Ellen Weinstein's Five Stories

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday April 17, 2024

Ellen Weinstein, a New York-based illustrator whose work is regularly seen in major media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and more, will launch her third children’s book this Saturday. Five Stories is about five children from five different cultures and in five different decades, who grow up in the same building on the Lower East Side of New York City. This vibrant celebration of immigrants and the multicultural richness of New York City offers tantalizing glimpses of a diverse neighborhood’s cultures and origins—starting with Ellen’s own grandmother, Jenny Epstein, whose parents emigrated from Russia in 1914. I caught up with Ellen by email last week to find out more.

Peggy Roalf: Your new book is quite a departure from Recipes for Good Luck: The Superstitions, Rituals, and Practices of Extraordinary People [Chronicle Books 2018]. What prompted you to create a book that's an ode to your family history? 

Ellen Weinstein: Creating a book is a way to follow my curiosity and see where it goes. I sought known figures' superstitions, rituals, and practices in Recipes. In Five Stories, I am asking what it was like for my grandmother, as a child, to leave everything behind and start a new life in a strange place. I have been very fortunate to have opportunities to teach workshops and lecture internationally. Through my editorial work, I have read and learned about many subjects I may not have encountered otherwise. In Five Stories, I look much closer to home and explore my family history and the neighborhood I have lived in most of my life.


PR: You-did a lot of historical research as well as speaking with family and friends. Please tell the readers about your process. For example, did you make lots of sketches while researching or did you keep research and art making separate? Were you able to take illustration assignments or was the book all consuming? 

EW: My questions about my grandmother's journey led me to more questions about my neighbors' journeys and what they left behind. To learn more, I interviewed my friends and neighbors about their stories of immigration and migration, as well as the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents. I met with historians, curators, and librarians at the Tenement Museum, Eldridge Street Synagogue, Henry Street Settlement, Seward Park Library, and the principals and students at local Public Schools and a school for dual language and Asian Studies.

I had the idea of using a five-story tenement building as a filter for these stories and a block to show the neighborhood and communal spaces. I wrote a rough draft of the manuscript and then went back and forth with sketching and revising the manuscript and research to shape the narrative. 

The book was consuming, but I took illustration assignments and taught my classes at the School of Visual Arts. The book was constantly in my head as I worked on it; I would write line edits in my mind and send myself notes of things I thought of.


PR: in speaking with relatives and friends what were some of the most surprising stories that came up? 

EW: Speaking with many of my fellow Lower East Side residents, I noticed "back in the day" is a common refrain, referring to last week or forty years ago. I learned new things about friends I have known for a long time and discovered new things about my family.

While interviewing my mother about my grandmother and great-grandparents' stories, she kept telling me to include my great-uncle Louis' store in the book. My mother spoke of him, and I vaguely remembered him from childhood, but I thought of him as a family myth. Louis Epstein was run over by a trolley as a kid and lost his leg, replaced by a wooden one.

He owned a fishing supply store on Orchard Street and ran fishing expeditions on Long Island. This sounded too farfetched to be true, a Yiddish Captain Ahab. While researching, I found an out-of-print book on the Lower East Side, and looking through it, I saw a photo of Louis Tackle shop on 139 Orchard Street. I shared the photo with various Lower East Side groups and asked if anyone knew him. Many people responded with recollections of him being tough and cranky. One person recalled Louis pushing a would-be burglar down the store's stairs with his crutch. It was a true story, after all! 

PR: What did you find most interesting about the ways kids’ pastimes have changed since the Epsteins came over? And how did that inflect the stories you tell? 

EW: I love researching the games children play. The painting Children's Games by Bruegel the Elder was an inspiration for the street scenes along with Richard Scarry's books. Kids were always resourceful, making games from found material: go-carts out of crates, bottle caps, stickball with a broom handle and a Spalding ball, playing leapfrog, etc. The games and pastimes change with the eras. Throughout most of the book, kids play on the street until we come to the present. We see kids riding kick scooters, but playing tag in the middle of the street is not a common sight now. From interviewing the principals and students at local public schools, I discovered that after-school swim classes at the Chinatown YMCA are popular.

PR: What is one of the most memorable experiences from your own schooldays that influenced the way you tell these stories? 

EW: From my school days, I fondly remember playing handball, my failed attempts at playing Double Dutch, drinking egg creams, the stores on Orchard Street, and cheering on the local Double Dutch champions.

PR: You've lived on the Lower East Side most of your life. Please share with readers your three favorite restaurants.

EW: Good question, past or present? New Yorkers are always eager to share our ghost stories of the great place that no longer exists. Currently, Russ & Daughters Café is a Lower East Side tradition. Wu's Wonton King has excellent food and is a fun place for a group. My local hangout is Eastwood, where I have made friends and always run into someone I know.

So please join Ellen Weinstein for the book launch of Five Stories this Saturday, April 20 at 11 am at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217

Or save the date: April 27 at 11:30am, at Books of Wonder, hosting a storytime and pre-order giveaway at 42 West 17th Steet, New York NY.