Posts Tagged anti-semitism

Interview with Author Karen Pokras, author of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER, and BOOK GIVEAWAY!

I’m so thrilled to have Karen Pokras on today talking about her newest book, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER! Karen and I met at a writer’s conference many years ago and have since been part of a super cool writer’s group that meets once a week at a café to write alongside each other. It’s been a while since we’ve met up, of course, but even better for readers at From The Mixed Up-Files—we get Karen here today to talk about her new fun, adventurous, and heartfelt story! PLUS you could win a hardcover copy of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER. Just enter the contest at the end of this post. U.S. residents only please.

What’s THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER all about? …

Eleven-year-old Danny Wexler, the only Jewish boy in his town during the late 1970s, is obsessed with the Bermuda Triangle. When a local child goes missing, Danny’s convinced it’s connected to an old Bermuda Triangle theory involving UFOs. With his two best friends and their Spacetron telescope, Danny heads to his backyard to investigate. But hunting for extraterrestrials is complicated, and it doesn’t help that his friend Nicholas’s mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with a Jewish boy. Equipped with his super-secret spy notebook, Danny sets out to fight both the aliens and the growing antisemitism in the town, in hopes of mending his divided community.

Interview with Karen

Donna: The story is rich with family bonds, community connections, and 1970s nostalgia that adds a fun and deeper layer to the story. How much research was involved in writing a story set in this time period and how much of the 1970s references were inspired from your own childhood?

Karen: First, thank you so much for having me on From The Mixed-Up Files today!

In 1978, the year the story takes place, I was ten years old, so there is definitely a lot that is taken straight from my own childhood. At the same time, that was many years ago and I wanted to make sure I was capturing the time accurately. That’s mostly where the research came in, looking up things like what movies were the biggest box office hits (Grease), whether or not nurses wore caps on their heads (yes and no), and what pizza toppings were the most popular (pepperoni.) A couple of other fun facts I learned: the video game Space Invaders came out in 1978 and movie prices were only $2.00. I also put out a crowdsource call on Facebook asking friends to share some of their own favorite 1970s memories. The responses were so fun to sort through.

Donna: Danny is a sweet and endearing character who struggles at times and fumbles a bit in his choices and beliefs, making him very relatable to readers. Is his character based on anyone you know?

Karen: Like most of the characters I write, Danny is a combination of many people I know. I love to mingle real life observations and memories when creating characters. Part of the fun in writing a character like Danny is exploring his fumbles and watching him figure his way through, even if messy. The goal is for young readers to say yeah, I get it, I’ve been there, or I’m going through that, or this is something I want to remember because it’s important and it can help others.

Donna: The story is full of zany adventures for Danny and his friends such as investigating The Bermuda Triangle, aliens, werewolves, and urban myths that young readers will be sure to enjoy. How did you create the idea to blend all these things together in a story?

Karen: As a child, I remember being so curious about the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs. Those were always big topics in my house and among my neighborhood friends. I also had a completely irrational fear of a white van kidnapper. I honestly have no idea where it came from, but to me it was very real. I’m sure my older brother put it my head. (P.S. I’m not at all sure he did, but when I was 10, I blamed everything on him, so we’ll go with that.) When sitting down to write a story that took place in 1978, I knew I wanted all of these elements that were a big part of my own childhood. As for the werewolf, I have no explanation, other than: welcome to my ten-year-old writing brain.

Donna: While a fun adventure, the story also has more meaningful threads of cultural divides, multi-generational relationships, anti-Semitism, and strength of community bonds. What prompted you to combine light-hearted high jinks with these rich and heartfelt threads?

Karen: In 2017, when I’d first started thinking about writing a new story and began brainstorming with memories from my childhood, I knew I wanted to write about a small town in the 1970s with a strong community bond. I also knew the story would have humor and high jinks as that’s where my middle grade voice always tends to land. At the same time, however, I’d been watching acts of antisemitism nationally and locally month after month: Charlottesville, Jewish cemeteries being vandalized just miles away, people finding KKK fliers on their cars in my community. While it all terrified me, I also felt compelled to write about it, and so my focus shifted to make room in the story’s underlying themes, adding in the multi-generational relationship to help facilitate the discussion.

Donna: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism and bullying in many forms are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s—and often go hand-in-hand. Were there any experiences of both from your own childhood that helped drive your writing?

Karen: There definitely were. It’s funny how we keep certain memories buried. The deeper I got into Danny’s story, the more I would remember specific incidents from my childhood, through college and graduate school, straight into adulthood, all of which helped to drive the story. There’s no doubt this was a difficult book to write, particularly the ending, because there is no neat “tie it in a bow” resolution-type ending for antisemitism and other forms of bullying on a wide-scale.

Donna: There are many “what if?” scenarios throughout Danny’s story that add to the mystery and mayhem and will appeal to young reader’s imaginations. Do you use your own “what-if?” process to write books and if so, how does that work?

