Saralee Siegel is a girl with an incredible sense of smell.
That sense of smell takes her on adventures through a Jewish holiday-themed chapter book series, written by Columbia native Elana Rubinstein. The series so far has two books, “Once Upon an Apple Cake” and “Starlight Soup,” the latter of which came out last month. Both books were published by Apples & Honey Press, an imprint of Behrman House.
Rubinstein started writing “Once Upon an Apple Cake” her junior year of college. When she was in her senior year, PJ Library expressed interest in the book and helped set her up with a publisher.
Rubinstein, 27, grew up attending Beth Shalom Congregation and Krieger Schechter Day School. She studied elementary and special education at Towson University. She married her husband, Ben Sigal, soon after graduating and moved to North Carolina, where he worked at the now-closed American Hebrew Academy and she worked as a preschool teacher. In 2019, they moved to California. The couple is now in the process of moving to Israel.
What helped form your Jewish identity when you were growing up?
My family was really instrumental in my Jewish identity. We always did the best holidays. We had so many fun traditions as a family. My parents (Alan and Karen Rubinstein) just put a lot of effort into making sure that our Jewish life was really magical as kids. They definitely put the wonder and the fun into it, which I’m so lucky to have. I also went to Krieger Schechter, which was great. It was nice that what I was doing at home was reinforced at school. Another thing is, something that I think really effected me is, I went to Bet Yeladim preschool in Columbia. That was also very formative.
Where did the idea for these books come from?
I would assume that the tone of the books, which is fun and joyous and full of loving family moments, was just inspired by my family. I have great parents and amazing grandparents who have always been very loving and supportive, and I think I tried to put those emotions into the book. I’m not sure where the idea of the plot came from, but the actual feelings underneath the story were just inspired by my own feelings toward my own family and my own excitement toward the Jewish holidays and all the magic that they can bring.
Why did you center your first book around Rosh Hashanah?
My idea was that I wanted to write a chapter book series about a Jewish girl who celebrated all of the holidays, and that she has some sort of social-emotional growth in every book. I just thought it would be fun to start at the beginning and watch her grow through a whole season of Jewish holidays and see what happens over the course of the year.
Why is your second book about Sukkot instead of Yom Kippur?
When I finished “Once Upon an Apple Cake,” I actually wanted to write a book about Yom Kippur, and I actually did write one about Saralee and Yom Kippur, and then I told my publisher about it, and they were like, “Well, Yom Kippur books are not exactly hot on the market, but maybe down the road, we’ll see about your Yom Kippur book, possibly in the future.” I was like OK, whatever.
Then I thought of a great Sukkot book idea, and I pitched that one, and they liked it. I went back, and I actually read my Yom Kippur book, and I realized that they were so right. I think if they had published it, I think it would not have sold very well. … I don’t think I’m going to go back, because between the Rosh Hashanah book and the Sukkot book, the themes of reflecting and apologizing are addressed already.
What holiday will your next Saralee book focus on?
The next book is coming out in October 2022, and that is going to be a Chanukah book. … It’s about courage and bravery, and there’s some crazy smell magic.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, edition of the Baltimore Jewish Times, a sister publication of Baltimore’s Child.