MARCH 22, 2018 – A lifelong love of writing, a silly sense of humor, and a soft spot for animals has proven to be a winning combination for Jane Sutton, the award-winning children’s book writer from Lexington who for decades has been tickling the fancy of her young readers.
Sutton’s playful, humorous, and endearing stories often star a menagerie of quirky animals, from hippos to chickens. Her 2013 book, “Esther’s Hanukkah Disaster,” features a purple gorilla who can’t seem to find the right Hanukkah gifts for her friends.
Sutton’s latest book is “Paulie’s Passover Predicament,” illustrated by Barbara Vagnozzi and published just in time for the start of the eight-day Jewish holiday that begins this year on Friday, March 30. It’s a lively story with a tender touch on the importance of kindness among friends.
Young kids will warm up to Paulie, a guitar-playing moose – a moos-ician – who is hosting his first Seder for all his friends, including a porcupine, a bear, and a bunny. At the store, he piles his cart with matzah, candles, and lots of grape juice that he’ll need for the four cups of wine during the Seder.
But Paulie’s friends poke fun at his unusual Seder plate. Instead of the traditional items used as symbols of the Passover story, Paulie’s has a really big ostrich egg, and there are pieces of pine cones in the charoset, the ceremonial fruit and nut mixture that is symbolic of the bricks and mortar the Israelites were forced to use to build the Pharaoh’s pyramids.
When Paulie goes searching in the basement for the hidden matzah, called the afikomen, the door accidentally closes behind him. Kids will cheer when Paulie uses his wits to solve his problem. Grateful for his freedom – the theme of Passover – Paulie leads his friends in a rousing rendition of the popular Seder song, “Dayenu.”
Vagnozzi’s lively and large, brightly colored illustrations are a perfect match for Sutton’s playful story that captures the excitement of celebrating Passover.
The Journal caught up with Sutton in a phone conversation as she was gearing up for a round of story hour readings and book signings in Greater Boston.
Even as a young girl, Sutton welcomed the vocabulary and spelling homework that she turned into plays and stories sprinkled with humor. In high school on New York’s Long Island, she was editor of her school paper, and notably, was voted class comedienne.
In one class at Brandeis University in the early 1970s, Sutton embraced the challenge to write a few children’s stories. Other writing opportunities came her way after she graduated, including penning short essays for standardized reading tests.
Now, as a book author, when she visits schools, she tells the kids: “I want to apologize” for making them suffer through the tests.
As a journalist, Sutton wrote holiday stories for the New York Sunday News. Her break into the world of children’s books came when a story for Valentine’s Day was turned into her first book, “What Should a Hippo Wear?,” published in 1979.
She’s been writing children’s books ever since, along with raising two now-grown-up children with her husband, Alan Ticotsky, who she met at Brandeis. She also teaches a community education class on writing for kids.
Sutton naturally draws on humor for her stories, but it’s important that her books emphasize a deeper meaning, she said.
“My books are always funny. But they also have an underlying message,” she said. “I try to be subtle. I don’t want to be didactic.”
In “Paulie’s Passover Predicament,” the story emphasizes empathy. Kids also see that mistakes can be corrected and that the book’s characters come up with a solution.
Sutton also wrote a book for middle-grade readers, “Me and the Weirdos,” published in 1981. It’s a humorous tale about a girl named Cindy who is embarrassed by what she considers to be a very eccentric family. Beyond the humor, the story becomes one about the courage to be different. The book struck a chord with readers and garnered multiple awards, including the American Library Association-Children’s Book Council Children’s Choice award.
While now out of print, Sutton recently heard from a group of school-age girls in a small town in Utah who asked for permission to turn it into a musical. Sutton was so moved by their dedication to the project that in January, she and her husband made the long trek to Blanding, Utah, for the premiere. They were warmly welcomed by the town and treated like celebrities.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” said Sutton, who thinks the story still resonates today and is working to have the book republished.