Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Miami On My Mind

It's cold and blustery here in Maryland today, which has me thinking of Miami, where it isn't.  These photos and links from the Miami Book Fair--which I attended in November--aren't exactly news flashes at this point.  But I have Miami on my mind, so here goes:

First, while at the fair, I did a radio interview with Marc Bernier of WNDB radio of Daytona Beach.  Who knew a video of it would be posted on YouTube?  Click here, if you wish:  Debbie Levy - The Year of Goodbyes.  Question:  Will anybody who is not closely related to me listen to a 20 minute interview?  (Will anybody who is closely related?)  Maybe if I were to throw a contest with prizes. . . .

Second, I talked to hundreds of students and teachers as part of my book fair events, and visited two schools, Rockway Middle and Glades Middle. They could not have been more hospitable. And a bonus: Swag! Have a look:
That, in case you can't tell, would be a Glades M.S. briefcase and a Rockway M.S. jacket. I love them both.

Third, I shared a podium in Miami with the talented and personable Linda Urban and Tom Angleberger.  The photo gives a small inkling of what a KID MAGNET Tom is!  He calls everybody "Larry," and this just cracks the kids up.  
That's Linda on the right in the photo, looking on, as I did, in awe and delight.  I hope you'll check out both Linda's and Tom's books.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Texas Tidings

I've just learned that The Year of Goodbyes has been nominated for the 2012 Texas Lone Star Reading List--welcome news.  Wouldn't I just love for the nomination to lead to a place on the final Lone Star List!  There are plenty of great books on the nominations roster, including one of my favorites, Kathy Erskine's Mockingbird (read it if you haven't yet!), so I may well have to be satisfied with the nomination alone.  And that wouldn't be bad--whatever spreads word of this book, so close to my heart.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Out and About

I've had a fine time recently talking about The Year of Goodbyes at a variety of events.  The audiences have been wonderfully engaged, which is any speaker's dream.  And a bonus for me has been sharing the podium with other writers who have great stories to tell, and the talent to tell them. 

Last month, for example, Jan Elvin and I did a joint reading at the Fall For The Book Festival in Virginia.  Jan is the author of The Box from Braunau: In Search of my Father’s War.  We hadn't met before the festival.  Jan and I were amazed at the parallels our journeys to publication shared, including most notably the discovery of an artifact of personal history--in my case, my mother's poesiealbum; in her case, a tin box her father brought home from World War II.  In her presentation, as in her book, Jan addressed the demons of war that dogged her father for the rest of his life as a veteran, a subject that is painfully relevant today as we welcome soldiers home from today's wars.  And on a lighter note, Jan and I discovered that we share a passion for all things Eastern Shore--that's Maryland's Eastern Shore, where she and her husband just moved, and where my husband and I spend as much time as we can.  I'm hoping to see her out and about on the Chesapeake Bay.

And last week, at the Brandeis National Committee's Book and Author Luncheon in the Washington, D.C. area, after talking about The Year of Goodbyes with a very warm audience, I was captivated by Lisa McCubbin and Clint Hill when they discussed The Kennedy Detail, the story of the Secret Service agents who were with President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  What a slide show!  Mr. Hill, the agent assigned to Mrs. Kennedy, was just a fount of fascinating detail and insight.  After lunch, we heard from James Zogby, whose book, Arab Voices:  What They Are Saying To Us, and Why It Matters, was the springboard for his passionate talk about the importance (and difficulty) of listening, really listening, across cultural, religious, and physical boundaries.  When the day was over, I wasn't quite ready to go. . . .

Here's a photo from the Brandeis event; to my right is Mr. Zogby with his book:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thanks to The DC Moms!

A shout out to The DC Moms blog for including Maybe I'll Sleep in the Bathtub Tonight and Other Funny Bedtime Poems as one of "8 Great Children's Books by Washington-Area Writers"! 

I love the company the book is with on that list, too, including friend and fellow Children's Book Guild member Susan Stockdale (for her gorgeous Bring on the Birds), the incomparable Katherine Paterson (also a Guild member) for The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Judith Viorst, whom I've admired for years, for her If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries

Click on over to TheDCMoms!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Loving the Summer Lists

Learning that The Year of Goodbyes is on recommended summer reading lists at schools and libraries across the country this season--what a wonderful feeling.

Places such as:  Old Town, MaineOrleans, Massachussetts.  Southold, New YorkDemarest, New JerseyCarroll County, MarylandMartin County, Florida.  The Iowa City Consolidated School DistrictFremont, Nebraska.  And more!

And I don't want to leave out Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore in Berkeley, California.  Thanks to the staff there for spreading the word.  

