Author’s Notebook | Crushing the Red Flowers by Jennifer Voigt Kaplan

Jennifer Voigt Kaplan

Kaplan, Jennifer Voigt. Crushing the Red Flowers. Ig Publishing, 2019. 308 pp., $12.95

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write Crushing the Red Flowers?
Jennifer Voight Kaplan (JVK): Crushing the Red Flowers is a middle-grade story set in 1938 Germany. It’s fictional, but based on true family experiences. My heritage is half German and half German-Jewish, so I grew up with a multilayered understanding of the challenges that Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Germany faced leading up to and during WWII.

I decided to confine my novel to 1938. While many wonderful children’s books exist that are set during the war years, few explore the pre-war years and the November pogrom known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in greater detail. The year offers a unique vantage point to explore the past and glimpse the future, and by remaining within 1938, I was able to provide younger readers an introduction to the Holocaust without minimizing events or compromising authenticity.

I also found that few children’s books feature German main characters and even fewer use varied perspectives to explore historic events. It’s important for young people to have access to historical fiction with diverse points of view, so I chose to write alternating perspectives of two twelve-year-old main characters, a German Jewish boy and a boy in Hitler’s Jungvolk. Themes of kindness, bullying and loyalty influence both characters and resonate with today’s middle-grade readers.

TWM: What was your research process?
JVK: Writers of history strive to genuinely portray events, but since writing fiction is by nature a subjective representation, some degree of distortion is inevitable. To minimize misrepresentation, I thoroughly researched all aspects of the story. I started by learning everything I could about the period. I read non-fiction, fiction, academic articles, and credible online sources. I also conducted interviews with family members who had lived through the era. These interviews became the book’s foundation, informing the plot and supplying original details.

As I worked on the novel, granular questions emerged: How did the events of Kristallnacht unfold? What was the weather like on certain dates? What foods were hard to obtain? How quickly could someone leave Germany after securing a visa? In what month did poppies wilt? I broadened my scope of sources and also contacted historians like Myrna Goldenberg, professor emerita of Holocaust history at Montgomery College, and Dr. Patricia Heberer-Rice from the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Lastly, even after specific questions were answered, I continued my research to gain a richer sense of German style, interiors, and mood of the 1930s. I watched movies from the time period, browsed through portraits housed at the Center for Jewish History, watched old political video clips, and inspected hundreds of visuals at the New York Public Library Picture Collection. Sometimes I found a new detail to weave into my writing, but sometimes I just verified an element already in the novel.

TWM: What led you to select Hannover as the location for your story?
JVK: I wanted to set the story in a mid- to large-sized German city with an ample Jewish population. Many smaller towns did not have sizable Jewish communities and hence, experienced the November pogrom differently. I chose to set the story in Hannover because it fit these criteria and also because my grandfather was originally from Hannover. He could vividly describe his life, apartment and much-loved city, which all became an essential part of my research.

TWM: I couldn’t help but think about Emil und die Detektive while reading your novel. Did that book figure into your preparation at all?
JVK: It didn’t. The character Emil in Crushing the Red Flowers was loosely based on my grandfather’s personality. Of course, I never knew my grandfather when he was twelve, but in senior adulthood, he could be described as kind, funny, smart, rebellious, and a goofball. He was a good father, husband, son, and friend, but he relished in his own childhood mischief. He reminisced about sneaking sweets, throwing snowballs at girls, playing “explorer” in off-limits apartment basements, and riding his bicycle on the sidewalk (which was forbidden).

Before WWII, many German Jews were integrated into German society. The character of Emil in Emil und die Detektive likely represented boyhood characteristics of the time. I’d assert that my grandfather, along with many boys raised in early twentieth century Germany, shared in these traits, so I’m not surprised that my Emil could remind a reader of Emil in Emil und die Detektive. Even in 1920s and 1930s Germany, children were children. They were fun, mischievous, yearned for independence, and had flaws, like most kids today.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this novel?
JVK: Emotionality. Writing about one of the most disturbing periods of history was no easy feat and it was important to remember that difficult topics are difficult for everyone: kids, parents, educators, and writers. Crushing the Red Flowers took me years to write. That’s a long time to cognitively live in 1938 Germany and it was especially taxing because my book is based on true family experiences.

I coped by prioritizing self-care and by taking occasional breaks. I learned it was okay to step away from the book for short periods. This not only improved my well-being, it allowed me to see the bigger picture and ultimately improved my ability to connect with middle-grade readers.

