Author Jane Kohuth Joins Us
Today we welcome Jane Kohuth to RAoR. Jane is the author of the early reader Ducks Go Vroom, and the picture book Estie the Mensch. Her newest early reader is Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree, a non-fiction book that offers young readers, and adults too, a fascinating perspective on the young girl and this period in history.
I want to say thank you for inviting me to Random Acts of Reading to talk about my new book. Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree comes out today!.
I could probably go on for pages about my experience writing this book, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s my first non-fiction book. Second, it was a HUGE challenge to write. I’ve been following developments with the Common Core, but a couple of years ago I had no plans to write non-fiction. I had written two books for Random House — the Step Into Reading book, Ducks Go Vroom and the picture book Estie the Mensch. Then my editor, Christy Webster, got in touch and asked if I would like to write an addition to the Step Into Reading series of biographies. They wanted to add more books about women and non-Americans and had in mind a Step Three book about Anne Frank. I had the background in writing early readers, and Christy knew that I had studied Jewish history in graduate school. But I was floored. Write about Anne Frank? For elementary school students? In one thousand words and simple sentences? I would be hard-pressed to come up with a more challenging assignment.
I have a vivid memory of the first time the Holocaust was taught in my third grade Hebrew School classroom. It was an upsetting experience — it could not have been otherwise — but perhaps it could have been more graspable if the teacher had had access to children’s books on the subject. Instead there were disturbing facts and horrible black and white photos. Since the 1980s, many fine books about the Holocaust for children have been published, so I would certainly not be the first one to face the harrowing task of presenting this material in both an honest and age-appropriate way. But could I really do it? Reading The Diary of a Young Girl when I was in middle school was one of my formative reading experiences. Suddenly those facts, those photos, were transformed into a voice, the voice of a real girl like me, speaking directly to me, it seemed, out of the darkness of history. How could I do justice to Anne Frank the person and Anne Frank the writer in an early reader? How could I say anything about Anne that she had not said better herself? Yet, I said yes. Yes, I would write about Anne Frank. It might be a challenging subject, but it was also one of the worthiest. Who better to talk to children about such a terrible time than a child, an intelligent, soulful, articulate child, who had lived through it?
So I embarked on research. My first task was to find an angle or lens through which to structure Anne’s story. Step Into Reading biographies focus not on their subjects entire lives, but on particular aspects of their lives which help illuminate the person for the reader. This is fortunate, as having a focus enabled me to hone my material and sculpt it into something that could fit into early reader guidelines. I read the Definitive Edition of Anne’s Diary and looked at the Critical Edition, which shows all versions of Anne’s text side by side: her original text, the text she edited herself with a view to publication, and the version published originally by her father Otto Frank. I read biographies, memoirs by Anne’s friends, articles, and all the other children’s books I could find that had been written about her. There were so many things I wanted to say about Anne Frank! So many things I discovered that I wanted to share with young readers! But I had to choose a focus, and in the end, my editor and I decided to write about Anne’s ideas about nature and the story of the chestnut tree that grew outside the Secret Annex.
In my research, I was struck with how much nature had meant to Anne. Stuck inside for years, she developed a philosophy of the power of nature to calm suffering and bring peace. She wrote short stories on the topic as well as diary entries. And the tree she had watched from the attic window had a story of its own. People had rallied to save it when it became sick in the mid-2000s, but in 2010 it fell in a storm. Now saplings from the tree were traveling to various corners of the world to carry on Anne’s legacy. Here was a way in to Anne’s story for children. Children, I thought, could conceive of what it might be like to be trapped inside and how difficult that would be. Children would be able to think of a favorite tree or a favorite place in nature and how it made them feel.
My initial draft of the book was four times longer than it needed to be. It was only by, finally, thinking of the book as a poem (and through heroic work by my editor), that I was able to bring it down to the required thousand words. It is not a comprehensive biography of Anne Frank, but I hope it is a compelling introduction to her life that prompts readers to want to know more. I wanted to add more back matter for students, parents, and teachers, to help them find more context, but the Step Into Reading format just didn’t allow it. I’m hoping to be able to provide some material online.
Some people have argued that Anne Frank is only one of a million murdered children, others that she been turned into a symbol rather than the real girl she was. It is true that Anne’s is one of many stories that should be told. It is also true that we can over-idealize Anne. She was a complicated and sometimes difficult teenager. But she was also an extraordinary writer. I was struck, reading her work as an adult, how intentional and polished her prose is, how eloquent. Like any great writer, Anne deserves to be known and read. Her ideas about nature also deserve to be considered. In an age when we must think carefully about how we will treat our planet going forward, Anne’s idea about the importance of nature to our inner lives and its connection to the divine are worth hearing more than ever. The trees being planted around the world in her honor are one small way to spread her legacy. I hope that my book is another.
In addition to writing, I also visit schools (in person and via Skype) to talk about my books and give writing workshops. I would be happy to visit with you to talk about Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree. To learn more about my visits, or me, or my other books, please visit my website at www.janekohuth.com and feel free to get in touch!
Many Thanks to Jane Kohuth for joining us and sharing the story of how she wrote Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree, and for all of your books!
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