I love thinking of this book in the hands of readers from sea to shining sea!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

VOYA's Honor List

I'm happy to learn today that The Year of Goodbyes has been selected for VOYA'S Nonfiction Honor List 2010.  The list was put together this year, as always, by the Voice of Youth Advocates after "invigorating" discussion (according to VOYA!) among the librarians, teachers, and middle grade students involved in the process.  You can see the entire list here; I'm thrilled to find my book in such excellent company.

Monday, May 23, 2011

We Need This Ice Cream

I made an unexpected discovery at the Gaithersburg Book Festival last Saturday:  the best ice cream I have ever eaten.  Anywhere, anytime. 

This ice cream is made by BOSS Foods, the creation of Valerie W. Ross.  Valerie's a recent graduate of Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore.  She may have picked up pointers on how to run a small business from WEB, but it's clear from the first bite that culinary skills are in her DNA.  At the book festival, Valerie and her daughter Janee Ross were on hand with a cart stocked with their made-fresh-in-Gaithersburg confection.  My mother and I sampled the French vanilla and the macadamia nut, and, oh my.

From left to right, Valerie Ross, Mom (Jutta Levy) and Janee Ross.  
Valerie tells me the Gaithersburg Whole Foods store (Kentlands) has just agreed to carry BOSS ice cream.  You lucky Gaithersburgers!  Now the rest of us Marylanders might want to run to wherever we buy groceries to spread the word.  We need this ice cream.

My mother and I were at the festival to present and sign The Year of Goodbyes, which was lovely, but--let me tell you about this ice cream we discovered. . . .

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Writing and All That Jazz

I’m always interested in how people in different creative fields go about the business of creating.  And, lucky me, I happen to be related to a musician.

Meet my older son, Alex Hoffman.  He's a jazz saxophonist.  He’s been playing saxophone since fifth grade, and he’s now approaching his mid-twenties—so he’s blown through a lot of reeds.  I’m going to restrain my motherly impulse to provide the details of his lustrous artistic career here, but if you wish to know, and I know you do, you may read about it by visiting his website.

Last month, Smalls Records released Alex’s debut recording as a leader, a CD entitled Dark Lights.  As The Urban Flux said in its review, it’s “a satisfying blend of engaging and sophisticated straight ahead jazz sounds” that “swings with definition, sharp timbre and precision.”  Alex composed and arranged all the selections on Dark Lights.

Since I’m a writer, and mostly a children’s book author at that, I thought it would be fun and maybe even illuminating to ask Alex some questions from these perspectives. 

But first things first:

DL:  Hi, son; how’re you doing?

AH:  I’m fine, thanks.  Thanks for having me as the guest blogger today.  It’s an honor!

DL:  Alex, are you eating properly?

AL: Yes, I eat regular meals and try to regulate my intake of sugar and fat somewhat.

Reassured as to my son's physical well-being, I can now proceed to the business at hand.      

DL:  Are there stories behind the songs you write?  For example, the song “D.C. Blue” on Dark Lights:  It’s up-tempo, but not super-fast.  I was expecting something “bluesy”—then I noticed it’s not “D.C. Blues,” it’s “D.C. Blue.”  Explanation?

AH:  “D.C. Blue” has a double meaning.  It’s a nod to my birthplace of Washington D.C., but it also refers to the trumpeter Dwayne Clemons [who plays on the CD].  After I wrote this piece, it reminded me of something Dwayne might play or write himself.  He has also had a great influence on my musical sensibility and style.

In regard to the word “blue” in the title, the piece is technically a blues, which is a 12-measure song form very popular in jazz and all American music.  I chose to leave out the “s” because I liked the ring of the title without it.

DL:  Even if there aren’t stories behind every song, there are some songs that seem so very narrative to me—for example, the tune “Night Jaunt.”  When I look at my iPod when it’s playing I keep expecting to see the start of a movie. 

AH:  I don’t always have a narrative in mind when I’m writing a song, but when it’s time to give it a title, I try to create one.  In the case of “Night Jaunt” I was thinking about New York City and the many jazz clubs I’ve frequented over the years that I’ve lived here.  I was especially thinking about the nights when I’ve gone from one jazz club to another, checking things out here, seeing friends play there.

DL:  It occurs to me that you, as a musician, might feel that people (like me) who so often insist on placing this story overlay on your songs, or on any instrumental music generally, are missing the point.  Are we? 

(In my defense, and in praise of your song-writing, “Lament,” the fifth track on the CD, is so achingly, beautifully sorrowful that any attempt to interpret it with words seems not only superfluous but possibly even destructive.)

AH:  Thank you.  I wouldn't say that you’re missing the point in the case of my music or the way that I perceive the music that I love, and music in general.  I know many other musicians will disagree with me, but I like the metaphor of music telling a story.

DL:  What is your process for writing music? 

AH:  My approach to writing is often deadline-based.  [DL:  A-ha!  Just like certain writers!]  If I know that I have a recording session or a concert coming up where I will need original material, my creative juices seem to flow out of necessity.  Other than that, I compose randomly.  I may compose one song a day for a week, and then go a month or more without writing anything. 

