When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, then-fourth-grader Chani Altein would reply with confidence: “I want to be an author.”
Now, some years later, after having penned and published six young-adult novels and four picture books, Altein looks back fondly on her early days of writing poetry at the New Haven Day School.
“I had a fourth-grade general studies teacher who made me feel so good about my writing, I wanted to do it for real,” she recalled.
Altein, co-director of Chabad of Pittsburgh and the mother of five children ranging in age from 2 to 12, has found a niche market in what she calls “frum literature,” and she has a devoted following of Jewish children and teens who frequently write her letters telling her how much they love her work.
Her latest novel, “Mimi in the Middle,” published by Judaica Press last month, tells the story of a young Orthodox girl with younger twin brothers and older twin sisters who struggles with the pressures of being a middle child and learns a lesson about “going the middle way, and not being too extreme on either side,” Altein said.
Altein wrote her first book when she was just 21, working as a preschool teacher in Park Slope and frustrated by the lack of an engaging aleph-bet book for young children.
When she saw how much her students enjoyed the rhythm in the popular alphabet book “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” she was inspired to create a similar story to teach the Hebrew letters.
Hachai Publishing loved her manuscript, Altein recalled, but there was one catch.
“I wrote it in the Sephardic pronunciation — aleph bet — and they said their market says aleph-bais,” she said. “I had to switch it all around. That was a challenge.”
But it was a challenge she was up for, and the result was “The Aleph-Bais Trip on the Aleph-Bais Ship,” illustrated by Baruch Becker, who has also done work for Disney. The book was well received and was sold in Judaica stores across the country.
A year later, Altein wrote her second picture book, which she submitted to publisher ArtScroll. An editor there told her she didn’t see the story as a picture book but suggested Altein turn it into a chapter book.
By then, Altein was living in Pittsburgh and, having no summer plans, could devote that time to writing her first young adult novel. Although ArtScroll did not respond to her submission of her completed manuscript, Judaica Press embraced it and has since published five of her six novels.
Writing for “religious Jewish publishers” poses unique challenges, according to Altein. Because their readers sanction only particular behaviors, the books they publish have to reflect only those behaviors.
“You have to know what they’re looking for,” Altein said. “For example, the characters can’t be too mean. My challenge over time has been making my characters true to life but still acceptable to the frum market. If I have someone gossiping in the book, her words get totally revised.”
In real life — even in the frum world — young girls are sometimes mean, Altein noted, and often do things such as talk back to their parents. While Altein can intimate these types of behaviors in her books, she has to be careful not to go too far, she said.
“The characters can’t be overtly disrespectful,” Altein explained. “As an author, I had to figure out how to do that.”
Particular words are also taboo and pose another challenge to the writer. In “Mimi in the Middle,” for example, Altein had written in a pregnant sister-in-law but had to remove any mention of pregnancy. In another book, Altein had written about girls traveling together to Florida for vacation — which happens sometimes in real life, she noted — but had to revise her work as the publisher did not think the idea of two girls traveling together to Florida would be acceptable to its readers.
“I understand where they are coming from,” Altein said. “They have readers they need to please.”
In Altein’s last novel, which she self-published, she included the character of a rebellious teenager but “had to do it in subtle ways,” she said.
“I couldn’t say ‘drugs,’ or ‘boys,’” Altein explained. “I had to just use little things to hint at rebelling such as highlights in her hair.”
Altein spends about two and half hours writing and revising each page, she said, and as the mother of five and co-director of Chabad, she has to squeeze in writing time between programming responsibilities and child rearing.
But while being a mother has limited the time Altein has to write, she does benefit as an author from listening to her own children, she said.
“Now, when I write about kids that are my kids’ ages, I can be true to their voices,” she said. “They are a good frame of reference.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.