The practice of psychiatry and the writing of children’s books may seem like two incongruous pursuits, but Tziporah Cohen sees them as organically connected.
Cohen is a psychiatrist working in oncology and palliative care. She also is the author of the award-winning middle-school novel, “No Vacancy.”
Psychiatry and writing are both about stories, emphasizes Cohen, a Harvard Medical School graduate who moved from Boston to Toronto with her husband and three children a dozen years ago.
“As a psychiatrist, I have the privilege of listening to my patients’ stories and being witness to them,” she says.
Part of her job, she continues, is to help people see their life stories from a new angle and help them find ways to change their story going forward.
“And as an author,” she adds, “I’m creating stories, stories that I hope will move people the way I’m moved by my patients’ stories.”
Cohen’s debut fiction, “No Vacancy”, has clearly moved both readers and reviewers.
Published by Groundwood Books, the novel tells the story of Miriam, a Jewish girl from Manhattan who begrudgingly moves to upstate New York when her parents buy a run-down motel there.
The book and its lovely and inspiring take on faith, friendship and family, recently won a Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor and was named a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award middle grade category. Both awards are considered extremely prestigious in the world of children’s literature.
Cohen began writing for children back in 2006 when she decided to take an adult education course on writing picture books. That led her to other writing courses, and eventually to an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She began drafting “No Vacancy” during her second semester of the two-year program, and ultimately incorporated it into her final creative thesis. She worked on the manuscript — revising and rewriting it — for another four years before it was accepted for publication.
The original idea for “No Vacancy” came to Cohen while she was staying at a run-down motel in Hershey, Pa., during a mini family vacation.
“There was a boy hanging around—maybe seven or eight years old—and it turned out he had moved there with his family and they were running the place,” she recalls.
“The boy we met was South Asian, and Hershey is a pretty white town, and I wondered what that was like for him and his family,” Cohen continues. “I had been thinking of writing something from my own Jewish experience, so the boy became an 11-year-old Jewish girl named Miriam.”
While Cohen made a conscious decision to make “No Vacancy” about a Jewish family, she doesn’t write exclusively on Jewish themes.
“I write what comes to me, and sometimes it’s a Jewish story, and sometimes not,” she says.
In fact, her first children’s picture book, to be published in the fall of 2022, is a biography of Mennonite entrepreneur and philanthropist Milton Hershey of milk chocolate fame.
While she awaits the release of that book, Cohen is revising several other picture book manuscripts, writing a new draft of a middle grade novel about baseball and time travel, and researching an undisclosed non-fiction project.
On the days that she is not doing any of that, she is with her patients, listening to them, guiding them and helping them move forward in life.