Writing novels about the Holocaust for young readers has only been done by a few. Hatfield, Massachusetts, author Jane Yolen has written three on the topic of Jewish teenagers experiencing World War II.
Yolen’s new book is called “Mapping the Bones.” In this last of our Back-to-School Book Series, she talked about how “Hansel and Gretel” frames the story of Chaim and Gittel, twins who live in Poland.
Jane Yolen, author: There's a scene at the beginning where the boy, Chaim, is sent out on a job for his father to go and sell the mother's rings. Because they have no income now, because they're in the ghetto, and he's 14, 15. He's not quite a man yet, but he has to be the man at this point. And he almost stumbles over something in his path. When he looks down, it's a child. It's a dead child in the street.
Jill Kaufman, NEPR: If you can read from the scene. I know it's a long one.
"Chaim... wasn't paying careful enough attention to the man in front of him. A nondescript, hunched over, dark-coated scarecrow, a man who turned to the right to avoid a pile of rags. Chaim only saw him at the last moment, cursing silently at his own carelessness.
"Chaim checked his forward movement and only barely avoided stepping on the pile. He was deathly afraid he might get tangled in the rags. There was a soldier standing on the corner who might have noticed him then. A soldier with a gun. For a moment, he thought, rags can be useful. Mama could always sew Gittel a new skirt with those rags, or Papa a warmer shirt, and maybe that would help him with his cough.
"In the ghetto, it had come to this: rag-picking. However, he didn't dare bend over now, or slow down, so he just made a quick hop-step to the right. But as he glanced at the bundle from the corner of his eye, he realized where the man had stepped around it rather than simply trod upon it. The thing wasn't actually a bundle of rags, but a small girl, maybe five, or six, in a washed-out blue headscarf, threadbare blue dress, and a scruffy coat with the requisite yellow star on the sleeve."
You're writing about an atrocity that is really well-known, and you're not toning it down a whole lot. But you are changing the tone somehow, that it's not for a reader like me. You do something -- so what does a young adult novelist do when you're writing about something that's so well-known and so horrific?
Well, you have to develop the children. And your main children -- or child, or children -- have to grow, and change. In a sense, you're saying to your reader: here is where he starts. But these things change him, and if he wants to be changed for the better, we have to see that. If he's changed for the worse, we have to see that.
Do you have a personal connection to this time in history, to the Holocaust?
I had several uncles and cousins, and my father, who were in the war. And it was unbelievable what they saw. I mean, they thought this was impossible. This couldn't be people. People couldn't have used people this way.
I didn't start hearing these stories until I was almost a teen myself. Nobody much taught it in the schools, even though I was brought up in Manhattan, and in a fairly Jewish community.
And there wasn't a whole lot to read, for an age group, when I grew up, with “The Diary of Anne Frank,” like many, and it left you not knowing a lot. And it did not write the beautiful --
You knew they were hidden, but you didn't know the fate of Anne Frank from “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Right. It takes a lot out of you to write these books, and you were never going to write another one after the first two.
Or after the first one.
And then “The Devil's Arithmetic” came out, and that also became a movie. And then you went for “Mapping the Bones.” So what reserves did you find, and why would you continue these stories?
I think that somewhere inside me, I knew that in the first two books, I actually was shying away from some of the true darkness. I hinted at it, but when I wrote “Devil's Arithmetic,” I had -- my children were growing up. And I think sometimes you think, do I want other children to read this book? Do I want my children to read this book?
And then I got to “Briar Rose,” and I wrote that for an adult audience. It was published first as an adult book, and then so many people were teaching it in high school and college. They brought it out. They didn't change any of the words, but they brought it out in what looked more like a young adult edition.
What I found myself thinking about was the sense of memory in each of the first two books. But those are both secondhand. And I thought to myself, you've never actually stood next to these people when it was happening. It's a different kind of memory -- a different kind of remembering.