Bringing the Power of “Dayenu” into Children’s Lives
April Halprin Wayland talks about her new book for Passover and her career as a children’s author.
by Sue Tomchin
At the Passover Seder storytelling is de rigueur, a time-tested way to convey the history and meaning of the Exodus from Egypt.
In her new picture book, More Than Enough (Dial Books for Young Readers; available in hardcover and Kindle editions), author April Halprin Wayland adds a contemporary new chapter to the Passover storytelling tradition. Inspired by the Seder song “Dayenu,” it would be enough, she has written a buoyant and warm story showing how the concept of being present and grateful for what we've been given at each moment can be part of our Passover preparations, the Seder itself, and our everyday life.
“I think of the book as if the Dalai Lama were coming to a Passover for preschoolers, of feeling present in the moment and seeing where it takes you,” Wayland remarked in a recent phone interview with JW.
Accompanied by Katie Kath’s lively watercolor illustrations, the story depicts children and their parents on the day leading up to the holiday.
“On a spring day, there’s more than enough to be thankful for as a family prepares for its Passover feast: walnuts, lilacs, and honey from the farmer’s market–dayenu,” Wayland said, describing the book. “Chopping apples for the charoset–dayenu. Dashing through puddles on the way to Nana’s house–dayenu. A delicious Seder meal for the whole family–dayenu.”
One of her hopes is that the book will help make gratitude a habit in our lives even after Passover is over. “Our society has so much, yet we never have enough. We live in a perpetual state of unease,” Wayland said.
As a writer, Wayland confesses that fear and self-criticism about being more productive are always lurking at the corners of her consciousness. “What calms me about Dayenu is that when you feel gratitude you are able to let go of the internal yelling,” she says.
More Than Enough is her second Jewish-themed picture book. Her first, New Year at the Pier, a warm and joyous story about a family taking part in a tashlich ceremony for Rosh Hashanah, was published in 2009. The book garnered the Sydney Taylor Award for best children’s book of the year from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her other books for children include Girl Coming in for a Landing, a novel in poems about a sensitive girl approaching adolescence.
Wayland writes her Jewish-themed books with the goal of making their stories and messages inclusive and interesting whether you’re Jewish or not. Raised as a secular Jew, her husband Gary is not Jewish. Yet, she took her son to synagogue, feeling “it wasn’t fair to drop him off. I would attend with him.” Growing up, she had “a built-in Jewish background” because of her many relatives in the Konigsberg clan, her mother’s family. “People talked Yiddish and there were 16 relatives who were killed in Auschwitz,” she said.
Writing has been at the center of Wayland’s life since childhood. Her family wrote many letters since, during the school year, she, her sister and her mom, a concert pianist, lived in Santa Monica, California, and her dad lived 500 miles away tending the family’s walnut farm. “Phone calls were expensive so we would write him about our days,” she recalled. She also kept a journal and wrote poetry and stories.
After college she worked for a time as nanny (she took care of Joan Rivers’ daughter Melissa), and traveled abroad in Europe and Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz. A classically trained violinist, she fell in love with folk music, began calling her violin a fiddle, and started the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club which is still bringing together folk musicians and singers to play and sing.
Despite her artistic leanings, Wayland decided to try out the corporate world, working in marketing for Pacific Telephone. It brought home pay checks, but it wasn’t a good fit, she noted. She became known at the office for the drawings of ducks marching up the sides of the fliers she created. “I didn’t get the numbers,” she confessed. “I used to feel everyone was efficient and I wasn’t.”
Her mother, who had always been unconventional and distrustful of the corporate world, told her, “You should quit and become a children’s book writer. You’d be so much happier.”
Deciding to try her hand at writing a children’s book for her nephew, Josh, who was turning three, Wayland discovered that her mother was right. Later, while taking an extension course in children’s book writing, she couldn’t wait to get home from the office to work on her stories. Ultimately, she realized that she wanted to devote herself full-time to children’s books and quit her job.
Over the years she has continued to write, take classes to build her craft, and teach writing classes herself. A stand out class at UCLA, “Writing Poetry for Children,” was taught by poet Myra Cohen Livingston. Poems are like children’s books in the sense that in both cases you are trying to say something in a few words, Wayland explained. “One of my teachers told us to put our hand on our belly. ‘That’s where you want a poem to come from,’ she said. The same is true of children’s books. Tell a story but also relate it to the deepest part of yourself. If it touches your gut, it will touch other people.”