guest interview

Interview with Adam Gustavson, Illustrator of Hannah’s Way

Welcome, Adam! Readers, enjoy this interview with Adam Gustavson, illustrator of the award-winning children’s book Hannah’s Way; the interview is part of the Sydney Book Awards Blog Tour.

Description of the book: After Papa loses his job during the Depression, Hannah’s family moves to rural Minnesota, where she is the only Jewish child in her class. When her teacher tries to arrange carpools for a Saturday class picnic, Hannah is upset. Her Jewish family is observant, and she knows she cannot ride on the Sabbath. What will she do? A lovely story of friendship and community.

Hannah's Way

How did you decide how Hannah should appear? her family? the scenery? Did you do research on the period’s clothing and style?

That a good question. Before I even picked up a pencil, I immersed myself in images of people from the 1930s. I looked at as many ancestry web sites as I could and thumbed through books of costumes and period photography. I also dug as far into Orthodox Judaism as I could, just trying to make sure the family in the book didn’t fly in the face of some hidden clause from Leviticus that I didn’t know about.

I looked at lots of sale items on ebay, trying to keep in mind that the era a story takes place in isn’t really the era of the stuff in it, it’s the cut-off date for said stuff. The couches, the lamps, the architecture, all of that has to predate the story. And if someone in the story is dressed in hand-me-downs, well, now we’re looking at fashion from the late ’20s…

As far as the characters themselves, I rely as much as I can on instinct. Granted, I research hairdos and ethnic bone structure and think about people I know or have known that fit a temperament or demographic, but one of the really important aspects of being able to draw the same person, active and emoting for 32 pages, is to really believe that they’re the right person for the job.
Hannah's Way - Hannah's family

How did you team up with the author, Linda Glaser?

Illustrating books is a sort of funny thing; the whole affair is orchestrated by the publisher, so as it was Joni Sussman at Kar-Ben who contacted me about illustrating the Hannah’s Way.

What inspired you to become an artist?

I’ve always drawn; my mother was an artist when I was growing up, and my brothers and I drew like most other kids would play ball. It was a big part of how we played together. My father, an engineer, used to come home with art supplies he’d picked up for us on his way home from work. I grew up in the only household for miles and miles where a crisis consisted of my mother trying to find out just who took her kneaded eraser.

When I went to college, the toss up for me was between becoming an artist or becoming a musician. So again, I was pretty much the only person I knew who went into art because it was the more practical choice.

I love the illustrations you did of commuters on a train
What advice would you give someone who wants to improve his/her drawing skills?

gustavson summer sketch on train

There are two things I’d say; the first and foremost is to draw everything all the time. The way I put it to a student recently was that if what you really want to draw is Spiderman, at some point you’ll have to figure out what kind of furniture Aunt May has in her living room. A big part of making art is experiential, which is to say you don’t really know what something looks like until you try to draw it, and really explore it in your drawing.

Another important aspect is to be influenced by things that aren’t specifically what you want to do. This goes for technique, subject matter, and high falutin’ compositional stuff. A high profile example of this idea at work is in Van Gogh’s love of Japanese woodcuts, and the way that it translated into how he used paint, but it exists to some degree almost everywhere.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a really sizable project for Holt’s Christy Ottaviano Books imprint, called “Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story,” written about the co-founder of the Band by his son, Sebastian Robertson. It involved over thirty oil paintings and real life protagonist that had to age about 30 years in the course of the narrative, which was a bit of a challenge.
Rock and Roll Highway, illustration by Adam Gustavson
You seem like you have worked on many books and illustration projects – which were your favorites?

My two all time favorites have been Leslie Kimmelman’s “Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt!” and Bill Harley’s “Lost and Found,” the latter of which just came out this past fall. From a concept, design and storytelling perspective (the Alice Roosevelt book was very research heavy, to boot), both projects had a lot of freedom involved and called for a really dynamic range of images. Any project that calls specifically for a 1904 Studebaker or leaves room for a stuffed flying badger can’t be all that bad.
Mind your manners by Adam Gustavson
Can you tell us a little about the zombie project? How did you get involved in that one?

I was invited by illustrator Bryan Ballinger, a friend of Pete Mitchell, a cartoonist and the singer for the band No More Kings, to participate in an anthology of zombie comics, which was an impossible thing to say no to. The idea as I understood it was to have the book available for release at the same time as the band’s latest album.

I batted around several ideas over the course several months before writing up a conversation between two undead companions, one of whom was having an existential crisis.

