Secrets of an Israeli Children's Book Writer

Actress, dancer, writer and film director Shira Geffen is on a roll. As her latest children's book hits the stores, she explains her preference for bleakness and surrealism in the genre over shiny pink perfection.

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Maya Sela
Maya Sela

She does many things, Shira Geffen. September saw the release of her DVD "Eykh Shir Nolad" ("How a Song Was Born" ), which she directed and which stars her father, Yehonatan Geffen. Now her new children's book is coming out, "Laila Tov Mifletzet" ("Good Night Monster," Am Oved ), about a girl named Rutie who is scared to go to sleep at night. And this Hanukkah holiday has brought "Ananotza" ("Feathercloud" ), a dance performance at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, choreographed by Noa Dar and accompanied by texts written by Geffen. And then there's the other little matter of a movie she hopes to direct next year.

Geffen was born in 1971 in Tel Aviv. She studied at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio and went on to direct two children's plays, "The Last Wedding" and "The Offended Heart." In 2003 she took part in Yossi Yungman's dance piece "Engage," and over the years she has acted in plays at Beit Lessin, Habima and the Jerusalem Khan. In 2005 Geffen wrote and co-directed with Etgar Keret - her husband and the father of their 7-year-old son - the film "Jellyfish," which won the Camera d'Or prize at the 2007 Cannes Festival.

The children's books Geffen has published to date - "When the Sea Was a Bowl of Soup" (1993); the best-seller "A Heart Shaped Leaf" (2002), with illustrations by David Polonsky; "Moonless Sky" (2006), co-written with Keret and with illustrations by Polonsky; and "Baloona" (2008) with illustrations by Liora Grossman - are different from what one has come to expect from the genre these days. Geffen's work is more like the books the 1970s generation read: There is something bleak about them, a little scary, not glittery or "pink," as she puts it.

"I think children need this fear and are drawn to this fear. They want to experience it all the way, like when we read the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales," said Geffen.

"You have to allow some room for fear. If my child wakes up from a scary dream and says, 'I had a terrible dream' - I can tell him it's only a dream. It's true that it's only a dream, but first of all you need to validate this and ask, 'What did you dream?' In the pink books, there is no room for this complex world."

Geffen found the illustrator of her new book, Natalie Waksman Shenker, through the longtime editor of her books at Am Oved, Dalit Lev: "She introduced me to the new version of [Lea Goldberg's] 'The Absent-Minded Guy from Kfar Azar,' which was illustrated by Natalie. This book is a touchstone for me and I really loved its original illustrations. Natalie brought a very interesting perspective on the book, and it also took guts to illustrate it again. So she is courageous, and brings [to it] something that is a little surreal and broken. From the very first sketch emerged this girl, Rutie, who looked to me an awful lot like Lea Goldberg, who wasn't beautiful but had a lot of character in her face. Natalie brings a heroine who has character, not a heroine who is helpless and not a heroine who is perfect.

"Both [Waksman Shenker] and David Polonsky, bring a world that I like. I don't like perfection of any kind and in anything. The process of working with an illustrator is very lengthy. The moment illustrations are introduced, his or her interpretation also enters, and suddenly a new story is created. My stories definitely gained depth thanks to the illustrators."

Did you also have arguments?

"'Good Night Monster' is a semi-fantastic, semi-realistic story. At a certain stage there was an idea that in one illustration the girl embraces the big monster, and that it would also be the cover picture. I thought it was irrelevant, because it's a story about fear, not about embracing. In 'A Heart Shaped Leaf,' too, I had a bitter argument with everyone over the cover [illustration]. They said it was terribly depressing, it has something slightly Christian about it, the child looks depressed and who will buy a book like that. I fought for the cover. In the end people have bought the book ... which just goes to show that you don't need a monster hugging a smiling child to sell a book."

It looks like those Lea Goldberg books are also more eternal than the shiny pink ones.

