Two-in-One Notebook Special: Prisoner of Night and Fog Author Anne Blankman and Editor Kristin Rens

The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
Anne Blankman (AB): World War Two has fascinated me ever since I read Anne Frank’s diary as a seventh grader. A few years ago, after having a baby, I realized I was going to be home a lot and wanted to keep my brain well-fed with interesting books. I started reading a nonfiction book by Ronald Hayman about Geli Raubal, Hitler’s half niece who once shared his Munich apartment. Long after I’d finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. What must her life have been like, growing up within the fledgling Nazi Party?

The lure of writing about a girl close to Hitler was irresistible. I wanted the freedom of a fictional main character, though, so Gretchen Müller, my protagonist, was born. She’s a seventeen-year-old student: sensitive, smart, tough, and, at the story’s beginning, a Nazi. Although she calls Hitler “Uncle Dolf,” he’s actually a beloved family friend she’s known since she was little. The set-up seemed easy. But how, I wondered, can I make Gretchen realize what her cherished “uncle” really stands for? How can she break free? I decided that she needs to be confronted with something she cannot ignore—a murder mystery that she must solve, and whose investigation forces her to see certain truths about her family and the Party.

Anne Blankman

Anne Blankman

TWM: Please describe your research process.
AB: Fortunately, I had written my college honors thesis on Adolf Hitler, so I started this project with some knowledge of the subject. I love doing research, and read everything I could get my hands on: biographies, memoirs, psychological profiles, essays, you name it. I studied Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and his early speeches. Understanding his ideas and his method of presenting them was vital. To immerse myself in Gretchen’s mindset, I read Nazi children’s stories such as “The Poisonous Mushroom,” and 1930s articles from Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic newspaper. Primary sources, such as maps and photographs, helped me envision the setting. I watched lots of old video footage, too, including the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” One of my coworkers at the public library branch where I work part-time is the head of our inter-library loan department, and she tracked down several sources that proved to be extremely helpful.

I type all my research notes, dividing them by subject and source so I can easily check details later. Only when my research is complete do I actually begin writing. For Prisoner of Night and Fog, I had about three hundred pages of notes—they were almost as long as the book itself!

Night&Fog_jkt_des6.inddTWM: How was the novel vetted?
AB: HarperCollins has a wonderful copy editing department. My copy editor, Kathryn Silsand, is amazing—she verified countless historical details. I also frequently consulted with a psychology professor, who advised me on the psychological components of my story. For example, at one point my main character is attacked. This professor helped me create the perfect psychological storm of events that would provoke her assailant to lash out at her.

TWM: What was the greatest challenge in writing this? (I can’t imagine it was easy writing about Hitler.)
AB: Writing Hitler as a character was incredibly difficult. It would have been easy to reduce him to a caricature. I felt a responsibility to portray him as accurately as possible, not just because he was a real person, but out of respect for his millions of victims. So I chose to show his many sides that the children of high-ranking Nazis like Gretchen saw in real life: the indulgent honorary uncle, the charismatic manipulator, the rabble-rousing public speaker.

As I mention in my book’s afterword, there is little consensus on Hitler’s personality or his motivation, not even among noted Hitler biographers Ian Kershaw, Joachim Fest, John Toland, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Alan Bullock. Some people think Hitler was evil and believed genocide was right and just, while others think he was a fraud who latched onto the Jews as a convenient scapegoat to band his supporters together and catapult himself into power. Before I began writing, I knew I would have to come to my own conclusions about Hitler or I wouldn’t be able to portray him at all. The more I investigated, the more I became convinced that Hitler was “deliberately” evil—I say deliberately because I think he understood the consequences of his actions.

TWM: What was  your greatest satisfaction in writing this novel?
AB: There’s nothing as exciting as hearing from readers! Just last night, I got an email from a man who read Prisoner of Night and Fog with his teenage grandchildren, and he thanked me for writing a book that appeals to multiple generations. It doesn’t get any better than that.

TWM: What were your favorite books as a teen?
AB: Hmm, do you have an spare hour to listen to me go on and on? I have lots of favorites! If I had to narrow down my choices, though, I’d have to say anything by Philip Pullman; Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Bleak House by Charles Dickens; the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling; The Giver by Lois Lowry; and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

TWM: Who have been the greatest influences on your writing and how/why?
AB: My mother, Lynn Blankman, has been a source of inspiration for me. When I was growing up, I watched her struggle to get published, but she never gave up and after several years of hard work, she achieved her dream and became a middle-grade author. To this day, mom is always my first reader.

TWM: What is your writing process?
AB: With a preschooler, I have to be disciplined and take advantage of every spare minute! On most days, I get up very early and run. That time alone, listening to my book’s playlist, helps me write out the next scene in my head, brainstorm, whatever I need to do that day. I write while my daughter’s at preschool and at night. I know there are writers who can churn out 100 pages in 2 days, but I tend to write smaller amounts 5-6 days a week.