What is the hardest part of illustrating a book? What part is the most rewarding?

The hardest part is not the “getting started” part, having 32-40 blank pages staring back from a computer layout, though sometimes it seems like it could be.

The hardest part for me is the part I call Page 28 Syndrome: being in the home stretch of something that has been lived with for six to nine months, and putting finishing touches on that scene that every book has that happens right after the conflict is resolved but the story hasn’t ended yet. It feels like 101st mile of a 100 mile run, where instead of running you’re just consciously lifting your knees to get to the end, and trying not to trip. That right there, that’s the hardest part.

The most rewarding part for me was always the moment before a project was shipped off the the publisher, looking at everything spread out on the floor in order.

But truthfully, grade school appearances are really the thing that does it now. The whole process of making books can be so isolating, so much about high minded professional practices done in a cave, that it’s not hard to lose sight of who these things are really for. Wandering around among actual humans ‹ preferably short ones ‹ with a book is really my favorite part.

And I think it’s a reminder of why that page 28 syndrome thing is important to get through. There are plenty of examples out in the world where adults cut corners or cheap out on things for children because they think their target audience won’t notice. And often they’re right. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? Children deserve better things than that, whether they’ll recognize it or not.

The worst thing we can do as people in the creative class is willfully accustom our audiences to mediocrity.

• • •

To learn more about Adam Gustavson, you can visit About the book Hannah’s Way, see:

Interview with Artist Debra Walk

Debra Walk city needlework
Leora’s note: I’m not sure how I first connected with Debra Walk, but we seem to have 22 friends in common on Facebook. I enjoy seeing her beautiful artwork, so I asked her a few questions to learn more. Enjoy.

1) When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I loved art from an early age, and my high school art teacher told me that I should seriously pursue art, but by the time I reached my teens, I somehow developed the idea that art was not a valuable profession and decided that I wanted to do something medically related as a profession, and art would be my hobby.

2) Please describe the work you do.
I’ve worked in various media over the years – calligraphy, paper cutting, polymer clay, and, most recently, fabric.

When I was younger, I loved the exactly measured type of calligraphy that I did then, but after a while, I felt a need to work in a softer and less exacting medium. I was living far away from my children and grandchildren at the time and wanted to make them things for them that they could cuddle with and wrap around themselves and not just hang on their walls. This led to my beginning to work with fabric.

My “bread and butter” work involves making Challah Covers and Platta Covers, and I guess they fall more into the design category, but in between producing these, I like to work on new art ideas, often involving Hebrew quotations. I’ve had a running list in my head for probably 35 years of some of my favorite quotes and i enjoy interpreting them in the various media that I work with. There are also some basic design ideas that I’ve used over and over with variations, and I’ve come to consider them as a basic part of who I am an what I’m doing in the world.

I enjoy making family trees, often ordered by customers as gifts celebrating 50th anniversaries. It’s a pleasure to help people celebrate their family life. Over the years I’ve done family trees as paintings, paper cuts and fabric art.

I’m currently experimenting with combining my two favorite types of art/craft and doing brush calligraphy on fabric and also reinterpreting some of my paper cut ideas in fabric..

3) How have you used social media (Facebook, blog, Twitter) to promote your art?
I use Facebook and LinkedIn, but I really have to work on that. I have a tendency to use these social media once in a while, and then forget about them for long periods of time.

I love (see, the online crafts marketplace comprising hundreds of thousands of crafts shops. It has revolutionized the crafts and handmade market, offering international exposure and highly attractive terms of sale for artists and craftspeople and I truly have only good things to say about it. It also is a social medium in its own right – you can follow artists of your choice, correspond with them, “heart” their stores or work and even create your own “treasuries” of favorite items that may be shared with others.

I must also mention Pinterest (see, not as a means of promotion, but as a fabulous way of enjoying the vast array of visual treats available on the intenet and collecting visual ideas. It’s hard to express how much I enjoy looking at the stream of exquisite photography, whether landscape or wildlife, gorgeous gardens, waterfalls, forests, etc. I actually have begun to recite the phrase “מה רבו מעשיך ה’ כולם בחכמה עשית, מלאה הארץ קניינך” “How many are your works Hashem, all made in wisdom, the earth is filled with your creations (loosely translated)” as I surf the Pinterest boards, enjoying my armchair exploration of the wonders of the world.

4) What is your favorite part of being an artist?

