September 2022

How Isaac Blum created the funniest YA narrator of the year

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The debut novelist explores faith, friendship and family in The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen.
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When Orthodox Jewish teen Hoodie Rosen sees a girl dancing on the sidewalk outside the window of his yeshiva classroom, he has no idea that the connection they’ll form will lead them to question everything they believe and change both of their lives forever.

Debut novelist Isaac Blum’s The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen might be the funniest YA book of the year, thanks to Hoodie’s often hilarious, deeply authentic narration. It’s also an unflinching portrait of how hate can take root in a community—with tragic results.

Blum spoke with BookPage about balancing humor with heartbreak and horror, and why his novel’s intense emotions will ring true for teen readers.

Tell us about Hoodie and Anna-Marie when we first meet them.
Yehuda “Hoodie” Rosen is goofy and sarcastic. He attends yeshiva, where he studies Jewish stuff plus “regular” school stuff. He doesn’t take much seriously. He hates zucchini.

Anna-Marie Diaz-O’Leary is a more “typical” teenager. She goes to the local public school and spends a lot of time thinking about boys. She practices different dances and makes TikTok videos with her friends. Compared to Hoodie, she’s serious, thoughtful and confident in her place in the world.

When the book starts, Hoodie has just moved to a new town, where his father is helping their Orthodox community build a high-rise apartment building to house more Orthodox families. Anna-Marie is mourning her father, who has recently passed away. She’s lived in Tregaron, Pennsylvania, all her life, and her mother is the mayor and hellbent on preventing the Orthodox community from growing in their town.

You do a great job of representing how neither Hoodie nor Anna-Marie see each other clearly, and yet they form what turns out to be a life-changing connection. What was challenging and what was fun about writing their relationship?
The difficult part was making their respective confusion feel true. I needed them to have very different understandings of their relationship, but for both of their perspectives to feel valid to the reader. That was challenging, and I asked myself over and over, “Will the reader buy what Hoodie’s thinking here? Will the reader understand why Anna-Marie thinks about this so differently?” I relied heavily on early readers to help me get that right.

“You’re going to deeply trust somebody who works hard to know you.”

The fun part was that once I got that balance where I wanted it, I could use Hoodie’s and Anna-Marie’s inability to read each other for some funny and surprising moments. I also think their initially crossed signals make the relationship they do create more meaningful, because they had to work to get there. It’s hard-earned. You’re going to deeply trust somebody who works hard to know you.

My list of favorite supporting characters in this book is not short. (The list is topped by Hoodie’s sisters Chana and Zippy and his friend Moshe Tzvi.) Who was your favorite supporting character to write?
You and I have the same top three. I’d probably even put them in that order, so that makes Chana my favorite. She was definitely the most fun to write.

The thing about Zippy and Moshe Tzvi is that they both have some heavy lifting to do in the book. Zippy has to help Hoodie come of age, show him that she’ll love him unconditionally and then cede the eldest sibling position to him. Moshe Tzvi has to be the studious foil to Hoodie’s slacker, and then he has to have his own coming-of-age arc, in which he grows into a place where he can disagree with his father about Hoodie’s place in the community.

Chana has no such responsibilities. She just stands up on the roof and throws soup at people. Writing her was just me sitting around thinking of silly pranks for her to pull.

Hoodie narrates from some unknown point in the future. It’s right there in the opening line: “Later, I tried to explain to Rabbi Moritz why it was ironic that my horrible crime was the thing that saved the whole community.” Was this perspective always part of the novel? Why did you employ it?
That perspective is there because of the opening line, or at least the first couple paragraphs. Before I’d outlined the novel at all, those first lines came into my head, and I wrote them like that, and I never changed them. But I like this narrative tool for a couple reasons:

It establishes tension and a bit of suspense right off the bat. Hoodie tells the reader that the events of the novel “humiliated him on a global scale,” “put him in the ICU” and “ruined his life.” Hopefully the reader wonders how all that went down and looks forward to reading about it.

That narrative device also lets the reader know that Hoodie makes it to the end of the novel alive and on good enough terms with Rabbi Moritz that Hoodie can try to explain the story’s ironies to him. I’m not categorically against having horrible things happen to my protagonist, but there’s enough grave stuff going on already in this book, and I didn’t see the need for the reader to worry about Hoodie’s fate.

“I think that being a high school teacher is a great job if you’re going to write YA.”

You’ve taught English at Orthodox schools. How did those experiences come into play as you worked on the novel? 
I think that being a high school teacher is a great job if you’re going to write YA. Whether you want to or not, as a teacher you learn a ton about your students’ worlds. And if you forget what it’s actually like to be a teenager, you’re reminded every day. In this case, if you happen to be writing a book from the point of view of an Orthodox yeshiva student, it certainly helps if you spend your days surrounded by Orthodox yeshiva students.

