On February 20th – my third rhyming picture book, AFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO? A PASSOVER HIDE-AND-SEEK ADVENTURE – will be released into the world! (Available for Pre-Order Now!)
I’m so excited and I JUST CAN’T HIDE IT!!!! (Although the main character of this book, the Afikoman, IS hiding on every spread, thanks to the incredibly detailed and delightful work of Israeli illustrator Noa Kelner!)
Thank you all for helping me celebrate this milestone! For this month’s post, I’d love to share a bit behind the making of this book. As you have probably figured out by now, I love doing author interviews, so I’ve decided to do an interview with….myself! (I talk to myself all the time anyway, so why not, right?!)
RGL: Rebecca, welcome to Picture Book Builders!
RGL: Thanks so much for having me, Rebecca!
RGL: For those readers who may not be familiar with Jewish customs, what (or who?) IS the “Afikoman”?
RGL: Before I explain, what (and who!) the “Afikoman” is, let me first give a little background about Passover (I promise to be brief!).
I typically tell my non-Jewish friends that Passover (or Pesach – “PAY-sahk” – in Hebrew) is like “Jewish Thanksgiving.” It is a holiday that takes place in March or April, where we gather together around a big table, eat great food, sing songs, say prayers, and express gratitude for our freedom and for all the good things we are blessed to have in our lives. This gathering is called a “seder.” One of the foods that we eat is called matzah, which is essentially a flat, un-salted, tasteless cracker (It’s pretty bad unless you slather it with butter, then its delish!). The reason we eat matzah is because, as the story goes, the Jewish people had a very small window of opportunity to escape from Pharoah — who had been keeping them as slaves in ancient Egypt — and so they didn’t have enough time for the bread dough to rise. They just grabbed what they had (flat, tasteless, crackers) and left! They probably didn’t even have any butter. Poor guys!
ANYWAY, sorry for the history lesson, but the reason you need to know all that is because the afikoman (pronounced “AH-fee-KOE-men”) is basically one-half of a piece of matzah (the larger piece, which is broken as one of the rituals during the seder), wrapped in a napkin or put in a special pouch, and then hidden somewhere in the house. After the big festive meal, all the kids embark upon a manic search to find it and whoever succeeds receives a small prize. Growing up, the prize was always a dollar (which was a lot of money in those days!)
RGL: What inspired you to write a book about this tradition and how did you come up with the idea to make the Afikoman a character?
RGL: During my own childhood seders, searching for the afikoman was the absolute highlight of the holiday. I have fond memories of my sister and I, along with our family friends at the seder, tearing through the house, upending couch cushions, throwing open cabinets, and digging through drawers! (I assume my mother has less fond memories of this! Lol).
This memory was the impetus for writing this crazy story, along with a longtime desire to do a fractured fairytale version of The Gingerbread Man. After I’d written a first draft, I thought: how fun would it be if I could also find a way to involve the reader in this chaotic race around the house? That’s when I remembered my fondness for Where’s Waldo books as a kid and also my own boys’ love of all the Richard Scarry books, in which they searched through seas of intricate and purposefully busy illustrations in order to find tiny little Goldbug. I’m so thrilled that Noa Kelner was chosen as the illustrator because her cleverness in hiding the Afikoman in the pages of this book is just brilliant!
RGL: Like all your books, I see this one is also in rhyme. But unlike your other books (so far!), this one has a refrain. What made you choose to include a refrain in this book?
RGL: I’ve always been a fan of picture books with refrains. I love how they stick in your head, for better or worse! One of my favorites is from The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Deisen, which was a book I read over and over with my boys when they were young: “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face, so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. Blub, Bluuuub, Bluuuuuub.”
I haven’t read that book in at least eight or nine years and yet I don’t think I’ll ever forget that refrain!
For AFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO? I honestly didn’t start writing with the intention of including a refrain, but I just looked back at my very first draft (written 1-2-20) and it looks like it just flowed naturally as I was imagining these kids searching and what they might say as they looked. I wrote:…“Is it hiding someplace high? Is it somewhere down below?… Afikoman, where’d you go?” That eventually morphed into the current refrain:
Is he hiding somewhere high?
Is he hiding somewhere low?
Where’d you go?
RGL: Let’s talk about the illustrations for a minute. They are SO busy and fun! Did you have any say in terms of illustration selection and/or input into the illustrations?
Not really. My amazing editor, Lauri Hornik at Penguin/Rocky Pond Books, had an incredible vision for this book from the get go. In fact, she scooped this book up only FIVE days after submission, and told me almost right away that she had the perfect illustrator in mind. And boy was she right! Noa is Israeli and Jewish and so she was very familiar with the custom, but more than that, she brought so much detail and FUN to the story! When I initially wrote this book, I thought of Afikoman as more of a smarmy, snarky, dislikeable character, but Noa drew him more as a silly, trickster, which makes so much more sense and works so wonderfully in this book! I particularly love the endpapers, where more of Afikoman’s silly personality is revealed.
Also, Noa is a master of the fake-out! When I show this to family members and kids, they have so much trouble finding Afikoman! Noa intentionally used lots of browns and beiges to provide amazing camouflage and included many red herrings to purposefully trick the reader. Her work really is brilliant!
RGL: As you know, you (I?) like to ask this final question of my guests…. What is one question no one has yet to ask you about the writing or making of this book that you are DYING to answer? (And what’s the answer? 🙂
RGL: I think one question I’d like to answer is:
Did you have many edits to make after this book was acquired?
The answer is YES! So far, I’ve been very lucky in that, for most of the books I’ve sold, I have not been asked to make many edits. As a rhymer, I am so grateful for this because even changing a single line in a rhyming manuscript can sometimes take hours!
This book, however, did require a fair number of edits, but I’m glad Lauri pushed me to make them because the book is so much better now!
The biggest change was with the ending. No spoilers, but I will say that my original ending included Afikoman being eaten (GASP!). I didn’t feel like there was any problem with this because: 1) If you look at most iterations of the Gingerbread Man, the main character does indeed get eaten at the end. 2) At the Passover seder, the afikoman is meant to be eaten as a symbolic “dessert” after the meal, and 3) As I mentioned earlier, I was initially envisioning Afikoman as a sort of sneaky “villain” character, so I thought kids would get a kick out of him getting his “just desserts” (pun-intended) in the end.
Lauri, however, thought cannibalism took it a little too far, so asked me to pull back. I managed to came up with what we both felt was an even better twist (which also ended up going through a few revisions until we got it exactly right!).
If you want to find out what does happen to our little Afikoman friend, you’ll just have to read the book!
RGL: Thanks, Rebecca, for joining us today!
And I almost forgot I need to announce the winner from last month’s post with Buffy Silverman. The winner of a copy of ON A FLAKE-FLYING DAY is….
Please email me at [email protected] and I’ll be sure you get your prize!
RGL: And that reminds me. I’d also love to do a GIVEAWAY for someone to win either a signed copy of AFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO? or a 30-Minute Ask-Me-Anything session by simply commenting on this post. Get an extra entry by sharing this blog post on social media and tagging me! (@WriterRebeccaGL on Twitter/X, @RebeccaGardynLevington on IG).
RGL: Thanks for joining us, everyone! Happy New Year!