The 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour:
A Q&A with Author Debbie Levy

h1 February 10th, 2020 by jules

“…Flory played the songs of her Nona, and they helped her feel closer to home.”


I’m happy to be a part of the Association of Jewish Libraries’ 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour with a visit today from author Debbie Levy. Levy won a Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category for The Key from Spain (Kar-Ben, August 2019), illustrated by Sonja Wimmer.



You can click here or on the image above to see the full blog tour schedule for the week.

The Key from Spain is the story of musician Flory Jagoda, born in 1923. She was a Bosnian Jewish-born composer and songwriter, known for her interpretations of Sephardic songs and traditional Ladino tunes — and, after eventually moving to America, she did much to carry on the tradition of her Sephardic music and culture. Today’s interview with Debbie includes a few illustrations from the book.

I thank Debbie for visiting. Let’s get to it. …

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Jules: I suspect authors hate being asked about inspiration, but what was it that sparked this project for you? What initially made you want to tell Flory’s story?

photo of Debbie LevyDebbie (pictured left): I love being asked about inspiration! And in this case it’s not hard to answer.

What sparked this project, what made me want to tell Flory’s story: I listened to her music! I listened to her recordings, saw her in live performance, and listened to the music of her apprentice, the outstanding musician Susan Gaeta.

If you’re not used to Sephardic music, if you’re not familiar with the Ladino language — and that was me on both counts — they are so different from anything else. I found both the music and language exciting, expressive, and irresistible.

I hoped, after hearing Flory’s music, that there would be a good story behind it. After all, there are no guarantees in that regard!

Fortunately for me, Flory has a fascinating story, and one that I think readers can relate to — in her love of her family, friends, music, and fun. And in dealing with challenge and loss.



Jules: What was your research for this book like? What, if anything, in your research surprised you?

Debbie: I read interviews of, and articles about, Flory Jagoda. I read up on the history of Muslim rule in Spain in the Middle Ages and the decline of Muslim rule with the ascendancy of the Catholic monarchy — ultimately leading to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. I did research into the Ladino language and Sephardic music and culture. I listened to all the music that Flory has recorded and read the liner notes, as well as other materials that Flory wrote when she was younger. I interviewed Flory in person. I talked with Flory’s younger daughter, Betty Jagoda, and with her apprentice, Susan Gaeta.

One surprise: When I went into this project, I did not know that Flory and her family were caught up in World War II and the Holocaust. I did not know that she and her parents managed to escape Europe, while her beloved family back in their Bosnian village were murdered by Nazis. I could not help but think of my own mother’s story, which is the subject of my nonfiction-in-verse book The Year of Goodbyes (originally published in 2010, with a new edition published in 2019). I am an Ashkenazi Jew; my mother grew up in Nazi Germany. She and her parents and sister were able to flee in 1938 and come to this country — barely, because the U.S. immigration laws were impossible — but the rest of her family, who were in Poland, ended up first in a ghetto and then in concentration camps. Except for a cousin and aunt, they all died at the hands of the Nazis. So, of course, I felt a connection to Flory’s experience of being the one who, with her parents, escaped while everyone she loved back in Bosnia was murdered. I should emphasize that this — the horror of it all — is not the focus of the book, but it is my answer to your question about surprises.


“No village celebration was complete without The Singing Altaras Family making music into the wee hours, Sephardic and Bosnian melodies, voices trilling, hands clapping, guitars, mandolins, tamburitzas, and tambourines pulsing the rhythms.
Songs filled the sky. Music filled Flory’s heart.”


Jules: Can you talk about what it was like for you to see Sonja’s illustrations for your story? What is one of your favorite details?

Debbie: When I saw Sonja‘s illustrations, I was moved and happy. I find them so beautiful and just right for this story. One favorite is the two-page spread where Flory acts out the influence of her beloved Nona (grandmother), especially the page where she and her cousins take baskets filled with food to neighbors in need. It’s lovely. I also like how Sonja keeps the book rooted in time, no easy feat with a story that ranges from the Middle Ages up to the present day.

Jules: Have you shared this book with students at school visits and/or at book festivals, etc.? What has been the response from children?

Debbie: I have not yet shared the book with students at schools or book festivals. Maybe I’ll report back to you! Susan Gaeta and I are doing a words-and-music presentation — really, a concert that threads my book with her renditions of Flory’s songs — at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville next month.


“Flory brought her music to people everywhere, around the country and the world,
on stages, in schools, in homes. …”

(Click spread to enlarge and read text in its entirety)


Jules: What does it mean to you to win this Sydney Taylor Honor?

Debbie: It helps bring a quiet book like this one to the attention of educators, librarians, parents, grandparents, book lovers — and, ultimately, children. I’m grateful for the Sydney Taylor Honor as a source of illumination for my book and all the other fine books recognized this year.

Jules: What’s next for you?

Debbie: Next on my plate: I am working on a couple of nonfiction picture books with two different publishers. I have no new books coming out in 2020 — I did have five in 2019, which was slightly out of control and definitely out of my control (you know we authors have little influence on the timing of our book releases) — but if I’m lucky, one of these new books will come out in 2021. I hope to be able to talk more about them soon!

* * * * * * *

Illustrations from THE KEY FROM SPAIN by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer ©2019, appear with the permission of Kar-Ben Publishing,

Photo of Debbie Levy reproduced by her permission.

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