Her biracial family wasn’t reflected in Jewish children’s books, so a Greensboro woman wrote a book to change that
GREENSBORO — A friend recently sent Jaime “Aviva” Brown a screenshot of her book on hold at the Seattle Public Library.
“I cried!” Brown admitted. “I’ve never been to Seattle, but my book is there. How many kids and families will get to hear my story? It’s overwhelming to think about.”
The 33-year-old first-time author’s book, with a biracial Jewish family at its core, is a reflection of Brown wanting her children and others to see themselves in Jewish-themed children’s books.
In “Ezra’s BIG Shabbat Question,” the book plays off a very real moment as the family’s conversion to Judaism is just a few years old and one of the children is looking for the answer to a question that has him befuddled.
While searching, Ezra, a character based off of Brown’s youngest son, who is obsessively inquisitive by nature, also runs into Rabbi Andy Koren before services at Temple Emanuel.
“I love Jaime’s book,” said the real Rabbi Andy Koren, who the illustrator perfectly sketched from a photo. “It’s easy to read and reflects conversations that curious kids have with their parents. The family in this story is a real family in all senses of the word. The kids all have their interests and distractions, as do the parents.
“But this is also a watershed book for our times. Jaime’s own family is an interracial family, something that is not unique in our country nor among Jewish people. Yet, you would not know this from children’s literature.”
• • •
As her young family recently painted the dishes at Mad Platter that will be used to hold apples and honey as part of the ceremonial meal for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah — or Jewish New Year celebration — Brown is also unpacking boxes of books. And boxes. And more boxes.
“They’re all paid for,” the stay-at-home mother of four said — and she would know. The family footed the bill. “Now, all I have to do is sell them.”
Brown’s own upbringing had been very different than the family inside the book’s pages, having grown up singing in the children’s choir and ushering on Sundays at her Missionary Baptist church in Iowa.
But in college, she was drawn to the theology, traditions and rituals of Judaism, where Christianity gets its roots.
“I studied about it and said, ‘Yes, this sounds like me,'” Brown recalled.
It would be years later, however, before she converted because she didn’t want to upset her Baptist family.
That changed when her father died at age 60. Brown was 25 at the time.
“It was eye-opening,” she said. “I was, like, I may not have all the time in the world.”
Later, after marrying, starting a family and moving to Greensboro with her husband, a corporate trainer, she visited Temple Emanuel and ended up taking an introductory Judaism class.
Brown officially began the process of conversion to the Jewish faith with her children four years ago. At the time, Brown’s husband was not religious growing up and didn’t join them. Still, he wanted to send a clear message to the children.
“You know, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right whether I’m converting or not,” Joshua Brown told his wife. “The kids need to see that dad has bought in or otherwise they will feel like they don’t have to.”
So they all observe the special days in the faith and attend services at the synagogue together.
That first December, however, the children celebrated both the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, and Christmas, with its focus on the story of the birth of Jesus. It was mostly to satisfy extended family.
But it was too stressful and didn’t feel right, Brown admits.
It was also about that time that Joshua Brown decided to convert to Judaism as well.
The children had already started attending B’nai Shalom, a Jewish day school.
Brown soon signed up for PJ Library, a nonprofit that sends free Jewish and Jewish-themed children’s books to families across the world every month — something she still appreciates.
“When we were first starting down this path it was a great help to the kids and to me to learn about different holidays and different historical events,” Brown said. “But I’m picking up this stack of PJ Library books and going through them and I realized that all the Jewish children’s books we have do not have any little Jewish kids of color in them.”
She couldn’t stop thinking about the stack two months later.
“I said, you know what?” Brown recalled. “If there’s not a book out there, I’m going to write one.”
• • •
Brown wouldn’t have to wait long for inspiration to strike.
Evan, 9, loves minute details and will fixate on something small and ask and ask about it until he gets an answer.
With a laugh, Brown recalls how each year he questions the temporary structure called a “sukkah” that is erected in their backyard as part of the Jewish Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles.
Jews all over the world follow the same tradition.
The sukkahs replicate the type of tents the ancient Israelites used as they traveled across the desert after escaping from Egyptian slavery.
