In WHEN WE WERE SHADOWS, Janet Wees shows how to explain the Holocaust to a child
When We Were Shadows, for middle-school students, is based on the true story of a Jewish boy and his family hiding from the Nazis in WWII in Holland. It traces his journey at the age of 5 from Germany to Holland in 1937, where the family thought they would be free of the persecution happening to Jews in their home country, only to have their haven invaded by the Nazis 3 years later. The story describes how the family fled from one hiding place to another, aided by people in the Dutch Resistance, until they found refuge in a hidden village in the Veluwe forest. For 18 months they lived in fear of discovery, and were assisted by local villagers and the Resistance, and trying to make the best of their situation. After the village was attacked, the boy and his family had to take on new identities and continued to hide until liberation in Zwolle by the Canadians in 1945.
The story is told through narratives and letters, and is actually one long letter from a grandfather to his granddaughter when she becomes old enough to know what happened during that time. Within the long letter are narratives from the grandfather, recalling his memories, and old letters from him as a boy to his Oma (hiding elsewhere)describing the family’s experiences to ensure she knew they were safe. His letters also acted as a reminder that he was still alive and he could reflect on what he’d experienced.
In 2005 and 2007, the author visited the The Hidden Village memorial site in Holland, near Vierhouten. She sat in the reconstructed huts and tried to imagine living in those conditions for 18 months in constant fear for her life. As a former teacher, she knew about children’s interests in history and decided that North American children needed to hear this story.
Research found the name of a woman from Holland who’d been in hiding herself, and who knew someone who was curator of the museum for The Hidden Village. From the curator she got the name of a man who’d lived in the village the whole time. Off to Amsterdam she flew to interview the man-who-was-the-boy. For four days she listened, recorded, laughed and cried with her new friend, went home and began to transcribe the notes and tapes. Nine years of writing, editing, revising, submitting finally came to fruition with the acceptance of the manuscript by Second Story Press in 2017. The book is scheduled to be released April 3. It can be ordered online and in bookstores in Canada and USA. It is being translated into Dutch and will be for sale in Holland after the beginning of June.
Praise for When We Were Shadows
Excerpt from CM Association Reviews, University of Manitoba, by Carmelita Cechetto-Shea, Library Consultant for the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada:
A question that always creates much discussion and debate is: “How do you explain the Holocaust to a child?” Introducing children to such a horrific topic is often difficult, and a gentle approach is often a good way to introduce the topic without inflicting the details of what humans do to other humans. Instead of dwelling on the atrocities of the Holocaust, experts recommend the introduction of books on acceptance, courage, and loyalty, exactly what transpires in the When We Were Shadows. Written in the language appropriate for the intended readers (ages 10-13), Wees has shared a true story of a young boy dealing with life at an adult level, trying to remain a boy, but realizing that his youth is no longer typical and carefree. It is clearly written and designed to be used as an educational tool for children; there is also a teacher’s guide for the series available online. When We Were Shadows is a perfect choice for school libraries, whether as a stand-alone read or as a curriculum resource for teachers. When We Were Shadows will inform readers, young and old, on the journey of a young boy during the Holocaust, but ultimately it will inspire all to discover how the human spirit can triumph over evil. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.”
Interview with Janet Wees
Why do you write?
I write to express how I feel to politicians, friends, family; to make corporations more accountable. And I write to teach, to share my experiences with newer teachers. This book was written for children so they would continue to learn about how the Holocaust affected children their age. As well, this person re-lives his experiences every time he makes a speech or talks to a classroom, so this was one way to alleviate some of that for him.
As a result of publishing your book, what have you learned about yourself and/or the writing process?
The steepest learning curve has been the publishing process. But before that, as all writers know, I didn’t let many people read my writing for fear of rejection. I set myself a publisher rejection ceiling of 12 as apparently that was how many rejections JK Rowling had. When I reached my 12, I took a different tack. I learned that I had to admit what I thought was good, really wasn’t good enough. I started letting people read and give feedback. I learned that I had to put my sensitivity on the back burner if I wanted to produce something readable. And lo and behold, I didn’t cry at criticism, I didn’t get defensive; I built on it. I also discovered that I could not just write; I had other things in my life and part of those nine years I traveled and volunteered and did social activities. Sporadically I got back on the trail and took a five day self-directed writing retreat in Banff and got involved with a mentorship program. That’s when everything took on a new life, and basically it was the beginning of this book being published. I actually took advice and listened and analyzed and saw what needed to be done. No more defensiveness over fear of rejection.
The most interesting part of the writing process was that what I had pooh-poohed in the past, when I heard someone say that the character took over and wrote the book for you, or the story took you along and wrote itself, was true! During those four months in mentorship, I would sometimes write for 7 hours straight, interrupted only for lunch when I remembered. It was as if I was the boy and I was living his life. I found myself drained after those four months and I couldn’t remember doing much else. But as I wrote I knew it was going in the right direction; I listened to my gut.
I also did something that is not very often recommended. When I didn’t hear from publishers who said they would let me know in 3 – 6 months, or would return the submission in a SASE, I contacted them and asked if my not hearing from them meant rejection. Three (THREE!) publishers said they could not find my original submission and to send it again! And I did that, and one of them ended up buying my book! I learned not to be shy about having chutzpah.
At what moment did you decide you were a writer?
It happened when I was 13 and I entered a contest in a movie theatre magazine. The question I needed to answer was “Why are movies the best form of entertainment?” It was open to USA and Canada. My entry was fourth and I won a 12 piece setting of stainless steel flatware that I still use! My dad was upset because we had to drive 60 miles away to get it out of Customs. It was then that I realized words have power and effect.
What does your writing space look like?… like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?
My writing space is a loft in my townhouse. I use a desktop (iMac). My desk is a mess but I know where everything is located…most of the time. I can’t write in noise but when I have a problem concentrating I will go for a walk and try to clear my mind. My mentor taught me to treat my writing like my job ie. get up, get dressed as if going to work and set up the times. So I never write anymore in my housecoat. I get dressed and usually start in the morning before other distractions happen. Sometimes I need to use an egg timer because I forget to eat. And I need to stand up and walk around every so often.
Where do your ideas come from for stories/books?
All of my educational journal articles were about a program I developed for gifted students with learning disabilities, so I could write from knowledge. Magazine articles also came from travel experiences and personal experiences. This novel, my first, came when I visited the memorial site for The Hidden Village in Holland, in 2005. It “grabbed” me. Two years later I visited the site again and sat in the reconstructed huts and wondered how the people felt. Even though I was retired I knew that children would want to know and read about this part of history. As a teacher of gifted students, I knew this was the kind of story they would read because of their own sense of social justice and their high sensitivities. I began to research it and contacted a woman in New Jersey who had a contact in Holland who knew a man who was a boy who had hidden in the hidden village. I got his phone number and called him to interview him on the phone. He said, “We cannot do this on the phone; you must come to Amsterdam!” So I went and spent four days in his dining room, laughing, crying, listening, writing, recording and becoming friends with the man. He told me at that time (2008) to fictionalize to fill in gaps. He also said to make it an adventure but as I wrote it I soon realized it’s not the kind of adventure that is written in most books. He now says it was NOT an adventure. So this novel is based on the stories he told me around his dining room table. The first draft was more narrative and too adult a voice. I completely revamped the format and used letters as the vehicle to tell the boy’s stories, even though in real life he never wrote letters to his Oma. It gradually became a story of A boy instead of THE boy .
How much time do you spend writing each day?
It has taken me over 9 years to bring this book to fruition, but I didn’t write everyday. At first when I was transcribing my notes I was at it every day. And when I was involved with the mentorship program in 2015 for four months, I wrote 3 – 4 days a week for at least 4 hours per day, sometimes more. I think I had to put in a minimum number of hours. My eyes begin to bother me and I sometimes needed to take breaks. I also write 400 letters a year so I spend some time each day or a number of hours one or two days per week writing letters.
If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to?
If I were not writing, I would be reading or being outside. Sometimes I feel compelled to write (ie. letters to the editor), but now I choose to write because in the past when I felt compelled, I never had the time to follow through. Now that I am retired, I like to write children’s picture books, but I don’t rule out another novel about WWII and Holland.
What writing mistakes do you find yourself making most often?
The most revealing mistakes I made this time were factual errors such as assuming that a tent would have a zippered opening, when in fact they used ties and pegs in the 1940’s. And I used luggage trolleys with which I was familiar as an escape route but in fact, they didn’t exist at that time either, so I had to change the method of subterfuge. I did a lot of research about the plants and trees to get accuracy but completely forgot about the tent and trolleys. I also made a mistake with glasses and how close a person would look at a book if they were near or far sighted. I learned so much about not assuming based on my life.
How would you like your books to change the world?
I would like my audience of middle-schoolers to remember and understand the experiences of my protagonist so that it will never happen again. Children learn empathy through books; they feel with the characters and hopefully it becomes ingrained. I remember the first time I read about Dr. Tom Dooley and his experiences in Viet Nam and how he connected with people he was trying to help. I think his work as a doctor in the jungle inspired me to be in a helping profession. I became a teacher. Putting his politics aside, I feel he changed my world as I knew it then.
What lessons have you learned about marketing your work?
I have learned to be shameless about marketing. Word of mouth and social media are probably the most affordable and fast spreading. I send bookmarks in letters so the recipients can share them, made up business cards with links to pre-ordering, posted photos on Facebook. I have learned that people seem to be enamored with authors. I find that so interesting, to be treated like some celebrity when I don’t feel any different. This happens in coffee shops or on the bus when I engage in conversation with strangers.