Friday, February 12, 2021

Interview with Ann Bausum and review of Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair


Interview with Ann Bausum: 

Ms. Yingling: Who were you as a middle grade reader? What were some of your favorite books? And for you especially, did you keep any of your middle school research projects, or do you remember any of the topics you chose at that age?

Ms. Bausum: Thanks for this invitation, Ms. Yingling. It’s a pleasure to talk books with you and your readers!

What was I up to in middle school? I was devouring books, especially nonfiction U.S. history—or what passed for it in the late 1960s—but I also enjoyed mysteries and fantasy. Think Lord of the Rings. Sadly I don’t recall ever being challenged to do a research project during these years. We did a lot of mind-numbing, unit-based independent study (read something and then fill in the blanks on a packet of purple ditto sheets to prove we had read the material). Middle schoolers are being much better served today!

On your web site, you say you like to choose topics readers might not find in their textbooks. You were really ahead of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement with books like your 2004 With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman's Right to Vote and your various civil rights topics. Are there any titles out by new authors that have impressed you recently, or topics you’ve seen that wished you could have covered?

There are so many great stories to tell—and so many exceptional storytellers—that I’ll champion anyone who’s helping to share them. I learned a year or so ago that Cynthia Levinson has a picture book coming out in 2022 from Peachtree on Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School. I was delighted by the news even though that topic had been on my radar screen for some time.

Other recent favorites include Carole Boston Weatherford’s picturebook biography about Fannie Lou Hammer, Voice of Freedom, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Candlewick, 2015); Above the Rim by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Abrams, 2020); and The Book Rescuer by Sue Macy, illustrated by Stacy Innserst (Paula Wiseman Books, 2019).

The late Russell Freedman and I followed parallel tracks for a while, with his Freedom Walkers (Holiday House, 2006) coming out the same year as my Freedom Riders. I briefly considered writing about the White Rose student resistance movement in Nazi Germany but figured someone else would beat me to it, and Russell Freedman did with his moving 2016 title We Will Not Be Silent (Clarion). But, really, how much time do you have?! We’re living in a golden age for children’s nonfiction.

World War II is in textbooks, but there are so many facets that haven’t been covered. You’ve written about World War I, with Sergeant Stubby and Unraveling Freedom, but what interested you about World War II?

Editors at National Geographic began encouraging me to consider a World War II topic in 2014. I went on a reconnaissance trip the next year to Germany and Poland to see if this idea or others might feel like a good fit. During those travels I visited the Wolf’s Lair in Poland—the command post where Hitler’s life was threatened by assassination in 1944. It was an otherworldly experience, and it helped to hook me on the period.

Three years later, after the United States government started separating families at the southern border, I was reminded of the family separations that had followed the 1944 attempt to overthrow Hitler. From that moment on, I never wavered, and later that year I was back in Germany tracking down eyewitnesses and exploring a new round of historical sites.

I am constantly amazed at the sheer number of books published about World War II, and the fact that we are still seeing books on this topic after more than 70 years. What is it about WWII that you feel still draws readers to this particular conflict?

I’m guessing there are several factors at work. First, the decisive role played by the U.S. during World War II marks one of our finest hours as a nation, so it is satisfying to read stories about this history. Second, at its core, the war represents what is essentially a match between good and evil. We’re comforted by the triumphs of that struggle. I also wonder if there’s a bit of a can’t-look-away fascination with glimpsing some of the deepest, most horrifying examples of inhumanity and finding comfort in our own recognition of the wrongs that they represent.

James Holzhauer’s winning Jeopardy strategy was to read children’s nonfiction books to get a good overview of topics. What are the characteristics of middle grade nonfiction that you think makes these books successful in delivering information?

Well it helps that these books tend to be concise, so it’s possible to devour a hundred-plus pages and have consumed a full measure of history. As authors we’re often offering our readers their first introduction to a topic, so we establish a safe point of embarkation—without presumed prior knowledge—and that makes the books more inviting, too. Plus, middle grade narrative nonfiction is so engaging that readers are pulled almost irresistibly into the content.

You do huge amounts of research for your books. When you do school visits, do you talk about your process and how students can learn from your experiences? Have you had any luck with virtual school visits during the pandemic?

I miss being with students so much!!! I get so much inspiration and energy from young people, and I learn from them even as I try to share my own knowledge.

During visits I definitely talk about the writing process, in addition to history. I illustrate how my own research techniques mirror the steps students learn in school. I employ the same skills as an author, just more intently. I also emphasize the essential role that revision plays in my writing. I usually get groans at that point, but I hope students come away feeling empowered to see writing as a progressive act. All those drafts aren’t a sign that I’m bad at writing; they’re what make my books worthy of being published and read. Revision is a writer’s superpower!

