Elisabeth Kushner lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her family and a jumble of books and musical instruments. If she were a superhero, she’d be Orange Ukulele Girl. Her favorite kind of hamentaschen is poppyseed. This is her first children’s book.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
As a child, I had two favorite novels: A LITTLE PRINCESS, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and HARRIET THE SPY, by Louise Fitzhugh. I read both of them over and over. They’re different in so many ways, but they’re both books about young girls in great cities (London and New York) who overcome serious problems through storytelling or writing. That theme appeals to me a lot, for obvious reasons, I guess. I also loved a book called THE TALL BOOK OF MAKE-BELIEVE, a sort of anthology of poems and stories—some famous, some obscure—that all touched on some kind of magic or imagination. It had the most wonderful illustrations, by Garth Williams (before he became famous for his illustrations of E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series).
In terms of picture books, there were a few that I loved and returned to year after year. There was this picture book called THE SHY LITTLE GIRL, by Barbara Rogasky, with illustrations by the late, great Trina Schart Hyman. It was, not surprisingly, about a shy little girl and how in spite of her shyness she finds a best friend. I just loved that book so much. I wanted a friend like that!
Another book I loved was a pop-up book called CINDY BAKES A FUNNY CAKE. It was a sort of variation on the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Strega Nona stories, about a little girl who tries to bake a cake, but puts in too much yeast, so the cake grows huge and threatens to take over the town. Unlike other books I was attached to as a kid, this one hasn’t gone down in history, and I’ve never been able to find it as an adult. But I’ll always remember that three-dimensional pink cake spilling out of the oven when you pulled the tab. That’s something so amazing about kids’ books—how an image like that can stay with you for your whole life.
What’s your favorite line from a book?
My very favorite line from a book is from a novel for adults, GIRLS, VISIONS, AND EVERYTHING, by Sarah Schulman. It is: “When your heart is breaking, write it down. When a relationship ends, what do you have? You have nothing. But if you write it down, you have material. That’s the best a girl can hope for in these troubled times.” I think if you substitute any crisis for “when a relationship ends”, you have a perfect mantra for writers, right there. And all times are troubled times, really.
My favorite line from a children’s book is from MAX’S BREAKFAST, by Rosemary Wells: “You can’t hide from your egg, Max.” And it’s true. You can’t. Your egg, whatever it is, will always find you, wherever you are.
Who are your top three favorite authors or illustrators?
That’s a really hard question! I have a lot- a lot — of favorite authors, and the status of “top three” changes all the time depending on my mood and what I’ve read recently. So I’m going to just list three of my favorite picture-book authors.
1. Kevin Henkes. Kevin Henkes is my picture book hero, and LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s up there with the great works of literature. It has it all: betrayal, torment, redemption, humor, and, like all his books, a generous, wise understanding of human (or mouse) nature. Also, cheesy snacks. When I worked at a Jewish day school, I used to read this book to classes every year at Yom Kippur—there’s no better example of true tshuvah (repentance) than Lilly’s process of apologizing to Mr. Slinger.
2. Patricia Polacco. I love her stories about kids and communities coming together across cultural differences, like MRS. KATZ AND TUSH, and CHICKEN SUNDAY. And I love the warmth that comes through in her autobiographical family stories, like THE KEEPING QUILT. One of the high points of my life as a librarian and children’s book lover was going to see Patricia Polacco speak a few years ago; she brought a replica of the actual, real keeping quilt (she keeps the original at home and doesn’t take it out when she tours), and it was like seeing a holy thing. The room got very quiet and awed when she brought out that quilt.
3. Rosemary Wells. Because everyone needs a visit to the Bunny Planet sometimes.
Why did you want to become an author or illustrator?
I’ve always been a word person; words are how I think and express myself and understand the world. I don’t even like music that doesn’t have words in it. So I always wrote things down—like Harriet the Spy, I had a Notebook— and always wanted to write a book because I loved books so much.
Do you have any advice for future authors or illustrators?
My advice is the same as that of almost everyone who’s ever written about writing: you just have to do it. And you don’t have to be a special kind of person to write; you just have to write For a long time I thought I had to be a more confident or brave or polished or disciplined or wise, or, well, just a different kind of person to be a Real Writer. But I didn’t. I could be the flawed and imperfect human being that I was, and am. I just had to be that person, writing things down, and then revising them.