Holyoke resident’s new book wins Christopher Award

Sept. 16, 2020 | G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE – Prolific author and Holyoke resident Lesléa Newman turned to her own family history for her latest children’s book “Gittel’s Journey.”

The book has just been honored with a Christopher Award from The Christophers. The Christopher Awards were created in 1949 to celebrate writers, producers, directors, authors, and illustrators whose work “affirms the highest values of the human spirit” and reflects the Christopher motto, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”  

Newman, who has received many honors for her 70 books, told Reminder Publishing she was “just stunned and thrilled” with the recognition. According to her biography, she has received many literary awards, including creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, two American Library Association Stonewall Honors, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award, the Highlights for Children Fiction Writing Award, a Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fiction Writing grant, the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement, the Cat Writer’s Association Muse Medallion, and the Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Medallion. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award Finalists.

Newman writes for both adults and children. Among her 70 books are “A Letter to Harvey Milk;” “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard;” “I Carry My Mother;” “The Boy Who Cried Fabulous;” “Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed;” and “Heather Has Two Mommies.”

Her latest book is described by the publishers by this synopsis: “Gittel and her mother were supposed to immigrate to America together, but when her mother is stopped by the health inspector, Gittel must make the journey alone. Her mother writes her cousin’s address in New York on a piece of paper. However, when Gittel arrives at Ellis Island, she discovers the ink has run and the address is illegible! How will she find her family? Both a heart-wrenching and heartwarming story, ‘Gittel’s Journey’ offers a fresh perspective on the immigration journey to Ellis Island. The book includes an author’s note explaining how Gittel’s story is based on the journey to America taken by Lesléa Newman’s grandmother and family friend.”

Newman said, “It is a story I’ve know all my life.” She admitted that she hadn’t thought about it as a basis for a book until she saw stories about immigration.

“It popped into my mind,” she recalled.

She spoke to her aunt about her grandmother’s story and then did much research about what it would be like to leave one’s home for a new country – saying goodbye to friends and fearing the unknown.

She believes the issues about immigration today bring “another layer of relevance” to her book.

Above all, she wanted to show her young readers the importance of being kind. Gittel finds her way thanks to strangers who showed her kindness.

“I wanted to write a book imbued with kindness,” she said.  

In real life, her grandmother reciprocated the kindness shown her by volunteering for the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, a Jewish American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees.

Newman said the process for creating a children’s picture book is the author writes the text and then turns the narrative over to an art director and artist for illustration. She does not provide a script with instructions about setting or actions.

While she sees preliminary sketches and then some drawing close to finish, she leaves the art to the artists.

“I do my job and they do their job,” she said.

She praised artist Amy June Bates for her work on the book and noted how two illustrations of Gittel and her mother were separated on facing pages, visually emphasizing their separation.

Newman is known for her groundbreaking book, “Heather has Two Mommies,” first published in 1989. She explained she wanted to show a child with two moms.

“I wanted children to realize the world is a big place with different kinds of families,” she said.

Despite social and legal advances, Newman understands that for some people the book is still controversial. She recounted how last year she was to speak at two schools in New York, which were then cancelled. She believes it was because of “Heather has Two Mommies.”

She noted, “It was published in December of 1989, but we still have a long way to go.”

When asked if she is working on a new book, Newman quickly replied, “I’m always working on a new book.”

She is working a book of poetry called “I Wish my Father,” a companion volume to her book “I carry my Mother.” Both are a collection of poems detailing the story of a Jewish woman caring for her parents.

For more information about “Gittel’s Journey,” go to www.abramsbooks.com/product/gittels-journey_9781419727474.

Share this: