17 January 2022 Share
With Holocaust Memorial Day coming up at the end of this month, author Liz Kessler discusses the importance of books in helping change our society for the better.
If you were to ask me what my favourite thing is about being a writer, I’d reel off quite a long list, with answers ranging from being sent pictures of mermaids to the ability to plan my own work schedule. (If you’d asked me any time prior to early 2020, one of my answers would have been that I get to go to work in my pyjamas. Thanks to Covid, the majority of people have now had some experience of working from home, so this is no longer the writer’s USP.)
If you asked me now, though, one answer is right up at the top of my list: hearing from readers who’ve read and enjoyed my books.
Over the last year, nothing has warmed my heart like hearing from those who work with young people to tell me what my book has meant to them. Getting messages from school librarians to say that they are running a book club around it, or from English teachers to say they are reading it with their class, or from History teachers telling me they want to use my book to teach about the Holocaust and the second world war – all these things mean more to me than almost anything else I could hope for with this book.
When The World Was Ours came directly from my heart, and that is where I want it to land with its readers too. It’s the teachers and librarians who help it to find its way there, and I don’t know if you get told often enough what a wonderful job you do, but in case you don’t, take it from me: you are amazing!
I’ve been an author for twenty years now, and I’ve become used to the fact that I always seem to write about the same things, often without realising it till I’ve finished the book and someone tells me what it’s about. Even when I’ve been writing about mermaids or fairies or time travel, there are similar themes underpinning every book: the power of friendship, love and kindness; acts of courage; social justice. No matter what I think I’m writing about, I always seems to be writing about these things once you scratch the surface.
In When The World Was Ours, the difference is that I’ve taken off the gloves and am delivering the message in its raw form. This book is unashamedly about the things that matter most to me, the things that find their way into every book. It was inspired by a chance moment that let to my dad and grandparents being able to escape from Nazi-occupied Austria and then Czechoslovakia because of an extraordinary act of kindness from an English couple in 1938. It’s about the horrors of the Holocaust and the extreme antisemitism of that time. But it’s not only about antisemitism and it certainly isn’t only about what happened in the 1940s. I wish it was.
Sadly, racism, prejudice, extreme views and dangerous leaders are not a thing of the past. I’d like to think my book might serve as many things: a warning about what can so easily happen when a society builds itself on an ideology that at its heart is about demeaning, oppressing and ultimately destroying others; a beacon for people looking for inspiration to help them to feel strong enough to stand up to persecutors – whether it’s the school bully or a corrupt and evil leader. But more than anything, I hope that what shines through everything else in my book is the message that even the smallest acts of kindness can change someone else’s life completely; that choosing kindness, hope, optimism and bravery are things that can change the world.
These things are the pointers on the compass that I try to follow in everything I do. They are the qualities that ignite flames of hope for others and can light the way through any darkness. And I think we need them now as much as we ever have.
So to all the school librarians and teachers out there who are reading this, I’m sending you my heartfelt thanks. Not just for sharing my book if you have done (or are planning to) but for everything you do. For being the people you are and for playing such an important part in helping get books into the hands of young people. And for hopefully helping to one day make the events in books like mine unthinkable, impossible works of fiction that no young person could ever imagine happening again.
Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th is the day for everyone to remember the millions of people murdered in the Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution (1940s), and in the genocides which followed in Cambodia (1975-1979), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Darfur (2003).
When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler is out in paperback on 20th January 2022 (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books)