Apr 21, 2021
When I tell people I study children’s books, their eyes light up. They begin to tell me about their favorite childhood stories. Like Yiddish does for many people, children’s literature carries with it an enormous sense of personal history, love, and nostalgia. To many adults, reading these stories can feel like a return to a different time – one that they may remember as innocent. But to children, these stories are simply stories. They remind us that times can be hard, but, more often than not, things turn out for the better.
Miriam Udel’s treasury of Yiddish children’s stories, Honey on the Page, does just this. Udel’s translations let loose vivid images of heroic lions, curious chickens, and political terriers, bringing to life centuries-old tales filled with relatable storylines and familiar morals. Sprinkled throughout the collection are beautiful black and white illustrations from the original texts, which add an element of visual context to each story.
Full page illustrations by Paula Cohen provide the introduction to each of the book’s eight parts, ranging from Jewish Holidays to Wise Fools to School Days. As a writer and illustrator myself, I know that illustrating stories is no easy task. Recently I sat down over Zoom with Paula to talk a little bit about her experience illustrating the collection.
Margaret Frothingham: I know illustrators and authors are almost always paired together by the book designers. Can you speak a little bit about what led you to work on this project? Did you collaborate with the translator at all?
Paula Cohen: That’s true. For years, people have come to me and said, “Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a book. Could I hire you?” And I tell them, don’t even bother, because you’ll be wasting your money, you’ll be wasting my time… Not to be mean, but it’s just not the way the world works. Except for this. So, it was bashert.
I had been an editorial illustrator for years, but then I took time off to have kids, and I started running art programs and camps. A few years ago, I turned a number that I don’t want to disclose, but you can guess... And I thought, you know, I really wish I had followed my dream to illustrate children’s books.
I submitted a story to PJ Library, which at the time was co-hosting the Tent Children’s Literature Program at the Yiddish Book Center, and they accepted my piece. Tent was a weeklong program where we workshopped our Jewish content stories with mentors. Miriam Udel was one of the instructors. They brought her in to talk to us about the history of Yiddish literature, specifically the history of writing in Yiddish for children. I learned so much. She helped us see our role in continuing the tradition by turning these original stories into more modern-day stories.
As it happened, prior to coming, I had illustrated some Jewish folk tales and I turned them into a promotional print. A fellow writer who I met there, Joanne Levy, saw it and suggested I speak to Miriam because she knew that Miriam was writing and compiling Honey on the Page. I was nervous. I thought, “why would she want me?” But she kept me in mind, and within that year she got in touch with me.
As far as I know, the publisher of her book, NYU Press, had never hired an illustrator before. They do mostly academic books that can be commercial, but they’re often historical, and they use photographs. They’re beautifully designed, but they were just never illustrated—until now!
They didn’t even see this as an illustrated text, but Miriam did. She saw it as an academic book and a book for the entire family — good for adults who love Yiddish and want to preserve its history, for fans of folk tales, and for people who want to know the history of folk tales. But it’s also entertaining and engaging for children.
Miriam wanted it to be visually appealing, so she forged ahead and got grants to hire me as the illustrator. Because of that, we had a much closer relationship than an author and illustrator usually do. In fact, often an author and illustrator will never even speak. But she and I were in touch pretty much every day through the whole process.
MF: Do you think working with Miriam impacted the final outcome?
PC: It really did. Miriam functioned like my backup art director. There were times I would turn to her and ask, “What do you think works?” She gave me free rein to pick the stories that appealed to me. In certain chapters she had specific stories she wanted illustrated, but only a couple of times. She was very conscious of having girls represented both in the stories that she translated and in the illustrations.
I also had to consult with her a lot about whether things were correct and appropriate. There’s one story where I depicted a couple in their bed, interacting. I had to ask her, would they be in separate beds or would they be in one bed? I’m Jewish, but I’m not even remotely Orthodox, so my reference point was Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye and Golda are in one bed! She made it clear that this is a pious family so they would probably be in separate beds. So she was my consultant through the whole thing.
It was a unique experience, and one I’m so grateful to have had.
MF: There are so many stories in every section of the book, each with their own illustratable moments. How did you decide what scene to illustrate for each opening image? It must have been hard to choose!
