Ten questions with 'The Great Latke Cook Off' author Lauren Ranalli

Author Lauren Ranalli and her book “The Great Latke Cook Off”
Author Lauren Ranalli and her book “The Great Latke Cook Off”

ANN ARBOR – Local author Lauren Ranalli feels like a kindred spirit. On her website, she mentions that she can "wander for hours in bookstores" and that she is "a fully grown adult who still gets excited over the Scholastic book catalog." The first modern colloquialism that comes to mind is "#Same."

In addition to being a wonderful, down-to-Earth person, Ranalli is a children's author whose book, "The Great Latke Cook Off," was recently released. The book is a Chanukah story about family tradition, friendly competition and delicious recipes that Ranalli was inspired to write after being unable to find Chanukah books that resonated with her family traditions or cultural experience. That, combined with a quote from children and young adult fiction writer Beverly Cleary -- "If you don't see the book you want on the shelf, write it" -- sealed the deal.

I spoke with Ranalli via email a while back to discuss her work, her inspirations and overall love of literature, among many other things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

To start, where did your love of literature begin? To this day do you have a favorite genre or is it just whatever strikes your fancy?

There’s a great quote from Emilie Buchwald, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." That was certainly true for me. I have very vivid early memories reading with my mom and dad in a cozy chair in their room. We would go to the Ann Arbor District Library and pick out some of our favorites, including “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble," “Stanley and Rhoda" and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." 

Having a regular opportunity to read -- or be read to -- was very meaningful. When I was a fifth-grader at Burns Park, I began volunteering to read to the kindergarten classes. I’ve been in book clubs for the past 15 years, and now I’m that person who recommends books to complete strangers in the grocery store, on an airplane, at day care pick up… you name it.

It’s so hard to choose a favorite genre! Two of my all-time favorite books are “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving and “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger, both of which have a bit of a mystical feel. But I also really enjoy historical fiction such as “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson and “Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown. I am also being intentional about reading more books by #ownvoices authors such as “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L Sanchez and “A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza. 

Like you, I can spend hours in a bookstore and (personally) have spent a small fortune at Literati Bookstore. What are some of your favorite local and national bookstores and why? What about them speaks to you. And, as a follow up, is there something specific you look for in a bookstore, other than simply books? The mood, feeling, atmosphere, etc.?  

Nicola's and Literati have been longtime favorites of mine, and I recently discovered Bookbound on the north side. Ann Arbor is such a great literary community and we are so fortunate to have an incredible public library! I grew up going to story time at the downtown branch, I regularly take my kids to the West Gate location, and the Traverwood branch is a perfect mid-day walk from my office. 

Whenever I travel I love to pop into local bookstores. The ones that really speak to me have a coziness and a quirkiness to them. I like stores that don’t take themselves too seriously. On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I had the chance to visit Powell’s Books, which takes up an entire city block. It was incredible. I could have pulled out a pillow and had a sleepover in that store. 

When did you begin writing? And I don't mean your published work. I mean in general. When did you realize you had a passion for writing and how did that manifest itself? Were you writing short stories, poems, etc. or was it something else?

My first real memory of writing is probably from about age seven. My older sister and I wrote a book of poems for my parents’ anniversary gift. I started keeping journals at about age eleven, which served as a regular writing exercise. I really enjoy dialogue and in high school I was awarded second place in a play writing contest. And my freshman year of college I took an incredible expository writing class that allowed me to respond to a wide variety of writing prompts. And then you had to sit through a live critique from your peers in the class. So that was a great lesson in not getting too attached to any one particular piece of work -- or if you DO feel strongly about something then dig in and make it better.

If you don't mind my asking -- you mentioned that you and your husband are an interfaith couple -- how has faith influenced your writing? Was it always a part of it, or did it materialize once you were married and had kids? I ask because you also mentioned wanting to write something you wanted to see on bookshelves for you and for your children. 

Faith does not necessarily play a role in my writing, but it did inspire my first children’s book. My husband and I are an interfaith couple. My family is Jewish and his is Catholic. Our oldest child has a December birthday and back when he was born in 2011, we received several Christmas books as gifts. I went out with the intention to buy Chanukah books and found that most of what’s out there falls into two ends of a spectrum. On one side you have “Elmo Celebrates Chanukah," and on the other side you have “A History of Chanukah and the Maccabees," neither of which really resonated with me and my own family traditions and cultural experience (no offense to Elmo or the Maccabees).

A few months after I tried to go book shopping, I was driving to work in Chicago and the story of “The Great Latke Cook Off” just came to me -- the entire book downloaded in my head during that 25-minute drive. I wrote it up and sent it to myself as an email. And then I sat on it for about five years. I was a new mom with a full-time job and I had absolutely no idea where to even look to get a book published. Then at the start of 2018 I was really feeling the need for a creative outlet. My kids are now 6 and 4 and I felt like I might have some capacity to take a stab about putting my book out in the world. So I pulled up that old email, did a lot of Googling, and embarked on a six month sprint to turn “The Great Latke Cook Off” into a real book that you can have, hold and enjoy with your family.