Self-expression, work is fun, I feel as if I have little pieces of myself in homes around the world, at people’s Shabbat tables, etc.

5) Where do you look for inspiration?

The many art books I own, Pinterest, as described above, nature, various man-made goods I encounter in the world around me (textiles, housewares, children’s books). I also am an avid reader of “middle-brow” fiction, which nurtures my soul and thus, in some way, inspires me.

6) What are the hard parts of being an artist?

Discipline, disciple, discipline…I’m not naturally disciplined.

As someone who has a very strong critical voice in my head that tells me, among other things, that being an artist is a silly way to spend my life, I’d like to share a teaching that I once learned from Sarah Yehudit Schneider of A Still, Small Voice.

Sarah Yehudit takes the second half of the verse from Psalms, “פותח את ידיך ומשביע לכל חי רצון” and instead of the usually interpretation that seems to state that God fulfills our desires, says that it means that He provides each of us with our (deepest) desires, the ones that are connected to each person’s individual purpose in the world. thus, if one loves to play with fabric and color, that is somehow connected to that purpose.

That has become how I talk back to that negative voice.

I hope you have enjoyed this interview with fabric artist Debra Walk.

Interview with Artist Anna Abramzon

interpretation of Jerusalem with figures and pomegranate, painting by Anna Abramzon
Interpretation of Jerusalem with figures and pomegranate, painting by Anna Abramzon
Anna Abramzon

I “met” the artist Anna Abramzon when she followed me on Twitter recently. I took one look at her Twitter background (good reason to spend time on one’s Twitter background, especially if you are in a design/graphic/visual profession), and I thought, oh, this is lovely line work and color! So I clicked on her website, enjoyed her portfolio, and here she is, agreeing to an interview on my blog.

1) When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

I don’t really remember a time before wanting to be an artist, it was always just kind of a given. My earliest childhood memories are of turning on my parents’ record player (that’s what we had in the Soviet Union in the 80’s!) and spending every morning listening to records and drawing for hours before the rest of the family woke up. Throughout my childhood my parents really encouraged and fostered my love for art. They saw that this was definitely my calling, so they sent me to classes, found me private tutors and exposed me to amazing artists from a young age. It was a natural progression from that to where I am now. When I was graduating high school I didn’t even apply to regular universities, only art schools, there was no doubt in my mind.

2) How have you used social media (Facebook, blog, Twitter) to promote your art?

I love social media! It has really changed my day to day life in an amazing way. I am totally fascinated by the new dialogues and relationships that social media opens and I am constantly discovering new sources of inspiration online. There are all these new channels open to artists now, it’s such an exciting time. I post new art on my facebook page ( and I share things on twitter (@AAartStudio) and my website ( all the time. I also occasionally have free art giveaways and special discounts for my FB fans and Twitter followers.

3) When did you start doing Jewish art? Ketubot?

wedding invitation by Anna Abramzon

I was always an artist and a very proud, active Jew, but I had a hard time merging the two identities. As an artist I longed to paint about my passions, including my love for Israel and my Jewish identity, but painting scenes of Tel Aviv or Jews praying at the kotel just didn’t excite me. I struggled a lot with this in art school. While I wanted my art to speak honestly about who I am, I was also wary of becoming cliché or cheesy. After college I moved to Israel where I lived for four years. In Israel I found myself drenched in “Jewishness” every single day. In Israel being a Jew is so easy and inherent that you no longer really have to think about it. Ironically it was this immersion which finally allowed me to gain enough distance and perspective to be able to paint about being Jewish while staying away from overplayed, obvious imagery. It was also there in Israel that I met and married my husband. We had one of those uber intense, passionate love stories that would have made cynical art student Anna gag a few years prior. Naturally I wanted to channel all these new found lovey dovey romantic feelings into art as well. That’s how I got the idea to paint our ketubah, our wedding invitation and pretty much everything else that could possibly be painted for a wedding. After our wedding, other people started asking me to create ketubot for them. I found that people were coming to me specifically because I was not a typical ketubah artist. My work always was and remains quite figurative, which is not what people usually expect from Judaica and I think that was the appeal… that I came from a different background with a different vision, which allows me to create a contemporary, modern twist while maintaining the beauty, colors and and symbolism of traditional of Judaica. Be sure to visit Anna’s new site of ketubot.

4) What is your favorite part of being an artist?

I am never bored.

5) Where do you look for inspiration?

