Author’s Notebook | Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross

Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross, Holiday House, 176 pages, $17.99, available February 2019

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write Searching for Lottie?
Susan L. Ross (SLR): In Searching for Lottie, I hoped to take a new, contemporary approach to a difficult but essential topic for kids to learn about and absorb. When our son did a seventh grade project about my mother coming to America as a refugee before the Holocaust, I was struck by how much it meant to him to learn about our family’s history. I think most kids want to know more about their families and will relate strongly to Charlie’s quest. My middle name, Lotte (“Lottie” in English), was given in memory of my mother’s cousin, a lovely young woman who did not survive. I grew up looking at her photograph and wondering about her life. Another relative, Magda Szemere, was a renowned violinist in Europe before WWII – I inherited her music journals and other papers. One day, I decided to Google Magda’s name and to my astonishment, discovered her gramophone recordings for sale on eBay! She had sadly perished, but her music had been preserved in archives in Europe and in America. I became fascinated by the notion that although out family history was increasingly further away in time, it was also closer and more accessible than ever — both because of the incredible reach of the internet and also because of the emotional space granted by the passage of time – allowing kids like my son and Charlie to ask questions that would have simply been too painful for my generation. The ability of kids today to access and preserve family history is one of the key themes in Searching for Lottie. Readers can see the photographs and stories that inspired the book on my website,

Susan L. Ross

TWM: How did you conduct your research?
SLR: I conducted research following the same steps that Charlie takes in the book – online searches, library research, pouring over details in photographs and other artifacts, and piecing together the experiences of family members. I didn’t know what had become of the “real” Lottie when I started this project, but eventually, I did discover her sad fate. In the book, I was glad to give the fictional Lottie’s life a more hopeful ending.

TWM: How important was the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award distinction to the submissions process? Are you represented, and if so, by whom?
SLR: The Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award is a terrific opportunity for writers, and I especially love that this program encourages a diverse range of stories relating to the Jewish experience.  I teach writing and always advise students to set personal goals on the long road to publishing. Winning the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award felt like a significant achievement and added important momentum. Although it took several years and many more drafts before Searching for Lottie was finally published, the Sydney Taylor distinction was especially helpful in finding an agent – currently, I am represented by Susan Cohen at Writers House. Today, PJ Our Way offers another terrific way for Jewish themed books to be recognized, and I’m truly delighted that Searching for Lottie has been chosen for its program list!

TWM: What was the greatest challenge in writing this book?
SLR: My greatest challenge in writing Searching for Lottie was balancing Charlie’s daily world with a deep and difficult topic. Charlie is a determined and strong-willed 12 year old whom readers can easily relate to – she has her ups and downs, close friends, and a keen sense of humor, along with a lively but pesky older brother. For most kids today, WWII seems akin to ancient history. I wanted Charlie to learn more about her family as she comes to grips with the tragic reality of the Holocaust, while keeping kid readers engaged and without scaring young readers. It was also very important to me to celebrate the lives of those who were lost and reclaim them as full, wonderful individuals – not just overwhelming statistics. I wanted to give life and a meaningful legacy to Lottie.

TWM: What was the greatest satisfaction?
SLR: My greatest satisfaction was writing the voice of Nana Rose, unfailingly helpful and full of wisdom – besides being a wonderful baker of delicious pastries! Nana Rose truly represents my Viennese mother and her close circle of friends – the extraordinary refugee women I grew up with in Maine who moved forward with strength and determination in spite of early hardship and loss.

TWM: What drives you to write for kids?
SLR: I love writing for kids! I am happiest hanging out in a classroom, talking with students about books and literature. I’m dismayed by the current discord in our country and believe that books can help. My debut middle grade novel, Kiki and Jacques: A Refugee Story, tackles the challenges of our multicultural world – Kiki and Jacques is about a Somali girl and Franco-American Catholic boy in Maine, and features two Jewish characters. In school visits, I always ask kids to “brainstorm” a sequel from the perspective of a character from a different background. I love seeing how deeply kids connect with books, exploring and experiencing characters and worlds outside their own and building true empathy, so urgently needed today!

TWM: Who inspires you?
SLR: My inspiration for this book came from family. My mother arrived in New York with her brother when she was 20; my grandparents were unable to flee Europe and did not survive. Now that I have a lovely daughter that same age, I realize more than ever exactly how brave my mother was and how thankful I am that she was able to create a life full of hope and promise for her children. Like Nana Rose, mom had encouraging expressions for every occasion:  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…” was one of her favorites.

