By Michele Kirichanskaya
Today we’re pleased to welcome Caroline Kusin Pritchard to the WNDB blog to discuss Gitty and Kvetch, written by Pritchard and illustrated by Ariel Landy.
First of all, welcome to We Need Diverse Books! Could you tell us a little about yourself and your book, Gitty and Kvetch?
It’s such a pleasure to be here, thank you! My name is Caroline (she/her) and I’m currently curled up on my couch typing to the steady rhythm of my kids’ ocean waves sound machine and our 120-lb dog’s earthshaking snores. It’s the golden hour!
Gitty and Kvetch is about an odd couple friendship between a glass-half-full kid named Gitty and her curmudgeonly, Yiddish-slinging bird bestie, Kvetch, who she shleps on an adventure. Gitty is convinced it’s the perfect day to hang the perfect painting in their perfect purple treehouse. But when a rainstorm hits and even Gitty can’t find hope, it’s up to Kvetch to lift her spirits!
Where did the idea for Gitty and Kvetch come from?
I was teaching a creative writing class for middle schoolers a few summers ago. We were splayed out across the grass dreaming up “what if…” statements to prompt story ideas. I still have my notebook from that day! At the very top of the page it says, “What if a hyperbolic girl gets the wind knocked out of her sails?” It felt like Gitty’s character smacked me right in the face— I was scrambling to capture all her rambling, effusive language! I remember pausing only to consider how in the world I was going to balance out all her bubbles. That’s when good ol’ Kvetch came into focus. Listening to their sweet and salty banter felt like I was right back home in Texas sitting around our kitchen table.
I also think there was a clear subconscious desire for increased Jewish representation that motivated this story in particular. And not just representation tied to holidays or food, but just-so-happens-to-be-Jewish characters and storylines related to Jewish ideas, humor and values. Gitty and Kvetch as characters flowed right out of me because I knew them so well. Gitty’s boundless optimism, Kvetch’s cautious realism. They’re amalgamations of the qualities I love about my own Jewish family and upbringing.
How did you get into picture books? What pulled you to the medium?
I’ve written picture books ever since I was little, but only for myself. When I was on maternity leave with my second kid, a number of personal events shook my foundation. Those experiences finally motivated me to pursue publishing outright. Every laugh-out-loud interaction with our kids, every heartwarming moment of discovery, started to take the shape of a picture book in my mind. These little humans see the world with such unadulterated texture and clarity. Spending my day eye-level with their perspectives makes storytelling feel irresistible.
What are some of your favorite examples of picture books growing up and now?
I consumed every picture book I could get my hands on growing up, but my hands-down favorite was Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Erik Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Beyond the clever plot and masterful illustrations, it was one of the only books where I saw Jewish people centered. If the story of a middle-aged man fighting a pack of goblins in order to save Hanukkah made me feel seen, I can’t even imagine what it would have felt like to see a contemporary kid going about relatable problems.
And remember those clunky Shel Silverstein poetry collections? I used to tuck them under the covers with me at night— just me, my stuffed animals, and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Silverstein’s storytelling stretched my imagination beyond its limits. His poems were so irresistibly irreverent! Silverstein taught me how good it felt as a child reader to be trusted and respected by an author. He lobbed equal parts crass and heartwarming ideas my way… and I ate them right up.
Gitty and Kvetch seems to draw a bit from Yiddish humor. Could you talk about the book’s sense of Jewish humor and your own connection to it?
Yes to all the humor! I have great-grandparents on both sides of my family who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland and Russia speaking only Yiddish. This trickled down to my own adoration of the Yiddish my family liberally peppered into conversations. I grew up to a soundtrack of my dad hollering that I was driving him meshugge. And my grandpa’s kvelling? Don’t even get me started with all the kvelling!
The language has always felt so expressive, so visceral. It feels personal! Engaging with Yiddish makes me feel deeply connected to what I love about being Jewish— the passion, the resilience, the humor. I love that Kvetch is an intense, dynamic little bird who refuses to be pigeonholed (pun very much intended). His character organically mirrors the respect and love I have for the language, so incorporating Yiddish felt like a natural fit.
How would you describe your collaboration with the artist, Ariel Landy?
I feel forever indebted to my editor, Alexa Pastor, and the whole Atheneum team for letting me in on the decision making process and pushing for Ariel’s creative brilliance from day one! The first time I saw Ariel’s character sketches, it felt like meeting Gitty and Kvetch for the first time. The colors, worldbuilding, expressions… Kvetch’s HAT! Get out of here with that hat! I still cackle out loud every time I see the spread of Gitty falling progressively flatter on her face along with the line “ruined…ruined… RUINED!”
