There’s no denying it – we are living in difficult times. Helping kids make sense of what’s happening in the world isn’t easy. Picture books offer opportunities to process tough topics, see how people responded in times of crisis, and how they persevered with the power of hope. Today in Behind the Scenes, Amalia Hoffman shares her experience writing a story about a Holocaust hero.
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Tackling Difficult Topics by Amalia Hoffman
One of the most difficult issues to tackle when writing nonfiction for young readers is how to introduce a difficult subject such as war, hatred, crime, violence and death.
When I wrote The Brave Cyclist: The True Story of a Holocaust Hero, I had to find a way to keep the facts as they were but at the same time, make my story palatable for my intended group of readers, ages 8-13.
As I struggled along the way, I discovered a couple of means to make this possible.
1. Start with the pleasant facts: The story is about Gino Bartali, the Italian cycling champion who during the Holocaust, saved Jews by smuggling false identification papers, hidden inside the frame of his bike. Here, I had an opportunity to tackle a couple of scenes that had nothing to do with Mussolini, dictatorship and the rise of anti-Semitism. By depicting Gino as a young boy who dreams of being a champion, I could connect with the reader and only later, weave in facts and difficult circumstances.
2. Positive tone: The message that is woven through the story is always that even in the worst circumstances, each person has the ability to make the world a better place. Rather then masking the horrific situation in Italy during that period, I opted to tell the facts but continuously show how Gino triumphed by using his skills to save people. For example: “The cardinal explained how Gino could use his bike for something even more daring than racing up and down the steepest mountains.” Gino’s heroism intensifies from being a daring cyclist to being a courageous smuggler.
3. A dash of humor: Even during the darkest times, a sprinkle of humor could make the harsh reality a little less hard to swallow. For example: in describing Gino’s frequent trips between Florence and Assisi to deliver and pick up the papers, I added a scene about how Gino outsmarted the soldiers at a police checkpoint when he was stopped, with documents hidden inside his bike. “Gino asked the soldiers not to touch his bike and made an excuse. The distance between his seat, handlebars, and pedals had to be precise to avoid a muscle strain, he explained. The soldiers believed him.”
4. Rely on illustrations. Instead of describing Gino’s anguish, I often trusted my wonderful illustrator, Chiara Fedele, to show his facial expressions. In the scene when Gino was captured and imprisoned, Gino is depicted sitting on the floor of his cell, his back bent and his hands over his face. The illustration is powerful enough to avoid any verbal description of torture.
5. Always end with a satisfying message of hope and healing. Young readers need reassurance that the world they live in is good and whole, in spite of the fact that sometimes, terrible things do happen. I opted to end the story at Gino’s victory when he won the Tour de France for the second time in 1948 with this sentence: “The frail, sickly boy who once struggled to ride Papa’s bike had restored Italian’s faith in freedom and justice.”
Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of the book! Winner will be announced 6/12/20.