Omer Hoffman, award-winning artist, is the illustrator of THE SAGES OF CHELM AND THE MOON by Shlomo Abas (Green Bean Books). It’s a charming version of the classic tale. Omer’s art is a perfect pairing for the text. His illustrations reflect a traditional folktale style mixed with a bit of whimsy. Yet some of the illustrations, particularly a double page spread depicting travelers at night, have a deeply emotive quality. I was delighted to learn more about Omer and his work.
Omer Hoffman lives with his family in Israel.
How did you become an illustrator for children’s books?
I have been drawing most of my life, from a very early age. Much like in comics, I was fascinated by the idea of creating imagery and imbuing it with stories. After some period of time working as an animator (I found I wasn’t comfortable telling stories in that medium) I went on to study Illustration in Bezalel Academy for Art and Design in Jerusalem. After graduating, while working as a freelance illustrator and mostly producing art for Israeli newspapers, I was offered to illustrate a children’s book by Shoham Smit, a prominent author in Israel. The conceptual and artistic freedom the publisher gave me made the working process very satisfying, as I was able to infuse the images with my own story. I went on to illustrate eight more children’s books after that.
How did you connect with GREEN BEAN BOOKS for THE SAGES OF CHELM AND THE MOON?
The book was initially published in Israel by Agur Publishing for the Pijama Library, a foundation that publish and distributes free books among children in kindergartens in Israel. It was surprisingly well received, since a book about Eastern Europe Jews making fools of themselves some 100 years ago is not a something children are naturally attracted to. I am not sure how the connection was made, but I so know Green Bean Books published several books by Pijama Library, so maybe this is how the connection was made.
Your art has a whimsical feel. Can you tell me a bit about your process and choice of medium?
I like making myself laugh during the work process. It is my best motivation when illustrating just about anything, and it’s especially important when working on children’s books, when the work process tends to be long so I need to focus on one them. When approaching a new book, I like to find the humor in it, how I can make it funny even if it’s at the expense of the characters. In a way, The Sage of Chelm was a perfect fit for me.
When drawing, I like to keep my line art fresh and flawing. I draw sketches very quickly and use them as a basis for my finished illustrations. This way, I hope to preserve a sense of immediacy and movement in my work. I use Photoshop mostly to color and compose all the pieces I have drawn on paper with pencils, usually applying flat colors. But most of my work is done with pencils. I like to preserve the hand-made feel of the pencil, so I incorporate plenty of hand-drawn scribbles such as shadows, highlights, textures.
What kind of research was required to create the art for THE SAGES OF CHELM AND THE MOON?
I knew of the Sages of Chelm long before I read the text for this book. As a child I was introduced to this tale, and many other tales involving the Chelm Sages, by my parents. So the tone of the story was quite familiar to me and I easily connected to its theme and folklore. Since The Sages of Chelm is a sort of a period piece, I had to do a lot of visual research, looking for authentic clothes, people and architecture. However, searching for images from this particular time and place proved to be a demoralizing process. Because the Holocaust hit these particular communities in Poland so hard, most of the photos I found portray communities long gone so that gave them this morbid, dark sense. Those photos often carry titles like “Do you recognize this family”, or “The last known photo of this or that person”. I had to stop from time to time to focus on what I need to make this a fun children’s book. After I was done researching, I had to give myself some time off, to distance myself from all those visuals. I am still hesitant about opening my reference folder for this book.
Any projects coming up that you’d like to share?
Yes! The first children’s book I’ve written and illustrated has just been published, so naturally I am very excited about it. It is called “The Boy Who Mailed His Family”, published in Israel by Tal-May publishing house. As the name implies, it is about Yoav, a simple child who just wants to do his stuff, mainly draw, read books, watch TV, but his family won’t leave him be. They call him to supper, yell for not cleaning up the house, get angry with him for taking stuff. So Yoav is left with no options but to mail them all to the furthest place he knows of. It’s a funny book ( at least I hope so) that tells a familiar story from a child’s perspective, while making fun of parents, older sisters and dogs. I hope English readers will get to enjoy it too one day 🙂
If you would like to see more of Omer’s work visit his web site at www.ohoffmann.com
British indie publisher Greenhill Books is to make its first foray into children’s with Green Bean Books, a new imprint of Jewish-interest titles.