Another challenge was staying true to my objectives. I believe a children’s writer must be certain of their intentions when undertaking a highly charged subject. I originally set out to capture portions of my family history, but also aimed for the project to become much more. I wanted to introduce this topic to middle-grade readers in a thought-provoking way without softening the disturbing reality, disregarding authenticity, or overly distressing my young readers. During the writing process, I realized Crushing the Red Flowers wasn’t like other children’s Holocaust books and that initially made me pause. But I learned that that was okay. If I were to ask a thousand people who lived through the period about their experiences, I would receive a thousand different answers. I’m glad I stayed on course because in the end, the book felt true to me and to my Jewish and non-Jewish family members who had experienced the November pogrom.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
JVK: My hope (and potential greatest satisfaction) is that the novel helps children develop more awareness of their own morality. To this end, I developed a discussion guide at the end of Crushing the Red Flowers as well as a longer educator’s guide tied to core-curriculum standards to encourage rich conversation, offer a safe stage to talk about difficult elements, and help discussion leaders make sure that readers understand the material. I included questions to explore characters’ feelings and reasons for their actions. I also incorporated other art forms, like sketching pictures and creating book trailers, and asked questions that have readers link back to their own lives.

TWM: Please describe your support network—writing group, readers, agent?
JVK: I’m fortunate to have a large writer support group. During the editing process, my first stop is my beloved online critique partners, where I post one chapter at a time. In the ten years I’ve worked with these children’s writers, they’ve graciously accepted everything I’ve thrown at them—novels, picture books, stories, blog posts, articles, and even website content—and labored to enhance every piece. Once I have a solid working draft, I then send the full manuscript to two or three additional children’s writers who had not previously seen the work. And finally, a few kids, my wonderful beta readers, take a peek. I love how excited they are to take part in the process and also how they don’t hold back when giving feedback. Only after gaining their approval, I’m ready to send it off to agents.

Children’s authors tend to be kind people and, considering writers never have enough hours in the day, are particularly generous with their time and advice. In addition to my critique partners, I’ve often tapped into my author community for guidance. They’ve helped me with a range of topics: from developing school visit content, to finding a website designer, to evaluating publicists, to figuring out what to work on next.

Writing is truly my happy place and I love focusing on day-to-day joys. As I look back on my lengthy journey to publish Crushing the Red Flowers, I treasure all the varied moments that were necessary to create it: collaborating with my family, establishing relationships with fellow writers, and learning about the publishing business.

TWM: How did you and Ig Publishing connect, that is, how did you get to Ig?
JVK: When the novel was finished, I began submitting it to literary agents, then editors, and all the while to writing contests. By the time it was selected by Ig Publishing, a wonderful award-winning small press, Crushing the Red Flowers had been recognized in six writing contests, including earning a Letter of Merit in the 2012 SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant and winning the Middle-Grade Category in the 2016 Publishers Weekly BookLife Prize for Fiction.

What attracted me to Ig Publishing was their impressive list of awards, willingness to try new strategies, and previous experience with children’s novels with Jewish content. Additionally, Ig Publishing had reissued a number of YA classics, including a few by Sydney Taylor: Ella of All-of-A-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, and More All-of-a-Kind Family.

Working with Ig Publishing provided my book access to reviewers, exposure to booksellers, and allowed for a much shorter turnaround time than what I might have expected with a large publishing house.

TWM: Who inspires you?
JVK: I live with a very chatty internal muse and have no shortage of ideas. In fact, I need multiple spreadsheets to house all my thoughts. I keep pages of character traits, great lines, verbs, themes, and plot points.

That said, I’m often inspired by other art forms. Any time another artist effectively captures an emotion sends me running to my laptop. Examples that have moved me include hearing music lyrics that perfectly encapsulate teen angst, viewing a 1937 painting that captures the nuanced experience of Nazi resistance, spotting architecture designed to flawlessly harmonize with its surrounding landscape, and witnessing a dancer wholly and viscerally portray the piece they are performing.

Work ethic also inspires me. I love hearing stories about writers who have full lives during the day and still make time for their writing muse. Or really, any inspiring story about hard-working individuals in other professions who push themselves in the pursuit of excellence.

