A Real-Life Purim Superhero: An Interview with Elisabeth Kushner

The world’s first LGBT inclusive Jewish children’s book in English has arrived!

Published by Kar-Ben Publishing, an award-winning publisher of Jewish children’s books, The Purim Superhero is the sweet story of a boy named Nate who has a Purim dilemma: he loves aliens and really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes, and he wants to fit in. With the help of his two dads, he makes a surprising decision.

We had the chance to catch up with author Elisabeth Kushner, the winner of Keshet’s national book-writing contest.

Elisabeth will be reading from her brand new book on February 3 in Berkeley at one of our book release parties. If you’re interested in holding a book release party for The Purim Superhero in your area, Keshet can help! You’ll find a Do It Yourself Guide and other resources here. Plus, you can buy your copy of The Purim Superhero online from Keshet or Kar-Ben (e-versions too!) today!

The Purim Superhero parties are happening across the country (parties will be added to the Keshet website as they are scheduled):

2/2: Miami at Next@19th
2/3: San Francisco Bay Area at Afikomen Judaica
2/17: Denver at Mizel Museum
2/24: Boston at the Leventhal-Sidman JCC

Tell us about the process of writing the book, including the inspiration!

I wrote this book because of the Keshet contest. I’d been thinking for a long time about a Purim picture book, because I was a librarian at a Jewish day school. I wanted to integrate what kids were learning in their classrooms about holidays with what we were reading in the library. There are lots of Chanukah books, and some Passover ones, but I could find very few Purim books other than re-tellings of the Book of Esther, and the kids already knew that story! It’s as if all books about Christmas told the story of the Nativity. It’s the customs of Purim, which are really kid-friendly, that would make the good stuff of a story. It really drove me nuts every year that I had nothing to read these kids. So for years, I thought about this book I’d wanted to write, but it never got anywhere.

Years later, I kept hearing about this contest Keshet was having. I was no longer at a day school – I was working at a public library – and was also writing for the Scholastic.com website as a book blogger, so I was very involved in world of kids’ lit. I thought, “If I weren’t so busy, I’d write that book.”

I finally stopped and said, “I’m a Jewish lesbian mom who was a librarian at a Jewish day school. I know a lot about this stuff, and I’ll feel really silly if I don’t do this.” So I took a few weeks to work on it, and with the additional element of queer family members, it took shape really quickly, especially since Purim is all about coming out and being who you are.

I wanted it to be a book where the parents being gay is not “the problem.” I know it’s hard for a lot of people in a lot of places, but that really hasn’t been my experience or my family’s experience, and it hasn’t been the case for a lot of my friends, too. Our kids have regular kid problems.

Just as there are Purim stories other than the Book of Esther, there are kid-in-a-gay-family stories that aren’t about a classmate or teacher’s homophobia.

So what was your response when you found out you won the contest?

When I found out that I won, I did a little happy scream and was totally thrilled. I was home with my daughter, who was ten at the times, and she kept asking what, what’s going on? I told her, and she was excited, too. Then I had to take her to the orthodontist, so the only people I could tell were my sister-in-law and little niece, because that was the only number I had stored in my cell phone!

It felt especially good to tell the friends I’d asked to beta-reader the book as writers and parents.

What does it feel like to be the author of the first LGBT inclusive Jewish children’s book in English?

Somehow that hadn’t quite sunk in. I knew that was why Keshet was having the contest, but it didn’t sink in that that would make me the first. I’ve been thinking, surely I’d read a children’s book that incorporates both the LGBT aspect and the Jewish aspect, but I guess not! It’s an unbelievable honor.

What does this mean to your own family?

They’re touchingly proud of me. I’ve started doing some PR for the book, which means I’m starting to travel for it, and they’ve been very supportive as we make the scheduling work. My daughter is in middle school, so she doesn’t identify so totally with me as a younger kid would, but she’s been very sweetly happy for me.

What are your hopes for this book?

I hope it will be well-known, and I really hope it has legs, that it lasts. Really, I hope kids will read it and enjoy it. And I really hope that librarians in Jewish day schools will read, enjoy, and use it! Really, I wrote the book for myself, five years ago.

I’m curious if there will be any controversy over it – I have no idea. It feels like the state of being gay and being a gay family is less and less of an issue in the kinds of communities that will see this book anyway.

We talked about what your hopes are for the book, and we talked about the process and inspiration for writing the book. Can you tell me what you’ve learned, or hope to learn or continue learning, from the process of writing this book?

One thing I’ve learned already from talking with a staff member at Keshet who told me her family is really excited, and she’s excited to read it to her child. I’m really honored that it’s going to have meaning for families like mine. I think I just figured out that this is going to affect people! I didn’t write it as therapy, I wrote it to be a good book. But from my own life, I learned a book can be a friend. I’m just starting to realize that this book is going to be a point of connection with other people.

One more thing I’ve learned from this process is how amazing it is for something I wrote to be illustrated. When I saw Mike Byrne’s illustrations for The Purim Superhero, I felt like in some ways I was meeting Nate, his family, and his classmates for the first time. It was a little like meeting someone in person who I’d only corresponded with – I was surprised and felt totally familiar with the characters, at the same time. And I’m crazy about the cover, which is sweet and heroic at the same time. It should’ve been obvious if I’d thought about it, but the “picture” side of writing a picture book has been a really wonderful discovery and I appreciate so much how the illustrations are doing half the work of making Nate and his world come alive!

Other things you’ve been working on that our readers should know about?

I’m working on a novel, but as it turns out those take a long time. I’m also working on another book that takes place in the same world as Purim Superhero, but on Shavuot—I’m really into underrepresented holidays!

I don’t have an author website yet, but anyone interested can follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

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