Writing for open minds Rosemary Zibart
Author Rosemary Zibart has lived in Santa Fe for more than 25 years, but she grew up i n Nashville, Tennessee, as part of a small Jewish community. Her father’s family had lived in the city for generations, and when Zibart was a child, her parents owned a bookstore. Naturally, she l oved books, i n particular C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little
House on the Prairie series. But Zibart wasn’t always sure she was going to be an author. She recalled seeing writers sitting in her family’s bookstore with piles of their unsold books and thought that it looked rather lonely.
When Zibart did decide to become a writer, she wanted to write books for young people, in part for their “open minds and hearts.” (She was also a journalist and writes plays for adults.) Her picture book I Have a Grandma Who … challenges assumptions about 21st- century grandmothers; illustrator Valori Herzlich’s drawings feature grandmothers on motorcycles and swimming with dolphins. Zibart’s
Far and Away series, written for middle-grade readers, focuses on children displaced by World War II. The first two books in the series, True Brit and Forced Journey: The Saga of Werner Berlinger, follow a British girl sent to New Mexico for the duration of the war and a twelve-year-old German Jew sent to New York City, respectively.
Pasatiempo spoke to Zibart about writing for kids and what World War II literature means to young readers.
Pasatiempo: Tell me about the genesis for the Far and Away series. World War II literature is a saturated market, both for children and adults. What did you want to bring to the conversation that was lacking?
Rosemary Zibart: True Brit came about when I read in The New Mexican’s “50 Years Ago Today” column about four English girls who arrived in Santa Fe during the war. I thought, Oh my gosh, what must that experience have been like, to come from rainy, war-torn London to bright, sunny, bohemian Santa Fe? I was interested in the fish-out-of-water element. I considered doing a nonfiction book about it, because I once wrote an article for the Indian Market magazine about public health nurses who traveled throughout the Southwest going to different pueblos, and they were my heroes, going around the county in their Model T’s. And in the case of the Werner Berlinger, I think I was addressing a wound t hat many people felt. Growing up, I didn’t have a direct connection to the Holocaust, but I remember learning about it in the ’ 50s, and it being an incredible shock: But for the grace of God, that would have been me.
Pasa: Who’s t he ideal reader for these books, and what do you hope a reader takes away from them?
Zibart: They’ve been r e ad by people of all ages, including older people who’ve been t hrough t he war, but t hey’re written for tento fourteen- year- olds. True Brit i s about t he t ransformation of a young woman f rom being helpless to learning to pitch in and be a useful human being. She meets Jewish orphans on t he boat, t he black porter on t he t r ai n, and Hispanic and Native American people in New Mexico. Each time she has to widen her world.
Pasa: What’s different about writing for kids versus writing for adults?
Zibart: You’re writing much more simply. For example, in the Far and
Away books, I had to balance a lot of fairly complicated ideas about good and evil in the world. You have to put it on a concrete, graspable level for a younger mind and a younger spirit.
Pasa: Reading Forced Journey and True Brit, what came to mind were contemporary refugee crises where children are very visible, particularly Syrian refugees in Europe, or Mexican and Central American children coming to the U.S. Do you think about these contemporary resonances?
Zibart: It’s impossible not to compare it to children nowadays, leaving a situation where they’re going to be killed. And it seems like the xenophobia in this country is as bad or worse than before World ar II. In 1939, legislation allowing 10,000 Jewish children to enter the U. S. was turned down by Congress, but 1,400 squeaked in past a hostile U. S. State Department. Only a year ago, 70,000 Latin American children were denied entrance [to the U.S.] or turned back. In both cases fear and prejudice ruled. I believe one of the responsibilities of writing for young people is to generate ethnic and racial tolerance. If you can achieve that at a young age, it can last a lifetime.
Pasa: Are there more books planned for the Far and Away series?
Zibart: A sequel to True Brit. It’s about the Japanese internment camp that was here in Santa Fe. I also learned about the New Mexico boys who went to the Philippines and fought in Bataan. It’s still very tender for many people here.
— Adele Oliveira
“Growing up, I didn’t have a direct connection to the Holocaust, but I remember learning about it in the ‘50s, and it being an incredible shock: But for the grace of God, that would have been me.”