About the Book
Janusz Korczak dedicated his life to children. Gloria Spielman's book, Janusz Korczak's Children, introduces young readers to this uniquely caring, giving and heroic doctor.
About Janusz Korczak
Janusz Korczak dedicated his life to children. Gloria Spielman's book, Janusz Korczak's Children, introduces young readers to this uniquely caring, giving and heroic doctor.
Chatting with Nicki Richesin of The Children's Book Review about mime, writing about Marcel Marceau, silence and the writing life.
Gloria Spielman is the author of two picture books Janusz Korczak's Children and Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime which has been awarded a Silver Medal in the 2011 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards in the category of Non-Fiction Picture Book. A former high school English teacher, Gloria has also written English teaching books and contributed to multi-media English courses. She has many more wonderful books in the works that we can look forward to reading soon.
Nicki Richesin: Congratulations on your lovely Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime. It's a beautifully compelling book about his legendary career and how he brought the world's attention back to the ancient art of pantomime, but it's also the story of how he survived World War II. What inspired you to create this well-deserved homage to Mr. Marceau?
Gloria Spielman: Thank You, Nicki. I always enjoy reading The Children's Book Review; it's such a terrific resource for anyone in the world of children's books, so I was thrilled to talk to you.
I'd much rather tell you what inspired me to write my first book, Janusz Korczak's Children, it's a far better story. My then third grade daughter had to do a project on Korczak for Holocaust Memorial Day, and that got me reading and thinking.
The truth is, the original inspiration for Marcel Marceau actually came from my friend Mandy. She was looking at Janusz Korczak and said "You know, you should write about Marcel Marceau. He was really interesting." She told me of his work with the resistance and after she left I did some reading. Mandy was right. I started to imagine the pictures. I often imagine a picture book in pictures as well as words. My editor agreed. So did the publisher. And I started to write. I wish could say I saw a wonderful mime performance when I was a child and fell in love with it, but that would be a lie.
I was astonished to learn that Marceau was a part of the French resistance. He bravely smuggled Jewish children through the forests to safety and entertained allied troops. He led such a fascinating life. Did you discover anything that surprised you when doing your research?
It was all fascinating. But there is only so much that can go into a 32 page book. One anecdote that would have made a great picture book illustration is when Marceau came face to face with the man he called his creative father, Charlie Chaplin. He told Chaplin how he paid tribute to him in his American performance and began to imitate him in the middle of Paris airport. Chaplin joined in and the two men were miming Chaplin right there in the airport. I have shared another anecdote on my website about Marceau being stopped by the police who wanted to see his papers during the war.
Marceau was quoted as saying, "People think that when we are silent, you have nothing to say. But you can make people laugh and cry through the tragedy and the comedy of life. During the war I was in the French underground, and I survived. I think very often about this: People who were 20 years old died in the war. Maybe I'm a spokesman because I am a witness of my time." In our modern world, where life is super-fast and often overwhelming, do you agree with this notion that we can still communicate through silence as Marceau famously did?
The feeling of being overwhelmed is a feeling that many people share. The myriad of ways (Facebook, cell phone, SMS, etc) we can communicate or be communicated with can give a feeling of overload. I actually touched on this last month when writing in The Forward. So many people told me they shared my irritation of the insidious piped music heard everywhere these days. A. P. Herbert writing in The Living Age feels very strongly the effect of "modern nuisances" as he describes the new communications technology. He talks of inventions that are "one more nail in the coffin of privacy and quietude" and "the end of civilization." I don't know that I'd take it that far, but it is interesting to note Herbert was writing in 1920. That nail in the coffin was just a wireless opera concert broadcast and the threat to civilization, referred to the then new wireless telephony. You can guess what he would have to say about Facebook, cell phones and Muzak.
Silence can be uncomfortable or even threatening. Think how we scramble to 'fill in the blanks' when there's a lull in the conversation. We panic when we can't find or don't even know the right words. We read negativity into silence. Conversational lulls are often filled with nervous chatter. We all know that sinking feeling when we have to comfort a mourner. We're wrack our brains, wondering, "What on earth do I say to him/her?" Jewish tradition acknowledges this beautifully. When a close family member (parents, sibling, spouse) dies the family remain at home for seven days and are visited by friends and family. The custom is to enter silently, sit close, and say nothing to the mourners unless and until they choose to speak. If they choose not to speak, that's fine. You came. Sometimes, that's enough. And the visitors are often relieved too, "Phew, so it's really ok not to say anything?"
