Daughter of Holocaust Survivors Shares Their Incredible Story of Survival

During Trump’s travel ban, many compared the situation to the 1939 St. Louis liner, a ship carrying 900 German Jewish refugees who were denied entrance into America and were then returned to their eventual deaths. And today’s challenges, with more than 65 million displaced people worldwide, raises strained historical echoes of World War II and the Holocaust.

I reached out to Tucson artist Lisa Mishler, daughter of two Holocaust survivors to get her perspective on escaping a war-torn nation. I was also curious how she felt about the ban that shook up the country, to say the least.

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Mishler is the daughter of Zalman Ber (also known as Sol) and Luba, two Holocaust survivors who came to America at the end of WWII. Before they died, Mishler took on the task of transcribing recordings of her father’s stories. Her goal was to document and chronicle how her parents escaped a concentration camp where only five out of 20,000 people survived. Everyone else in their family including her older brother was killed.

Her efforts resulted in the publication of Zalman Ber: The True Story of the Man the Nazis Could Not Kill. The book captures how Sol and Luba survived the Nazi liquidation of a million and a half Jews in Poland in the western part of Russia, in mass killings in the ghettos, in places where they were born and in the concentration camps.

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EM: Your parents defeated incredible odds by surviving a concentration camp during WWII. Five out of 20,000 people escaped the Glembokoye ghetto. What did you learn from your parents about resilience when your father told you his stories?

 

LM: The Glembokoye ghetto was first turned into a camp about 1941, when walls with wire and wood were put all around the ghetto. The homes that were in the camp were shared homes with as many as twenty or more living in one home. The old people were separated from the young. My father speaks of many Jewish people who met their deaths in local ghettos, in towns and villages in the same barbaric destruction as the well-known concentration camps.

To answer you question about resiliency, I learned in the face of horrible obstacles that you must never give up. I remember hearing how my father urged my mother on, to live on and to fight even after the life of their son was taken. He urged her they had to live to tell their story. I believe his legacy has been passed down to me to be my family’s story-teller.

By now, most people of the WWII generation have heard of the crematoriums of Dachau, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Yet, it should be known that more Jewish people met their deaths at the hands of the Nazi Gestapo and their “stooges” in the local ghettos, in towns and villages, in the same barbaric destruction as the well known concentration camps. Most of the three million Jewish population of Poland, and a million and a half in the western part of Russia, had been liquidated in mass killings in the ghettos, in places where they were born.

EM: Can you describe the process by which your father passed along his stories to you?

LM: I was born one month after they arrived in this country, so the war was felt deeply within me.

I felt their sense of loss for many years. My parents did not talk openly about what took place. One of my most vivid memories as a very small child was my mother crying her heart out. I asked why she was crying. She told me she missed her family so much.

When we were older, my two brothers and I would request to hear their war stories. My father then decided to write everything down so that we would never forget. Because of his lazy English, I took his words and wrote them so that all could understand his thoughts. I then added my mother’s voice as she didn’t like to talk about their experiences.

EM: How did your parents meet?

LM: Germany declared war on Poland in 1939, and the Russians occupied Glembokoye. My father fell in love with my mother’s heart-shaped face and gray eyes while they were both taking a class on learning to speak Russian. They married young, keeping it a secret. They spent their honeymoon in a cave, with no passports, no money, nothing. They managed to make do and survived until June 22, 1941, when it was announced over the radio that Germany declared war with Russia.

When the Germans started to occupy, they were forced with tens of thousands of others to run for their lives. In Zalman Ber: The True Story of the Man the Nazis Could Not Kill Sol, my father, shares how they lived, how they worked with the Russians, how they fought with the partisans, and how they survived the war.

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EM: Your parents were refugees who came to America after fleeing unspeakable atrocity. What do you think when you see our leaders refusing refugees from other countries? What do you think your parents would think?

 

LM: I think it is a disgrace for this country not to let refugees in. It goes against all American principles. I think my parents would be deeply saddened.

Profiling innocent people who are suffering and want a better life, shame on us.

EM: What is the most shocking discovery you’ve learned from your father’s stories?

