Janet Ruth Heller is a fiction writer, poet, playwright, educator, memoir writer, and literary critic.
Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Janet. When do you find time to sleep?
Janet Ruth Heller: I have retired from teaching and write full-time. I published two books while I was teaching, but I have published four books since I retired in 2010. I still visit schools, libraries, book fairs, conferences, and bookstores to give creative writing workshops; discuss multicultural literature; discuss good books, movies, CDs, and videos to help children deal with bullying; give anti-bullying workshops; read my poetry and prose; and present my scholarly research on literature.
Ferrante: I found teaching not only took most of my time, but most of my creative energy as well. Retirement is so freeing.
I reviewed How the Moon Regained Her Shape on May 2, 2014. What were your goals and intentions with this book and how well do you feel you have achieved them?
Heller: I got badly bullied by various classmates when I was a new student in kindergarten. This abuse continued for several years. The bullying included name-calling, exclusion from activities, pushing, and stone-throwing. I did not know how to discourage my harassers, and I did not tell the teachers about the bullying. I wrote my fiction picture book How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 3rd edition 2012) to help other children understand bullying and to urge them not to remain silent. By telling friends, family members, teachers, coaches, neighbors, etc. about bullying, children and adults can make it difficult for harassers to continue their power trips.
Teachers tell me that after I visit a school to read How the Moon Regained Her Shape and to discuss bullying, students are more likely to report harassment.
Ferrante: Fabulous. We need to get it out in the open.
Your book has been included in two collections, Astronomy Set and the Overcoming Adversity Set. How did this come about?
Heller: My publisher, Arbordale (previously Sylvan Dell), often puts together groups of books with similar topics. I wrote the essay about bullying in the “Character” section online. I also edited the “For Creative Minds” section with activities for children at the end of the book How the Moon Regained Her Shape.
Ferrante: Your first picture book has won several awards (2006 Children’s Choices Award [Children’s Book Council and Int’l. Reading Association] 2007 Ben Franklin Award [Publishers Marketing Association] 2007 Moonbeam Gold Award) and received wonderful reviews. However there has been some negative response from First Nations peoples claiming that this is a distorted aboriginal folktale. Would you like to address this?
Heller: When I wrote How the Moon Regained Her Shape, I was researching Native American legends, customs, and folktales for an article that I was writing about the poetry of Judith Minty, who is part Mohawk. I also have a Native American friend who helped me during many crises; she is one of the people whom I dedicated this book to. The story in my picture book is completely my own. I did not borrow any words, ideas, or sentences from Native American authors. However, because I admire the lyrical style of First Nation stories, I tried to write my book with a similar style. I also love nature and agree with First Nation people’s view that the natural world is not separate from the human world.
Many educators complain that few books for children have people of color as main characters. How the Moon Regained Her Shape has two Native American main characters, Round Arms and Painted Deer. It also has a large group of First Nations women dancing with the moon and Round Arms. I created all of these characters from my respect and love for Native American culture.
Ferrante: What were your sources for your newest book, The Passover Surprise?
Heller: I was born in 1949 and am the oldest of five children in a Jewish family. When I was nine, my father set up a competition for a stamp album between my next-oldest brother and me. Although we both spent the same amount of time and effort collecting stamps, my father gave the album to my brother without any explanation. I did not know the words “sexism” and “favoritism” then, but I knew that something was very unfair, and I felt alienated from my father. However, I was too young to know how to confront him about his obvious bias.
My father served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II and told me many stories about his experiences. As an adult, I also read his letters home to his parents and an autobiography that he wrote. I used details from these in The Passover Surprise.
When I was young, my family celebrated the Passover Seder with the family of my mother’s twin brother. The joint celebration with my aunt and uncle and my first cousins made the holiday very special. I adapted details from these Seders for The Passover Surprise.
I am a devout Jew. I often help to lead services at my synagogue, and I frequently chant from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Jewish prophets in Hebrew. I have also been a principal and a teacher at two Jewish religious schools.
No one has a right to discriminate against other people due to skin color, race, national origin, etc. The Civil Rights Movement emphasizes equal opportunity and fairness for everyone.
Also, just as many women in the 1800s got involved in the Women’s Movement after fighting for the abolition of slavery, many women in the twentieth century got involved in the Women’s Movement after fighting for civil rights for people of color. I attended my first feminist conference at Oberlin College around 1969, and I coordinated women’s organizations and rap groups at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago. I’m a founding mother of the feminist literary journal Primavera, and I co-founded the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
Ferrante: Wow, that’s impressive.
The Passover Surprise raises the topic of sexism. Do you feel traditional religions need to address this topic?
Heller: Yes, I feel that many religions discriminate against women. In Jewish families, boys often get favored over girls. Until the 1970s, women could not become Jewish rabbis or cantors in the United States and in many other countries. The language of many prayer books and Bibles addresses primarily men and refers to God in masculine terms such as King and Lord, instead of using gender-fair nouns like Sovereign and Creator, etc. Such language makes women and girls feel left out and diminished.
I have been pushing for more inclusion of women in leadership positions and more egalitarian language in worship for many decades. We have adopted a gender-fair High Holiday prayer book, and we will soon vote on which of several gender-fair prayer books to use for the rest of the year. We have had many more women presidents of the synagogue recently.
Ferrante: That’s great to hear.
Ferrante: Besides your real birthday, what is one other date on the calendar that you think would have been a great day to be born?
Heller: My summer birthday is the date of my parents’ first anniversary. This has made the date doubly special to my family and to me. I would also like to be born on the Jewish holiday of Passover because of its emphasis on freedom and human dignity.
Ferrante: Whenever you’re having a bad day, what is the best thing you can do to help cheer yourself up?
Heller: I take a long walk to make myself feel better. I used to walk with my father when I was young.
Ferrante: What is your all-time favorite scene from a movie?
Heller: One of my favorites is in Sense and Sensibility (1995) based on Jane Austen’s novel by the same name. Elinor Dashwood, played by Emma Thompson, has been waiting patiently for at least a year to find out whether the man she has adored, Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), still loves her and can marry her. He was engaged to Lucy Steele previously. Elinor and Edward have been separated for many months. She has heard rumors that he has married Lucy. However, Edward comes to visit Elinor toward the end of the movie. She finds out that Edward’s brother married Lucy, but Edward is free to and wants to marry Elinor now. During this scene, Elinor’s tears turn to laughter and joy. Thompson plays this scene powerfully. The audience feels a great sense of relief that Elinor’s long wait is over and that she can soon live happily with Edward.
Ferrante: We all love a happy ending.
Thank you for spending time with us today. Best of luck with The Passover Surprise.
The Passover Surprise was reviewed on this blog on December 30, 2016.
Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.