Author Carol Coven Grannick adds a poetic Jewish voice to children’s lit

Discover Carol Coven Grannick's Jewish-infused books

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Carol Coven Grannick, as a young poet at a YMHA poetry reading in Brooklyn in 1972. Photo credit: Judah Goldstein.

When children's writer and poet Carol Coven Grannick was working on Reeni's Turn (Regal House Publishing) years ago, she and her early readers debated the merits of including Jewish material in the middle-grade novel. 

The story focuses on an aspiring tween ballerina, Reeni Rosenbloom, who struggles with her relationship to food and the physical changes wrought by puberty. The argument boiled down to just how "Jewish" the book should be.

In the end, Jewish details won out.

"It didn't feel right without Jewish content," said the Skokie-based Coven Grannick.

A day after completing the final manuscript, she recalled, a gunman yelling antisemitic epithets stormed the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jewish Shabbat worshippers.

It was a defining moment, Coven Grannick suggested: There are still people who want to erase Jews--whether from life or from the page. 

The Jewish themes explored in Reeni's Turn have heartened many in the Jewish book world. Reeni received an honorable mention from the Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition, and one of the Jewish Book Council's reviewers, Jillian Bietz, kvelled over it, calling the book "elegant and impactful," adding that "[not] one word is wasted in this heartfelt story."

Reeni , Coven Grannick said, is not based on her own life, but the book's development can be traced to personal and professional experiences.  

Growing up in a Jewish-identified family in Oak Park and River Forest, the daughter of Yiddish-speaking parents who fell in love at a Jewish summer camp at which they both worked, Coven Grannick had her own love affair--with stories and poetry--at an early age. Her mother and father "sang Yiddish lullabies on long car trips," she said, and she became enraptured by the lyricism of the language and the music.

Active on her high school newspaper, Coven Grannick went on to earn a bachelor's degree in creative writing at Barnard. But rather than pursuing writing as a career at that point, she opted for graduate school at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work. "I had an aunt who was a social worker," she said, "and she had a very big influence on me."

Yet writing, even during social work school, remained a constant. During a field placement at a Brooklyn YMHA, she met Yiddish poet Peretz Kaminsky, who encouraged her to develop her poetry. She eventually read a series of her poems at the Y about the death of her father, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer just as she was graduating from Barnard. 

"Kaminsky told me, 'Once you've written a poem, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the world, and you need to send it out,'" Coven Grannick recounted.

She took the poet's words to heart. Even after developing a clinical practice specializing in helping clients become "comfortable with food, themselves, and their bodies"--reminiscent of themes explored in Reeni --Coven Grannick plodded away with her writing. She overcame her fear of rejection, took children's writing classes, and racked up publication credits in children's magazines, occasionally penning stories and poems about Jewish experiences, such as "Pasha's First Yom Kippur," which Highlights published in 2008.

"I would get up at four in the morning and write for a couple of hours" before leaving for work at the Ginsburg Solomon Schechter Early Childhood Center in Skokie, said Coven Grannick, who cited the center as an inspiration. 

These days, she is looking forward to the publication of a new book, Call Me Bob , a creative nonfiction account, in verse, of a medical trauma her husband sustained eight years ago. "It is astounding that he is alive and well," said Coven Grannick. 

But children's stories and poems remain her core interest, she said, and young readers and their parents can expect more of both from her in the years to come. 

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.

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