Chani Altein revisits pandemic challenges in new novel
Squirrel Hill author's "Home Sweet Home" looks at family, friendship and COVID-19 through the eyes of young adults
Community members have largely left the dark days that began in March 2020, but author Chani Altein is asking readers to return in the name of friendship.
“Home Sweet Home,” a new book published by Judaica Press and penned by Altein, focuses on four young girls navigating the simultaneous pressures of teenage harmony and familial responsibility in the early days of the pandemic.
Though no stranger to writing from the eyes of a young adult, Altein said the literary process of tackling COVID-19 via a youthful prism was both relatable and illuminating.
Socializing was extremely important to Altein when she was a teen.
“I was someone who always thought my family was boring,” she said. “I always wanted to be with friends whenever I could.”
Altein channels those attitudes through her novel’s protagonist.
“Home Sweet Home,” which primarily follows Esti through challenges that both young and older readers will likely remember, charts a teenager’s evolution and realization that family is truly a gift, the author said.
Reaching that recognition makes for a sweet narrative ending, but the chapter-by-chapter path is marked by familiar pangs and discourse. Beyond her memories, Altein — an author of nine novels, a Jewish educator and the co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill — relied on her teenage daughters to ensure the dialogue and sentiments in “Home Sweet Home” tracked.
“I am reminded on a constant basis, not from my own personal self, but from the girls I live with, what teenage life could be like,” Altein said. “Sometimes I just asked them, ‘Does this make sense? Is this something that would be realistic?’”
Using those in-house editors allowed Altein to perform a “kind of reality check” against her writing while also generating a “fresher” read for teens. It’s one of several narrative tactics that she’s adopted over time. Since authoring her first work more than a decade ago, Altein — like the characters she’s created — has learned much about the craft and herself.
One of the things she’s learned is that the more one writes, the more her writing improves, she said.
There’s also a maturity in knowing that the written word isn’t necessarily the published word.
“It’s very idealistic to say, ‘I don’t care what the constraints are of the publishing company, whatever, I’m just going to write what I’m going to write.’ But that doesn’t actually get your book published,” she said.
Seeing one’s words in print requires certain conformities, Altein explained.
It’s important to make sure “your book is catered and appropriate for the audience — despite whatever it is that I would like to write about, or how I feel or what I’m passionate about,” she said.
Writing, Altein continued, is a “joyful” experience; part of the pleasure stems from seeing its impact.
In response to her “Mimi” books — a trilogy concerning a shy middle-schooler sandwiched between a set of “lively” older twin sisters and active younger twin brothers — Altein once received a meaningful piece of fan mail.
The letter was from a woman saying that whenever her daughter “needs a little escape or is feeling sad,” she turns to one of those books, Altein said. “I was so touched. That’s why I write.”
Following “Home Sweet Home,” Altein has an idea of what she’d like to work on next. She said she’d love to build the story out and write a book from each of the other three girls’ perspectives on friendship and family during the early days of the pandemic.
Altein has some advice for children interested in seeing their work published someday. Keep reading and writing, she said, but in addition to that, one must be “disciplined.”
“Set goals for yourself,” she said, “and stick to them.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].