TWM: What’s next for Susan L. Ross?
SLR: My next project returns to my roots in Maine. My father’s family were among the first Jewish merchants to settle in Maine, and my work in progress is a 1920s-era middle grade mystery set on the beach where our family has owned a cottage for more than 60 years. There are plenty of lobsters and a story about early aviation. Like all my writing, though, this book is also about growing up and discovering the wider world.

About Susan L. Ross

Susan Ross is an author and writing teacher who divides her time between Connecticut and Maine. Susan’s first middle grade novel, Kiki and Jacques: A Refugee Story, was a Bank Street Children’s Best pick. Susan’s new middle-grade mystery, Searching for Lottie, is the story of a 12-year-old girl trying to discover the fate of the young violinist she was named for after she disappeared during the Holocaust. The story was inspired by Susan’s own family’s experiences. Searching for Lottie won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and has been chosen as a PJ Our Way selection book. Susan’s website is:

Posted in Authors | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Author’s Notebook | The Heirs by Fran Hawthorne

The Heirs, a Novel by Fran Hawthorne, Stephen E. Austin State University Press, 2018, 234 pp.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this novel?
Fran Hawthorne (FH): As an American Jew, I knew that I was extraordinarily lucky that my father, his sisters and their parents got out of Poland in November 1937, and yet — growing up assimilated, suburban, middle-class — my generation pretty much took that survival for granted. My father didn’t talk about his childhood, and the only Polish words he taught us were a couple of mild obscenities. Then, when my son was in first grade, there was a boy in his class whose parents were Polish Catholics, born and raised in Poland. And I found myself, almost against my will, fascinated by the same sorts of questions that haunt Eleanor in The Heirs: “What did your grandparents do to my grandparents in Poland?” When I compared notes with other American Jews, I realized that many of us share these conflicted feelings, but I could find no novel that spoke to that second-generation dilemma.

TWM: You mention in your acknowledgments you wrote several drafts. How did the manuscript change?
FH: Amazingly, the basic story line and theme didn’t change much. What changed was the writing inside the narrative. The characters and their relationships became richer and deeper; I added an important subplot about Eleanor’s push-pull conflict with her mother, for instance. And I learned to ruthlessly stop my characters from gazing, glaring, staring, nodding, smiling, standing up, sitting down, and fidgeting in other repetitive ways. (Unorthodox fidgeting was fine, however.)

TWM: What were the greatest challenges in writing The Heirs?
FH: I had to do an enormous amount of research into unfamiliar topics, so the workload was overwhelming. But that was also an easy challenge, because I’d spent my career digging for facts, as a journalist and nonfiction author. The more difficult challenge was that this was my first novel. Unlike with my nonfiction books, I had no interview notes or documents as a starting point: It was all up to my imagination, to create Eleanor’s world.

Novelist Fran Hawthorne

TWM: What were the greatest satisfactions?
FH: I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was four years old; indeed, I’ve been writing “novels” since I was in elementary school. So the greatest satisfaction by far was to hold in my hands a printed book that says, on the cover: “A novel by Fran Hawthorne.”

TWM: I found myself chomping at the bit to know Rose’s shtetl name. What was your process for the pacing?
FH: I hope it was a good, page-turning chomping for you (and not an annoyed chomp)! Of course Rose set the pacing for her story. She had to begin with the least-painful tidbits, like her school and her brother’s soccer games, before she could work her way to the deeper memories.

TWM: Please talk about the historical research you conducted for the novel.
FH: Fairly early into this project, a couple of my cousins invited me to join their synagogue on a trip to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. So not only was I able to actually walk around Poland — including visits to my father’s and grandmother’s childhood homes — but the tour leaders also gave us a lengthy reading list of books about prewar Jewish culture and postwar anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. That was just the first step! In addition, a friend who’s a Holocaust survivor from Hungary introduced me to a local survivors’ group. I also interviewed my own family members and pored through Yizkor books online. (These are recollections from Jewish communities in Eastern Europe that were published after the war.) Of course I went to museums such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and the Center for Jewish History and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan (as well as Auschwitz and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, during my time in Poland). Because I write book reviews for the New York Journal of Books, I have access to a wide array of publishers’ catalogs — and believe me, I reviewed every Holocaust-related book I could get. One more example: Living in New York City, I can easily hop a subway to the Polish-Catholic enclave of Greenpoint, so I spent a few lovely hours “researching” Polish desserts.
PS If your readers are interested in learning more, I’ve posted a reading list on my website:

