Ellen Roteman and Faygie Holt, two journalists whose careers included award-winning work recognized by the American Jewish Press Association, released new Jewish youth chapter books in November. Roteman, a resident of Pittsburgh who began her career at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and Holt even did separate stints writing for the Jewish Exponent, the Chronicle’s affiliated publication in Philadelphia.
Holt published “Layla’s Vistaville Summer,” a novel about a young girl who searches for the treasure her great-great-grandfather hid somewhere in her Aunt Rivka’s house. This is Holt’s fourth children’s book. Her previous three make up the Achdus Club series, which follow the lives of students at an Orthodox girls school.
“The Case of the Disappearing Chanukah Candles” is Roteman’s debut novel. It follows the five Stern siblings as they attempt to solve the mystery of what’s happening with Mrs. Rabinovitz’s disappearing Chanukah candles.
“I’ve been a journalist for many years, and I’d always dreamed of writing screenplays or novels. I have a whole stack of manuscripts and screenplays and whatnot,” said Holt, who now lives in Livingston, N.J. “Nothing ever quite clicked. Nothing ever sold. [I] got pretty close a couple of times, but in the end there was always something that didn’t quite push it to that next level.”
Holt’s journalism career includes work at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Jewish News Syndicate, Chabad.org and more.
She had taken a break from journalism and was working in an Orthodox girl’s elementary school when she started writing her first children’s book, “The New Girl.” She wrote it for her students, as there didn’t seem to be many books on the market for them at the time that had Orthodox characters whose lives reflected their own.
Holt’s students loved the book, so she decided to reach out to some Jewish publishers. At first, she received nothing but rejections. Then a few months later, Menucha Publishers offered to release it.
Menucha has released her other three books as well.
“I’m thankful,” Holt said. “This is a niche that I really fell into, and I’m loving the adventure that it’s taken me on as a writer.”
Holt had dreams of writing novels, but she never thought she’d write one for children. Roteman, meanwhile, had wanted to write children’s books for a long time.
Besides at the Chronicle, Roteman worked for many years at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, as well as at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. As she was nearing retirement, she began to take her dream of becoming a children’s author more seriously. She joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, where others encouraged her to write for market trends. “The Hunger Games” series was big at the time, so that meant dystopian literature.
But Roteman, who lives part of the year in Pittsburgh and part in Florida, found the genre depressing. She took a break from it by writing a novel instead for her own grandchildren.
That book became “The Case of the Disappearing Chanukah Candles,” also released by Menucha.
Soon after the book was published, Holt reached out to Roteman to congratulate her onbeing a new author. Holt wanted to interview Roteman for her blog, and as they talked, they discovered what they had in common.
“It’s just so cool to meet somebody by chance and find out you have a lot of things in common with them,” Roteman said. “It’s the Jewish story. That’s how we make contact in our whole world.”
Reflecting on their experiences of becoming children’s book authors, the two women had some advice for aspiring writers.
“Just do it,” Holt said. “Sit down and start working on it. There’s no right time. It’s never going to get easier. You’re never going to miraculously have 15 hours in the day where you can just sit and do nothing and sit and write. If you think you want to write, take five minutes in the morning, in the afternoon, your lunch break — whatever it is — and start writing notes. Just start writing something.”
“If you’re really serious, you do need to find a good critique group,” Roteman offered. “You get so close to your project. If you love writing, you’re going to get so close to it that you lose your perspective, and a critique group will bring you perspective and ideas and of course help you with the tools of writing for kids, how to pace the story, how to develop your characters.” PJC
Ellen Roteman’s book, “The Case of the Disappearing Chanukah Candles,” is available at Pinsker’s, on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.
Selah Maya Zighelboim writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.