Have you completed all of your Chanukah shopping? Do you want to add another book to your child’s growing library? Sylvia Rouss’ latest book, The Hanukkah Fable of Little Dreidel and Silver Menorah, may be the perfect option. This is an easy to read fable focusing on everyone’s uniqueness. While Jewish children will be able to connect more readily with the holiday content, the story has a universal appeal. All children love the interplay of colors mixed in with magic.
Who is Sylvia Rouss?
While many parents and educators are familiar with the popular Sammy Spider books now numbering 21, this series of books represent less than half of what Sylvia has published to date. Sylvia has been diligently working on creating Jewish content for children since she first started working as a preschool educator decades ago.
Her significant accomplishments have been recognized by several organizations. Sylvia was the recipient of the Samuel Glasner Creative Teaching Award and the Grinspoon Steinhardt Award for excellence in Jewish education. She also received the National Jewish Book Award for The Littlest Pair and the Sydney Taylor Honor Award for Sammy Spider’s First Trip to Israel and Mitzvah the Mutt. Sammy Spider’s First Shavuot and Tali’s Jerusalem Scrapbook were named Sydney Taylor Notable Books.
Sylvia lives in Oxnard, California, with her husband, Jeff. They have three married adult children and six grandchildren. In addition to spending time with her family and writing new books, she maintains a busy schedule filled with lectures and book readings throughout the United States, Europe, and Israel.
Today, I have the pleasure of welcoming Sylvia to my website. Sylvia shares her commitment to Jewish education and producing quality children’s books. She also offers useful and practical tips on what it takes to become a successful children’s book author.
Jewish preschools have a high turnover rate. How did you meet the demanding challenges of this important position and remain dedicated for decades?
My commitment to Jewish education began with my own children when I was determined to create a Jewish home environment where we observed Shabbat and the holidays. Over 30 years ago as a young wife and stay at home mom, I won the Hamentashen bake-off at Temple Akiba in Culver City. My own children, who had helped with the baking, were delighted and enthusiastic about this accomplishment. I recognized that this experience was a foundational Jewish memory for them, and I made it my professional mission to create similar memories with the children in my classroom. That recipe became a part of my Purim holiday curriculum. It was shared with colleagues and families.
Why did you decide to write Jewish children’s books?
As a Jewish educator, keeping Jewish learning alive has been a priority. Early in my career, I taught two-year-old children, and I wanted to find a way to engage them in learning about Jewish holidays and traditions. I was familiar with secular rhymes and fingerplays and saw how they delighted young children. So, I decided to write Jewish rhymes to introduce the holidays to the children I was teaching. For each holiday, I created new rhymes and accompanying finger puppets as well as flannel board props to engage the children. The collection ultimately became my first published book, Fun with Jewish Holiday Rhymes.
Later, when I began teaching older children, I used the limited resources available at the time as the market for Jewish children’s literature was in its infancy. One of my favorite stories was The
Mouse in the Matzah Factory by Francine Medoff, a wonderful story that allows the reader to observe the process of making matzah. Through the eyes of a little mouse, we watch the care that is taken from growing and harvesting the wheat, transporting it to the matzah factory, and finally, baking it into matzah.
This story, more than any other, inspired my writing. I wanted to create a relatable character that would engage young children —a character who exhibits childlike curiosity and who wants to discover and participate in the events occurring around him.
Did you encounter any obstacles when you tried to enter this field?
There weren’t any obstacles to entering the field of Jewish Early Childhood Education at the time that I entered the field. Preschool was a relatively new concept, and schools were eager to employ Jewish teachers for the youngest in the community. Most of the teachers were women who were the second income in their households. Since that time, fewer Jewish women enter the field because the compensation is the lowest of the teaching profession, and for many young women, it is not a living wage. If I were to cite an obstacle that I encountered at the time I entered the field, it would be a self-imposed obstacle that I occurred when I was teaching 2-year old children. Many teachers felt that they were too young to learn about the Jewish holidays. That is when I created short holiday rhymes for the children in my class, and they thoroughly enjoyed them. The Baltimore BJE consultant encouraged me to send it to publishers. I was lucky, and my first book, Fun with Jewish Holiday Rhymes, was accepted by the first publisher I mailed it to.