TWM: Which writers inspire you?
FH: There are so many fantastic writers — from classic-classics to modern-classics. I recently re-read Anna Karenina, for instance, and was blown away by Tolstoy’s range: He draws a sweeping portrait of Russian society, and then he homes in on Anna as she watches Vronsky crook his finger. As a teenager, I discovered The Grapes of Wrath and The Sound and the Fury, and I still get chills at the memory of certain scenes (like the waitress in the coffee shop in The Grapes of Wrath and of course the opening pages of The Sound and the Fury). Among the moderns, my favorite novels include Possession by A. S. Byatt, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, and — a new release that I’ve just reviewed for the New York Journal of BooksGone So Long by Andre Dubus III.

TWM: Would you recommend a university press for publishing fiction based on your experience?
FH: While I try to support small, local merchants, I have to admit that bigger is probably better in this part of my life. A major publishing house can do so much more than a small publisher in terms of publicity. Plus, the Big Brand Name usually pays a fatter advance. However, if you’re going to go with a smaller publisher, I’m a fan of university presses — for fiction. I think they carry more cachet than an indie press with a cute name that readers have never heard of, and very often the editors themselves are English-lit majors or instructors who really care about quality writing. (However, other authors tell me that nonfiction is more cumbersome at academic presses, because of the peer-review process.)

TWM: What’s next for Fran Hawthorne?
FH: Hmm, ask me in six months? After 12 drafts, I’ve regretfully put aside what I thought was my next novel — but I’ve very excitedly started another one that my agent thinks has great promise. This book-to-be uses a different type of American-Jewish experience — social and political activism — as one of two major plot trails. By the way, I haven’t given up completely on nonfiction. I’m always on the lookout for inspiring, meaty ideas for articles or even another book. (And who knows, I may yet find a way to make the 13th draft of that other-second novel work!)

Posted in Authors | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Author’s Notebook | The Seven by Ellen G. Friedman

The Seven, A Family Holocaust Story by Ellen G. Friedman, Wayne State University Press, 2017, 280 pp.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What were your greatest challenges in writing The Seven?
Ellen G. Friedman (EGF): I’d like to thank you for inviting me on your wonderful blog. The Seven, A Family Holocaust Story is an account of my family during the Holocaust. I had been interviewing family members since 1985, some of them multiple times. I thought of it as my “last” book—an end of career project. Time has a way of taking you there before you expect it, however. My family members began to die off, and I was not getting any younger, so in the last few years, I just started writing. The delay in writing the book really had not much to do with the end of my career. It had to do with the story I could tell. My memoir is kind of badass. I do not sugarcoat the characters or events in it. It’s a tone I could not have taken while they were alive. Even so, I was nervous about how the children and grandchildren would feel about my characterization of their parents and grandparents. In the end, I changed names and some locations. That was the emotional challenge. I was also determined not to tell the usual Holocaust story in which survivors are viewed through rose-colored glasses. I wanted to accord them the dignity of their full humanity, warts and all.

Another challenge was the lack of information on or other accounts of this population of Holocaust survivors. As soon as one says “Holocaust,” death camps and concentration camps come to mind. But my story is a different story of the Holocaust. The Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust were saved in the Soviet Union. Once they crossed into the USSR, Stalin banished them to remote prison camps and as a result, many of them survived. Their suffering was enormous, but compared to the camps, they had landed in paradise. Ninety percent of Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The ten percent who survived did it in Stalin’s USSR. The Seven finally tells that story. When my memoir was published, it was one of the very few that told that story.

Author Ellen G. Friedman

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me was my relationship to this story that I was telling yet was not based on my own experience. It was based on experiences that I had inherited, that were transmitted to me. Since I teach the Holocaust and Memory, I have done deep reading in the transmission of traumatic memories, especially Holocaust memories to subsequent generations. It’s such a complicated topic. Like me, the children and grandchildren of survivors have a living connection to the memories that are passed on to us. Survivors’ memories become our memories. We also become imperfect vehicles on whom this history depends for survival. As we transmit it to the future, we filter this history through our own words, our own consciousness, and give it our own meaning. When that happens, have we betrayed the generation who told us these stories?

