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Esther Hershenhorn Biography (1945-) - Sidelights

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Along with being a writer of picture books and novels for young readers, Esther Hershenhorn is active in teaching writing as well. She coaches children's book writers through the classes she teaches at an artists residency program, at Chicago's Newberry Library, and at the University of Chicago's Writer's Studio. Before she taught writers, she was an elementary school teacher.

Her desire to teach shows in the books she writes; in There Goes Lowell's Party, for example, Hershenhorn provides a list of twenty-nine rain proverbs from the Ozark tradition, many of which have been proven to be scientifically accurate. In The Confe$$ions and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut, Hershenhorn uses a name poem—a poem that takes each letter of a person's name and gives it a descriptive word—to describe her main character, giving him traits ideal for becoming an entrepreneur. Hershenhorn told SATA: "I spend my days doing what I love and loving what I do: writing picture book texts, teaching 'Writing for Children' classes, and helping writers of all ages discover and tell their stories."

Though dedicated to teaching, Hershenhorn knew from early on that she wanted to write for children. She told Cynthia Leitich Smith in an interview on the Children's Literature Resources Web site, "At age six I can remember thinking, while I played library or school with my friends, 'Someday my name will be on a book like this.' I kept that dream a secret and shared it with no one."

Hershenhorn's first title, There Goes Lowell's Party, describes how Lowell looks forward to his birthday when all his family will gather for a party. But when his birthday finally arrives, Ozark Mountains weather lore shows that they should expect rain. Lowell Piggott worries that his party may not go as planned, but in spite of the rain, the family gathers together to celebrate his birthday. Hazel Rochman of Booklist noted that "teachers might like to use this comedy to spark a nature unit."

Hershenhorn described Lowell Piggott to SATA as a character "who knows jest as sure as snakes crawl, that even iffen red skies and loud geese and leafbacks mean rain, and even iffen that rain brings floods, mudslides, and twisters, his Ozark Mountain kin are smart enough and love him enough, that they'll do what they have to do to get to his birthday party! The Library of Congress classified the book under 'Rain and rainfall—fiction, Storms—fiction, Birthdays—fiction, and Ozark Mountains—fiction.' I would add a fifth category: 'Faith and Hope.'"

In writing her first middle-grade novel, The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut, Hershenhorn credits an editor at Holiday House with helping her give her book a "successful, character-based plotline. Howie's 'Howieness' leads to escalating scenes of calamity and disaster until Howie's 'Howieness' saves him and the day." The author admitted that "crucial to this telling was my understanding—finally—of how the character's physical plotline (what he wants) and emotional plot-line (why he wants what he wants) must intersect at that crucial moment so the character is different for making the journey. Crucial too was my willingness to dig deep, to remember how I felt when walking in Howie's shoes. What did I want then and why did I want it?"

Narrator Howie Fingerhut explains how to start up a business, one that is sure to win him first place in the H. Marion Muckley Junior Businessperson of the Year contest, in The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut. In fact, he is so certain that he will win the contest that he is keeping a journal of the experience, which he hopes to sell to a publisher as a how-to business book for kids. In his lawn care business, Howie rakes, shovels, and plants, despite difficulties he encounters along the way and competition provided by his classmates. A writer for Kirkus Reviews praised The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut, saying, "no one will be able to resist its spirit," and a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that readers would "undoubtedly deem his $illy mi$adventure$ amu$ing."

Hershenhorn shared with SATA her thoughts about creating a story: "I believe that cooking up a story is just like cooking chicken soup. Take one full-bodied idea, back-burner it in the recesses of your mind, add a little of this, add a little of that. Season it, stir it, simmer it some more. Then reduce it, refine it, and serve it up … with love. In the case of my picture book Chicken Soup by Heart, I simmered a Chicago newspaper article titled 'The Great Chicken Soup Debate.' The article's author sought the ingredients for the 'World's Best Chicken Soup.' I simmered that story idea for months, savoring chicken soup while reading every chicken soup book ever written. I read recipes for clear broths, creamed soups and gumbos, for tortilla soup, cock-a-leekie, and mulligatawny. I read about roasters and broilers and capons. I studied medical reports likening chicken soup to penicillin. Before long, I cooked up a character, Rudie Dinkins, who shared his beloved babysitter, Mrs. Gittel, with eight little misters and misses in his Brooklyn apartment house. I cooked up a problem—Mrs. Gittel had the flu!—and eight loving chefs cooking Mrs. Gittel chicken soup. Of course, each chef cooked the chicken soup his or her family's way. In its final reduction, the story of friendship belonged to Rudie and Mrs. Gittel. Mrs. Gittel's secret chicken soup ingredient—three very nice stories about her soon-to-be soup-eaters—proved good for the cook and good for the soup-eater, not to mention for the writer who loves sharing it with readers."