TWM: Goethe’s poem, “Der Erlkoenig”—how did it influence the novel? How/when did you come across it? (It’s my favorite poem of all time. I learned it in my freshman year of high school German and can still recite it by heart. I was a German major undergrad.)
AB: Barbara, I love this poem, too! I stumbled across it while working on my senior thesis in college, when I learned about the Nazis’ infamous “Night and Fog” decree of 1941. According to this decree, Nazis could arrest resistance agents in occupied countries and bring them immediately to special courts in Germany. Essentially, Nazis could whisk away their enemies into “the night and fog,” just as a supernatural being abducts a little boy in “Der Erlkönig,” which is how the decree got its nickname. My editor and I thought the phrase “night and fog” captures the sense of menace and manipulation that we associate with the Nazis—that idea that Hitler, through skillful propaganda, can trick you into no longer seeing what is really there.

TWM: Kristin, let’s now turn to you. What attracted you to this novel?
Kristin Rens (KR): Oh goodness, there was so much that attracted me to this story: The way Anne seamlessly weaves together the historical themes and setting into a compelling mystery thriller. And the way the romance between the protagonists evolves so believably over the course of the book—even though one of them is a Nazi and one is a Jew, and being together could literally get them killed. And of course Anne’s writing, which is lovely and assured—she really has an incredible gift for creating atmosphere (and suspense!). But what made this book truly special, for me, is that it offers a unique perspective on this era—as we all know, there are a ton of books out there set in this place and time. But Prisoner of Night and Fog felt like it was really bringing something fresh and interesting to the table—the story was told from a point of view that we haven’t really seen before. When the story opens, Gretchen is a Nazi, and embraces Nazi beliefs. And Anne accomplishes the unthinkable: She makes us understand and care about this character.

TWM: I understand there’s a sequel. Was that part of the deal? What prompted it?
KR: All the credit there goes to Anne, I’m afraid! She already had ideas for future stories about Gretchen, which her agent shared with me when Prisoner of Night and Fog was sent on submission. Over the course of Prisoner, readers come to care for Gretchen and Daniel so deeply that it felt natural that Anne’s next book would be a sequel.

TWM: What has been the reaction to the Prisoner of Night and Fog?
KR: The reaction to the book has been very enthusiastic thus far—it’s received several very positive trade reviews, including a star from Publishers Weekly, and also received a BFYA nomination. And just this month Anne was just named one of PW’s Flying Starts, which is very exciting! Too, it seems like the word of mouth on Prisoner has been very strong, with bloggers and other readers who have read and loved the book telling others about it—which is what we always hope for in a book!

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Report from Las Vegas | Association of Jewish Libraries Annual Conference, 2014

As the first-ever recipient of the Groner/Wikler Scholarship, I was financially able to attend last week’s Association of Jewish Libraries annual conference, this year held in Las Vegas. Thank you to AJL and Kar-Ben for this wonderful award!

Over the course of three days, the conference offered about 30 talks, presentations, and panels. Topics ranged from “Women of Valor: Female Resistance to the Nazis” to “What Are We Reading?: The Latest and Greatest in Jewish Adult Fiction” to “The Koren Talmud.” There were also several committee meetings and an exhibit area.

Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner Presentations

Neal Bascomb, Laurel Snyder, and Catia Chien

Neal Bascomb, Laurel Snyder, and Catia Chien

I volunteered to shepherd Neal Bascomb, STBA winner for his teen nonfiction book, The Nazi Hunters, around the conference. I found his approach to the topic, his research, and his writing style to be inspiring. Neal and STBA award winners for younger readers, Laurel Snyder and Catia Chien, for their picture book, The Longest Night, spoke at an after-lunch panel on Monday, June 23. Patricia Polacco, winner in the older reader category with The Blessing Cup, was not able to attend the conference. However, she sent her Simon & Schuster publicist and a poignant video.

Aimee Lurie and Patricia Polacco's Blessing Cup

Aimee Lurie and Patricia Polacco’s Blessing Cup

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, chaired by Aimee Lurie, followed with their presentation of the criteria for judging, showcasing books that either exemplified a Jewish value or fell short of it. These values included:

  • Accuracy
  • Age appropriateness
  • Authenticity
  • Depth of Jewish content
  • Positive focus and values
  • Sensitivity

We also covered trends we saw in the 2013/2014 submissions. These included:

  • Science fiction and fantasy
  • Gender issues
  • Golems
  • Common Core

We had lively discussions, in particular, about sensitivity. Lurie introduced new committee members and the new chair, Diane Rauchwerger.

Monday night banquet features Jo Taylor Marshall and STBA award winners

Jo Taylor Marshall

Jo Taylor Marshall

Jo Taylor Marshall, daughter of All-of-a-Kind Family series author Sydney Taylor, spoke to a riveted audience about the genesis of these books and the real-life personalities on which the stories were based.

