Sunday, September 27, 2020

Lone Star Book Blog Tour: THE DIARY OF ASSER LEVY by Daniela Weil ***AUTHOR INTERVIEW & GIVEAWAY***

First Jewish Citizen
of New York

Genre: Historical Fiction / Middle Grade / Jewish / Colonial America
Publisher: Pelican (Arcadia Publishing)
Date of Publication: March 9, 2020
Number of Pages: 128

  ***Scroll down for the giveaway!***

For twenty-four years the Dutch colony of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil was a safe haven for Jews who had escaped the Inquisition in Europe. Recife, its capital, was known as “Colonial Jerusalem,” and it was from this religiously tolerant town that Asser Levy tells his story. When the Portuguese recaptured the territory in 1654, they brought the Inquisition and its torments with them, forcing Asser and his family and friends to flee to Holland. About fifteen ships arrive safely in Holland; Asser’s ship does not. 

Through imagined diary entries based on real events, Asser tells the harrowing story of the Jewish refugees who arrived on the island of Manhattan and of some of the first court battles fought to allow religious freedom in America.

“The book breathes life into a little-known yet important Jewish figure of early New Amsterdam and New York. Through a series of diary entries based on fact and the author’s creation, the author brings out the emotion, drama, and conflicts of Asser Levy’s turbulent journey to a new land in search of religious freedom. ... The book will add color to classroom lessons on early US history and on Jewish immigration.” —Paul Kaplan, author of Jewish New York: A History and Guide to Neighborhoods, Synagogues, and Eateries 

"What an extraordinary amount of research went into it! And what a creative way of combining historical fiction and contemporary pictures. Kudos!” —Cynthia Levinson, author of The Youngest Marcher

"What a fine job [Daniela] did with this story! ... The diary-style keeps the pace moving, and the adventures make it exciting. Lots of setting details bring the scenes alive, and the dialogue engages the reader in the plot. I can see how it will be easy for a young reader to identify with Asser, worrying about how (and if) he’ll succeed in his quest.” —Gail Jarrow, author of Fatal Fever



Interview with Daniela Weil



Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?

I grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My grandparents are Jewish WWII refugees. Growing up in Brazil really shaped my character and personality. I’ve been obsessed with nature and biology from an early age. Being around nature and animals is my comfort zone. Growing up in a third-world country also gives you great perspective. Being Jewish and having family who went through the Holocaust also shaped my life, always giving me a keen understanding of how society scapegoats minorities, and how our ancestors took such great sacrifices to see their families survive, succeed, and not take things for granted. I find that my writing usually revolves around nature, science, history, and compassion for humans who are different or suffering.

Did you always want to be an illustrator and writer, or did that come later?

My earliest memories are of making books. I used to take a drawing tablet and make drawings, then write a little spiel at the bottom and continue the story on the next page. It’s funny how we always come around to doing what we’ve always done. My thing was drawing, though. My whole life, I drew. But I wanted to be a biologist. So I would draw nature. After studying biology in college, I began a career as a natural-science illustrator. In Brazil, I wrote and illustrated my first picture book about a worm, with the goal to teach kids about the importance of worms for ecology. I also illustrated the first field guide to whales and dolphins in Brazil.

In 1998, I got a job in Houston as a 3D medical illustrator and animator. There, I learned to write scripts for lay audiences on medicine and diseases. I was always told by my English teachers that I was a good writer, but I never fancied myself a writer. When I joined SCBWI about ten years ago, my focus was to learn how to write for real. I sort of dropped my artist side and focused on that. I went to a Highlights workshop on writing for science, and that’s when I really found my niche. I love writing about science and history for kids. I’m just now finding my illustrator voice again.

If someone were to follow you around for twenty-four hours, what would they see?

Oh boy, they’d need to drink lots of coffee—my life is pretty boring! I swim, exercise, and meditate early in the morning. I send my daughter off to school (before the pandemic, that is). She is thirteen and is walking distance from her middle school, so no need to pick up or drop off. I make a smoothie for breakfast and sit down by my computer to work (write, research, draw, plan family schedule). At noon I have lunch with my husband, who also works from home. We usually watch a Netflix show as part of our break. Currently we are watching Better Call Saul.