"True, there are a thousand like those of the pretty pink girls, but 'Elisheva Ma Nehmedet' [a book by Goldberg], who has no leg and nonetheless is beloved - there is only one. I don't know why she is loved, from two legs, she winds up with one, from the disadvantage is born the advantage. It is important for me to offer - a book that isn't sweet, isn't ingratiating. Even as a child, I liked all the broken things, that's where I found the interest, there is emotion there. In perfection there is no emotion."

Geffen adds: "Lev, my son, draws really wildly. He is at this stage of trying not to go outside the lines and trying to control the pencil, it's hard for him. He is very frustrated by the strange drawings he produces and I really love them. I push him to continue with the mess but he wants it to come out perfect. It's a healthy psychological process that he is supposed to go through, and I am interfering. I love the asymmetry - it's much more interesting to me."

Which books did you read to your son?

"When he was little, I went back to the books I had read as a child. Mainly [Natan] Alterman and Lea Goldberg. I went back there because I didn't find other interesting things. He's not interested in those happy things where nothing happens. Now I'm actually reading him a nice book, 'The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,' by Kate DeCamillo [from 2003]. It's a book about a china rabbit that belongs to a girl. The rabbit goes with her on a cruise and gets thrown overboard. From that moment on he embarks on a journey in which he slowly becomes human.

"It is a book that is all sadness and emotion. I read it to Lev and cried the whole time. I say to him, 'Hold on a second, I've got a cold,' and run to the bathroom to blow my nose. He says, 'C'mon Mom, what's happening?' Because he's into the plot. I also cried because I didn't write the book."

'Insane contradictions'

In Geffen's opinion, one of the purposes of literature is "to sweep [us] into extreme experiences without anything actually happening to us. It is a purifying experience. Many parents do not know how to make use of this tool. They withhold books from the child that contain fear or sadness. There is something emasculating about this protectiveness. Fortunately, my son is very unlike me, so it is easier for me to be 'external' - not to project onto him my fears and my anxieties, although I probably do that to some degree.

"He is very independent, not like me who needed a babysitter until I was 15. It was awful. [My brother] Aviv would watch me and he is younger than me, but braver. Lev has a healthy common sense, like Etgar, which I didn't and don't have."

I wouldn't say that Etgar has a healthy common sense, at least not judging by the stories he writes.

"True, he lets go in his work. But the beauty of his writing is the combination of common sense and crazy release. He is that kind of person. He has insane contradictions in his personality, and in his literature it is most blatant."

Why do you write for children and not for adults?

"I don't write for children, I write for myself. There is some 'conduit' in me to childhood that remained open, and it is very natural and easy for me to write from that place. There is no greater happiness than publishing a children's book. More than a movie, more than a play. When I publish a children's book I am on a high because it always comes back to me in lots of forms. Kids take the stories seriously, almost like something that really happened. Children's writing is the place where I can cut loose, let go of all the restraints."

Has your writing changed since your son was born?

"'Good Night Monster' is about fears and about that moment when you go to sleep, switch worlds. My son had great difficulty with that from a young age. I liked going to bed as a child, and had no problem saying goodbye to the world. My son holds on for dear life, and I sought ways to soothe him, because he is very intense and always wants to exhaust things. I was looking for a way to calm him and discovered there are lots of ways: music, reflexology, songs, stories. Some of the things that went into this book are ways of being soothed and comforted."

Did you try the book out on him?

"Yes, he loved it. I always read to him, but am careful not to pressure him [to tell me what he thinks]. It's very tempting to ask, but because I am the daughter of a father who writes - but to his credit he never did that, so I don't either. I also realize that it's a matter of taste, and sometimes he doesn't like what I do and I do it anyway; after all, I was writing before he was born. There are some people who say that you need to have a child to write for children, but that is nonsense. Lea Goldberg did not have children."

Maybe it is enough that you were once a child.

"Right, and that you are connected to a vital, childlike place."

You weren't inhibited by the fact that your father wrote [the iconic children's book] "The Sixteenth Sheep"?

