This month we welcome Daniela Weil to our interview series, author of THE DIARY OF ASSER LEVY: FIRST JEWISH CITIZEN OF NEW YORK.
Daniela’s middle grade novel brings to life a “Jewish refugee’s harrowing story through imagined diary entries based on real events. Her narrative, seen through the eyes of a young boy who became a significant figure in New York’s history, follows some of the first court battles fought to allow religious freedom in America in the 1600’s. Uniquely formatted with OpenDyslexic font, Asser Levy’s experiences unfold into an all too familiar story of persecution, fight for acceptance, and the experience of immigrants and refugees in America.”
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 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 10 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 24 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 13 and is walking distance from her middle school, so no need to pickup 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 1600’s, yet it is eerily analogous to the current crisis in the U.S. 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, 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.
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.
(Most SCBWIers might agree!)