The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write this book?
Barbara Lowell (BL): In 2016, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I had read Anne’s diary several times and of course, knew who Miep Gies was. When I was in the Secret Annex, I felt a connection to Miep – reading about her there and looking at her photo.
When I found her autobiography, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family, I put everything else I was reading away and read the story of this exceptional woman.
My favorite line in the Behind the Bookcase is one that my editor, Shaina Olmanson, wrote about Miep: “She knew how it felt to be young and leave everything in your world behind.” Miep’s experience as a child leaving her family in Austria to live with a new family in the Netherlands gave her great empathy and a strong desire to help others. I knew after reading Anne Frank Remembered that I wanted to share Miep’s and Anne’s story with children.
TWM: Valentina. What was your illustration strategy for this book?
Valentina Toro (VT): I tried a classic style to make the book look serious but not rigid. I experimented with the palette and tried to evoke some nostalgia. My intention was to transport the reader to a different time.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
BL: My greatest challenge was to tell a story about the Holocaust for children in a gentle way and show that despite the horror of their situation, there were moments of happiness that Anne, Miep and the others in hiding experienced. That’s why I added Anne sharing her feeling of joy when she showed off the red high heels Miep bought for her.
VT: I wanted to be very respectful to the story itself, especially the characters, so I had to make a lot of sketches in order to deeply feel every one of them and honor them in the best possible way. Also, I had to be very accurate about The Hiding Place, the posters Anne hung on the walls, her writing desk, the cover of her diary, and all the places, corners, stairs, where the rest of the occupants spent their days. I had this feeling that I was giving life to Barbara Lowell’s words, to Miep Gies and Anne Frank‘s stories, such an important part of our history, and not only I had to be respectful to their memory, but also to the readers and every person that opens this book. So, that was a bit of a challenge, but in a positive way, because it made me very aware of every detail and I learned a lot in the process.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
BL: My greatest satisfaction was learning about Miep in books and in videos. One moment in a video stands out. Miep talks with Fritz Pfeffer’s son Peter, an adult at the time. Fritz Pfeffer hid in the Secret Annex with Anne, and in her diary, she called him Dr. Dussel. His son, Peter, was upset because of the negative things Anne had written about his father that were published in her diary. What Anne had written was certainly understandable given her age and the circumstances involved. But Miep didn’t defend Anne. She simply told Peter Pfeffer that his father was her good friend and a lovely, lovely man. Peter Pfeffer cried hearing this and thanked her. Sadly, he died two months later. Fritz Pfeffer died at Neuengamme concentration camp in northern Germany. He had sent Peter to England earlier in the war to escape the Nazis.
Another satisfaction was reading the Booklist review by Miriam Aronin who called Behind the Bookcase “a historically accurate but relatively gentle introduction to the Holocaust for elementary-age readers.” It’s such a joy to read a review by a reviewer who understands why I wrote the story the way I did.
VT: This has been one of the most amazing projects I have done. Anne Frank’s Diary was one of my favorite readings as a young girl, and it drove me to read a lot about World War II and the Holocaust. Not every day you have the chance to use your pencil to give life to stories like this one, when I saw the final cover on the internet, in pre-sale, I was so incredibly proud to see my name on it.
TWM: How did you go about conducting your research?
BL: When I begin with an idea, I first do some preliminary research to see if I want to spend time researching and writing about it. I also need to decide if the idea will make a good story for children. Then I check WorldCat.org to see what other children’s books are available on my idea. I read those books and decide if I can make my story different from those. Usually a slice of life works better than a birth to death biography.
If my idea looks promising, then I read everything I can find on the subject. I also look for books that out of the mainstream. When writing Daring Amelia, I found a book written by Amelia Earhart’s sister that gave me a great line for the book. With Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever, I read everything Charles Schulz had written about his life as a starting place.
When researching Behind the Bookcase, my focus was on Miep’s book, Anne’s diary, and the videos that included interviews of Miep, and friends of Anne and Margot who had survived living in concentration camps. Since I had been to the Anne Frank House and Amsterdam, these were also sources.
It’s helpful to experience the actual place(s) a person lived or where an event happened. I haven’t been to a concentration camp (which I hope to one day.) But I did visit sites in Riga, Latvia, which chronicled the horrors of the Holocaust. There I saw a Jewish ghetto, walked through a house that had stood in a ghetto, entered a train car used to transport Jews to a concentrations camp, and walked in a field where Jews were shot as soon as they excited a train. The train tracks are still there. Walking through the Anne Frank House, I felt a great sorrow which helped me write the book.
VT: The editors provided pretty much everything I needed: photographs, links to websites, special details like where the family spent the evenings, or how the furniture looked like. I did some research on my own, in order to be more accurate about the clothing, hair styles, the kind of food they ate when Miep was adopted by her new family, the train station, etc. I also read the diary once more, because I wanted to connect with Anne’s feelings and thoughts in order to illustrate a much deeper version of her.
TWM: Barbara, what is your writing process?
BL: For the most part, I work on some aspect of writing each day: researching, writing, my website, writing for my blog, or something to do with the business of writing or promotion. But I do actual writing each day only when revising the entire manuscript or if I have a deadline to meet. When I struggle with a manuscript, I talk to my character and ask questions. Of course, this is my subconscious answering, but it works for me. I also go for walks and think about the problem I’m having. It’s amazing what pops into my mind when I’m away from my writing desk.
I write and revise as I’m going along which contradicts the standard writing advice to write the first draft without stopping to do any revisions. But this works best for me. I also read my manuscript out loud constantly. This helps me hear the rhythm of the sentences. Since I write picture books, I paginate them, which means I break them down in spreads the way an actual picture book does. This helps me look at the pacing and see where I can add page breaks that make the reader want to continue to the next page.
I show my critique group my manuscript, get their input and go back to revising. I continue revising until I think the manuscript is right and then it goes back to my critique
TWM: Valentina, what medium/media do you use?
VT: For this book I used Procreate for iPad Pro. The first sketches were handmade with pencil.
TWM: Who inspires you?
BL: I am inspired by all my wonderful writing friends in SCBWI Oklahoma and SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) Without their support, I probably would have stopped writing long ago. Writing is difficult and for the most part, a solitary activity and having the support of writers and illustrators is necessary. My husband is very supportive also and looks at my manuscripts before anyone else does.
Children inspire me too. I love history and when I find a great story, I’m inspired to share it with children.
VT: My first inspiration is my dad, he is also an illustrator, and he has taught me everything about this profession. Then there is a great number of artists who inspire me: Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, Edward Gorey, Rebecca Dautremer, their work has guided me over the years. Also, I’m inspired by the voices of people who try to change the world, no matter where they are, no matter how loud their voices are, I feel deeply move by those who raise that voice and make a change that matters. I want my work to support those voices, like Anne’s, and to bring awareness of the things we need to change.
TWM: What’s next for you?
BL: I have a nonfiction picture book about the mischievous son of a very famous person in history that will be released in 2021. It’s funny and was lots of fun to write. I can’t wait to see what the illustrator adds to the story because he is very funny.
I am working on more nonfiction picture books and fiction picture books inspired by true stories. And I’m always learning how to be a better writer. I attend conferences, workshops, watch webinars, and read books about writing.
VT: Right now I’m working on two projects. The first one is a book I’m writing myself, a children’s novel (with a lot of illustrations). And the second one is an illustrated book written by Kate Messner, to be released next year.
For more about author Barbara Lowell, visit her website.
Visit Valentina Toro on Instagram, @valentinatoroilustracion.