 

LM: I grew up with the stories and never could understand how men could be so evil and hateful. What was most amazing for me was to realize how my parents acted so normal and were able to raise a family in a healthy fashion after such horrific events and loss.

EM: How do you think your parents experience shaped their lives in America?

LM: I remember when they both became American citizens. They were proud and happy to be in America. Their trials made them appreciate everything this country has to offer. They became successful and always gave back to the community. Their biggest wish was that the family they lost to the war could be here to enjoy in their success.

EM: How do you think it’s shaped yours?

LM: It shaped who I am in every part of my being. Their experiences have inspired my art, my political views and my desire to educate myself and my children.

EM: As an artist, do you find that your work is inspired by your family’s experience?

LM: I see it in my artwork all the time. Symbols occur in my artwork that I think come to me unconsciously from my family’s history. It’s always with me.

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EM: What do you hope readers take away from reading Zalman Ber: The True Story of the Man the Nazis Could Not Kill?

 

LM: Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism are on the rise. This country is coming from a fear-based premise. When you come from fear you only create more fear and hatred. Blame is put on the innocent because it is easier to blame others. History doesn’t have to repeat itself. We have the ability create our own history using compassion and respect for others.

Find more information at http://www.lisamishler.com/ and read more about Sol and Luba at Zalman Ber: The True Story of the Man the Nazis Could Not Kill.

Interview with Storybook Artist Emma Levey

I had the pleasure to interview storybook artist Emma Levey! To celebrate the release of her newest book Hattie Peck: The Journey Home, she talks here about her creative inspiration and advice for other aspiring artists. This book introduces readers to Hattie and her diverse brood. Since she cannot lay eggs herself, she fosters abandoned eggs and cares for them like her own. Then, one day, they must all fly the coop. I must say that I welled up a bit reading Hattie. All it takes is a cutely drawn hen with a heart of gold to get me going. This is a very cute story to read as a family, and I would imagine it’d be a especially nice to read around Mother’s Day—to celebrate all caregivers.
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Elizabeth:
I love your illustration style! What storybook artists have you been most inspired by?

Emma: I’m constantly inspired by other picture book makers and there are some in particular that I return to. Some, to name a few include Oliver Jeffers, Emma Chichester Clark, Benji Davies, Marta Altes and Quentin Blake. Each of them have their own distinct qualities and all of them are brilliant at pacing, composition and bringing characters to life.
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Elizabeth: In Hattie Peck: The Journey Home we meet a delightful hen with a big heart. When Hattie’s family moves away and she returns home alone, I felt my heart swell. Her babies literally flew the coop! It made me think about my own mother. What made you want to write a story about a hen’s babies growing up? What aspect of your own family inspired you?

Emma: After writing the first Hattie Peck, I felt there was still more to say. I still do, even now. What drove me to write a story about flying the nest was to illustrate a family dynamic, documenting them growing up and showing Hattie return them to where they were found and positively guiding them to their independence. I wanted to show how love endures, no matter what the distance or how much time passes and I hope I’ve been able to do that justice. I wouldn’t say I was consciously inspired by my family but the story is certainly based around a chaotic and loving one so I’m sure it came through subliminally.
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Elizabeth: What is your writing and illustration process like?

Emma: My writing and illustrating processes are quite different and sort of bounce around and intertwine. When I’m thinking of ideas, I usually visit or sit in a place that I can’t distract myself in; Public transport and my favourite cafe are two that spring to mind. At this stage, I may have a few words down and some character sketches. Once I’ve got an idea, I have to write in complete silence. When I’m illustrating ideas I need the opposite, lots of music. Both the writing and the illustrating take it in turns until I’m ready to pitch my idea and develop it further.
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Elizabeth: Where is your favorite place to create?

Emma: Well I think little cafe’s including my most favourite one around the corner are great for the beginnings of my process but when I’m working on the finals of a book, I’ve got a great studio that I’m a part of with other creative people. The support and friendship that they all offer is really invaluable.

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Elizabeth: Do you have advice for aspiring storybook artists?

