The Whole Megillah (TWM): What attracted you to telling the story of Raoul Wallenberg?
Louise Borden (LB): Growing up, I’d never heard of Raoul Wallenberg. Then in the 1980s, when his name appeared a few times in the press (and I read a biography of RW by Kati Marton), Raoul became my hero. Some years later, after I began writing books for young readers, I carried a hope that I would write his life story and share his remarkable legacy with kids. In my nonfiction projects, I’ve written about individuals who have made a difference in the world. People like the Wright brothers, John Harrison (of longitude fame), Bessie Coleman, and Margret and H. A Rey. Raoul Wallenberg fascinated me because of his childhood in Stockholm, his schooling in America, and his bold actions on behalf of others. He was an individual with a true and deep moral compass. I can’t imagine our world today without these inspiring people . . . and by writing about RW, I could enter the times and be a witness to his courage and compassion. Many years ago I kept hoping for his safe return from the Soviet Union.
TWM: What led you to write about him in verse?
LB: All of my books — more than two dozen of them — are written with the same style of broken lines. I like white space combined with text. I hope that even my books of nonfiction have a narrative cadence to them. The sound of writing is important to me and I work very hard to make each word count and each word contribute to the rhythm of the line. Achieving spareness when writing about a complex subject is a real challenge for me! I think that kids can understand complex subjects (longitude, Hungary’s situation during WWII, etc.) when the lines are not lost in dense paragraphs.
TWM: What was it like to meet with his family?
LB: As I was beginning my research, I learned about the wonderful RW Committee in Ann Arbor that annually awards a medal to a person who has made a difference in the world. Through them, I was given addresses. I wrote to Nina Lagergren, and also to Nane Annan and sent them some of my books. I met with Nane in NYC, and several months later met Nina and Gunnar in Stockholm (my first of three trips). Later I would meet Guy von Dardel and his wife Matti in Geneva, and also spent a day in Paris with Louise von Dardel, Guy’s daughter. We toured artists’ studios in her neighborhood and had an amazing day. RW’s family were welcoming and kind and always, encouragers. Very few books have been written about Raoul for young readers and his family feels that his legacy should be shared with the coming generations.
I spent time alone with Nina in Stockholm, touring RW’s old addresses. . . talked with Gunnar and Nina at their home about their time in Berlin during 1944, various events in WWII, etc. In RW’s life story, there were so many names, and dates, and a complicated chronology to sort through. I read many books about Raoul (some contain inaccuracies) and also attended a fascinating symposium in Budapest about Raoul, attended by Hungarian and Swedish scholars. (This was when Nina carried the flag from the Swedish Legation back to Budapest from Stockholm. Seeing that flag first hand was unforgettable.) Spending time with Raoul’s beloved sister and brother was incredible. . . such amazing individuals! I feel so lucky, and have connected with Nina in a lovely friendship.
Also — hearing in Nina and Gunnar and Guy’s own words about these long ago events was a rich and important source for my research. I’m so sad that Guy was never able to see the finished book. Gunnar saw some of the early drafts of the manuscript before his death, and we discussed a few corrections. Meeting Raoul’s family has changed my life.
TWM: What were your greatest challenges in researching and writing the book?
LB: Raoul’s story is indeed inspiring but it is set in a very complicated landscape. And in a time which seems like ancient history to most American kids. I had to understand the political events and issues such as neutrality, Hungary’s alliance with Germany, etc. and then tell the story in a clear and compelling way that kids could understand. I’d written other books about this time period, set in Europe, so that prior knowledge and reading helped. I have boxes of files, photos, letters, and many books that I’ve gathered over the years of research. I wish I could speak and read Swedish! And Hungarian! Nane provided a translation for a charming book about RW’s childhood written by Maj von Dardel. First hand accounts and letters are so important in giving a writer details that are crucial to good storytelling. I was a bit daunted by the task — and had chosen a long writing journey. At one point I told my husband how hard it was for me — reading about the atrocities committed in Budapest and the plight of Jewish families. And he replied : “Think how hard it was for the people you are writing about.” And so I kept all of these courageous people by my side as I typed away at my desk: RW and his colleagues, and thousands of unknown Jews in Hungary. They were my encouragers. I was telling their important story. And my editors at Houghton Mifflin were also my great encouragers. They believed in the book as I did.
And of course the last section of the book was very difficult: RW’s tragic disappearance. I wanted to give an accurate picture without overwhelming my readers with all the conflicting and contradictory information which has layered the story for many decades.
TWM: What were your greatest satisfactions?
LB: When I received my first bound copy from my editor, I removed the jacket to see RW’s distinctive and important signature. In my mind, it so defines the book. And after I sent a copy to Nina, she called me to say how pleased she was. That was a huge satisfaction. And teachers telling me that their students had read the book and had claimed Raoul as their hero! Receiving the Sydney Taylor Award was a thrill and a surprise. . . not the award so much as the fact that others in the children’s book field believed in the book as readers. . . and understood how important RW’s legacy is. I usually write the book that I want to read — but that hasn’t been written yet. So always holding that bound book in my hand is exciting. I open it, and turn the pages and become the reader. There it is — the book that I’d been hoping to find with all the information that I wanted to know. After working in children’s publishing for more than 20 years, it’s still startling to see my name on the jacket.
