I have read a lot of Toronto resident Kathy Kacer’s books and I always find them really interesting and informative. When Orca Books asked if I wanted to interview her about the Stones on a Grave book, part of the publishing company’s Secrets series, I had to say yes.
1. There are so many stories that come from the Holocaust. Why do you write fiction ones?
Most of my books are historical non-fiction. But every now and then, I want to write about a particular time or event and not necessarily tie it to one individual. In the case of Stones on a Grave, I wanted to write about the displaced persons camps and what went on there after the war. I was able to create a fictional character – Sara – and still tell the story of the conditions for Jews after the war.
2. Are there messages you can share with people in fiction stories that you can not in survivor stories?
I think there are “messages” in both my fiction and non-fictions stories. I don’t feel limited in either.
3. How much truth is in these fiction stories?
As I always say, when you write historical fiction the context of the story has to be real and accurate. That’s a must. The story can depart on fictional lines, but where/when, etc. has to be truthful.
4. How do you balance between making a story interesting and a good read, but remembering the sensitive nature of survivor stories?
After having written 19 books, one of the things I pride myself on is my ability to be sensitive to the survivors that I’ve written about, and still be able to tell a story that is engaging for young readers. Every survivor that I meet and interview for a book reads the final manuscript before it goes to print. If they can stand behind the story that I have written, then I know I’ve done my job.
5. Between the two – fiction and non-fiction – what is your favourite to write? Why?
I don’t think I have a favourite. I love interviewing survivors and capturing their stories for young audiences. And I love being able to create fictional characters without being tied to an individual person.
6. Stones on a Grave is part of the Secrets series by Orca Books. Secrets is a new young adult series, set in 1964 and follows seven orphan girls who are own their one for they first time. Each girl embarks on a journey of discovery, aching for the families they never had and experiencing the world in ways they never imagined. (http://www.readthesecrets.com). The books can be read in any order.
Why were you approached to join the series? Why was it important to have a character be Jewish and not know it? As a note, it was an interesting read as you met first generation Holocaust survivors.
I guess you’ll have to ask (fellow authors) Eric (Walters) or Teresa (Toten) why I was approached to join the series!! I’ve never asked either of them, though I’m certainly thrilled that they came to me. As far as having my character be Jewish, one of the many delights of being part of this series was that each one of us got to write in the style and genre that we love most. The series includes historical fiction, fantasy, humour, mystery, etc. There was no question in my mind, given the writing that I do, that my character would discover that she was Jewish and tied to the Holocaust in some way.
7. Have you worked with the other six authors in the series before?
I knew all of them, with the exception of Kelley (Armstrong), but had never worked with them before.
8. When writing your book, were you in touch with any of the other authors? How did the process work? Would you do this type of series again?
The premise for the series (the burning of the orphanage and the opportunity for each girl to go off on a journey of self-discovery) was actually already established by Teresa when the rest of us joined the process. It was important to have the premise in place or there would have been chaos!! We met many times as a group in the early days (usually fed by Teresa at her home) because there was still a lot of work to do to flesh out the details around that premise (e.g. what did the orphanage look like, who ran it, who were the secondary characters, when did the orphanage burn, what time was it etc. etc.) There were a million details to work out and agree on so that we were all writing from the same starting point. Once those initial details were set, we were each free to go off and write the story we wanted to write. I have to say that the entire process was quite seamless and fun! I would definitely do something like this again.
9. The authors are touring together, presenting their books. What is it like to tour with six other authors?
It’s been a blast! I adore the other six writers and have huge respect and admiration for their skills as story tellers and speakers.
10. What has been the reception for your book and the series in general?
I think it’s fair to say that we have been overwhelmed by the positive response to the series. We had huge audiences in the evening public events and book stores. Stores have displayed the series in a prominent place and are pushing it hard. And the kids are all genuinely excited by the premise and by each story. Having said that, I also know that both Eric Walters and Kelley Armstrong are huge draws for this series. They each come with a massive fan base. It’s kind of fun to ride along on their coattails!
11. Of all the books you have written – and you seem to write so many, all of which are pretty amazing – which one is your favourite? Why?