I have so many artists who inspire me! Some of my favorites are: Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud, Francesco Clemente, Goya, and Noshitomo Nara and I am often inspired by my favorite authors as well, I am a huge book nerd.

6) What are the hard parts of being an artist?

It never stops… it’s a job you can’t leave at the studio. Sometimes I’ll be having coffee with a girlfriend and I’ll think “Oh man, if I could just focus on this moment and stop drawing her in my head!!!!”

7) Can you talk a little about Valley of the Ghosts – it seems to be a comic strip about life in the Ukraine for a Jew. Is this autobiographical?

father killed in attack

Valley of the Ghosts is a work in progress… it’s a very long term project that I have been coming back to for a few years now. It’s a graphic novel about a group of new immigrants in Israel. It’s a compilation of stories based on actual people I knew, and it is partly autobiographical as well. The title “Valley of the Ghosts” is a translation of “Emek Refaim” in Hebrew, which is the name of the street I lived on in Jerusalem.

8) You do a variety of artwork, from comics to caricatures to paintings – what is your favorite medium or style?

That’s a hard question… it would definitely be between figure/portrait painting in watercolor and comics. They are just so different… figure paintings and portraits allow me to express emotions really organically, while comics allow me to articulate thoughts in a much more tangent way. It’s really two different languages but there is quite a bit of overlap as well, because it’s two parallel ways of creating a narrative… I think I need to keep mixing things up and developing all my different styles in order to grow as an artist.

Thank you so much, Anna, for this wonderful interview.


If you liked this interview, perhaps you will enjoy one of these related posts:


Interview with Shimshonit on Writing

Second in my series of interviews with bloggers on writing (see interview with Lorri of Jew Wishes), Shimshonit kindly responded to my questions with revealing and thoughtful answers. Shimshonit lives in Israel and blogs about family life, Israeli politics, books, Jewish topics, food (I think every Jew must blog about food – no?). She used to live in my childhood home town of Newton (she said we met once, but I don’t remember the meeting, which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – but neither of us were bloggers at the time; blogging didn’t exist yet).

1) When did you realize that you like to write?

I’ve loved writing ever since I learned to write. Even as a child, I used to write letters to friends and relatives. Writing has been almost as big an obsession for me as reading. In high school, when I was learning to write expository essays, I found it incredibly frustrating to have my writing picked apart and critiqued by very hard teachers. But I emerged in the end a much more confident writer, more aware of grammar, of words, of voice.

2) When did you realize that you like to read?

Again, when I first learned to read. I’ve always loved stories, and to be able to read them myself gave me an independence from relying on others to tell them to me.

3) Which authors influenced you in your youth? Which authors or writers influence you now? (influence of style or in life choices or both)

I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of her pioneer family. Her family’s courage, self-sufficiency, warmth and love appealed to me. In junior high school I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien, whose love of poetry and epic storytelling fed my love of adventure, languages, and travel, and spoke to my Anglo-Saxon soul. It was Tolkien who, in one of his very few women characters, gave me Éowyn, perhaps my favorite character of all time, whose restlessness and rebellion led to one of the pivotal acts which saved the people of her world from destruction. (Photo at right is Miranda Otto as Éowyn in the Peter Jackson films).

As an adult, I’ve always admired Charles Dickens for his quirky characters and brutal honesty about the good and bad in people. I think Great Expectations may be my favorite novel of all time. My second favorite is probably a tie between George Eliot’s sweeping, intelligent, sensitive Middlemarch and Jane Austen’s quieter, subtler novel Persuasion. For a little humor, I love Pride and Prejudice and anything by P.G. Wodehouse. I could go on forever, but I’ll spare you.

4) Have you ever taken a creative writing course?

I took a year-long college course on the American short story in my early 20s, reading the likes of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Gardner, studying their craft carefully, writing my own stories, and working with the rest of the class as a critique group. We continued on our own for three years after that class. It was marvelous. While I don’t write fiction nowadays, that experience has given a distinctive flavor to my nonfiction writing, and has given me much sharper skills as a reader besides.

5) Have you ever studied journalism?


6) Do you find writing or talking an easier way to express yourself, or are both writing and talking similar vehicles of self-expression for you?

I prefer writing to talking. I don’t think at all well on my feet. I like writing for the opportunity to compose and edit my words carefully, and avoid saying anything I don’t mean or might regret later. I also like writing because it allows me to think on paper (or, more accurately these days, on screen). I’ve heard it said that you know what you think about something once you’ve written about it. I share that sentiment.

