“I’ve always liked trespassing,” says Caryn Yacowitz. Open, unclaimed spaces tug at her curiosity and her sense of wonder. She recalls a childhood in the woods, building forts and creating treasures from dirt, rocks, and bits of branches. While her father attended college on the GI bill, she recalls playing in a community garden plot. Yacowitz dug in the dirt while her parents tended the vegetables that would feed them. They instilled in her a respect for nature. To this day, Yacowitz says, “I love all living things.” A gardener and an animal rights activist, the compassion in her voice leaves no doubt of her sincerity.
Pumpkin Fiesta celebrates Yacowitz’s love of growing things and was inspired by a 19th century Spanish story. Borrowing a setting from her travels, Yacowitz’s characters, Old Juana and Foolish Fernando, call San Miguel, Mexico home. Although the story’s theme centers on passion for one’s work, Yacowitz also hints at her love for animals. Old Juana’s donkey and Foolish Fernando’s bull are not mere beasts of burden but beloved companions.
Yacowitz began writing for children in her early forties when she teamed up with a fellow stage-mom whose children were also involved in a historic Palo Alto theater celebrating 50 years. “It was the oldest children’s theater in the U.S. for acting,” Yacowitz says. “All of the backstage work was done by children.” According to Yacowitz, she and her co-author were “feeling our way” because at the time they didn’t know anything about writing and publishing for children. They enrolled in a class on creating a nonfiction book. “We followed the rules from A to Z,” she quips. It worked. Onstage/Backstage, her first book for children, was published in 1987.
“My parents were very generous, socially-minded people,” she says, and by their example she learned to appreciate the languages and cultures of others. The Jade Stone: A Chinese Folktale allowed Yacowitz to “leap into another culture.” The kernel of the story came from a field trip with her son to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. The docent stood by a jade carving, and in her description referred to a stone carver commissioned to carve a dragon for the emperor. But the carver did not see a dragon in the stone and braved the emperor’s wrath to stay true to his art. The book sent Yacowitz on a year and a half journey of “everything Chinese,” as she describes it—carvings, dragons, superstitions, history and more.
The Heinemann Library series on Indians provided Yacowitz with another foray into diverse cultures. She wrote seven titles on seven different tribes: Comanche, Shawnee, Navajo, Seminole, Lakota, Inuit and Iroquois. Tribal experts vetted her work for historical accuracy, but Yacowitz describes the projects as “emotionally rough.” Drawing a parallel to her Jewish roots, she says, “I felt like I was living with the Holocaust every single day.” In spite of the emotional toll, Yacowitz believes the honesty of each title has historical value and value for today’s readers.
Although Yacowitz lived in Israel for several years, taught Hebrew, and participates in her local Jewish community, I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel is her “first Jewish book,” as she call it. “Having a book from my own culture is important to me,” she says. “I get a lot of inspiration there because it’s so close to my heart.”
Yacowitz works from her Palo Alto home, beginning early in the morning when she’s “fresh and well-caffeinated.” After the research and the planning for each book is complete, she writes a picture book story from beginning to end. Instead of tackling revisions immediately, she puts the manuscript away to look at it with fresh eyes a few days later. She spends a lot of time laying out the text in a dummy book to be sure the page turns give the story the proper pace and tension. Before each text is submitted to an editor, it must pass the read-aloud test, where Yacowitz records herself reading the story and then listens to the recording.
Like many authors, Yacowitz uses published children’s books to mentor her own work. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories are perfect in her opinion. “I love the art, the gentle humor and kindness,” she says. Precious without being cloying, she describes them as “full of humanity yet full of fun.” Young readers will discover the same traits in Yacowitz’s books as she strives to help them become more mindful of the world around them.