Elissa Brent Weissman’s 93-year-old grandfather went three decades without reading a book. That all changed last summer when he read, in a single sitting, his granddaughter’s latest novel for middle school students, “The Length of a String” (Dial Books).
Perhaps familial love was hard at work that day, but there was also the power of a story well told. “The power comes in seeing yourself in a book,” says Weissman.
A longtime Baltimore resident, Weissman, 35, recently won a silver medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award competition for “The Length of a String.” The annual awards competition– named in memory of the author of the “All-of-a-Kind-Family” series — recognizes children’s literature that authentically captures the Jewish experience.
“I had ‘All-of-a-Kind-Family’ and I read it I don’t know how many times,” Weissman says. “It was so rare to read about a Jewish family, to see that represented in a book was really special. …
“As an adult, especially having traveled, lived abroad and met Jewish people in other places, I’ve come to discover and appreciate how open, inclusive and wide-ranging Judaism can be.”
“The Length of a String,” Weissman’s eighth novel for children, tells the story of Imani, the adopted daughter of Jewish parents in Baltimore. At the age of 12, Imani, who is African-American, aches to find her birth parents. While preparing to become a bat mitzvah, she wrestles with how to broach the subject with her Jewish parents.
Meanwhile, Imani discovers the childhood diary of her adopted great-grandmother, Anna. Written in 1941, the diary details the months in which Anna fled the Holocaust, leaving her entire family behind to find refuge with strangers in New York.
“The Length of a String” artfully weaves excerpts from Anna’s diary into Imani’s present-day reality – school, friendships, questions about adoption – giving it a propulsive historical narrative and delivering a thoughtful, intergenerational meditation on family, culture, faith and the demands of growing up.
Best known for her “Nerd Camp” series, Weissman lives in Federal Hill with her husband and their two children, ages 6 and 8. She says her family is part of “a small but wonderful community of Jewish families” in their neighborhood, and her kids attend a religious school there operated by Beth El Congregation.
“I grew up on Long Island, in a town where there were five synagogues in a row on one street, and another five synagogues in each of the neighboring towns,” Weissman says. “But here in Baltimore City, both my kids are the only Jews in their class. My husband and I truly value that diversity, and we know our kids are benefiting enormously from having friends of different races, ethnicities and religions. But it also gives us an added incentive to ensure they feel connected to their own history, faith and culture.”
For the core of “The Length of a String,” Weissman reached beyond her own memories and into the life of her childhood best friend, Lauren. The two girls attended religious school together, but Lauren was adopted as a baby from Mexico. From a young age, Weissman observed what it might feel like to look different from other members of the surrounding community. Those observations stayed with her, and decades later she channeled them into Imani’s story.
Weissman says she has received a lot of positive feedback about “The Length of a String” from both parents and their children. “The book speaks to different generations,” she says. “There’s an adult sensibility about the importance of family, the things that you realize when you become a parent. …
“One of the key tenets of writing for children is putting aside your morals,” Weissman says. “Even though people constantly ask children’s authors what we hope kids learn from our books, the truth is that the best children’s books aren’t written to teach lessons. They’re written to tell a good story.”
For information, visit ebweissman.com.
Emma Snyder is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and the owner of the Ivy Bookshop in Mount Washington.