To commemorate Yom HaShoah, The Whole Megillah sponsored a survey of writers and publishers/editors of Holocaust books for young readers. The writers include Jane Yolen, Janet Wees, Susan Lynn Meyer, Andria Rosenbaum, Nancy Churnin, Susan L. Ross, and Kathy Kacer. The publishers/editors include Joni Sussman of Kar-Ben, Dena Neusner of Behrman House/Apples & Honey Press, and Dianne Hess of Scholastic. We’re not able to always identify by name the sources of the responses (my mistake in survey design), but here are the results.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspires you to write or publish children’s Holocaust literature?
Dena Neusner: It’s a hard topic to address for young children. I’m inspired by good stories that will engage and educate, in an age-appropriate way.
Dianne Hess: My family came from Germany and Hungary. Some fled the Holocaust, some did not. I feel a strong responsibility to keep the stories alive and to ensure it never happens again.
Susan L. Ross: I was inspired by my son’s 7th grade research into my own mother’s experiences as a refugee to write Searching for Lottie, a contemporary middle grade mystery about a 12 year old girl trying to discover what happened to the young violinist she was named after, who disappeared during the Holocaust. My middle name is Lottie, and I was named after a lovely young cousin who did not survive. Although the novel is fictional, it is largely based on family stories. I was especially struck with the notion that although the history of the Holocaust is further away in time, it is more accessible to kids today because of the astonishing reach of the internet and also because kids are able to ask questions that were simply too painful for our generation. I thought it was important to write a contemporary book that offers kids a pathway into a difficult legacy. The intergenerational relationships at the heart of Searching for Lottie matter most to me and reflect my deep appreciation for my own mother’s determination to raise her children with optimism, hope, and love in spite of early loss and hardship.
Response: The Holocaust is an important part of modern Jewish history and children are often exposed to Yom HaShoah and Holocaust-related topics at a young age. My goal is to publish a variety of age-appropriate materials for children of all ages beginning with about age 8.
Response: I’m a child of Holocaust survivors, committed to keeping this history alive, particularly as the survivor community ages and disappears.
Response: The fact that antisemitism is alive and well. The hope that by teaching children about the horrors of history they’ll be inspired to stand up against evil. The fact that it is a part of every Jew’s history whether they like it or not.
Susan Lynn Meyer: I wanted to tell the story of my father’s experiences in and escape from Nazi-occupied France, as listening to and trying to make sense of this story shaped my childhood.
Nancy Churnin: Learning about the Holocaust helps us see the horrible, ugly natural conclusion of prejudice and dehumanization, issues that we still wrestle with today. Learning about the Holocaust makes us, as a society, look in the mirror and think about the choices we make in being oppressive, passively supporting oppression by doing nothing or resisting oppression by helping the vulnerable among us.
Yolen: I was too young to speak out then. But now I can, and boy! is my voice loud!
Response: This is my first book for children about the Holocaust. I was inspired by actually seeing the Hidden Village and by the stories told to me by a man who lived there as a little boy while hiding from the Nazis.
TWM: Has anyone ever told you not to write or publish about the Holocaust? If so, what was the rationale?
Neusner: There’s been talk that there are too many Holocaust stories, or that we should focus on positive Jewish stories instead. I think it’s important to publish a variety of stories about the Jewish experience, and Holocaust stories address the imperative to never forget.
Hess: Sometimes people have concerns about publishing Holocaust stories for children. There is a spirited debate about what age is appropriate to bring up the subject.
Ross: When my children were in elementary school, not all parents wanted their children reading Holocaust books because they felt they were simply too upsetting. I understand this concern and tried to find a way to introduce the topic in a story that is meaningful to kids, but not overwhelming for younger children. I also hope to engage readers who might not be especially interested in historical fiction. In Searching for Lottie, 12-year-old Charlie worries that she needs to live up to her great aunt’s legacy as a violinist but comes to realize she must follow her own true path. I hope that kids will relate to Charlie’s search into the past as she make important discoveries about her family and her future.
Response: I’ve only heard and read articles about there being too many Holocaust-related titles at the expense of other aspects of the Jewish experience. While this may be true, there continues to be great interest in the marketplace—among both Jewish and secular readers—for Holocaust-related books.
Response: I’ve never had anyone tell me not to write stories about the Holocaust, and I have 25 published books about this history! On the contrary, my experience is that publishers are keen to have these important stories available to young people.
Response: Yes. It’s too dark and terrible to share with children. No one wants to read, or buy another book about the Holocaust. The PJ Library won’t even consider Holocaust literature.
Meyer: When I was writing the novel (Black Radishes, my first), I talked to my father about it, and he, actually, discouraged me from doing it, saying nobody would be interested in such “ancient history.” I’m happy to say that he was wrong about that. But I wonder what responses he must have had, in the course of his life, when mentioning his own past to people, that he was so sure that this was the case.
Churnin: I write for younger children and there is that question about whether the Holocaust is too much for that age to process. I feel it is all in the way you present the material. Children, sadly, see and experience prejudice from the time they are born. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in their song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” prejudice can become ingrained early—”at six or seven or eight/to hate all the people your relatives hate.” We need books for that age group to offer a different way of looking at the world, books that question prejudice, books that show where prejudice can lead, books that show the heroism of those that resist and those that stand up for and protect others.
Yolen: No, rather an editor begged me to write the novel we discussed, The Devil’s Arithmetic.
Response: No, in fact I get encouraged to write more about the Holocaust.
TWM: Here is a listing of possible Holocaust narrative categories. Select those in which your books appear.
TWM: In which Holocaust narrative categories would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: Here is a listing of possible Holocaust narrative settings. Select all those in which your books take place.
TWM: In which geographic settings would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: In what genre(s) do you currently publish your Holocaust narratives?
TWM: In which genre(s) would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: Now we come to age group. For what age group do you currently publish?
TWM: For what age group would you like to see more published within the next five years?
TWM: Any final comments you would like to make?
Hess: We do always need holocaust books because they are important to publish and on the curriculum, so there is a steady market from schools. The stories that come to us you could have never imagined existed. It’s up the authors to discover and write amazing stories about things they are passionate about. This is always what makes the best books of all.
Meyer: I’d like to see lots of stories of all kinds and in all places published. Even after writing my two novels, I still feel an obsessive preoccupation with this subject.
So, there you have it. Despite the flaws in our survey design, Holocaust literature for young readers serves an important purpose and there are still stories to tell: nonfiction, teen, postwar and Jewish resistance narratives, and narratives with settings in China and South America—just to mention a few of the opportunities. Will you be the one to write one of these narratives?
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Thank you for this very interesting survey. I am a librarian in a public library in Israel and we have quite a good selection of Holocaust books for children and Young Adults. These excellent books ( almost all of them written in Hebrew) are almost never checked out. We showcase Holocaust books throughout the year and very few books leave the library. Neither the children nor their young parents want to deal with the Holocaust. Every year the quality of the children and YA Holocaust books being published get better and better but I’m not sure who is reading them.
Malkah, thanks for your post. Here in the United States, individual states have mandates to teach the Holocaust. But I have been appalled at the book selections teachers are making. They need training so they can make more informed choices. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC offers a free conference to language arts and social studies teachers of middle schools, high schools, and community colleges. This grounding is so important!