David Zeltser is the author of our feature book from our August Picture and Family Boxes. The Night Library (beautifully illustrated by Raul Colon) has been described as The Polar Express meets The Night at the Museum. It’s a wonderful adventure about the magic of books and libraries, with a little help from the lions that guard the New York Public Library. David’s other books include Lug, a middle grade novel series and picture books Ninja Baby, Stinker, The Universe Ate My Homework and Codzilla.
Marmalade Books (MB): You graduated from Harvard with a degree in Physics and you thought about being a vet. Now you are a successful children’s book author. How did you ultimately make the decision to be a writer?
DAVID ZELTSER (DZ): It’s hard to tease out all the different factors, but I think the biggest one might have been freedom. It’s a privilege and a joy to follow my imagination wherever it leads me.
MB: This year you had two picture books published with two different publishers. You must have been incredibly busy. Did you write the books one after the other or did some of the work overlap?
DZ: I wrote them separately. There was some overlap when it came to editing, but picture book publication dates are usually more dependent on publishers’ marketing strategies and the availability of the right illustrators.
MB: You and your friend Julia Chiapella started a free writing center for kids called Word Lab in your hometown of Santa Cruz, California. Can you tell us more about it?
DZ: When I was five years old, my parents took me out of the Soviet Union in hopes of a better life in America. Growing up with very little money in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I benefited from many kind people and helpful organizations. I’ve tried never to forget that. A few years ago, as an author and a relatively new parent, it felt like the right time for my wife Fiona and me to help kids in our community. Inspired by 826 Valencia in San Francisco (created by Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari), I approached the Young Writer Program’s Julia Chiapella about creating a fun and imaginative writing center for kids attending Santa Cruz public schools. With the help of many generous people, we created an ‘imaginarium’ called the Chamber of Heart and Mystery (at the Museum of Art and History) and an adjacent afterschool writing center called the Word Lab. Along with a passionate staff of volunteers, I have the honor of helping our students create, edit and share their work with the community. (Bookshop Santa Cruz even put their anthologies on sale!) On a personal note, many of the kids who participate come from immigrant families like mine at a time where many such families are being increasingly marginalized. The Word Lab is here to give Santa Cruz kids the safe space, undistracted time and mentors they need to write and have their voices heard.
MB: You and your eight-year-old daughter Naomi were so kind to write our Marmalade readers a letter for our Night Library boxes. What does Naomi think about having a Dad who is a children’s book author?
DZ: As you know, I enjoy delegating, so I asked Naomi to answer this question. Here’s her response:
“It’s really fun, but it can also have its drawbacks. There was this time when I was at school and saw a girl reading one of my dad’s novels, Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age. She said it was one of her favorite books but when I told her who wrote it she didn’t believe me. I had to show her my dad’s photo on the book jacket!”
MB: In The Night Library, a young boy has a nighttime adventure meeting Patience and Fortitude, the much-loved lions that guard the New York Public Library. What inspired you to write about these beautiful statues?
DZ: The lion statues always seemed magical. But years after I’d moved to sunny California from NYC, I put a photo of the snow-covered statues in a random ideas folder. Then, one day, the picture suddenly spoke to me. The other inspiration was reading The Polar Express to my daughter.
MB: Are you working on a new project that you can tell us about?
DZ: I’m always working on picture books, novels and screenplays, and never know what will strike next. Right now, I’m having the most fun collaborating on some very different picture books with two close friends who are also extremely talented illustrators—Benjamin Arthur and Rob Court.
My thanks to David Zeltser and his daughter Naomi for this interview and letter to our readers. It was a pleasure to get to know you a little better. Pat Oldroyd