Awards were presented to Bascomb, Snyder, Chien, Polacco (accepted on her behalf by Simon & Schuster), and to Joni Sussman, Kar-Ben publisher, who accepted on behalf of her honor-winning authors and illustrators. (For a full list of award winners, click here.) Elisabeth Leyson accepted the honor award for older readers on behalf of her husband, author of The Boy on the Wooden Box. Leon Leyson passed away before the book hit the stands. Mrs. Leyson’s speech was particularly moving.

Tuesday panels on Jewish children’s books

Ann Redisch Stampler, Mira Reisberg, Sylvia Rouss, Joni Sussman

Ann Redisch Stampler, Mira Reisberg, Sylvia Rouss, Joni Sussman

Joni Sussman, agent Mira Reisberg of Hummingbird Literary, and authors Sylvia Rouss and Ann Redisch Stampler gave a panel presentation: “All-of-a-Kind Family, Not Anymore/High Holidays and Beyond.”

Mira Reisberg posed the question to the room full of librarians: What books do you wish you had for your collections? This sparked a wonderful conversation about gaps in collections, such as YA books for boy readers, holiday books beyond Hanukkah, and Israeli biographies.

I gave a talk about “Building a Credible World: The Importance of History in Jewish Children’s Books.” I presented an eight-point checklist and discussed authors who handled history well and those who didn’t. If you’re interested in the presentation, contact me at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net.

Next year’s conference will be in the Washington, DC area. Writers, please consider coming! Librarians affect your book sales since they are the ones recommending them to their patrons.


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Two-in-One-Notebook-Special | Schools of Hope Author Norman H. Finkelstein and Editor Carolyn P. Yoder

SCHOOLS_FINAL_COVER.inddToday The Whole Megillah poses questions to author Norman H. Finkelstein and Calkins Creek editor Carolyn P. Yoder about their new book, Schools of Hope.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Thanks, Norman and Carolyn, for participating in today’s interviews. Norman, let’s start with you: What attracted you to the topic?
Norman H. Finkelstein (NHF): I never knew about Rosenwald or the Rosenwald schools until around fifteen years ago. I was researching an earlier book, Heeding the Call: Jewish Voices in America’s Civil Rights Struggle and came across the Rosenwald story. I was immediately taken not only with its Jewish philanthropic aspect but with the heroic and selfless response of African American communities throughout the South. I devoted part of a chapter to that story but always felt that the topic deserved a separate book. At the time there was not a single children’s book about Rosenwald and the schools. Since then, Dear Mr. Rosenwald, a fictionalized picture book by Carole Boston Weatherford appeared. But being the nonfiction devotee that I am, I still saw the need for a factual book. My original approach to Carolyn was with a typical YA proposal. Over time, that morphed into today’s “older picture book” format which I think works very well for today’s readers.

TWM: Carolyn, what attracted you to this story?
Carolyn P. Yoder (CPY): I never heard about Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald schools, but I was immediately interested. I knew that this was a story that needed to be told and one that kids — in fact everyone! — needed to know. Not just for Rosenwald and the schools and Booker T. Washington, but also for the passion of community action and the power of education. These are subjects that have resonance today. I look for stories that are not just about the past but are relevant to kids today. That will make kids think — about their past as well as about their lives — and the future. By reading Schools of Hope, kids will be introduced to many people who were eager to right many wrongs and come together to secure better futures.

TWM: Norman, please comment on your research process.
NHF: To be honest, I like researching more than actual writing so I spend an inordinate amount of time trolling through already-published material, in print and online. I am amazed by the amount and quality of research material that is available if one only knows to ask the appropriate questions. I’m old fashioned so I take my notes on 4×6 index cards. I like to print out newspaper and journal articles I find on line and in libraries. Being close to Boston I have access to several university libraries and I take advantage of inter-library loan through the library at Hebrew College where I teach. There have been several books about Rosenwald schools written over the years which proved to be very helpful. Little, however, was available about Rosenwald the man, until his grandson, Dr. Peter Ascoli, wrote the monumental biography of his grandfather. Peter was also gracious enough to write the foreword to my book. As I got deeper into the subject, I became aware of individuals who were involved in Rosenwald schools study or preservation and contacted them. As a writer, I am always appreciative of the support and generosity of librarians and archivists and am not shy of pestering them. Only when I have semi-completed my research do I actually begin writing. I start with a flexible chapter outline which is continually subject to change. With my notes, articles and index cards for the specific chapter in front of me, I treat each chapter as a separate entity with a beginning, middle and end. When one chapter is complete (at least before Carolyn begins her work), I turn to the next one.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
NHF: I guess my biggest hurdle was deciding on focus. Should the book be a straight biography of Julius Rosenwald? (Hence my original title for the book, The Man Who Built Schools.) It was Carolyn who made me see the light and ultimately led the successful fight for the title change. Also, since I had completed a nearly 20,000-word YA biography, I then had to figure out a way to cut huge sections of the text to make the book more appropriate as an “older picture book,” My editor, Carolyn Yoder, deserves a lot of credit for shaping this book into what it is.