You said you teamed up with local illustrator Emily Siwek. What was that process like? Did her interpretation of your words influence, or change anything from the beginning of writing "The Great Latke Cook Off" to the published book? 

I found Emily’s work through Fifth Avenue Press, which is part of the Ann Arbor District Library. She wrote and illustrated a wonderful book called “A Monster on Main Street” about the person who plays the violin in a wolf mask downtown. Her illustrations were so playful and I thought they would really help bring the story of “The Great Latke Cook Off” to life. I reached out to her through Facebook to see if she would be interested in doing some freelance work. We met for coffee to see if we might make a good team -- it almost felt like a blind date. I gave her a copy of the manuscript and she said should get back to me with some initial ideas. A couple of days later she sent me some sketches. Without ever having seen pictures of my family she sketched an image of the Grandpa that looked exactly like my dad. I hired her on the spot. After that we started meeting every few weeks to work through the story page by page. It was a very easy collaboration and I’m so happy with the outcome. 

What sorts of things -- you said family traditions and cultural experiences -- did you specifically want to include in "The Great Latke Cook Off"? How did those things then help to form the story you were trying to tell?

A few things, really. Cooking (and eating) is always, always a big part of Jewish holidays in my family. So I wanted the process of recipe planning, execution and tasting to play a leading part in the story. My family also likes a little bit of friendly competition, so I wanted to weave that in as well. And mostly I wanted to show some of the playful and loving dynamics between the family members. It takes place during Chanukah, but I hope it is a book that be enjoyed by families of all backgrounds. 

Your website mentions that you still get excited over the Scholastic book catalog. What are some of your favorite Scholastic books, or general children and YA books of all time? (A brief aside: I grew up reading "The Magic School Bus," "Animorphs," and yes, "Harry Potter," all of which have a special place in my heart. 

My kids, ages 6 and 4, are the perfect age for picture books and early reader chapter books. It’s been great to revisit some of my own childhood favorites with them. My son and I are reading some of the “Nate the Great” series together. As with my own book selections, I’m also trying to be intentional about choosing books for them that will help expose our family to different cultures or experiences, focus on kindness or inclusivity, or include STEM/STEAM themed stories. Some of my current favorites are “The Day You Begin” by Jacqueline Woodson, “Ada Twist, Scientist” by Andrea Beaty, “Be Kind” by Pat Zietlow Miller, “Alma and How She Got Her Name” by Juana Martinez-Neal and “A Family is a Family is a Family” by Sara O’Leary. I’m also waiting for the day when my kids show an interest in “The Babysitter’s Club”-- that will bring back so many good memories! 

You're writing the stories you want to tell and see on the shelf, as you say. Aside from your work, is there something you wish was more prevalent in children's literature? If so, why? Is what you're writing now the types of stories you wish you could have read as a child? 

The more I have researched the types of books I want to see, the more I realize that they DO exist, but they are not always picked up by mainstream publishers or bookstores. I think there has been progress in getting more diverse children’s literature out there, but there are still significant leaps that can be made in terms of supporting authors and self-published writers. On a bright note, many of the titles I have been looking for I have been able to find at Nicola’s Books. 

I know writers and virtually anyone in a creative field hate this question, but I have to ask: What's next? What are you currently working on (if you don't mind sharing) and do you think children's books will be your focus? 

For the immediate future I am working on getting through this holiday season while promoting “The Great Latke Cook Off” locally and in other parts of North America, balancing my full-time job as a public health professional and spending quality time with my family and friends. I have two other children’s books already written and illustrations for the next book should begin by the end of the year -- which is exciting! I’m also doing some podcast interviews and guest blogging to talk about "Creating an Intentional Bookshelf: Children’s Books to Spark Family Discussions." This process has been a huge learning curve, but also incredibly fun and energizing. Hearing my kids read the book that I wrote for them for the first time was by far one of the most rewarding moments of my life. 

Last question(s) that I ask everyone: What is your perfect day in Ann Arbor, or, if you'd prefer, what is it about Ann Arbor that you love and/or inspires you? (We are, after all, All About Ann Arbor.) 

Fall is my favorite time of year in Ann Arbor. I would say that my perfect day would start with walking to one of the west side coffee shops, such as Argus Farm Stop or Mighty Good in the Jefferson Market space, hanging out on our front porch talking to neighbors while the kids all ride scooters around the block, taking in a sporting event such as women’s field hockey or men’s soccer and grabbing food at Frita Batidos, Shalimar, or Slurping Turtle. I would then catch a movie at the State Theater and top it off with a cocktail at The Last Word. And if I’m going to make it a really perfect day then I would also sneak in a massage at Sapphire Spa. Ramin is a lifesaver.

For more information about Lauren Ranalli, or to purchase “The Great Latke Cook Off,” visit laurenranalli.com.

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