Story Time 

Jane Breskin Zalben and her Paths to Peace

This is the full text of the Jane Breskin Zalben interview.

Story Time

Jane Breskin Zalben and her Paths to Peace

by Rachel Abrahamson

There is something familiar and soothing in Jane Breskin Zalben's words. Whether she's speaking to you one-on-one or reaching out to the masses through her books, there is the unmistakable feeling of home and of nurturing in the heart of every word she utters.

Humanity and compassion are the true foundations, the concrete of Breskin Zalben's work. She is an award-winning author and artist of over 50 books. Working predominantly in children's literature, Breskin Zalben's career has spanned over 30 years. In her book, Paths to Peace, Breskin Zalben profiles 16 different influential humanitarians, peacemakers and history makers, including Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson: influential people that the average third grader hasn't yet heard of. Through her work, Breskin Zalben succeeds in finding a way to educate and encourage children to find their own inner humanitarian.

The Idaho Peace Coalition is proud to feature Breskin Zalben and her artwork in a variety of venues. Her art will be exhibited and sold at J Crist Gallery to benefit the Idaho Peace Coalition and Breskin Zalben will give various readings, talks and book signings throughout her visit to the City of Trees. Boise Weekly caught up with Breskin Zalben the week before her visit.

Boise Weekly: One consistency that seems to be a common thread in your work is the topic of relationships, of families and of the challenges which arise with every day life.

Jane Breskin Zalben: Yes, very much so.

Was writing Paths to Peace a project you felt you were drawn to because of a specific message you wanted to deliver to young readers, or did it come from a different inspiration for you?

Well, it was a gradual emergence . In 1995 I started going to other parts of the world. [These experiences] obviously gives you a broader picture of life. I live in New York and September 11th happened. That wasn't the point of doing the book, but it had been in the back of my mind. It was sort of gradual, but then that sort of focused me. A Peace Book did well, and I felt like I wasn't done with the subject matter. I wanted to do a book in a different style than I had worked in, so I started doing a combination of collage and computers and painting and water colors.

What qualities were you looking for when you chose the people whom you felt needed to be featured in your book? How did you decide who to include?

I could have done a book on each person. Having to narrow it down, and the connection to me and all these people was that something happened in their early childhood that changed their path. When these things happen, they can go a bad way or a good way. It has nothing to do with money, a lot of them were privileged, a lot of them were not. But there was one individual who made a difference, whether it was a grandparent, teacher, friend, whatever. The person made a connection in their childhood and it saved them, and then they grew up and it influenced them in this quest and that really interested me. Because it was such a diverse group I wanted to be sensitive in these styles to the different people. In the back of the book I have art notes on every single person. I was very hard to narrow down a lot to one page.

Were there many other people you considered influential whom you wanted to include?

There were some I don't want to mention specifically by name, because I found things in their past. Even though the word or PR out there was that they were good, there were some things that came out, some things that maybe weren't kosher. You know, people have varied lives - it's not a straight path. Maybe that's why I love it, the psychological aspect. The people fascinated me. You know, I thought, "Eleanor Roosevelt. What's the story behind this person?" One person I put in at the last minute. The book was done! The woman from Kenya [Wangari Maathai] had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for planting trees. Her campaign to plant millions of trees has refocused the family, and that was her aim. It wasn't just for ecology. It was for basic things that in the U.S. we take for granted. She gave this hope that sort of fuels other things that promote a better way of life. So she was put in at the last minute.

How did the tour to Boise come about?

The Idaho Peace Coalition. Liz saw the book and emailed me. We started emailing back and forth and one thing led to another and she started getting sponsors for it. I'm excited to meet them. It's like preaching to the choir, they are the supporters of what I do with my life.

Have you visited Boise before?

No, I've never been to your part of the country at all, this is like a foreign country for me. We're staying a couple extra days because I don't know when I'll get the opportunity to come out there again.

What preconceived notions do you have about what Idaho must be like?

Brokeback Mountain. I hope it looks like that! Is it that beautiful there? We're taking extra days so we can drive around. I'd like to go to some hot springs. I've never done that before.