TWM: What were your greatest satisfactions?
EGF: The Seven was a very satisfying book to write. It is a literary memoir, so that style, voice, imagery, all of these elements kept my attention as much as the story itself. The style is unconventional, modernist, juxtaposing various elements and also times so that the story does not unroll in a linear way. I loved writing in this way. Once I found the voice for the book, that voice took over and did the writing for me!

Telling this little-known story, getting it out into the world, was also a great satisfaction. The book is a way to add this chapter to the story of the Holocaust, one that reframes it in some ways since it is a story of exile. Once the Seven left their home in Warsaw, they never returned. They traveled half way around the world. They had to learn the language of each country they went to in order to earn a living, and never saw the family and friends they left behind. In each place they went, they had to figure out where to live and how to live. They could not take anything for granted. They were not citizens of the countries they found themselves in and so had very few rights and very little protection. They were always vulnerable.

TWM: Is there anything you would have done differently?
EGF: My one regret has to do with a small detail of description—with my uncle, whom I call Dov in the book. I describe him as having brown eyes. But my cousin, his daughter, pointed out that he had very, very blue eyes. If there’s ever an opportunity, I’ll change that detail. These things matter. I wrote this story to get it out in the world, but I also wrote it so that the generations that follow me know their history in as material and correct way as possible.

TWM: How did you decide on an academic press as your publisher?
EGF: I did try for a trade publisher, but all of my experience in publishing has been with academic presses. In the end, I went that way because I felt comfortable. It turned out to be a big advantage since academic publishers send manuscripts to experts for their comments. Through comments from historians, I learned a great deal about t. I’m a literary critic of modern American literature so I was happy for the advice and suggestions of the experts in that history.

TWM: What did you learn about the Holocaust through your own family history that was perhaps not mentioned in any of the scholarship?
EGF: When we read history books, the focus is on the general experience of people. What a memoir contributes is the history from the point of view of people who experienced it, so it’s much more varied and complicated. My uncle Dov described the Soviet gulag where my family was serving out their sentence of “banishment” almost as if it were a summer camp—although he suffered a great deal as well. Within the hardship, there was also music, dancing, friends, the adventure of a new place, new culture, and new romances. Writing about the Holocaust from an inside perspective, I learned so much about the textured, lived experience. The Seven were so lucky since theirs is a story of survival. But their fortune also reminds me of the rest of the family who didn’t leave Warsaw for the USSR and were murdered in Treblinka or in Warsaw.

TWM: Please talk about your visits to your family places. How did they inform your writing?
EGF: One place I visited was Brest-Litovsk, where my great uncle harbored the seven refugees from Warsaw, Poland—including my father and his two brothers and my father’s girlfriend Lola who would become my mother. Going there, I felt like I was “returning,” but the natives treated me like a stranger, a foreigner, which I was. It gave me a sense of what my family must have felt time and time again as they were pushed from one place to another. Each time they had to begin again as strangers, foreigners amongst natives who looked upon them with suspicion, and each time they had to learn the native language. There’s was an experience of exile. They never got to go home again, and I don’t think they ever felt at home again. Loss was always at the center of their identities.

TWM: Which authors inspire you?
EGF: The tone of my book was influenced by Art Spiegelman’s Maus I and II. His graphic memoir is both about his father’s experience and about his own relationship to his father’s story and his father, a Holocaust survivor. It talks about the transmission of memory and trauma and how the pain and stories move through the generations. I was also influenced by Virginia Woolf who said that women writers have to undo their social programming that encourages them to please people and not offend. To be a good writer, you have to try and tell the truth and not just say what people want or expect to hear.

TWM: Any words of advice for those writing family histories/memoirs, especially related to the Holocaust?
EGF: Write the book and if there are people to interview, to talk to, do it now! There are so many untold stories, and if anyone reading this blog has access to one, get it out into the public. Each story counts.

