Interview with Paula Cohen

The writing community lost a wonderful member recently. I had the honor of interviewing Paula Cohen before her passing.

If given the chance, would you like to time travel?

📚I would LOVE to time travel.  I’m not sure I would want to see into the future, but I’d love to have seen how my family lived in Eastern Europe before they came to America.  I’d like to see the big wave of immigration in New York City, to see old New York at the turn of the 20th century, witness the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d give anything to spend a week in mid-1960’s swinging London!

What did you want to be when you were a child?

📚I wanted to be a children’s book writer and illustrator, or a sleuth like Nancy Drew. Or Batgirl. I spent a lot of time pretending I was Batgirl. 

What’s something interesting you’ve learned recently?

📚Apparently woodpeckers’ tongues wrap all the way around their brains within their skulls to act as shock absorption when they are pecking for food.  It’s true!

Muffins or cupcakes?

📚Cupcakes all the way!  But I’d never say NO to a muffin!

Now, let’s talk about BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH.

Can you tell us how your personal life influenced this story?

📚My grandparents owned a small grocery store in an immigrant neighborhood in Albany, NY, so I tried to recreate the neighborhood in my book.  The real neighborhood was predominantly Italian, but there were other neighbors from many other places. 

The characters of Mama and Papa really ARE my grandparents, and Shirley is what I imagine my mother might have been like as a child.  She was ahead of her time: she went to NYU in the 1940’s, worked in social services while my dad served in the Navy in WWII, had me late in life, and went back to get her masters degree in the 1960’s.  I wanted Little Shirley to have that drive and the desire to follow her dreams that the real Shirley had.  The photos on the wall in the story are my family photos! And of course food had to part of the story because it was a big thing in my family.  I came from a long line of great cooks.

The store in the book was passed down to my father, and then, before I was even born, the entire area was torn down to build a giant plaza.  The families were forced out and into different parts of town.  I grew up hearing a lot about it so it was important to me to bring that neighborhood back to life in this book. 

This story is bursting with yiddish phrases. Why was it important to have these phrases throughout the story.

 📚 I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents speak Yiddish. They debated in Yiddish, read books and poetry in that language. They never learned Hebrew, so when we visited Israel and I was surprised to find that my parents could converse with all the older people there! Yiddish is patched together from languages of all the Eastern European countries that Jews had lived in and at times, been forced out of.  And yet this incredible language let them converse in all the new places they traveled. It’s a language that speaks to the resiliency of the people that speak it.  My grandmother lived in the United States from age 13 to age 96 and right to the end she still slipped Yiddish words into her conversation.  

Please describe the personality of the main character, Shirley.

📚Shirley is self confident and doesn’t take NO for an answer.  She’s a little stubborn, but has heart, and creativity. Shirley thinks outside the box.  She’s a mix of my mother and my younger son!

Shirley doesn’t accept Papa’s belief that she’s is too little to help at the store.

Her parents came to America for a better life, and they work hard with the hope that their children won’t have to.  But Shirley is the next generation and, to her, work is a challenge and opportunity to prove her worth.  

I love books that introduce children to foods they might not know about. Why is it important that children have access to books like this?

 📚I love those books too.  I think new foods open up a whole new world to kids.  And it can be an honor to share something special from someone else’s heritage. 

I think it’s a shared experience to grow up eating a food from their heritage that THEY love but that their friends and neighbors have never heard of.  I grew up not knowing that other families didn’t eat egg noodles mixed with cottage cheese at lunch, or sliced bananas with sour cream as a snack. And when I had friends over I’d offer them a bowl of something and they would look at me like I was crazy! After all, who serves a plate of kasha on a play date?  WHAT?  Their siblings didn’t fight over the chicken gizzards like mine did?    

So for me, it’s less important that kids LIKE these new foods eaten by their friends.  What more important is that they understand that there is a whole world of food out there that represents so many wonderful cultures.  Sharing your food is like letting someone into your family!

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