Karen: I’m pretty sure my brain is on a constant loop of “what-if.”  When it comes to writing books, I absolutely gravitate toward a “what-if” approach. For this book in particular, I spent a good deal of time journaling and exploring my own personal memories and feelings. I had a very, very loose picture with a few random scenes, but really no idea of how to get there or even how these scenes would fit together. I remember early in the process sending chapters to my critique partner with the message “here’s another chapter to the story without a story.” Slowly though things started coming together. So yes, there were a lot of “what ifs” and my critique partner is basically a saint for letting me run them all by her.

Donna: I love Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. Where did this idea come from—and did you have your own secret notebook as a child to record secrets in?

Karen: I wish I had a really cool answer for this one, but I don’t. It’s one of those things that popped into my head at some point during one of those “what if” moments. While I did keep diaries as a child, they were very different from Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. They were the kind with a lock and silver-edged paper, and I was always losing the key. I have no idea what became of them, and occasionally wonder if they wound up in the trash, or if someone has all my secrets stashed away somewhere.

Donna: Can you share what current story you’re working on, and does it explore similar themes in The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler or new ones?

Karen: I have a couple of manuscripts in the works and while both are very different than Danny Wexler, they both have multi-generational relationships, quirky/funny characters, and meaningful underlying themes. The first, about a science-loving girl who moves into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, is on submission, and the other, about to head out on submission, is about ballet and also examines antisemitism, but under very different circumstances. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these stories soon! Thank You, Donna!

About Karen:

Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Always an avid reader, Karen found her passion for writing later in life and now runs all of her stories past the furry ears of her two feline editorial assistants before anyone else. A numbers geek at heart, she enjoys a good spreadsheet almost as much as she loves storytelling. A native of Connecticut, Karen is the proud mom to three brilliant children who still provide an endless stream of great book material. She lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. ​For more information, visit karenpokras.com.

Karen’s social media links:

Website: www.karenpokras.com

Instagram: @karenpokras_author

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/karenptoz

Twitter: @karentoz

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

#JewishandProud –Kidlit Fights Bias

#JewishandProud

KIdlit always fights bias, and today is definitely a day to stand up. Today is #JewishandProud day.  This is a time when members of the Jewish community are encouraged to publicly display Jewish identity and faith in the face of ongoing and escalating anti-Semitic violence in this country and around the world. A recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that 31% of respondents reported feeling uncomfortable wearing or displaying anything would identify them as Jewish. That’s 31% too many people who are afraid to show pride in or belonging to or respect for the tenets of their faith because of a world that isn’t fighting back hard enough to stamp out hate.

jewish and proud day january 6

Kidlit fights bias — and we here at MUF are committed to inclusiveness and diversity. We stand with our Jewish family. Furthermore, in order to support and be an ally of the Jewish community, I’m dedicating my post to a wonderful anti-bias children’s book list maintained by the Anti-Defamation League.

What is the ADL?

I think most are aware of the ADL, but for those who haven’t had the chance to become acquainted with them, they’re an advocacy and education organization dedicated to creating a country where discrimination is a thing of the past. Their mission statement envisions stopping “…the defamation of the Jewish people, and (securing) … justice and fair treatment to all.” To be clear: their scope is all-inclusive—they lobby for anti-bias and anti-discrimination laws for ALL underrepresented groups, run education programs in schools to help fight hate speech and bullying, and work in all aspects of criminal justice reform, from sentencing procedures to law enforcement training.

As part of their work in education, they provide extensive programs and training for educators, parents, and families: this is where the booklist comes in.

Books Matter

“Books Matter” is an incredible book list and resource for fighting bias and hate. It’s carefully curated by subject, pulling together the best kid lit on diversity and social justice. You have a choice of 11 sections for book suggestions, with subjects such as Jewish culture and anti-Semitism, and also bias, discrimination, and hate.

ADL Assistant Education Director Michelle Magner notes that “Educators and families can use books with their students and children as a mirror to affirm who they are and enable them to see themselves portrayed with accuracy, depth, and complexity.  Books can also be used as a window to teach children about people with whom they are unfamiliar which can lead to understanding and building bridges.  Both mirror and window books can build empathy which is such an important tool in combating intolerance. ”

Each section includes options from picture books to young adult, and each book suggests an appropriate reader age range.

books matter reading list

Among the many drill-down features includes a “book of the month” section; this month it’s Jacquelyn Woodson’s HARBOR ME.

Each book of the month selection is accompanied by coordinated lesson plans for classrooms as well as suggested tools and strategies for difficult conversations.

The ADL is committed to the belief that books are a critical component in the effort to create a more tolerant, just world. Having a list like this and resources available to help us all in that mission gives us better, stronger tools, and also a sense that we’re not alone.

KidLit Community Can Help

What I love about lists like this is that they’re always growing. And we can be part of that! For those of you MUFers who are also authors … keep writing, keep adding to that body of literature! For inspiration, read here for  Jonathan Rosen’s recap of the TENT program for Jewish children’s literature, And … here’s an interview with author Leslie Kimmelman, who also went to Israel. Waiting eagerly to see what comes of her inspiration from that trip!

But even if you can’t travel, you can support authors by reading their work and supporting it publicly. You can be part of conversations that push back against hate and bias. You can refuse to accept a biased, intolerant world, and instead model a society that includes, accepts, and celebrates all religions, ethnicities, races, genders, and sexual identities.