Posted in Authors | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Author’s Notebook | All Eyes on Alexandra by Anna Levine

All Eyes on Alexandra, written by Anna Levine and illustrated by Chiara Pasqualotto. 32 pp., Kar-Ben, September 2018.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): In this book, you’ve personified a family of cranes and used Abba, Ima, Savta, and Saba. How did you develop that idea? What led you to create a fictional family of cranes vs. a nonfiction approach?
Anna Levine (AL): I was staying at a bed and breakfast in the old city of Akko (run by the author and translator Even Fallenberg). At 6:00 in the evening Evan invited us to climb up on the roof with his son, two translators from Germany, a writer and her husband, a couple from Paris with two rambunctious young children, and a friend of mine who’d come to visit. As the Muezzin sounded over the loudspeakers, the birds on their way south began to gather above. At first there was only a handful. Gradually, the cloudless evening sky filled, in what can only be described as a Hitchcock-like flock of thousands of beating wings circling above, turning the sky into a dark thrashing cloud. The swallows landed on electricity wires strewn haphazardly between the closely crowded buildings. We watched as they perched, settling in for the night, nudging the ones beside them to move and make room, hinting at an unknown hierarchy of who had rank to the better spot, as they nudged off fledglings to stake their claim. I think at that moment I visualized Alexandra with a very independent spirit and how she would strive to make a place for herself and stand out among the flock.

TWM: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
AL: Getting the migratory flight path right! As I was looking at the final drafts with the almost completed artwork I realized that there was a problem. The birds flew over Syria, Lebanon and then suddenly they were over pyramids in Egypt and then swooped back to the Hula Valley. I was beside myself! I grabbed my computer and basically ‘flew’ over to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. The director of the observatory, Alena Kacal, was wonderful, calmed me down and sat with me. In the end, it was an easy change to make.

Anna Levine

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
AL: Seeing the art work. I think every picture book author stresses about whether the art will live up to their expectations. When I saw Chiara Pasqualotto’s illustrations, I fell in love with the book as if reading it for the first time. Chiara is so talented. Her art brings the text to life.

TWM: What made you think of Kar-Ben vs. other publishers? Or did your agent submit it?
AL: I submitted it to Kar-Ben. If my book has a Jewish/Israel theme, I think of them first. I’ve been one of their authors for many years, since Judye Groner brought me in. Now I enjoy working with Joni Sussman and Amy Fitzgerald. Jill Colella is very hands-on when it comes to thinking up creative ways to promote my books. It’s exciting to be part of the whole process. Kar-Ben feels like home.

For more about Anna Levine and her work, please visit her website.

Posted in Authors | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Three-in-One Notebook | Resistance by Jennifer Nielsen

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Scholastic Press, 2018, 400 pp.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write Resistance?
Jennifer Nielsen (JN): I stumbled upon the story while exploring the former Jewish ghetto in Krakow. A sign on one wall referenced the theater underground during the German occupation. Being a theater major, that intrigued me, so after I was home, I tried to find out more information. That research led me to the story of a little known resistance group in Krakow, largely made up of Jewish teenagers and known as Akiva. The more I learned, the more I knew their story had to be told.

TWM: How did you conduct your research?
JN: Solid research was vital to writing Resistance. I wanted to keep the details as close as possible to actual history and unfiltered through the lens of other retellings. Certainly, I drew upon all that I had learned and observed in my own travel to Poland, but for additional research, whenever I could, I used first person resources – the story as told by those who lived it.

For example, the story of the Akiva resistance movement was first documented by a woman named Gusta Draenger, who was part of the leadership. After she and her husband were arrested, she recorded her story on scraps of toilet paper which were smuggled out of the prison. Her words later became a book, Justyna’s Narrative, and was a primary resource for me in understanding how Akiva thought and operated.

As much as possible, I went into the extreme details. I have a sewer map of Warsaw from 1943 and overlaid it with the ghetto map to find entrance and exit points. I found a video of a woman who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who described fighting from what had once been a furniture store, so that detail is noted in the book. I followed actual train lines, roads, and ghetto boundaries.

When first person narratives weren’t available, I turned to resources such as the archives of Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives, the Jewish Virtual Library, and other organizations dedicated to recording and preserving Holocaust history.

At the end of my research, I had such a thick stack of notes, I needed a way to organize it. So I created a timeline out of poster boards, and placed it on the wall of my office (now known as the Research Wall), and created a second poster board of pictures of the actual people who resisted. I wanted a constant reminder that I was writing about real people who lived actual lives.

Courtesy Jennifer A. Nielsen

TWM: How was the research vetted?
JN: Resistance went through many layers of vetting, and was fact-checked by Tami Rich, a Historian and Cultural Heritage Advisor, who was formerly a curator at Yad Vashem and is currently on the faculty of Haifa University’s Holocaust Studies MA program.