PC: It was a process of elimination, actually. The book is broken into different sections, like Heroes and Wise Fools and Holidays. The first thing we had to do was eliminate anything that had been previously illustrated. As much as possible, Miriam wanted the publisher to use the original illustrations from the original texts. Then I would try to pick something from what was left that best represented the collection’s theme.
That’s when it came down to what I like to draw. People assume that if you can draw—I’m amazed that people really assume this—that you can do anything with your hands. You can draw anything; you can design, you can do logos… Well, I can’t draw cows. I cannot draw a good cow. If there was a story that focused on a cow, and I had the opportunity to say no, this will not be the one, I would.
So I picked what I liked, but I also had to make sure it represented the entire section. When I look back at my illustrations from the book, my favorites are the ones where I fell into that sweet spot: it was something I love to draw, and every moment of it was pure joy.
MF: You spoke about the original illustrations. Did they have any influence on the way you illustrated?
PC: I had to avoid pieces that had already been illustrated, which was frustrating at times because there were some stories I wish I could have illustrated. I was conscious of not wanting to create something so modern looking that it felt disjointed with everything else in the book. But I really went with my own style.
MF: Is there an artist that did influence you?
PC: I brought in Chagall for the cover illustration. He and I both have a loose style, and I felt like the way he drew plants and vines would work well for the project. There’s a story about roses in the book that I thought that would be nice to tie in on the cover. But I also wanted to be sure not to overuse his style. So really, the only place where I had Chagall in mind was the vine work along the front cover.
MF: On your website you have an alternate version of the cover illustration. Can you tell us a little more about this draft versus the final design?
PC: There are numerous alternate versions. I submitted two final pieces. One is very similar to what you see on the book, and one has a very deep blue background, a figure carrying a challah, and similar imagery around her. Personally, I’m glad they chose the one they did.
That said, a lot of changes were made on that as well. Initially, where there is the lion on top, there was a goat, and where there is a fire truck, there was a shtetl building. Miriam and the cover art director, Adam, both felt that those were too typical of a Yiddish storybook. They told me, “Get rid of the goat. There are too many goats!” Then they wanted to get rid of the shtetl building, and I dug in my heels like the world’s most stubborn person. I do not like drawing trucks.
I said, well, if you’re not going to accept this, how about this? And I gave them a tenement building. Nope. So then I asked, how about this? And I gave him a 1930’s mailbox, because there’s a story about a little girl in a mailbox.
But there were many reasons Miriam wanted the truck. She thought a truck might be appealing to some kids. She also wanted it to relate to some of the stories that are set in the 1930’s and 40’s. Now I really like it.
MF: You mentioned before that you’ve illustrated other Jewish folktales. Do you have a personal connection to Jewish storytelling? What about with Yiddish?
PC: Until Honey on the Page, these illustrations were mostly just for my own enjoyment. I had joined an online challenge on Instagram called Folktale Week, where people would illustrate folktales based on certain prompts for one week. I noticed that people were doing work that was really stunning, but they didn’t seem to be illustrating real folktales. There were imaginary fairies and gnomes and toadstools — a lot of iconic images, but not telling a real story.
I decided to look up Jewish folktales. I went to a book translated by Leonard Wolf, a famous Yiddish translator who had been one of my college professors. Apparently translating was what he was known for, whereas I knew him from teaching “Nightstalkers: The Literature of Fear” when I went to Parsons.
I thought these stories were fantastic, and I loved the imagery, so I started playing around with them. Some of the stories were scary! I love scary stuff, so it was a really fun opportunity to explore [illustrating that] and also some Jewish storytelling. I found myself drawn to it. I didn’t know that there were groups of people who went into shtetls and recorded people telling stories. Most of them were just verbal stories passed along from generation to generation.
But also, Jewish storytelling in general is really important to me. I grew up in a house where my parents spoke Yiddish. I’m the typical kid who grew up with parents who spoke a language they didn’t want them to understand. Maybe it’s because I went to a Jewish day school and they thought, “Don’t burden her with one more language,” since I was already learning Hebrew. I don’t know Yiddish, but it was always very important to my family.
