Publish-A-Kid 2015 // Winners & Interview
For the 2015 PAK winners, click here
Author Interview / Sonia Levitin
Sonia Levitin builds her novels around stories of survival. Whether it is the tale of a refugee family from Nazi Germany eking out an existence in Switzerland, or a 15-year-old Ethiopian Jew, hungry and barefoot, fleeing her small village for an airlift to Israel, or a teenage orphan setting out for a new life in the New World, Levitin crafts characters who face fear, turmoil and obstacles with courage and cleverness. Moment senior editor Diane Heiman interviews Levitin, author of more than 40 novels and recipient of numerous awards, including the National Jewish Book Award and the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Award.
Journey to America has been a beloved novel for more than three decades. How much of the story was based on your own experience fleeing with your family from Nazi Germany in 1938?
That book is largely autobiographical—probably 85 percent of it traces my own family’s experience. My mother really was the best role model—she was brave and resilient and lived to 96. She made me tougher!
What is your writing process like?
Research is the backbone of my stories. I always do lots and lots of research. I like to feel grounded before I start writing. I do more research than my books probably suggest. Before beginning Journey to America, I read many books to learn about the methods of the Nazis; I spoke with my mother and talked with my middle sister who kept a short diary of those days. I had to learn facts to root the story, such as the names of the streets. I also am fortunate to have a good memory.
How do you get ideas for your books?
My ideas start from an interest of mine, sometimes piqued by something I’ve read or seen. An idea can stay with me for quite a long time, and it sticks with me while I’m working on something else. For example, one day I was visiting a museum in Park City, Utah, and saw an old poster that said, “Pony Express Riders Wanted, Orphans Preferred.” Seeing that eventually led me to research and write Clem’s Chances, a Western that was a lot of fun. There was also an incident in the town I lived in during the 1960s, a disappearance, and that has inspired me to write a young adult novel called The Summer of Love, which is in the proposal stage.
How do you craft believable characters?
I always try to identify my characters’ motives and attach them to a larger personal theme. I used to be terrified of going up on ski lifts, but my family went skiing once a year. I wanted to conquer my fear and spent the year before the next trip trying to talk myself out of the fear, first going up the lift alone, then taking the lift up with a stranger; finally, I could go sitting next to a friend. When my character faces a threat, like Clem who is thrown alone into a canyon, I try to transfer my own feelings of terror on that lift.
Start alone. Be yourself. Keep a journal and don’t look for approval. Read. Experience life. Pick a dear friend or family member and announce to them your dream of being a writer. —Sonia Levitin
What books did you enjoy as a child?
My family was very poor when we came to America. We only had one book in the house. But when I was six and learned to read, my teacher told us about the public library. After that, I always had at least two books to read. I loved all of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Pearl S. Buck, Sholem Aleichem and the Anne of Green Gables series. In my teens, I especially loved historical novels.
Is religion important to you?
Absolutely! Judaism is part of who we are and gives us our moral grounding. My family was Reform in Germany. But a long time later, my husband and I became more observant through Chabad and now we are Modern Orthodox and keep kosher.
What advice do you have for young people who hope to be writers?
Start alone. Be yourself. Keep a journal and don’t look for approval. Read. Experience life. Pick a dear friend or family member and announce to them your dream of being a writer. Once you tell someone, it helps you to begin a commitment. I made that announcement at age 11 to Laura Ingalls Wilder, even though I didn’t know her. I was devastated when I finished reading her last book and the librarian could see I was completely upset. Very kindly, the librarian found Ms. Wilder’s address for me and I wrote to her, saying, among other things that I hoped to write about my life. Remarkably, she wrote back saying she was sure the books I would write about my own life would be very interesting. I think expressing my goal helped me develop that commitment to writing.
Moment invites kids ages 9 to 13 to write reviews. Find out more about our annual Publish-a-Kid contest here
Shira Beals, age 10
Number the Stars By Lois Lowry
Number the Stars takes place in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1943. I think kids of all religions should read this book so they can understand how scary it was to be in Denmark when the Nazis invaded. I have to warn you that grown-ups who read this book might cry a lot, especially people whose parents were in the Holocaust.
