The wit and wisdom of Jewish folktales have been enjoyed for centuries. And the message of gratitude woven into Jill Nadler’s re-imagined folktale, Such a Library!, couldn’t be more timely during this pandemic. “It’s so easy to slip into self-pity and angst. I often try to remind myself it could always be worse!” says the producer, writer, host, and co-founder of Page Turner Adventures. A storyologist at heart, collecting, telling, and writing stories for the stage, page, and screen, Jill studied acting at the University of London, England, has a theatre degree from the University of Buffalo, and received a certificate in children’s television from Rockport College. She’s produced and performed original theatrical productions for children internationally, and educational television content for PBS, the Travel Channel, FOX Kids, and Scholastic. Jill’s written almost a dozen children’s books, and I’m so happy to discuss her latest one here.
Tell us how your passion for storytelling evolved.
I’ve always been passionate about stories, and I’ve always filtered the world through the lens of story. When I was a child, my mother (a former professional dancer) created a program called Motion Potion, which was a way to teach movement and dance through stories and storytelling. So, I was always surrounded by stories.
When did you first hear the beloved Yiddish folktale that your book is based on, and can you remember your reaction? What about this story inspired you to write a new version for kids?
When I was a child, my rabbi—whose name happened to be Rabbi Robert Raab—told hilarious “fool” tales about a character from Jewish folklore named Simple Shmerel. Before launching into a tale, Rabbi Raab would ask all the kids in the congregation for interesting ways to travel to wherever the story took place. Flying pickles, knishes, and donuts were big favorites! The first time I heard It Could Always be Worse (the re-imagined folktale Such a Library! is based on) was from Rabbi Raab (I think we took a flying tuna sandwich).
In my other career, I do a lot of work with libraries and I’m always amazed at how much they offer the community for free: shows, classes, computers, crafts, story times, and of course … books! When I was playing with the idea of giving the old folktale a new twist, setting it in a magical library seemed like a logical choice.
In Such a Library! the main character Stevie seeks peace and quiet in the local library, away from his big family. Soon some noise disturbs his reading retreat. With the help of a magical librarian, Miss Understood, Stevie experiences a real ruckus. Once the cacophony ends, Stevie realizes that, just as the man in the Yiddish tale learns from the rabbi, things could have been worse.
The book’s back matter refers to Pirkei Avot. Can you speak to the message “Who is rich? The one who is happy with what he has,” and why this works so well in a children’s book?
I think it’s a lesson that we all need to be reminded of again and again. With social media being such a big influence in our lives, it’s so easy to see what everyone else has and feel envious. It’s also easy to feel like our problems are worse than everyone else’s. But when we can step back and appreciate what we have, life really is sweeter. It’s something we often need to be taught as adults. So, if kids can learn and internalize gratitude when they’re young, maybe they’ll be able to keep things in perspective just a bit more when they get older.
Such a Library! is a nod to the cumulative classic The House That Jack Built, a rollicking read-aloud. Do you have suggestions for parents reading it with children how to make the most out of this entertaining structure?
Absolutely! When I read this story for events and school visits, I always start by going over the sounds and movements in the book. I have the kids practice saying Whoosh Swoosh when they pretend to turn pages and Clack Click when they pretend to tap the computer keys. They also say Once Upon a Time in a very dramatic fashion. Other sounds and movements include a horn (Woot Toot), monkeys (Oooh Eee), and a clown car (Ahh-oo-Gah). When parents are reading the book, I would encourage them to have the kids make the sounds and movements along with them as they read. It’s lots of fun, especially as things get more and more chaotic in the library. I also have a fun popup book craft that goes along with the book. Folks can find a video of the craft on my website (under the BOOKS tab). It’s simple and fun and encourages kids to write their own stories.
The whimsical art in your book featuring several characters in shtetl garb presents a great opportunity to discuss Yiddish culture with children. Did you plan that with the illustrator?
I can’t take credit for any of that! That was all the work of my wonderful publisher Intergalactic Afikoman, my incredible editor Brianna Caplan Sayres, the amazing book designer, Ryan Hayes, and my brilliant illustrator Esther van den Berg.
It was Brianna’s idea to include the original story at the beginning, then carry the characters throughout the book. I was actually skeptical at first, but when I saw the art I was absolutely delighted. I love that there are stories within the story. If you look at the art carefully, you’ll notice all kinds of surprising things going on behind the scenes (including a rabbi on a flying trapeze!).
What advice can you offer budding storytellers?
When I’m not writing, I’m performing (both live and virtually) as my alter ego, World Famous Storyologist Page Turner. Page is a cross between Indiana Jones and Mary Poppins with a touch of Amelia Earhart thrown in for good luck. As Page Turner, I transform kids into Storyologists and encourage them to collect, tell, and write stories. I believe we’re all filled with stories just waiting to be told, and I always encourage kids to carry a notebook because you never know where or when a story might show up and whisper in your ear. On my PageTurnerAdventures website I have a Storyologist Club that kids can join for free. They’ll get a download of my Storyologist Handbook filled with tips about collecting, telling, and writing stories. I also send out a monthly email with trivia, book recommendations, and stories and art from kids.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’d love to let parents, teachers, and librarians know that I also have a newsletter for adults called the Storyology News that I send out once a month with literacy themed ideas, interviews, articles, etc. Folks can sign up for it on my Page Turner Adventures website. They can also find info on my website about the virtual shows, storytelling, and educational programming that I’m creating with my husband and our team of Storyologists.
PJ Library’s upcoming program with author Jill Nadler is on Sunday, January 10 when she’ll read her delightful new picture book. This free event is scheduled for 3 pm via Zoom and is recommended for children in grades K-3. To register for this event visit www.jewishsgpv.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org Such a Library! (Intergalactic Afikoman; $18.95, Ages 4- 8). Learn more at jillrossnadler.com and PageTurnerAdventures.com.
Ronna Mandel is a contributing writer to Kiddish Magazine.