What middle grade reader doesn’t want to read a book in which the hero in a true-to-life disaster is his own age? The popular I Survived series has been a huge hit among reluctant and not-so-reluctant middle grade readers. Packed with fast-paced action, fascinating information about terrifying disasters around the world, and – at the center of each book – a story about a young hero who has to overcome personal conflict to help save the day and survive, this accessible series has garnered praise from readers and teachers, alike.
In the 9th book of the series, I SURVIVED THE NAZI INVASION OF 1944 by Lauren Tarshis, a young Jewish boy manages to escape the Polish ghetto where he lives with his family when the Nazis tanks invade it, and joins up with a band of resistance fighters in the forest. Does he have the courage to join in their fight? Can he survive a brutal winter living outdoors? The newest adventure joins the series that has covered such disasters as the Battle of Gettysburg 1863, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Titanic, Hurricane Katrina, and the attacks of September 11, 2001.
ReaderKidZ talked to author Lauren Tarshis about the challenges she faces in writing about true disasters while weaving the story of a fictitious character throughout.
ReaderKidZ: The ninth book in this series – I Survived the Nazi Invasion 1944 – has just been published. It’s about a heavy topic I imagine you approached with a bit of trepidation. Or maybe not. Can you talk about that a bit?
LT: One of the big surprises as the writer of this series is that I get so many emails and letters from readers, and so often they suggest topics that are incredibly weighty, beyond what I would imagine a young child would even know about. Certainly 9/11 was the first topic to surprise me – I got thousands of requests for that topic, and approached it with enormous trepidation. I had so many doubts and worries. In the end, I’m very glad I did it. I have received many emails from NY City firemen who were at ground zero that day, and also people who lost family members. They discovered my book with their children, and told me that they appreciated that I provided a way to approach the topic with their kids.
The positive reception I received to that book gave me confidence to approach the Holocaust, which was another topic that many, many, many kids asked about. Like 9/11, it’s not a topic that I would want a child to simply stumble into as a reader of my series. Rather, because these books are purchased by parents or provided by teachers, my feeling is that the kids who would read I Survived the Nazi Invasion would be prepared for it in some way. The book was incredibly challenging to write – to provide enough background so that the students can understand the context, but not overwhelm them with details. Teachers and parents tell me that my books are often gateways for their kids, a way of learning the outlines of an event so that they can discover more as they are ready. This is what I expect – and hope – happens with this title.
ReaderKidZ: I’ve talked to many children who love reading the series. To what do you attribute their wide popularity?
LT: Thank you! It makes me very happy to hear this. I think the books are accessible. I try to make them exciting. They have been especially popular with struggling readers, which delights me (I was a struggling reader myself, and remember how “shut out” I felt). My goal is to take complex and important topics and enable kids to connect to them in a meaningful way. The books look “easy” in that they are slim paperbacks with short chapters. But in fact if you were to subject them to a text complexity analysis, you would find that they are actually very complex – tons of totally new information, “domain” vocabulary, nonlinear structures (can you tell I’m a complete language arts nerd). And yet I structure the books so that the new information is doled out in a way that isn’t overwhelming. A struggling reader can feel successful reading these books, and they can learn important and interesting facts along the way.
ReaderKidZ: The structure of the books is very interesting. I read an interview with you somewhere in which you explained that it was a comment by a nephew that led to it. I loved his question – both as a writer and as a reader. Could you tell that story again here, please?
LT: The young man responsible for my structure is named Ben Kanter. He is now 15, so he would have been 11 or so when I asked him if I could read him the first few chapters of Titanic. I was actually worried that the book wasn’t interesting, because of course NOTHING too interesting happens on the Titanic voyage for days, until the iceberg. So I was writing and writing, and the character was exploring the ship and eating the food and watching the fancy people – kind of a snore. I decided see if I was right, to road test the book on a real kid who was also my target audience.
Ben is a good friend of one of my sons, and the son of a dear friend. I knew that, like me, Ben had reading issues and that it was tough for him to get engaged in a story. So, poor guy, he had to come to my house and sit there while an eager/needy/insecure writer who is also his friend’s mom reads him the first in her new series. “It’s really good,” he said, but I could tell he was holding back, so I pleaded for honest feedback. And then he blurted out, “Couldn’t you just start with some action? And voilà, the structure was born – to begin the books with a piece of action from the most climatic moments, and then flash back.
For the second part of our conversation with Lauren Tarshis check back here in two days. We’ll talk about why all of the heroes in the series are boys.