Curriculum Tie-in

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit Still Relevant

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

When beloved children’s book author Judith Kerr passed away in May at the age of 95, I’d been about two weeks into reading to my two sons her classic and still relevant middle-grade novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

This was a seminal book for me as a child: I read it over and over again and vividly remember parts of it to this day. I had great feelings—and memories— for the book, but never particularly thought about who wrote it. When I moved to London 25 years later however, I discovered that in fact its author, Judith Kerr, is the creator of some 30 picture books. This includes one of the most classic children’s books here in England: The Tiger Who Came to Tea which I had immediately fallen in love with.

Two Sequels

In that first year we lived in London, I made another surprising discovery, at least to me: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit actually has two sequels—Bombs on Aunt Dainty which is more upper middle grade or possibly YA, and A Small Person Far Away, which I would also classify as YA or possibly even adult. They’re all fictionalized versions of Judith Kerr’s own story of being a refugee from Germany as Hitler came to power. 

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit starts when its main character, Anna, is nine, and ends when she is 11 going on 12, which is roughly my own age range when I read this book over and over again. Now an adult myself, it was fascinating to read the continuation of Anna’s life into adulthood. And in essence the three books together are a bildungsroman: the story of the artist as a young woman. But while I greatly enjoyed discovering and reading the two sequels, something held me back from re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as an adult. I think I was probably afraid—what if it didn’t hold up to how I remembered it? And when considering a beloved childhood book to read to my kids there is always the extra risk of them hating it, not getting what’s so great about it, or finding it BORE-ING!

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit Still Relevant

But the story in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which was first published in 1971 and takes place in 1933-36, seems highly relevant right now and I sensed my sons were at a good age for it —at least to try. In any case, I needn’t have worried. The two boys, ages eight and ten, were enthralled. Every night they would literally beg me to read, and read more! In fact, the book not only holds up to how I remember it, but is even deeper.

There were several occasions on reading it—and not ones that I remembered from childhood—in which I was moved to tears. And reading the chapters each night with my sons provoked great questions and discussions. The story is not only so relevant now because of the refugee crisis, but it introduces children to Hitler coming to power and to anti-semitism—as well as the idea of racism—in a forthright and age-appropriate way. It “talks up” to them in a way that both the ten-year-old and the eight-year-old could handle and appreciate.

Pink Rabbit and Writing Craft

But it’s as a writer now myself that I marveled most.

Children's Book Still Relevant Today

I can’t find the cover image I remember from childhood but I adore this one from the edition I read with my sons

Judith Kerr expertly crafted When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit yet with the lightest of touches so it’s only now that I realize what a feat the book is.

She is telling the story of her life and her family’s experiences, but instead of it being a series of “this happened,” “and then this happened,” it is all harnessed to a cohesive story that has a beautiful narrative shape. She writes in an afterward that although she “filled in the gaps with invented detail” and was writing in the third person about a girl called Anna (because she felt that as a middle-aged English woman she was no longer the same little German girl that had fled the Nazis) she decided early on in the project “that all the important things must be true—the things that happened, how I felt about them, what we, our friends and the places we lived in were like.”

I have recently been reading many books on writer’s craft as I work on a major redrafting of my novel, and I am struck and awestruck at how Judith Kerr accomplished this. For one thing, there is an efficiency to each vignette so that no episode is random (even if it might delightfully seem that way at first) and each comes together in service of the greater story or theme—which is that Anna doesn’t feel like a refugee because as long as her family has stayed together that is her home.

For another thing, Judith Kerr has a way of mining the quiet moments for their drama and humor, while what is truly frightening or deeply upsetting (especially read through the eyes of an adult) are handled with a feather-weight dexterity so that they are not made light of but they are not so scary so as to no longer be appropriate for a children’s book. I think a lot of this comes down to her success at seeing everything through a child’s eye and staying true to that perspective. She doesn’t shy away from depressing moments, that sometimes one feels low, or that bad things happen. But through it all there’s a general positivity and the assurance of grown ups.

Overall, re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit with my sons, I experienced both nostalgia for how I felt about it as a child, a re-ignition of my love for it, and an all-new feeling of admiration and aesthetic connection. It gave me great joy to read. I wish I could write like her! I will continue to study her novels and figure out just how she did it. Judith Kerr’s work is a huge inspiration to me and children’s literature is richer for her legacy.

 

World Press Freedom Day

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, which celebrates the importance of a free press in a functional society. First organized by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, it’s a day to commemorate journalists around the world who have fought with integrity for a free press.

Here at The Mixed-Up Files, we’d like to celebrate by shining a light on middle-grade books about real and fictional investigative journalists. If you have your own favorite middle-grade book about a star reporter, tell us about it in the comment section!