Many people who are not familiar with picture books might not think highly of the medium because it’s intended for younger readers. What’s your take on this and the worth of picture books in general?
I’d be most interested to talk to a fellow white person who holds the beliefs you describe. Might their dismissive stance on picture books just be another form of their own entitlement? The world is set up to nurture and advantage white people like us. In that privileged paradigm, what value could a 32-page illustrated book for kids possibly offer that they don’t already have? I’d encourage that person to first consider that not everything is meant for them. But in this case, stories intended for young readers— particularly ones written and illustrated by BIPOC creators—are critical for cracking open their worldview, for centering realities that have been marginalized by design from the very beginning.
I used to see picture books as the first line of defense against the racist, sexist, heteronormative, ableist (and beyond) powers that be. But now I recognize their collective power as something that goes far beyond a defensive response. Picture books are quite literally shaping the world our kids come to understand. What is more worthy than that?
What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers, especially picture book writers?
Pay attention. Listen to how kids talk with each other when adults aren’t controlling their play. Watch how their faces react when a joke finally clicks. Remember what it felt like when your sister broke your favorite toy or when your older brother gave you a hug when you least expected it. Then get out of the way and let those lived realities direct the story. It’s just like Shel Silverstein taught us. A child’s world is different from our own— it’s richer and wilder and far funnier than what we adults are hardwired to dream up. So pay attention and trust kids to show you what they care about.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
Ohhh, I love this question! One of my favorite things has been hearing how much fun kids (and grown ups!) are having with their voices for each character. One student recently asked me how Kvetch is “supposed” to sound. The answer, of course, is he’s supposed to sound exactly how you want him to sound!
But how does my Kvetch sound? I used to read his bits with a New York, Larry David-esque voice until I realized how that played into the exact single story of Jews I believe we have to deconstruct. Jews come in every shape, in every shade, and from every geography. And this ol’ Jewish bird just happens to sound like the one who raised me: my Texarkana, TX born and bred Pops.
Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about?
I have two unannounced projects in the pipeline that I’m excited to share more about soon! But according to the brainstorming doc on my phone, I’m also working on roughly ~387 stories at the moment. If you’ve ever seen me cackle into thin air and then furiously peck away on my phone, now you know why.
Finally, are there any books, particularly books with Jewish representation, you would recommend to the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
How much time do y’all have?! I am in love with Honey on the Page by Miriam Udel, which is a translated collection of Yiddish children’s stories and poems. I feel mind blown and inspired every single time I crack open the binding! In terms of holiday stories, I have two current favorites. I absolutely adore The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, which is a classic retelling of I.L. Peretz’s story that’s packed with lush details from 1930s D.C. The second is a family favorite: Ezra’s Big Shabbat Question written by Aviva L. Brown and illustrated by Annastasia Kanavaliuk, which follows Ezra as he chases down the answer to an age-old question that has our kids utterly delighted: can you tie a knot on Shabbat? I can’t wait to get my hands on Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe. It’s the true story of Eliza Davis confronting Charles Dickens over his antisemetic rendering of a character in Oliver Twist. Okay, one more, but this time a YA novel: The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros. It’s a queer gothic fantasy that involves murder, a dybbuk, and the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Does it get better than that?
Uh oh, last one! I’ve been waiting for Amanda Gormon’s Change Sings ever since melting into a puddle after her inaugural poem. I snagged my copy this week and became instantly teary when I realized one of the recurring characters wears a kippah. I later learned that while illustrator Lauren Long isn’t Jewish himself, he actively incorporates Jewish representation in his work. A real mensch!
Caroline Kusin Pritchard grew up as the youngest of four children in Dallas, TX and spent her childhood sneaking extra helpings of noodle kugel from her bubbe’s kitchen. She has spent her career working across education, everything from teaching brilliant third graders to helping develop federal policy. Caroline is currently an MFA Candidate in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband (Tavita), three kiddos (Afi, Manu and Leone) and their 120-lb dog (Mishpacha, or “Misha’ for short). Caroline is the author of GITTY AND KVETCH (September 14, 2021) and is excited to share about more upcoming projects soon.
Michele Kirichanskaya (she/her) is a freelance journalist and writer from Brooklyn, New York. Currently studying at the New School, when she is not writing, she is reading, watching an absurd amount of cartoons to survive reality, and creating content for platforms like Hey Alma, Salon, The Mary Sue, GeeksOut, ComicsVerse, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and more. Her work can be found here and on Twitter @MicheleKiricha1.