PJ Library Summer Camp Brings Jewish Creatives to the Highlights Foundation

Dec 12, 2023 | Essential Conversations, Jewish Voices, Scholarship Stories, Testimonials

We’re grateful for our partnership with PJ Library, who supports the Highlights Foundation through the PJ Library Scholarship as well as sponsoring PJ Summer Camp at the Highlights Foundation, a program designed to bring more Jewish voices and authentic Jewish stories to children and their families.

We asked some attendees of PJ Summer Camp to share their camp experiences, and we’re sharing them below.

Abby Augenblick Gatenby

About me: “I’m a former elementary school reading/ writing teacher turned children’s book writer.”

About PJ Library Summer Camp: “My time with the PJ Library Retreat at the Highlights Foundation was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. From the faculty, to the other students, to the cooking staff, everything was top notch. I learned so much from the presentations and the mentoring. Meeting with other writers from the US and Israel was a gift and an opportunity to get to know other Jewish story writers. We are still in touch and some of us have formed critique groups.”

“I learned I was writing chapter books, not picture books. I continue to work on whittling down my stories to the core intention. I was also taught to leave a good part of the storytelling to the illustrator.”

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. Since my PJ Library/ Highlights experience, I have written five manuscripts which are in different stages of revision. I hope to get some of these books into the hands of kids.”

Scholarship Experience: “The partnership felt seamless. It took me a little while to figure out which faculty was with Highlights and which was with PJ Library. I am in the middle of a Highlights course now and plan to take more. PJ Library had a piece of my heart before I started. To think that these two wonderful organizations work together to develop writers who will create books rich in Jewish culture, is very, very special and unique. Thank you, Highlights and PJ Library! I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Photo of Abby Augenblick Gatenby

Melissa at Open Mic night.

Melissa at Open Mic night.

Melissa Lasher

About me: “Former journalist, I now write middle grade and picture books.”

About PJ Library Summer Camp: “The generous, brilliant faculty. The talented group you curated. The chance to spend a few days with a crew with similar values and passions from a variety of backgrounds. All of that plus the Highlights magic equaled the chance for my brain to really put together some of the picture book craft stuff I’ve been working to synthesize. Plus, I met some writing pals I’m sure will be on my go-to list for years to come. Sending a humungous thank you. I wrote two new picture books in the weeks before the summer camp and revised them during or after it. Just sent them to my agent.”

Scholarship Experience: “Both PJ Library and the Highlights Foundation have been key to elevating my craft and establishing community. I’m so grateful to both.”

Barbara Kimmel

About Barbara: Barbara writes children’s books and plays. She received the 2021 Astra International Picture Book Writing Finalist Prize, a 2022 PBParty Honorable Mention, and was a 2021 and 2022 #50PreciousWords winner. Her fiction story “Hank’s Hanukkah Surprise” was selected for an upcoming issue of Highlights High Five magazine. Barbara is an active member of SCBWI and the Writing Barn’s Courage to Create.

About PJ Library Summer Camp: “The presentations by Heidi Stemple and Lesléa Newman were excellent, plus I learned more about PJ Library such as age ranges of their books, what type of books interest them, and the process of how they decide which books to acquire.”

“I am now in a critique group with nine of the PJL retreat attendees. We meet every month to share manuscripts and provide feedback. We also have a group chat and exchange inspire children.”information about upcoming webinars, conferences, and contests. I have never had Jewish critique partners, so am grateful to receive feedback from so many talented and supportive Jewish writers! We understand Jewish holidays and themes and can provide valuable feedback to each other, which will hopefully lead to stronger books that will inspire children.”

Scholarship Experience: “The PJ Library Scholarship meant the world to me! It validated me as a writer, and it validated the need for stories with a Jewish perspective. I am so grateful that PJ Library gave me this opportunity to learn from talented picture book creators and to connect with other new writers who create picture books with Jewish themes. I am grateful to now have a group of Jewish creators who have become close friends and writing partners.”

Photo of Barbara Kimmel

Sarah Sassoon

About Sarah: Sarah is an Australian born writer and poet of Iraqi-Jewish descent. Her work has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Ruminate, Lilith, The Ilanot Review, Consequence Forum and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the Andrea Moriah Poetry Prize, and shortlisted for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award. Her micro-chapbook, This is Why We Don’t Look Back was recently awarded first place in Harbor Review’s Jewish Women’s poetry prize. Sarah is also the author of the children’s picture book, Shoham’s Bangle (Kar-Ben Publishing, Fall 2022).

About PJ Library Summer Camp: “I learnt to accept myself more within a group. That there is a place for my writing which is exploring my Iraqi Jewish background, as well as trying to understand the world we live in. I learnt how much I have to learn. I learnt how important my questions are. I learnt how lovely it is to meet fellow writers.”

“I am using a a lot of the craft skills I learnt (write clearer, write funner, write with curiosity and kindness, write knowing you can revise) as I create my new stories. I am loving the critique group I joined from the retreat. I think most of all the kindness and generosity of spirit I experienced at Highlights from the PJ team and the Highlight keynote speakers and team and in this new critique group gives me so much hope and inspiration to write stories for children like that – falloff the hope and inspiration of what we can create and be when we do it together.”

“I think it means that there’s a space for the Jewish voice in the outside children’s book world.”

Scholarship Experience: “The PJ Library Scholarship to the Highlights Foundation was very meaningful. It refocused me in understanding how big and deep the children’s book community is – and the values it holds dear – which is to entertain and to engage with children for our future though well crafted beautiful words, characters and ideas.”

Photo of Sarah Sassoon
Shoham's Bangle book cover

Karyn Friedman-Everham

About me: “I write picture books, poetry, and middle grade novels.”

About PJ Library Summer Camp: “It was meaningful in so many ways. I am deeply grateful and humbled to have learned and grown with the wonderful people of PJ Library, the fantastic guest speakers, and my amazing cohort.”

“My experience was unique – I participated fully the Sunday and Monday, then came down with COVID. Those first two days were packed with learning about PJ Publishing, its mission, vision and growth. I also had a fantastic one-on-one with Lesléa Newman. She was so very generous with her expertise and assistance in making my picture book the best it could be. In those first two days I got to know my cohort. What a pleasure! How wonderful to gather our Jewish community of creatives! My remaining time with COVID was memorable . . . not in the ways I’d imagined. I was brought to tears by the kindness, and compassion shown to me. I learned a lot about community. I was amazed by the incredible care and attention given to me by Highlights folk.”

Scholarship Experience: “Oh my goodness, it’s amazing to be gifted a PJ Scholarship. It feels doubly amazing to receive it at this time in my life, during my “third act.” The cliche “never give up” is worth repeating and putting into practice! I hope to inspire children to follow their dreams, especially when times are hard. What a lifeline the PJ scholarship is. Creatives are connected and nurtured. Community blossoms. We help each other, grow together, form beautiful friendships. I hope my experience translates into inspiring children to embrace their communities too. The love and support are beyond compare. It’s an incredible gift to experience both PJ and Highlights together.”

Photo of Karyn Friedman-Everham

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The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.  Learn more about our impact.