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Suzie Berkson waited more than 60 years for an opportunity to illustrate a story book – an ambition she had had since she was a teenager. When the chance came her way, she found herself making pictures for not just any writer but a world-famous writer, in fact, a Nobel Prize winner.
The author is the late Isaac Bashevis Singer. The story is “The Parakeet Named Dreidel.”
Ms. Berkson says it was “an honor and a challenge” to spend more than two years illustrating this multi-layered children’s story, now in print and in stores for the holiday season.
Its 32 pages are filled with warm and lively water-colors about a parakeet – not just any parakeet but a Yiddish-speaking parakeet.
The bird landed on a snowy window- sill in Brooklyn during Hanakkah. Figuring it was lost, David’s family took him in. They failed to find the bird’s home, so he became part of David’s family, and they called him Dreidel.
Mr. Singer published many books; Ms. Berkson just this one. It is the first time she has had her name on a book cover.
To mirror the three-named author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, she signed her own name in full, too: Suzanne Raphael Berkson. At age 82, she is enjoying the delicious reality of a dream come true, giving readings, signing autographs, piling baskets high with dreidels.
“Suzie has filled that book with lively, poignant pages,” says Evanston’s Laura Montenegro, an illustrator herself. “It’s really beautiful.”
Back in 1980, when the parakeet story was first published in “The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah,” Suzie Berkson was still freelancing illustrations for area periodicals and working at Roycemore School, where she taught art for 30 years.
Before that, she had lived abroad in London and Bangkok, taken there by her husband Gershon’s work as a research psychologist. In London at the start of the swinging ’60s, she concentrated on her growing family, little Jennie and baby Adam. But things were different in Thailand from 1966 to 1968.
The kids were older then and she explored the city with them. She learned how to cook Thai food well enough to teach cooking classes back in Evanston.
She also pursued her art. She had a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study Thai designs, and she created an entire line of stuffed animals.
She not only dreamed up these colorful creatures, each particular to Thailand, but she opened a factory to make them and then marketed them around the world via outlets like Bloomingdale’s, which sold them with the tagline, “Exotic animals for the nursery.”
She made a lizard, a bird and a temple lion, plus nine more animals, and sent each of them off to market with a card. As she said, “Even my stuffed animals were telling a story.”
Her interest in art and storytelling developed naturally, she said, as her father liked to paint and draw.
Ms. Berkson grew up in Astoria, a part of New York City’s borough of Queens.
”My father was a pharmacist,” she said, “and we lived upstairs, over his drugstore. It was a corner store and a neighborhood gathering place, especially during World War II, when I was growing up. It was full of action, and so was the street, full of people and noise and color and open markets. I watched it all from our upstairs windows.”
Upstairs, she was also captivated by a painting of her father’s. It, too, was full of people and noise and color.
“It was a painting of our store,” she said, “vibrant and busy with customers. It was so familiar and yet hinted at more, with a sailor and some other young men playing the pinball machine. The machine’s colors flashed, and the guys were so intense as they tilted the table trying to win. That painting was telling a story,” she said.
At New York City High School of Music and Art, Suzie Raphael met her future husband, musician Gershon Berkson. As a senior, she was chosen to illustrate a story for Seventeen magazine, the must-read publication for teenage girls for decades to come.
The next year, as a freshman at Syracuse University, she did another story for Seventeen. “Illustrating those stories really caught me,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
After graduating from Syracuse and marrying Gershon, who was pursuing a doctorate in psychology, she spent the 1950s moving from college town to college town – Madison, Los Angeles and Orange Park, Fla., where he studied primates at the Yerkes Laboratory.
She focused her art on woodcuts and began making a name for herself. In Los Angeles she had a one-woman show, and at another show she won the purchase prize, which means her woodcut is now part of the permanent collection at the Pasadena Museum.
The Berksons first came to Evanston for three years and then came back to stay in 1968, living in south Evanston on Forest Avenue. Dr. Berkson joined the psychology faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago; their children went to Evanston schools, and Ms. Berkson caught on as a free-lance illustrator at the Evanston Review, even doing one drawing for the World’s Largest Garage Sale. She also did illustrations for Chicago magazine. Her day job was teaching art at Roycemore.
Today Gershon and Suzie Berkson live in north Evanston, their house a reflection of their interests. A music stand bristles with sheet music, a clue that Dr. Berkson is back to playing the violin and viola since retiring from University of Illinois at Chicago.
Ms. Berkson’s paintings decorate the walls. She likes to paint in her well-lit studio upstairs or draw in the living room. She draws with a fat Sharpie and then fills in with water color.
She uses whatever is at hand to make her pictures come to life. For the book, she said, her husband “was a good egg,” helping her picture movement by acting out her requests to look surprised or inspect something. Similarly, she sometimes asked the little boy across the street to pose as David.
As for the parakeet? Well, she bought one so she could study how it looked and flew. At first, she called it Mr. Singer but in time it evolved into her own Dreidel, just like in the book.
The book is calm and peaceful, not cluttered and hectic like many children’s books these days. In warm, cozy, family pictures, the characters’ body movements suggest their feelings:
• The father’s gasp, his glasses pushed high when he first sees the parakeet at the window.
• David holding his father’s pipe as they put up a poster reporting a lost parakeet.
• Dreidel’s feathers aflutter when he is perched on the bow of David’s violin or the hands of the father at his typewriter.
With a hand on the hip, in a pocket or slapped against the forehead, Ms. Berkson’s pictures move the story along.
Kind of like how she moved her own story along. Many, many years had elapsed since she had illustrated those Seventeen magazine stories, and she still wanted to illustrate a book. She finally decided to do something about it: She would write her own book to illustrate. She began a book about her grandfather, a bookbinder on
New York’s Lower East Side.
She worked at it but made little headway, soon realizing that writing was hard. To learn her craft, she signed up for a writing class taught by Laura Montenegro.
“Laura was very helpful. The writing began coming more easily.” She finished the book and sent it off to Farrar Straus Giroux. It was a big New York City publisher, but Ms. Montenegro had published a book with that firm so Ms. Berkson decided, “Why not?”
“It’s called chutzpah,” she shrugged. “I had no agent, no nothing.” Farrar Strauss kept the book for months, but the rejection letter finally came. “They loved the illustrations,” she said, “but not the story.” The good news was that they asked to keep a few of her pictures on file.
Less than a year later, she received another letter from Farrar Strauss. This time the publisher said they might have a project for her. The next letter said the project was a 32-page book of Mr. Singer’s story, and she agreed to take it on.
“Of course, I did. It was my opportunity to illustrate a book, and it’s an important story. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it while I worked on the pictures,” she said.
“To me the lost parakeet represents a lost person, cold and needing a place to be, a home in a free place where its cage was never closed. It certainly could apply to the modern day with so many immigrants and refugees across the world. And,” she said, “it suggests Singer’s own experience leaving Poland and coming to the U.S., alone and cold, just before the holocaust.”
“The Parakeet Named Dreidel” is a children’s book and will be marketed that way, she said, “but parents will love to read it, too, with its various levels of meaning. I’m so lucky I’ve been part of this project.”
Suzie Berkson remained quiet for a moment and then said, “It was beshert. It was meant to be.”