I know I’ll be asked this question in interviews or even in ordinary conversations. So I did a little research, because, believe it or not, the origins of a book are not necessarily easily to pinpoint.
However, I know exactly when I got the idea for the book:
Back in 2008, when my youngest child was reading Patricia Polacco’s magnificent book The Butterfly in 3rd grade, I thought to myself: We have a story like that–the story of a hidden child in France during the Holocaust. I should do something with that story!
I knew right from the beginning that this needed to be a children’s book, because the protagonist is a child, namely my mother-in-law at age eight. It needed to be written from that child’s point-of-view.
When did I set about writing the book?
Here my memory is fuzzy but thanks to my photo archive, I do know exactly when I wrote the first draft.
In January 2014, I had a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (heaven on earth for a creative person!). There I developed Natalie and the Nazi Soldiers.
First, I studied Patricia Polacco’s The Butterfly, noting how many page spreads it had, and what happened on each spread.
Illustrated children’s books are thought of in spreads, i.e. the double pages you get when you open a book.
How did The Butterfly begin? How did the story develop? Where was the climax? How did it wrap up? That study is the first row of paper notes in the above picture.
Then, as can be seen by the second row of notes in the picture above, I worked on how I could shape my mother-in-law’s memories into a cohesive storyline that would work for this kind of a book.
I also studied how to write a children’s book.
Sunny Virginia winter afternoons were spent sitting outside, studying how to write picture books in guides such as Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul.
Even though I had plenty of creative writing experience by then (Jumping Over Shadows was already in the works), what did I know about writing children’s books? Creative nonfiction was my expertise!
Turns out writing a children’s book is quite a challenge.
There’s got to be action, i.e. a scene, on every spread. Otherwise, what is the illustrator going to draw if nothing is happening?
It’s all action driven. Each spread needs to end on a beat that makes you want to turn the page.
And it all has to be done in very few words.
My desk at the VCCA, January 2014
By the end of that two-week residency in 2014, I had a draft manuscript.
The next seven years, on and off, as I published my other books, I got feedback from children’s book editors. I wanted to make sure, for example, that the vocabulary would be appropriate for early readers, ages 7-9. I wanted to make sure the storyline worked and was compelling enough.
Unfortunately I also worked with one editor who derailed the project, mainly in my head, by suggesting all kinds of alternate storylines.
That was in 2019. I spent that next few years being unsure of the book. Such are the pitfalls of showing your work to people who you think know more about the genre than you do. Their challenges to your premise might be helpful, or not.
Gates to the VCCA, January 2014
Last summer, I finally decided I was going to stick to my original concept of the book. I was finally going to find an illustrator and create this book!
Finding the right illustrator was another major hang-up in getting this book out into the world.
Whenever I looked on illustrator sites, I got bogged down looking through all the cutesy illustrations. Thankfully, my wonderful book designer, Melinda Martin (whom I found through Beth Lottig of Inspire Books, who did the layout for my second book How to Write Compelling Stories from Family History) suggested I check out hireanillustrator.com. There, finally, I found Ste Johnson, who ended up illustrating Natalie and the Nazi Soldiers. And I am so, so happy with his work!
We began the illustration process last July, and here the book is now, ten months later.
In upcoming posts, I hope to introduce Ste Johnson, and also share more about the process of bringing this book into the world.
Happy reading in the meantime!
If you’re interested in the real-life back story of Natalie and the Nazi Soldiers, beyond what I share in the Author’s Note in the back, do subscribe to my newsletter! You’ll receive the real-life continuation of the story!