Children's book author, Sheri Sinykin
By Barbara Van Reed
This summer Sheri Sinykin published her 19th book for children. It’s also her last, she says.
Zayde Comes to Live is a beautifully illustrated picture book for young children. Zayde, the Yiddish name for grandpa, has come to live out his final days with Rachel and her family. Rachel talks with her non-Jewish friends about what will happen to Zayde, but finds her solace in answers from her rabbi.
Sheri’s book was officially launched here in Webster last week at the Corbin Library. Why here?
Sheri spends her summers in Webster, and the story of how she happened upon the town three years ago is a story that also bears telling—but we’ll get to that later. She grew up in Sacramento, California; graduated from Stanford University in 1972 with a degree in Communications-Journalism; and interned in New York City with several periodicals, including Cosmopolitan magazine.
Unlikely as it seems, she says her stint at Cosmopolitan was not memorable. “Except for being around Helen Gurley Brown—that was a trip.” Her New York colleagues told her it would be difficult to get a journalism job in the city and recommended that the best place would be the Midwest. She took their advice and landed a newspaper job in Rockford, Illinois. She worked there for three months, hated it, and moved to nearby Madison, Wisconsin.
She took a job as the public relations director of a local hospital. Among her duties was the publication of information booklets about health issues, including addictions and sexual abuse. “These were such taboo topics at the time that I had to hire actors to pose for the pictures,” she said. After that she took a job with the Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau and became a Wisconsin convert.
In Madison, Sheri met her husband Daniel, an attorney, and they had three sons: Aaron, Rudi, and Joshua. She became a full-time mom. It was while reading story books to the boys that she became interested in writing her own. Inspired by son Aaron, who was a gymnast, she wrote her first novel, Shrimpboat and Gym Bags, in 1988. It was a chapter book, 160 pages long, for kids aged eight to twelve. She sold it on the 11th try to the Atheneum publishing company. It took two years to be published. A second book, The Buddy Trip, was also published by Atheneum.
Now an established children’s author, Sheri won a commission writing for the popular series The Magic Attic Club, which were shorter, illustrated chapter books geared to younger girls. The premise of the books was to follow the lives of four girls, Heather, Megan, Keisha and Alison—each telling that story in her own voice. The publisher was having trouble selling the concept, however, and asked Sheri to look at the outline describing the stories and characters. Sheri felt the characters were all too much alike, too “WASPY,” and suggested the publisher vary their backgrounds: “What if Heather were a Jewish character and the others, too, looked more like the families around them?”
Sheri wrote the first book, Secret of the Magic Attic, which introduced the girls, and became the lead author for the series. In it, the girls secretly visit their neighbor’s attic and find a trunk full of beautiful outfits and a mirror. Each book takes the girl on a magic journey. Sheri wrote one for the Heather character called Viva Heather. She set the story in Spain in 1492, during the waning days of the Inquisition. Heather arrives in Spain wearing a Jewish necklace and is told she must leave immediately, as all Jews have to be out of the country the following day. Columbus sailed that last day, and Sheri said there is some historical data that suggest his funding came from Jewish sources—and that some of his crew were Jewish as well. She wrote eight Heather books in all.
In 1999 Marie Osmond bought the Magic Attic Club business. “Marie did not honor the authors' contracts, discontinued the books, and kept only the dolls,” Sheri said.
Meanwhile, Sheri wrote several standalone novels for publishers such as Viking and Cavendish Books, including The Shorty Society, based on her three “short” sons’ antics, and A Matter of Time, a time- travel book. She also wrote two children’s books about eating disorders for Hazelden.
A period of writer's block followed. “My kids had gone off to college, my nephew was killed in a car accident, my agent dropped me, and my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 endometrial cancer.”
Sheri became a hospice volunteer for her mother and learned about death. Her experience with hospice became the basis for Giving up the Ghost, which she wrote in 2004 after attending Vermont College and earning an MFA in Writing for Children. The writing instructors there encouraged her to “write about what terrifies you.”
During that time, a Jewish hospice rabbi told her that Jewish patients typically have a harder time transitioning from life than other patients.
She also wrote and sold Zayde Comes to Live at that time, but it took eight years to complete, largely because it was difficult to find just the right illustrator. “Picture books seem easy”, she said, “but they are the hardest.” When the publisher insisted on a strict set of criteria-- and then didn't manage to meet it-- Sheri happily found, through a mutual contact, illustrator Kristina Swarner of Chicago.
Sheri told us that Zayde is her last book. She has fulfilled the dreams she had for a life of writing. She finally addressed her fears in the latest books, and now plans to focus on the other aspects of life, including her grandchildren. Her advice to others: Don't set limits on your dream. Stick with it and just believe it.”
So, how did Webster come into her life? Sheri and husband lived in Wisconsin in the summer, but spent winters in Arizona, where their first two sons and their families live. Youngest son Joshua lives in Shrewsbury; they would see him, his wife, and their grandson periodically, but not nearly as often as the Arizona grandchildren. Three years ago, I noticed all the lakes around here and thought, “If Massachusetts was my home, I could see them six months of the year'.”
Josh started looking for lake properties and in February 2010 found the perfect house on Webster Lake. “I loved the way it was furnished, it had all my favorite colors, I could move right in.” says Sheri. And so they bought it.
“I have a lot to learn about Massachusetts yet,” she said. “There is so much history here.” Local politics mystify her, though. She wonders why so few people vote and how people do research on candidates. In California and Wisconsin the League of Women Voters and other organizations were active in providing forums and surveys for candidates, she noted.
One thing she has discovered about Massachusetts that she definitely likes is the health insurance system--access to which, in her experience, varies greatly from state to state. Here I pay through the nose for it, but I have it. Bless Mitt Romney for that.”
Sheri continues her Massachusetts book tour on Sunday, October 7, from 2-4 p.m. at Annie’s Bookstop in Worcester. She will be at the Congregation B’nai Shalom in Putnam October 14 and the Jewish Healthcare and Hospice Center in Worcester on Wednesday, October 17. At the Oct. 14 and 17 events, she will give a Power Point presentation: “GOOD GRIEF: How to Talk to Your Child about Death” (at 2pm and 7pm, respectively).
After that, it’s off to sunny Arizona for the winter.
Note: signed copies of Zayde Comes to Live are available at Booklovers' Gourmet in Webster.