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  • Writer's pictureManju Howard

How Author Ellen Leventhal Found and Preserved the Heart of Her Latest Picture Book

As spring flowers bloom in the warming sun, I’m delighted to feature my kind-hearted friend and thoughtful author Ellen Leventhal. Her latest picture book, Debbie’s Song: the Debbie Friedman Story was illustrated by Natalia Grebtsova, published by Kar-Ben Publishing; Lerner Publishing Group and released in April 2023.

Kidlit Creatives Members: You have an opportunity to win ONE of the following prizes - a signed copy of Debbie’s Song: the Debbie Friedman Story OR a picture book critique OR a 20 minute Ask Ellen Anything call on writing and publishing picture books.

To WIN one of these special prizes, follow the directions at the end of this post.

First, I want to share illustrator Natalia Grebtsova’s vibrant cover art!

Manju: Hi Ellen! Congratulations on your new picture book, Debbie’s Song: the Debbie Friedman Story. Please share what inspired you to write about Debbie Friedman.

Ellen: Thank you so much! And thank you for having me, and for all you do for the kid lit community.

I have always been inspired by Debbie Friedman’s music and what little I knew about her story. When I was teaching in a Jewish Day School, the students and staff sang her songs all the time for many years. However, I noticed as the years went by, I didn’t hear her songs as much. Then one day one of her melodies and lyrics floated out of a classroom. My mind started spinning. That was the spark!

I decided right then and there that children needed to know about this amazing woman whose music they sang. Debbie’s story is more than a “Jewish story.” It’s a universal story of fighting against the odds to create something beautiful and important. When people said she couldn’t do something, she did it! And that’s inspiring to me.

Manju: How did you research Debbie Friedman’s life?

Ellen: Once I heard grade school kids singing, I went home and Googled Debbie’s name to see if there was a relative who I could contact. Happily, there was. I contacted her sister, Cheryl, and told her about my idea. She was immediately on board. I told her that I wanted to do some initial research and then get her reaction to it.

I read a lot of articles online, but they all basically repeated the same information. I had to dig deeper. I watched a documentary (a few times!), read everything I could, looking for something new or different, and spent a lot of time on YouTube listening to Debbie herself talk about her life. I also found a song book that detailed her life, and that was helpful.

But to be honest, I didn’t find the heart until I began to interview people. I went back to her sister and spoke with her many times. I also spoke to a lot of people here in Houston where Debbie lived for a time when she was first starting out. Then I took all my notes and sifted through them to find not only a narrative arc, but the heart of the story.

Manju: What was your path to publication for this picture book biography?

Ellen: This is kind of a strange thing. I had been plowing through research and revisions at the same time I was getting ready for my 2021 release, so I wasn’t thinking much of sending anything out. However, I heard that a specific publisher was looking for a Debbie Friedman story. I quickly (and poorly) gathered my thoughts, revised one of my drafts, and sent it to them. It didn’t appeal to them for several reasons, including the fact that I put in too much detail. Yep, that happens when you rush to send things out. It was definitely not ready. So, the editor asked me to revise and resubmit (R and R). The editor wanted me to focus more on Debbie’s life as a child, and they had some concerns about my structure. Even with paring it down and adding more about Debbie’s childhood, I wasn’t telling the story the way they wanted it told. The editor kindly offered me several chances to revise, but they ultimately passed. Our visions were different which sometimes happens.

After that I spent a bit more time revising, but stuck to my structure and basic story because frankly, I couldn’t do it any other way. I sent my manuscript to Kar-Ben, and they did like the way I chose to tell it. This is a great example of how subjective this business is. Happily, the first publisher acquired another book on Debbie Friedman which is lovely and written more in the style they wanted. A win for all!

Even after the three revise and resubmits (R and Rs), and then more revisions, this has been the quickest any of my books have been acquired. Still, it took years to gather the info and revise more times than I can count. But once I sent my manuscript out to Kar-Ben, the process was fast. It has been wonderful working with Joni Sussman at Kar-Ben. Our visions for the story are similar, and everyone at Kar-Ben has been supportive. I am very grateful.

Thanks very much, Ellen!

Ellen Leventhal is an educator and writer in Houston, Texas.

She taught in a Jewish school where Debbie Friedman’s music could be heard as she walked down the hallways. Ellen is the author of several picture books as well as short stories and poetry. Her favorite thing to do is visit schools and share her love of literacy and the importance of having a dream.

To learn more about Ellen, go to:

Prize offer: You have a chance to win ONE of the following prizes - a signed copy of Debbie’s Song: the Debbie Friedman Story OR a picture book critique OR a 20 minute Ask Ellen Anything call. Simply read the post, leave a comment on our Kidlit Creatives page (must be a member) and share this interview on your Twitter or Facebook.

Deadline to enter is Friday, May 12th.

All posts on Manju's blog promote members of Kidlit Creatives: Create, Query & Support

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