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December 8, 2019 11:30 AM
Shanna Silva is a special guest at Dolphin Book Shop, Port Washington, NY
Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups by Shanna Silva, illustrated by Bob McMahon (Apples & Honey Press)
Kids books and Broadway shows — yep, Shanna Silva does it all. She’s the author of Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups (illustrated by Bob McMahon, Apples & Honey Press) and Passover Scavenger Hunt (illustrated by Miki Sakamoto, Kar-Ben Books/Lerner Books). She’s also won a Tony Award for producing the Broadway revival of Once on This Island, and produced many other Broadway and off-Broadway hits. Please welcome Shanna as she shares the inspiration for Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups in time for the Festival of Lights.
What was your inspiration for Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups?
I wanted to write a picture book that portrayed a character dealing with adversity through a humorous bent. All kids face challenges, and have a fear of being laughed at or labeled as different. Sometimes, things are out of our control, and we have to find creative solutions to deal with these issues. I also wanted to show the importance of community, and that when people focus on kindness and caring for one another, it allows others to feel supported and accepted. I chose hiccups because they are universally funny. I have always had ridiculous hiccups that sound like crickets, popping up at inopportune moments. It was the perfect problem for Hannah.
What was the journey like for this book? Did Hannah find a home right away?
Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups began as an assignment for a Children’s Writing class I was taking at Hofstra University. It went through many revisions, and then I realized that I was approaching it all wrong. Initially, Hannah was a one-dimensional character that was simply the butt of the joke. It took me a while to understand that I had to raise the stakes for her and write her as a sympathetic character that readers could root for. Additionally, as I revised (and revised), I discovered that this book was a great vehicle to write about a multi-cultural community, since the character lived in an ethnically diverse brownstone in New York City. It is intended to give readers an opportunity to find someone like them in a story, which kids need.
After several years of re-writes, I began to submit. It was initially rejected, and I continued to tweak the manuscript after putting it away for a while. I sent it to Apples & Honey Press, and then moved on to other projects. Just when I thought it was time to move on, I received a call from Apples & Honey Press. Conceptually, they liked the story but not the ending, and asked if I’d be willing to work on a rewrite. I enthusiastically accepted the challenge. I rewrote the manuscript with two alternate endings, and they were both rejected. Still believing that there was something worthy there, I decided to shelf it and return when I had some much needed distance and perspective. Sometimes, when I read something over and over, I am unable to see what’s missing, and how to fix it. Putting the manuscript away turned out to be a valuable choice. When I went back to it, I evaluated what I liked, and what was dead weight. Fresh eyes allowed me to edit it with the new perspective I’d gained in my evolution as a writer. I asked Apples & Honey Press to take another look at the piece, and they graciously agreed. This time, I had found the right balance between humor, compassion, struggle and creativity. Apples & Honey accepted the manuscript, and we proceeded to collaborate in a wonderful process.
As someone who is prone to hiccups myself I found myself taking note of all the remedies. How did you find the cures? Do you have any favorites?
I also get attacks of hiccups. Over the years, I have tried many of the remedies that I wrote about. Usually, time is the only one that works for me.
As I started researching remedies, I realized that many cultures have their own approach to hiccups. It was the necessary tie in to the ethnic diversity of my characters. Many hiccup “cures” are folklore that have passed down through many generations. Hiccups are a universal issue and in Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups, they are the backdrop for common ground between diverse people.
Shanna Silva is also the author of Passover Scavenger Hunt, illustrated by Miki Sakamoto (Kar-Ben Publishing/Lerner Books)
You are the only children’s book writer I know who is also a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer! How did you become a Broadway producer? What came first — being a writer or producer? How do those two fit together? And how do you find time for both?
Looking back, I was always a writer, even if I didn’t know it. As a kid, I was a voracious reader and enjoyed creative writing. In every adult job I ever had (in the finance, real estate, legal and health care industries), I wrote, whether it was newsletters, property descriptions, agreements or marketing materials. It only occurred to me to write for myself in my 40’s. There were stories bubbling up, and I wanted to find the right places to tell them. Knowing how important books were to me as a kid, I wanted to write in the children’s genre.
I became a Broadway Producer through a key industry introduction by my dermatologist. But let me back up…The first show I saw as a child, which was a regional production of The Sound of Music, grabbed me right away. From the opening notes, I felt a sense of belonging and enchantment in the theater. It was magic to me, something that I had previously only experienced in the world of books. Both mediums fostered a transformation into a new world that could make me feel things and help to make sense of my own life. That’s the gift that art gives us – a sense of the greater world and our place in it. Later, as an undergraduate student at New York University, I was able to buy $10 student seats to Broadway productions. The seats were in the back row of the mezzanine, but that didn’t matter. I was there.
Later on, after working in several different careers and having my family, I struck up a conversation with my dermatologist, who always had Broadway tunes playing in his theater poster-decorated exam rooms. Not surprisingly, he was a huge Broadway fan and had invested in many shows. He introduced my husband, Steven, and I to a producer, and we began to learn about the business. It happened at a serendipitous time in our lives, because we were looking to start the next chapter of our professional lives together.
Since then, we’ve produced a number of shows; have received four Tony nominations, and one Tony award. We have a deep respect for the work and the art that goes into opening and sustaining a show. Playing even a small part is a privilege.
There are so many similarities between producing theater and writing. Fundamentally, they are both about the power of storytelling and putting your heart into the art. They involve plot, character development, setting and dialogue. They have to capture the attention of the reader/theatergoer, lead them into a new world, and entice them to hang out for a while.
