An Interview With Lizzie Skurnick (Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour) Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries
Lizzie Skurnick Books is the publisher of ISABEL’S WAR by Lila Perl, which has been named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for teen readers. Since Lila died before the publication of her book, the following interview takes place with her publisher, Lizzie Skurnick.
In a stunning new novel completed just before her death in 2013, award-winning author Lila Perl introduces us to Isabel Brandt, a French-phrase-dropping twelve-year-old New Yorker who's more interested in boys and bobbing her nose than the distant war across the Pacific—the one her parents keep reminding her to care more about. Things change when Helga, the beautiful niece of her parent's best friends, comes to live with Isabel and her family. Helga is everything Isabel's not—cool, blonde, and vaguely aloof. She's also a German war refugee, with a past that gives a growing Isabel something more important to think about than boys and her own looks. Set in the Bronx during World War II, Isabel's War is a beautiful evocation of New York in the 1940s and of a girl's growing awareness of the world around her.
Lila Perl, the daughter of Russian immigrants fleeing anti-Semitism, published over sixty volumes of fiction and nonfiction for young readers during her long and distinguished career. In addition to the beloved Fat Glenda series, Perl twice received American Library Association Notable awards for nonfiction and was a recipient of the Sydney Taylor Award for Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story. She died in 2013 at the age of ninety-two. Isabel's War and its completed sequel, Lilli's Quest, were her final works.
Lila Perl was a bit of a legend, having written over sixty books for young readers. What was it like to work with her?
Lila was, simply, a delight. When I first called her to ask if we could republish the “Fat Glenda” series--one of my absolute favorites as a teen--we wound up having an hour-long conversation about what it was like to be an author who wrote tens of books while also raising young children. (I was about to have a baby, and I wanted advice!)
What struck me most during that conversation was her absolutely modesty, both about her impressive output and how she lived as a young writer. (In a garden apartment in Queens, writing while her children napped.) To me, she is, as you put it, a legend--but talking to her, I learned that authors of her era had a very different experience from the teen authors of today. YA was actually booming in the 70s and 80s, but publishing didn’t have the enormous marketing apparatus it does today, and the authors weren’t on blogs and Twitter and email. They went to see their editors directly with each book, sitting in a waiting room, and heard from their readers by actual mail, or met them at schools and libraries and book fair visits. Most remarkably, I could tell that Lila had no idea what an enormous fan base she still had. (And has.)
I asked her to write an essay about it, which she (typically) turned in the next day. It’s about her early years as a writer, rejection, and her own Peyton Place:
But the most impressive thing, of course, is that Lila was dying of cancer at the time we worked on ISABEL’S WAR and LILLI’S QUEST. She never told me. She finished ISABEL, then wrote LILLI’S QUEST, when I told her we needed to know what happened next. We were actually planning a trilogy, the third book about both the girls at Smith, and you can see hints of the next story in LILLI’S QUEST.
I think the fact that she knew she was dying and turned in two books before her death says the most about her as a writer.
What inspired Lila to write ISABEL'S WAR?
From her own background as the child of parents who barely escaped the Holocaust, I think Lila was interested both in the Holocaust from the point of view of an American girl, as she was, as well as Lilli, a survivor herself. The characters were a way to tell a unique story only very few people know: the story of the war both here and in Germany. Most books about the Holocaust are (unsurprisingly) miserable and terrifying, if brilliant. What’s remarkable about ISABEL’S WAR is that we get to know Lilli and Isabel as people as well, and the book is actually quite funny.
The mission of Lizzie Surnick Books is to “reissue the very best in young adult literature from the classics of the 1930s and 1940s to the social novels of the 1970s and 1980s,” yet ISABEL’S WAR is a new release. What about this particular book brought it to your attention and persuaded you to deviate from your stated mission?
I knew very well that the publishing industry changed during Lila’s lifetime, and I suspected that she might have a novel or two in the drawer from when the 80s YA world went out of fashion. She did: the unfinished ISABEL’S WAR, a book her agent had not been able to sell.
