Pnina Moed Kass, a multifaceted writer who has garnered awards and the attention of readers all over the world, still comes back to those precious childhood moments of being read to by a relative, cuddled up together. For Kass, the sanctity of formative childhood experiences is the most important, and the driving force behind Berale Berale, 1,2,3…!, the latest addition to her Berale the Snail series.
Born in the Belgium and raised in the United States, Kass came to Israel 50 years ago. Before immigrating, she had amassed rich experience in writing – jotting down material for rock songs and writing promotional material for record jackets, for starters. She was even an ASCAP member as a lyricist.
But finding her writing place in Israel took a bit more time, especially given the language barrier.
Her first book, Berale Berale, published in 1984, was written out phonetically by Kass, who then enlisted a friend for proper translation. The picture book series that followed the first installment is about a shy but curious snail.
The premise of a snail came from Kass’s own children. She would put her children’s pants in the washing machine and would hear a “kh-kh-kh” sound as the machine turned, Kass said. She would discover her children had collected snail shells and kept them in their pockets.
“It was winter and kids like to collect snails,” Kass mused.
Keter Publishing House picked up on the Kass’s first book and agreed to publish the next two, which she had already written.
To promote her books, Kass had to flex her creativity skills even further. Reading in libraries and ganim (kindergartens) for children proved to be a challenge because Kass was still a slow reader in Hebrew, she said. So she found that performing the stories with puppets lent itself to a more forgiving and appropriate way to engage her audience and allowed her to be comfortable with reading the books aloud.
The whole series has sold more than 200,000 books within Israel.
“A happy number for a small country,” Kass said.
For plot lines, Kass has preferred situations that Berale finds to be full of conflict, such as when he struggles to make friends, when or someone steals something from him.
“Children are not simple,” she said, adding that childhood experiences are often full of such challenging moments. “Children in their own space and in their own height are very conflicted. If you walk into a gan (kindergarten), and say you’re wearing something that you got as a gift from Brazil, from an old aunt, everybody decides that what you’re wearing is very funny. And at the end of the day, it’s not going to be very funny.”
THE LATEST Berale book is premised on the darling snail’s mission to learn to count from one to 10. The snail and his family are going to move, and he has a box to pack. Berale is only allowed to take 10 items with him, and so the young snail is tasked with counting out his dearest belongings.
“The snail is really a child,” Kass said. “He has disappointments, wants friends, can be sad, all of those experiences which actually make us, far later in life, exactly what we are. We don’t move that far away from the way we started. If we’re shy, there will be a streak of shyness in us always.”
Kass has continued to use the sense of conflict in youth experiences for the basis of other kinds of writing. For an upcoming young-adult novel, Kass has been describing the experiences of a high school student set to graduate early – at the age of 16. The character, while a high-performing student already accepted into MIT, is without friends.
“I like it because it makes me wonder where she is, how she’s feeling, where she will be, what she’s willing to do to gain her fame,” Kass said.
Since the initial success of the Berale series, Kass has scripted a television series, written textbooks in English, and garnered awards for her continuous English and Hebrew writing. Among the notable awards are the International Reading Award for Best Young Adult Short Story, inclusion in the Cricket magazine 25-year anthology (with her story “Celebrate”), and winning both the National Jewish Book Award and Sydney Taylor Award for her novel Real Time, among others.
After all she has done since the fledgling venture into children’s literature, Kass is still proud of the series.
“The children are everything,” she said. “That’s the point that people who don’t write children’s books don’t understand. I write about the naive, I write about the wonder, the sadness. I have suspense in my books and at the end I have an ending that suits any child.”
Kass recalled when a mother at the annual Literature Festival asked her to come up with something more interactive. Kass told her that nothing was more interactive than an adult reading to a child.
“Sitting next to a child, and making that wonderful cosmic moment of you, the child and the book – nothing beats that,” Kass said. “That’s the ultimate experience for a child and a parent, and one that will be remembered.”
One of Kass’s fondest childhood memories is of an aunt reading to her. In those moments, the details of the watch on her aunt’s wrist were as vivid during her interview with The Jerusalem Post as they were several decades ago. That shared experience was what brought Kass to reading and subsequently to writing, and one that Kass said she believes is what will propel children’s love for literature in the future.
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