Why Writing Children’s Literature About the Holocaust Is So Hard (and Why Selling It Is Even Harder)

Norbert Troller watercolor sketch of children in the Terezin Ghetto.
Norbert Troller, “Terezin, Children.” Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.

I’m not here to discourage anyone who’s given serious thought to writing Holocaust literature for young readers. There are some truly wonderful children’s, middle grade, and YA books about the Holocaust out there — we’ll talk more about them later. They’re invaluable resources for young readers, families, and educators. But there are some distinct challenges to this kind of writing project that are worth discussing, which I hope you’ll weigh in on in the comments or feedback form. Let’s start with the most obvious one:

The subject is frightening.

Young readers are often much more resilient than adults realize. Kids even like being scared or saddened — up to a point — by what they read, much in the same way as adults enjoy thrillers and tragicomedies. Reading stories that explore dark or sad themes plays a critical role in how children learn to process complex emotions and understand the world around them.

But there’s a limit to what each child can handle.

At a very young age, my sister became obsessed with hiding. She was unbeatable at Sardines and Hide-and-Seek. She knew every hiding spot in the house, wherever she was. We would find her testing out new hiding places when we weren’t even playing: climbing into laundry hampers, slipping behind the jackets hanging in the coat closet, clambering around the dusty, frigid crawl spaces in the attic. It took her years to articulate what this fascination with hiding was about, and where it came from: she had read or a heard a story she no longer even remembered about a family that hid from the Nazis in World War II, and instinctively started collecting a mental inventory of all the places her own family could hide if someone were to come after us. Her behavior was a manifestation of terror — a feeling she was too young to identify or understand, let alone communicate — in response to a frightening story she simply wasn’t old enough to safely absorb.

In confronting the bare facts of the Holocaust, young readers might encounter what Maurice Sendak characterized as experiences beyond their emotional capabilities. Feelings they have no language for, fears they don’t know how to cope with or express.

Your book has to translate history into a narrative that protects young readers from those experiences. At the same time, it must still testify to the strange and horrible truth of what happened. The challenge isn’t so much writing a child-friendly story about the Holocaust, but rather how to do so without trivializing, ignoring, or distorting the very real horrors its based on.

You’re writing for two different audiences at the same time.

’Twas ever thus when it comes to children’s literature. Most young readers don’t buy or select the books they read. They depend on the adults in their lives — parents, educators, librarians, relatives and family friends — to make those purchases on their behalf.

I don’t think anyone casually buys or borrows a book about the Holocaust for a child. They’re not going to add it to their order or hand it to the cashier on a whim. Anyone considering your book either entered the bookstore looking specifically for children’s literature on the Holocaust, or they’re going to take a thorough perusal of the contents to assess the book’s suitability if they came across it by chance. Either way, sales of your book are almost entirely subject to the interests, preferences, and assumptions of adult gatekeepers, rather than the young readers you’re writing for.

Children’s literature on lighter subjects is an easier sell. Adults will trust reviews, recommendations, and bestseller lists a little more blindly when it’s a cute story about coloring utensils staging a civil protest or a celebrity-authored book of nonsense. That doesn’t mean there’s no market for children’s books on somber or difficult topics; they just have a greater task when it comes to convincing adult audiences before your intended readers are within reach — and then you’ve got to win them over, too.

How can you explain the unexplainable?

Think of all the adjectives most commonly attached to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Unspeakable. Unfathomable. Indescribable. Unimaginable. Incomprehensible.

Adults come across these words with some knowledge of what they encapsulate. They’re part of an elaborate system of established symbols and oblique references, a kind of shorthand we use to talk about the Holocaust without saying what happened.

That doesn’t work with kids.

For some young readers, your book is their introduction to the subject at hand. They don’t have the background knowledge to fill in the blanks left by the vague, poetic allusions we rely on in adult discourse, media, and literature on the Holocaust.

There’s room for symbolism, and there’s room for subtlety. Just be mindful that even your most knowledgeable readers don’t come pre-programmed with the coded language and visual cues older audiences have learned to recognize and interpret.

Not every family is ready to talk about the Holocaust.

This has become more of an obstacle in the new millennium, for essentially one reason: the PJ Library.

For those unfamiliar with the program, PJ Library is a Jewish philanthropic initiative of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that sends free children’s books to Jewish and Jewish-interfaith families all over the world. Every child enrolled in the program receives a new book in the mail once a month, every month,up until their 10th birthday. In the United States and Canada alone, that adds up to over 230,000 books distributed each month through PJ Library.

This means that PJ Library acquires thousands of copies of each book selected to the program. And publishing houses have caught on. Send any kidlit publisher a manuscript that fits the PJ Library criteria, and you stand a much greater chance of seeing your book published — why would they pass up on assured sales in those numbers?

Here’s why that’s a problem for the future of Holocaust literature for young readers: PJ Library does not send out or accept manuscripts or books that focus on the Holocaust. And with good reason: families and children who are not prepared to learn or talk about the Holocaust should not be confronted with the subject by a book they didn’t choose to receive.

It’s not that publishers won’t consider manuscripts for children’s books that don’t qualify for PJ Library (or similar programs). But they know it’s taking a bigger risk. Once again, your book has to work that much harder to convince a publisher to accept your manuscript over a PJ Library shoo-in. What’ll win them over? Follow Kletsker here or on Twitter, like the page on Facebook, or sign up for email updates to keep up with publishing insights, writing resources, and research pointers for authors of all ages and backgrounds interested in writing new Holocaust narratives for future generations.

Have you written and/or published a children’s book on the Holocaust? Are you trying to? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to add any reflections, suggestions, or requests in the comments—or take this brief survey to help Kletsker deliver more of the content you’re looking for.

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