Greenhill publisher Michael Leventhal (pictured) said the impetus for Green Bean was personal frustration at the lack of quality Jewish children’s books in English, particularly in the UK market. He said: “I have two young sons and have been really disappointed by [Jewish-interest] kids’ titles in the UK, most of which aren’t remotely inspiring or engaging. There are more books from the US market, but many of these aren’t quite right for Britain and are rather ham-fisted. In Hebrew or Russian [languages], there are some wonderful publishers doing great work. A canon of Jewish folk literature has been largely forgotten: I want to resurrect these stories.”
Kicking off the list are picture books aimed at readers aged four to eight: Shoham Smith and Vali Mintzi’s Signs in the Well; Shlomo Abas and Omer Hoffman’s The Sages of Chelm and the Moon; and Ori Elon and Menachem Halberstadt’s A Basket Full of Figs. The last two are new takes on classic Jewish folktales, while Signs in the Well is about first-century scholar Rabbi Akiva.
Greenhill is a military history specialist, and Leventhal noted the children’s imprint “was a certainly a change from the Battle of the Bulge and books about snipers”. He added: “We were going to focus solely on picture books in translation, but I’ve just bought some YA and commissioned some English-language titles.”
It’s always wonderful to hear about new publishers that are passionate about bringing meaningful stories to life for young readers. Green Bean Books, based in London, is a new, independent publishing company. They have select titles available, including translated works from some of Israel’s “best loved authors and illustrators.” I find it fascinating to view the publishing process from through the lens of a publisher. Lucky for me, I had the chance to learn about Green Bean Books from Michael Leventhal, head of Green Bean Books. Welcome, Michael!
How did you get into the publishing business?
I’ve been publishing history books for more than twenty years but, after become a father myself, I became more interested in books for children. I was blissfully naive about how challenging it can be publishing books for children and I’ve had to learn a great deal in a short space of time.
You are based in London. Are you specifically interested in stories based in London and/or Europe?
The short answer is no. Although I’m happy to be in London I think that any publishing companies could be run from anywhere in the world – ideally a hammock on a desert island. I work with freelance editors and designers who happen to be based in England but very rarely live in London.
I can’t think of any books that I’ve published or commissioned that are based on stories from England or Europe. I want to publish books that have a universal appeal. I would want to read books about important events in British-Jewish history – the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 for example – but it’s more important – and also more commercial – to publish books that will be enjoyed by readers in Auckland, Atlanta or Aberdeen.
What kind of list do you hope to create in the coming years?
I want to publish a list of books that I’ll be proud to read to my children, relatives and friends for years to come. One of my authors, Shoham Smith, has said that some books have a shorter shelf life than yoghurt. I want to publish books that will pass the test of time and be in print for decades not months. That’s partly because I want my books to sell and generate income but mostly because I want to be building a library of books that people can enjoy for years.
Can you tell me a bit about the books Green Bean has published thus far?
All the Green Bean Books that I’ve published to date are translations from Hebrew. I’m in touch with a lot of Israeli publishers and I look at both their brand new books and books they’ve published over the last twenty years. For newcomers to publishing I think it’s quite common to start out with translations so that you can see the story and artwork from the word ‘go’. There are incredible authors and wonderful illustrators in Israel that do not have the international recognition they deserve: I want to change that and bring their works to a wider English-language audience.
I am looking at publishing more translations and selecting not just Hebrew language works for translation but also Russian and French stories that have Jewish content. I’ve also now commissioned two brand new books with Israeli writers and illustrators. It’s nerve-wracking but tremendously rewarding to see a project develop from an idea to a final book.
Are you open to submissions from authors or only agents?
I’m open to submissions from anyone with a work that fits the Green Bean criteria: books that have meaningful Jewish content but are original, creative and inspiring. Children’s book publishing is a terribly competitive and overcrowded field: books really have to be outstanding to get attention and I think that authors have to work harder than ever.
This week's Jewish Chronicle newspaper has a wonderful review of Green Bean's new book, The Heart-Shaped Leaf. Angela Kiverstein descibes the book as, ‘Mesmerizingly-illustrated…. A comforting fable about parenting, loss and love’.
Green Bean Books is delighted to announce that later this year we will be publishing the first English language edition of Rinat Hoffer’s The Shoebox. The book is a beautifully-illustrated story of a young girl who explores the year’s Jewish festivals through the prism of a shoebox that her father gives her. Rinat Hoffer is one of Israel’s best known and admired children’s writers and illustrators. The book has been translated by Noga Applebaum and it is the first of the new Green Bean Books list.!
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