In Chicken Soup by Heart, which won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Younger Readers, Rudie Dinkins decides to take care of his sitter, Mrs. Gittel, when she has the flu. Whenever Rudie is sick, Mrs. Gittel makes chicken soup for Rudie, so Rudie and his mother together make soup for Mrs. Gittel, using the sitter's secret ingredient: nice stories about the "soon-to-be soup eater." Hershenhorn explained in her interview with Smith, "I loved cooking up this story, though I'm the first to admit my own chicken soup is not a threat to Mrs. Gittel's—the recipe for which is included on the back page [of the book]." Joy Fleishhacker of School Library Journal commented, "Hershenhorn's folksy telling is as comfortable as a grandmother's embrace," and in a review for Booklist, GraceAnne A. DeCandido praised, "love and care radiate from the pages."

While attending a folk art show in the Chicago area, Hershenhorn met a young artist with a sign that read "Limner and Fancy Painter." The man explained to the author that before the advent of photography, artists traveled about America painting people's portraits, as well as signs and walls and harpsichord covers. Finding the information an inspiration for her next book, Hershenhorn immediately began looking for material about these traveling artists. One year later, finally ready to write the story, she phoned the young man she met at the show, only to learn his disastrous fate proved to be that of his nineteenth-century models: dissatisfied with their images, customers refused to pay him. "Right then and there," Hershenhorn told SATA, "I saw my story!"

Fancy That is a Christmas story, featuring young Pippin, whose parents have died, leaving him and his sisters to fend for themselves. Pippin takes up work as a limner, or a traveling painter, to earn money. But despite his efforts, his paintings end up being too accurate and his customers refuse to pay him. Coming home in defeat, he is delighted to find that while he was gone, his sisters started a crafts business and have managed to raise enough money to keep them out of the poor house. "Hershenhorn tells a spirited story about an unusual subject in appealing, colloquial language," wrote Gillian Engberg in her Booklist review. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, complimenting the "sonorous prose," claimed that "Hershenhorn and Lloyd's collaboration is an unqualified success," while a critic for Kirkus Reviews noted, "this tongue-in-cheek piece of Americana will delight a wide range of readers and listeners."

Besides teaching and writing, Hershenhorn visits schools, sharing her passion for writing. As she told Smith in her interview, she tells young writers that "everyone has a story worth telling. Period. And no two stories are the same. The writer's job is to figure out the best way to tell it so it resonates with the readers."

Hershenhorn confessed to SATA that her characters—Pippin, Lowell, Howie, and Rudie—hold a place in her heart as if they were family. "I enjoy sharing their stories at schools, libraries, bookstores, and fairs."

She also shares with young readers her favorite childhood books—"the Little Golden Books fairy tales, with their happy-ever-after endings; 'the orange true books' that were actually the books in the 'Childhoods of Famous Americans' series; Nancy Drew, of course; and Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling."

A voracious reader, she knew as a youngster that she wanted her name on the cover of a children's book. However, as she told SATA, "my writer's journey took longer than I'd expected, with stops for teaching, newspaper writing, mothering, and learning the craft. To my delight and surprise, however, my story, with its twists and turns, encourages others to tell their tales."

About her career, Hershenhorn noted, "When folks ask what I do, I say I'm in the hope business, bringing children's books to the hands and hearts of readers."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of There Goes Lowell's Party, p. 1248; September 1, 2002, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Chicken Soup by Heart, p. 120; September 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Fancy That, p. 245.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2002, review of The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut, p. 492; September 1, 2003, review of Fancy That, p. 1124.

Publishers Weekly, March 11, 2002, review of The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut, p. 72; September 20, 2003, review of Fancy That, p. 104.

School Library Journal, March, 1998, Carolyn Noah, review of There Goes Lowell's Party, p. 180; May, 2002, Laura Reed, review of The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut, p. 116; November, 2002, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Chicken Soup by Heart, p. 124; November, 2003, Beth Tegart, review of Fancy That, p. 96.

ONLINE

Cynthia Leitich Smith's Children's Literature Resources, http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/ (May-June, 2002), "Interview with Children's Book Author Esther Hershenhorn."

Esther Hershenhorn Home Page, http://www.estherhershenhorn.com/ (April 15, 2004).

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Illinois Chapter, http://www.scbwi-illinois.org/ (February 9, 2004), "Esther Hershenhorn."

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