TWM: What’s next for you?
JVK: More children’s books! I love writing for kids and plan to continue. As I mentioned, writing Crushing the Red Flowers was a highly emotional experience for me. After completing the book, I yearned to write in a completely different genre, so I jumped into a funny, middle-grade sci-fi novel. Now that I’ve completed a draft, I’m prepared to say that I could see myself writing another historical novel at some point in the future. Currently, I’m writing a picture book and plotting a new middle-grade magical realism novel. Please follow my Facebook author page or my website to stay informed of my latest projects.

About Jennifer Voigt Kaplan

Jennifer Voigt Kaplan is an award-winning author of children’s fiction. Her debut children’s novel, Crushing the Red Flowers, was published November 19, 2019 by Ig Publishing. The manuscript was endorsed by James Patterson and was recognized in six literary contests before its publication, including earning a Letter of Merit for the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant and winning the middle-grade category of Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize for Fiction. Jennifer was born in Germany, raised in Philadelphia, and now resides in the New York City area.

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. The Jewish Book Council has just announced its 2019 winners. I agree with some choices, like Michael Dobbs’s Unwanted and, of course, Lesléa Newman’s Gittel’s Journey. But another book that won I thought lacked any authenticity. Sigh. I assigned sections of Unwanted to my America and the Holocaust course that starts on Jan. 27.
  2. I’m cramming in as much genealogy and writing as I can before the semester starts. I came across some information late last night that gives me a glimmer of hope that my grandmother’s sister may have survived the Holocaust. It’s a long shot. I’ve reached out to her daughter through Facebook. I usually don’t get responses that way, but at least I’m trying.
  3. A few of us Jersey girls from Gratz College’s Holocaust & Genocide Studies programs will be heading over some Sunday soon, I hope, to see the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s “Auschwitz” exhibit. One of our classmates is a docent there.

Have a great week, everyone!

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Two-in-One Author’s Notebook | Essie’s Revelation Summer by Deanie Yasner with Publisher Nancy Sayre

Author Deanie Yasner

Yasner, Deanie. Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer. Golden Alley Press, 2019, 241 pp. $8.99.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer captures so many historical (and emotional) details. How much of those came from your memory vs. research? How much of this did you personally experience?
Deanie Yasner (DY): Many of the historical details emerged from a combination of two things: memory first, followed by research to verify my childhood recollections of growing up Jewish and “different” in the deep South during the era of segregation. Even though the prevailing Jim Crow Laws were alien to my “old soul” being, they were very powerful and have had a profound influence on my perspective as an adult long-since removed from that unfortunate time in our history.

Because it was imperative for me to ensure the purity and honesty of the book before it was read by a single child, I worked hard to validate my memories by communicating with local Mississippi historians, childhood classmates and adult friends who still reside in the area. I also verified details utilizing online research.

The emotional details were from my memory. It is difficult to forget the daily events and struggles I either experienced firsthand or witnessed being faced by my dear Pearlie May and all of the black people. I cannot erase certain facts: Pearlie May not being allowed to sit with me at the local drugstore for an ice cream soda, or sit with me at the movies, or enter the public library. I will always remember the signs that read “For Whites Only—For Colored Only.” The very separateness that permeated my daily life will forever be ingrained in my psyche, not only from living under the rules of segregation but also from the fact that I was separate based upon my Jewish religion. What I personally experienced was the profound feeling of not belonging and of being in a place and time I did not understand, as Essie Rose said many times.

TWM: Please describe your writing process for this book.
DY: In many ways, this book has been writing inside me for years. I knew this was my story and mine only to tell—just how?

My very first attempt was to write a poetic novel in verse. I began with free-floating vignettes that focused on my friendship with Pearlie May and my feelings of knowing and sensing my differentness early on as a Jewish child being raised in an environment and climate that created a constant internal unease.

Simultaneously, I realized I needed to study the craft of writing in depth. I immersed myself in an array of technical books, studied authors who wrote in my genre, and sought advice from a writing teacher/coach.

Finally, I began the journey of transforming the vignettes into a story that took the form of an historical fiction novel, written as Essie Rose’s writer’s notebook. This felt right, as I was intimately familiar with my protagonist and her ways as an “old soul” observer. At this point I knew two definites that would become part of my book: the fate of Pearlie May, and that Essie Rose’s connection to Charlotte’s Web would be a sub-theme.