It’s now out of print, but a copy is available for free to teachers and parents on my web site at
How did your preschool teaching and parenting experiences help you create children’s books?
In my classroom, I taught the joy of Jewish holiday celebrations, as well as Jewish values, through stories, songs, and art experiences similar to what I did at home with my own children. I tried to personally connect with each child, to stimulate their desire to learn, and to encourage the development of a positive Jewish identity.
I began my career as an assistant nursery school teacher when I graduated from college. My head teacher, Bernice Lieberman, was my mentor. She knew how to engage children with her storytelling. Bernice also managed to inspire children with an enthusiasm for learning. She challenged each child to develop his/her own individual skills. Bernice focused on a child’s strengths and provided opportunities for each child to grow. I loved the way she was able to connect with children, and for me, she was the ideal role model.
Throughout my teaching career, I too have tried to connect with the children I teach. My goal is to reach every child, to stimulate their desire for learning, and to help them develop positive self-esteem in a nurturing environment. In my classroom and with my stories, I teach the joy of Jewish holiday celebrations, as well as Jewish values. I try to personally connect with each child, to stimulate their desire to learn and to encourage the development of a positive Jewish identity.
Where do you locate content that resonates with your audience?
Classroom experiences often inspire my writings and, as a result, the topics are relevant to young children. As a teacher, as well as a parent and grandparent, I have dealt with disputes about the colors of shovels, trucks, doll clothing, and even dreidels. Everyone has a favorite color and I wanted to address those feelings in my newest story about the Little Dreidel’s desire to be a certain color.
For children, the world is full of magic. It is both familiar and awe-inspiring. Watching a seedling sprout or a spider spinning a web is a magical experience. Through stories, children immerse themselves in a fantasy world where anything is possible. I decided to write about familiar Hanukkah symbols, a menorah, and a dreidel. I added a touch of magic, not only can the dreidel and menorah talk, but the dreidel changes colors throughout the story. However, the real magic becomes evident at the end of the story when the dreidel finally realizes, “I’m so happy to be me!” – well, that’s the awe-inspiring part! And, together, I think that what’s makes the story work so well. Last week, I visited a class of 2nd and 3rd, graders at a local school, who were studying fables, and they enjoyed discussing the lessons of the story.
The Sammy Spider series has engaged children since its inception. What initiated this creative concept?
As a young teacher, I was idealistic and made it my mission to make a small difference in the struggle for Jewish continuity. Assimilation, then as now, was a concern. I remember one December when I overheard several of the children in my class discussing the Christmas displays at the local mall and the beautiful lights adorning the homes of their non-Jewish neighbors. There was such excitement in their voices, and some even said they wished they could celebrate this special holiday.
I had been telling them the story of Hanukkah using the holiday books that were available at the time. There were a few age-appropriate books.
Many books were didactic in their approach and in the retelling of the Hanukkah story. The language was too sophisticated for young children, and I had to adapt the text. Other books focused on the symbols related to Hanukkah but didn’t really tell a story to engage children.
Unfortunately, despite all my efforts, the children’s enthusiasm for Hanukkah did not match their excitement about Christmas. I didn’t want to compete with Christmas. I just wanted to find a way to engage the children and help them see the beauty of our Jewish holidays. One evening, as I was flipping through the TV channels from Frosty the Snowman to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to the Little Drummer Boy, an idea took hold in my mind. Maybe I could create a Hanukkah character that would engage children.
I know that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus but for me, it also celebrates the birth of Sammy Spider. For those of you unfamiliar with Sammy, he is the outsider who lives in the home of a contemporary Jewish family and sees the beauty of Jewish celebrations and wants to be a part of them. When he wants to spin a dreidel like the little boy in the story, he is told, “Spiders don’t spin dreidels. Spiders spin webs.” I didn’t realize at the time that Sammy would become a favorite with Jewish children, and this catchphrase was later adapted for every holiday story I have written about him.
