SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Confronting Hate and the Power of Perseverance

 

by Liza Wiemer

 

On April 3, 2017, I received my sixtieth rejection for a young adult novel I had worked on for over six years. I was done. That, among many other reasons, seemed like a sign to stop writing books. It was one of the lowest points in my writing career. What transpired the next day, however, changed everything.

I traveled to Oswego, New York, to do a signing for my debut young adult novel, Hello?. With hours until my event, I logged on to Facebook and saw the headline, “Homework? NY Students Debate Exterminating Jews.” Horrified, I clicked on the link. Where was the assignment given? Oswego. I read about the two brave teens, Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April, who spoke out against the antisemitic assignment. The online support for the debate shocked and saddened me. Compelled to thank Archer and Jordan for speaking up, I wondered how I could meet them. Fast-forward five hours. I took four steps into the bookstore, looked up, and recognized Jordan from a photo I saw in the articles. That incredible encounter became the spark for my novel The Assignment.

Although this book is fiction, it’s inspired by real people, real events, and real assignments. I did extensive research to ensure authenticity and bring the characters, plot, and setting to life. I wanted to show how history—World War II and the Holocaust—continues to inform, influence, and impact society today. I wanted to show the ripple effect of one’s actions, how allyship and being upstanders can impact and transform a classroom, a school, a community, and people across the globe.

Sadly, antisemitism and other forms of hatred continue to thrive. According to the Anti-Defamation League (2022), “Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported.” This doesn’t even come close to the amount of hatred directed at Jewish people online, as well as the numerous incidents that go unreported across the globe. This book helps bring awareness to the issue and helps stop it.

Because research was critical for this novel, I learned to use Scrivener, an outstanding program that has a place for documents, websites, photos, interviews, and more, making it easy to access the information while writing drafts. I divided my research into four parts: interviews, on location, internet, and books and films. (See sidebar for a breakdown of some of that research.)

For character development, I conducted extensive interviews with people who have expertise or experience in areas of interest for this novel. From upstanding teens to Holocaust scholars and survivors, I found inspiration to create unique and relatable voices.

Several months into the research process, I returned to upstate New York. Going on location helped me develop scenes influenced by those sites and allowed for vibrant details not accessible on the internet. I toured museums, bed and breakfasts, and sites like Fort Ontario, which housed the only European refugees in the United States during World War II. I photographed places and people, returning to those pictures often during the writing process.

The internet is a treasure trove of information. I took caution, however, to ensure the websites were reputable and that World War II– and Holocaust–related documents, quotes, and footage came from original sources to ensure accuracy.

When I first started writing this novel, I could not have imagined school personnel and politicians advocating to teach both sides of the Holocaust. When I read about the Oswego assignment, I thought it was an anomaly. Unfortunately, my research proved they are common across the globe. Many go unchallenged and unreported. The Holocaust is a fact. We must draw a clear line and never give validity to Holocaust denial or advocate for the Nazi perspective.

Only a tiny portion of my research made it into the book. Together with my personal experiences and education background, the research provided a wide range of knowledge and broadened my perspective, enabling me to find my voice, respond to antisemitic assignments and incidents, and share a level of expertise I would never have had without this hard work.

This novel has opened doors for me with schools and various organizations as a sought-after expert on antisemitic and other hurtful assignments, Holocaust education, and curriculum violence and empowering others, especially our youth, to be allies and upstanders.

Speaking up can be difficult. But silence allows hatred to spread like this pandemic. I did not want to be silent. However, as someone who has experienced antisemitism throughout my life, I thought about the potential consequences of writing about this topic and how shining a light on these issues would make me vulnerable in a public way. No matter how much I weighed those consequences, there have been many challenges I could never have predicted. But there also have been many extraordinary rewards. Helping to stop harmful assignments is just one of them. The most humbling is priceless: It is witnessing educators using this novel in classrooms and hearing how students and readers of all ages feel empowered to be allies and upstanders against hatred, bigotry, or injustice.

So, to all the SCBWI writers who have thought about giving up, I hope you will persevere. The world needs your stories.

 

 

Further Research:

Areas of research: similar assignments; World War II and the Holocaust, including the Wannsee Conference, the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, Lebensborn program, concentration camps, ghettos, Holocaust by bullets, Nuremberg Laws, Nuremberg trials, SS St. Louis, USNS Henry T Gibbins, Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Center, WWII refugees, survivors, eugenics, Kristallnacht, POWs, propaganda, Milgram’s experiment, Aryan race, immigration; Holocaust education, including state mandates, protests, bias, White Nationalism, antisemitism and other forms of hatred, bigotry, and injustice, teacher/student dynamics, student/student dynamics, community relations and impact of hateful assignments, anti-bullying school policies, curriculum violence, cognitive dissonance, tenure for New York teachers, hockey—coaching, players and responsibilities of a team captain, running an inn, the life of math professors, how to dye hair, protest songs, the first feminist novel, Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, ableist language, upstanders, bystanders and allies—during the Holocaust and today.