In your fiction works, how much of your own life experience do you bring to your characters?

I think it's very intertwined. I look at it kind of like a big soup. You take real ingredients from real life and mix it all up. It's a spring board. Life can be the same but because we bring all these different ingredients, a story comes out. Doing the book [Leap] just interested me because when I travel to different countries and places kids always ask, "Are you going to write about us?" Definitely there were pieces in the book that were very reminiscent for me. It came out of a fifth grade class. A fifth grade boy sitting in the front asked me, "Can a writer write without writing?" I had to do everything in my soul not to cry. I knew what he meant. He was disabled, he had a walker, and we were on the second floor. The writer in me asked in my mind, "How did he get up there? What if there was a fire?" Just that one question created a book for me, it inspired Leap. I had lunch with the teachers later and this boy's aid was at the lunch. She told me that he hadn't really asked questions, that he was shy and that this was a real breakthrough. She told me the boy had had an operation, and it turned out to be the same operation my own son had had at the same age. I realized how life could go one way or the other.

Your sons are both grown now. Do you think "empty-nest syndrome" has kicked in for you? And if so, is that going to send your work in a new direction?

Not at all. I was doing books before they were born. If anything it just gave me a different sense of time [Zalben laughs]. My mother thought I was awful initially because I remember being almost gleeful that I could go out on a Tuesday night. But we're very involved parents, so even when they were in college, not only were we up there all the time, I felt like they were still in pre-school because I got to know all their friends. I don't consider it empty at all. It's ongoing. They still have needs and I think parents have to stay involved. It doesn't stop.

If you could have chosen any other career of life path, what would it have been?

I think I would have really enjoyed being a film director. I did do a screen play for Leap with a writing partner and I found I really did love doing a film. I'm not done with that. If I was a younger woman now, starting over again, I would have been a director. I like having the whole vision and seeing it. I think in terms of pictures and words. I think of myself as a camera, like I'm the camera and I'm going through the room and recording the things I see. I've been directing on paper my whole life.

Do you think your success as an artist and writer is a direct result of the encouragement you received as a child from your mother and father?

My father used to call my art, "love pictures," and my mom used to take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They had a junior museum. I'd go for art lessons and in the afternoon she'd take me around the museum. I was steeped in art. I really knew art was in my bones. In seventh grade I started going into Manhattan and took art lessons there. Eventually I went to what is the High School of Music and Art. It took me three hours a day to get there back and forth. So from 14-17, that's what I was doing. From Queens to Harlem. It shows that even as a kid I was really willing to put out the time for this thing that I was passionate about. My parents didn't want me to go. The local high school was ten minutes away. I said there was no way I wasn't going. So I was doing it alone. I went off on my own. It was much better and healthier for me, I felt like I had finally come home because I was with other artists, and not mean girls with cliques. It all makes great stuff for writing!

You've taught courses in illustration, design and children's book writing for many years. Is this something you'd like to return to?

For part of me, going around giving speeches is returning to it. I love speaking to children and doing workshops, assemblies. I'm looking forward to a lunch slot where I'll be meeting with adults at BSU. I'm looking forward to that because it's more intimate. I feel like I'm still teaching in a way. If something fell in my lap I think I might be enticed to do that. I certainly like doing it. I'll go into colleges, sometimes I can go for a week or two and do intensive workshops and I like doing things like that.

You've been quoted as saying that you identify with children because you "do remember." What do you mean by that?

When I saw that it's because I think sometimes it's [growing up] candy coated and I remember all the feelings. Not all of them were favorite, a lot of them were difficult. Some were wonderful and some were very difficult, just like life. Children are little people and have a whole gamut of feelings. I'm able to mine those feelings, use those feelings for characters. But if I told them [my memories] exactly the way it happened, that's not as interesting a story. It would be boring. That's what makes a writer; that mixture of reality and imagination.

What do you love most about writing children's book?