In this book, the Nazis are trying to hurt the Jews of Denmark like Ellen Rosen and her family. Annemarie Johansen is Ellen’s best friend and the Johansens help the Rosens escape Denmark and go to Sweden by lying to the Nazis. For example, Mr. Johansen shows the Nazis a baby picture of Lise, their oldest child who died, and tells them it is Ellen. You might ask, “Why would the Johansens knowingly risk their lives to save Ellen?” There’s a description for what they did: bravery, kindness, compassion, fear, trust and friendship. There are many types of friendship, but the particular friendship that Ellen and Annemarie had was confiding a secret that no one must know and trusting beyond trust that they will not say a word.
Number the Stars is inspiring because it shows a lot of people with good hearts uniting and standing as one in defiance against the forces of evil. I found the friendship between Ellen and Annemarie beautiful. I give this book a thumbs up.
Aviv Chaya Fischer-Brown, age 10
Chapel Hill, NC
Milkweed By Jerry Spinelli
Milkweed portrays the Holocaust in a whole new way. I recommend this book to kids who like humor and adventure with a little bit of history buried inside. Milkweed takes place in Warsaw, Poland. The main character is a boy who initially has no name. He calls himself a Gypsy. Others call him a Jew.
My favorite character is a feisty girl named Janina, who becomes good friends with the main character. I think Janina’s whiny attitude makes the book both lively and energetic. Janina was very easy to understand and felt like a sister from another world. I felt like I stood there with her going through the story page by page.
When I began to read this book, I was not really engaged. I thought it would just be all about the Holocaust, and I wanted a book with adventure. I was very surprised when, instead of going on about history, Milkweed goes into the perspective of a boy. Little by little, I began to like the book more. When I think of the book now, I think about an adventurous boy who grows up during the Holocaust and isn’t afraid to take chances.
Milkweed might change your perspective of history by making it more personal. Two things I learned from Milkweed are that it must have been really hard to grow up during the Holocaust, and you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things.
Judah Pardau, age 10
Los Angeles, CA
Journey to America By Sonia Levitin
Journey to America is about a German-Jewish family who lived during the beginning of the Second World War. The family planned to immigrate to America because of the fast-growing anti-Semitism that arose from the reign of the Nazi party. The father left first with his brother Benjamin. Then the mother and the three girls, Ruth, Lisa and Annie, left for Zurich, Switzerland, and from there planned to take a ship to New York Harbor. When the girls arrived in Zurich, they stayed there for a long time because they had to wait for their father to fill out paperwork allowing them to move to America and to send them money for ship tickets. However, as a janitor, the father earned little. Eventually they boarded a ship and reached America.
Journey to America is a wonderful, well-written book that is immensely enjoyable. My favorite part of this book is when they were boarding the ship to America, because I was so happy for the family after all they had been through. I knew I loved this book because I didn’t want the book to end. This book shows, without directly discussing, the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, how cruel the Nazis were to Jews. Families were broken apart and were forced to live in constant fear. Most importantly, however, this book teaches us a very important lesson: Never give up! In the book, the mother has to fight to get her children and herself passports to leave Switzerland for America.
Noah Phillips, age 12
New York, NY
The Pushcart War By Jean Merrill
The Pushcart War is a comical book that proves even when you are the underdog, you can still succeed—literally, win a war—if you have valid reasons and a kind heart. The vehicle war in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood takes place over four months in 2026 and features massive traffic and everyone blaming others. Truck drivers blame the pushcarts for being nuisances and creating traffic, while the pushcart owners blame the humongous commerical trucks for blocking the streets. An accident sparks what becomes known as “the pushcart war” for survival among New York City vehicles, and I, like all readers, cheer on the pushcart characters.
Both sides—pushcart owners and truck drivers—hold secret meetings to strategize their next move. The pushcart owners devise a plan to shoot peas using a peashooter to flatten the tires of trucks, which will then reveal to the citizens of New York City that trucks are the root cause of the city’s traffic problems. On the other side, truck owners have a master plan to kidnap Maxie Hammerman, the “pushcart king.” As the phases of the plans play out, each side has victories, but many more wins go to the pushcarts.
The powerful message from this book is that you don’t have to be the biggest or strongest to be victorious. For all of you kids and preteens out there looking for ways to make a difference, this book will motivate you to show courage and use smarts—just like the pushcart owners—to fight for what you believe in.