Graphic novels are incredibly popular with readers of all ages. In this series, It’s Her Story, Sunbird Books and the creators are bringing historical figures to life through graphic novels. Irena Sendler is the latest story to be told and we hear from creator, Margaret Littman about how she came to write this story.
Blog post on “It’s Her Story: Irena Sendler”
By Margaret Littman
Nothing stops a cocktail party conversation quite like this:
Q: “What are you working on these days?”
A: “A graphic novel for kids about the Holocaust.”
When Sunbird Books contacted me about writing “It’s Her Story: Irena Sendler,” a graphic novel about a Polish woman who helped rescue more than 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto, I was thrilled. I’ve spent decades telling Holocaust stories, from conducting oral histories of survivors for the USC Shoah Foundation to writing about recipes rescued from pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe.
Then, I realized I needed to figure out how to do it. For other projects, I look for little nuggets of information, ways that the reader can identify with and latch onto details to help them process complex information. I decided to approach a graphic novel for kids in the same way.
I started with research. While I wanted to tell a story that was engaging, my first goal was factual accuracy. With Holocaust deniers spreading misinformation, I didn’t want anything in this book, even something abbreviated for the format, to somehow give credence to the false claims that the Holocaust did not happen. Sendler passed away in 2008, so I couldn’t rely on an interview with her, and instead turned to sources who had interviewed her and members of the Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews resistance group. I don’t speak Polish, so I used translated materials.
I needed to convey the gravity of the story without making the material too frightening. I learned of a time when Zegota worked with a truck driver who would hide children in his truck bed to sneak them out of the ghetto. He trained his dog to bark as they were going past the armed guards, covering crying or even breathing sounds. I thought children would respond well to a dog being a hero and its presence made the material less scary, so the dog appears on page 29.
Conversely, other material was deleted. Sometimes Zegota nurses would give an infant a small dose of cyanide to make them fall asleep so they could be hidden silently in a satchel or at the bottom of the toolbox. While we mentioned these creative ways children were snuck out unnoticed, we did not mention the poison.
Much of working on a graphic novel is communication with the illustrator. I was as specific as possible about what should be included. With the help of my editor, we detailed the color of uniforms and the shape of hats, depending on whether the soldier being drawn was a Polish soldier, a German soldier or a Nazi soldier, linking to historical photographs. Even if some of that information wasn’t clear in a stylized illustration, we knew it was based in fact.
Holocaust experiences were different for different people, depending on the country and the year. For example, the rules regarding Jews wearing a Star of David changed. In Poland, it started in fall 1939 with a blue stitched star on a white armband for everyone older than age 10. It was to be worn on the right sleeve. In fall 1941, Jews had to start wearing yellow stars on the chest (and sew or acquire them on their own), and that applied to everyone over the age of 6. My notes to Sara Luna, the book’s illustrator, reflected those changes.
I used a similar lens to look at the ways we talked about resistance in general. I wanted to show that Sendler’s decisions weren’t easy, adding the detail that she put her own mother at risk to help others. We needed to demonstrate that Jews weren’t only victims, but also participated in helping save others. I hope the scene about the 1944 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising helps show that well-rounded story and helps kids think critically about resistance.
This book was the most difficult writing challenge of my 30-year career. I hope the team and I were successful in telling the story in a way that is rooted in truth, is appropriate for kids, and encourages them to change the world.
Margaret Littman is a writer whose ancestors came from Poland. She likes to tell stories of people who do things they never imagined they could. Margaret has written for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Preservation magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Moon Travel Guides, and other publications. She conducted oral histories of Holocaust survivors for the USC Shoah Foundation.
It’s Her Story: Irena Sendler – by Margaret Littman illustrated by Sara Luna ISBN 9781503765788 is the latest book in the highly acclaimed It’s Her Story graphic novel series published by Sunbird Books. The series focuses on amazing, inspirational women in full-colour, graphic novel format and aims to bridge the gap between picture books and graphic novels to appeal to the 7-10 year age group.