7) Have you written short stories or poetry (or would you like to do so)?

Yes, but nothing I would care to show anyone now. Disappointment (in employment, in love) make for great poetic inspiration, but very dull reading. And I don’t think I was a very good fiction writer. I write nonfiction when I’m content, and that’s what I’ve been writing for a long time now.

Please add a favorite quote.

The last lines of Middlemarch, which often make me think of my own life:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I enjoyed these thought-provoking questions. Thank you!

If you enjoyed this interview, you may also enjoy:

Interview with Lorri about Writing

Inspired by Shimshonit’s Foodie interviews, Ilana-Davita’s interviews last summer and by Hannah’s Cooking Manager interviews (links at bottom), I decided to come up with a series of my own. Who would be most likely to answer a series of questions, I thought? Writers! I decided to interview a few people about writing.

Thank you so much, Lorri M., for being my first one! Lorri M. writes the blog Jew Wishes; I greatly enjoy her book reviews, thoughts on current and past events, picturesque photos, and her warmth. About her blog she writes: “My only goal with this blog is to try to foster religious and cultural awareness relating to Judaism.”

Life by Lorri M. of Jew Wishes
something here

1) When did you realize that you like to write?

I realized I liked to write when I was an adolescent, starting with poetry and short stories. I would write my thoughts down on scraps of paper, or whatever was handy for me to write on, whenever an idea for a line or two of poetry, or whenever I thought of a good sentence/s to use for a short story, so I wouldn’t lose the thought or idea.

2) When did you realize that you like to read?

I loved reading the moment I was given books as a very young child, even before starting grade school. I would browse through the pictures in the books over and over again, and learned to read simple words before I began grade school. My parents encouraged me to enjoy reading, and fostered my love of books.

3) Which authors influenced you in your youth? Which authors or writers influence you now? (influence of style or in life choices or both)

I am an avid Bronte sisters fan, both of their novels and their poetry. I have been since I was a young teenager. Jane Eyre is my all time favorite classic novel. I also enjoyed Jane Austen’s works. Their depictions of their surroundings filled my senses. I liked how they would bring me back to a time and place that intrigued and fascinated me, and remember hoping and dreaming that one day I would be able to visit those places, especially the moors of Haworth, the home of the Bronte sisters. I have visited Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage several times, and have visited other cities that the Brontes sisters traveled to and lived in for a while. One can see why they wrote what they did about their environment…and the visits were so illuminating. I have also visited Jane Austen’s birthplace and homes.

The authors who influence me now are ones related to WWII/Shoah/Holocaust memoirs, Jewish Literature and Jewish authors. I incorporate these authors and their works into my daily life choices and in my own writing. Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Herman Wouk, A.B. Yehoshua, Sholem Alecheim, Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, Belva Plain, Meir Shalev, and so many others, give me food for thought and discussion, and bring me illumination, both in the non-fictional and fictional prose and in religious radiance.

4) Have you ever taken a creative writing course?

I majored in English (writing) in college and university, and English Literature was my minor .

5) Have you ever studied journalism?

I took several journalism courses during my college days.

6) Do you find writing or talking an easier way to express yourself, or are both writing and talking similar vehicles of self-expression for you?

Both writing and speaking are similar forms of self-expression for me. With my writing, I can try to paint pictures with my articulation of scenarios I am trying to depict. With verbal communication, the articulation and expressiveness is fairly similar to my writing. I try to include metaphors, symbolism, and structure in my writing, that conforms closely to my verbal expressions.

7) Have you written short stories or poetry (or would you like to do so)?

I have written poems that have been published in small presses and publications, not major pubications. I have written short stories that have also been published in small presses, along with some travel articles. I am in the midst of writing two books, one is fiction and one is non-fiction. The non-fiction work is a family history of sorts, including detailed research other than genealogical research.

I asked Lorri to provide a favorite quote or poem. Here are her selections:

One of my favorite quotes is by Eleanor Roosevelt.

“A woman is like a tea bag — you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”

One of my favorite poems, entitled Epitaph, was written by the poet Merritt Malloy. It encompasses my own feelings and thoughts regarding humankind and humanity, and on remembrance and not forgetting those you love/d or those who came into your life and made a difference, no matter long a time or how short a time you might have known them.

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

Her poetry has been included in many Shabbat services throughout the years and throughout the country, including on Yom Kippur.

• • •

Thank you, Lorri, for sharing with us.