When I had it in my hands, I knew we had to know the rest of the story. In some ways, it is a reissue--just one the publishing industry missed on the first go-round.
When will LILLI’S QUEST (sequel to ISABEL’s WAR) be released?
In the Fall of 2015. We can’t wait!
Can you give us a sneak peek at LILLI’S QUEST?
But of course!
Lilli wakes up to the sickly yellowish light of a November morning. They are still living in that high-ceilinged, ground-floor flat on Heinrichstrasse. The sun never pierces the tall, narrow windows and to Lilli, who hates the darkness, all of the rooms feel like the insides of brown-paper bags. It is 1938 and Lilli is eleven years old.
She and her younger sister Helga, who is ten, share a bed, very high and with tall, knobby bedposts that are carved with elaborate scrolls. The bed once belonged to Oma and Opa, their grandparents. Lilli’s youngest sister Elspeth, now five, is still sleeping in her old baby cot, which is positioned crosswise at the foot of the family heirloom.
Today begins like an ordinary day. The girls of the Frankfurter family wake up, shiver as they wash themselves at the kitchen sink, and dress in their itchy woolen jumpers, thick black stockings, and sturdy oxfords.
They help Mutti prepare the family breakfast of hot milk, bread, and very small rations of jam, which is running short, as are many so-called luxury goods in Germany in 1938. The country, under its Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, is arming not only for war in Europe but to take over the entire world. And Hitler’s armies need to be equipped with the best of everything.
But war shortages aren’t something that Lilli is thinking about right now. She’s more concerned with thoroughly removing the despised skin that has formed on her mug of boiled milk. Mutti gazes at her frowning. “Always the same,” she mutters in a tired voice. “You are throwing away nourishment, my child. It’s hard enough to get milk these days, hard enough to keep body and soul together.”
Lilli can’t help noticing that Mutti, who was once so pretty, with her flaxen hair and flirtatious smile, has become faded and that there is a faint new crease in her forehead. Papa, who has also come to the breakfast table, is dressed in his usual going-to-the-office suit. But in truth he won’t be going anywhere. Many months ago Papa was dismissed from his job as a chief scientist at a chemical plant near the town where the Frankfurters live.
When Papa arrived home in the middle of a workday, the astonished girls asked why. “You should already know the answer,” Papa told them not unkindly. “Why have all of you been forbidden to attend school with German children. Why did the Jewish school then burn down?”
Lilli flashed a bitter smile. “Of course, I know. They hate us, the Jews. What will you do now, Papa?”
There was no answer. Every day Papa dressed for the office. Sometimes he left the apartment and tried to find a job among his Jewish friends. Money had been saved but it was running low and the Frankfurters had to borrow small sums from Mutti’s family, the Bayers, who were not Jewish.
Papa responds to Mutti’s criticism of Lilli. “Let the child indulge herself, Martina. Who knows what’s coming?”
Papa is so handsome in Lilli’s opinion – his high cheekbones, the curl of his lips, his dark hair and amber-brown eyes, the richness in his deep voice.
Mutti has caught something in Papa’s words. “You mean…? Do you think there will be trouble today, Josef?”
Lilli’s eyes and those of her sister Helga flash to the six-pointed yellow star with the word Jude, for Jew, which is sewn onto the sleeve of Papa’s suit. If he goes into the streets searching for work, everyone will know that he belongs to the race that Hitler has sworn to wipe out. Already Jews in Germany have been stripped of their rights as citizens. They’ve been mocked, attacked, beaten, and even arrested. From her parents’ conversation, Lilli senses that something truly evil may be coming.
Yet, the day goes by quietly enough. The older girls do their lessons with Papa instructing. Elspeth practices her alphabet and her reading, urged on by Mutti, and then goes off to play with her dolls. Papa reads the evening newspaper, which has been delivered to him by a kindly neighbor, Mr. Doppler, who is a so-called “pure” German and need not fear being questioned or even arrested by one of Hitler’s special police.
Darkness descends and the girls go off to bed.