TWM: Carolyn, were there any particular challenges in producing the  book?
CPY: The story was hard to organize — it really covered so many subjects and so many people. I think when Norman first submitted the manuscript it was too long and needed a sharper focus. The reader really needed to know Rosenwald — what made him tick — and why was he so influenced by Booker T. Washington. The reader also needed to meet the many people who benefited from the schools, the many people who played active roles creating the schools , as well as the many people who have kept the legacies of the schools alive. Also, the reader needed to understand the context of the times — historical and cultural context is key in writing about the past.  As I said, a lot to cover! Also, the balance of visual and textual elements was important, so great care was spent in laying out the book and placing the photographs and artifacts.

History is all about the human condition. Ultimately people of the past are no different from people of today. Passion is not restricted by time! Hopefully, when young and old readers realize this, they will fall in love with history.

TWM: Norman, what was your greatest satisfaction with this book?
NHF: The greatest satisfaction was seeing how beautifully the book turned out. I am absolutely floored by the design and layout thanks to the skill and imagination of the book’s designer, Tim Gillner. While I’m at it I also need to give credit to the Boyds Mills crew for their attention to detail. Of course, I am delighted that the reviews so far have all been positive and that the book is finding its way into the hands of readers who will learn about the Rosenwald schools. When people ask me what I do, I tell them, “I fill holes.” This book, hopefully, will help young readers fill a hole in their understanding of philanthropy, African American education and the Jewish connection.

TWM: To what do you attribute Rosenwald’s altruistic leanings?
NHF: I credit his family, his upbringing and later, the teachings of his rabbi. Even as a young man, Rosenwald understood the importance of philanthropy and the Jewish ethic of Tikkun Olam — Repairing the World. When he was just starting out in the business world he told a friend, “The aim of my life is to have an income of $15,000 a year-$5,000 to be used for my personal expenses, $5,000 to be laid aside and $5,000 to go to charity.” He also believed that one should “give while you live” and purposely instructed that all the money in the Julius Rosenwald Fund had to be spent within 25 years of his death.

TWM: What was the reaction of Rosenwald’s peers toward his program? Did he face any backlash?
NHF: At least publicly, Rosenwald had the support of his wealthy business friends. He induced them to donate to the Tuskegee Institute and brought them by the trainload to the South to see the new schools. It was the time of separate but equal and his support of schools for African American kids was not considered a negative by others. (Although many probably disregarded his insistence that these schools had to be supported by all in the community, both black and white.)

TWM: Please comment on the photo research.
NHF: Most of my books are illustrated with photographs that I have myself researched. I love the photo researching. I think the right photographs with the appropriate captions add much to the text. Many of the photos in this book were taken in the early years of the twentieth century and their quality left much to be desired. I think the design folks at Boyds Mills did a fantastic job in rescuing these photos so they could be reproduced in the book.

TWM: What  do you hope readers will take away from the  book?
CPY: I hope kids will appreciate the incredible spirit and passion of the people of Schools of Hope — that all their hard work that happened many years ago has so many wonderful and important consequences today and tomorrow.

TWM: Norman, what are you working on now?
NHF: I am, as the old vaudevillians used to say, currently “at liberty.” I have a few proposals bouncing around waiting for a perceptive publisher to pick them up.

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Guest Post | Seminar on Jewish Story Report, Part Four by Sheila Lewis

An All-of-a Kind Seminar on Jewish Story

In a four-part series, Sheila Lewis reports on her experiences at the recent Seminar on Jewish Story, sponsored by The Whole Megillah LLC, together with the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Nora Gold, Yona Zeldis McDonough, and Erika Dreifus of the Fiction Panel

Nora Gold, Yona Zeldis McDonough, and Erika Dreifus of the Fiction Panel

The final panel came just as my brain was reaching its saturation point. The breaks were filled with conversation, book buying, and a tour of Temple Emanu-El’s awesome library, but no chance to clear my mind. Fortunately, the fiction panelists perked me up. The versatile children’s and adult author, Yona Zeldis McDonough, fiction editor at Lilith, shared funny observations from “A Wedding In Great Neck,” and offered pearls of Lilith history. “We really welcome submissions.”

Nora Gold, editor of the online journal, shared her two hats, one, as the “social worker or professor, the community-minded editor,” reading works of fellow writers with her [editorial] group, and the second as a writer, solitary, more internally focused. She wears both hats well though not always equally. Her recent book, Fields of Exile: Anti Israelism on Campus, has gained notoriety and attention, and promises to be a timely and engaging read.

