Anything was possible in Joan’s world
Joan Betty Stuchner's ten books are suffused with an optimism that the world can be a better place. She was just hitting her stride when she succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
November 07th, 2014
“I know that many writers tell you to imagine you are writing for a specific child, but I always want to write for both myself and everyone else, regardless of age.” — Joan Betty Stuchner
Born on February 5, 1947 in Leeds, England, Joan Betty Stuchner arrived in Canada in 1965 and received her B.A. in English and teaching from UBC in 1977. Also a Hebrew school teacher, library assistant and an occasional stage performer, Stuchner wrote the book and lyrics for a musical production called Hanukkah in Chelm that was produced twice in Vancouver. Much of writing was derived from her Jewish faith.
In The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band (Scholastic), Shira wants nothing more than to play fiddle with Benny and Yossi in their klezmer band at weddings and bar mitzvahs. But ten-year-old girls can’t play, says her father. Especially one who’s never had a music lesson. “This is Canada,” Shira says. “Anything is possible.” And at the next Hanukkah party, there she is, skirts-a-flying, a borrowed fiddle tucked firmly under her chin. Illustrator Richard Row helped re-create the close-knit life of a Jewish village on the prairies.
Stuchner continued her “anything is possible” theme with Sadie the Ballerina (Scholastic 2007), the story of a clumsy girl who wants to be a ballerina. Similarly her Josephine’s Dream is a picture-book biography about the life of black singer and dancer Josephine Baker who left America to become famous in Paris.
Set in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1943, Stuchner’s fourth book, Honey Cake (Tradewind 2007), is about a young Jewish boy, David Nathan, and his family trying to keep their bakery open. David Nathan lives above the bakery, right next door to his best friend Elsa and her family’s toy store. David’s Papa still does the best baking in the city and Mama is making her special honey cake for Rosh Hashanah to welcome the Jewish New Year but very little is sweet in Denmark after three years of Nazi occupation. Now the grownups are always anxious and secretive, and even David’s older sister Rachel is evasive about her mysterious comings and goings. When David is asked to make a delivery of chocolate éclairs—a rare treat with cream and butter so scarce—he learns his sister is in the Resistance, blowing up buildings and railway tracks. Rumours are circulating. Bad things are happening all over occupied Europe. People are disappearing. Especially Jews. Every day King Christian X defiantly rides his horse through Copenhagen’s streets but as Rachel says, “Things happen that even kings can’t stop.” Mama still bakes the honey cake and the morning before Rosh Hashanah David sits with Papa in the synagogue. Soon, though, Rabbi Melchior makes a terrifying announcement. “The Nazis plan to round up Denmark’s Jews tonight. We must go home and prepare for our escape.” David is bundled in layers of clothing and Mama snatches up her cake—she’s not about to leave it behind for the Nazis—and the Nathan family hurries to the train station. If they head to the coast, if they escape detection on a fishing boat, if they make it to Sweden, they might just be safe. Stuchner provided a recipe for the spicy, coffee-flavoured honey cake and an afterword about the history of the Danish Jews.
Set in the mythical Jewish town of Chelm, populated by fools, Stuchner’s Can Hens Give Milk? (Orca, 2011) is about a rural family with five children, twelve scrawny chickens, one rooster and not much money. The father Shlomo dreams he can possibly get milk from their chickens. “If we feed grass to our hens,” he tells his six-year-old daughter Tova, “they will still lay eggs, but they will also give us milk.” Eventually Tova must help the wise Rabbi of Chelm (pronounced Kelm) dissuade her parents from their expectations. The rabbi advises, “These hens have no udders. They are just regular hens. They are not milk hens.” After the rabbi supplies Shlomo with a goat in order for Tova’s family to have milk, Tova’s father dreams his new goat, if fed on grain, might one day be convinced to lay an enormous egg. Illustrations are by Joe Weissman.
Later Stuchner published two stories about an energetic puppy named Bagels, rescued from the pound, that was inspired by her late mother-in-law’s sheltie. She described the real life model as “not only an escape artist, but totally uncontrollable, disobedient and ended up being expelled from puppy preschool.” The dog emerged in print as a mixture of Sheltie, Whippet and Jack Russell terrier. Joan Betty Stuchner died of pancreatic cancer on June 7, 2014, prior to the release of Bagels the Brave! (Orca 2015), a sequel to Bagels Come Home! (Orca 2014), and coincidental with the re-publication of Honey Cake as A Time To Be Brave from Random House.
A Peanut Butter Waltz (Annick 1990)
The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band (Scholastic Crocodile 2001) $17.99). Paperback title: Shira’s Hanukkah Gift.
Sadie the Ballerina (Scholastic 2006)
Honey Cake (Tradewind 2007) Illustrated by Cynthia Nugent. 978-1-896580-37-1 $16.95 Republished as A Time To Brave (Random House 2014).
Josephine’s Dream (Silverleaf Press 2008). 9781934393048 Illustrated by Chantelle Walther
Harold the Hero (Silverleaf Press) 9781933317984
Can Hens Give Milk? (Orca, 2011) Illustrated by Joe Weissmann 9781554693191 $19.95
Bagels Come Home! Illustrated by Dave Whamond (Orca 2014) $6.95 9781459803466
Bagels the Brave (Orca 2015) Illustrated by Dave Whamond $6.95 9781459804937
by Alan Twigg with Louise Donnelly