Thanks for saying that they are amazing. That means a lot!! It’s always hard for me to pick a favourite among my books. I usually say that the one I love best is the one that’s just come out – in this case, Stones on a Grave. Having said that, I will also add that because The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser was my first book and was based on a true story about my mother it probably holds a special place in my heart and always will.
12. What do you hope to accomplish by writing stories of about the Holocaust.
As the child of Holocaust survivors, my goal is always to bring this history to young people in a way that will engage them, and make them curious to learn more. The community of survivors is aging and soon there will be no first-hand accounts of this history that are left. Now, more than ever, I feel a responsibility to capture as many of these stories as I can and write them for young people.
13. You seem to write to a younger audience. Why do you like writing to the young adult age group? What are the challenges?
I’ve always loved to write for a YA (young adult) audience. I’m not sure why! There is something about that voice and point of view that has always held my interest. I wrote one book for adults (Restitution: A family’s fight for their heritage lost in the Holocaust) and I have written an adult play (Therefore Choose Life – co-written with my son, Jake Epstein). And I may indeed write adults stuff again in the future. But my heart is really with YA literature.
And to tell you the truth, there aren’t many challenges. Of course one has to be sensitive about language and to some extent content. But storytelling is storytelling, no matter who you are writing for.
14. At what age do you suggest people talk to their children about the Holocaust? What age did you speak to your children about it?
I speak to kids in grades 4 and up. And I think that’s a perfect place to start talking about this history.
15. What is coming next for you?
I have two projects coming up. The first is a book that is coming out in the spring that is a First Nations story (my first departure from the Holocaust). I’ve written this book with Jenny Dupuis, a First Nations woman and it is about her grandmother’s experience of having been in residential schools in the early 1960s.
The second book is a new project that I am starting on. It’s a true story about a young Toronto woman, age 19, who travelled to Germany last year to observe the trial of Oskar Groening, one of the last Nazi war criminals who will likely ever go to trial for his complicity in the death of more than 300,000 Jews in Auschwitz. Her journey, set against this man’s trial, is quite remarkable.
Stones on a Grave
Kathy Kacer, part of the Secrets series
Sara has never been out of the tiny town of Hope, Ont., where she has been in an orphanage all her life. After a fire destroys the orphanage, clues about her parentage — a medical certificate and a Star of David — lead her to Germany. Despite her fears — she doesn’t speak the language, she knows no one in Germany and she’s never been on an airplane — Sara arrives in Germany determined to explore her newly discovered Jewish heritage and solve the mystery of her parentage. What she encounters is a country still dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust. With the help of a handsome, English-speaking German boy, she discovers the sad facts of her mother’s brief existence and faces the horrible truth about her father. Ultimately, the knowledge she gains opens up her world and leads her to a deeper understanding of herself.
Editor’s Note: As all Kathy Kacer’s books, this one has you hooked pretty quickly and makes you keep reading until it’s finished. I had just finished reading Hidden Gold and it was interested to read the fictional version of some of the places Ella Burakowski talked about in her family’s memoir. Didn’t see the ending coming.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens, illustrated by Yelena Bryksenkova
Chronicle Books, http://www.chroniclebooks.com
Charles Dickens’s beloved tale of the Christmas spirit is beautifully presented in this deluxe new illustrated edition. Contemporary artist and illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova has created enchanting artwork to accompany Dickens’s classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Gorgeous watercolors evoke the magic of a Victorian Christmas while simultaneously infusing this timeless text with a touch of modern-day whimsy. With gilded page edges and a satin ribbon marker, this lavish keepsake volume is tomorrow’s cherished family heirloom-an essential holiday treasure to read year after year around the fire, under the tree, or with the plum pudding.
Editor’s Note: The hardcover book is bigger than I thought it would be. There is a main picture at the beginning of each chapter and a couple pictures placed throughout the text. The illustrations are not my favourite and because the book is so big (bigger than a trade paperback), it seems like a lot of text. It’s not my favourite copy of the classic holiday tale.
Home Alone, The Classic Illustrated Storybook
Based on the story written by John Hughes
Home Alone arrived in theaters 25 years ago, and it remains the #1 highest-grossing live-action comedy film of all time. Now, illustrator Kim Smith has reimagined the story as a classic Christmas fable – complete with bumbling burglars, brilliant booby-traps, and a little boy named Kevin who’s forced to fend for himself. Through a series of comic adventures, Kevin learns lessons about responsibility and the importance of family.