TWM: How was the photo research done?
LB: The book was originally to be illustrated — by a wonderful Danish artist who had lived in Copenhagen during the German occupation. But after a wait of three years, he was unable to do the project due to his age and the death of his wife. We had intended to have a six page spread of a timeline at the end of the book – using tiny photos. So after a discussion with my editor, I went through many photos (in my boxes!) and created a large dummy book, with photos on various pages. I xeroxed photos in different sizes, etc. I even inserted blue pages in the dummy to separate the sections as a design idea. I made several of these dummies and carried them with me during my travels as I commuted between Cincinnati and DC. I kept revising the text and adding new photos, etc. It was an exciting but as I said earlier, a daunting process. Because once we had chosen the photos we liked best, THEN I had to go out and get permission. Obtaining the Hazai Bank photo is a story in itself! Whenever the photo permissions got overwhelming, again, I thought of the thousands in Budapest, and I kept persevering. This was the first time I’d ever been involved in getting photo permissions. It’s a tedious process. The book about Margret and H. A. Rey involved choosing scans from the de Grummond Collection but nothing on the scale of this book about RW.
TWM: Did anything surprise you during the research, writing and/or production of this book?
LB: I just kept taking small steps. One by one. This is how many of my books unfold. First the hope to write the book. Then background reading — my “gatherer” stage. Then travels. Wonderful surprises happened: randomly meeting a Michigan classmate of RW’s, being able to meet family members, attending the symposium in Budapest ( I went to this beautiful city twice), and totally by chance, meeting Elena Anger (Per’s widow) in Stockholm when I was with Nina one afternoon. What are the chances? I also was able to speak with Tom Veres’s widow on the phone almost ten years ago, shortly after Tom had died. And I met Gabor Forgacs in Budapest and Andy Nagy in Ann Arbor. These were unexpected connections to the story , connections that I treasure. Another great surprise: staying at the Esplanade Hotel in Stockholm — the same building where Kalman Lauer and RW, and also Iver Olsen, had their offices! The design team at HMH came up with the idea of the flags. . . very cool. Another surprise: Walking near Dupont Circle one day, talking with my sister (who had been to the symposium with me in Budapest) on my cell phone and looking up and seeing I was standing by a house where Carl Lutz (Swiss consul) had once lived! Serendipity! It seemed to follow me many places and renew my writer’s faith.
TWM: What advice would you have for writers of nonfiction in verse?
LB: All of my books are written in a similar style of broken lines. I hope that even my books of nonfiction have a narrative cadence to them. The sound of writing is very important to me.
This style is like my fingerprint as a writer although I’m not sure it’s for everyone. Many more children’s book writers are using this structure both in fiction and nonfiction. I was very fortunate to have the legendary Margaret K McElderry as my editor for 13 books. She allowed me to write with broken lines in my nonfiction as well as my fiction. MKM was born in 1912. The same year as Raoul! Although I wrote the book for Houghton Mifflin, and signed that contract shortly after MKM retired from Simon and Schuster, she was aware of the project and, like Nina Lagergren, was a great encourager. Again, I’m only sad that the book was delayed a few years and so I was unable to hand Margaret a bound copy.
Recently — because it has become a small trend — I’ve seen books that use this structure of “prosetry” as a librarian friend of mine calls it but the text lacks a poetic quality. Perhaps those books would have been better written in more traditional paragraphs. Not every reviewer or librarian is going to like (or understand) this style. Someone (an adult) asked me last summer why I wrote RW with such short sentences. I wanted to tell her to go read a really wonderful book on writing recently published by Verlyn Klinkenborg called Several Short Sentences about Writing. I found it to be a wise, and affirming book. It’s one of my new favorites to share with other writers. Also a book called Telling True Stories — it’s a great book for nonfiction writers, whether you write in verse or not. I didn’t really think that my books were told in “verse”. . . then one day I saw that The Journey That Saved Curious George was shelved in the poetry section of a library! That was a shock!
I would tell writers to always read their work aloud and to look at books with this structure to see if it fits seamlessly with their voice. Voice is so crucial . . . and so individual. You can hear a strong voice when it is there in the text. It sometimes takes me awhile to find the right voice when I’m starting a book. I would tell writers to be patient, and to trust the emotional heart of their texts. Somehow the right voice for that piece of writing will emerge.
Louise Borden is the author of more than two dozen published picture books, with several currently in production. A history major in college, Borden attended Denison University. A 2005 nonfiction title and ALA Notable, The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H. A. Rey (illustrated by Allan Drummond), involved groundbreaking research in France and the use of primary sources from the Rey archives at the De Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Contemporary school classrooms, the winter landscape of Holland, Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, a submarine lost on patrol in the Pacific, and the rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk appear in Borden’s fictional books about ordinary people who become heroes. She has also written biographies and nonfiction.
A lifelong reader, Louise has spoken about the writing process in more than 600 schools across the country as well at conferences.
In 2008, Louise appeared in a documentary on Dunkirk that aired on the Weather Channel. She has also been interviewed by The New York Times, USA Today, The Writer magazine, the BBC, and NPR.
Louise and her husband Peter have three grown children, and four grandchildren. The Bordens have recently returned to Cincinnati, OH after five years in the Washington, D.C. metro area.