How many Sammy Spider books have been published so far?
There are currently 21 Sammy books and more to come. His holiday been adventures have been translated into Dutch, French and Spanish and there is a Sammy plush toy to delight young children.
Do you have a favorite Sammy Spider book? Are there plans to add to the series soon?
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah was the first book in the series, so that is perhaps the most important. It was popular enough for the publisher to invite me to write a second Sammy Spider story, and then another and then another. Published in 1993, Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah is still a best-seller at Hanukkah time. Next year, Kar-Ben is publishing Sammy Spider’s First Book of Prayers and even more stories are being considered.
What prompted you to write The Hanukkah Fable of Little Dreidel and Silver Menorah?
The importance of helping children develop a positive Jewish identity was an integral part of my job as an early childhood educator. I watched the social growth of children as they came to recognize that everyone is unique and deserving of respect. Often simple lessons conveying these values could be found in the stories I shared with the children. They especially enjoyed stories where animals and inanimate objects came to life to teach a valuable life lesson. It took a while, but eventually, I realized that the Hanukkah menorah and dreidel could be the key elements of a Jewish fable.
How does this book differ from the other Hanukkah books that you have previously authored?
I have three Hanukkah books published. Of course, there is Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah and its companion cookbook, board book, and activity book. It’s a story of counting and colors. The Littlest Maccabee, now out of print, is a rhyming story of the importance of even the littlest member of a community. My new book, The Hanukkah Fable of Little Dreidel and Silver Menorah, is a tale that affirms the importance of being yourself.
Can you offer three tips for individuals who are interested in becoming a children’s book author?
For picture book authors, an active voice rather than a passive narrative makes the story far more interesting and engaging. It is not enough to say, “Michael and Lily liked playing together.” Expand on this and describe activities on a playground that could be related to other parts of your story, such as: “Michael and Lily did everything together. They dug in the sandbox together, they painted at the art easel together, and they sat next to each other at snack time. Best of all they liked climbing to the top of the jungle gym where Michael would shout, “Lily, let’s fly to the moon.”
An author needs to provide details to satisfy the curiosity of a young child. For example, simply saying, “Lily didn’t like to go to sleep,” isn’t enough? Children want to know why. Expand on why the character likes to do or not do something. The addition of dialogue makes the character come alive. Is she afraid of the dark? Does she miss someone or something so much that she can’t go to sleep? Does she have nightmares? Make the character relatable by expressing emotions that a child might also have. For example: “I don’t like the dark because it’s spooky!”
Keep the names consistent. Michael as Mikey in one part of the story and Mike in another is confusing for young children. And, when describing a situation to children, make sure you use words that are familiar to them. For example, when Michael and Lily go to school, they put their backpacks in a cubby, not a cupboard, closet, or locker.
Are you currently working on any projects? Can my audience anticipate any new titles in 2020?
Next year, I have two stories coming out. Kar-Ben is publishing Sammy Spider’s First Book of Prayers. My rhyme based on the stories of Chelm, “A Mouse in Granny’s House,” will be part of a collection entitled Poems for Thoughtful Children published by BCubed Press
My daughter and I have written a new Purim story as a follow up to our popular The Watermelon in the Sukkah, and we hope it will find a publisher next year.
To learn more about Sylvia Rouss and her published works, you can check out her website
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by February 1, 2020 will be eligible for a book giveaway. Sylvia will send the randomly selected North American winner an autographed copy of The Hanukkah Fable of Little Dreidel and Silver Menorah.
Prior to posting this blog, I was sent a complimentary digital copy of The Hanukkah Fable of Little Dreidel and Silver Menorah.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of May This Be the Best Year of Your Life. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She was a licensed Colorado teacher who taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college-level courses. In addition to reviewing books and interviewing authors, Sandra is a lifestyle and travel writer.