While the novel is not based on my students—I don’t think that would be fair to them—it’s certainly influenced by them: their struggles to balance modernity with tradition, their fears of antisemitism and the way the rest of the world sees them, and their humanity and sense of humor.

The novel itself was inspired by a real-life event, too. Can you tell us about that?
On December 10, 2019, there was a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. Two shooters opened fire on shoppers in a targeted antisemitic attack. It was one of a number of violent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions around that time, but this one in particular moved me. Within a week of the shooting, I started outlining the story of an Orthodox Jewish teen who finds himself caught in the middle of violent antisemitism—plus all of the normal things teens are caught in the middle of, like crises of identity, first love, etc.

The shooting at the market followed months of growing tension—in Jersey City and elsewhere—between long-established communities and a new influx of Orthodox Jews. I created my own long-established community, the fictional town of Tregaron, Pennsylvania, and put Hoodie at the center of his community’s move into the town.

What do you hope readers take away from Hoodie’s deep connections to his family and his community?
I have two answers to this question, one specific, one general:

In many mainstream depictions of Orthodox Judaism, the protagonist is depicted as oppressed by their own community. There are lots of “leaving narratives,” stories where the main character is fleeing the religion, leaving their family behind. And while any orthodoxy won’t be for everybody—Hoodie isn’t sure if it’s for him—a close-knit community like Hoodie’s has so much warmth and love to offer. I wanted to make sure readers saw the positive, supportive qualities of Hoodie’s community alongside the flaws.

“It’s totally cool to be furious with the people you love. While that’s a painful feeling, it can be a starting point for growth.”

The more general point is that all families and communities are like that: flawed. With the caveat that some family relationships aren’t reconcilable, I hope readers see Hoodie’s story as an argument that it’s worth finding ways to maintain connections to your family or community, even when you’re angry at them, even when they’ve wronged you. It’s totally cool to be furious with the people you love. While that’s a painful feeling, it can be a starting point for growth.

The novel swings very quickly between humor, contemplation and heartbreak. Why was this important to you? What was the key to getting these shifts right?
I think that’s the adolescent experience. Teens feel stuff really strongly. We all cycle through our moods and feelings, from humor to contemplation to heartbreak and back again. But I think teens cycle quicker, and they feel each one more intensely. And I think it’s important to show that those seemingly contradictory feelings are going to exist next to each other, that you can experience heartbreak with a sense of humor, or that you can ask yourself important life questions without being overwhelmed by the gravity of them.

The key to the shifts for me, honestly, was self-restraint. It’s my instinct, like it’s Hoodie’s, to turn everything into a quip or a joke, to deflect from the serious back to the humorous. So when I thought Hoodie should take a step back and ask a big question, or when I knew I had to write a heavy scene, I tried to rein in that side of me and let those moments breathe.

How did you make sure the humorous moments were actually funny?
I still have no idea if the humorous moments are actually funny. When you write a novel, you spend a lot of time with it, so it has to be something you want to read. I had fun writing goofy scenes. I enjoyed reading them later. I was amused by them. But it’s often hard to judge your own work, and of course you don’t know if the reader will share your sense of humor.

To that end, I have a critique partner—let’s call him Rob, because that’s his name—who functions as a kind of snark police. When I’m too self-indulgent with the goofiness, especially to the point where it distracts from the narrative, he berates me and forces me to trim the excess stuff that’s not funny, and I’m very grateful.

“Sometimes in the most horrific moments, levity really does help. You can take the world seriously, confront its horrors and still find time to laugh.”

This novel has some awful events. I’d like the humor to show that while existence contains innumerable ills, such as bigotry, hate crime and zucchini, it’s worth keeping your sense of humor. Sometimes in the most horrific moments, levity really does help. You can take the world seriously, confront its horrors and still find time to laugh.

Hoodie asks himself big questions about whether the life he thought he was supposed to want is the life he actually wants. What advice would you give teens asking themselves similar questions?
Oh man. I’m certain that I’m not qualified to give this advice. But here are two thoughts:

First, you can only be you. So once you figure out who that person is, just be that person. Hoodie finds a way to be himself and still be part of his community, but that’s not possible for everybody. And if you figure out who you are, and the people around you won’t accept that person, then the flaw is with them, not with you.

Second, lean on people you trust, people who will support you unconditionally. Find those people and let them help you.

Hoodie memorably waxes poetic about his love for Starburst, so I have to ask: What is your favorite Starburst flavor? What is your least favorite? What do you hope never becomes a Starburst flavor?
Most flavors should not be Starburst flavors. Starburst flavors should be limited to fruit. I tend to think of them in terms of color. Pink is my favorite. I assume pink is everyone’s favorite. I don’t understand why they make nonpink flavors. Yellow and orange are bad. Those are the ones you give away to your friends when you pretend to be a good sharer.

Read our review of ‘The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen.’

Author photo of Isaac Blum courtesy of Milton Lindsay.

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