When Erika Dreifus, poet, essayist, short story writer, and academic, asserted, “we write to make sense of experience, it need not be directly lived,” I was hooked. I wanted to understand what she meant. She explained that fragments of others’ stories have fueled her writing. Her grandfather was classified as an “enemy alien” before he received U.S. citizenship. He was a trained baker, but didn’t talk much. Erika relied on her grandmother, and on research about POWs in Iowa, to render his story. She’s written and published widely, including in Southern Indiana Review and an Anthology of Spiritual Writing. Her short story collection, Quiet Americans, offers a fascinating peek into the lives of others, not directly lived by the author.

The fiction panelists gave names of several publications to send Jewish-themed writing to, including Prism, the interdisciplinary Holocaust journal.

Barbara Krasner, who quietly and commendably moderated all the Seminar’s panels, gave each speaker equal time to present, read aloud, and answer audience questions. They offered tales of wisdom, bold truth, remembrance, deliverance, forgetting, humor, wonder, longing, spirituality, non-fiction stranger than fiction,  imagination and creativity. I felt so blessed to spend the day at the Seminar on Jewish Story and to recharge mind and heart. Although I consider myself primarily a children’s writer, the Seminar opened doors in my thinking. And, I have a stack of fabulous books to read that promise to be worthy of distraction and discourse.

About Sheila Lewis

Sheila Lewis writes for children and has written educational curriculum for national organizations. She teaches meditation and related topics at the JCC in Manhattan, teaches in several Hebrew Schools, where she also runs Jewish children’s book clubs

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Four-in-One Notebook Special: A Conversation with Capstone Editors and Authors

Capstone develops nonfiction titles for the school and library market. Here The Whole Megillah presents a dialogue with the editors and authors of two titles, A World War II Timeline and Hitler in Paris, which carry Jewish themes.

wwii timeline capstone

Title: A World War II Timeline (Smithsonian, War Timelines series)

The Whole Megillah (TWM):  How do you choose the writer? What qualifications do you look for?
Kristen Mohn, Capstone Senior Editor (KM): Elizabeth Raum is one of my go-to writers for history topics. She delves into the research, makes sure she gets every detail right, and presents it to the reader in a gripping way.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
KM: Read widely. Having a good core knowledge of history topics is important, and reading on various topics is bound to reveal new book ideas. You may find yourself asking—why haven’t I heard more about this topic? If it interests you, it will be interesting to a young reader, too, if you find the “hook” that will reel them in.

TWM: What draws you to editing children’s books?
KM: It’s all I ever wanted to do. Reading a great book during your developmental years is a transformative experience. When I was young, I remember being in a daze after finishing certain books, knowing that I’d never look at the world in the same way again. To help deliver that experience as an editor is incredibly rewarding.

TWM: What did you like to read as a kid?
KM: Real-life stories. Stories about kids “like me,” or conversely, kids or people whose lives were nothing like mine. It was fascinating to me how many ways there were to live a life. If it really happened to someone, I wanted to read about it.

TWM: Thanks, Kristen. Let’s turn now to author Elizabeth Raum. Elizabeth,  what was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
Elizabeth Raum (ER): World War II encompassed the entire world and took place over the course of six years. The greatest challenge was deciding which dates and events to include in the timeline given the 32-page limit and the reading level. I was also aware that many readers were approaching it without prior knowledge. So I wanted to include major battles, pivotal moments, and the most powerful world leaders, as well as explanatory notes. My job was to make difficult choices. Happily, historians at the Smithsonian concurred with my choices.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction? Did anything in your research or writing process surprise you?
ER: A timeline book is like a puzzle. It’s always rewarding to find that the pieces fit together! Although I was aware of the suffering of the Polish and Russian people, I was reminded again of how long those sieges lasted and of the untiring efforts of the Polish Resistance.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
ER: Visit historical sites, read history, watch documentaries, and frequent museums. That’s where you’ll find the fascinating details and sidelights that make history come alive for young readers.

TWM: What draws you to writing children’s books?
ER: When I was a child, books carried me to times and places I could never have visited in person. I want to do the same for my readers. History is exciting. It’s up to children’s writers to interpret complex events and ideas in ways that children can understand and in a manner that inspires them to read more.

TWM: What did you like to read as a kid?
ER: Like many children, I went through phases. When I was in 4th grade, I read nothing but biographies. By 5th grade, I moved on to historical fiction. I was fortunate that the librarian at my small public library let me browse the adult section, as well as the children’s shelves. I read whatever caught and held my attention. It was a fantastic education!

