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?

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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4 Responses to Two-in-One Notebook Special | The Whispering Town

  1. Wonderful interviews, as usual, Barbara. I will definitely check this book out. I hadn’t heard about what the Danes had done. Very inspiring. Jennifer mentioned some books that were also very important to me. The Hiding Place really made the Holocaust real for me, and, of course, The Diary of a Young Girl as well. Thanks for another very interesting post.

    • Thanks, Rosi. You may also want to read Ellen Levine’s book, Darkness over Denmark, which will delight your nonfiction heart. It’s a classic. I think you’ll also enjoy the late Lila Perl’s new book, Isabel’s War, about a 12-year-old girl from the Bronx who has to face the realities of war in 1942. I think officially that book comes out later this fall.

  2. I really felt good when you answered the question about what you hope to achieve with your book. You said you hope your book will encourage the youngsters to investigate history, etc. and to choose bravery in the face of injustice. I really resonate with that. I hope the young readers of my soon-to-be-self-published children’s chapter book, “The Maccabee Kids,” will also use my story to encourage them to be brave in the face of injustice. Thank you, Jennifer, for bringing this story to light. And thank you, TWM, for the interview.

  3. Wonderful combo! A thoroughly informative and enjoyable MEGILLAH b!

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