Editor’s Note: I love the Home Alone movies. I found it strange to have a book out about a movie that came out so long ago – 25 years. How did that happen? The book reminds me of why I loved the movie – all the best parts are in here.
Letters to my Grandchild, Write Now. Read Later. Treasure Forever.
Chronicle Books, chroniclebooks.com
Twelve prompted letters offer an immediate way for grandparents to give the gift of a lifetime to their grandchild of any age. When favourite memories and words of wisdom are sealed with the included stickers and postdated for future opening, this paper time capsule becomes a priceless heirloom for generations to cherish.
Editor’s Note: What a beautiful book, a perfect gift for any grandparent to share with their grandchild. Each letter, folded up into an envelop, offers a suggestion on what to write about (the best advice anyone gave me, My wishes for you are, A special story about our family) with a sealed on date and a to be opened date. I would actually like one for mom to child.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings
Richard Simon and Tanya Simon
Roaring Brook Press, http://www.mackids.com
A refugee seeking sanctuary from the horrors of Kristallnacht, Oskar arrives by ship in New York City with only a photograph and an address for an aunt he has never met. It is both the seventh day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, 1938. As Oskar walks the length of Manhattan, from the Battery to his new home in the north of the city, he passes experiences the city’s many holiday sights, and encounters it various residents. Each offers Oskar a small act of kindness, welcoming him to the city and helping him on his way to a new life in the new world. This is a heartwarming, timeless picture book.
Editor’s Note: What a beautiful book. The horrors Oskar leaves is awful, but what he finds offers hopes. Absolutely beautiful.
Paddington and the Christmas Surprise
HarperCollins, HarperCollins Children’s Books
Christmas is coming, and Paddington has saved just enough money to take the Brown family to Barkridges store to visit Santa’s Winter Wonderland. But trouble has a way of finding the lovable bear, so when Paddington decides to lend a helping hand, the whole store is suddenly in chaos. Luckily Mrs. Bird knows just what to do and – with a little help from Santa Claus himself – might even make Paddington’s special Christmas wish come true!
Editor’s Note: I started this book with my six-year-old son and then stopped reading it. I am glad I did. I am always surprised Christmas stories for children would put doubt into a child’s mind. Winter Wonderland, and the store it was in, was fake looking. Santa knows what Paddington wants, but Mrs. Bird goes red in the face when Santa gives her a knowing smile. Why would you say that? I will save this one for when my son becomes a non-believer.
Pocket Doodles for Christmas
A great way to kick off the 12 days of Christmas.
Editor’s Note. What fun. There are word searches, requests you finish the picture, ideas for doodling and more. I think I will be doodling in this one myself.
The Spirit of Christmas
Feiwel and Friends, us.macmillan.com/publishers/feiwel-and-friends
Bells jingle, sleds dash through the snow, trees are topped with sparkling stars and children everywhere dream of candy canes and presents. But the best gift of all-the most magical gift of the season is when we spend Christmas with those we love.
Editor’s Note: Like all of Nancy Tillman’s books, this one talks about what truly matters – not the size of your tree, not your Christmas light display or even Santa – but love and the person you are reading the story with. Another beautiful moral to a nicely illustrated story.
Touch and Feel Christmas
DK Books, http://www.dk.com/ca/
From shiny decorations to Santa’s fluffy beard, there are all sorts of textures to explore in this safe and sturdy book.
Editor’s Note: While Santa’s beard is the best, Santa himself could use some work – like a real beard and more fat.
The Knights Before Christmas
Henry Holt and Company, mackids.com
‘Twas December 24th, and three brave knights were just settling in for the night when out on the drawbridge, there arose such a clatter! The knights try everything to get rid of this unknown invader (Santa Claus!), a red and white knight with a fleet of dragons:
But nothing would stop
their white-whiskered foe.
No matter their efforts,
he just would not go!
Editor’s Note: Not sure I like this book. The knights chased Santa away, or so they thought. But they did battle him and chased him off. That sounds awful. I might save this one for when my seven year old is a bit older.
The Naughty List
Michael Fry and Bradley Jackson
When Bobbie’s hilariously bumbling efforts to save her brother’s Christmas actually land him on Santa’s Naughty List, she must travel to the North Pole to make things right again and save Christmas. Bobbie suddenly finds herself on an epic holiday adventure complete with rogue elves, dysfunctional reindeer, a lazy Santa, and more.