Here are links to interviews by the three bloggers I mentioned at the top of this post:

Interview with Lisa Palombo, Painter

I “met” Lisa when she friended me on Facebook. I took a look at her art both on Facebook and on her blog, and I thought, these are wonderful paintings! What a treasure to find in New Jersey. Here are a few questions she graciously answered for this blog:

1) When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

When I was 9 yrs old. I went to my first summer art camp program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Oh I remember it so vividly. I overheard my teacher tell my mother not to worry because when I am older I will be able to “see” more. (I was the youngest in the class). That day, I forced myself to “see” more and painted a house with every detailed shingle on the roof. That painting won an award at the end of the summer. The president of RISD approached my mother to purchase the painting, but she declined. To this day, I challenge myself to look more than I think I know. I challenge myself everyday to paint better than yesterday. Little did I know at nine I “caught the creative bug” that has since fueled me for 44 years!

Thankfully, I have the painting on my bedroom wall. Every morning, it reminds me why I am an artist.

2) How have you used social media (Facebook, blog, Twitter) to promote your art?
I post on blog, twitter and facebook regularly so I can keep my collectors and followers current on new paintings (sometimes still wet on the easel), news and upcoming exhibitions. Also, it’s a great way for followers to join in on the conversation, especially on Facebook. Posting my next exhibition, 9th annual Spring Open Studio on Facebook helps spread the word virally. I still send out postcards to my list and press releases to periodicals. It all works together!

3) What advice would you give to other artists about marketing?

4) What is your favorite part of being an artist?
Seeing magic happen.

5) Where do you look for inspiration?
Flowers and gardens. I think I was a fairy in my past life. :0)

For more on Lisa, visit:

Her next event: Spring Open Studio, May 1 & 2 (12-5pm) 55 Mountain Ave., Caldwell, NJ
china blue and citrus after the party peonies in the garden

Interview with NJ Playgrounds

NJ Playgrounds Your Complete Guide to New Jersey Playgrounds
Your Complete Guide to New Jersey Playgrounds

I met Sheila of NJ Playgrounds via Twitter (she’s njplaygrounds), and I enjoyed her posts on parks and playgrounds here in New Jersey. She also introduced me to the Atahualpa theme for WordPress, one that I recommend if you want a dynamic theme that will do a lot without creating your own. I admire her for starting a website business while raising small children. Enjoy the interview, and please click on the screenshot at the top of the post to visit her site.

1) How did you get the idea for NJ Playgrounds?

It was simmering for a while. I wanted to find a good meeting place for a bunch of moms from Union County that were posting about a playdate and was surprised to see that the internet didn’t have good information on playgrounds in general. I knew that playground information is helpful for me as a new mom, and thought why not share it when I get it?

2) What did you do before you had kids?

I had graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology with a B.E. in Chemical Engineering, but never practiced engineering per se. I began a career in explosives trace detection involved in everything from product support, training, sales, evaluations, and then right before 9-11, I took the position as the FAA Program Manager. The following years were incredibly active and had to travel quite a bit. I’m glad I was able to do this even though it was so busy, I missed my husband but I was able to work with such great people and it really helped me grow personally and professionally.

3) How would you like to see NJ Playgrounds grow? What ideas do you have for your site?

Ultimately I’d like to see NJ Playgrounds take on a life of its own, and be community driven. Making it easy for people to contribute, but also make sure that the information is what people are looking for. I think that there can be too much information, and filtering it, making it easy for the reader is one of the things I’m focusing on next. One of my pet projects for this fall/winter is getting a summary of all NJ Indoor Playgrounds, play areas, storytimes, children museums in one page but easily categorized. It has started, and we’ve got some great feedback already. Also, just started a Pioneer of the month to highlight the efforts of one person or organization that has transformed their community in NJ. Change isn’t easy and we support those who take it on.

I’m also in discussion with another playground maven who does the paper version of NJ playgrounds. She is an amazing person so I’m hoping our focus and goals line up so we can partner together. As most people can relate, doing everything yourself can limit you, especially when you have your own limits with time and money. I’m hoping to branch out a bit. Some advertising dollars wouldn’t hurt either.

4) Can you give advice to someone who wants to start a blog or website?

Ask yourself some questions first, like

  • Who is the blog for?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What is your purpose?
  • Are you passionate about it? If yes, write it down, focus, and then let it rip.

