Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Blog has a New Address

"Jewish Celebrating with Sylvia Rouss" has moved to my web page,
You can click on the link or the picture to go to the new site of my blog.
I look forward to seeing you at my new home.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sammy Spider Fan Club Starts

Please join Noah, age 7, and become a member of the Sammy Spider Fan Club by simply sending us your letters and your pictures. I will answer each letter and try and post as many of your pictures as possible.

Kar-Ben, the publisher of the Sammy Spider books, offers free activities for friends of Sammy Spider. If your birthday is coming up, here's a special way to celebrate with Sammy.

Every now and then we will host contests and games for our members. In October, everyone who is a member will have a chance to win a Sammy Spider plush toy.

Thank you Noah for thinking of this great idea, and for having your little brother, Sam, become the second member.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lessons I learned when I wrote my first book

This summer, I have received more requests for advice on how to publish a book than ever, and I am always pleased to respond. Here are excerpts from a letter to an aspiring young author.
My first book was Fun With Jewish Holidays, and the lessons I learned in writing that book have proved invaluable to my future writings.
For young children you need to be literal and specific. It is not enough to say the children played together. Maybe you could describe a few activities on the playground that could be related to the other part of your story such as: “Michael and Lily did everything together. They dug in the sandbox together, they painted at the art easel together and they sat next to each other at snack time. Best of all they liked climbing to the top of the jungle gym where Michael would shout, "Lily, let's fly to the moon." An illustrator needs the author to fill in the blanks with details so they can create corresponding illustrations.
Simply saying Michael didn't like to go to sleep isn't enough? Children want to know why. Expand on why the character likes to do or not do something. You might want to add dialogue here and have Michael express why he doesn't want to go to sleep. It makes the story come alive far more than just a simple narrative. Is he afraid of the dark? Does he miss Lily so much that he can't go to sleep?
Keep names consistent. Michael as Mikey in one part of the story and Mike in another is confusing for young children. When Michael goes to school, you wrote that he puts his school bag in a cupboard. I would change it to cubby which is the term young children are familiar with.
I will let you in on a little secret: my husband takes my completed stories and he sends them to publishers. He does all the secretarial work, and more importantly, he opens the many rejection letters I receive so I never have a reason to be anything but optimistic about by my story finding a “home”.
Finally, let me offer some often repeated suggestions as well as some resources:
1. Manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced.
2. Don’t forget to check spelling, grammar, facts and typos.
3. Art is contracted for separately. It is not necessary or desirable to include art with your text.
4. Enclose a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) if you wish your manuscript returned.
5. Since the tragedy of “9/11”, almost 1/2 the children’s publishers no longer accept un-agented and unsolicited manuscripts. It changes all the time, so regularly check publisher’s sites.
6. For children's picture book authors, obtaining an agent is very difficult as the royalty has to be shared with the illustrator. Two years ago, I found a list of literary agents and corresponded with the ten that I thought were the best match for me and sadly had "no takers". I still don’t have an agent.
7. THE PURPLE CRAYON is an excellent resource for children's authors, and you may wish to visit the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators , the Association of Jewish Book Publishers and the Children’s Book Council.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Review of Mitzvah the Mutt

I just read my first review of Mitzvah the Mutt, and it was wonderful!! In the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter for May/June 2010, Andrea Davidson, Temple Tifereth Israel, Beachwood, Ohio wrote: Readers will laugh at Mitzvah’s zany misadventures,…Rouss uses Mitzvah’s humorous interpretations of the celebrations and his reactions to the food, along with short chapters, large print, and lots of white space, to make this appropriate for the intended audience of children 6-9. However, by having Mitzvah use the terms “Mommy” and “Daddy,” she makes her reading audience younger, so that this could be read with children as young as five years of age.”

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sammy Spider's First Simchat Torah

Our Rabbi’s, past and present, have taught us the importance of being a part of the community and have admonished us by saying, “Don’t separate yourself from the community.”

Embodied within the Torah are values which teach us how to treat others.

Several years ago at Simchat Torah, I showed the children in my class a small Torah Scroll and asked, “What is this?”

“A Torah!” several children shouted.

“What is inside the Torah?” I continued.

“Writing!” “It’s a book,” “No, it’s a scroll!”

I nodded. “It’s all those things, but what do the words in the Torah tell us?”

None of the children responded.

When I told the children that the Torah was the story about the Jewish people, the children still looked confused. “Would you like to hear a Torah story?”

“Yes!” the children responded.

“This is the first story in the Torah,” I explained as I told the children the story of Creation. “We celebrate Shabbat because God rested on the seventh day. He was very tired after making the whole world.”

“My daddy gets tired from working too.”

Next I read the story of Noah’s Ark. Many of the children were familiar with the story and added the names of several of the animals on Noah’s Ark.

The children, almost as if a chorus, said, “I like Torah stories!”

We decided that each Friday we would read a different Torah Story, & make our own classroom Torah.

The next week, after reading a story, I asked, “The Torah tells us how we should treat each other. Can you think of how we treat our friends in this classroom?”

“We share,” “We don’t hit.” “We help each other.”