Can we communicate through silence? We tend to pay far more attention to what people say but so much can be conveyed without words. Faces in particular show myriad nuances. Think of a smile. It can be ironic, sly, approving and more. "He smiled ironically" just doesn't have quite the same effect, does it?
I am developing school presentations on exactly this idea and the many ways we communicate.
Marceau is said to have inspired Michael Jackson's moonwalk with his act "Walking Against the Wind." His childhood idol was Charlie Chaplin, but he brought a new spin on Chaplin's little tramp with his character Bip. Why do you think through this particular character he was able to engage and connect with his audience and express himself so vulnerably and deeply?
He's a humble character this fellow Bip with very human characteristics we can all relate to. It doesn't matter who you are, what you do or where you live: Who hasn't dreamt of adventure, struggled to find his or her place in the world, felt powerless against forces greater than themselves. Marceau said, "Bip is a romantic and burlesque hero of our time. His look is turned not only toward heaven, but into the hearts of men."
Could you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Manon Gauthier on her beautiful illustrations for Marcel Marceau Master of Mime?
The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, aren't they? But I'm afraid there was no collaboration between myself and Manon. She worked with the publisher's art department. I only saw the illustrations when I received my author's copies and I loved them right away. They were different to what I'd been imagining. I love the marriage of the writer's and artist's vision you get in picture books.
I understand you have five children and teach high school English. How do you balance your busy life with your writing life?
There are three answers. It depends on the day.
1) The Practical: When the children were young, I snatched writing time after I'd taken the older kids to pre-school and kindergarten while the baby slept or between 11 pm and 1 am. About 13 years ago we got rid of our TV, which meant so much time saved. I'm also very lucky to have a very encouraging husband, who is a competent, efficient housekeeper and Master of Laundry. He helps me find pockets of time, between the day job, the house and the kids and doesn't allow me to give up. He has an unconventional work schedule; he works evenings, so is available during the day to take care of these things. I also teach very little now; the children are much older now, they're all teenagers and are very respectful and considerate. I'm very lucky.
2) The Philosophical. Balancing your life is not really about getting up early to write or staying up into the wee hours, or taking a notebook wherever you go or even having a considerate family. No time in the world will help if you don't really want to do it. Finding time is really about finding your passion, an obsession really. It's about finding the thing you can't not do. The thing that you can't wait to come back to. That thing could be writing or painting, fixing old cars or running. It's the thing that beckons you when you're doing pretty much anything else. Along with the passion comes an obsession for finding at least some of the time. If you have the passion, time will come. So, I suppose you could say, I find the balance, because I've found the thing I love to do.
3) The Grumpy. I don't. Not really. It's so hard to find time. There's never a moment of peace and quiet. There's always someone at home. So many distractions. My day job writing EFL materials has to come first. If only I had a noise-proof, air-conditioned writer's shed in the garden and a few more hours a day.
Would you like to tell us a bit about your current projects?
I have three picture books ready and looking for a home. I have two works-in-progress, a humorous young adult book in progress with a teenage boy who believes blood is thicker than water, a mother who disagrees, new families, genes, genealogy and one boy's quest for a father. I'm also working on an adult novel, set in and around the old London library of my childhood. It's about living on the margins of society.
Both of these novels are transporting me quite far from my writing comfort zone. It's a challenge I'm enjoying immensely. Until now, I've written either picture books or texts for learners of English as a foreign language. Both genres involve paring a tale down to its bare bones, without losing its essence, while preserving its essence. It's so different from writing picture books and EFL materials. It's a liberating experience to have such a wide repertoire of words and syntax at my fingertips.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust, Salon, Daily Candy, and Babble.
Writers can often be found either talking to themselves or to imaginary characters that exist only in their heads (crazy people). Given the extensive experience I've had of talking to myself I decided to interview myself.
Me: So where did you get the idea of writing about Janusz Korczak from?
Myself: Well Me, it all started way back when my daughter Gabriella was in third grade. She came home from school and said. "We have to do a project on Janusz Korczak for Holocaust Day." (Translation: You have to do a project …) I thought, 'Mmm, Janusz Korczak sounds familiar. I dredged up some deeply buried memory of a university history class. Wasn't he that Polish bloke (that's British for what you Americans call 'guy'.) who ran an orphanage and died with the kids in a concentration camp?) Gabriella and I sat down at the computer and starting looking for information. It turned out I was right. He was that Polish bloke with the orphanage who died with his orphans but there was so much more to his story. We finished Gabriella's project, but I carried on reading. I read and read and read and thought wow this would make a great children's story.