It helps to take on something that fills a void. There is nothing wrong with the tons of blogs out there already, but if you do want to stand out, you may want to find a void in a specific area, chances are other people feel that void too. I always think about how will my blog/website service others? And it can be anything, laughter, information, support, music, art, tips…

Once you get the idea, then you can start looking at the mechanics of a blog. Get dreamhost or Godaddy for hosting and domain name, check out, download it and then I just follow @leoraw for my wordpress tips. 😉

On a side note, I completely agree with Hannah’s assessment on WordPress, it truly has been a blessing. I get about 70% of my traffic via search engine. Can be a headache when you own your own site, but you have complete control. It’s been great.

5) Any comment on the slogan you sent to me:

RaisingKids + Freelance/Website/Blogging = Sanity

Although I’ve left my work identity behind, I do truly enjoy working with adults and freelancing/blogging has allowed me to kinda stay in touch with the working world. It has helped me stay sane, and as I take my kids to new places, it’s like a bonus that I can share it with others. Raising my kids comes first but offering something that is helpful to other moms makes me feel like I’m contributing to society.

6) What are some of your favorite posts/articles?

Although playground posts are pretty dry, I’ve enjoyed a few biggest and best- highlighting our favorites:

7) How has Twitter helped your blog/website?

It really has helped me branch out and although I don’t get much traffic from twitter per se I’ve been able to network and meet people who lead me to some solutions and advice. I met my playground twin in CA, OCPlayParks, who I still want to chat with soon. She’s done a similar thing with Orange County Parks, in CA and is quite an amazing person. I learned about the mapping program through her and her site.

Interview with Hannah Katsman of

cooking manager 2010

What made you decide to set up this new blog? What goals do you hope to achieve?

Over the years I’ve met experienced homemakers who don’t save leftovers or store food safely. And many people never learned how to cook from scratch. I’m lucky to have learned kitchen management at home from the most efficient cook I’ve ever met–my mother Touby z”l.

Cookbooks are usually about buying a set of ingredients and following instructions. I like to look at the whole picture–starting with what you have in the house, then choosing recipes and meals according to your specific needs. I want to teach people how to get from menu planning and shopping through cooking and cleanup without becoming exhausted or throwing away half the food at the end.

I see CookingManager.Com as a legacy to my mother, who died almost twenty years ago. She developed a chronic illness that forced her to work using the minimum number of steps. My mother believed that resources, including time, money and energy, should never go to waste. Originally I thought about a book or a website, but since I’ve been blogging for several years I decided on this format.

Why did you set it up with self-hosted WordPress (as opposed to using Blogger or
Self-hosted WordPress is used by most successful bloggers. Blogger has little flexibility and’s free service doesn’t allow advertising. You have to pay for self-hosted WordPress, but you own your own content.No one can close you down, as has happened on free platforms. And WordPress is superior when it comes to getting traffic from search engines.
The difference between Blogger and self-hosted WordPress is like the difference between renting and owning a home: Owning is a responsibility and sometimes a headache, but a good investment and ultimately more satisfying.

Who is your target audience for your new blog?
Anyone who wants to save money and time when making home-cooked meals. It can be for people setting up a kitchen for the first time, growing families who find they spend too much on prepared food, or people on special diets who cannot use processed products.

What was the hardest part of setting up the blog?
I’m still intimidated by coding, design and technical details. Keeping up with my post schedule has been a challenge over the busy summer.

The fun parts?
Writing, and interacting with my readers. I love to help readers with their specific problems, like what kind of pressure cooker to buy or how to use meat drippings to flavor future recipes. One mother of eight wrote that she learns something new with every post. I am still finding my voice on CookingManager.Com, so if you have questions come join the conversation while my audience is still small. 🙂

If someone wants to set up a professional blog, how can one get advice on doing so?
Most people offering professional advice also have a public website. Before spending money, spend time on a few different sites to see if the style and focus is right for you. I highly recommend Leora, who advised me on setting up the WordPress blogs and designed the banner for A Mother in Israel. I also like,, and Nice2All.Com.

Don’t worry about missing a great offer as there will always be another one. If you don’t want to spend you can find hundreds, if not thousands, of free WordPress marketing articles and tutorials including, an active forum that helped me numerous times.

Has using Twitter helped promote your new site?
I haven’t developed my Twitter account much yet,(, but I plan to. In the meantime I use it mostly for posting links to new posts. You can follow me both there and at @mominisrael, where I tweet more often.

