It is such an honor to host acclaimed author Lesléa Newman today, and I think the timing is absolutely perfect, given the topic of her newest book. I had the lovely fortune of seeing F&Gs of Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, poignantly illustrated by Amy June Bates (Harry N. Abrams) almost exactly one year ago, at the ILA conference in Austin. I was so taken with the work that I boldly asked Lesléa (a complete stranger!) if she would be my Friend Friday guest and she graciously agreed. I so appreciate her generosity and I know you will appreciate the story behind the story, shared below.
The Journey to Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story
My mentor, the late great poet, Allen Ginsberg once told me that writing was 33% respiration, 33% perspiration, and 33% inspiration. “But Allen,” I said to him, “that’s only 99%. What’s the other one percent?” His face lit up as he said, “Magic!” And that’s what I love about writing: the mysterious, magical part of it.
Which for me has to do with where ideas come from.
For example, why does a story I’ve known all my life and haven’t thought about in years, travel from the depths of my memory bank to the front of my brain and demand to be written? That was the case with Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story (published by Harry N. Abrams). I grew up knowing that my Aunt Phyllis’s mother, Sadie Gringrass, came to America by herself as a young girl. All she had was a piece of paper with the name and address of a relative written upon it. She held the paper so tightly during her two week trip in steerage, that by the time she got to America, all the ink had worn off on her hand. Her picture was printed in a Jewish newspaper, and her family came to Ellis Island to claim her.
When I decided to write this story as a children’s book, I called my aunt, who was 86 at the time. And though she’s sharp as a tack, she really didn’t have any more information about her mother’s journey. And so it was up to me to flesh out this family anecdote into a fully developed story. I read many books including Children of Ellis Island, Immigrant Kids, and Passages to America. I found factual information such as what steerage passengers ate (herring and soup); and what types of beds they slept on (straw mattresses). And I visited Ellis Island where my own grandparents’ names are engraved on the American Immigrants Wall of Honor.
But just as importantly, I did what I call “emotional research” meaning I imagined what it would feel like to make such a journey. What would a little girl leave behind? Perhaps a beloved animal? (Gittel bids farewell to Frieda the goat). Surely a best friend. (Gittel shares a goodbye hug with Raisa). And what would Gittel take with her? A doll named Basha for comfort. Her mother’s precious Shabbas candlesticks. And I asked myself what a little girl would worry about and hope for during the long voyage. Would she worry about learning a new language and getting along with relatives she’d never met? Probably. Would she hope to someday see her mother again? Definitely. (In my book, Gittel and her mother are reunited; in real life, Sadie never saw her mother again).
I always tell my students that everyone has what it takes to be a children’s book writer: the experience of having been a child. By putting myself in Gittel’s place, I hope I have written a compelling story about a courageous child who immigrates to America by herself to have a better life. Which is of course what so many children are doing today.
When I presented Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story to my Aunt Phyllis shortly after her 90th birthday, she cried tears of joy. “If only my mother was still alive to see this,” she said. Though Sadie Gringrass, the real “Gittel,” is no longer with us, 108 years after she made her journey, her story lives on.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 71 books for readers of all ages including the picture books Sparkle Boy; Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed; and Heather Has Two Mommies, and the teen novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Her literary awards include the American Library Association Sydney Taylor Award, two American Library Association Stonewall Honors, and the Massachusetts Book Award and a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. From 2008 – 2010 she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she teaches at Spalding University’s low residency MFA in Writing program.