The following week I showed the children pictures I had taken of them celebrating holidays, sharing, helping each other and playing together.

“Can you think of a way these pages can become a Torah Scroll?”

“Put them in a book? “Put them in a folder?” “We can draw the Torah?” “We can read it?” “We can glue the pages together?”

And so, our class made our Torah.

My newest Sammy adventure celebrates the holiday of Simchat Torah. As I wrote the story, the children from this class were my inspiration.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sammy Spider

When I was growing up I had several younger siblings and cousins. Rather than read stories to them, I often made up stories but I never actually wrote anything down. As an adult, I became a teacher and continued to tell my stories to the children in my classroom. I try to base my stories on their interests and I often read them my manuscripts and let them share their ideas about my work. I ask them what they liked about the story, what they didn’t like, how they would change the story, etc. I welcome their comments even if they are negative. If they like it, I know it’s ready to send to my publisher, but if they are bored, I don’t bother sending it.
I hope that Jewish children see the beauty of the Jewish holidays and appreciate our celebrations and values in my Sammy Spider books. Sammy Spider is an outsider that wants to be a part of our holidays. Sammy sees the beauty of it. We are very lucky because we have a yearly cycle of celebrations that serve to reaffirm our Jewishness almost every month. I have been told that my Sammy Spider stories instill in children and their parents a sense of excitement and joy about being Jewish.
Sammy Spider is very active and he has taken on a life of his own. For me, Sammy is real. I never know what his next adventure will be, but as long as Sammy continues to have an audience of children that love and enjoy him, I’ll continue to find something to write about.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Discussion & Activity Guide for Mitzvah the Mutt

I am pleased to share this guide that can be used either at home or in the classroom for my newest book, Mitzvah the Mutt.

It was developed by a wonderful committee of colleagues, authors, educators & friends. Special thanks to Barbara Gelb for chairing the initiative.


Written by Sylvia Rouss and Illustrated by Martha Rast

“A Mitzvah for Shabbat” Chapters 1-6

Discussion Topics

1. What are some things that make you laugh or smile?

2. The mutt talks to the mommy without using words. What are some ways that you talk to your friends and family without using words?

3. Why did they think Mitzvah was a good name?

4. Who are Bubbie and Zaydie? What do you call your grandparents?

5. Do you celebrate Shabbat? In what ways?


1. Mitzvah communicates without using words. We can do the same by playing a game of charade and/or this “special” game of hide and seek. One person leaves the room and another hides a toy. The other people have to help the person who was asked to leave the room find the object without using any words.

2. The Bergers had a sign on their door. We can make our own signs for our door or a name tag with Hebrew or English name.

3. Mitzvah tree - teacher or parent makes a tree trunk on a bulletin board. Each child takes home a 'leaf' and they write a mitzvah they did that week on it (“helped my mom load the dishwasher”, etc.). Leaves are stapled to the trunk each week.

4. Make a challah for Shabbat, or make/decorate a cover for the challah.

5. Invite a visitor to your class who has a trained dog and learn about how these dogs do mitzvot for people (who are visually impaired, assist the police or fire department, visit senior centers, etc.).

“A Miracle for Mitzvah” Chapters 7-13

Discussion Topics

1. What is the difference between mutts and “fancy –shmantzy dogs”?

2. Bubbie wanted to “play” with her knitting alone. What are some things you like to do alone?

3. Do you have a menorah at home? Is it old or new? What is special about an old menorah or other “old” things?

4. Mitzvah didn’t seem to like his hat very much. Did you ever get a present you didn’t like? What did you do?

5. Who were the Maccabees? How did they light the menorah?


1. Make dreidel or other Chanukah decorations to decorate your home or classroom.

2. Have a dreidel “spin off”. Give each participant a dreidel, have them pair off and spin, winner of each pair then gets to compete, and game continues until there are only two left to see whose dreidel spins the longest.

3. Play a CD of Chanukah blessings and songs and have a sing along.

4. Have someone teach the basics of knitting and then make a simple gift.

5. Play pin the flame on the candle (like pin the tail on the donkey)

“Dayenu, Mitzvah, Dayenu”

Chapters 14-19 Discussion Topics

1. Who is Moses, and why did Rachel and David say they thought Mitzvah was like him?

2. A tradition is something special that you do with your family that has often been done for years and years. Do you have some Passover traditions? Name some of your favorites?

3. What is your favorite Passover food?

4. What does “Dayenu” mean? Are there times when you feel, “Dayenu?”

5. Why didn't Mitzvah like the maror?


1. Make different types of haroset and have a tasting event

2. Draw or color a picture of Mitzvah and his family and friends at the Seder table.

3. Cross the red sea relay race. It is time to cross the red sea. Create teams (no more than four participants to a team) and give each team a suitcase full of clothes. Line the teams up at both ends of a large room and put the suitcase on the other end. The first person on each team has to run to the suitcase put on all the clothes to go on the trip to Egypt, then run back and take off all the clothes; the second person then puts all the clothes on and runs to the other side, where t is waiting, etc. until each has put on and taken off all the clothes and put them back into the suitcase.