Are you looking for guest posts for your site? What kind of posts would you like?
Mimi at Israeli Kitchen contributed a delicious chick pea recipe, and I would love to have more. I’m not a “foodie,” but I’ve realized that readers appreciate simple recipes too. And a few have sent me their own recipes to publish. See the tab “Submit Recipe” on the front page.

What are some of your favorite posts on the new site? Why are these your favorites?

Leora, thank you so much for the interview. I’m looking forward to feedback from your readers.

•  •  •

Leora’s Note: This post was updated with Hannah’s new header and blog layout. The header was designed by Leora.

Interview with Elke Reva Sudin

Lee Avenue in Brooklyn, illustration by Elke Reva Sudin
Lee Avenue in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn, illustration by Elke Reva Sudin

How did you get started doing art?
I have always been an artist. It is a personality disorder that somehow becomes acceptable when channeled through pen on paper.

What was your childhood relationship to art?


What is your training?
Growing up I had very little access to art or the artistic mentality. My parents are not artists and growing up in a religious school with no art program did not help either. I did what I could on my own but it was not until the age of 16 when I attended a pre-college program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) that I understood for the first time how representing subject through mark making could be such an enlightening experience.

College furthered what I had gotten a taste of in pre-college. Each of my 4 years gave me a deeper understanding of how any art is conceived, designed and constructed. I received a BFA in Illustration at Pratt Institute, an art and design college in Brooklyn.

What motivates you to do art?
Drawing from life. I enjoy the experience of translating one mode of experience into another. The illustration is an end product of my excitement to study and reflect without too much questioning during the process.

What in particular do you find difficult about doing “Jewish” art? Any conflicts?
The problem with “Jewish” art is that Judaism is built on the concept that God is infinite and we are contained within God. Therefore all our our earthly experiences are illusions because everything that we see as being separate, is really one unified entity. Whenever I attempt a “Jewish” art piece, it seems pointless to show material garments, ritual items and customs, because those only exist for us to find a way to connect with the ephemeral. It boils down and boils down until not even a blank white piece of paper to gives off true meaning. There is a reason we are commanded not to make graven images, people get absorbed in the image and not the meaning. I think this idea has helped Judaism survive for so long by the fact that no matter where we are in the world, we as Jews have no attachment to ritual as connected to physical things. The idea survives even when large portions of the population is wiped out.

My connection to Judaism is through action. So it is rather my process of creating the art, in which I connect to the infinite connections and acknowledging the spiritual path that it follows, that bring me to an end product which I feel is Jewish. Because there is no separation between my being and my artistic product, the product is inherently spiritual.

What would you suggest to someone who wants to learn art? Illustration?
The best advice I can give is to draw from life. Often times we draw from experiences, but our memories have a funny way of selecting what we remember, which is very limiting. Drawing from life opens up the artist to nuances and connections that would be otherwise hidden. Using our hands, we as artists have an easier time connecting to different parts of our brains, resulting in “happy accidents,” and allow us to take something physical and transform it into something representational and meaningful.

I studied illustration because it takes the principles of art and design and applies them in a more directed setting suitable for performing commercial work compared to what is generally taught in the contemporary fine art educational setting. Direction is important, because without focus artists tend to turn to their own desire to be admired by others, rather than contributing their abilities to the enlightenment of the public.

Can you tell us about the Hipsters and Hassids project?

I constructed an illustrated book titled “Hipsters and Hassids: The Youth of Williamsburg North and South.” It is an investigative illustrative study which discovers the surprising similarities these seemingly polar opposite communities have in common. I went inside the neighborhoods, with a strong focus on the Hassidic side, particularly concerning the women, to see first hand what life is like behind the surface is like. One of the biggest misunderstandings (and commonalities) is that both sides are so off-putting. On the Hipster side they sell their look and lifestyle as a product. Life is valued by the self absorbed fascination with the party, the outfit, and obscure references to music and culture, but lacking any meaning which had once held strong associations to those things. On the Hassidic end of things they are very protective of preserving their customs and way of life and outside influences are harmful in that respect. The truth is that people are the same everywhere, there will always be people open and close-minded, self absorbed and absorbed in other things, those of respect and those who bring shame to the human race, but the important thing is to remember the unity that all people share. We are all a part of this world for a reason and an obsession with particular fashions just aint it.

Elke is looking for publishers and those interested in self-published copies.
selections from the book are featured here:

Please check out her website:
and blog updated constantly with new illustrations:

bedford-ave     following-suit