Emma: I think the best advice I can give is to keep writing, keep drawing, work from your heart and DON’T give up! At the beginning of my career I had three different part-time jobs just to make sure I could keep a roof over my head. Juggling my time was really difficult but it’s definitely worth putting all the hard work in as I really do love what I do. All along the way you will doubt yourself; so long as you always prove your doubts wrong, even when you find it really tough, you’ll eventually get there.
 
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Elizabeth: Can you tell us what project you are working on or brainstorming next?

Emma: I’ve recently been illustrating other books for different publishers, but I’m really looking forward to developing my next idea further. It’s about my pet cat and I’m still deciding what story I want to tell about him. He really was a short but wonderful joy in my life and I want to make sure I do him justice.
 

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Elizabeth: Where can readers find your books and artwork?

Emma: My books are available online, as well as many different bookshops and I also have a website, an etsy shop where I sell prints and originals from my books as well as various social media platforms where I share my work from time to time.
 
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About Emma Levey
Emma Levey works in everything from print and gouache, to photography and 3-D. Emma is based in a teeny, tiny village called Llancarfan, in the south of Wales.
 
About Hattie Peck: The Journey Home
cover.jpg;h1000.jpegHattie Peck adores eggs of all kinds. However, she cannot make any of her own. No worries—Hattie has collected eggs from all over the world, hatched them, and raised her blended family of cockatoos, storks, owls, anything from an egg—even reptiles.

But now it’s time. They all need to leave her big loving nest. So off the flock goes, on their biggest—and saddest—adventure. Even though, in her heart, Hattie knows it’s best.

A poignant story about family and differences, making hard decisions, letting go and inclusion. It’s not all sad, though, due to a nice twist ending as in the first book.

Bright colorful and lively illustrations and lots of information about egg-bearing animals round out the story.

Find it on IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or with other fine booksellers.

Literary Food Recipes

For those that love words and food, the combination is heaven. My first encounter with literary food writing was through Dr. Suess. Green Eggs and Ham, man. Then, I remember reading how Edmund couldn’t resist Turkish Delights and loved how an author could make a sugary treat sound so tempting. I don’t need that much convincing, but it’s always pleasant to experience lovely language mixed with food. Preview: Dainty slapjacks garnished with honey and puddings made of delightful creaminess.

In short I became very ravenous, especially for pudding, figuring out which literary recipes to present. You might too. And hey, maybe there are some book club/food ideas in here!

Turkish Delight – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund inhaled the Snow Queen’s Turkish Delight and betrayed his siblings! Then, he had the gall to ask for more.

Turkish Delight is comprised of sugar, gelatin, water, and cornstarch, and it is commonly flavored with rosewater, lemon or mint. History says a Turkish man named Bekir Effendi, who opened up a confectionary shop in Istanbul in 1776, unveiled the delicacy in his sweet boutique. Legend has it that an Englishman stumbled upon the treat and began shipping cases back to Britain calling it “Turkish Delight.” Soon, it became a ritual among socialites to exchange Turkish Delights wrapped in silk handkerchiefs as gfts.

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Recipe

Pickled Limes – Little Women
The youngest sister, Amy, in Louis May Alcott’s Little Women was crazy for pickled limes.
“Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else, at recess. If one girl likes another, she give her a lime. If she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck.”

Anyone who is anyone eats pickled limes.

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Recipe

Ichabod’s Slapjacks – Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow may be open for interpretation, but pancakes are not! Ichabod may have been a fool about the true nature of the headless horsemen, but he knew a fine stack of slapjacks when he saw one. And, he appreciated the hand that buttered them. Get in the mood:

“As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples, some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields, breathing the odor of the beehive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.”

—Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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Recipe

 Crab Casserole – The Hours
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, reveals one day in the lives of three characters, much like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (the book reflected in the The Hours). Condensing action in a short period of time allows the reader to reflect on how characters navigate through a day’s ups and downs and what their responses say about their whole lives. For Clarissa Dalloway, preparing a crab casserole as a gift for her friend Richard shows her nurturing spirit and love for him and his favorite dish, which they both refer to as the “crab thing.”

