“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This seems to be the question we’re all asked when we are little. A doctor? A fireman? An astronaut? Most kids have an answer, and most of them change that answer frequently.
Unless, that is, you are Lisa Lesnick of Teaneck, and your answer is, “I want to write a children’s book.” In that case, the answer you gave when you were a kid becomes your dream, and then your dream of being an author becomes your reality.
Of course, it may take more than 40 years to get there.
Ms. Lesnick, who grew up in Flatbush and graduated from the Yeshiva of Flatbush, came to want to write through a logical — maybe inevitable — process. To write, first you have to read, and she did. Constantly. She loved it. “Reading was always an escape for me,” Ms. Lesnick said. “I was a voracious reader as a kid. Every Friday after school I’d take my little sister Michal to the library after our piano lessons, and I’d hunker down on the floor and go through all the shelves and pick out a stack of books to read for Shabbat. Sometimes I’d reread my favorites over and over.
“My parents always fostered a love of literature in me and my siblings. My father always had a book in his hand. I vividly remember one Chanukah asking for a gorgeous set of Louisa May Alcott books. I kept them on my shelf and treasured them and wouldn’t open or touch them.”
Ms. Lesnick graduated from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women with a shaped major with FIT — in other words, she took fine arts classes at Stern and merchandising classes at the nearby Fashion Institute of Technology — and then she worked in the garment district. Next, Ms. Lesnick spent 15 years working at the Yavneh Academy, in Paramus. She worked there as a shadow, then as an assistant teacher, and eventually she ran her own kindergarten classroom.
But she always wanted to write a children’s book.
Now, she has written “The Shabbos Squabble.” The book is her pride and joy. (As are her sons Jonah, 23, and Benny, 20, — and so is her husband, Glenn.) It’s published by Feldheim.
She’s particularly fond of the main character, the Wise Mezuzah, who was inspired by her father, Rabbi Abraham Warhaftig.
Ms. Lesnick talked about the inspiration she got from her father. “In March 2001, my father was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. My father was my hero. He was a tireless community leader. He worked as a teacher and guidance counselor at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School and was the Director of Camp Morasha for many years. He also served as principal at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School the last year of his life.”
“Throughout the five years that my father was sick I spent a lot of time with him, going to doctors’ appointments and keeping him company during his chemotherapy treatments,” she continued. “In order to keep his spirits up, I’d share snippets of my writing with him. He particularly enjoyed my writings about my two boys and would laugh out loud at their mischievousness and my frustrations with them. At one point, he looked at me and said, ‘I would be so proud if you became a published writer.’
“And there it was; a dying man’s wish. Game. On. I pushed even harder.”
He died in 2005. Her mother, Joyce Warhaftig, still lives in Brooklyn.
As a result of her father’s illness, and his urging, and their shared love of books, “About 15 years ago I began to actively pursue children’s book writing,” Ms. Lesnick said. “I joined SCBWI — that’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I followed all their newsletters and went to their conferences.
“After being a stay-at-home mom for eight years, those conferences were an amazing outlet for me. They were interesting and exciting. The keynote speakers inspired me and got my creative juices flowing.”
But not only was the children’s book world exciting, it also seems to be out of her reach, Ms. Lesnick continued. “Unfortunately, the mainstream children’s book industry is enormous, and with the success of many celebrity writers it became highly competitive and extremely difficult to break into,” she said. “I submitted many manuscripts and each rejection letter stung.
“Then I heard about the Jewish children’s book writers and illustrators seminar, and I figured that maybe the Jewish children’s book market would be a smaller playing field, so I started to go to those conferences for information and inspiration. Though they were considerably smaller than the secular book conferences, they still weren’t exactly handing out book contracts to hopeful writers.
“I tried hard not to be deterred and discouraged, and I continued to write.”
As a teacher, Ms. Lesnick saw, firsthand, that children learn best through books. This also helped motivate her to continue to submit manuscripts to publishers.
“The Shabbos Squabble” takes place in a Jewish home, just before Shabbat begins, Ms. Lesnick said. The table is set. The kiddush cup, the candlesticks, and the challahs all are on the table, ready to be used, when an argument breaks out about which of them is most important to Shabbat. The Wise Mezuzah, who “was always the voice of reason,” Ms. Lesnick said, explains why each one of them is unique, and the special importance that each one has to Shabbat.
According to Ms. Lesnick, the Shabbat Squabble is based on reality. “We were four children with very large personalities in a very small and cramped apartment,” she said. “Loud arguments often ensued. My father’s mantra was always ‘Shalom Bayit’— about keeping the peace in the home. His gentle teachings of peace also carried over to hundreds of his students and campers.”
When Feldheim accepted her manuscript in 2014, it paired Ms. Lesnick with an Israeli illustrator named Dov Ber Cohen. “Dov Ber and I never met in person,” Ms. Lesnick said. “We communicated the entire time through emails. We never spoke.
“I had a very clear vision of how I wanted the characters to look and I sent him inspiration photos and asked him to copy expressions, glasses, and other minute details. He was so patient and open to all of my suggestions, and I have such appreciation for his willingness to collaborate with me and take direction as well as his enormous talent.
“I think he did an exceptionally beautiful job bringing my words to life.”
It was especially important to her that the Wise Mezuzah, was based on her father, because he was drawn based on photos that she sent the illustrator. She wanted to truly capture her father’s essence, albeit in an illustrated form.
What’s her message to other people? “If you have a dream, keep at it, because even at age 46, it can become a reality,” she said.
“The Shabbos Squabble” is available on Amazon, Feldheim’s website, and Jewish bookstores in Bergen County.