There are not enough hours in the day. Managing both career aspects is a matter of scheduling and prioritizing. With theater, the busy times tend to come in waves. Around the opening of a show and award season, there are many more time commitments. Writing is the kind of thing that can be done anywhere, anytime. I am always writing in my head, and I schedule times to actually sit and write either at home, the library or in between appointments.
Please tell us about some of your favorite shows to produce. What was involved in producing them? Did you get to use any of your writer talents? Or your psychology degree from New York University?
My all time favorite show to produce (so far) was Anastasia. We became involved with the show very early in the process (a couple of years before the Broadway opening). Being a part of the journey so early creates an attachment to the show, as well as the opportunity to help shape its evolution. With Anastasia, we were onboard before the out of town run at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Out of town runs are a standard with most Broadway shows, because it is an opportunity to see how a live audience reacts to the material. It informs the show’s next steps because in addition to gauging how a show is received, it is the chance for the producers to see what works – and what doesn’t. After this point, the show goes into major revision mode before a Broadway opening. In addition to the business side of production (marketing, ticketing, theater choice, budgeting and fund raising), there is the very crucial task of getting the art right. At this stage, my skills as an author are invaluable because I can evaluate the script the way I would approach a manuscript. With Anastasia, I was able to contribute to the collective artistic process, and offer my thoughts and suggestions. Many of them were incorporated, which I found very gratifying. As in most businesses, it is the people and the relationships formed that also create a sense of satisfaction and community. With Anastasia, I worked with an amazing group of producers, cast, and people behind the scenes.
I think my writing skills help me with everything I do. To be able to objectively critique, and welcome constructive criticism, serves me well in any environment. Writers are accustomed to rejection, and at the other end, perseverance. As for my psych degree, understanding people is a cornerstone of life. I’m still working on that one.
What was it like to win a Tony Award for Once On This Island?
Winning the Tony Award for Once on this Island (“OOTI”) was a dream. OOTI is such a beautiful, emotional show that we fell in love with. It was staged in the round and at the beach (the stage was literally sand and water). In that season, there were two other more well known revivals up for the award: Carousel and My Fair Lady. I think I’d resigned myself to not winning. As we sat there at the Tony Awards that year, it was nerve-racking and overwhelming. You really just don’t know what is going to happen, and sometimes winning the award dictates the financial health and longevity of a show, so the stakes are high. Actress Christine Baranski was announcing the category. She opened the envelope and I could see the surprise register on her face as she announced OOTI as the winner. There was a burst of adrenaline, and then you have to get up and hustle quickly to the stage because it’s a live broadcast, and there is a time limitation for each category. It was surreal to stand there and revel in the elation. Even more special was the treat I got backstage. I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, and that was the year he won a special Tony Award for his Broadway show. His performance happened was right after our award, so I got to watch some of his performance from the wings. I felt so much gratitude in that moment.
How does producing a show compare to writing a children’s book?
In some ways, art is art. Without getting the art right in a musical or play, the production will fail. Similarly, weak writing that misses the mark will never make a good children’s book. Both mediums need to engage the audience/reader and give them an experience into the world you are creating, and make them feel something for the characters. Emotion is at the heart of great art, no matter the medium.
With a book, it all starts with me. As the author, the ideas are mine, the language choice is mine, and when it doesn’t work, that’s on me, too. Once my part is finished, I hand it over to the publisher and then other creatives get to continue shaping and polishing. With theater, I am part of a larger collaborative team to help shape something that someone else has created. We have to take the vision of the authors/lyricists/composers into consideration, and help translate it into something that is artistically pleasing and commercially viable. There is a lot of money at stake and the competition is insane. There are also other considerations such as securing a theater and rights, casting, sales and marketing that producers are collectively responsible for.
The biggest similarity between writing books and producing is that in both cases, the author and producer are charged with making it all happen. Writing is a very solitary pursuit, and theater is collaborative. I actually like both.
The Book Meshuggenahs are hosting a Hanukkah giveaway of eight books to eight winners for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, including Shanna Silva’s Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups. For a chance to win, go to the Book Meshuggenahs page on Facebook and share the post about the giveway.
You and I are among the group of women who have founded the Book Meshuggenahs. Please share what made you want to be part of this group. What’s the most important part of the mission to you?
The biggest appeal to me is to be involved with a group where women are helping other women. We lift each other up. It’s a great support system, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow Meshuggenahs. Wanting to create quality Jewish literature for children is our common starting point, and making sure that our diverse voices are heard, is very important to all of us. I like to surround myself with talented people as it naturally provides a learning opportunity and a push to elevate my own work.
What are you most looking forward to this Hanukkah? Any special celebrations or treats planned?
I love having the opportunity to read Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups to young readers and get their feedback. When I get a laugh or a child inches forward because they are engaged, it is hugely gratifying.
I leave a bowl of dreidels on my counter during Hanukkah, and inevitably, my teenage children and their friends stop for a spin or two. No matter how old they get, I hope they never lose the urge to play and delight in the experience.
Thank you so much for spending time with me on The Kids Are All Write, Shanna! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thank you, Nancy. It has been my pleasure. If I may be so indulgent, I’d love to share a quote from one of my favorite authors, Stephen King:
“Life isn’t a support system for art, it’s the other way around.”
Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups is available at the Book Meshuggenahs’ online bookstore, Interabang Books, here. You can also visit Shanna on her website:
On Facebook: Shanna Silva
On Twitter: @ShannaLSilva
On Instagram: @ShannaSilva