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MARIEL WILSON / MARCH 18, 2020
Close-Up: Author focuses on joy of Yiddish words
Ask parents about their child’s favorite book, and they will answer without pause. It’s the book their little one falls asleep to every night, the one they’ve read aloud over and over. It’s the one the child has memorized, not even having to turn the page to know the words to come. Maybe they’re the words of Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein. Or maybe they’re the words of valley author Sheryl Haft.
Haft is a three-time children’s book author who moved to Jackson five years ago. Her singsong picture books have captured the hearts of kids and parents around the country.
Haft was introduced to the world of children’s literature when she worked as a designer for Warner Brothers, but it wasn’t until she had children of her own that she tried her hand at writing.
Her first book, “I Love You Blankie” was published in 2015 after eight years of work. The story follows one little boy at bedtime as he imagines all of the capabilities of his beloved blankie. With his blankie and his imagination he sails boats, floats in hot air balloons and flies to the moon.
“The whole reason why I wanted to write children’s books was to try to capture the magic and freedom of the imagination of childhood,” Haft said. “I started out as a photographer trying to capture that on film and then moved to trying to capture it with stories.”
Imagination is a pillar not only of Haft’s writing but also of her own creative process. The author’s third and most well-known book, “Goodnight Bubbala,” is a product of her reimagining of the childhood classic “Goodnight Moon.” While Haft adores the iconic bedtime story, she didn’t connect to the characters personally. She couldn’t help but wonder, “What if this book was about my family?”
The author chose to portray her own loud, loving family within the classic “Goodnight Moon.” “Goodnight Bubbala” uses clever Yiddish rhymes like “two little bubbies schlepping their hubbies,” to help children learn the vocabulary. It was important to Haft that her children learn Yiddish, a language she loved to learn in her own childhood.
“I come from a Jewish family, and my grandmother spoke Yiddish,” she said. “Growing up in New York, I heard all of these Yiddish words that are so expressive. The more I would talk about them, the more I realized that the next generation — my daughters — didn’t know that many words. As a writer I felt the power of those Yiddish words. They’re so funny. That was the impetus for the book. A book that would make it fun and bring it into the family.”
On her blog, Haft told a powerful story about “Goodnight Bubbala.” When she shared the book with an 86-year-old friend, the woman came away with tears in her eyes, overjoyed to see her own family portrayed in a picture book in a way they had never been before.
Haft was happy to represent her own family and culture, but she also loves that all audiences can connect with the book.
“Even though it’s a Jewish family who shows up in this little bunny’s bedroom, I feel like every culture still relates,” she said. “So many of my friends have said, ‘Oh, this is my crazy Greek family’ or ‘This is my crazy Italian family.’ It feels universal in that way.”
When Haft’s friend Ina Garten, the celebrity cookbook author and TV star known as the Barefoot Contessa, got hold of “Goodnight Bubbala,” she instantly fell in love. Garten was so excited by the book that she even offered to include a latke recipe at the end of the story. Haft refers to that addition as “fairy dust” sprinkled into the book. It wasn’t long before the project gained the attention of readers around the world. Haft and Garten were even featured on the “Today” show in 2019.
“That was an out of body experience,” Haft said. “It was really a dream come true. My first two were beautiful books and they came straight from my heart, but it’s so hard to get noticed and there’s just so many books that are published every year.”
The author is working on her fourth children’s book. “Mazie’s Amazing Machines.” The story follows a little girl named Mazie who creates inventions to solve her everyday problems. The book incorporates another one of Haft’s passions: engineering.
When Haft isn’t working on children’s books she is working with local students in her after-school program, “Kids Engineer.” The program combines creativity and engineering to encourage kids around the valley to feel confident innovating and designing in their own lives.
Like the character in her upcoming book, Haft encourages students to invent solutions for their problems. She fosters an environment where there are no wrong answers or too-farfetched ideas. One of the creative contraptions a student made was a ghost-catching machine to take care of a pesky household haunting.
“I love teaching here in Jackson,” Haft said. “I find the kids here to be really receptive and great students. To the extent that dual language has any impact, when you’re creating and making things with your hands it’s a universal language.”
Haft was introduced to Jackson through her children. When her three daughters fell in love with the area by way of Wilderness Adventures, Haft and her husband decided to see what it was all about.
“We came out to climb the Grand, and we just fell in love with the beauty,” Haft said. “But, I have to say, when we moved here in 2015 we knew that Jackson was beautiful and we knew that we were starved for nature and wanted to be outdoors, but we came knowing not one person. So the fact that it’s been such a welcoming and wonderful community, that was what really got us. It’s such an inclusive community.”
Haft’s books are available in bookstores throughout the area and on Amazon. Check out her “Imaginator Blog” for a look into her creative process and the winding road that is the publishing world. Although it can be grueling, Haft has found joy in all parts of her work as a children’s author.
“I think, like so many creative endeavors, you really have to enjoy the journey,” she said. “I love the process of dreaming up stories, writing drafts, sharing with people, getting feedback, rewriting, going to workshops — I just love the whole process. For me it’s like working on a puzzle.”
Today, Haft is crafting a picture book for grown-up children who are navigating the adult world for the first time.
“My hope is to open up imagination,” she said “It’s about making people feel imaginative and joyful.”