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Recipe

Green Eggs and Ham
Green Eggs and Ham contains only fifty words due to a bet with Seuss’ publisher that he could write a book for children under 225 words (Cat in the Hat word count). The recipe contains seven: ham, eggs, green food coloring, cooking oil.

For true Seuss enthusiasts, try this recipe inside of a box and call it a day. Also, this exists.

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Snow Candy – Little House on the Prairie
The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are a staple of children’s literature. Western Frontier dishes and desserts were an important part of the series, which led to a spinoff cookbook that highlights many of the recipes just like this one called Snow Candy. It is supposed to resemble a snowy landscape with dark syrupy streams. The kids will love this one! You will too. Who doesn’t love making yummy snow-covered paths out of molten sugar?

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Fried Green Tomatoes – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
In Fannie Flagg’s novel, the Whistle Stop Café in Whistle Stop, Alabama is known for its fried green tomatoes. Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman living in a nursing home, tells her stories of yesteryear, recounting tales of people she used to know and the succulent fried tomatoes she used to chomp on. This is a great snack for out-of-season tomatoes and the tomato lovers in your life. Raises hand.

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Recipe

Queen of Puddings – Ulysses
If James Joyce wrote recipes, I’d never eat. I’d be too caught up in romance and eating violet petals instead of dinner. Take his description of Gerty’s food predicament for instance.

“… for Gerty was womanly wise and knew that a mere man liked that feeling of hominess. Her griddlecakes done to a golden-brown hue and queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess had won golden opinions from all because she had a lucky hand also for lighting a fire, dredge in the fine self-raising flour and always stir in the same directions, then cream the milk and sugar and whisk well the whites of eggs though she didn’t like the eating part when there were many people that made her shy and often she wondered why you couldn’t eat something poetical like violets or roses…”

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Recipe

Boeuf en Daube – To the Lighthouse
If you happen to be burdened by large helpings of meat, then this recipe inspired by Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is right up your alley. Considered one of the best English novels of the 20th century, To the Lighthouse is a glimpse into Woolf’s vivid imagination. Her ability to shape thoughts through words is beautiful; she’s a true artist of language, even when describing meat. But, listen to Ginny and don’t overcook! “The beef, the bayleaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn. To keep it waiting was out of the question.”

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Recipe

Aunt Petunia’s violet pudding – Harry Potter
“Aunt Petunia’s masterpiece of a pudding, the mountain of cream and sugared violets, was floating up near the ceiling.” Now, J.K. Rowling did not impart this recipe verbatim, so here is a recipe for a Strawberry Trifle, a traditional British dessert. As long as it doesn’t land on your head, you’re in good shape.

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Recipe

Happy reading/eating!

The Silver Linings of a Trump Presidency

As someone who writes fiction, I consistently find myself writing on the theme of hope. Yet, lately I’ve been feeling hopeless.

The election of Trump felt like a blow to the gut for many, including me. I believe it was especially hurtful for individuals who were excited to continue moving mountains in terms of racial and gender equality, climate policy, equal pay, income inequality, healthcare and education reform, and many other things that would actually make America great. It wasn’t about Hillary, it’s what she represented in terms of sustaining progress. We had come so far, only to see the carrot on a string dangle further away.

So, here I was writing how my characters need hope to power through when I was simultaneously posting memes on how the end of the world was nigh.

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I thought carefully about the next four years. In the same way one of my characters would find hope, I wanted to find a silver lining as well.

So, here are the silver linings I believe come with a Trump presidency and the hope I see for those concerned.

We are having an awakening

The SNL skit that featured Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle was spot on. It showed how many are living inside a bubble, unaware of everyday racism. And it’s not just everyday racism that is rising to the surface, it’s the uncovering of America’s extreme hate groups like neo-Nazism. It’s nice to pretend that these groups don’t exist. But they do. Of course, many people were already extremely aware, but now it’s out in the open like an ugly wound. And wounds can only be healed once exposed. For many, it’s a privilege to be blind to such hate and discrimination. We must recognize that. I believe it’s good we’re having these conversations and seeing the underbelly of this nation. If we don’t, we can’t fix it.

