Start-Up Nation... for kids

The country is alive with stories

MICHAEL LEVENTHAL and his London-based Green Bean Books bring translated Israeli children’s classics to the English reading market. (photo credit: CAROL UNGAR)
MICHAEL LEVENTHAL and his London-based Green Bean Books bring translated Israeli children’s classics to the English reading market.
(photo credit: CAROL UNGAR)
Out of Zion shall come forth... drip irrigation, Waze, Mobileye, cherry tomatoes and now a new import – kids’ books. With more than 77 million books sold annually worldwide, children’s literature is big business. While it’s an exaggeration to call Israel a world leader, the work of our children’s authors and illustrators is increasingly visible on the global bookshelf – both real and digital.
This remarkable growth was highlighted at the recent first-ever Israeli regional recent conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a prestigious US-based organization with branches worldwide. The conference, which took place last month at the Kibbutz Movement Center in downtown Tel Aviv, attracted 120 writers and illustrators who came to hone their crafts, network and meet with publishing leaders, including representatives of Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir and also Simon & Schuster and Penguin.
Opening the conference was Talia Benamy, an associate editor at Penguin whose books include Chelsea Clinton’s female empowering She Persisted series. A New Yorker with Israeli roots, Benamy sees outsized potential in our tiny land.
“This country is alive with stories,” she says. “Readers are clamoring for stories that are not like the ones they’ve heard before to expand their horizons.” And she says our country is the place to find them.
Why Israel, one wonders?
“Something about this country grows people who are creative and intelligent,” says illustrator-author Miri Leshem-Pelly, the SCBWI regional representative and one of the main forces behind the conference.
“The talent here is so awesome,” adds Michael Leventhal. Based in  London, Leventhal’s Green Bean Books brings translated Israeli children’s classics to the English reading market.
It isn’t only English readers who are gobbling up Israeli books. Israeli author Orit Bergman’s enchanting board books are beloved by French and Chinese children and their parents. Galia Oz’s tales of Shakshouka the dog have made their way to France, Spain, Brazil and the US, with the pup undergoing various name changes along the way (Saki in Spain and Choukette in France).
Sadly, most Israeli authors don’t become global superstars.
“The market is notoriously hard to break into,” observes Jerusalem-based agent Rena Rossner. Even with the diversity trend, Israeli authors may still find their work excluded.
“It’s hard to sell kids’ books in translation,” Rossner explains. “Diversity means diverse US voices.”
BECAUSE ART is more universal than language, illustrators have an easier time selling abroad. A few locals such as of Avi Katz, Omer Hoffman, Daniel Goldstein and Rutu Modan have gained international reputations.
Another group impacting the world market comprises the Israeli authors who write in English. Rossner, who is an author as well as an agent, penned an award-winning young adult fantasy, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, set in an imaginary Ukrainian shtetl. Chicago-born Debbie Herman’s Carla’s Sandwich, a charmingly droll tale of a young girl who creates unusual lunches became a YouTube sensation when it was read by actress Allison Janney.
Interestingly, Rossner and Herman both set their works in the Diaspora, but other Anglo immigrant authors locate their stories here. Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod’s most recent award-winning picture book is called Fast Asleep in a Little Village in Israel. Another author who draws heavily on the Israeli experience is Montreal-born Anna Levine. The winner of two Sydney Taylor awards, one of kid-lits highest honors, Levine’s stories, which explore biblical archaeology, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even bird migrations from the Hula Valley, are popular worldwide.
“People from all over the world are curious about everything we do here,” she says. Of course, Jews are the most interested and many Israeli authors and illustrators service the worldwide Jewish market. The leading Jewish publishers and the Orthodox presses frequently publish the work of Israeli authors and illustrators, many of whom attended the conference. Also represented at the conference was PJ Library. A US-based philanthropic initiative funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, PJ and its Hebrew language branch mail free Jewish-themed children’s books to families across the world for free, to encourage families to strengthen their Jewish identities.
“There’s tons of talent here,” says PJ’s Catriella Freedman.
While it seems that Israel is the land of opportunity for creators of kid-lit, writers and illustrators point to a downside.
“No book tours,” says Levine. “No one wants to pay the cost of flying in an author from Israel.”
“And no library or school visits,” adds MacLeod. In North America, library and school visits are an important income source for authors.
“We are the quiet Start-Up Nation,” says Levine. “Technology is very noisy, but we are reaching out from underneath to young readers, exposing them to our culture and making headway.”