When I illustrate, I listen to podcasts to feed my brain. I’ve been listening to podcasts for many years. Learning something I didn’t know before is always the highlight of my day, whether from a podcast while I draw or from research for a book. Then, I work until my daughter comes home. After that, I go into soccer-mom mode: school meetings, driving to activities, etc.

I cook dinner for my family. I love to cook, though I don’t particularly like to follow recipes. At night, all three of us lie in bed together and binge-watch Grey’s Anatomy. On weekends, when it’s nice out, I like to go hiking and to be in nature.

How does your everyday life feed your work?

I have an unusual family. I am a Brazilian Jew living in America, my husband is English, and my daughter is adopted from Ethiopia. My parents live in Mexico. My husband’s parents are German and Israeli. We are a very international family. My daughter is a triple threat: she is a woman, Black, and Jewish. She has ADHD. I have written a book dummy that subtly deals with how hard it is to be a kid with ADHD, socially.

I have been on the journey to fully understand racial issues since my daughter was a baby. We have been going to Black Lives Matter marches together for many years. My work is highly affected by current politics, by our history and heritage, and by our experiences. After the protests started, I began working on a graphic-novel script about the racial issues my daughter, Lucy, experienced at a Jewish school in Houston. I thought, It’s time.

My book that just came out, The Diary of Asser Levy: First Jewish Citizen of New York, is based on historical events. It takes place in the 1600s, yet it is eerily analogous to the current crisis in the US with refugees and asylum seekers. I usually write about what I know, what I’ve experienced, what I think the world needs to understand better, and what I am passionate about.

Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.

I am very proud that my MG novel, The Diary of Asser Levy, was published. It was six years of research, writing, and dealing with a new historical perspective that goes against the current views historians hold. It was tough to be a historical heretic, but I got through it. I sold the book to the publisher without an agent. I made the layout and the cover, took the pictures, did the travels . . . everything myself. And it came out in my parents’ lifetime, which was my big wish! This one really is a huge, loud baby!

I’m also very proud of my daughter. She is everything I’m not: extroverted, confident, gregarious, fearless, radiant. I am raising her to have a powerful voice, and I think she does. She’s also a much better writer than I am!

 What surprises you about the creative life?

What surprises me is how easy it is to fall off the wagon, and how hard it is to get back on it.

When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?

I hope they learn something they didn’t know before. And I hope that information makes a difference to their lives and to the world somehow.


Quick-Fire Questions:

Would you rather go fishing or do open-mic-night at a comedy club?

Open mic. I’ve been told I can be funny.

Would you rather be a whale or a dolphin?

I think a whale; they seem more chill and introspective.

Yoga with dogs or with goats?

Goats. I don’t get to be around goats that often, so seems like more of an experience.

Georgia O’Keefe or Leonardo da Vinci?

Leonardo, Leonardo, Leonardo! I’m all about being a Renaissance person, and his anatomy drawings are everything for artists like me.

In closing, Daniela wrote her own “extra credit” Q and A: What do you really hate?


Leaf blowers. There is one right outside, and it’s killing me right now.



First posted at SCBWI Austin, June 9, 2020


Daniela Weil was born in Brazil. She attended the International School in São Paulo, where she was surrounded by people and cultures from around the world. It was also there that she developed a passion for nature, art, and writing. After earning a BA in biology from Brandeis University in Boston, Weil became a field research biologist. She participated in various whale projects, including illustrating the first field guide for whales and dolphins in Brazil.

Being a mother rekindled her desire to share her passion about the natural world. She joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended workshops on writing nonfiction and science for kids. After writing several articles on science and history, she ventured into books. Weil attended the Texas Library Association annual conference with her SCBWI group and met the folks from Pelican, who were intrigued by her middle-grade book idea. As the project developed, her research took her back to Brazil and across the world, chasing Asser’s experiences.

When not on the hunt for new experiences, Weil makes her home in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Erik, and daughter, Lucy.

ONE WINNER gets a signed hardcover copy of the book.

September 22-October 2, 2020
(U.S. Only)
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1 comment:

  1. LOVE this interview. Fascinating author. Thanks for the post!