 

The News Crew, (Book 1: Originally The Cruisers) by Walter Dean Myers
The is the first in a series, which included: Checkmate, A Star is Born, and Oh, Snap! Zander and his crew are underdogs at DaVinci Academy, one of the best Gifted and Talented schools in Harlem. But even these kids who are known as losers can win by speaking up. When they start their own school newspaper, stuff happens. Big stuff. Loud stuff. Stuff nobody expects. Mr. Culpepper, the Assistant Principal and Chief Executioner, is ready to be rid of Zander, Kambui, LaShonda, and Bobbi – until they prove that their writing packs enough power to keep the peace and show what it means to stand up for a cause.

 

 

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey

It’s 1920s Chicago—the guns-and-gangster era of Al Capone—and it’s unusual for a girl to be selling the Tribune on the street corner. But ten-year-old Isabel Feeney is unusual . . . unusually obsessed with being a news reporter. She can’t believe her luck when she stumbles into a real-life murder scene and her hero, the famous journalist Maude Collier. The story of how Isabel fights to defend the honor of her accused friend and latches on to the murder case makes for a winning middle grade mystery.

 

 

 

The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan by Patricia Bailey

Life in a Nevada mining town in 1905 is not easy for 13-year-old Kit Donovan, who is trying to do right by her deceased mother and become a proper lady. When Kit discovers Papa’s boss at the gold mine is profiting from unsafe working conditions, she realizes being a lady is tougher than it looks. With a man’s hat and a printing press, Kit puts her big mouth and all the life skills she’s learned from reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to work, defying threats of violence and finding that justice doesn’t always look like she imagined it would.

 

 

 

Adam Canfield of the Slash by Michael Winerip

Adam Canfield has to be the most overprogrammed middle-school student in America. So when super-organized Jennifer coaxes him to be coeditor of their school newspaper, THE SLASH, he wonders if he’s made a big mistake. But when a third-grader’s article leads to a big scoop, Adam and his fellow junior journalists rise to the challenge of receiving their principal’s wrath to uncover some scandalous secrets. From a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and NEW YORK TIMES columnist comes a funny, inspiring debut that sneaks in some lessons on personal integrity — and captures the rush that’s connected to the breaking of a really great story.

 

 

 

The Truth About the Truman School by Dori Hillestad Butler

When Zebby and Amr create the website thetruthabouttruman.com, they want it to be honest. They want it to be about the real Truman Middle School, to say things that the school newspaper would never say, and to give everyone a chance to say what they want to say, too. But given the chance, some people will say anything—anything to hurt someone else. And when rumors about one popular student escalate to cruel new levels, it’s clear the truth about Truman School is more harrowing than anyone ever imagined.

 

 

 

Clara Voyant by Rachelle Delaney

Clara can’t believe her no-nonsense grandmother has just up and moved to Florida, leaving Clara and her mother on their own for the first time. This means her mother can finally “follow her bliss,” which involves moving to a tiny apartment in Kensington Market, working at an herbal remedy shop and trying to develop her so-called mystical powers. Clara tries to make the best of a bad situation by joining the newspaper staff at her new middle school, where she can sharpen her investigative journalistic skills and tell the kind of hard-news stories her grandmother appreciated. But the editor relegates her to boring news stories and worse . . . the horoscopes.

Worse yet, her horoscopes come true, and soon everyone at school is talking about Clara Voyant, the talented fortune-teller. Clara is horrified — horoscopes and clairvoyance aren’t real, she insists, just like her grandmother always told her. But when a mystery unfolds at school, she finds herself in a strange situation: having an opportunity to prove herself as an investigative journalist . . . with the help of her own mystical powers.

 

 

Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told by Walter Dean Myers, illus. Bonnie Christensen

This picture book biography introduces the extraordinary Ida B. Wells. Long before boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides, Ida B. Wells was hard at work to better the lives of African Americans.

An activist, educator, writer, journalist, suffragette, and pioneering voice against the horror of lynching, she used fierce determination and the power of the pen to educate the world about the unequal treatment of blacks in the United States.

In this picture book biography, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of this legendary figure, which blends harmoniously with the historically detailed watercolor paintings of illustrator Bonnie Christensen.

 

 

 

Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids by Ellen Mahoney

In the late 1800s, the daring young reporter Elizabeth Cochrane—known by the pen name Nellie Bly—faked insanity so she could be committed to a mental institution and secretly report on the awful conditions there. This and other highly publicized investigative “stunts” laid the groundwork for a new kind of journalism in the early 1900s, called “muckraking,” dedicated to exposing social, political, and economic ills in the United States. In Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids budding reporters learn about the major figures of the muckraking era: the bold and audacious Bly, one of the most famous women in the world in her day; social reformer and photojournalist Jacob Riis; monopoly buster Ida Tarbell; antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells; and Upton Sinclair, whose classic book The Jungle created a public outcry over the dangerous and unsanitary conditions of the early meatpacking industry. Young readers will also learn about more contemporary reporters, from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to Amy Goodman, who have carried on the muckraking tradition, and will get excited about the ever-changing world of journalism and the power of purposeful writing. Twenty-one creative activities encourage and engage a future generation of muckrakers. Kids can make and keep a reporter’s notebook; write a letter to the editor; craft a “great ideas” box; create a Jacob Riis–style photo essay; and much more.