Fans of the Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series will love this laugh-out-loud funny Christmas adventure packed with comic illustrations.
Editor’s Note: I wasn’t a big fan of this Christmas book, although I would imagine those in the grades 3 to 7, those the book is marketed too, would enjoy it. I liked the fact Bobbie, the main character doesn’t hate Christmas, she decides to ignore it because the season is bullying her. I also like the fact that despite Bobbie not liking the season, she does whatever she can – including trying to save Christmas – to ensure her younger brother continues to believe. The book has a great moral – everyone matters and you can make a difference.
The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish
Farrar Straus Giroux, mackids.com, poutpoutfish.com
Will Mr. Fish find perfect gifts for everyone on his list? Will he finish his shopping in time?
Swim along with Mr. Fish on his holiday shopping quest. He might just discover that the best gifts of all come straight from the heart.
Editor’s Note: I like the Pout-Pout Fish books. Pout-Pout fish has been sucked into what many people get sucked in at this time of the year, that Christmas is all about the biggest, best gift. I liked the illustrations, particularly when Pout-Pout fish goes through the store looking for the perfect gift, but not even the Davy Jones’ Gym Locker or the Blue Diamond from Titanic (I laughed out loud at that part) was good enough. This is my son’s favourite of the two Pout-Pout fish books we have and one of his favourite Christmas ones.
You are my Merry
Sourcebooks, kabberwocky, http://www.jabberwockykids.com
Perfect for sharing a cozy moment with a special child, You Are My Merry reminds us of the magical gift of spending Christmas with the ones you love. Marianne Richmond’s sweet illustrations and heartfelt prose offer a way to celebrate the best connections of the season.
Editor’s Note: You are my Merry is such a beautiful book, but it has one line in it – It’s the season of wonder and fun make-believe. Why would you put that line in there? It may be OK for little ones, but my son is at the age where I am not going to put doubt in his mind (he is also one to ask questions. What is make-believe? And I have come up with something to fill in the question). Why put the words make believe in a Christmas story? I just don’t get it.
When Santa Was a Baby
Tundra Books, http://www.tundrabooks.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781770495562
Santa’s parents think their little one is absolutely wonderful, even though he has a booming voice instead of a baby’s gurgle, loves to stand in front of the refrigerator, gives his birthday presents away, trains his hamsters to pull a matchbox sleigh… and has an unusual interest in chimneys. The adorably funny portrait of an oddball kid who fulfills his destiny – and two very proud parents.
Editor’s Note: What a fun book. As soon as I read it, I know my son would love it and he did. It reminds me of the movie Fred Claus, but nicer and more innocent. A new favourite that can be read at any time of the year.
Other Christmas books
Granny Glitter’s Christmas Story
Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and AuthorHouse
Christmas is not so much about opening presents as it is opening our hearts.
Andree Siracusa (aka Granny Glitter) tells the true story of her dog Koko, a blind Chow Chow puppy she saved from euthanization at a pet store during a round of Christmas shopping for her other pets.
After his rescue, Koko adjusts to his new home he shares with Venus the Doberman, Twinkie the Pomeranian, Marker the parrot and the neighbor’s cat, Scratch. After some tender loving care and some eye drops, Koko soon receives the best Christmas present of all – his eyesight.
My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Days of Christmas
Firefly Books, http://www.fireflybooks.com/index.php/catalogue/adult-books/arts-photography/pictorial-titles/product/10879-my-true-love-gave-to-me-twelve-days-of-christmas
One of the most popular holiday songs of all time, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” probably originated in France during the late Middle Ages and became popular in England as a chant sung without music. The 12 days are traditionally those following Christmas, with the last day being the end of the season. Over the years the lyrics have changed but the song remains a perennial favourite, recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Alvin and the Chipmunks.
My True Love Gave to Me is an exquisitely illustrated edition of the song’s famous lyrics, featuring the art of Scott McKowen, an award-winning illustrator and graphic designer. Each “day” is accompanied by a richly detailed-and often whimsical-full-page scratchboard illustration of its grand and unusual gift.
This column was first published at insidetoronto.com