Apr 23, 2014

Author Jennifer Elvgren Finds Inspiration in Stories of Bravery

In this week's guest blog post, author Jennifer Elvgren talks about what inspired her to write The Whispering Town.

In The Whispering Town, it is 1943 in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Anett and her parents are hiding a Jewish woman and her son, Carl, in their cellar until a fishing boat can take them across the sound to safety in neutral Sweden. With the help of the baker, the librarian, the farmer, and her neighbors, Anett keeps Carl and his mother safe even as Nazi soldiers search her street for hidden Jews. With the Nazis closing in, and worried about Carl's safety, Anett thinks of a clever and unusual plan to get Carl and his mother safely to the harbor on a cloudy night without the moon to guide them.

See the book trailer, with illustrations by Fabio Santomauro, here.

"I have always been drawn to Holocaust literature. As a child, my grandmother shared her copy of Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place with me: my mother, her copy of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.

Reading them from cover to cover, I lingered especially on the photos and sketches provided in the front of both editions. I practiced pronouncing the names and places foreign to my tongue such as The Beje (pronounced bay-yay), the name of the ten Booms' house.

Studying the floor plans of The Beje and 263 Prinsengracht (the office building where the Franks and the Van Daans hid for just over two years), I tried to understand where the hiding places were; how they were entered; how little room they provided; and how many people shared those small, secret spaces.

The photos of Corrie ten Boom and Anne Frank captured me. How could they be so brave? How could Corrie keep calm and collected when a German soldier burst into her father's clock shop at night and demanded to go upstairs to their living quarters that currently housed their family and seven permanent Jewish guests? How could Anne, who needed to run outside and feel the sun on her face as every child should, turn her attention to indoor, silent pursuits day after day, month after month, when she felt her limbs stiffening?

Over the years I continued to ponder these books as I finished college, then graduate school. I worked as a print journalist for a number of years before I began writing exclusively for children. Around that time another nonfiction Holocaust book was published, Ellen Levine's Darkness Over Denmark. This book told the story of the Danish resistance and how the Danes worked together to smuggle nearly all of the 8,000 Danish Jews out of the country.

About 1,700 Jews escaped from the small fishing village of Gilleleje. One moonless night, the town's citizens whispered directions to a man making his way to the harbor. That image moved me deeply. A story seed was planted in my mind, and I knew I wanted to write about the Holocaust for younger readers.

The Whispering Town's title came first, followed by the characters. Anett appeared, then Carl. As they started to move through the story set in Gilleleje (pronounced GeeLAYleh), I imagined a hiding place, bravery, friendship, and hope.

It became imperative for Anett to bring comfort to Carl and his mama in their cellar hiding place int he form of visits, good food, and books. When she came face to face with Nazi soldiers at her own door, I knew Anett had to be calm and collected so that she did not give away her friends in the cellar.

Facing a moonless night, I wanted Anett to be part of the solution, arranging for a chain of whispering voices to guide Carl and his mama to the harbor. The hope of escape and reuniting Carl with his papa in Sweden sealed Anett's and Carl's friendship forever."

In honor of Remembrance Day, Jennifer is giving away a signed hardcover copy of The Whispering Town. Visit her Facebook author page here and either like or leave a comment on the book give-away post. The winner will be drawn on May 1.

Praise for The Whispering Town

"Santomauro's thoughtful illustrations, with their restrained colors, subtly remind the reader of the village’s determined solidarity." -- The New York Times Book Review

"The direct simplicity of the story’s telling serves well as an introduction for younger children to the Holocaust. Dark cartoon sketches reminiscent of Tomi Ungerer in opaque black, blues, grays and khaki green markers and word bubbles with the key words of direction paint the ominous atmosphere. This uncomplicated narrative of Danish resistance will facilitate teaching and discussion of a difficult yet necessary subject." -- Kirkus Reviews