Posts Tagged racism

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.

 

Writing While White

I am a white author. When I write about social justice online, I use phrases like “fellow white people” or “we white women.” I do this intentionally. And yes, like @helloalegria says in the tweet above, it was weird and uncomfortable at first. But you know what? The more I used language that was precise, the easier it got. Plus I began to have much more productive conversations online about dismantling racism and white supremacy.

What does this have to do with middle grade books?

As a white author who has grown up with white privilege and who has benefited from the racism inherent in most (all?) American institutions, I am accustomed to being the “norm” or the “default.” If I read a book, where a character is described as having brown, curly hair (like for example Hermione Granger), I will mostly likely assume that the character is also white.

Because I am “used to being the default definition of ‘people’” as @helloalegria says, I also need to be aware of how I might perpetuate the white default definition of ‘people’ in my books.

This happens if I make a point of describing the skin tone or ethnicity of characters of color but don’t describe the skin tone or family background of light-skinned characters. Doing this makes anyone who is not white into “the other.” And that, fellow white authors, no matter your intentions, is white supremacy at work.

Martha Brockenbrough is a white author who was very intentional in her approach to writing about race in the novel The Game of Love and Death. I asked her to share with us what she was thinking during the process. Here’s what she said:

In college I learned about “marked” language. This was language that assumed male as the standard, and it’s why we say things like “female lawyer” and “male nurse.” (Nurses are stereotypically female, so “male nurse” even works as a punchline.)

With The Game of Love and Death, I didn’t want to center whiteness, and particularly not in the chapters told from the viewpoint of Flora, who is a Black pilot. Where race is observed, blackness is the default. So race is only seen when it is not Black. 

This is part of the empathy we need to cultivate when we are writers. To authentically inhabit characters and understand how their lives feel given our power structures, which favor white people, men, and white men in particular. 

Language is powerful. We build the world with it in so many ways, and as writers, we have the opportunity to build worlds that change the way readers think. And this is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make us feel, and as we process those feelings, we develop a point of view on what it means to be alive.

I love what Martha is saying here. We owe it to our readers—all of our readers—to consider the world from their point-of-view, and to do that, we white writers must be willing to consider that our own point-of-view should not be the “norm” or “default” way to the see the world.

*The title of this post — “Writing While White” — is a shout-out to a blog that I highly recommend called “Reading While White.” Definitely check it out!

** After writing this post, I found another excellent post of the same title by Marianne Modica. Click here to read it.