Author’s Notebook | Kathy Kacer, World War II and Holocaust Fiction & Nonfiction Author

cover-secretofgabisdresserThe Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first discover you wanted to be a writer?
Kathy Kacer (KK): I always loved writing. As a kid, I wrote poetry, short stories, songs, you name it. I kept journals and still have the ones I wrote as a teenager. I sometimes go back and read them when I’m struggling to capture the voice of a young girl. I never thought about actually becoming a “writer.” But during a leave from my “real” job as a psychologist, I decided to try and write a story about my mother who had survived the war in hiding. That eventually became my first book, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser. It was only after that publication that I thought about this as a career.

TWM: I understand your parents were Holocaust survivors. How did that affect your worldview? How does that affect what you write?
KK: Being the child of Holocaust survivors has influenced every part of my life. I grew up not only in a family of survivors, but also in a community of survivors, many of whom spoke openly about their experiences during the Holocaust. I was incredibly curious about their lives and wanted to hear more and more. And I grew up passionate about that history and determined to write those stories down.

TWM: Some editors have said, “No more Holocaust stories.” What’s your take on that?
KK: My primary goal is to write compelling stories for young readers. And I believe that there will always be a market for these good stories. Mine happen to be set during the Second World War and the Holocaust. But they are universal in their themes of survival, struggle, courage, tenacity of spirit, etc. So as long as the stories are gripping and the themes are universal, I think you can write about anything, even the Holocaust, and there will always be a market.

TWM: What did you like to read while growing up?
KK: I guess it’s no surprise that I loved to read historical fiction as a kid. I read Margaret Mitchell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk — pretty ambitious stuff for a teen.

cover-shanghaiescapeTWM: How do you prepare to do research? What is your process for note-taking, etc.?
KK: I do start off by reading everything there is to read on the topic that I am writing about — the Shanghai Ghetto, the St. Louis, Terezin. I read adult non-fiction, historical fiction, etc. Since I am often writing about a real person, I am constantly thinking about the questions that I will ask that person in light of all the reading that I have done. When I finally meet with the “subject” of my story, I am well-prepared with the history and with my questions. I don’t record my interviews. I take copious notes, inserting bits of dialogue (as the survivor recalls conversations), and key moments that will come together in the story that I will be writing. No matter how many questions I ask — and I ask a lot!! — as soon as I sit down to write, I realize all the things I failed to ask. So I go back for more interviewing. If I count up the hours of interviews that I conduct with one person, it probably adds up to about a hundred per book.

TWM: What challenges you the most in your writing?
KK: I think the thing that challenges most of us who write about real people in a real time is to maintain the delicate balance between staying true to this important history while trying to create a story that engages the audience.

TWM: What is your greatest satisfaction in your writing?
KK: I love the entire writing process. I love researching the history; I love interviewing survivors; I love creating the story and making sure that it is engaging and informative. I probably don’t like the re-writing part as much as creating the first draft. But writing in general is a joy and a passion.

TWM: Of all the books you’ve written to date, do you have a favorite? Why?
KK: I have to confess that this is a question that kids ask me all the time. But after 18 books, it’s a tough one to answer. I will say that because The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser was my first book and was a story about my mother, it holds a special place in my heart.

TWM: What book do you wish you’d written?
KK: There are two books that come to mind. The first is I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein. I often think about writing about my own personal experience of this, but I’m not sure how to do it justice. Bernice certainly did in this exquisite book. The second book that I wish I had written is The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer — also a Holocaust story. I read this sweeping historical fiction a few years ago and was mesmerized by the story and by her beautiful writing style. It made me wish that I wrote like that!

cover magician of auschwitzTWM: Please tell us about your new book, The Magician of Auschwitz?
KK: The Magician of Auschwitz. Another remarkable story! For some time I had wanted to write about Herbert Levin who had been known as Nivelli the Magician. But I couldn’t find a way into the story that would touch young readers. And then — through a whole bunch of circumstances and connections — I was introduced to Werner Reich. Werner had been imprisoned in Auschwitz as a young teen and was a bunk mate of Nivelli. It was Nivelli who introduced Werner to magic. In meeting Werner, I knew that I had found the way to write the story.