“Every year, he will tell me every single day that our sukkah is not kosher,” Brown said. “That’s because you aren’t supposed to build it under overhanging trees — but there’s no place on our property that’s not covered by overhanging trees.”
And every year, she explains to him that it’s in the spirit of the holiday.
“He’s like, ‘Yeah, spirit of the holiday, but it’s not kosher,'” said Brown, barely stifling a laugh. “I said, ‘Evan, if you tell me that my sukkah isn’t kosher one more time, we’re going to have a problem.”
She realized then she had plenty of authentic material for a book.
But finding the right story was really only the beginning of her journey as a self-published author.
“I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to afford an illustrator,” she said.
Online she found a 20-year-old art student from Belarus in Eastern Europe.
“I gather that American dollars go further there because she was able to work out a very reasonable rate with me,” Brown said.
Brown provided the artist with photos of her family, home and parts of the synagogue that would be a setting in the story.
“The only part of that house in the book that’s not mine is the kitchen, and that’s because I wrote ‘fantasy’ for that part,” Brown said. “That’s my dream kitchen.”
Illustrator Anastasia Kanavaliuk had listened and perfectly matched the images in Brown’s head.
“She was kind and patient because I’m very exacting,” Brown said.
But the Jewish mom was also very motivated.
“I kept saying, if I’m going to ask someone to pay $18 for a book,” she explained, “it needs to be able to stand next to any book at Barnes & Noble and be just as good.”
While Brown had what she thought was a good story, with illustrations that seemed to hop off the page, there were other things that needed to be done: creating her own publishing company, applying for a copyright and getting standardized book numbers, which also allowed the book to be sold on Amazon.
And, of course, “counting pennies.”
Brown and her husband pored over their budget and money they were expecting. There was some wiggle room.
The books were mass-produced in China, the same route that some big publishers take. It would cost her more, but the books would be high quality.
The first batch arrived in five months.
“I was a little in awe of her in that moment,” Joshua Brown said. “How many children’s lives will she touch because she dared to put herself out there? The pride I felt in that moment was beyond words.”
• • •
While the idea was to put more diverse books in the hands of children, Brown still had to actually get them into the hands of children.
“It’s not like 10,000, but it feels like a lot while they are sitting in my spare room,” Brown said.
Ivan Cutler, a friend with a marketing and public relations business, gave her pointers and introduced her to people so she could, among other things, set up appearances and book readings.
“I had to put myself out there,” said Brown, who is an extrovert but still gets anxious about social interactions.
She designed a website and put more time into a blog about parenting, Jewish life and general conversation.
And people responded.
Soon, there were orders coming in on Amazon, the online retail giant
“What a wonderful book,” read one review on Amazon. “It becomes a mystery to see who can solve the question. I am a librarian at a Jewish congregation and I purchased three for our religious school.”
Brown really was on to something.
“I’ve been reading this to my boys since I got it in the mail!” another review said. “We are not Jewish, but I believe in giving kids the chance to learn about cultures and religions different from their own. We love this book!
Each of the 14 posted Amazon reviews gave the book five stars.
“I thought my mom might buy one, and a couple of my friends,” Brown said.
Early on, she stumbled onto an online conversation about her book on a parenting blog.
“It allowed me to connect with so many other Jewish people of color,” she said. “Some said they wished they had seen themselves in books growing up, that they want their children to see themselves in books growing up. The messages sometimes make me cry.”
• • •
The book officially launched on Sept. 22, when Brown read to the lower grades in the library at Temple Emanuel.
At Cutler’s suggestion, she submitted a copy of her book to the Greensboro Public Library, which has a detailed review process. The book is now in circulation.
Although she just wanted to give another look at modern-day Jewish families, that motivation has spawned other stories. She plans to feature her other children — Nathan, 11, Wendy, 6 and Miriam, 1 — in future books, although the families won’t be the same in each book.
Brown has another book ready, “Ora: Summer Camp Stowaway,” based on daughter Wendy. She’s hoping for a spring 2020 release date.
“We are just waiting to have money to have it printed,” Brown said.