Celebrations | When flower girl has the sniffles, what to do

As a child, Pamela Mayer thought Jewish picture books seemed too studious, or were too focused on holidays, history or folklore. Several decades later, the San Mateo children’s librarian decided to write one a little more lighthearted.

“Don’t Sneeze at the Wedding” is Mayer’s adorable book about a girl suffering a sneezing jag on the day of her aunt’s nuptials. She’s the flower girl, but woke up with the sniffles. Anna tries to follow all the anti-sneezing tips of several know-it-all adults, right up to the moment she stands by the chuppah.

She almost makes it sneeze-free to the end.

A veteran children’s book author, Mayer, 60, had wanted to write a Jewish-themed book for some time. All she needed was the right idea.

“My husband is a professional photographer,” she says. “I’d gone with him to shoots, so the hustle and bustle of weddings was on my mind. And my oldest daughter got married recently. I don’t know how I came up with this sneezing thing. It just came to me.”

Mayer did not select the book’s illustrator, but fortunately Mexican artist Martha Avilés’ sweet, pastel-hued drawings thrilled her.

“Unless you’re a very famous author, you have no say on who illustrates your book,” says the Foster City resident. “I was really happy with [her work]. I loved all the pink in it, and I love the way she drew the cover.”

The 32-page book features a young heroine whose strong personality shines through. Because Mayer works with kids every day in her job as a San Mateo children’s librarian — not to mention she reared two daughters — she knows how kids think.

“I based her on how I think [kids] view the world,” Mayer says. “She’s so excited to be the flower girl and wants everything to go right, so she thinks any advice adults give would be good.”

Pamela Mayer reads her book to children at Peninsula Temple Sinai in Foster City. photo/richard mayer

To prevent sneezing, that advice includes everything from pinching her nose to uttering the word “pineapple.” All are actual folk remedies Mayer found through her research.

Why write a book aimed at a Jewish audience? For one thing, Mayer was initially approached by PJ Library, a nationwide program — available locally —  that provides families with young Jewish children with free, Jewish-themed books and music. Each month families receive a new book or CD in the mail and are encouraged to enjoy it together.

The organization asked Mayer to write a book for their target audience: “Don’t Sneeze” is recommended for children ages 5 to 9.

Mayer made her debut as a children’s book author in 2001 with “The Scariest Monster in the World,” followed by “The Grandma Cure” in 2005. Neither was Jewish-themed, though the latter included a grandma named Sophie who had a thing for chicken soup.

A San Francisco native, Mayer grew up in a home with rich Jewish traditions and attended Congregation Beth Sholom. She developed a love of books early on, and still remembers the first time she ever read out loud to her mother while sitting in the kitchen.

She went on to earn a degree in French at U.C. Berkeley and, later, a master’s in library science from San Jose State University. Her career as a librarian proved gratifying, but one thing was missing.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” she says, “but everyone said you’ll never make a living. I love grown-up literature, but as far as writing, I wanted to write for children.”

Fortunately, she got her wish. Since her new book came out in August, Mayer has spoken at a literature festival in Maryland, and last month she traveled to Washing-ton, D.C., to accept the 2013 Sugarman Family Children’s Book Award honoring Jewish children’s book.

But most enjoyable of all is reading to kids, including reading her own book to them.

“It’s super fun,” she says, “and fun to see the kids do the ‘stop sneezing’ techniques. A lot of kids pipe up and say ‘I tried that and it doesn’t work.’ ”

“Don’t Sneeze at the Wedding” by Pamela Mayer (32 pages, Kar-Ben Publishing, $17.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.