Atlanta author gives child’s perspective to Passover Exodus story

A bloody river. Baddies suffering painful boils. Swarms of frogs flopping everywhere. A hail of fire and ice. Lice and locusts.

When Atlanta author Laurel Snyder was a little girl, she positively loved all the drama in the Exodus story of the Jewish holiday Passover, which will be observed starting Monday. The Hebrew slaves gained their freedom. Their masters took it on their boil-pocked chins. What wasn’t to like?

But what plagued her as a 6-year-old budding writer was that she couldn’t imagine a Jewish child, such as, well, herself, living in those bad biblical times in Egypt. If there were adult slaves, she thought, wouldn’t there have to be kid slaves, and what were their lives like?

“It just wasn’t fleshed out to me,” she recalls thinking at her grandmother’s table in Baltimore, set in shiny silver and crystal. Around it, multitudinous cousins and musical uncles, some 30 relatives strong, gathered. The Haggadas (books) they read at the Passover Seder (ritual feast) provided no clues.

Now 39, Snyder finally has fleshed out her unanswered questions in a new children’s book, “The Longest Night: A Passover Story” (Schwartz & Wade, $17.99).

The book didn’t take more than 20 years to complete for lack of trying. She wrote poems for adults about the plagues in college at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and then again as a graduate student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. The results didn’t quite satisfy.

But having started a string of children’s picture books in 2010 that touched on Jewish themes, and having become a big believer in the creative freedom they allowed, it hit Snyder that such books were the perfect vehicle to interpret the biblical story. And she could even tell it in verse.

The Exodus is “a crazy, nutso, bonkers story,” she acknowledges on her author blog (www.laurelsnyder.com). “Many people told me I was nuts to try writing the plagues for kids.”

But Snyder and husband Chris Poma, who grew up Catholic, have highly inquisitive (and energized) offspring of their own, 7-year-old Mose and Lewis, 5. The author decided that they and their Hebrew school classmates at Congregation Bet Haverim, as well as a lot of other kids of different faiths, could benefit from a fresh interpretation.

Snyder wrote “The Longest Night” from the perspective of an unnamed slave boy. The book’s illustrator, Catia Chien, then depicted the protagonist as a slave girl, a change the author applauded.

In the years since Snyder wore her prettiest dress to her grandma’s table, she’s noticed that Passover has changed, with toys and candy — plague finger puppet sets, Frisbees that look like matzo (unleavened bread), chocolate frogs and the like — to tempt the youngest.

“It’s fun and fine,” she said, “but you don’t want the holiday’s purpose to get lost under the plastic frogs.”

Snyder, who moved to Atlanta in 2004, worked as a Hebrew teacher and a student life coordinator for Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, jobs that she believes helped prepare her to write children’s books that reflect her faith.

She had done poetry and other writing with Jewish themes aimed at adults, and even edited a 2006 book of essays titled “Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes,” but initially had been reluctant to do the same for kids. She hadn’t really thought about why until a podcast interviewer brought it up five years ago.

“I realized it was because most of the books I liked best as a kid were not Jewish and that most of the classic children’s literature is not,” Snyder said.

The interviewer suggested that if the writer didn’t think Jewish children’s books were good, then wouldn’t that be an argument for trying to write a decent one herself. Snyder took it as a challenge.

With her fifth Jewish-related picture book coming out in June, the summer camp story “Camp Wonderful Wild,” she now has multiple children’s ideas in various stages of development.

“Basically, I feel there are holes in this literature,” Snyder said. “There are places where we have a million books about foodstuffs, like latkes (potato pancakes) running away. Then there are holiday books, especially for Hanukkah. So I look for the holes.”

While she’s busily working on a book about Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, Snyder is savoring the completion of “The Longest Night,” and looking forward to Passover. It’s her favorite Jewish holiday because of its rituals.

Instead of sitting down at an intimate family Seder at their small Ormewood Park home this year, Snyder and the men in her life will join an observance of more than 30 at the home of a son’s Hebrew school friend.

When it’s suggested the gathering sounds like the perfect audience for an impromptu signing of “The Longest Night,” Snyder mulled it.

“You know what,” she concluded, “it wouldn’t feel right, which is really how I practice. It wouldn’t be in the spirit of things.”

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