If you’ve got no money, well, that’s all right …
(or What I learned from Woody Guthrie).
When I first got into publishing kids books, there were two things I vowed I’d never do: I would never publish a Christmas (or Hanukkah) book, and I would never illustrate a “celebrity book”.
But a funny thing happened on the way to my drawing table:
But first a quick back story: About a year and a half ago I was having creative differences with my long time publisher on a book they had asked me to do. Not being dumb enough to talk out of school on the internet, I’ll just say the differences were irreconcilable, and leave it at that. We tore up our contract and I decided I was done with publishing.
Heading into winter, with money running out, I got busy looking for other ways to earn a living. Kind of tough in this economy, especially with the limited skill set of an author/illustrator.
Things were looking bleak. Drywall finishing and house painting were my most likely options. And as it was late fall, even this was a stretch.
So, as you can imagine, I was very happy to come home from a day of hanging up “will-paint/drywall-for-food” flyers, to find an eMail in my inbox from Random House, with the subject line: Potential Picture Book Project.
I opened the eMail and I was a little bummed out to read that they were talking about a “hanukkah book”.
Ugh. Just because my name is Horowitz—and I wrote a book about Gefilte Fish—why do publishers keep pitching me “Jewish books”? (I don’t consider myself a Jewish artist any more than I consider myself a bald artist). You won’t believe how many times I’ve turned down illustrating Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. (It was four times).
But I digress.
I read the rest of the eMail and the project starting looking better and better. The book was to be an illustrated version of a long, lost Woody Guthrie tune, written in the late 1940s, for his Mother-in-law, who was a famous Yiddish poet at the time.
Not a student of folk music I did a little research on Mr. Guthrie. I knew he wrote This Land is Your Land and I knew that his son was Arlo Guthrie, who wrote that interminable Alice’s Restaurant, but other than that I knew nothing.
My first Google-search found this picture:
What does that read on his guitar?: “This Machine Kills Fascists”. Instantly he had my attention. Here’s a guy I can work with.
Then I read the song’s lyrics. They were actually good. No, better than that, they truly spoke to me. Check out this chorus:
It’s Honeyky Hanukah, huggy me tight,
It’s Hanukah day, and it’s Hanukah night,
If you’ve got no money, well, that’s all right.
It’s Honeyky Hanukah time.
“If you’ve got no money, well, that’s all right”? Wow…. “I have a little dreidel” this isn’t.
A little more googling found a recording of the song by the Klezmatics—which it turned out would be included with the book on a CD—and I was hooked! On first listen I knew I had to illustrate this book. And I’m so grateful I did …
… because in the process I learned something valuable. But I’ll let you find the book for yourself and see if you can’t figure out what it is. Here’s a little hint: it has to do with joy!