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.