BY ELIZABETH FRIEDLY / AJT //
It’s a picture book 20 years in the making. What began as a childhood fascination, Atlanta-based author Laurel Snyder has turned into “The Longest Night: A Passover Story,” which tells the story of the 10 plagues from the point of view of a young slave girl.
As early as the fourth grade, Snyder had decided she would one day write books for children. But Snyder was “too busy being – or pretending to be – a grown up” during her high school and college years to pursue children’s literature, so it wasn’t until she became an adult that her dream finally came to fruition.
With the release of “The Longest Night,” Snyder offers a re-telling of the story of Exodus from the simplistic yet revealing perspective of a child. It’s this juxtaposition of the sometimes disquieting and graphic plagues with the picture book format that makes for such an intriguing affair.
After all, what exactly does a picture book on the plagues read like?
“I think that the tone of the book is at once dark and childlike,” said Snyder. “And I think that is what’s challenging to people. But I don’t see an honest way of telling that story that isn’t dark. At the same time, I don’t see the value of overlooking the child’s perspective when you’re writing for children.”
Growing up, one of Snyder’s primary introductions to the story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery was a book called “Bible Stories for Jewish Children.” Revisiting the text as an adult, the book struck her as rather stiff and unimaginative.
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Although informative, the writing had little to offer a child’s mind.
“I mean, it’s just such a different tone,” said Snyder. “I thought what I really wanted was to strike a balance with something that would be compelling to children but also allow some of the at darkness to come in.”
Although “The Longest Night” marks Snyder’s first time tackling the subject of Passover, it is only one of a growing collection of Jewish-themed children’s books that she’s authored. In addition to “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher,” Snyder has published titles such as “Good Night, Laila Tov” and “Nosh, Schelp, Schluff” – all of which offer a new spin on tradition.
“I had really been looking for places where I thought there was a hole in the literature,” said Snyder. “The idea of a world without children [in the original story], it makes no sense, but it’s also not interesting. I remember as a kid, that was a real curiosity for me.”
From this initial interest, the origins of “The Longest Night” began to take shape. Snyder describes her poetry in college and graduate school as an extension of the same thoughts that helped spark the picture book.
Over its long journey to completion, various changes have been made since its original incarnation, including the gender of the narrator. Originally envisioned as a boy by Snyder, the main character was first interpreted as female by illustrator Catia Chien.
And just like that, the text was transformed. When asked whether or not the story would have been different had Snyder originally written from a girl’s perspective, she readily concedes that the ways in which accepted gender roles dictate our day-to-day actions would have crept into her work.
“I mean, there’s no question that whether we want to or not, we bring gender and our assumptions into our writing,” said Snyder. “[But] we can at least choose to stop and give the little boy an apron and the little girl a bicycle.”
Also during the creation process – before “The Longest Night” could reach bookshelves – experts were called in to puzzle together how exactly the Hebrews might have lived. Armed with only general information from the Bible and other sacred Jewish texts, Snyder had to research.
With some elbow grease, she managed to recreate a lively rendering of her character’s world, down to their beds and style of clothing. All the while, she kept in mind both her most admiring and critical readers.
“The world-building for a picture book is just the same as the world-building for a novel,” said Snyder. “It’s just that you don’t use all the words that you’ve picked up.”
This personal attention to detail helped produce a three-dimensional and engaging narrative that Snyder hopes will speak to readers across the board. She focuses on the humanity within the vast expanse of the revolution– the heart of the Hebrews.
And as with most meaningful work, it’s not confined to the typical picture book audience.
“I would like to think that parents would engage with it and have a sort of physical, visceral reaction to the story, that maybe they’re not used to having,” said Snyder. “I feel like this is a season [Passover] that’s so multi-generational. We encourage children to come into the conversation at this time of the year and also for us to understand it differently by their presence.”
Snyder recalls large family gatherings in Baltimore for seders during her own childhood. Spread throughout the region, each member of the family would, once a year, make the trip for the celebration.
“You didn’t not come and sit down at my papi’s table for Passover,” said Snyder. “So it stands out in my head as the point in the year that was most about family – everyone being at the table, and my grandpa being at the head.”
It was her grandfather that Snyder felt the original stories belonged to. As an adult, she struggled with the idea of a seder without her grandfather at the head of the table, without the Haggadah that she felt belonged to him.
“The Longest Night” is Snyder’s attempt at making the celebration her own.
“It wouldn’t be Passover without that book,” said Snyder of her grandfather’s Haggaddah. “This was meant to be a supplement. I feel like this is a way to kind of let me add a layer to what Passover meant to me.”
Visit laurelsnyder.com for more information on the author, her work and purchasing options. “The Longest Night” (Schwartz & Wade, 32 pages, $17.99) is available via amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and other online book retailers.