Ellen Leventhal is an author and educator in Houston, Texas. Debbie's Song: The Debbie Friedman Story (Kar-Ben/Lerner Publishing) is her fourth published picture book. Ellen's work has also appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Ellen's best days are when she can interact directly with students and spread her love of literacy, compassion, and kindness. Visit Ellen's website to learn more about her books, writing projects, and school visits.
1. How do you know your idea will make a good book?
I really don’t know at the idea stage if it will make a good book or not. But as I take the idea and mold it like a piece of clay, “kill my darlings,” and get feedback from critique buddies, I begin to get a sense of whether it will lead somewhere or just languish on my computer. When my feedback includes comments about the story having heart, I begin to think it’s on its way to becoming something. There are many stories I have scraped, even after I thought the idea was great.
2. Do you ever struggle to come up with your next project? Or do you have lots of ideas and find it a challenge to narrow down your ideas?
I think the answer may be a combination. I have SO many ideas swirling around my head so yes, I do have trouble narrowing them down. But on the other hand, I often have trouble zeroing in and making viable stories out of those ideas. As I tell students in schools, there is a difference between ideas and a good story, but there is no story without an idea!
3. What do you feel you’ve gained from being a part of the children’s writing community?
I am going to start with the bottom line. I would not be here on your blog without the support of the kid lit community. I’ve gained so much knowledge, a feeling of belonging, and of course, lots of friends whether virtual (I’m looking at you, Mary Boone!) or in real life. When I left my full-time teaching job, I felt adrift, but becoming a part of this community has been a life saver. When my local critique group showed up at my launch recently, it made me even more thankful for the entire community in person or online.
4. What was the process or timeline for Debbie's Song, from idea to publishing?
I had the idea many years ago but put it on the back burner. However, one day in 2019, I heard some kids in school singing one of Debbie Friedman’s songs. At least a year had passed from when I first got the idea. Life and other projects seemed to pop up and push that one further back. But when I heard that song, I knew the time was right to begin research. I found a contact for Debbie’s sister, and the research began that day with one email. Fast forward to the end of 2020. I heard a publisher was looking for a story about Debbie Friedman, so I sent it to them. They ultimately passed, but in early 2021 I sent it to Kar-Ben, and they sent me a contract within three weeks.
5. What was the most challenging thing you faced while writing/researching this book?
Much of the information online or in printed materials was the same so I had to rely heavily on interviews to get to the heart of the story. The challenge here was waiting to hear back from people and figuring out what to do with conflicting information. It was tricky at times, but it all worked out, and I am grateful to all the people who helped me “get to know” Debbie Friedman.
6. What’s a particularly striking or memorable reaction someone has had to this book?
Because Debbie lived here in Houston for a time, I found that many people had personal reactions to the book and shared memories with me. My original objective was for this book to be a small part of preserving Debbie’s legacy, but the perk of sparking happy memories for people was the icing on the cake.