When are children old enough to be told about the Holocaust? A recent review on Tabletmag.com considered two picture books — Meg Wiviott’s Benno and the Night of Broken Glass (Kar-Ben) and The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse (Scholastic Press) — designed for third- to fifth-graders and asked, “Don’t we already complain that our kids grow up too quickly? Do we really need to introduce this darkness so soon? The greatest despair a six-year-old should feel should be the realization that she’s left a My Little Pony on the subway.”
But Wiviott disagrees.
“My philosophy on child rearing is that it’s not so much what we tell our children but how we tell it to them,” she said in a phone interview with NJ Jewish News. “I know the book has gotten some controversy because some people don’t think children so young should be introduced to the Holocaust. I think that’s a decision for everyone to make individually. I believe we tell our children lots of scary things about life, and it needs to be done slowly and gradually.
“We tell kids information as they can absorb it,” she said. “Every kid is different; some seven-year-olds can take in a whole lot of information than others their age. You hope it stimulates conversation.”
Wiviott, a resident of Morristown, said the idea for Benno and the Night of Broken Glass came out of a group meeting with a publisher about 10 years ago.
“Someone had asked him, ‘What’s the one project you’d like to see come across your desk,’ and he said he wanted to see a picture book on Kristallnacht,” said Wiviott. “You could hear in the room, from those of us who knew what Kristallnacht was, kind of an audible gasp.
“I kept thinking, how the heck do you take this horrible story and make into a children’s book? I saw it as a challenge, something I wanted to do.”
The experience turned out to be a learning experience for the first-time author. Wiviott tried to sell her book to another publisher, who considered it too graphic.
“When I originally wrote it, I envisioned it as a story book that had sidebars, so I had facts on every single page. Kar-Ben decided they didn’t want to do it that way and that’s why there’s an afterward. I toned down some of my facts.”
When she began the book, Wiviott said, she “tried to do it with a lot of distance so [it] would just be factual, with very little emotion.” But members of the writing group she belonged to “told me it was boring.”
“Several people said I should tell the story from the point of view of a child, and that was very problematic for me. I didn’t want use a Jewish child because the ending is ambiguous — we don’t really know what happens to the Jewish family.” Nor did she want to tell it from a non-Jewish child’s perspective. “If I presented the non-Jewish German family as all Nazis, then I was afraid that a reader would think all non-Jewish German families were Nazis. And if I portrayed them as being understanding and righteous, then someone would think [they] were all that way.”
So she decided on Benno, a cat who unobtrusively roams through the streets of a quiet Berlin in 1938 serving as the narrator, making observations of events as they turn from placid to horrific.
The fact that Wiviott has been a long-time cat owner, she said, made it easier for her. “A cat can go places a dog can’t go, and it allowed me to tell the story without getting inside people’s heads.”
Wiviott laughed at the notion that picture books are easy to write. “Try to tell an entire story in somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words. Lots of people think writing for children is easy because ‘they’re just children.’ Picture books are without a doubt the hardest things to write because every word counts; there are no throw-away words. It probably took me five years to figure out how to write it, then a couple of years to get the publisher.”
Benno is illustrated by Josee Bisaillon, an artist from St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. Wiviott did not collaborate with her directly but was happy with the partnership arranged by Kar-Ben.
The artwork, Wiviott said, “works so beautifully” and “fits the story incredibly well.”
“I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled,” she said. “It’s kind of scary because you put your words out there and you have absolutely no clue how they’re going to come back visually, and I think Josie did a spectacular job.”
“It’s a scary topic, there’s no doubt about it,” said Wiviott, whose family belongs to Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. “But I like to think that I did it pretty well.”