Then it was time to take on the task of becoming 10-year-old Essie Rose, writer and worrier, each and every time I sat down to put my words to paper. I discovered the necessity of letting go of my preconceived notions and ideas and to trust my characters to speak to me. This writing process, for me, was both laborious and glorious, even mysterious.

TWM: What were your greatest challenges in writing this story?
DY: The greatest challenge was becoming the 10-year old Jewish child, writer and worrier. I found it quite difficult, but ultimately rewarding, to realize that to achieve depth and authenticity, I would have to dig deep into my emotions. Especially the one that I experienced in all its ugliness: shame. I had to relive the struggles and emotional pain that were my story. In many ways I am still Essie Rose. It was imperative that I kept her voice from the first word of the story to the very last.

TWM: What were your greatest satisfactions?
DY: My greatest satisfactions were, first, that I achieved the creation of a strong and hopefully unforgettable character in Essie Rose Ginsberg and kept her voice throughout the entire book. The second satisfaction was, that while my book is Jewish themed, the story offers a universality that touches all children and adults. Essie Rose’s challenges of feeling different, of being bullied, of trying to find her voice and ultimately her courage, are the same challenges facing children today in our complex and divided society.

I also take great satisfaction that this book enabled me to pay homage to my real Pearlie May, and that I was able to honor the sacrifices my parents were required to make to sustain and nourish our Jewishness under difficult circumstances.

TWM: Please describe your process of revision and getting feedback for this book.
DY: Revision was a constant attempt to flesh out the characters, to make sure each scene (diary entry, in my case) moved my story forward. I was fortunate to have a circle of friends and a supportive teacher who provided encouragement and feedback during the entire process.

My final revision, accomplished in partnership with my editor/publisher Nancy Sayre, was immensely rewarding and proved to be an enormous learning experience. Working through our weekly real-time sessions to resolve specific issues and search for that perfect word or phrase was both challenging and exciting. Our commitment to this story blossomed and propelled us to the finish line.

TWM: Who inspires you?
DY: As a former special education teacher and behavior specialist/consultant, I am inspired by all the children who face daily challenges with perseverance and courage and their parents who advocate for them with the same courage.

I am inspired by those people who I witness daily doing tiny but significant good deeds just because it is the right thing to do. This is the first of Pearlie May Gibbs’ Half Dozen Words of Wisdom: BE KIND!

TWM: Was Charlotte’s Web a favorite book of yours? What else did you like to read?
DY: To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember the first time I read E.B. White’s book. I do know I read it several times prior to writing my story, not knowing it would become an important sub-theme. I continue to read it at least once a year along with another favorite book of mine, To Kill a Mockingbird. I am sorry to say that I do not recall many of the childhood books I must have read. I most likely read The Bobbsey Twins and The Ugly Duckling as well. On a lighter note, as part of our family weekly ritual growing up, I read the same Sunday comics Essie Rose enjoyed while my parents read other parts of the newspaper.

TWM: What advice do you have for writers who want to mine their memories through fiction and writing for children?
DY: I would say to any writer: If you take on this task, be forewarned that the journey might take you to places where you will experience intense emotional highs and equally intense emotional lows. If you want your story to achieve depth, clarity, and authenticity, pay close attention to both. I would also ask writers to heed the mantra I held close to my heart throughout the huge undertaking of writing Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer: Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.

It is interesting that you asked if there could be a sequel in the works. It has been so very heartening that many of my readers have asked the same question. To know they are so invested in my protagonist is a writer’s dream come true. The idea has crossed my mind, and I do find myself daydreaming about her new life. I am open and receptive, waiting for Essie Rose to lend her voice as to what the future holds.

Nancy, let’s turn briefly to you. What attracted you to Deanie’s manuscript?
Nancy Sayre: As a Christian, hopefully in the mold of Pearlie May and Moses, the Truth in Deanie’s book called my name the minute I read it. Yes! I thought. This is exactly what we all need to hear right now. What my grandchildren need to hear. And let me also say I fell in love with Deanie, herself, at the first word that came out of her mouth. She has a very sweet voice and is hands down the most grateful person I have ever met.

For more about Deanie, please visit her website.

For more about Golden Alley Press, please visit the website.

