Seeing the green scaly skin and long snouts on the characters, you might not guess at first that Ed Shankman’s latest book is about a child’s visit to his grandmother in the Sunshine State — inspired, in fact, by his own two Jewish bubbes, one assimilated and sophisticated, the other the embodiment of Yiddishkeit to her core.
“Both these women were amazingly influential in my life, taught me all kinds of stuff, and showered me with unconditional love and appreciation,” he told NJ Jewish News. “The grandma in the story is a composite of them both.”
In My Grandma Lives in Florida, done with illustrator Dave O’Neill, adoring old ladies and gators get merrily blended through rhyme.
Why the Verona resident — a creative director at an ad agency — chose to cast alligators in this tale of family love is complicated: It has to do with the fact that Florida has lots of them, that illustrator Dave O’Neill can make even hideous creatures look cuddly, and that Shankman adores animals.
He and his wife Miriam, whom he met when he lived in Israel for two years, have cats — clearly beloved by both of them. They don’t have children, but the mindset of the young is something to which Shankman is clearly attuned. “I’m a kid myself,” he declared.
The book begins, “My grandma lives in Florida/ And that is where we go/ When daddy says he cannot stand/ Another inch of snow.”
Along with a travelogue of Florida, the book includes scenes familiar to any child who has spent a vacation with bubbe: “When we go inside, grandma gives me a kiss/ In fact, there’s no place on my face she will miss/ I may wriggle and giggle and grumble and hiss/ But only a grandma can kiss you like this.”
Shankman said he discovered the magic of rhyme while reading Dr. Seuss books as a kid — and as an adult, he confesses, “I still find them absolutely wonderful. When people compare my books to Dr. Seuss’s, I’m honored,” he said.
He wrote his first children’s story when he was 17. A teacher was scolding him for his lack of attention to work, and he answered that he didn’t need the academic stuff because he was going to be a kids’ author.
“She told me it was harder than I thought, so I wrote a story just to spite her, to prove her wrong,” he said. He wrote it that night and read it to her the next morning, in front of the class.
“She apologized to me,” he recalled.
Despite that quick start, Shankman, now 53, said it takes him and O’Neill about a year to complete a book; their other works include The Boston Balloonies, The Cods of Cape Cod, Champ and Me by the Maple Tree, The Bourbon Street Band Is Back, and I Met a Moose in Maine One Day.
However, even after sales of their latest book reached 40,000 copies, and they received enthusiastic reviews of their work along the way, Shankman admitted that his teacher was not completely wrong. It is hard to make a living as a children’s book author, and he has no plans to give up his day job any time soon.
In the meantime, he loves his work at the ad agency, bringing out the creativity in other people, but asked if he’d switch to writing kids’ books full-time if he could, Shankman replied, “In a heartbeat.”