Today, I’m really excited to be talking with Galia about her first paying job as an artist, how kids can find their own quiet place, and…a world of cats!
What was your inspiration for Leyla?
As a young child I was terrified of large family gatherings. So many people in the same room who wanted to hug and kiss me, and who wanted, it seemed, to hear about every single thing that happened to me since we’d last met. It was overwhelming. Over the years, I found that if I took a short break, went to my room for a bit, or walked around the block, I was able to relax myself and was even able to enjoy myself. Years later, I was sitting in the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn watching a small but energetic troop of, who had recently welcomed a new edition to the family—a baby boy. What if that baby, I thought, is a bit different from the other baboons? What if he couldn’t handle the constant attention? Who will teach it how to take a break? And the idea for Leyla was born.
In addition to gaining an appreciation for her big family, Leyla also learns about mindfulness and the benefits of getting some quiet time. Do you have any advice for kids on how they can carve out some time or a place just for themselves?
If you can, go outside. Of course, make sure that you’re safe and an adult knows where you are, but there is nothing like being outside on a beautiful day and breathing some fresh air. You will immediately feel better. Find a little private spot that’s yours—in the back yard, a near-by park, or even in the school yard—sit down and just breath. If you have time to read, bring a book, or listen to music if you prefer. Lying on a blanket under the old lemon tree in our yard on a summer afternoon with a book and a plate of grapes is a very happy childhood memory for me. Today, I listen to books on tape while I walk my dog and, for a while, clear my mind of everyday worries.
Before you moved to New York to study illustration, you were the art director for two children’s magazines in Israel. Were you always interested in working in publishing, and children’s publishing in particular, or how did that come about?
In Israel, military service is mandatory. When you turn 18, you join the army and serve 2 years if you’re a girl, and 3 if you’re a boy. During this time, many people get to learn a profession that they may be interested in as a civilian, and that’s how it was for me. I was lucky enough to join the Israeli Army’s weekly magazine as a graphic designer and an illustrator/cartoonist. It was my first paying job as an artist and I fell in love with publishing. It’s also really fun to say “artist” when people asked me what I did in the army. Since I was mostly interested in illustration, and a big reader as a child, I was naturally drawn to children’s publishing.
Your debut picture book, I Am a Cat, also published by Abrams, was very well received. I understand the spark of the idea goes back to when you were just thirteen years old. Can you talk a little about that? I’m curious if writing was always part of your repertoire and if not when you began to write as well as illustrate and design.
I Am a Cat started as a cartoon I drew for my father. It showed a little house cat looking very grumpy on one side and a bunch of big cats rolling on the floor laughing on the other. The caption underneath said “Yes, I call myself a cat!” That cartoon is hanging in my dad’s study to this day. I am an illustrator first, but I was always a writer as well. In middle school, I wrote and drew comic books starring all my friends and plays for us to perform in class. When I moved to the US, it took me a while to feel confident enough to write in a second language, a problem I didn’t have with the international language of illustration, so for a while, I was more of an illustrator than a writer.
A look through your portfolio reveals that much of your illustration work features animals. How have animals influenced your work?
I’ve loved animals since before I could walk. They always fascinated me and I always wanted to read about them and learn to draw them. My books are always based on real animal behavior, and I am always happy to teach and talk about the amazing creatures we share this world with.
In your bio you say that your art is heavily influenced by mid-20th century design and Eastern European and Scandinavian folk art. What do you love about these styles?
What I like about Scandinavian and folk art is the minimalism—saying so much with very few details and minimal color. My picture books tell a story through body language and facial expression, and the backgrounds are very simple. I work hard on the look of the entire page—not just the art, but the white spaces in between called the negative space. Sometimes what’s not there can tell a story as much as what’s there. In I Am a Cat, I played with the points of view, allowing the readers to see Simon the cat through the eyes of the big cats, and on other pages be Simon and feel what it’s like to be stared at by a lion, a tiger, a puma, a cheetah, and a panther. In Leyla, I used the colors of dusk and sunset to not only show the passage of time, but also the change in Leyla and the way she sees the world around her, before and after meeting the lizard.
What has been the best part about being a children’s author and illustrator? Do you have a story from any book event or classroom visit you’d like to share?
The best thing about writing for children is the children of course. I love to see how smart kids are and how interested they are to learn about animals. We always talk about the animals in the books, where they are from, and how their natural behavior inspired their behavior in the books. The most surprising reaction to I Am A Cat came from… cats! The book came out in 14 languages and I get pictures of actual cats “reading” my book from all over the world. It always makes my day!
What’s up next for you?
I’m taking a little break from writing this year. I have 2 more picture books and one nonfiction book I am going to start working on soon, all as an illustrator only. Right now I am working on a very funny Hanukkah book called 8 Knights. It’s about, well.. 8 Knights. With a ‘K.’ The kind with armor and horses. It’s going to be a very fun book, I can’t wait!
What is your favorite holiday?
Now I feel like I should say Hanukkah… but it is a really fun holiday. Amazing food, open flames allowed indoors (!) and for a kid who, as you might remember from question one, is not a big fan of large family gatherings, a very intimate holiday, at home, with the immediate family.
Thanks so much for chatting with me, Galia! I wish you all the best with Leyla, and I can’t wait to see your upcoming books!
You can connect with Galia Bernstein on
National Family Month Book Review
About the Holiday
In the weeks between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day we celebrate National Family Month. The holiday was established by KidsPeace to encourage families to spend more time together. It also gives us the opportunity to honor everything that makes a group of people a family. Common experiences, shared memories, and unconditional love create that unique feeling in the heart that defines family. To celebrate, gather your family together and plan some fun!
I received a copy of Leyla from Abrams Books for Young Readers for review consideration. All opinions are my own. I’m happy to be teaming with Abrams in a giveaway of the book. See details below.
By Galia Bernstein
Leyla has a BIG family! Besides her and her mom and dad, there are “nine aunts and twenty-three cousins,” and…they all live together. There’s always someone who wants “to hug and kiss her. Yuck!” Her home is noisy and rowdy, and it’s often hard to get some peace—or a nap. So Leyla ran far away until she couldn’t see them, smell them, or hear them. On the way, she hurt her foot on a rock.
Out in the quiet wilderness, Leyla met a lizard. She tried to find out its name. She tried to get it to kiss her foot and make it better, but the lizard said nothing. Finally, the lizard opened one eye. “‘Shhh,’ he said. ‘I’m busy.’” It didn’t look like the lizard was busy to Leyla, but it told her he was “busy doing nothing.” Then he showed Lelya how to do nothing too.
Leyla and the lizard sat side by side with their eyes closed. They felt the warmth of the sun and listened to the leaves and the insects and thought about nothing. When Leyla finally opened her eyes, it was evening. Leyla missed her family and knew it was time to go home. The lizard told her she could visit any time. Leyla ran until she smelled the familiar smell, heard the familiar noise, and saw her wonderful family. She told them all about her adventure and the lizard. “They thought she was very brave and wanted to know if she was all right.”
Well, there was that one thing—Leyla wanted to know if they wanted to kiss her foot better. And, of course, they did! “That night, in her mother’s arms, Leyla didn’t mind the noise.” She remembered her day with the lizard, and “whenever it all got a bit too much,” she went back to see him. “And the lizard was always there.”
An Author’s Note following the text tells a bit about the Hamadryas baboons, who live in large, noisy, and loving families like Leyla and the troop that inspired her story.
Any child—whether they’re from a big family, part of a large class at school, a participant in a team or group activity, or a person who just likes a little quiet—will recognize themselves in Leyla. In her sweet and straightforward story, Galia Bernstein lets children know that when the pressures of a day squeeze in, rejuvenation is close at hand. The astute and chill lizard Leyla meets when she runs away from her large, loud, and loving family teaches her and readers methods of mindfulness and meditation, allowing them to shut out the noise and distractions and find peace within. Feeling refreshed, Leyla returns home with a new appreciation for what she has and a story to share.
Bernstein’s textured illustrations of a Hamadryas baboon troop, rendered in cool earth tones, is a joyful representation of family, with all the care, concern, and caresses that come with them. Kids will giggle when Leyla meets the lizard with a startled EEEEEEEEEP!, and you can bet they’ll close their eyes and meditate right along with Leyla and the lizard. Leyla is adorable and thoughtful, and her troop eyes her with understanding as she returns to the fold. The final two-page spread is warm and comforting.
In Leyla, Gaia Bernstein reminds readers that looking inward as well as outward toward new experiences and beyond their comfort zone brings new perspectives and happiness. The book would be a tender accompaniment to lessons on meditation or mindfulness as well as a reassuring read for home and classroom story times.
Ages 4 – 8
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019 | ISBN 978-1419735431
To learn more about Galia Bernstein, her books, and her art, visit her website
National Family Day Activity
Getting together to play charades is a fun way to spend family time with a little bit of thought, a little bit of action, and lots of laughs. You can find lots of charades cards, ideas, and rules at funstufftodo.com.
You can find Leyla at these booksellers
Picture Book Review