Washington, D.C. is one of my favorite places to visit. The history the buildings, monuments, and parks hold have so many stories to tell. So, it was an added bonus for me that Susan Kusel’s debut book, The Passover Guest, is set in this momentous city. The cover of this beautifully written and illustrated book is what first caught my attention. But it is the journey the reader is taken on that keeps me going back to read it over and over. I’m so excited to interview Susan about her debut, The Passover Guest.
SK: Thank you so much for having me today. I am delighted to be here.
KC: Can you tell us how you came to write The Passover Guest?
SK: I fell in love with I.L. Peretz’s The Magician when my mom read me Uri Shulevitz’s picture book adaptation as a child. I discovered it again a few decades later in a Jewish library and sat down on the floor to read it over and over. I still thought it was a wonderful story, but this time I saw changes I wanted to make. After several more years, I began to write my own version.
KC: I love that you’ve taken a rediscovered childhood favorite and made it your own. What has your journey to becoming a published author been like?
SK: It’s been a long one! I started writing the book over nine years ago. After many years of working on the story and getting feedback from classes and multiple writing groups, I happened to be at a dinner with my friend, editor Neal Porter. I mentioned the new book that I was working on, and to my surprise, he said he was intrigued and asked to see the manuscript. We worked together on it for a while and then Neal said he was ready to buy it. Illustrator Sean Rubin joined the team, and the art took shape. And now, six years after Neal and I started working on it, it’s an actual book. Amazing.
KC: Wow! That is true dedication! Can you share a little bit about your writing process for this book?
SK: There were over fifty drafts of the book and it changed considerably during the process. There was a time early on when Neal told me to cut half the manuscript, and another time a few years later when we discussed a single word in the book for twenty minutes and found just the right one to go in that spot. Neal has always guided me in the right direction and it has been a real joy to do this book together.
The book has involved an enormous amount of research, partly because it’s a historical fiction book and partly because I’m a librarian and couldn’t help myself. I researched absolutely everything from the exact date of the cherry blossom peak in 1933 to which buildings existed in DC during the Great Depression to exactly where Jewish homes and businesses were located during the time period.
KC: I love that you put so much time into the research. I think, even if the reader doesn’t realize that work has been done, it makes a big difference in the final product. It really roots the book. Next, let’s talk about Sean Rubin’s illustrations…they are simply stunning and beg the reader to linger on each page. I can only imagine what it was like when you first saw final art. Do you have a favorite page spread?
SK: They truly are stunning. I cried every time I saw new art, whether it was a sketch or finished art. I was lucky enough to get to see all the original art, which is absolutely extraordinary. Sean has absolutely blown me away with his interpretation of all the scenes that were in my head for so many years. They are now so much better than I could have ever imagined them.
I’ve been asked a few times if I have a favorite spread and I always give a different answer about which one. The truth is that I can’t possibly choose a favorite because they are all so beautiful.
I love the spread where we see the complete Lincoln Memorial while passersby that evoke the Great Depression hurry on their way. The sky is perfectly tinted and all the details of the memorial are visible down to the tiny names of the states. Lincoln is looking at us knowingly from afar as the juggler performs magic we don’t really know about until the next page. It’s a thing of beauty.
KC: I completely agree! That spread is fantastic! What are you working on now/next?
SK: I’m working on several different Jewish picture books and a middle grade novel with a Jewish protagonist. It is very important to me to tell Jewish stories.
KC: And it’s very important that there are more Jewish stories for kids to read! What advice do you have for aspiring kidlit authors?
To keep trying. Sometimes it can feel like you’ll never get though, but if you keep working at your craft and keep revising, I think there’s always hope. Research agents and editors carefully to find one that is right for you. I find the critique groups essential and I highly recommend them. I’ve gotten an enormous amount out of writing retreats such as those at the Highlights Foundation. Also, when you do get published, a joint marketing group like the Soaring ‘20s, the wonderful one I’m part of, can be a real game changer. Above all, keep at it.
Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching and of course, reading. The Passover Guest is her debut book.