Born in Israel to a family of storytellers, Yannets Levi remembers being surrounded by stories ever since he was a kid, told by his parents, uncles and aunts, and has now written books for children. His Uncle Leo&’s Adventures series is one of Israel&’s most popular children&’s book series and has sold more than 450,000 copies in Israel alone. The series has also been published in the Czech Republic, South Korea and Japan.He has also written another children&’s series,Mrs Rosebud is No Monster, and two books for adults. Excerpts:
How did you come up with the idea of Uncle Leo? Is the character inspired by somebody you know?
As a writer I always mix reality with imagination and Uncle Leo is taken from reality. He was my father’s Uncle. He had more or less four hairs on his head dyed in yellow or purple, a big belly, suspenders and a handkerchief – exactly like Uncle Leo in the books. And he used to tell stories. Uncle Leo was a pharmacist, who had never concocted any medicine, but focused on home-made hair colours that he was the only one who dared to try.
I didn’t plan to write a children’s book about Uncle Leo or any other character. It all happened by mistake. I dared to offer my babysitting services to my brother. I offered to watch his then five kids when he and his wife went to the movies. When I arrived at their home one of my nieces was crying and yelling Rs she didn’t want her parents to go! But of course they went out. She kept crying and sobbing. No explanation or promise helped. Nothing would stop her tears. But then I found myself saying, ‘Do you want to know how Uncle Leo got stuck on a cloud?’ And she stopped crying immediately and I had to tell her an adventure. The story was born while I was telling it.
Uncle Leo, just like a real-life uncle, is both fun and a teacher! Did you intend to leave messages for children through Uncle Leo or it just came along the way?
You might say it just comes along. You see, when telling Uncle Leo’s Adventures I deal with my deepest fears and dreams. Therefore, no wonder the adventures touch all kinds of human conflicts, desires, thoughts, emotions and so on. I wish to tell kids meaningful stories Rs meaningful for me as well as for them. I don’t think of a message, but I wish to find insight. While telling the adventures, writing and reading them, I quite often find things I wasn’t aware of.
Tell our readers more about children’s literature in Israel. Who are the important characters back there?
Hebrew is an ancient language that was almost not spoken for 2,000 years. About 100 years ago, it was revived and renewed. Therefore, Israeli Hebrew children’s literature is quite young. Nonetheless, it is developed and rich. Parents usually buy books for their kids and many authors regularly visit schools and meet children. Many of the modern classics of Israeli literature are poems, rhymes and songs. Then there are also stories that almost every kid knows by heart. Fortunately, during the last eight years Uncle Leo joined these books. The series is very popular in Israel and it’s also part of the official programme of the Ministry of Education.
You share a deep interest in Indian mythology as well. How did it start and did it influence your writing in some way?
I first visited India about 18 years ago. Till today I don’t know whether it was a matter of coincidence, fate or Karma. You see, as many Israelis, I served in the army for three years. It’s compulsory in Israel. After three years I wanted to go abroad, to see the world for the first time. I saved money, but couldn’t decide where to go. So I took an atlas and said, ‘Wherever it opens, I’ll go there.’ It opened on page 35 Rs map of India. I arrived at Delhi and walking in Paharganj main bazaar I remember saying to myself,‘Welcome home’.Since then I kept visiting India. Through the years I understood that the main reason I love India is its stories. Stories have such a central vibrant role in Indian society. I love Indian myths, their wisdom, their momentum, their creativity and the inspiration they offer me. Of course, I’m influenced by them, sometimes even without being aware of it.
Uncle Leo has an e-mail ID ([email protected]), where every kid can ask questions, send stories and paintings and converse with Uncle Leo.