We are getting stronger

A revolution is spreading across social media in the United States and beyond. While racial, gender, and income inequality conversations were certainly being had before Trump, they are on full throttle now. Soon, this revolution will take full shape and be on visible display at the Women’s March on Washington. There are tons of sister marches as well. A striking quote has gone viral, and it couldn’t be more accurate.

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We are organizing

Pre-Trump, I think many people thought, “my vote doesn’t count” or “they already know who won, what’s it matter” or “I can’t stop the Illuminati, so why even try.” Or who knows what people thought, really. I just know, people seem to be paying more attention to their own voting and organizing rights now more than ever. In the wake of Trump’s election, a petition to stop Trump circulated, citizens made asserted efforts to call their local officials, and many people banned together to show the next administration that they stand up for the liberty, justice, and respect for ALL people. All a hopeful sign that many people are looking to the future and will be ready in 2020.

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Class warfare is common ground

There have been a lot of articles challenging anti-Trumpsters to at least see where Trump supporters are coming from. This one, in particular, is pretty good. And there have been viral memes, tweets, articles, and other online content that’s been generated to show Trumpsters that there’s just no forgiveness on this one. But when all is said and done, income inequality is still a huge reason many people voted for Trump. These were valid concerns, and it’s just a shame a con man recognized this and provided false hope.

Income inequality has been the heart of Bernie Sanders’ message his entire career. Just because there are a lot of other issues that need to be dealt with in the coming years, this one can’t go away. Perhaps, when the Trump facade fades for those who sing his praises, we can all find common ground on this issue.

While I still think a Trump presidency is a blowback to civil rights—and perhaps that is an understatement—I also know that, like my characters, you don’t achieve anything by staying stagnant. There is always a way out, always an opportunity to build up bravery, always a silver lining. And we have four years to figure this one out, much longer than a three-act play, but we will.

Stay hopeful.

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What Was it Like Being a Kid During the Dust Bowl?

While writing The Dust Bunnies, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a child during the Dust Bowl. What interests and hobbies would I have had? And would I still have them despite devastating climate conditions, poverty, and hunger? What would I think about my family? Would I love them? Resent them?

I reached out to author and historian Bob Burke, a Dust Bowl expert who has written 127 historical non-fiction titles, on what it was like to be a child during this time. He offered insightful responses that further provoked my empathy for children who survived the Dust Bowl.

Elizabeth: What was it like to be a child during the Dust Bowl?

Bob Burke: It was difficult and dangerous as a child during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Days that began with the Stock Market crash of 1929 and worsened as a searing drought hit the southern plains in the middle of the United States. Dust blew in such quantities that trains stopped, businesses closed, and chickens went to roost at noon because it was so dark. Tractors and other farm equipment and cars were buried by mounds of blowing sand. There was little food and school was sometimes closed for a week. Families who lived far from town were isolated by piles of sand on roads that were far from modern in the first place. Farmers could not grow crops to feed their animals or gardens to feed their families because of the drought, blowing sand, and blistering heat. People began to leave Oklahoma. They lost their property because they could not sell enough crops or cattle to pay mortgages. Families also believed they would die from inhaling dust if they stayed in the region affected by the dust storms. When a baby was born, a wet cloth was placed over its mouth and nose for the first few weeks to keep dust from clogging its airways.

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Elizabeth: I’ve heard that children had to wear face-masks when they were outside. Is this true?

Bob Burke: Children had to stay inside if a dust storm was coming. If they went outside to do chores, they had to hold a cloth over their nose. It was commonplace for adults and children to wear homemade masks. There were stories of animals and humans suffocating to death when they were caught in a thick dust storm. Their lungs filled with dust and they choked to death. But in the worst of dust storms, even the improperly built homes on the plains provided little protection for children. Often, there were cracks in the walls or floors and dust churned up by high winds found its way onto the food and furniture inside. There was no way to escape the wrath of the dust. Kids went to bed at night with sand on their nightclothes and sand in their beds. It was awful.

