When Danielle Joseph was in first grade, her teacher asked the class to write and illustrate their own stories. Her teacher even typed and laminated them, turning them into books. Joseph has kept her book to this day. She counts the experience as the beginnings
of her writing career.
She had lived in South Africa until she was 5, when her family moved to the United States. Now 48 and living in Potomac, she said that for a long time, she felt torn about where her home was. When she was growing up, she and her family continued to visit South Africa once a year for a few weeks at a time. This multicultural upbringing has inspired the books she writes.
“I was born somewhere different,” said Joseph, a member of Kehilat Shalom in Montgomery Village. “And I feel like people aren’t familiar, a lot of times, with different places. So I feel like it’s important to introduce young readers to different cultures all across the world.”
A jostling of identities is the central event in “Sydney A. Frankel’s Summer Mix-Up,” Joseph’s latest children’s book. Sydney, a shy, Jewish fifth grader, is forced by her mother to take a summer-school class she doesn’t like. Her best friend, Maggie, has to take the class that Sydney wants. So the girls switch identities, causing all types of shenanigans.
Joseph said that in Sydney, she wanted to create a contemporary girl who just happens to be Jewish, a type of character that Joseph said she doesn’t see enough of.
“There’s obviously many different levels of Judaism and religion,” said Joseph. “And I think it was important for people to see that this is what life is like.”
Joseph’s family life is likewise a mix of cultures. While her background is South African and Jewish, her husband is from Haiti. She said they raise their children as Jews, while visiting Haiti regularly.
A boy who happens to be Haitian is the protagonist in another of Joseph’s books, “I Want to Ride the Tap Tap.” The book offers a slice of everyday life, far from the dire headlines usually associated with Haiti. The little boy wants to miss school so he can ride the tap tap — a form of transportation in which a bus or truck is decorated with bright decorations and paintings.
“I think it’s really cool because we get to combine so many different traditions,” Joseph said about her family. “My kids are lucky they get to celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, and we make sure that all the traditions from both of our cultures are represented.
That was the case at her son’s bar mitzvah reception, when the music and food featured American and Haitian flavors.
While there are many positive things that come out of multicultural families and communities, Joseph said kids in general need to be exposed more to these communities. When she writes her books, she wants to introduce different cultures, races and nationalities to children.
“And I think that’s so important that we expose kids and we talk about the different cultures in the classroom and the media,” Joseph said. “We see representation on TV and we’re starting to see more of different cultures, but we’ve got a little way to go.”