When I was approached to interview Deborah Hopkinson, I jumped at the chance. Deborah, who has enjoyed an illustrious career as a children’s book author, has penned more than 50 award-winning books for young people: picture books, MG fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book, We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance, was released on February 2 from Scholastic. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Deborah to the Mixed-Up Files.
Meet Deborah Hopkinson
MR: Hi, Deborah. Thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files blog. It’s an honor to have you here.
DH: Thank you for having me, and for all you do to support young readers and authors.
MR: As stated in the introduction, you have written more than 50 books for children in different genres and on a wide variety of topics, from the Kindertransport of World War II to Dolly Parton and Michelle Obama. What draws you to a specific project, and what keeps you riveted?
DH: During in-person (and now virtual) author visits, I always tell young readers that I’m a lot like them: I get curious and want to know about things. And so I start researching and digging. I’m often spurred by the question: “How come I never knew about this?”
Stories of the Holocaust
MR: Your latest book, We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance, chronicles the stories of Holocaust survivors from Western- and Eastern European countries, including, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, and Hungary. With so many varied and important stories to share, how did you choose which ones to highlight? It must have been a herculean task.
DH: There are so many stories that need to be told. In We Must Not Forget and its companion, We Had to be Brave, I tried to be a curator of sorts. I began with a long list, and many oral histories and memoirs. The final books took shape as I tried to convey the varieties of what people experienced in different places and siuations. I also tried to include as many children and teens as possible. Lisa Sandell, my wonderful editor at Scholastic Focus, also encouraged me to round out sections to provide a fuller picture.
The historian’s role
(Dr. Jacob Presser, author of Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry)
MR: As above, the stories in We Must Not Forget are extremely raw and painful to read: Jews chased by dogs and shot in the streets; children separated from their parents and siblings; the deportation of Jews and other marginalized groups to Nazi death camps; scientific experimentation on Jews, mass murder… How do you do the important work of sharing these stories without getting sucked under by grief and despair? Do you have any specific coping mechanisms in your author’s toolbox?
DH: I try to always remind myself that writing, preserving, and passing these stories on is a very small thing. Early on in We Must Not Forget, I quote Dr. Jacob Presser, Holocaust survivor and Dutch historian, who spent fifteen years writing about the Jewish experience in the Netherlands under the Nazis. He said that working with scraps of messages thrown out from trains leaving the Netherlands gave him an awareness that one of the roles of the historian is “to give the dead a voice.” I am an amateur historian only, but I tried to be guided by this when writing the book.
Strength in the face of despair
(Vlada Meed, who lost her parents, brother, and sister in the Warsaw Ghetto, and later joined the resistance)
MR: Fortitude and resilience are reoccurring themes in your books, particularly in your titles about World War II and the Holocaust. From your many years of research—including interviews with dozens of Holocaust survivors, which readers can access online via the links provided in your books—what do you think gives a person strength in the face of unspeakable ugliness and despair?
DH: One thing that came up again and again was family. That’s not a surprise, of course. But the love of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent or a spouse gave people strength.
Yet it’s important to realize that often strength grew out of intense despair and hopelessness. Vladka Meed lost her parents, brother, and sister in the Warsaw Ghetto. She reflected that she had nothing left to lose and so willingly risked her life and joined the resistance. Vladka saved others, fell in love, and survived. After immigrating to the United States, Vladka and Benjamin Meed were among the key voices in founding the United States Holocaust Memorial as a living memorial to those who were killed.
Many of these stories center on brothers and sisters who kept going and tried to endure the unendurable for their siblings, or for the memory of their parents who had been murdered. I was struck by how many stories include mention of the impact of small acts of kindness from others. Although these were, sadly, rare, it is something that we can all remember to do better at.
Definition of a hero
MR: Altruism is another powerful theme in your books. As described in We Must Not Forget, a great number of non-Jews participated in the resistance movement by hiding Jews in their homes, bribing police and public officials, and smuggling Jews out of the country. As above, what gave these heroes the strength to take such extraordinary risks at the possible expense of their own lives? Also, in your eyes, what defines a “hero”?
DH: I don’t know that there is one answer to this, or an easy answer. And I don’t feel at all qualified to know what it was like to face those risks and choices. But I hope that as young people read these stories, they will ask themselves, as we all must do, how we stand up to unfairness, injustice, bullying, racism, and evil in our own lives.
I don’t know that I can define a hero either. But I do know that as I’ve read accounts of health-care workers fighting to save lives during this pandemic that these people are heroes.
The ugly rise of antisemitism
MR: On a separate but related note, antisemitism is on the rise. According to the American Defense League, assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S. and in Europe. Additionally, an 2018 survey by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency revealed that 89% of European Jews living across the Continent feel antisemitism has increased in their country over the past decade. Almost half worried about being insulted or harassed in public because they are Jewish, and more than a third feared being physically attacked. I know this question can’t be answered definitively—and in the space allotted here—but in your opinion as an historian, what is the explanation for this uptick in antisemitism?
DH: Yes, this rise in antisemitism and white supremacy is exceptionally disturbing. And the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was a sobering reminder of how extremism can take hold and how rhetoric and disinformation can fuel it. My books include links to the Anti-Defamation League for resources on antisemitism.
I researched and wrote We Had to be Brave and We Must Not Forget during the previous administration. And it was often very disturbing to see statistics on the rise of bullying and antisemitism today, while reading about young Kindertransport survivors, whose first inklings of what was happening after Hitler’s rise to power was being bullied and harassed by classmates and those they considered friends.
I am not a trained historian or scholar, of course. Nor am I Jewish; I am lucky to have an editor who is, and both We Must Not Forget and We Had to be Brave were also vetted by Jewish experts from the museum world.
In my writing and presentations for young readers to focus on historical thinking skills: sourcing, close reading, corroboration, and contextualization. I do this because I believe young children and teens need these tools to understand disinformation, propaganda, and misinformation to help counter the negative effects of rhetoric like this. I read recently that society needs to take this effort to combat extremism more fully, and I believe that is true.
The importance of empathy
MR: And finally, what would you like young readers to take away with them after reading your books—especially the ones about World War II and the Holocaust?
DH: I believe empathy is the most important thing I hope readers discover in these stories. It is a cliché, but true nevertheless: Reading about the past through the voices of real, ordinary people makes history come alive.
Another essential element to reading is discovering the power to make up your own mind and think for yourself about what is happening in the world.
In addition to fighting prejudice, racism, and discrimination in their everyday lives, I hope young people will be inspired to learn about the past—and feel empowered to become involved in their communities now and in the future.
Finally, I hope my books encourage readers to be brave enough to ask questions, follow evidence, and use their skills and knowledge to make up their own minds. I have a lot of hope young people can do just that.
MR: Thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files, Deborah. We appreciate your participation hugely!
a two-book GIVEAWAY!!!
For a chance to win WE HAD TO BE BRAVE and WE MUST NOT FORGET, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win!
Deborah Hopkinson’s bio
DEBORAH HOPKINSON is an award-winning author of picture books, middle-grade fiction, and nonfiction. Her nonfiction titles include We Had to Be Brave: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport; Titanic: Voices from the Disaster; Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark; Dive! World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific; and D-Day: The World War II Invasion That Changed History. Deborah lives with her family near Portland, Oregon, along with an eclectic assortment of pets. Learn more about Deborah on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.