My mom ran a Yiddish club at the JCC until she was 90, and my grandparents used to have Yiddish writers and poets who came through the Albany area to stay with them. A lot of our family books are at the Yiddish Book Center right now. In some ways I thought of myself as the family link to all this. I see Yiddish children’s literature getting lost in generations, and I want to bring it back before it’s gone.
MF: What is your artistic process? Are your images rendered digitally? Was this an intentional choice, or simply stylistic?
PC: For years, I just drew and painted and used very traditional mediums, like pen and ink. I had avoided doing digital art because original digital art looked lousy to me.
Then technology changed, and the business changed, and when I got back into doing illustration, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep up. I’m a plodder when it comes to my illustration work; I was moving really slowly. I didn’t know if I could go back to doing illustration work given that the turnaround time expected is much faster now. But then I was at a children’s book conference and a friend introduced me to her iPad.
iPads now have Procreate, which is an amazing illustration app. She let me play with it, and it was very intuitive. It looked just like my drawing. The app enabled me to work quickly and more decisively and because of that, I became more self-confident. I really surprised myself: here I was, in my 50s, and suddenly producing work that was better than anything I had done for years.
I have a very loose style, so I still draw my sketches, take a photo with my iPad, and then churn it out on Procreate. It has become so second nature to me now that I very rarely do any traditional artwork anymore. I’d love to get back to it at some point, but for the purpose of illustration, this is just much more convenient. And because I’m so confident with it now, it’s really enjoyable.
MF: Yes, no need to wait for it to dry!
PC: There’s no need to dry it! I was the queen of muddying things up. I’m a real klutz. My husband jokes with me about it all the time. If I eat, I’m wearing it. If I cook, it’s on the floor, and when I painted, it was all over the place. I kid you not, I don’t know how many pieces I would wreck and have to do again from the start. And now I don’t. Ever.
MF: One of my favorite parts of the collection is Udel’s introduction to the phrase “honey on the page.” It conjures such a warm and endearing image — as if all we need is that one sweet taste of literature to get us going. Do you have a favorite tale in the collection? Do any of them connect to your own childhood?
PC: Of the stories that I illustrated, my favorite is “A Deal’s a Deal,” which is about a stubborn couple who very much remind me of my marriage. They decide that they’re not going to speak, to the point where all these ridiculous things start happening, and they can’t do anything to stop it. It is just like when my husband and I have fights… We will both dig in our heels. There will often be a day where we’re grumbly around each other. We just don’t let it go. So I thought that story was really charming, and applicable to everyday life. You love someone, you stay with them, and you argue with them all the time. Sorry, honey!
That was my favorite story, but there were a lot of stories in here that I felt close to for different reasons, like the Labzik stories or “The Birds Go on Strike,” because they are political. I grew up in a house of Labor Zionists, and there was a lot of talk about how relatives of mine had been union organizers. A lot of the political stuff is near and dear to my heart. It’s fun to see it in stories that are considered Jewish children’s literature, too.
MF: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
PC: My new book, Big Dreams, Small Fish, will be out in Spring of 2022 with Levine Querido. The story takes place in an urban area in the 1930’s, where a little girl named Shirley lives with her family above their shop. Her parents think she’s too little to help run the store, but she stubbornly believes otherwise. When the opportunity arises, she turns some slow-selling gefilte fish into a marketing strategy that “changes the flavor” of the neighborhood.
More than just telling the story of selling fish, I wanted to share a story about a real immigrant neighborhood. I also wanted to show how a new immigrant family might not want their daughter to be so good at running a business. They’ve come to the country and are working hard so they can make things better for her, not for her to have to work.
The story is based on my grandparents’ store in downtown Albany, New York. Shirley was my mother’s name, but the little girl in the story really isn’t my mom. Her parents do look suspiciously like my grandparents, though! And the look of the store is based on the few photos we have of the building, both inside and out. The editor, Arthur Levine, speaks Yiddish. My book has a smattering of Yiddish words in it and it was wonderful that he really understood them and could even substitute them with new words!
I am also about to start illustrating another book based loosely on a Jewish folktale. And there are always more stories waiting to be told.