My process consists of sitting at the piano and picking out chords and melodies.  A good day would be one where I create a composition that I come away humming or that sticks in my head.

DL:  What is the hardest part of writing music? 

AH:  The hardest part for me is coming up with the basic melody and chords.  [DL:  Could this be genetic?  I find plot the hardest thing, too!]  Once I have this basic skeleton, orchestration is a lot easier.

DL:   Jazz compositions leave room for improvisation by soloists.  I don’t think it’s stretching the analogy to say that this is similar to the leeway the writer of a picture book manuscript affords the illustrator.  You’ve written for ensembles from trios to big bands.  How much direction do you as the composer give to soloists? 

AH:  My compositions each have a set of chord changes.  The soloists that I employ base their solos on those chords, with occasional substitutions and variations.  I never give instruction to a soloist because I know before I hire him or her that I like his or her way of playing, and I trust his or her judgment.  The soloists I hire, such as Ned Goold and Sacha Perry on this particular CD, are always surprising me with their wealth of creative ideas.  [DL:  Note to self:  Must stop including annoying illustrator notes in my picture book manuscripts!]

DL:  I know you have a large repertoire of music, other than your own, that you play in performance.  How many songs do you know by heart?  How do you decide what to play when you’re leading a gig?

AH:  I know around 500 to 1,000 songs by heart, which is pretty standard for a jazz musician in New York.  I’m also constantly forgetting and learning repertoire.

Before a gig, I might make a list of songs that I want to play, but sometimes even after I do that, I’ll end up playing a completely different set in the end.  Sometimes I go in with no idea what I want to play, and call it all on the fly.

DL:  I’ve watched you over the years as you put in the all the work—practice, practice, practice—that went into your development as a musician.  Now that you’re doing this professionally, how do you keep growing as a musician?

AH:  The only way to grow is to continue to practice, practice, practice, play with great musicians all the time, and listen to great music every day.

DL:  What were your favorite books when you were a little boy?

AH:  I loved the Berenstain Bears, Dr. Seuss, Disney Books, and the George and Martha books by James Marshall. 

DL:  What is the children’s book you’d most like to set to music?

AH:  I’ve always loved the artwork of Dr. Seuss and have even found it inspiring, so I’ll say anything by him.

DL:  What a great project that would be!  And so I’ll close this interview by giving Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat the last word:

Well. . . /What would YOU do/ If your mother asked YOU?

You can listen to samples from "Dark Lights" on iTunes and Amazon.  Want an autographed copy?  Order here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

New York News

The Year of Goodbyes is a 2012 Charlotte Award nominee!  Given by the New York State Reading Association and named for Charlotte in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, the award's purpose is "to encourage students to read outstanding literature and ultimately become life-long readers."  (I'm quoting from the NYSRA website.)  Over the next year, young people in New York will be reading, and voting on, the nominated books.  I'm really happy to know that my mother's story will be reaching these readers.    

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What They're Reading in Vermont

I'm happy to learn that The Year of Goodbyes is on the master list for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award, sponsored by the Vermont Department of Libraries and the Vermont State PTA.  The idea is that young people in Vermont will read the books on the master list during the 2011-2012 school year.  I'll enjoy thinking of my Vermont readers in the coming year!

Do you know who Dorothy Canfield Fisher was?  You can read a little bit about her here.  I learned about her several years ago when I was working on a biography of Richard Wright for Lerner Publishing.  As part of my research, I read the correspondence between Fisher and Wright when she was a member of the selection committee that chose Wright's book Black Boy as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection in spring of 1945.  Those are some very interesting letters. . . . And now my book is on a list named in her honor!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

February Frog Fracas

On this fine February afternoon in a muddy pond in C&O Canal National Park in Potomac, Maryland:  Frogs gone wild!  The water was roiling with them.  And listen to those voices!   

They are wood frogs, and I appear to have caught them breeding, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Towson University websites.  I've never encountered them quite this early in the year.  A sign of spring?

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Librarian and children's book expert Heidi Estrin interviewed me last year at Book Expo America in New York City--and now she's made the audio available on her podcast, The Book of Life.  Click here to listen. 

Yes, I do talk on and on and on in the interview, but please forgive me--there was so much I wanted to say about The Year of Goodbyes!

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Story Behind The Story Behind The Story

The Washington Post Magazine writes about how the discovery of my mother's childhood diary led to a 1998 article in that newspaper, which led to a series of reunions among my mother and six of her German classmates, which led me to discover my mother's poesiealbum, which led me to write a book about it.  Read it here

Mom (top row, right) and her classmates from the Jewish School for Girls (Hamburg) at their first reunion, 2000, Silver Spring, Maryland.  Thanks to Ira Kohlman for this photograph.