Behind the Scenes: “Where and When?” by Susan Kusel

Today we get a peek into the process of taking a classic story and changing it up with a different time and place. Thank you, Susan Kusel, for sharing your meticulous research process for THE PASSOVER GUEST! 

AND thank you for offering a GIVEAWAY! Leave a comment after the post for a chance to win a copy of THE PASSOVER GUEST! 

Susan KuselThe Passover Guest – Where and When? by Susan Kusel

When I was a child, my mother read me the picture book version of I.L. Peretz’s The Magician, adapted by Uri Shulevitz, and it stayed with me forever. Many years later I rediscovered the book and fell in love again. This time though, I saw changes I wanted to make.

At my first meeting with my editor, the very wonderful and brilliant Neal Porter, he asked me where and when I wanted to set the story. The original story is set in a shtetl with an impoverished family. Neal suggested that a good update for the time period would be the Great Depression, because food and money were so scarce in the story. It was a great fit. 

Susan Kusel and Neal Porter at the Lincoln MemorialAs for the where, I wanted my hometown of Washington D.C. There are so many visual images I love in D.C. such as green lawns and stately monuments. Every spring, there are stunning cherry blossoms which were given as a gift from Japan in 1912 and ring the Tidal Basin. In the original story, there is a juggler in the town square. For my version, I decided to put him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which I have always considered a focal point of D.C.

I’m a librarian and once I had the where and when, I dove right into the research. I looked at hundreds of pictures of Washington in the 1930’s from various sources including the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the DC Public Library. I used maps, postcards, newspaper articles, travel guides and anything else I find. I researched what days the cherry blossoms were in peak bloom and when that coincided with the first night of Passover during the Depression to get the exact date of the book. I examined which buildings were in existence in the 1930’s in D.C.

I also had help from archivist Wendy Turman at the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum. Using photographs and oral histories, she helped me piece together the route my main character takes through the city to keep it authentic to where Jewish families lived during the time period.

Then I started walking in the footsteps of my characters. I visited the monuments and the cherry blossoms in every season. I had a lovely walking tour with Neal on a freezing cold January day. We stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and thought about where to position the juggler on the steps. We journeyed together along the path Muriel would take. I took the same trip several months later with illustrator Sean Rubin, and we went inside the Sixth and I Synagogue and imagined our main character there.

Passover Guest Jacket High ResEvery time I read The Passover Guest now, I take that journey again through the city. I love watching these beautiful characters Sean has created walk through the city that means so much to me. The Great Depression seems relevant and timely now in a way we didn’t realize when we made that decision five years ago.

I can’t imagine a better place and time.

Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of THE PASSOVER GUEST from Susan. (US and Puerto Rico addresses only, please. Drawing 2/19/21)

Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching and of course, reading. The Passover Guest is her debut book.  

8 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Where and When?” by Susan Kusel

  1. Wow! Wow! Oops, I already said that. What a wonderful description of your process and being thorough to be historically accurate. Passover is such an important holiday in our family. I look forward to reading your book.
    Thanks, Beth for an interesting post!

    Liked by 2 people

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