The challenge here was creating an accessible picture book about the Holocaust for young readers. There is no hiding where this story takes place — or how terrible were the circumstances there! And yet, this is a story about magic, even in the darkest of places, and the gift of friendship and kindness that can exist alongside the horrors of this time. That’s what I wanted to capture here.

Werner lives on Long Island. He is 87! Strong, vibrant, funny! I continue to be in awe of his optimism and generous spirit.

About Kathy Kacer

Kathy Kacer, head shot 2015 (2)Kathy Kacer is a children’s author who is dedicated to writing about the Holocaust in a way that is sensitive to the age and stage of development of young readers. Her many books include The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War, The Underground Reporters, Hiding Edith, The Diary of Laura’s Twin, To Hope and Back: The Journey of the St. Louis, Restitution, and Shanghai Escape.

A winner of the Jewish Book Awards in Canada and the United States, as well as the Yad Vashem Award for Children’s Holocaust Literature in Israel, Kathy has written unforgettable stories inspired by real events.  Her books have been translated into 20 languages and sold to Germany, China, Italy, Thailand, England, Japan, Korea, Israel, Brazil, Belgium, and other countries.  Her novels are stories of hope, courage, and humanity in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Although she has been writing for many years, Kathy only became a published author in 1999. Before that, she worked as a psychologist with troubled teens.  Kathy teaches writing at the University of Toronto, Canada (Continuing Studies). She also speaks to children in schools and libraries around the world about the importance of understanding the Holocaust and keeping its memory alive. In addition, she lectures in universities and colleges on the topic of teaching sensitive material to young children.

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Two-in-One Notebook Special | The Whispering Town

Today The Whole Megillah speaks with The Whispering Town (Kar-Ben, 2014) author Jennifer Elvgren and illustrator Fabio Santomauro.

whispering townThe Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Jennifer Elvgren (JE): I have always been drawn to Holocaust literature. As a child, my grandmother shared her copy of Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place with me: my mother, her copy of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.

Over the years I continued to ponder these books as I finished college, then graduate school. I worked as a print journalist for a number of years before I began writing exclusively for children. Around that time another nonfiction Holocaust book was published, Ellen Levine’s Darkness Over Denmark. This book told the story of the Danish resistance and how the Danes worked together to smuggle nearly all of the 8,000 Danish Jews out of the country.

About 1,700 Jews escaped from the small fishing village of Gilleleje. One moonless night, the town’s citizens whispered directions to a man making his way to the harbor. That image moved me deeply. A story seed was planted in my mind, and I knew I wanted to write about the Holocaust for younger readers.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
JE: The fear factor was my greatest challenge with this book. How could I portray danger without really frightening the youngest readers and without diluting the story? In an early draft, Anett did not come face to face with soldiers. I had done a mock-up of the story with some stick figures (thank goodness for Fabio!) and read it to my critique group. One person commented that the tension thread could be heightened with some sort of confrontation. I knew then that Anett had to dig deeper, drawing on her bravery and ability to stay calm. That was when I added the scene where her parents were out and Anett had to answer the door when the soldiers banged. I’m glad I did because, in the end, Anett faced her greatest fear and triumphed.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
JE: I really struggled between 1st person and 3rd person with this story. I eventually settled on 1st person. I felt it drew the reader closer to Anett. Sometimes, in picture books, 1st person can seem too sophisticated prompting suggestions of expanding the story into a middle grade novel. I was very committed to this being a picture book, and I’m very glad that I didn’t have to compromise.

TWM: How did you research this story?
JE: I researched this story through non-fiction books and Internet accounts of the time period. I also asked some Jewish friends to read drafts to make sure that I was culturally accurate.

TWM: Why do you write for children?
JE: I write for children, because I remember what it was like to be a child who loved books. I remember Saturday mornings at the library with my father and the excitement of choosing new stories. I remember summer afternoons reading under a favorite shade tree. I remember the thrill of receiving books as presents from my parents and grandparents. I connect all of these books with certain grades and events in my childhood. Happy times. Sad times. Learning times. Dreaming times. I have carried my favorites with me all of these years. They have become friends. I hope my stories encourage children (perhaps children who haven’t enjoyed reading in the past) to dream, to explore their feelings, and to better understand themselves and the world.

