I recently interviewed Sheri Sinykin by email. We talked about her latest middle grade novel, Calling Cobber.
S.L.: Hi Sheri, it’s so nice to talk to you again. When we last spoke in this space, in 2013, you had just won the Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Award from the Wisconsin Library Association For Zayde Comes to Live. At that time, you said you really weren’t writing anymore. How did Calling Cobber come about?
Sheri: I wrote Calling Cobber more than twenty years ago and tried to market it traditionally. Publishers’ consensus was that my book was too Jewish and too quiet. I put it away until I saw a notice in a March 2017 SCBWI listserv that PJ OUR WAY was looking for Jewish novels for middle grade boys. So, I dug out my computer file and submitted it. The editor there and I worked on the manuscript over a two-year period until their acquisitions committee finally approved it. The next hurdle–unbeknownst to me at the start of the process–was that I needed to find a trade publisher FIRST before PJ OUR WAY could buy sub rights. Amazingly, the editor was able to place the book in short order with a London publisher, Green Bean Books. To my surprise, PJ OUR WAY released in May 2020 to their book club–well ahead of Green Bean Book’s release in December 2020– with kids able to select it from their website but only for a ten-day period. I didn’t even know it had been published until my grandson Elon said he’d seen it in the PJ OUR WAY catalog and ordered his copy!
S.L.: You say in the Author’s Note that this novel began with a haiku you wrote after “…a conference speaker’s challenge to write ‘about your own culture.’” Tell me a little about that.
Sheri: The conference was on the university campus in Madison, WI. The speakers’ discussion about writing out of culture prompted a lot of audience response. I myself scribbled a quick haiku in my notebook, basically wondering what my own culture was and how I could write about it. That haiku survived pretty much intact through several final edits of Calling Cobber. My character, Cobber, is assigned by a guest author to write about who he is, what makes him special, and he comes up as blank as I did.
S.L.: As someone who lost a parent, when I was a child, I appreciate how you handle the subject in your books. I’ve found in your writing that you understand what the child is going through when trying to process grief. You have written three books that deal with death: Giving Up the Ghost, Zayde Comes to Live, and now Calling Cobber. Why do you think you keep coming back to this subject? Have you studied the subject, or have you experienced death as a child? What informed your writing?
Sheri: I didn’t experience death as a child, although I do have a memory of my parents asking me to sit with our next-door neighbor after her husband died following his Thanksgiving dinner. I was maybe ten at the time, and somehow, I intuitively knew how to BE with her. Later, when my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 endometrial cancer, I trained and served as a hospice volunteer for several years. I wanted to make sure I was emotionally equipped to support her during the most significant loss of my life. My beloved maternal grandmother died when I was at a nearby college, and I was totally unprepared for her death. I remember being inconsolable and people wanting to medicate me to “calm me down.” No one talked about my feelings, and I had no outlet for my grief. Recalling those emotions has perhaps made me sensitive to children’s needs, which I believe are very much the same as an adults’.
When I was studying for my MFA in Writing for Children at Vermont College, I read many children’s novels that explored death and grief. They formed the basis for my critical thesis, Good Grief: Making Death and Bereavement Authentic for Middle Grade Characters and Readers. To my surprise, one of the most lauded children’s novels, A Bridge To Tarabithia in my view, in terms of authentically portraying grief and bereavement, in children, fell short. My experiences as a hospice volunteer directly inspired my novel Giving Up The Ghost, and my only picture book, Zayde Comes To Live.
S.L.: Cobber’s father works a lot and when he is home, he’s emotionally unavailable. Cobber comes up with rituals to make him feel safe. I did the same thing after my father died. What inspired you to give Cobber rituals, such as lining up his pencils, so they came out even?
Sheri: Children handle their anxiety in various ways–overeating, compulsive video game playing, acting out, withdrawing. With all Cobber’s worries, it seemed natural that he would have some obsessive-compulsive behavior. When I was writing a classroom scene, Cobber just started sharpening and lining up his pencils. The kids made fun of him, and the behavior felt authentic. I needed to go back and infuse it in earlier scenes.
S.L.: Cobber doesn’t tell his dad that Papa Ben is getting forgetful because Papa Ben makes Cobber promise not to tell. Cobber doesn’t want to break a promise because his best friend Boolkie had promised not to become a bar mitzvah and now he has broken that promise. He’s carrying a lot of worry. When he visits his rabbi, he suggests that Cobber is taking on too much responsibility. Could you elaborate on the idea that kids can carry a lot of worry and grief just as adults do?
Sheri: I believe that our emotions from childhood to adulthood never really change. We just get more sophisticated–or not–in hiding or expressing them. Anger is anger; fear is fear. It just seems natural to me that kids can carry a lot of worry and grief. The hope is that they have perceptive parents or other adults who can pick up on that and support them. Unfortunately, Cobber did not have that in his father. Papa-Ben, the rabbi, and Boolkie’s mother do provide some counterbalance, though.
S.L.: You said your inspiration for Papa Ben was your paternal grandfather. Was he an immigrant? Immigrants are in the news a lot today, but we forget that the vast majority of us have immigrant ancestors.
Sheri: Yes, my paternal grandfather, Harry Cooper, was a Russian immigrant, from an area now known as the Ukraine. He came with his father as a young boy soon after the Statue of Liberty was completed near Ellis Island, the New York immigration port. Though Pop learned to speak English, he never learned to read or write it. All his life he worked in the garment district and did piece work. On a recent PBS ancestry show, I learned that Dustin Hoffman’s family came from the same little Ukrainian town, Bila Tserkva, in the Kyiv region. We celebrated Pop’s 100th birthday in 1996, and he died two months later.
S.L. He sounds like a wonderful source of inspiration. I understand you are painting now. Tell me how that came about.
Sheri: When I stopped writing following the deaths of my parents and the birth of my first grandchild, I became curious about watercolor painting. I didn’t think I’d have any talent for it, but my amazing teacher has been great at handholding and inspiring confidence.
In 2020, I entered an art contest sponsored by the Renal Support Network on the theme of hope. To my surprise, I won first place in the kidney patient category for my painting COVID 2020. It was inspired by a photo I saw on Facebook. My goal is to become a more independent painter instead of relying so heavily on my teacher.
S.L.: It sounds like you’re on a grand new adventure. It’s been great talking with you, and finally, where can people purchase your book?
Sheri: Calling Cobber is available on Amazon, as well as on the Barnes and Noble website.
My Take: I highly recommend Calling Cobber. It’s authentic portrayal of a child’s grief, years after his mother’s death would be enough to recommend it, but Cobber also has so much humour. His best friend Boolkie talks Cobber into signing up for the school talent show. Cobber is afraid he will literally “lose his lunch” like he did in third grade when he had to do a class presentation. But Boolkie is peristent. When he and Cobber decide to make Shabbos it is a comedy of errors and maybe the most interesting challah ever is prepared.
My review of Zayde Comes to Live can be found here: https://golowd.com/2014/01/