Title: Hitler in Paris (Captured World History)

hitler in parisTWM: How did you come up with the concept of the importance of photography to history?
Catherine Neitge, Capstone Senior Editor (CN): Here’s a post from our Capstone Connect blog, written by Amber Ross, Capstone’s Product Planner, who came up with the idea for the Captured History series:

“There really is no magical formula to coming up with great books for kids. Sometimes it’s the converging of various thoughts and trends that sprouts a seed of an idea. Like the day I was trudging through state curriculum standards and came upon one that called for students to analyze primary sources, including photographs. I’ve always had an interest in photography, so this piqued my curiosity. I started thinking: What if we asked readers to analyze famous photographs? A book could look at a famous photo and discuss what was happening in the world at the time, the events that led to the photo being shot, the impact the photo had, etc. And just like that, our series was born. (OK, I might have glossed over the actual hours spent toiling over defining the vision for the series and the months editors, designers, and photo researchers spent producing the books, but you get the picture.)”

In an email, Amber goes on to say: “The photo I instantly thought of was Migrant Mother and how cool it would be to do a book on it. Such an iconic image of the Great Depression and a great way to jumpstart a discussion on the topic. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and it’s so true—there’s more to most photos than meets the eye, and why not do a series of books to explain all of that?”

TWM: How did you choose the titles? Are there more titles forthcoming in the series?
CN: We started by choosing iconic photos with a U.S. focus: Migrant Mother from the Great Depression, Little Rock Girl and Birmingham 1963 from the civil rights movement, Mathew Brady’s Civil War photos, Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office after President Kennedy’s assassination, among them. Our most recent books took a worldwide view for an even wider audience: Hitler in Paris, Tank Man, Summiting Everest, and The Blue Marble.

Our two newest books, which will be published in spring 2015, are focused on the West and will feature the brilliant photos of American Indians by Edward S. Curtis and the iconic East and West photo by Andrew Russell of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

TWM: How do you choose the writer? What qualifications do you look for?
CN: We have a group of excellent writers who have worked on Compass Point Books titles for many years. The Captured History writers have proven themselves to be excellent writers and researchers with a love of history. Don Nardo, who wrote Hitler in Paris, is a historian as well as an author. He is perfect for the Captured History titles and has written many of them, including the award-winning Migrant Mother from the first season.

TWM: With the focus on photography, does this series present any challenges?
CN: Since we are telling the story of the photographer as well as the featured photo, we always include photos of the photographer. Sometimes they are hard to find.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
CN: The best nonfiction history writers have a passion for history and keep up-to-date on new research. It’s amazing how much new information surfaces.

TWM: What draws you to editing children’s books?
CN: Children’s books should be as interesting, factual, and error-free as books for adults. I draw on my background as a longtime journalist to provide children with just such books. Plus I love history and enjoy working on our books with historical topics.

TWM: What did you like to read as a kid?
CN: I come from a family of avid readers and spent a lot of time at the library as a child. I was a huge fan of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. I also loved Nancy Drew, books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, all sorts of historical fiction, biographies of famous women, mysteries, and on and on.

TWM: Thanks, Catherine. So now we come to Don Nardo, author of more than 400 books for young readers. Don, what was your greatest challenge in writing Hitler in Paris?
Don Nardo (DN): I’m not sure that “challenge” would be the right word to use here, in large part because Nazi Germany and World War II are two of my areas of special interest as a historian.

However, as I do in all my nonfiction books, I had a distinct aim in mind when approaching the project. This was to tell the story on two levels—the first one being a general overview of the events and personalities involved, structured fairly simply in order to acquaint our young readers with information that it is assumed they are not yet familiar with. The second level is an undercurrent of sporadic details that are little known or unknown to all but a few scholars and World War II buffs. The details are fascinating, striking, ironic, disturbing, and/or compelling in some other way. This undercurrent of little-known, intriguing material is what makes such a book interesting and absorbing on the one hand, and unique from all other books on that topic in the market on the other hand.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction? Did anything in your research or writing process surprise you?
DN: My greatest satisfaction in writing this and my other history books for young people has been the knowledge that I am providing a large series of history texts that exist in libraries across the country and that can be referenced by both young people and adults who are looking for accurate, up-to-date, and entertaining examinations of various areas of human history. I can’t say that anything surprised me during the research, but that is likely because I was already conversant with this material. Still, when writing books in historical areas that I know less well, I frequently find facts that do surprise me.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
DN: The person should have either of two things (or both, hopefully). First, he or she should have at least one subject area—whether it be a historical one, a scientific one, a literary one, or whatever—in which he or she is very conversant. Editors often look for writers who are knowledgeable in the subject areas of books that they are planning to do. Second, the person should become as proficient as possible in doing research. Many people have little notion of how important that is. There are dozens of skills and tricks that one can learn that will make him or her a more skilled researcher. One major reason that I have been able to make a full-time living as a nonfiction writer for a quarter of a century is that I write books fast; and in large part that is because I’m highly skilled in doing research. In a related vein, the person needs to be well-organized too.  (Often, that’s half the battle!)