"If my father had been a woman, it really would not have been easy for me, but my father is a man, and masculinity and femininity are really very different: The writing comes from another place, and that made things much easier for me. If my mother were a writer, it would maybe be different. He and I are very different. In a certain sense, the fact that he wrote actually helped me a great deal because it was very natural in our house to write, to rhyme, to develop in that direction. The household was very supportive."

Does he criticize things that you do? Comment about rhymes that don't seem to work?

"He can say things and I can listen - or not. Beyond everything else, there is very great support. Now we did the DVD of 'How a Song Was Born' together, and the understanding between us was at its height: I took poems of his that I couldn't read when I was little because they were so big, and to go back to them and understand them anew was exciting. He, too, understand something about his own poems through me. There is something in art, in writing, that connects us on other levels, it is wonderful."

It can also be castrating.

"True. I don't know why, but I have to say to both of my parents' credit that they were always supportive and I was careful to protect myself from a very young age, to safeguard myself from every danger. I think I was born with very measured energies. I identify closely for example with Agnon's Tehila, who safeguarded her words. I too feel I have a limited store [of them] and I operate accordingly."

And you are also married to a successful writer. Is there jealousy?

"You can take anything to such a place and say, 'Why is he like this and I'm like that,' but the moment you understand that you are what you are, then on the contrary, it is very inspiring. Again, because we are a man and a woman, because we are terribly different, our way of seeing things is different; he's into the plot, the story. I'm into the poem. Etgar is an 'alpha male.'"

'Won't take my clothes off'

Why did you stop acting?

"I love acting and miss it, but I am not suitable for everything. I can do few things and I need to find the thing that I love. Because I make a living from other things, I can afford to pick and choose. I have many limitations. I am dreadfully shy, so if it calls for taking my clothes off, I won't do it. Or, if I suddenly read very poor language [in a script] I won't take the role. Whenever I take a script in hand I pray it will be good."

The work she did with Noa Dar for "Feathercloud" was inspired by Geffen's relationship with Lev. "I value Noa greatly because she raises the bar instead of lowering it. She approached me about writing texts and it was an interesting process, how not to castrate a dance piece. In the end I wrote dialogues that came out of my relationship with my son. It's like mini-conversations about change and transformation. We also recorded it in our own voices, my son and I, and also Etgar's mother participated. There was something authentic and also very interesting about it.

When she observed children watching early performances of the show, Geffen noticed that they were "very focused," that they were "concentrating without being disturbed, not like at the Festival, where they can't focus because they are not allowed - they must be distracted. Here they can concentrate. I feel this is a type of education they don't get enough of: to sit and listen, [in a situation] where the child has to make the connections in his mind, where he remains with questions and no answers."

You do a lot of things: movies, dance, books, acting.

"I like a lot of things. I really love dance, I would really like to be a dancer if I could be one, but I can't ... When I was little I was in the Netanya kiddie troupe and we performed at the Independence Day show, 20 girls on the stage. My mother told me she recognized me by my being a split second after everyone. Dance is a fantasy I have. But I guess I won't ever be a real dancer."

The screenplay for the film she is hoping to direct was written four years ago, "and now I am at the fundraising stage. I am hoping to shoot next year."

A movie is a big deal. Aren't you scared?

"Of what? That it will fail? What's the alternative? What would I do otherwise?"

How did you get through Operation Pillar of Defense?

"Kids unload their traumas after a while. When there were missiles and sirens and we ran to the stairwell, Lev was fine, but now he's told my mother that he wants to move to another country because he wants a place without wars. I would do anything for him, for his future. If there is going to be Liebermania here, then that is a consideration. My child is the most important thing to me.... I am a bleeding-heart liberal even if that's considered a curse today, but I refuse to become ugly, and refuse to let them make my son's soul ugly. There must be peace here. It isn't wacky, it is crucial, and so long as I am here, I will fight for it in my way."



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