As for virtual school visits, yes, I’ve begun doing them, and I’m glad this option exists for communicating with students. But I think authors are observing the same thing that students and educators have learned during the pandemic—there’s nothing like being together in person. I can’t wait to be back inside schools again!

What is your top research tip for students?

Must I stop at one?! Hmmmm. I guess I’d say pay attention to your sources. Your work is only worth as much as your sources of information. Don’t choose the most convenient source (sorry, Wikipedia). Choose the best. And by that I mean trusted websites, such as those from academic and educational institutions, and books that meet established criteria of excellence. My peers and I are employing this same approach, just more extensively and for months or years at a time.

This is a purely selfish question. It’s hard to find books on desegregation in the 1970s (especially in Cleveland) or a middle school book about the Black Panthers. Have you thought about broaching these topics, or why do you think these are issues that haven’t seen coverage? (Kekla Magoon has been rumored to be working on a book about the Black Panthers for years!)

Good guesses! These topics have definitely come to mind. I’ve heard rumors about Kekla Magoon being at work on a Black Panthers book, too. I hope they’re true! I would dearly love to read it someday.

Freedom Riders (National Geographic, 2006) opens with parallel chapters about the simultaneous childhoods of John Lewis (“Black America”) and Jim Zwerg (“White America”). These men grew up under divergent circumstances but found common cause during the Civil Rights Movement and helped to make history together. Despite the narrative uplift of the book, I deliberately titled its final chapter “Toward One America” rather than just “One America.” I did that because it was clear even then—and all the more so now—that we are still completing our journey toward a united vision of the country.

That’s a long way around for answering your question about our reluctance to share some of our most challenging stories. Perhaps we thought we could avoid having to lance these deepest, darkest wounds. Maybe we’d hoped to pull the country together without the humiliation of admitting our greatest transgressions. But if we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that the only pathway to greater reconciliation is through embracing the truth, even when it hurts.

Are there any projects on which you are currently working that you could share with us? Or do you have a dream project you hope to do one day?

Oh, I’m always dreaming, but I’m also always cooking with new ideas. Ensnared in the Wolf’s Lair looks at the toxic consequences of propaganda in Nazi Germany. My next project confronts a central falsehood in our own country, specifically the Lost Cause mythology that emerged after the Civil War. I wrote about this distortion of history several years ago for The Horn Book []. Now I’m working to expose these old lies and diminish their potency. I feel like this book is the natural extension of my past work. I wouldn’t have had the insight, knowledge, or courage to tackle it without so many of the titles that came before. Now I’m drawing from that well as I continue to try and make a difference through the sharing of history.

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Bausum, Ann. Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair: Inside the 1944 Plot to Kill Hitler and the Ghost Children of His Revenge
January 12th 2021 by National Geographic Kids
Copy provided by Media Masters Publicity

Hitler's rise to power and his stranglehold on the German people is something that has been all too much in the forefront of many people's minds lately, and this book details a lot of what went on behind the scenes to try to remove him from office. There were many people who attempted to bring Hitler down, and a group of officers, organized by Claus von Stauffenberg, started planning a coup. They used Operation Valkyrie as a cover for this operation, and retooled it so they could use it to kill Hitler and overthrow his regime. There were many men involved with this, and many of them had families.

While it looked like the operation might well succeed, it did not. A bomb that Stauffenberg took to a meeting where Hitler was supposed to be went off, and even injured Hitler and killed four officers. However, Stauffenberg was identified, and many of his associates were located. After a very brief trial, many were executed and buried in a mass grave. Hitler was so outraged that he used his policy of Sippenhaft (or "family punishment") to round up family members of the conspirators. The the mothers and older offspring were interrogated and sent to labor camps, and the children were taken from their homes, cared for by nannies, and eventually sent to a youth retreat called Borntal. There, their names were changed, and while their basic needs were met, they suffered a great deal of psychological trauma.

One of these children (dubbed ghost children by people in the nearby town) was Christa von Hofacker. She kept a journal of her wartime experiences which was eventually published in Germany. Bausum used this as a starting point for her research, but interviewed many survivors and consulted a vast array of sources to provide the background for this book.

It is hard to comprehend how devastating World War II was to the German citizens. Yes, many of them supported Hitler and his radical policies, but many were just trying to survive. I found the after note about how the history of the war was taught in German schools to be very interesting. It wasn't until much later that the people involved in the coup attempt were treated as heroes. Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair is an excellent book showing the personal cost that a group of conscientious citizens paid in trying to wrest their government back from the hands of extremists.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the interview.
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