TWM: What were your greatest challenges and satisfactions in writing Resistance?
JN: Even from original concept, this was the most challenging book I’ve ever undertaken, because I knew I was writing about real events, and sensitive events, and I understood that I had to get it right. I also knew that I was writing in a topic where much has already been written, and where much has yet to be written, and my hope was that this story would stand out on its own.

As I immersed myself in the writing and the world of 1943 Poland, I grew to love these characters so much and became emotionally attached to their journey. One of the greatest satisfactions for me came late in the story when these same characters begin to define their victory—finally taking back control of their lives, regardless of when and how they ended.

I have such deep respect for the couriers and resistance fighters, to have been able to write about them at all, adding to their three lines of history, is the greatest satisfaction of my career.

TWM: What do you hope readers will take away from Resistance?
JN: I hope readers will see that there were many ways in which the Jewish people resisted the Nazi regime. Resistance was continuing Sabbath worship, it was setting up safe houses or hiding in them. Resistance was singing in the prison yard to mask the conversations inside the barracks, smuggling food into the ghettos, and sabotaging German goods on work duty. Resistance was risking one’s life to pass on forged identification, or shouting Shema Yisrael in defiance at the end of life. There were some who fought, but many more who resisted.

I want readers to see the courage, heroism, and valor that defined the young Jewish couriers, those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and all those who determined that if they would not kneel to the enemy, then they had to resist him.

TWM: What writers inspire you?
JN: I read widely and draw influences from many sources. The authors that may have impacted me most heavily for Resistance include Ruta Sepetys, Elie Wiesel, Viktor Frankl, and Markus Zusak.

TWM: Thanks so much, Jennifer. Now a few questions for Lisa Sandell, Editorial Director, Scholastic Inc. and Ammi-Joan Paquette, Literary Agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Lisa and Ammi-Joan, thanks for joining us. What attracted you to this story?
Lisa Sandell: The story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising has always compelled me—the determination of a handful of young people in the face of unimaginable terror and violence to survive and resist is remarkably inspiring. And I knew that in the very capable and talented hands of Jennifer A. Nielsen, those lives (and deaths) would be honored and represented with dignity and truth.

Ammi-Joan Paquette (AJP): As Jennifer’s agent, I have the distinct honor of getting a sneak peek at her projects earlier than most readers. When she described this project and its origins to me, I knew immediately that this was a story that must be told—but what really drew me in as I began to read the finished draft was the power of these characters. Truly unforgettable!

TWM: What is your general reaction to Holocaust narratives for young readers?
LS: As the great-granddaughter of Holocaust survivors I have been immersed in Holocaust literature my entire life. I know that these narratives hold immense power for young readers, as they relate stories of courage in the face of unlikely odds, survival despite the most devastating of circumstances, and portraits of the furthest extremes of human behavior. Moreover, I think it is crucial to continue to educate young readers about this corner of history, so that we never repeat it.

AJP: It is so important that these stories are preserved, that they continue to be told. As the years go by, I truly believe that the only way to keep the horrors of the past from being repeated is to keep them alive, so that future generations can know, and learn, and hopefully do—and be—better.

TWM: What do you hope readers will take away from Resistance?
LS: I hope readers will come away from reading Resistance with a deeper understanding of the Holocaust, of the Nazi occupation of Poland and what that meant for the country’s Jews, and I hope that this portrayal of Jewish resistance offers inspiration and a sense of promise in the knowledge that young people can make an important mark on history. And I hope readers find themselves captivated by an extraordinary story.

AJP: The power of the individual, that strength takes many forms, that quietness and endurance can be as powerful as force. That there are many unsung heroes, many untold stories. That we must never forget.

Posted in Three-in-One | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Author’s Notebook: Not Our Kind, a Novel by Kitty Zeldis

Not Our Kind by Kitty Zeldis. HarperCollins, September 2018.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Kitty Zeldis (KZ): This book began in the 1970s, when I was student at Vassar, although I didn’t know that the story was taking shape then—I was too busy living it. Though there certainly were Jews at Vassar, both students and professors, even as a 17 year-old freshman I was keenly aware that it was an institution built on excluding people like me—I was the not our kind of the book’s title. And yet it was also a place I loved, and where I thrived. I’d long wanted to write a book with a larger canvas and broader scope than any I’d attempted before and this, I realized, was the way to do it. I was writing not so much about anti-Semitism, though that was certainly a part of it, but more about the intersection of two cultures. How do Jews make their way in the wider world? And how does that wider world bend and stretch to accommodate them? These were the questions that interested me before I began work on this book and they are questions that interest me still.

