The Jewish Press recently spoke with her.
The Jewish Press: Have you been writing for many years?
Gussie Levine: I’ve always loved writing, but it’s only the last couple of years that I started writing a book. As a volunteer I attended the head start program, an intergenerational program where preschool-aged children got to know grandparents. [I] spend some time together [with them] as a surrogate grandmother with the other members of the group from FountainView. We listened as the teachers read stories to the children, and they were nice stories. But I felt that I could do something better, and that’s what started me to write.
I also love to write poetry, and I write for FountainView’s newsletter.
Can you tell us about your first book?
I wrote my first book when I was 96. The book is about twin boys who play in the park and don’t like the fact that everyone doesn’t get along. So they find a way to put the mean people behind a wall. That’s the name of the book, The Wall that Grew and Grew. As more people act naughty they get put behind the wall, but eventually the wall gets so high that it shuts out the sun from the people on the good side. So the boys decide to be nice to the naughty people, and then they would be nice to everybody else.
The story shows children how they can avoid behaving a certain way and how they can all get along far better if they act nicely toward each other. The golden rule: you be nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.
How about your second book?
My second book was written when I was 98. It just got published now, after I turned 99. This book is called The Miracle Leaf. I don’t know why it happens but the trees in the fall are so beautiful. The thought of these beautiful leaves falling to the ground and becoming mulch led me to think about the story of one leaf that didn’t want to be part of the pile and become mulch. This leaf stays on the tree until it falls at the right time for a child to find it and bring it home. The children bring it home and plant it in a pot, and it miraculously begins to grow.
The mother tells her children that they should make a wish on the leaf and try to share the happiness they feel from the leaf growing with others.
Did anyone work on the books with you?
Well, I wrote them, but my daughter [Susan Lukin] did the illustrations of my books. She used to be an art teacher, and she does very nice drawings that really make my books look beautiful.
What would you say is the biggest difference between being a child nowadays and being a child when you grew up?
When I watch my great-grandchildren, they have play dates arranged and get taken everywhere by car. I grew up in Manhattan; we used to walk everywhere. We had no school busses; we would walk to school. We spent a lot of time in libraries because the libraries were around the corner.
My grandchildren play soccer and little leagues. My brothers used to play stickball in the street, and I would play jacks on the stoop. I was taught how to knit and sew. No televisions; we didn’t even have a telephone.
Is there a message you are trying to convey with your stories?
The message in both books is that I wanted people to be happy because I’m happy. My happiness can be traced back to my family. I had a good family, and we used to do a lot of things together. I like people, but I don’t push myself on them. I’m quiet. I like people because there’s something in everybody.
What do your grandchildren and great-grandchildren think about your books?
Well, the first book I dedicated to my great-grandchildren and this one to my three children. They’re very pleased; it’s nice to have a book dedicated to you.
Do you have plans to write another book?
For now I’m still working on selling this one. All of the proceeds from the book are donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Every penny from both of my books I send to St. Jude’s in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a research hospital for children who have cancer. They never turn a child away. Last year I was able to send them a $1,132 check from the [proceeds of the] first book, and my goal this time is $1,200.