fun stuff in the works.

Alan: I can’t do one thing. I get bored.

Zibby: I understand that.

Alan: Who am I talking to?

Zibby: Yeah, I understand that. It was great talking to you, especially today. I am so excited for all that’s coming and to have a hard copy of Meet the Matzah this spring. You could almost, even, hide the book.

Alan: Oh, I forgot to show you. Somebody for the holidays sent me a matzah mask.

Zibby: Those are amazing.

Alan: I’m pitching now that all books should come with matching masks, at least for the next year.

Zibby: I like it.

Alan: Just a thought.

Zibby: You could get a little pouch to put the book in. Instead of the matzah, you have a matzah pouch. Then you could hide the actual book.

Alan: We’ll talk offline.

Zibby: Okay, okay, I’ll stop.

Alan: I just want to thank you. Zibby, I want to thank you. We found each other through connections of friends and stuff. I just really appreciate you. I love how hard you work and how dedicated you are to caring about people and caring about books and caring about yourself and your family.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. That’s really nice. I’m glad our paths have crossed.

Alan: I am too. COVID ruined it, but I still will come to your house at some point and we will make latkes.

Zibby: I would love it. Anytime once the gates — open invitation. Have a great day, Alan.

Alan: Thanks, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Alan Silberberg, MEET THE MATZAH

Meet the Matzah by Alan Silberberg

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