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Elizabeth: How did children spend their time? How did they manage duties between home and school?

Bob Burke: There was little school for kids living in rural areas. It was too dangerous to travel for miles to school and risk being caught in a dust storm. There was no television or weather forecasting, so one never knew when a dust storm was coming until a huge black mass appeared on the horizon and covered the son, blocking out light necessary for human and plant growth.

Many parents tried to spend the time indoors to have their children practice reading or math. This was not very successful because few parents had even a high school education. They wanted their kids to do better, but they were not equipped with the knowledge to teach their children. Often, without radio or TV, the only entertainment was reading the Bible, playing inside with brothers and sisters, or listening to the old folks tell stories of a better time.

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Elizabeth: What was the biggest struggle for children during this time?

Bob Burke: The biggest struggle for children during the Dust Bowl days was to keep from getting depressed by seeing their parents stressed because of having no money and seeing their crops and gardens dry up and their animals die because of the lack of food. Many times, children of this era went to bed crying at night because they heard their parents praying in the other room for a miracle. Imagine staying inside all day some days with no radio, TV, video games, or books.

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Elizabeth: What was the most interesting thing about being a child during this time?

Bob Burke: The only good thing that came out of the Great Depression was the closeness developed by members of families who lived through the daily struggles and survived to a better time. Children never forgot their parents and grandparents’ stories of the “old country” or of frontier times. Living through that era also made people tough. When problems came along later in life, they had the courage and intestinal fortitude to meet difficulties head on. Depression era Americans were the toughest, if not the greatest generation.

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Bob Burke, attorney, author, and historian, has written more historical non-fiction books than anyone in history (127). He is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame. He has six children and nine grandchildren.

8 Favorite Middle Grade Books Set in the 1930s

I am a sucker for historic fiction. The 1930s especially holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know if it’s because it was a time of great change, with music and arts booming, women making amazing strides, or cheeky slang to boot: it just blows my wig!

When I was doing research for my middle grade book The Dust Bunnies, which happens to be set in the 1930s, I looked to other middle grade books set in the ‘30s for inspiration.

Here are some of my favorites, which I believe are great sources for all ages to learn about history and experience a unique place and time in our nation’s history.

Out of the Dust
by Karen Hesse

The quintessential Dust Bowl book. I remember reading it as a child, not really understanding why Billie Jo had to suffer in the way she did. But as a piano player, I do remember being drawn to her love of music. It shows her creativity amid such hard times. She found her music. Something we all must do.

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Esperanza Rising
by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Perhaps what is so unique about this time period is the fact that the Great Depression forced individuals had to reinvent themselves and rise above the odds. It’s as though hardships snuck up from behind people and knocked them down without warning. That’s what happened to Esperanza who was forced to migrate from Mexico to California to work at a camp for Mexican migrants. Esperanza represents so many young children who faced such trials and who continue to manage with hardships today. She is a strong and inspiring hero for young children.

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Sweet Home Alaska
by Carole Estby Dagg

It is important for children to understand true events, no matter how tough they may be. This is why I believe historic fiction is so helpful as a learning tool. It is a way to connect with characters and see history through their eyes. In Sweet Home Alaska, readers learn about a New Deal colony in Alaska to give loans and land to families struggling during the Great Depression. Also, the main character’s name is Terpsichore. Win!

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Blue Willow
by Doris Gates

Blue Willow resonated me because it is a story of a young girl migrating across the nation to escape hardships of the drought, which is similar to the crisis my main character Lyla finds herself in in The Dust Bunnies. I love that the story is about finding home. For people who don’t have the same walls and roof to find shelter behind each night, what does home mean? And what does it mean to be without possessions? In Blue Willow, we learn through Janey Larkin what it means to find peace when home and possessions are abstract things.

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The Velvet Room
by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The Velvet Room was published in 1965 and tells the story of Robin who finds solace in reading and dreaming—an escape from poverty, hard labor, and her father’s illness. Snyder published 43 books in her lifetime, and Robin Williams—the protagonist in The Velvet Room—may be one of my all-time favorite middle grade characters. Robin is always getting in trouble for running off, being curious, finding comfort in a velvet room lined with books, and for seeming to want to escape reality. Sounds like my kind of gal.