TWM: What draws you to writing children’s books?
DN: In my case, I did not set out to write young adult and children’s books. Back in the 1980s I was writing screenplays and teleplays, including work for Warner Bros. and ABC TV. (I already had a degree in history, but at the time I only rarely accepted history-writing assignments.) One day I got a call from a packager/publisher in Boston (about 60 miles from where I live) who said they saw my name on a list of good writers in the region. They explained that they were in the midst of turning out a new American history text for junior-high level and they were in desperate need of a writer with a background in history to write four of the book’s chapters. It took me about three days to do each chapter and the pay was good, so I had no regrets. To my surprise, however, a mere month later, I got a call from a publisher of young adult books in California, who offered me a book. The publisher liked the manuscript so much, they asked me to write two or three more, and before I knew what hit me, I was getting calls from other publishers in the young adult and children’s nonfiction markets. Soon I was turning out 15 to 20 books a year for those markets and always booked ahead with projects. In a sense, I became hooked, partly because there was plenty of work, but more so because I saw an opportunity. I decided to make a mission of providing reliable, accurate, up-to-date history texts for young people.

TWM: Thank you—Kristen, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Don—for a great interview! 

Submitting to Capstone

We are always looking for new history writers! Writers can submit the following: a resume, cover letter, up to 3 writing samples. Mail them to: Editorial Director, Capstone Nonfiction, 1710 Roe Crest Drive, North Mankato, MN 56003.

We also have this info outlined on our submissions page

Book Giveaway in return for your comments

Be one of the two first responders to this post and receive a free copy of the A World War II Timeline or Hitler in Paris. One of each title will be awarded.

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Guest Post | Seminar on Jewish Story Report, Part Three by Sheila Lewis

An All-of-a Kind Seminar on Jewish Story

In a four-part series, Sheila Lewis reports on her experiences at the recent Seminar on Jewish Story, sponsored by The Whole Megillah LLC, together with the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Ellen Cassedy

Ellen Cassedy

The memoir panelists spoke of giving voice to those who can’t speak. In We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, Ellen Cassedy takes readers on an amazing journey. She told us the equally fascinating story of her firsthand research in a country where only 6% of the country’s 240,000 Jews survived the Holocaust.  Though many questions may never be fully answered, like how do “successor generations, moral beings, overcome a bloody past,” still, Ellen felt there was some hope. “60,000 people came to a book fair where my book was featured.” A good memoir is “up close and universal…an intimate perch to cover a wider world…Art lies in blending the big and small.”

Nancy K. Miller and Ellen Cassedy

Nancy K. Miller and Ellen Cassedy

Nancy K. Miller’s What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past starts as a detective memoir as the author attempts to piece together her family’s untold past from clues in a handful of objects, including a land deed found after her father’s death for a property in Palestine, and a postcard from Argentina. As a third generation New Yorker and assimilated Jew, Nancy’s journey back generations to Eastern Europe and Russia brings her some closure, peace of mind, and renewal, but not an end to questions, or journeys, as new connections evolve.

Tahneer Oksman

Tahneer Oksman

Tahneer Oksman’s graphic memoir is a fresh and academic twist on this genre, as Tahneer probes identity issues around Jewish women in the comics.  She asks “how come boys get to keep their noses” (title of upcoming book) with tongue in cheek. I look forward to reading her keen and funny observations when the book comes out.

About Sheila Lewis

Sheila Lewis writes for children and has written educational curriculum for national organizations. She teaches meditation and related topics at the JCC in Manhattan, teaches in several Hebrew Schools, where she also runs Jewish children’s book clubs

Final installment in the series: Reportage on the fiction panel: Erika Dreifus, Yona Zeldis McDonough, and Nora Gold.

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Editor’s Notebook | Michelle Caplan, Editor-in-Chief, Fig Tree Books

FigTreeBooks_LogoThe Whole Megillah (TWM): What is Fig Tree Books and what is your specific role?
Michelle Caplan (MC): Fig Tree Books is a new literary publishing house founded by Fredric Price, a successful entrepreneur in the orphan drug industry who wants to publish high quality fiction about the American Jewish experience (AJE).  We will publish the very best contemporary novels as well as out-of-print classics on the AJE that we believe will resonate with today’s readers. Something that sets us apart from other publishers is that we accept unsolicited manuscripts as well as submissions from agents.

As the editor-in-chief, I review, analyze, and acquire our books from agents and direct submissions.  I mentor our authors on all phases of development and revision and edit all of the manuscripts.  Working closely with the writers is absolutely my favorite part of the job but I am also deeply involved with production, sales, marketing and promotion since I’m the one who knows the books and why they will appeal to audiences.