STEM Tuesday– Mixing Science and Poetry/Verse — Interview with Author Leslie Bulion

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Leslie Bulion about her new book Superlative Birds. This fascinating and brilliantly-illustrated book of fun and friendly bird poems is layered with facts and humor. It’s already garnered multiple starred reviews, including Kirkus who says, “With characteristic humor and carefully crafted language, poet Bulion offers readers amazing facts about birds of our world…. These engaging poems read aloud beautifully…. Excellent resources for further bird study complete this delightful offering.” There’s a terrific downloadable free Teaching Guide for the book, too.

Mary Kay Carson: How did this book come about? 

Leslie Bulion: I read about the turkey vulture’s remarkable sense of smell and wrote a poem about it that was included in Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong’s terrific Poetry Friday Anthology series. The turkey vulture’s superlative ability made me wonder about other bird-world “bests.” Each of my collections is organized around a theme and that’s how the theme for this collection hatched, complete with its ready-made, rhythmic, rhyming title: Su-per-la-tive Birds!

Superlative Birds celebrates bird “world record-holders”  through poems written in different poetic forms accompanied by short, narrative notes. While introducing these remarkable birds, readers explore all of the special attributes that help define birds: wings, eggs, nests, and beaks, as well as migration, song, and other important characteristics of birdness. A chickadee “spokesbird” challenges readers to find those attributes belonging only to birds (hint: not those I just mentioned!).

MKC: Why use poetry in a book about birds?

Leslie: In 2003 I attended a summer class at Cornell Adult University called “The Way Bugs Work.” We looked under rocks, swept nets through the field, and examined critters in the lab. I kept a science journal, scribbling notes and sketching bugs. I began to imagine insects as cool little adaptation stories. I’d written poems since elementary school and wondered if writing in the spare, elegantly small space of a poem could be a creative way to tell a cool science story. Those adaptation-themed stories metamorphosed into my first science poetry collection, Hey There, Stink Bug! (Charlesbridge 2006). My fourth collection, Leaf Litter Critters (Peachtree 2018) hatched from a bunch of sketches in that same summer science journal! Leaf Litter Critters takes an ecosystems approach, moving readers through trophic levels from primary decomposer to top predator in a “who-eats-who” of the decomposer food web.

MKC: To whom do you write–what imagined audience–while drafting?

Leslie: In creating my science poetry collections I hope the music and imagination space of poetry, the accompanying short narrative notes, and the addition of visual, narrative and resource-rich backmatter make these explorations of science and nature appealing and accessible to readers with a variety of learning styles. There’s a back-and-forth interplay between the poems, the illustrations, and narrative notes that can work for readers of many ages. At heart I’m still a fourth-grade kid who looks under rocks, sifts through sand, scans the trees and the sky, writes poems, reads and imagines. I would love for readers to find joy and wonder in these ideas and activities, too.

Leslie Bulion has been playing with the music of poetry since the fourth grade and has been a hands-on observer of the natural world from the moment she could peer under a rock. Leslie’s graduate studies in oceanography and years as a school social worker inform her science poetry collections: Superlative Birds, Leaf Litter Critters, At the Sea Floor Café, Random Body Parts, and Hey There, Stink Bug. www.lesliebulion.com.

MKC: Do you have a STEM background?

Leslie: I have graduate degrees in biological oceanography and social work, and worked as a medical social worker and a school social worker. I like to think my somewhat circuitous route has led me to my current work as a science communicator for young readers.

MKC: Could you give us a peek into your process? Do you write the poems first?

Leslie: When I was ready to explore the wild world of birds, I started by reading widely—nonfiction books and articles about birds, as well as fiction and memoir. This was the full-immersion, beginning stage of my research. There are a gazillion bird books. I didn’t read them all! I always include an element of hands-on learning when researching a book. For Superlative Birds I took a week-long class at the fascinating Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I had been interested in birds for a long time, but that week hooked me on birding—a fully sensory, mind and soul-expanding, moving meditation I do on my own and with friends. I love to record and share my citizen scientist observations in the ebird.org app on my phone.

I have a habit of tucking articles and notes into idea files for future projects—my super-fun “to-do” list. Those files give me a bit of a head start when I’m ready to work on a new project. Since I had decided to use superlatives to highlight the attributes we associate with birds, some amazing birds I’d read about did not make the cut. I read more specifically about the birds I did select. I took lots of notes, both for science concept and with an ear to language. After I finished most of my research (there’s always more!) I tackled the poems one-by-one. I considered how the form of each poem might enhance its subject. I worked on a poem (with many, many revisions, and more research), then the accompanying science note (ditto), then the poetry note. After those were finished, I created a rough plan for potential back matter. I worked very closely and joyfully with Robert Meganck on both Leaf Litter Critters and Superlative Birds, and we’re having a blast working on our upcoming Amphibian Acrobats (Peachtree 2020).

Win a FREE copy of Superlative Birds

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host is Mary Kay Carson, author of Alexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, Weird Animals, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson