Balancing humor and tragedy in children’s literature

Erica S. Perl, of Washington, won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature. Photo by Samantha Cooper

Washington writer Erica S. Perl believes that good, diverse children’s literature is important. And that’s part of why she wrote “All Three Stooges.” The coming-of-age tale of a boy named Noah and how his relationship with his best friend changes after an unexpected tragedy won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature.

Perl, 50, said she based the synagogue in the middle school novel on her own Temple Micah in Washington. But she also wanted to make “All Three Stooges” accessible readers, Jewish and not.

“I wanted to create a windows and mirrors experience,” she said. “The Jewish kids would see themselves in the book and that non-Jewish kids would not feel like this is a book only for Jewish kids.”

Perl said she has always had a passion for writing, but it wasn’t until 2005 that she published her first book, a picture book, “Chicken Bedtime is Really Early.”

She kept writing more and more books, for “little, little kids all the way to teens.”

She had worked with a non-profit organization that donated books to kids in need, and as a public defender. But eventually she decided to write full time.

“In order to write my own books I had to do that on nights and weekends,” she said, “and it got to the point where it was sort of two-full time jobs and so I decided to pull back to work part-time while writing and then write full time.”

The transition took a couple of years, she said, during which time she took classes in writing and illustrating children’s books.

“I write most days, and my belief is that is that while you write you not edit yourself. And then I print out my pages and go over the hard copy with a pen and edit that way.”

She admitted that not every writing day is a productive one. Sometimes she gets multiple chapters out and sometimes there’s very little. She said she doesn’t know where a novel will go when she starts one.

“All Three Stooges” focuses on the relationship between Noah and Dash after Dash’s father commits suicide. The inspiration for the novel came from the suicide of friend who, like Perl, had a daughter.

“That experience sort of stayed with me, of losing a friend, watching a child lose a parent, of being two steps removed from the immediate impact of that tragedy but having it still affect our family and the families around us. I feel like it sort of lodged itself in my head and when I started work on this, I realized I wanted to go there,” she said.

She had wanted the book to deal with loss and grief in a mature way and show a child might react in a situation where their friend was hurt and they weren’t sure what to do.

“I wanted to write the experience of having a friend go through something terrible and not knowing what to do or say. It’s something that feels really relatable for kids and frankly a lot of adults,” she said.

As part of her research for the novel, Perl spent time volunteering at Temple Micah’s religious school, where the mother of two daughters paid particular attention to how the boys acted. She also visited a grief camp to learn how children behave after suffering a tragedy.

The book, as its title implies, also includes a lot of nyuk, nyuk, nyuks. For Perl, accessing the humor of a 12-year-old boy was relatively easy,

“I feel like I have a 12-year-old boy sensibility,” she said, “I think certain things are funny that a lot of adults really don’t, so I felt like a lot of the stuff was very easy for me to access.”

“I love how she’s uproariously funny and in the same breath can talk about very serious topics in an age-appropriate way,” said her friend and fellow writer Donna Gephart.

Perl’s book “When Life Gives O.J.” made it all the over to Germany, according to Rabbi Danny Zemel, of Temple Micah. Four years ago, he found a copy of the novel available at the gift shop of the Jewish Museum of Berlin.

“At that time, I realized what an accomplished writer she really is,” Zemel said. “I’ve got to know her and her writing is fascinating. I think [“All Three Stooges”] is so significant because of the way it treats the religion of the majority of American Jews. So much of the books takes place in the synagogue.”

Perl is in the middle co-writing a book with Alan Silberberg, author of “Meet the Latkes.” It focuses on two kids, the Wisemans (she won’t say what their first names are), who visit the Chelm-like town of Chelmsford. Because of their last name, the citizens assume the kids can solve all of their problems.

“It’s a book about spending the summer in this situation, where you’ve all of sudden been told you’re the most brilliant, important people in this town and you can fix everyone’s problems,” she said, “Every single problem big or small comes to them because they are the Wisemans. We’re having a lot fun with that.”

[email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here