4. Seder charades - Students pull out of a hat a Passover custom or a part of the Passover story - they act it out and the other students try to guess what it is

5. Visit a local matzah factory to see how matzah is made, or make matzah at your home or school.

Mitzvah the Mutt Academic Advisory Committee, June 2010

Barbara Gelb, Chair, Director of Education, Temple Israel, Memphis; Lorraine Arcus, Author and Educator, Washington DC; Mike and Linda Bennett, educator and journalist, San Diego; Sara Bogen, International Jewish Community Executive, Jerusalem; Esther Elfenbaum, Director of Early Childhood Education Services, Los Angeles; Heidi Estrin; Nancy Goldberg, Director, Gordon Center For Performing Arts, Baltimore; Gayle Jacobson-Huset, Editor, Minneapolis; Zev Hymowitz, Jewish Community Consultant, San Francisco; Lauren Marcus Johnson, Director Temple Israel Libraries and Media Center, West Bloomfield; Linda Kirsch, Director of Education, Temple Beth El South Orange County, California; Avi Lewinson, Jewish Community Executive, Palisades, New Jersey; Yael Mermelstein, Educator and Author, Israel; Rene A. Rusgo, Director, Department of Jewish Programs United Jewish Council, Toledo; Diane Saltzberg, Author and Screenwriter, Los Angeles; Linda R. Silver, Author and Librarian, Cleveland; Lesley Simpson, Author, Toronto; Peggy Wolf, Jewish Community Leader and Educator, Baltimore; Zoe Zelonky, Student; and Tanya Zucker, Educator, England.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Once upon a time there was a little rescue dog

Gretchen was a little dog we rescued at a local street fair. We were told that she was a Jack Russell-Dachshund mix, which made sense, but we would never know for sure - the only thing we were sure of was that she was a mutt. She was the silliest looking dog we had ever seen, and she made us laugh. She lived with us for six years, and brightened our days and nights with her attentiveness. Gretchen was my inspiration for my newest book, Mitzvah the Mutt (Yaldah Publishing, 2010). I imagined her when I had Mitzvah say "I’m a little dog with short brown hair. My ears are small and floppy. One hangs down a little while the other stands up. I have large brown eyes, a long nose, a crooked mouth and a tail that never stops wagging. I must have agood sense of humor because when Mr. Ruben takes me for a walk I always hear people say,“Look at that dog! He’s so funny!” Then they roar with laughter."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Current Events Have Influenced My Writing

When I read the news this morning on the oil spill in the Gulf, I was reminded how current events have influenced my writing.

In 2003, I was in Israel just before the launch of the space shuttle Columbia, and the Israeli press was full of articles on Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli Astronaut. On my return to the United States, I read a short story in the LA Times about the little Torah that Ilan had taken on the shuttle and contacted Professor Joseph to whom it belonged. By email, I asked him to allow me to write a children’s story about it. When he agreed, I was thrilled.

This was almost a week prior to the crash. However, at the time of the crash, I shelved the project. I wasn’t sure how to approach this difficult subject in a way that would be appropriate for children.

I spoke to some of the Rabbis in our community and finally to the professor. Everyone felt it was a story that should be told, in spite of the difficult subject matter. I embarked on a journey, researching the Torah’s owner, Rabbi Simon Dasberg, chief Rabbi of Amsterdam. I contacted the Bergen Belsen memorial and found out about the horrors of this particular camp where he and his wife and one child perished.

The professor shared his Bar Mitzvah experience in the camp with me, and also, his close friendship with Ilan Ramon and the other astronauts.

What evolved is a beautiful story of human courage, love and kindness, the central teaching of the Torah. Reach for the Stars, A Little Torah's Journey (Pitspopany 2004) is sad story, but at the same time, uplifting. Every character in the story is a wonderful role model for children as well as adults.

In the years since, I have had the privilege of personally visiting Professor Joseph and Rabbi Dasberg's daughters in Israel.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Could you write your name using just your toes?

I always find it interesting that many parents in my classes want their children to write their name by the end of the school year.
If you were asked to remove one shoe and hold a pencil between your toes and write your name, could you do it? Writing is an acquired ability and it is as difficult for young children to control a pencil in their hands as it is for you to control it with your toes.
As your teacher, I could help you develop your toe muscles, for example, by allowing you to manipulate play dough or clay with your toes.
For the past nine months, the children in my classroom have regularly played with the materials in their environment to develop the fine motor skills necessary for writing. So what may appear as play to parents is actually active learning, giving each child the opportunity to be active, rather than passive learners, and to foster creativity, initiative, and spontaneity.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How do children learn?

It has been said that children learn more during their preschool years than they will ever learn during all the years they spend in college. Research in early childhood development shows that young children learn through active use of their senses as they explore their environment. There is no way a young child can learn the difference between sweet and sour, rough and smooth, hot and cold, loud and quiet, dark and light without using the senses to understand these concepts.
In my book, God's World (Pitspopany, 2005),the mother dramatizes the story of the Creation to her child: "On Yom Rishon, the first day, God created the light. I swiftly pull the blanket away. Eli blinks as his eyes adjust to the bright daylight. God divided the light from the darkness, and found it pleasing. The light God called day, and the darkness, night."