TWM: How did you decide on alternating point of view characters?
KZ: I’ve always liked novels that offered differing perspectives; I find it enriches and deepens the experience as a reader, and so I was striving for that effect in my own work. And in this particular story, I wanted Eleanor and Patricia to be equals, and for each to have the authority that comes with having her own point of view. I wanted a book that allowed for a subject-subject relationship, not a subject-object one.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this novel? Your greatest satisfaction?
KZ: In an early version, Wynn went so far as to rape Eleanor and is ultimately put on trial for his crime. But I came to feel that once that happened, the book veered off in a different direction; it became less about the two women, and more about a woman and a man. So I basically scrapped the entire second half and started over. It was the hardest thing I had done as a novelist, but when I felt I had pulled it off, also the most satisfying.

TWM: What do you want readers to take away from it?
KZ: I didn’t want to blame my Gentile characters and I don’t want my reader to blame them either. Instead, I hope the reader will see the characters—and the world they inhabit—as comprised of many shades of gray, all of them subtle and nuanced.

TWM: Was any of the novel based on your own family’s experience?
KZ: Only bits and pieces. I rarely create a story or character from whole cloth; it’s always more of patchwork.

TWM: How did you conduct your research?
KZ: I already had an affinity for the period—I love the films and fashions of the 1940s—so I was drawing on material that was already familiar to me. But I consulted many photographic books to get a crisper picture of the period details and character. I also read Gentlemen’s Agreement, which mined a similar vein, and read other books of the period, just to soak up the small details that would help bring the story to life.

TWM: Did you ever consider a DP [Displaced Persons] refugee camp character? Why/why not?
KZ: No, I never considered such a character, though now that you have suggested it, you’ve sparked my interest—maybe I’ll write such a character one day!

TWM: How did a critique group/beta readers help you?
KZ: I’m no longer part of a writing group but I do have a few trusted readers with whom I shared the manuscript. Their insights were invaluable. I don’t believe it’s possible for a writer to edit her own work because she always knows her own intentions, and can never not know them. Whereas the reader doesn’t know anything about intention; she only knows what’s on the page.

TWM: Whose writing inspires you?
KZ: Where to begin? Pointing to books from way back in my childhood, the ones that I re-read over and over (and who has the luxury to do that as an adult?) I would have to say Betty Smith, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodges Burnett, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher were some early favorites, along with Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck as I grew a little older; these were authors that came to define me as both as reader and future writer. Novelists who delve into the past and use historical settings have had a lot to teach me, and among them I number Kathryn Harrison, Jennie Fields, and Sarah McCoy. For creating fully rounded, flawed but wholly sympathetic characters I’d have to say Elizabeth Strout. And finally, for old fashioned-can’t-put-it-down-story telling, nobody does it better than Donna Tartt.

TWM: What’s next for Kitty Zeldis?
KZ: I’m working on another book with a historical setting but I don’t want to say any more about it—can’t risk a kina hora!

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

August 2018 Jewish Book Carnival

The Whole Megillah is pleased to once again host the monthly Jewish Book Carnival!

Here are this month’s links:

  • At Life Is Like a Library, Chava Pinchuck looks at some books that are appropriate for the month of Elul, a time to review the past year and prepare for the new one.
  • Deborah Kalb interviews a wide variety of authors on her website, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. Here’s a link to a recent interview with Cherise Wolas about her new novel, The Family Tabor.
  • A true life mystery, The Lost Artist is a book about the illustrator of a classic Hebrew book written for children, which had been very popular in the early days of the State of Israel. In The Lost Artist, Book Review, Batya Medad on Shiloh Musings tells about  The Lost Artist LOVE PASSION WAR (PART 1) by Eric Hausman-Houston.  She writes that the book is suitable for older children and adults.
  • The Book of Life podcast presents a panel discussion on Social Justice and Jewish Children’s Books!
  • Over on the My Machberet blog, Erika Dreifus posts weekly “Pre-Shabbat Jewish Literary Links.” Here’s one recent example, featuring an interview with author André Aciman, Erika’s own take on a debut novel by Hilary Zaid, and much more.


Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments