Carol Matas is an internationally acclaimed author of over 40 books for children and young adults. Her novel Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz is a 2014 Sydney Taylor Honor Book Selection for Older Readers.
Carol, What led you to set a Holocaust book in Canada?
Scholastic Canada has a series called “Dear Canada," Canadian history books aimed at girls in Grade 4-8, similar to the US series, “Dear America.” Scholastic approached me and asked me to write a Holocaust book for the series since there was not one yet and they felt that would be an important addition. I had already written two books for the series, one dealing with the Holocaust as part of the story – “Turned Away” is set in Winnipeg in 1941 and is about a young Jewish girl and her first cousin in France. Devorah corresponds with her cousin and we see what happens to the French Jews through Devorah’s eyes. In “Behind Enemy Lines," an “I Am Canada” novel, another historical series by Scholastic, this one for boys, I write about a young gunner whose plane is shot down over France and who ends up in Buchenwald. However, the big question for this new book was- ‘How can you set a Holocaust book in Canada when the Holocaust did not happen there?’ That was my first and biggest challenge, and until and unless I could solve it, there would be no book.
Why did you choose a diary format over prose?
This was another part of the project imposed by the constraints of the series – they are all written in dairy format. That proved to be a huge challenge and forced me to become very creative in figuring out a way to make that format work.
What were your greatest challenges in researching and writing this story?
I began my research in a broad sense looking at all kinds of countries, stories and time periods. But I had other constraints to consider: the girl needed to be 12 or 13 to fit the parameters of the series, and therefore that would impact what country to set the book in, and what time in history the book should begin. I considered Hungary, for instance, since the Jews there were rounded up later in the war and my character could conceivably have survived. The truth is that most children did not survive the Holocaust and it was important to research and to discover who did and what helped them to survive. During this research phase I came across the story of the Jewish orphans who were allowed to come to Canada after the war. I saw that some had come from Poland, some from Warsaw. I had always wanted to write about the Jewish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising because I think it is important for children to realize that Jews did fight back. But this also allowed for me to show the gradual insidious way Hitler “managed” the Final Solution so that right up until the end many Jews still did not and could not believe they would be murdered. I was also able to write about the hidden children. Most who survived were in fact part of this group or they would have ended up in the death camps. So in the end I decided my character would live in Warsaw and that she would be one of the hidden children who did survive. Because she was going to come to Canada as part of the orphan project that would mean that all her family would perish. Readers would know that from the start so the challenge was to make them want to discover how that happened and what Rose’s story was.
Another important aspect of the book for me was the spiritual and religious questions raised by the Holocaust itself and for my character Rose in particular. Since the story was set in Warsaw, the site of a large and vibrant Reform Synagogue, I chose to make Rose’s father a rabbi. This allowed for her to be both knowledgeable and questioning in her spiritual journey through darkness.
What is the most gratifying thing that has happened to you because of this book?
When I was in tenth grade I went to see a play in Winnipeg called “Andora” staged by the then artistic director of The Manitoba Theatre Company, John Hirsch. That play, and one I saw afterwards, “Mother Courage,” changed my life. It made me see that art could teach and could even change the way a person saw the world. I chose a life in the arts, first as an actor, then as a writer, and have tried to be a force for change. John Hirsch was one of the war orphans that came to Canada in 1947/48. I hope I have in some small way paid tribute to him and the others like him who survived and then made new lives for themselves and enriched all of us.
What can young readers expect next from Carol Matas?
I have two new books, one just published and one coming out this spring. The newly published book is a first for me- a picture book and a non-fiction book about death and dying for young readers and their families. Called “When I Die” it is a short meditation on death that I hope will make the subject less scary for parents as they discuss death with their young children.
On a trip to Los Angeles I visited The Autry Museum of Western Heritage and saw an exhibit called “Jews in the Wild West.” One of the pictures in the exhibit was of Mayor Charles Strauss, Tucson 1882, and his son, dressed up as cowboys. I knew I had to write about it from the second I saw that picture. The new novel, entitled “Tucson Jo” is inspired by the Strauss story but centers on the daughter of the first Jewish Mayor of Tucson in 1882 – her hopes and dreams, her fight for independence as a young woman, and the anti-Semitism Charles Strauss encountered when he ran for mayor. (I say in the book inspired by Charles Strauss because the family name is Fiedler in my book and I have created my own characters, a choice that gave me more freedom with the fictional part of the story.) Tucson Jo will be launched at the AJL convention in Vegas this summer and I am very excited about presenting it to librarians and readers from across North America.
Both these books are published by a new digital publisher, Fictivepress.com. The editor is tough and demanding, which has made my books all the better, but she is not worried, as some of the big publishers are, that my work might be “too Jewish”. This has given me a freedom in my writing that I often do not have. And a little farther into the future, Scholastic Canada will be publishing my new science fiction book! I am already researching that one.