Emma Carlson Berne Writes on Timeless Themes of Adolescence

The Cincinnati author releases “Shabbat Sabotage” thanks in part to a national grant supporting Jewish writers and Jewish-oriented books.
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In Shabbat Sabotage (Little Bee Books), local children’s writer Emma Carlson Berne takes readers to summer camp, where protagonist Maya bonds with new friends on the ropes course, in the cafeteria, and at campfire singalongs. But trouble may interrupt this idyllic summer adventure. What if Maya’s cabinmates find out about her fear of swimming? And who stole the kiddush cup and candlesticks for the upcoming Shabbat service?

Photograph courtesy Emma Carlson Berne

In this gentle mystery, Berne explores timeless themes of adolescence—change, identity, and belonging—while also offering readers a delightful page-turner.

Can we just start by acknowledging how nostalgic a book about camp feels? I loved the scene where the girls were resting in the cabin while Yael braided friendship bracelets. The small details and the way you tied them to the deep feelings of belonging and happiness that many people associate with summer camp were my favorite parts of the book. How did you get them right?

I love those parts, too. I went back in my imagination to a particular performing arts camp I went to when I was in high school. There was a lot of lying around at that camp in our cabin. I remembered a whole long conversation we all had about the best way to shave your legs. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s say it involved me later going to the camp nurse with a leg rash so bad I looked like I had scrofula.

While the book is lighthearted and nostalgic, the campers are also working through personal conflicts that felt really relatable: homesickness, fear of swimming, and more. Can you talk a bit about why these kinds of internal conflicts come out in a unique way in a camp environment?

I think of summer camp as an emotional crucible. Kids are thrown together, and adults are pretty much out of the picture. It’s a world made for kids and ruled by kids, who all have to live together in a tiny space and spend virtually all their time together. I love how this situation strips away a lot of the layers people cover themselves with. Personally, I remember camp bringing out a lot of strong feelings—at one point I had a fight so intense with another girl that I threw a clog at her head.

Camp Shalom is a summer camp that offers, as the brochure Maya’s mom shares points out, “a solid grounding in Jewish culture.” There were many references to Jewish culture, including the mystery of the missing Shabbat cup, but also the way counselor Tamar served in the Israeli Army and the fact that Gaga was originally an Israeli game. Can you talk a bit about how and why this book focuses on Jewish cultures? What do you hope non-Jewish readers would learn about Jewish culture from the book?

I wrote this book while being supported by a grant from PJ Library, which is part of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and works to help Jewish authors and offer Jewish-oriented books to readers. When I set out to write this book, I asked them, What kind of book are you really not seeing for kids that you want to see? They told me they really wanted a kind of Encyclopedia Brown with girl characters at summer camp. You got it! I thought.

Each chapter opens with an illustration by artist Kayla Stark. For me, these little illustrations helped focus the book and occasionally made me laugh (such as the stinky sock picture). Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with the illustrator and what you think these images add to the story?

I love Kayla Stark’s soft, playful, but also detailed illustrations. When my editor showed me her cover, my immediate thought was, This is one of my favorite covers ever. And I’ve had a lot of covers. I especially loved how she highlighted the natural elements of the camp: the trees, the leaves, the lake.

I notice that the story ends before the campers go to Snake Island, which leads me to wonder: Will there be a sequel?

I really hope so! I deliberately wrote the story so that it will easily lend itself to another mystery about the Akko girls, this time on Snake Island. That story, if I get to write it, will be a good deal creepier than Shabbat Sabotage. Get ready.

The Mayerson JCC hosts a book release party for Emma Carlson Berne and Shabbat Sabotage May 1 at 4:30-7 p.m. Find details here.

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