Pearls of Positivity
An author’s gift to children
Ninth-grade algebra, an hour of misery. The teacher was the variable, favoring some students over others. For those who excelled, sunshine and roses. She returned their work with a lilt in her voice, as light as spring. If you grappled a bit, she torqued her tone, cold as winter.
Breaking down the problem in the simplest terms: Teacher = Bully.
“I would just freeze because she was so mean,” says children’s picture book author, Ellen Leventhal, of her not-so-nice instructor. “Teachers are supposed to be encouraging and uplifting, not tear you down,” adds the former fifth-grade teacher at The Shlenker School, a nurturer, through and through.
No, math wasn’t Ellen’s strong suit. But writing was.
At an early age, she recognized the power of words, how they frolicked in rhyme. So, she penned a poem about Bully Teacher to the delight of friends who giggled in solidarity. Until one day, on a school field trip, it fell from her purse and – oops – into the hands of the school principal.
“He actually kind of laughed and gave it back to me and said not to do it again,” she recalls. While the poem’s audience may have been short-lived, Ellen’s experience has garnered mention over the years.
“Each year, I’d tell my students about this teacher I had who was just horrible and made me feel stupid. I shared it to let them know that you don’t let someone define you,” Ellen says. “I want children to believe in themselves and their idea of how they want to contribute to this world.”
Most recently, Ellen brings these lessons to light in her latest book, DEBBIE’S SONG, a picture book biography about the late Debbie Friedman (1951-2011) who broke barriers, becoming one of the most influential and respected singer-songwriters of Jewish music in the world.
The self-taught guitarist changed the way people related to Judaism and made prayer accessible to millions through her music. Friedman, who went on to perform at Carnegie Hall, is a model for young people to pursue their dreams.
“We sang her songs all the time at Shlenker,” says Ellen who taught there 18 years, then another 12 years part-time.
“The book (illustrated by Natalia Grebtsova) is about a persistent woman who had this dream and against all obstacles she made it. She changed the face of Jewish music and made it more contemporary and more inclusive. Her music took off, against all odds.”
More than anything, Ellen loves visiting schools, engaging students with her books. Teaching them about Friedman’s talent, the musician’s “superpower,” gets young audiences thinking about their own strong suits.
“We aren’t trying to market it just for the Jewish community, because it’s really for everyone,” the author continues. “I think her story will resonate with a lot of people.”
Ellen cares for her books like babies, laboring over words that dance off the page. Books that bring the warm fuzzies, that inspire and ignite the imagination. Books that tenderly tackle life-changing events.
Growing up in Trenton, NJ, she recalls an attorney father who enjoyed writing stories and poems later in life. Her mother was a marvel of a different kind as the country’s first female health inspector. “When I was a teenager and started dating, she knew all about the hygiene at restaurants and would tell my date where he could and couldn’t take me.
“When she came to visit us here and heard Marvin Zindler – Slime in the ice machine! – she was in love,” Ellen says, of the late KTRK-TV consumer reporter.
Little wonder that Ellen’s path followed that of creativity and fortitude.
“Ellen is an excellent writer, always with an uplifting message,” says her friend Ellen Rothberg, who years ago taught with her at The Shlenker School. The two Ellens enjoyed brainstorming dialogues together for various school presentations. They concocted all sorts of stories for school-age children. Wouldn’t it be fun to get published?
While on a road trip to College Station to visit her college-age daughter, Rothberg saw a cow in a bluebonnet-covered field. “I said to my husband, ‘I wonder if the cows eat those bluebonnets?’”
That got both Ellens thinking. There was a whole pasture of predicaments a cow could incur if she ate all the bluebonnets. Oh, the tale they could weave, a story of actions and consequences, a funfest for young fertile minds. They got on it, imaginations running wild.
They entered the book in a national children’s picture book contest in 2005. The published winner would be awarded a publicist to help with marketing and author events.
The publisher phoned them. Their book was one of 10 finalists. An online vote would determine the winner.
But first, they needed to rewrite it. We love it, now change it.
“There were red editing marks everywhere,” both authors recall.
Turns out, the world of children’s literature isn’t the easiest nut to crack. The craft is riddled in rules and parameters. Formulas to follow. Authors must mine their creative caverns for a tale they can weave together in a brevity of words, tying it up at the end in a neat little bow.