I particularly love writing for that in between age. I find I'm very drawn to that twelve year old age, fifth to seventh grades. I think it's such a wonderful age. I don't think adults respect that age. Because they are becoming adults, parents often think their job is done when they don't need a baby-sitter. But to me you have to be more vigilant. More things occur. You have to always be there, it never ends. The difference is, when they're children, they're children. But my children still are my children. I love them and care about them. I still remember what it feels like when they're sitting on my lap and you're watching a puppet show or something in the library with them and you're sniffing the shampoo in their hair.

Do you think children today are less childlike and more like mini-adults because of the pressure to lead busy, activity filled lives, and to be more successful?

I think they still have the same emotions that we had, but what I think is, now, when you turn thirteen, you start for college. It's too much pressure. It's unbelievable. But I think it's double sided. I think some parents use their children as extensions of what they're playing out. Sometimes I see that parents maybe use their child as a status symbol. It's not substance. To me it's really important not to live through the child. I don't do my children's books to give messages. That would be arrogant. I don't want to force feed people.

As an author, what books interest you? What are you reading right now?

I read mostly non-fiction. I just finished reading Leaving Microsoft, about the man who brought "Room to Read" to third world countries. Basically he brought libraries to third world countries and left Microsoft to do it. Those are the kinds of things I like to read about—someone's real story and how they've survived and then how they've prospered against all odds. But I usually like it in a real situation. I do read young adult and children's books. I'm very fascinated by books.

What are three things you can't live without?

My family. My husband and my two sons. Also, I need to connect for a lot of hours every day with art or writing.

What are you looking forward to now? Where are you headed?

That I don't know. Most people feel at this time in their life when they've raised their families, "Okay, I'm going to retire. Or this chapter or passage is closing." First of all I feel for the first time in my life as if I'm beginning. I've never been so in control. I really know how to write a novel now. I really know about art. I really know about doing that stuff, so I feel a little more comfortable doing it, and because of that I think it's a great time for me to experiment and I'm very excited about that. I find it interesting that I don't feel like age is a barrier. I can relate to everyone. You know, people are people. But I don't relate to some of my friends who are starting to have grandchildren. Not that I don't want to have one, I would cherish it! We all have different parts of who we are. I see myself as more expansive. I feel more open, whereas some people get more closed, and I think that's really dangerous. Maybe that's why I do children's books. It's keeping that child in yourself. It's remembering. I was conscious of it even as a parent. I think if you respect them they're going to respect you.

In my family, we're all freelancers. If you have kids who are in creative fields, in the arts, it's a whole other story. Plus we live in a world that's harder now. I don't think it stops. We work very hard. My husband's an architect and he has a practice. We work on the weekends, it's very morphic. It's not like one day ends. Our lives aren't our jobs, but we're just working all the time. It doesn't end. I think my kids come to life like that too—but they sort of saw that we formed a creative life and for some bizarre reason they want to emulate that. And hopefully it will work for them. Maybe our work is play because we're real passionate about what we do, all four of us. I literally run to the computer. Or when I paint, someone might say to me if I get a call and answer the phone, "Janey, were you sleeping?" and I say, "No, I was painting." Sometimes I'd rather be in that world.

Jane Breskin Zalben's original art from Paths to Peace will be on display at J Crist Gallery, 223 S. 17th St., April 20-21 and 24-25. A reception with the artist will be held on April 20 from 5-7 p.m., with Breskin Zalben speaking at 6 p.m. All art is for sale and proceeds benefit the Idaho Peace Coalition.
Also on Friday, April 20, Breskin Zalben will give a brownbag lunch talk from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. in the Boise State Student Union Farnsworth Room. The talk is free and open to the public.
Saturday, April 21, from 11 a.m.-noon, Breskin Zalben will read from and discuss her book Leap at the Rediscovered Bookshop, 7079 Overland Rd., Overland Park Shopping Center. Then, from 2-3 p.m., Breskin Zalben will talk about Paths to Peace and explain writing and publishing in a program for readers and writers of all ages, at the Boise Public Library Auditorium, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Book signing and refreshments will immediately follow at The Cabin, 801 S. Capitol Blvd.
Lastly, a family celebration will be held that evening from 7-9 p.m., at which a Havdalah ceremony, words from the author, refreshments and a book signing will take place at Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue at 11 N. Latah St. Child care will be provided.

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