1. Where did the idea for A Moon for Moe and Mo come from? What was your inspiration?
I was shopping with my toddler granddaughter by my side (the book is dedicated to her!) at the famous store, Sahadi’s, in Brooklyn, where I have been buying for years: spices, teas, middle-eastern food, breads. There was mother in a chador wearing a head scarf next to me waiting on line with her very young child. Both children began to interact. It was right before the Jewish holidays where I like to stock up on products I can cook with from my own recipes—there are rugelach and date cookie recipes in the back of the book. The neighborhood has many stores from various Arabic countries, which I love, and find the food similar to Israeli cuisine.
In addition, over the years I have done three peace picture books, several cookbooks for children, besides YA novels and poetry books. After being invited to speak at many international schools in countries where I visited mosques and old synagogues, doing this book was a natural outgrowth of those broadening journeys to other cultures. I remember sitting on the floor in a large dusty mosque with dust motes floating in the still warm air of Cairo; seeing one of the oldest temples there, too in the old city, where no Jews are left to worship; awakened from sleep, hearing the iman at four in the morning over a loud speaker for the first time, stunned; or sunning myself on a roof in Ethiopia, listening to the call to prayer, enjoying the rhythm of the musical sounds of those chants, like Hebrew. Those are the moments that brought me to this book.
2. What was it like working with your editor, Yolanda Scott? How did she help you bring out the best in this book?
Like me, she is a perfectionist. She would call me, or email, with the most critical eye, and I truly love that. It shows me that the person is in my head and on the same page, trying to make the book the best it can be. Even after it was completed—and first run-through on the printing—she was making edits. And I joined her on that path. Happily.
3. As a Jewish author, why was it so important to you to have a Muslim illustrator for this book?
Well, I have done a lot of Jewish books over the course of my career. I have had around 50 books published. And I have illustrated mostly all of them. In excruciating detail. Won a few Sydney Taylor silver honor book awards, a Koret Foundation and William Allen White honor book award, and many others for them. But sometimes, the art director in me—I had been the art director for Scribner’s—or the teacher—I taught at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan 18 years—felt that it is essential to have someone else give a different point of view to this story. A different look. And it was always a Muslim individual. Even though I love to paint all the details of Islamic art like rugs, borders, decorations, and architecture, and many people have compared my art to Persian miniatures, I know Mehrdohkt is from Iran, and she would add to the text in a wonderful way, which she did. When I saw her portfolio online, I said to myself, I hope she does the illustrations. And it was such a treat to hear the news that she stopped what she was doing to do this book of mine, which became ours. Being an artist, I do have a critical eye, but I also can appreciate what goes into creating the art.
4. What are you hoping this book will accomplish for children?
I wasn’t aware when I began to travel to schools in 1995 how much of Africa was Islamic. When I was in Addis in 1995, terrorist bombs had blown up the restaurant we were supposed to celebrate my visit in for dinner when I arrived. I don’t think the world was as conscious of what was developing slowly throughout other countries full of poverty and unrest. Maybe leaders did, but I wasn’t aware. Or my friends. Now we are. We are New Yorkers and were in the city days after the towers came down. You could see the smoldering over the city from my son’s apartment at the time and smell it and hear the fighter planes over Long Island where I live.
The world has been in turmoil probably forever. Although now, it feels much more so. Instead of moving toward peace there seems to be unrest, chaos, and sometimes a true lack of kindness, caring, and empathy. It feels upside down, and what is right and moral and ethical is not always valued. The shift has been painful, and I do hope something better evolves. Each person has to try and make a difference, no matter how infinite.
I hope for this book in some small way, through two small boys, differences can also be seen as similarities. We all hopefully want to be loved, understood, and appreciated.
Moe and Mo try to do that by bringing their families, Jewish and Muslim, together.
5. You are also an artist, so what was it like taking a step back and letting Mehrdohkt do the illustrations for this book? What about her illustrations surprised you the most?
It was fine taking a step back once I knew it was in such good hands. I know she was nominated for a Kate Greenaway. There are things I might have added or done, and I am certain, there are things the artist added that I might have forgotten, so it all was so rewarding in the end. I find her technique interesting. Having worked digitally myself and with collage on Mousterpiece: a mouse-sized guide to modern art, Paths to Peace, Saturday Night at the Beastro, and Let There Be Light, to name a few, it was fascinating to see how Mehrdohkt employed it in such a unique way. I really loved it. And her exuberance for color. I appreciated that. Especially since Matisse is one of my favorite artists. Her hues!
6. What part of the book are you most excited to share with readers?
I think each person brings their own sensibility, history, psychology to any book.
One of my grandson’s loved what he called the “banana” moon in the sky. When I get up in the middle of the night, or see the cycle of the moon, I have learned so much more since doing this book. I also like having all the non-fiction backmatter at the end of the story. It adds to a better understanding of the holidays and people. Especially, for people of different faiths. I am excited to share the diversity and the similarity of Moe and Mo. Children seem accepting and open. I hope the adults reading this are as well. I fear a number might not be. They might be closed because of what occurs in the world politically. I hope maybe this book, in any book’s small way, finds an audience. It was six years in the making and so much hard work and passion goes into every book.