I don’t think I will ever stop being fascinated by stories from WWII, but perhaps what is most fascinating to me is that there are still new stories to be found and told from that era.
Elisa Boxer has visited my blog a couple of times already with fantastic nonfiction picture books. She is also an Emmy Award–winning journalist and columnist. She has reported for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. Boxer lives with her family in Maine. You can learn more about her on her website.
HIDDEN HOPE is a story set in Paris during WWII and tells the story of Jacqueline Gauthier (aka Judith Geller) and a toy duck. Judith rode her bicycle all over town, carrying a wooden toy duck that had a secret compartment smuggling forged documents to allow Jewish families to escape the country. She was only a teenager and at great risk herself, but she was determined to help. This is a fascinating story that once again defies the odds. The writing doesn’t mention the main character until well into the book! And there are so many fascinating twists and turns that you might miss the novelty of the story itself. It was certainly one I’ve never heard before and I’ve read a lot of stories about this era and the heroism within it. Intriguing!
Welcome back Elisa!
Me: When did you first learn about Judith Geller? What made you want to write this book about her?
Elisa: In 2018, I was doing research for a middle-grade novel (that I’m still in the process of writing!) involving the French Resistance, when I came across this photo online:
It’s an artifact on display at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. The wooden duck’s hollowed-out compartment was used to hide false identity papers from the Nazis. That alone was completely intriguing, of course. But when I learned that Judith Geller, a teenager at the time, posed as a Christian social worker and went into homes with the duck to help save lives, I knew I wanted to tell this story in the form of a picture book.
Me: How long did it take from your first discovery of this story to its ultimate publication? Were there detours or road blocks along the way?
Elisa: I wrote my first draft of Hope in a Hollow (original title) in 2018, and it’s coming out almost exactly five years later. The biggest challenge in writing the story was that there’s hardly any specific information available about the duck. And I knew I wanted this to be nonfiction. So from the beginning, I knew this would be a tough project to put together.
Me: You mentioned not being able to find a lot of facts about Judith and her story. Can you tell us a bit about your research process? How long did you research before you started writing?
Elisa: My initial research was done fairly quickly, given the lack of information available online about Judith Geller’s activities with the duck. After interviewing staff at Yad Vashem, I found out a bit more about the duck’s origins, about Judith Geller, and about the resistance group she worked with. At that time, I actually wrote the story from the duck’s perspective. It wasn’t until the revision stage that I switched to a third-person narrative.
Me: Your text immediately captures the tension and danger inherent in what Judith was doing. Yet it’s not until almost halfway into the book that you mention anything in the text about Judith specifically (though we do see her in the illustrations). Why did you decide to start your story that way? Did you have any push back about this from critique partners or editors?
Elisa: Such an interesting question. I’m so glad you asked. It’s often not until I begin writing or even revising a story that the themes emerge. But in this case, from the time I first read about the duck, the themes of hiding and darkness were so strong – hiding people, identities, families, papers, intentions… All in the dark. And then there’s the contrast of this duck, now out in the open, in the light, for all to see. But that only happened because of courageous people like Judith who dared to walk through the dark. For me, Judith represents the light. The truth. Hope. But it was a conscious decision to open the story with persecution and oppression and darkness and to establish those feelings across the first part of the book, so that when Judith came in with hope and light, the contrast would feel that much stronger. Because even though this is a story about the Holocaust, it’s also a story about the importance of never having to hide the truth of who you are. So I wanted to create that emotional resonance for the reader.
Me: I love that. In your back matter, you mentioned relatives of your own that passed away and hearing stories from survivors. Why then did this one story jump out at you the most? Why do you want young readers to know about Judith in particular?
Elisa: As a Jewish journalist with family members on both my mother’s and father’s sides killed during the Holocaust (in Poland and Germany), I definitely feel compelled to help shine a light on these stories of resistance and heroism. Amid the horror, there were people like Judith who risked everything to help save lives. But we know from the account she wrote to her descendants that she never intended to be a hero. The most courageous people don’t, right? They always say they were just doing what they knew in their heart was the right thing to do. Two recent starred reviews highlight exactly what I want young readers to take away from this story and from Judith’s actions. Booklist: “… a compelling assurance for youth that everyone has a potential hero within.” And School Library Journal: “… will spur on anyone who doubts just how much difference one young person can truly make.” I hope this inspires readers of all ages to find their inner hero.
Me: Amy June Bate’s illustrations in this book are stunning! Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Elisa: They are SO stunning, aren’t they? Amy’s art makes you feel like you’re right there alongside Judith on those secret missions. Her level of detail still astonishes me. Every time I open the book I find a new element to appreciate. From the moment I decided to write the manuscript, I knew it would require the utmost care and a delicate balance – Respecting the truth and revealing the atrocities of the Holocaust in an age-appropriate way, while highlighting this act of heroism without sugar-coating the sadness. Amy’s illustrations do exactly this.
Me: That is so true! Writing a story about the holocaust is no easy feat. It’s a dark subject full of death and hate. Was it difficult to be so immersed in the writing and research of such a sad topic?
Elisa: I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because people have asked how I’ve been able to spend so much time researching and writing about what is perhaps the darkest and most horrific time in human history. But the truth is, the Holocaust, Hitler’s “Final solution to the Jewish question,” was the annihilation of every single Jewish person. The plan was to eliminate the entire Jewish population. And yet here we are. Alive. Continuing. Thriving. Telling these stories that the Nazis tried to hide, when it became clear they couldn’t implement their final solution. Writing about the holocaust almost feels like an act of resistance in itself, given the uptick in Antisemitism and Holocaust denial recently. It’s also honoring the memory of those who were killed. So, while the subject matter is indeed devastating and horrifying, the fact that I’m even here answering these questions and helping to bring these stories to light feels incredibly empowering.
I love that Elisa. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, this book was released into the world just yesterday. It’s a wonderful story of heroism, focusing on a toy and one person’s self-less acts through incredible writing and beautiful illustrations. If you haven’t had a chance yet to track it down and read it, I highly recommend it.