TWM: What do you hope kids take away from this book?
JE: I hope The Whispering Town encourages children to investigate history and cultures different from their own. I hope children, no matter their situation large or small, will choose bravery in the face of injustice and kindness always.

TWM: What books and authors have inspired you?
JE: There are too many to name all of them, but here is a list of my childhood favorites that are still on my bookshelves today.

  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
  • Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
  • The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  • Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
  • A Very Young Rider by Jill Krementz
  • The Thanksgiving Treasure by Gail Rock
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • Ruffian by Edward Claflin
  • The Story of Helen Keller by Lorena A. Hickok
  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
  • Beat the Turtle Drum by Constance C. Greene

TWM: Fabio, now let’s turn to you. How did you decide on your medium for illustration (and please describe the medium)?
Fabio Santomauro (FS): The great thing of illustration is that you have lots of possibilities as to devices: paintings, digital, highly tactile.
All the above makes it possible for your style to develop in different ways. Than you can choose which one better fits the project you are dealing with. As for The Whispering Town, I chose a totally digital technique, which makes the whole process faster and perfect for any changes,definitely frequent when dealing with illustrated books.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
FS: My greatest challenge in this project was facing such an important issue, as the Holocaust. Even if my generation has not experienced that historical period, looking into it is fundamental if you want to understand contemporary issues and the present world.The pivotal point was telling dramatic situations in a new way, which is both beautiful and hard to do. Moreover, you have to consider that the story is told from a child’s point of view for a target of young readers.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
FS: For an illustrator, there are multiple sources of satisfaction. But maybe the most relevant is that you have the privilege of telling a story through your art, communicating values to children all over the world. When a child looks at your illustrations and smiles – well, that’s my greatest satisfaction!

TWM: What (and who) inspire you most?
FS: My inspiration spouts from what surrounds me. I like observing and commenting through my sketches common behaviors and contradictions of the world we live in. If you don’t feel inspired, just step out of your room, walk, talk to people, watch around you. What’s better than this?

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Writing Jewish Historical Fiction Not Set in ‘Oy-Vey’ Times | Guest Post by Novelist Maggie Anton

maggie anton enchantressEarly in my Talmud studies, which I’ve been doing for over 20 years now, I came across an intriguing and remarkable passage. Rav Hisda’s daughter is sitting in her father’s classroom when he suddenly calls up his two best students and asks her, “Who do you want to marry?” Astonishingly, she replies, “Both of them,” and more astonishingly, that is what ultimately happens — she does marry both of them.

I couldn’t get this audacious girl out of my head. Whatever made her say “both of them,” when asked which suitor she preferred? Especially in 4th-century Babylonia where most Jewish girls had little or no choice in husbands.

I had to tell her story.

Before I could start writing, however, I had to do enough research about her family and community to answer what for me was an all-important question: Did they live in relative peace and prosperity? I would only write a book that I wanted to read, one providing a vacation from all the horrible things I, and my readers, can see in the newspaper and on the internet every day. For despite American historian Salo Baron’s opposition to what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” it seems that too many Jewish historical novels focus on our well-known intervals of trial and tribulation.

But there were many times and locations where our people flourished; those were the ones I wanted to write about.

maggie anton cover 1Luck was with me. Rav Hisda’s daughter lived near the height of the longest halcyon period Jews have ever enjoyed. This was our over 2000-year sojourn in the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which began under Cyrus the Great in 6th-century BCE and lasted until Jews were expelled from Arab lands when the State of Israel was established.

My novels about her, Apprentice and Enchantress, would be set in third and fourth century Babylonia, just as the Talmud was being created there. Though the Talmud has been the source of Jewish law and traditions for over 1500 years, today only a few scholars are familiar with the educated rabbinic community who produced it.