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The Mighty Miss Malone
by Christopher Paul Curtis

This book is an emotional roller coaster. The Mighty Miss Malone follows Deza whose family is hit on hard times when there are no jobs for black men in Gary, Indiana, and so her father leaves to find work. When Deza and her family go in search of him, they end up in Flint, Michigan clinging to hope. I enjoy that this book is about the powerful magic of hope. Sometimes, that’s all there is. But sometimes it’s all we need.

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Stella by Starlight
by Sharon M. Draper

I absolutely adore the cover on this one! The illustration is tight, but it also delivers such a haunting message. The KKK is a tough subject to broach with children, but this book captures modern race relations in a way that is digestible for children. I think it should be handed out in every school across America. The main character Stella is a strong girl, facing opposition of the KKK in Bumblebee, North Carolina, and she teaches us to listen to our inner voice.

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Turtle in Paradise

by Jennifer L. Holm

11-year-old Turtle goes to live with distant family in Key West, Florida in 1935 when her mama has to part ways due to work. And it is here where she begins to come out of her shell, learn about family secrets, scams, and even pirate treasure. This would be a great vacation book for a child to read, as it’s an interesting way to learn about the dirty thirties and some of its icons like Shirley Temple (who plays a significant role in the book). It also has a wonderful message of dreaming big—a message that is timeless, no matter the era.

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Check out more middle grade books set in the 1930s. And come back to visit soon as my middle grade book set in the 1930s, The Dust Bunnies, unfolds!

Inspiration for The Dust Bunnies

Growing up with a mother who was an animal lover and a father who thought the only proper place for an animal was inside his stomach, has created some interesting memories in my life as a child. It’s taught me how to love, but also how to say goodbye.

I was the most ecstatic and awkward nine-year-old ever when my mom brought home a new dog. And then I learned to accept that life moves on when my father recognized that it was too much of a financial burden on our family. This trend continued through our lives. Cats come in, cats go out. Ferrets come in, ferrets go out. Birds come in, birds go out. It wasn’t until a rabbit was brought into our lives that something changed. When it came to that time—time for him to go—I had an idea. In school, our class hamster had just died. We were in desperate need of a new pet. Perfect solution: my bunny Brownie would become the new class pet! Dad was tired of him, mom was onto another pet plan, he’d bring joy to my classmates, and I could see Brownie every single day! Ideal.

So began my fascination with rabbits, a lifelong love that would even lead me to write a book about one.

In college, we couldn’t have any pets. But we snuck in a floppy-eared rabbit simply called “Bunny.” He hated his cage. He was potty trained. And he slept in bed with me every night (see also: chewed up my blankets and pillowcases while I was conked out). He was our dear mascot.

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During adulthood, my husband and I adopted a rabbit. We named her Eema. She was black and white. She was our baby. It was also around this time that I learned of the horrific jackrabbit drives of the Dust Bowl. My realization of this dark period in history occurred during my children’s literature class at Rosemont College. We were studying the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, and the scene where the jackrabbits are brutally bashed astonished me. It did not astonish everyone—many students in the class had already known about jackrabbit drives from learning of them in school; mainly those who grew up in the Midwest. Us east coast misfits were uninitiated.

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I had never known that around 35,000 jackrabbits were massacred in an attempt to stop the plague of nearly eight million jackrabbits, nicknamed “Hoover Hogs” that swept across Kansas counties during the 1930s. I learned that children took part in the beatings too. Can you imagine being so hungry and desperate that you gather your children to literally club animals to death? I wondered how this would have been explained to kids.

I started writing The Dust Bunnies, a middle grade novel set in this time period, which touches on issues of hunger, poverty, and yes, the jackrabbit drives. My inspiration came from discovering the realities of these lethal drives. It also came from my connection to Eema the rabbit.

Shortly afterwards, Eema became fatally ill. I came home one day to find her laying on her belly, blood beneath her. I drove her to the emergency room only to learn she had cancer and wasn’t going to make it.