Me: Why was that?
Myself: He was a children's doctor, a children's advocate, a children's writer. His life revolved around making the world a better place for children. He also seemed to have quite a mischievous, rebellious streak that I thought would appeal to children.
Me: You write mainly about his life, only bringing in the holocaust right at the end.
Myself: It was very important to me not to focus on the holocaust. I wanted to build up a picture of the man and his life not his death. Korczak was 64 when he died. He'd lived a rich life. I wanted to tell the story of a life not a death. The yardstick for me was that his was a story that should been told even if he had died a natural death. Naturally, it is part of his story but not the only part as is often the case.
Me: What were the challenges?
Myself: This was a particularly rich story. He was so many things in one person – doctor, orphanage director writer, advocate, radio star, newspaper publisher. It was a challenge to work it all into a 1,500 word book. And a challenge to know what to leave out.
Me: Tell us something you didn't include.
The fact that he actually ran two orphanages at the same time. In the book I tell about the Jewish orphanage but he also ran an orphanage for Catholic children. The fact that he left the orphanage
Me :What's the most inspiring thing you learned about Dr. Korczak?
Myself: There was so much but one of my favorite stories was something I heard in a talk by the artist 'Yitzchak Belfer', a graduate of the orphanage. He told of how as a young boy he was always drawing in class. Instead of telling him 'stop drawing and concentrate', as so many teachers do, Korczak prepared for him a cupboard full of art supplies where he could sit and draw in peace. He gave him the key and told him that he could come there whenever he wanted to draw. I loved the idea of encouraging a child's creativity instead of stifling it.
Me: What's the best piece of writing advice someone ever gave you?
Myself: Again, there were so many but if I have to choose it would be the quote attributed to E.B White. "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper." I have that one pinned above my computer!
Roman Wroblewski's father Misha was a teacher in Korczak's orphanage. When he began working at the orphanage, Misha was an engineering student. Misha was so impressed by Korczak that he gave up his engineering studies and began to study psychology and education instead. There were several other teachers working with Korczak in the ghetto orphanage but Misha Wroblewski was the only one to escape the August 5 deportation to Treblinka. His son Roman spoke to me by telephone from his home in Sweden.
How did your father avoid deportation?
Korczak had arranged for construction work outside the ghetto for my father and a few orphanage graduates. There were three boys: Monius Genadenhofer, Jankiel Bojme and a boy called Dawid whose surname my father could not recall. My father always called them 'The Boys' even though they were in their late teens and early twenties. Every morning the Nazis marched them out of the ghetto, and marched them back again every night. The work was physically very demanding but it allowed them to smuggle food into the orphanage. My father and The Boys received salaries which they all shared with Korczak to help him look after the children in the orphanage.
On the morning of August 5, 1942, my father and The Boys left for work as usual. When he arrived he found the orphanage empty. There was still unfinished tea and coffee on the table. My father went up to Korczak's room. Korczak's spectacles were still on his desk. My father gathered Korczak's papers and threw them into a suitcase together with his spectacles..
The Nazis had split the ghetto into two areas, the "small ghetto", generally inhabited by richer Jews, and the "large ghetto", where conditions were more difficult; the two ghettos were linked by a single footbridge. In August 1942 the Nazis had been trying to liquidate the small ghetto and my father knew it would be too dangerous to remain there. He went with The Boys and the suitcase into the large ghetto. It was dangerous to remain in one apartment for too long so they moved from apartment to apartment, generally staying with graduates of Korczak's orphanage. At some point they were unable to return to one of the apartments where he'd been staying and became separated from the suitcase with Korczak's papers.
How did your father survive the rest of the war?
My father tried to persuade The Boys to try and escape but they refused. Eventually he decided to escape alone. On one of the work marches he removed his armband with the Star of David and managed to get away. He had been spotted by a Polish man who threatened that if he didn't hand over all his money he would report my father to the Nazis. My father handed him all the money he had on him, which was all the money he had in the world. The man wished him good luck and my father got away.
Korczak remained with my father for the rest of his life. As a child I used to think he was my grandfather.
Misha Wroblewsi and children from the orphanage. Taken in front of the Krochmalna Orphanage.