I couldn’t wait to see what I’d learn. Not only would I be delving into a subject that I, and my potential readers, knew almost nothing about, but it was a crucial time in Jewish history. Historical fiction set there is pretty much nonexistent, but I would remedy that.

maggieauthorpix2014About Maggie Anton

Maggie Anton is the award-winning author of the historical fiction series Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter. She is a Talmud scholar, with an expertise in Jewish women’s history. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Two-in-One Notebook Special | The Patchwork Torah with Author Allison Ofanansky and Illustrator Elsa Oriol

patchwork-torahThe Patchwork Torah is a global collaboration between U.S.-based publisher, Kar-Ben, author Allison Ofanansky in Israel and illustrator Elsa Oriol in France.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Allison, what inspired you to write this book?
Allison Ofanansky (AO): The book was inspired by a real patchwork Torah which our community in Tzfat, Israel bought several years ago. Our scroll is also made up of parts of old and damaged scrolls which were put together to make a whole, kosher Torah. But we don’t know any of the stories of the parts of our Torah scroll. The stories of the scrolls David collects are made up, even if some of them are based on real events.

TWM: Most of your books are contemporary, realistic narratives illustrated with photography. Why this book?
AO: It also started from a ‘contemporary realistic’ issue—the Torah our community bought. But it wasn’t possible to find out the histories of those fragments, so the story became more like historical fiction, going back to the times at which the various scrolls were written and damaged. It became obvious that it wasn’t suited for being illustrated with photographs, as my other books are.

TWM: What do you want young readers to take away from this book?
AO: Mostly I hope they enjoy the story. But there are a few ‘messages’. One is ecological—that damaged things can be restored rather than thrown away. Another is that even difficult parts of our history can be brought together into something new and beautiful. Also, I intentionally included David’s granddaughter (rather than grandson) in the last scenes to show inclusion of girls and women in celebrating with the Torah.

TWM: Did you conduct any research for The Patchwork Torah? If so, please describe your process.
AO: I spoke with several soferim (scribes) although I was not able to get in touch with the one who put together the Torah which we bought. Also, I sent the story to friends and asked them to read it to their children. The feedback I got was very helpful. For example, an earlier version had more about the scene during the Holocaust, but it was too upsetting for young children.

TWM: How do you choose the topics for your books?
AO: The ‘Nature in Israel’ series came out of a desire to show the connections between Jewish holidays and the natural cycles in Israel. This is something I’ve learned a lot about and experienced personally during the 20 years we’ve lived in Israel. As the series has developed, I speak with the publisher to find out what they need and want. For example, the last two books are about Shavuot and Rosh Chodesh—there are very few children’s books about these holidays.

TWM: What books or authors have inspired you the most? Why?
AO: I’ve always been a huge reader, so it’s hard to pick a few. I love the Laura Ingles Wilder books for showing so clearly and simply the details of her life.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
AO: As I got feedback from friends who read the story to their children, I realized how difficult it was to make the changes in time periods clear to kids who may not understand references to events like the Depression, World War II, Hurricane Katrina, etc. It took a lot of revision to make it flow in a way that kids could easily follow.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
AO: Getting nice feedback from readers.

TWM: Elsa, now let’s turn to you. Your artwork is stunning. What was your approach to the illustration? What medium did you use and why?
Elsa Oriol (EO): It was important for me to translate the emotion and tenderness of this story. I used my favorite technical: oil painting on paper, brushes and palette knife to give vibrant colors. Before, I had made all drawings with charcoal on paper.

TWM: Did you have to conduct any research? If so, please describe your process.
EO: Yes I did, I was lucky that one of my best friends, Isabelle, works at the Art and History Museum of Judaism in Paris, and her husband, Steven, is a Rabbi from New York, working and living now in Paris. Both of them learned me precious instructions. Also the publisher, Joanna Sussman, gave me good directions. So I could find the right elements by internet and at the Museum’s library.

TWM: Were there any particular challenges in illustrating this book? Please describe.
EO: I didn’t know too much about Simchat Torah and scribes, so I had to learn this important tradition. That’s why I created the pictures in a classical style. I was glad the publisher thought about me for this project and I wanted to take care of this very nice story.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction in illustrating this book?
EO: It was my first book for the United States, and this story is so beautiful… I hope Allison Ofanansky enjoyed my illustrations!

TWM: What inspired you to illustrate children’s books?
EO: As a painter and mother, I looked for some books for my son when he was a child. I like art when it’s timeless, and some children’s books, allowing real painting style, give lovely results… So, I decided to explore that way. If illustrating for children could also help them to grow up, that would make me happy!

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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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