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Also around this time, I learned that my younger sister with Down syndrome had also fallen ill.

I was back and forth, from the hospital to the vet, praying for both of my loved ones. With my sister, I stayed overnight, researching ways to help her. Meanwhile, the vet called me to tell me the very slim chances of Eema’s survival. I needed to say goodbye. I should’ve been used to this, right? But I sobbed into the phone. I know now that I was transferring my sadness for my sister onto Eema. The two merged in my mind. I was low. Very low. I needed to find a way to stay sane.

I continued writing The Dust Bunnies as a way to deal with the pain. My main character Dill, a scared little jackrabbit who so desires to be brave, became my sister and Eema rolled into one. He was going on a journey, he was sick, and he needed to be saved. As the writer of the story, I needed to save him just as I needed to save my sister and Eema. Perhaps if I could control his destiny, his journey to health, I could somehow, magically, rescue my sister and Eema. I wrote with a vigor that can only come about by extreme hope and fear combined.

The vet called me up. Eema wasn’t going to make it.

Unless…I was prepared to let her have a blood transfusion. It was a fifty/fifty survival rate.

For all the times I learned to say goodbye to pets, I was not prepared for this one. With both Eema and my sister bed-ridden at hospitals, the emotional pressure pounded on my chest. In normal world, my energies should have only been concentrated on my sister. But in emotional-stress-world, I was confused. Eema started to represent my sister. How could I refuse a blood transfusion? What if I said no? Would I be saying no to my sister? Of course she needs the blood transfusion! Please! That night I added another chapter to The Dust Bunnies, just as I had throughout this entire painful process.

The next day, the vet called me. Eema survived.

And three years later, my sister is healthy.

To this day, The Dust Bunnies has been very much edited, because the draft created during this time period was wrought with much more emotional turmoil than a middle grade reader should be privy to. But it was a way for me to cope at the time. It was a way for me to rescue my sister in my mind when I knew I had no control.

Sometimes I’m asked why I like rabbits. They don’t play fetch and they don’t purr like cats. But they are peaceful animals, aren’t they? A rabbit is built to constantly be on guard, to not get eaten. Their job is to survive. But when the chaos of life is calm, you see a curious creature emerge. A loving creature. A happy creature. Have you ever seen a rabbit do a binky? Please, do yourself a favor.

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And this is life. We are built to survive, to endure chaos. But when the storms are calm, we must find our inner joys. We must do our happy dances, our binkies. Because we never know when it’s time to say goodbye, no matter how many times we’ve practiced. It may not get easier. But we can always get stronger, through hope and the magical bond of family and friendship.

Talking Animals in Middle Grade

So you want to include talking animals in your middle grade book? There are a couple “world rules” to consider if you want to take this route:

  1. Animals act like people from their speech to behaviors and people can understand them
  2. Animals act like animals, although people cannot understand them
  3. Animals can communicate with one another, but humans cannot understand their language; animals can understand humans though
  4. Animals can communicate with certain animals – be sure to clarify who is able to communicate and who is not and why – but not with humans

In my middle grade book The Dust Bunnies I originally began with rule #1. It did not get me very far. While agents liked the premise of the story, they did not like to see animals acting like humans. They were perfectly fine with animals carrying on deep conversations about life though. Go figure. So I went back to the drawing board and made my rabbits more rabbit-like, made my coyote more coyote-like, and so on.

Was it because I was inconsistent in how the animals acted, or do agents really have a pet peeve when it comes to this? I’m not sure. But I took the advice of many and it seemed to work out better.

Whatever you decide to do, stay consistent, be confident, be mindful of helpful advice, and always follow your gut. If you are thwarted by an agent who says, “talking animals are a really hard sell” think about all the wonderful talking animal stories that helped shape you. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, and 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith! It may be a tough sell, but it’ll be a worthwhile one. Give your pooch the power of puns, your kitty the glory of grammar, your prairie dogs the precision of punctuation! Now I’ve gone too far.

Keep on writing!

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