Photo courtesy of Roman Wroblewski
"How hard could it be to write a children's book? Short, simple words – a piece of cake." Not so. It may look easy but it takes time and effort to craft a story – any story. Writing itself is a process. When you start writing it is important to remember that your first draft is just that, a first draft. It is enough to simply spill out the words. Here are the first two paragraphs of Janusz Korczak's Children:
"From his window, Henryk Goldszmidt watched the janitor's son playing with his friends. Their games seemed to be such fun. How he wished he could play too. But Henry's family was wealthy, and his mother wouldn't let him play in the street with the poor, ragged children.
Henryk didn't understand grown-ups. They were supposed to look after children, but so often they treated them badly. How could teachers beat their pupils? Why did adults push children aside on the tramcars?"
But in the beginning the first three paragraphs read very differently. Here they are (You'll soon see why I included the third paragraph too):
"Henryk Goldszmidt was born in Warsaw, Poland on July 22 1878 or 1879. He would never know exactly how old he was because his father forgot to register his birth. Jozef Goldszmidt was a well-known lawyer and the family was wealthy. Their home was beautiful and servants looked after him.
But Henryk was often unhappy. His father's behaviour was sometimes peculiar. Jozef loved his son yet he also had a terrible temper. Once he twisted his ears so hard his mother feared her son would become deaf.
Children from wealthy families were not supposed to run around outside. Henry spent many hours at his bedroom window watching the janitor's son and his ragged friends. He wanted to play with them but the grownups said such bad things about them. They called the children dirty, little criminals. Henryk's mother said he mustn't play with children like them."
What was wrong? Let's look at it again:
"Henryk Goldszmidt was born in Warsaw, Poland on July 22 1878 or 1879.
[B-o-r-i-n-g! So what if he was born? Wasn't everyone?] He would never know exactly how old he was because his father didn't register his birth. [Well, that's kind of interesting but it isn't relevant to the story and it's never mentioned again so why mention it here? After all, I've only got 1,500 words to tell the tale.] Jozef Goldszmidt was a well-known lawyer and the family was wealthy. Their home was beautiful and servants looked after him. [Well, that's nice, but it is just passive description. Nothing has happened and something needs to happen if the reader is going to care about the character. So far, there is nothing here to make the reader care about the character.]
But Henryk was often unhappy. His father's behaviour was sometimes peculiar. Jozef loved his son, yet he also had a terrible temper. Once he twisted his ears so hard his mother feared her son would become deaf. [Mmm, well this is a little more interesting but still the reader has no reason to care about these facts.]
Children from wealthy families were not supposed to run around outside. Henry spent many hours at his bedroom window watching the janitor's son and his ragged friends. He wanted to play with them but the grownups said such bad things about them. They called the children dirty, little criminals. Henryk's mother said he mustn't play with children like them." [Getting better. This could interest a child. Mmm, maybe it would be better to focus in on Henryk and what he thought as he watched those poor kids playing in the street. Yes, scrap the information that he was born and start with Henryk looking out of the window.]
This is what I came up with next. The second draft:
"Henryk Goldszmidt often watched the janitor's son and his dirty, ragged friends from his window. How he wished he could play with them. Their games seemed such fun. But Henryk's mother wouldn't let him play in the street with the poor children." Henryk's didn't understand grownups. They called poor children 'dirty little criminals.' Teachers often beat pupils. He even heard some grownups threaten children. "I'll give you to a wicked old man' or you'll be put in a bag."
"Henryk Goldszmidt often (What does the word 'often' add here? Not much. If we take it out the reader can go directly into Henryk's experience) watched the janitor's son and his dirty, ragged friends from his window. How he wished he could play with them. Their games seemed such fun. But Henryk's mother wouldn't let him play in the street with the poor children." Dirty? Ragged? Those are negative adjectives that his parents probably used. But Henryk was probably just looking at the kids thinking they were having a whale of a time. Perhaps it would be better having him simply dreaming of playing with his friends instead.
Henryk's didn't understand grownups. They called poor children 'dirty little criminals.' Teachers often beat pupils. He even heard some grownups threaten children. "I'll give you to a wicked old man' or you'll be put in a bag."
A later draft:
"Henryk Goldszmidt watched the janitor's son and his friends from his window. Their games seemed such fun. How he wished he could play too. But Henryk's family was wealthy and his mother wouldn't let him play in the street with poor ragged children. [Ah, here we have it, the first paragraph of the final version!]
Now isn't that a more engaging beginning than just telling the reader that Henryk was born?
I hope that gave you a little taste of how a piece of writing evolves.