TWM: Why the focus on the American Jewish experience?
MC: We are building a brand and the best way to do that is to have a clear focus.  As we are American Jews, we are beginning with the area we know best: American Jewish fiction.  The American Jewish experience is a rich and broad category with a long history of compelling literature as well as an area that many talented contemporary writers are dynamically exploring. Our goal is to make Fig Tree the first place readers turn to in order to find new voices as well as classics that will still appeal to current readers.

TWM: How will your books be promoted?
MC: Part of the opportunity we see is to create disruption in the publishing industry, especially in promotion.  We will use a combination of both traditional and innovative digital social media that is highly targeted to readers of literary fiction.  Our in-house staff is supplemented by a well-known creative group of promotion experts. The promotion for each book will be tailored to its intended audience and specific content and we will continue promotion through an extended launch period.

We are pleased to have PGW as our distributor for printed books; their experienced team will provide comprehensive distribution of our titles with book retailers and wholesalers across the country.  Constellation will distribute our e-books to all the major online retailers.

TWM: What are you looking for in a manuscript?
MC: I am looking for what every editor wants—original and memorable storytelling that changes the way I look at the world.  Even though we are focused on the American Jewish experience, we are open to all kids of stories: epic, weighty novels that make you think; quirky contemporary stories; accessible literary fiction; life-affirming, emotional narratives; cross-over mysteries; classics that could change your life—as long as they share an authenticity, integrity and originality at their core.

As a reader, I have eclectic taste.  I adore distinctive voice-driven fiction with brilliant prose, compelling characters and a provocative central question that pulses through the narrative.  I want to be as desperate to turn the page as I am drawn to linger over the prose.  I am not averse to the unusual or the provocative and novels that aren’t afraid to explore something different always stand out.

Passion in publishing is important.  To buy a book, I need to fall in love with it.  I am always on the lookout for talent that we can establish and grow here at Fig Tree.  We want to find authors we are not only excited to read, but also whom we’d be thrilled to promote.  I am publishing fantastic novels on our first list and hope to acquire work for our next lists from writers who can convey something important to me.

TWM: Which authors do you most admire and why?
MC: The writers I admire are too many to mention.  I read all day and night and find it so difficult to pinpoint just a few.  I admire some authors for the diversity of their careers and their ability to reinvent themselves with every book.  I am also a huge fan of authors who can sustain a series and a visionary world over many books.  There are many authors that I will read everything they write.

I admire language that fuels my imagination, great structure, intricate plot, scale and breadth of story, humor and compassion and for getting me hooked.  There are so many authors who weave strong stories on the AJE that I would love to publish at Fig Tree.  I tend to fall in love with the writers with whom I am collaborating, so right now our first list authors are the ones who have captured my heart.

TWM: What is the single biggest mistake you see in manuscripts?
MC: I read many manuscript submissions every week that are good but not exceptional.  What grabs me when I read is the sense that a novel knows what it is doing, where it is going, and why.  I think that voice and tone are so important in writing and let you know that you are in capable hands.  When a writer becomes intimidated by the needs of her narrative, and doesn’t stay committed to what is essential for the novel at every level—scene, chapter, character arc, structure—I quickly begin to pull away and question the characters’ actions and the writer’s storytelling ability.  Each story element of the novel must match the need for story development, logical association, progression of ideas and emotional context and must be nurtured and integrated from beginning to end.

TWM: What do you think are the most valuable skills you bring as an editor?
MC: Behind every great book is a strong editor.  Editing is a fine art and becoming more of a lost art in the current publishing climate.  I am a writer’s editor—a true collaborative partner with both literary sensibility and a strong understanding of the craft of editing at a story level.  I truly enjoy working with writers with different views, levels of experience and skill sets and know how to establish a rhythm with my writers as we shape the work for the intended audience.  I have a comprehensive vision, an eye for detail and stylistic opportunities and will sweat every detail with my writers.  I always look for the unique beauty in a writer’s work and have the skills, experience and passion to be true to the writer’s vision and help the writer to fulfill it.  I will not change what makes a book original in order to force it into a mold.

Not only do I have extensive experience with developmental editing, substantive editing, and script doctoring, as a ghostwriter and coach, I have the interest and ability to work with writers from initial concept to bound book.  Because of this, I’m not afraid to commit to a book that needs work.  If I am sold on a book, I know that I can work with the author to bring it to life and make it soar and I love to do that.

TWM: Why should authors submit to Fig Tree Books?
MC: In this declining sales market, the creative editorial role is suffering as are the marketing efforts for the majority of books. Our authors will have the benefit of an old-fashioned publishing house with an extremely forward-thinking promotional team.   I celebrate the author-editor relationship and at Fig Tree, I have support to practice the quintessential role of editor—reading, analyzing and editing the manuscripts.  Selling books is important to us but we absolutely care about the books and writers we are bringing out. We welcome the opportunity to find adventurous literature not only from established authors but new sources.  As a new and smaller house, our focus is on authenticity and innovation.


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