So, the two enrolled in a continuing education class at Rice University to learn the craft.
“And then when you have it done, you start revising and revising. I must admit, I’m quite the revising machine,” says Ellen, who confesses difficulty landing a stopping point. You can kill the heart of a book by not knowing when to stop, she cautions, like overwatering a houseplant.
“When you’re still revising, it’s not out there yet, in a publisher or agent’s inbox. Once you let it go, you have no more control. It’s a bit nerve-racking!”
Revisions paid off for the pair’s Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets, which ultimately won. The fun romp follows the sassy cow, Sue Ellen, who gives in to temptation, eating all the tasty blue flowers in her field. Now she must solve the problem of how to get the bluebonnets back in her favorite pasture.
Ellen’s fifth-grade class helped revise it. “I’d put a sentence up and say, ‘What’s a better, stronger verb we can use here?’ When we won, we had an ice cream party.” Book sales aided a literacy program. “That made the students feel great. It’s all about that ripple effect, how good things carry on.”
“I really feel like I’m watching a celebrity come into her own,” says Rothberg, who co-wrote a few other books with Ellen, now out of publication. Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets is now enjoying an updated 10th anniversary edition, illustrated by Joel Cook.
Ellen keeps to a daily writing routine and belongs to critique groups, cherishing input from others. “In a sense, writing a book is a collaborative effort,” she says. Her favorite thing is interacting with students as they relate to her book’s characters.
A woolly character took residence in her head for some time, leading to the book Lola Can’t Leap, illustrated by Noelle Shawa, about a sheep who comes from a long line of leapers, but can’t make it over the fence. She finally realizes after many attempts that she can embrace her unique gift for singing.
Sometimes, picture books are a salve for children whose worlds feel off-kilter from loss and trauma. In a love letter to Houston and its children came A Flood of Kindness, illustrated by Blythe Russo, the story of Charlotte, a young girl who is forced to evacuate to a shelter with family when floodwaters rise. She grapples with anger and sadness, but then realizes she has the power to help others, healing in the process.
Ellen drew from experience, having gone through three floods with husband Steve: the Memorial Day flood in 2015, again in April 2016, and 2017’s Hurricane Harvey that dumped more than 50 inches of rain over parts of Houston.
They have a new house now in the same location, raised six feet due to Harvey’s intense lashing. Four feet of latte-colored water left their walls like sponges. Their washing machine broke free from its moorings like a runaway barge, barreling its way through the utility room and kitchen, to its final resting place in the den.
“We put our wedding album where we thought it would be safe and dry in a wall unit, but it wasn’t high enough,” recalls Steve. “When we opened that drawer, it was floating.”
Despite the mess and headache, many were worse off, the couple realized. “Like Mister Rogers always said, ‘Find the helpers,’” Ellen says of the late children’s television host.
Shlenker teacher Sherry Dubin, who worked with Ellen back in the day, says there’s no better person to address such sensitive subjects. “She’s so accomplished in her writing and her ability to guide students, whatever their age. She always has such a great underlying message in her books.”
Dubin’s older grandchildren, 7-year-old twins, remember Hurricane Harvey and moving out of their home. “A Flood of Kindness speaks to them, to all of us who went through all those emotions and trauma. That book touches the heart strings of so many.”
Ellen, mother to two sons, Daniel and Seth, loves that her friends’ grandchildren enjoy her books. She has grandchildren as well, Adam, Emma, Lucas, and Ellie. “It’s pretty special reading your book to your grandchild,” she says.
Ellen is definitely a force, says husband Steve, who can practically see his wife’s brain synapses sparking as she mulls over story ideas. She’s working on a book about an unconventional rooster now. No book contract yet, but she hopes it’ll have publishers crowing.
“As I said when she got her first book published, I am now the trophy husband who I always deserved to be,” Steve jokes. “She’s always thinking and coming up with stories, and she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves for all that hard work.”
By the way, Steve, retired from Shell Oil, is a big math guy. He has a PhD in mathematics. Unlike Ellen’s ninth-grade algebra teacher, he’s her biggest cheerleader. And exponentially nicer.
“Yep,” quips Ellen. “He’s very good at math. I’ll stick to my writing.”
Editor’s note: See ellenleventhal.com to order Ellen’s books, request an author’s visit, and more.
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