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. I received two invitations to teach: One to teach undergrad Intro to Creative Writing and one to teach undergrad Literature of the Holocaust at two different universities. Problem: They were both for Tuesday/Thursday at 2 pm when I’m already teaching a history course. I had to turn them down. But then Lit of the Holocaust was offered as an online option and I said yes. I’ve been working feverishly on a syllabus and getting onboarded. Class starts Monday.
  2. I have signed up for writing classes and mentorships to help me complete two manuscripts this year. I’m also working on a new short story that I think wants to become a novel.
  3. My beta reader gave me comments on my previously failed middle-grade historical. I am earmarking the revision for 2021.

What are  you planning on writing this year? Classes at The Whole Megillah (new fiction cycle starting January 26) and Writing Chai are still available. Please contact me below for more information.

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Writing Chai

With today’s post, I am starting a new The Whole Megillah feature: Writing Chai. This ad hoc feature will focus on the writing life, craft books, courses, the struggles, the triumphs. I look forward to your participation! I am interested in guest bloggers for this feature, FYI.

Inspired by reading Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, I took her book, Still Writing, out of my local library yesterday. I read it in one sitting, ignoring my usual Thursday night television shows. I tagged a number of pages.

Get Inspiration from Reading

Shapiro insists that to be a writer means to also be a reader. I couldn’t agree more. She notes she keeps certain books by her writing space. They include: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and the latest editions of Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. This reminded me that I always kept Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River (she gave a reading from this novel at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar on historical fiction and it inspired me to write my short story, “The Guardian”) next to my computer.

Apply the Five Senses

Shapiro reminds writers that we need to keep our characters’ five senses in mind. This brought to mind Robert Olen Butler’s craft book, From Where We Dream, one of my favorites.

Have a Routine

Shapiro keeps to a writing routine of writing three pages a day, five days a week. I have no writing routine, although I love the idea of one. Could I commit to one in 2020? That said, I am continuing to write one poem a week with my poetry mentor with the goal of finishing my rough draft of my contemporary YA novel in verse by year’s end. I also have a goal of finishing my rough draft of my genealogical memoir by year’s end and have signed up for a 10-week online course at Creative Nonfiction to give me deadlines. How I’m going to manage this with my doctoral coursework and teaching five college courses this semester, I don’t know.

Engage in Organic Writing

Like Robert Olen Butler and Julia Cameron, Shapiro seems to favor writing drafts longhand. So do I. Shapiro writes, “Pick a notebook, any notebook. If you compose well in it, you will become attached.” She prefers the messiness of writing in a notebook, making circles, striking whole sentences. I bought maybe twenty notebooks while they were on sale during the Back to School sale at the local supermarket.

Action Is Not Plot, But the Result of Pathos

Shapiro quotes Aristotle’s Poetics to remind us that stories get read and loved because they use pathos. Because we want to know what happens to the characters, because we grow to care about the characters. She writes, “If you have people, you have pathos. We are incited by our feelings—by the love, rage, envy, sorrow, joy, longing, fear, passion—that lead us to action.”

Take Risks

As writers, we get to play with time. I think about Julie Zuckerman’s The Book of Jeremiah and Dara Horn’s The World to Come. We also get to play with form. Are we taking enough risks?

Check out Still Writing and see what inspires you. Feedback on this and this new feature welcome!

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Mid-Week Notes

Happy New Year, everyone! Today is the first day of a new year and a new decade. Three quick things:

  1. Every December I assess my year-end accomplishments and set long- and short-term goals for the coming year(s). A tool I rely on to do this comes from Annette Gendler. Check it out!
  2. I set out yesterday to write a new essay about the effects of DNA testing on family dynamics. It turned into fiction, which is probably a better idea given the family sensitivities.
  3. Jack El-Hai’s latest blog post reinforces the idea of writing about history from our own backyards. This is something I was just talking about last night with a fellow academic. And, it has inspired me to pull a failed middle-grade historical novel out of the vault and see what I could do with it with fresh eyes. I don’t think I’ve looked at it since 2005 when it imploded during an overhaul.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, productive, and prosperous year!

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. I just received my January/February issue of Poets & Writers, an issue focused on Inspiration. Just by thumbing through submission opportunities, I think I found it!
  2. In that same issue, I spotted the name of a former Montclair (NJ) Adult School memoir class student who won a major literary award! That made me feel great as a teacher and colleague. Congratulations, Jung Hae Chae! (I sent her a congratulatory note via email.)
  3. I’m exploring inexpensive ways to get me writing in 2020. Any suggestions welcome!

Have a great week, everyone! And to all those observing Christmas, have a merry one!

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