Author Feature: Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of several books, including Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children and Terezin (Holiday House, 2000), a Sidney Taylor Award Honor Book and a National Jewish Book Award finalist. She lives in California.

What is it about writing, storytelling that calls to you?

I originally wanted to be an illustrator of children’s books. I had studied art and did paintings that showed in galleries. But living here in a suburb of LA with young children and no money for traveling back to NY to show what I thought was a portfolio, I decided to write my own stories to have something to illustrate. Then I sent those out and, to my surprise, got as much if not more interest in my writing from editors than in my art.

In my writing, I wanted to break cliches. Starting out with picture books about family, I portrayed my mother, an active widow, as a delightful grandma who invited her grandchildren (my kids) to sleep over–one at a time.

What put you on the path to publication? What were the ah-ha moments?

The excitement of having fine editors and agents take my stories seriously and helping me make them stronger and more marketable. I still find the process the most exciting part of writing.

Any memorable sprints or stumbles along the way?

When I tried to sell my first picture book Grandma Is Somebody Special (Albert Whitman, 2006)(which I originally titled “I Love to Sleep at Grandma’s”) I naturally thought I would illustrate it. But when I showed it to Robert Kraus, an outstanding editor in NY, and he suggested that Garth Williams could illustrate it and the Jewish grandmother in my story could be a bear, I was thrilled! I had never thought of it. It didn’t happen, and I did do the art–full of mistakes–but that little book published by Albert Whitman & Company stayed in print for 20 years.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight some of your backlist titles and the inspiration behind each?

I love art so much that I wanted to share my enthusiasm with young people and help them enjoy paintings, drawings, photos and even architecture, by learning the stories behind these great works. So I wound up writing nonfiction for what we call “middle grade” readers.

Some of the titles that I’ve done that are still in print are these: The Yellow House: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side (Abrams, 2001); Degas and the Dance: The Painter and the Petits Rats Perfecting Their Art (Abrams, 2002); Steven Spielberg: Crazy for Movies (Abrams, 2001); Art Against the Odds: From Slave Quilts to Prison Paintings (Crown/Random House, 2004).

The Spielberg book came about because I too am crazy about movies. And I share Spielberg’s goal to educate the public about the Holocaust. I’ve contributed a portion of my royalty to the Shoah Foundation in perpetuity.

I also enjoyed researching and writing L’Chaim! To Jewish Life in America! Celebrating From 1654 Until Today (Abrams 2004). At first I was delighted to be asked to do this book in association with the Jewish Museum in New York. But then I discovered how much about the history of Jews in America I didn’t know and wondered if I could really finish the project. I looked for individual stories about what it was like for Jewish immigrants to come to America and settle in different regions. Even out West and in Alaska! My father who emigrated from Russia in 1914 was an inspiration and I especially liked working on the chapters about New York’s Lower East Side where he lived as a boy.

For many years I had a great desire to make a contribution to Holocaust literature for children. My father was born in Russia, probably the area called Moldova since my maiden name is Moldof, and he went through a pogrom when he was a little boy. His stories of hiding in the cellar and going up on the street afterward to see the dead bodies haunted me. I believed the same could happen to me even though I grew up safely in the Bronx. But I didn’t find the story that was the right one for me to tell until I stumbled upon the art and remarkable work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

The result was my book Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin (Holiday House, 2000). Once I started reading about Friedl and the extraordinary ghetto/concentration camp called Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) I couldn’t stop. I had never heard of it and knew this was my story to tell. But I felt that I needed permission from survivors. So I went to Prague and Terezin and met remarkable people who had been children at Terezin and they enthusiastically urged me to go forward with the project.

I’d like to focus on two of your picture books, The Flag with Fifty-Six Stars: A Gift from the Survivors of Mauthausen, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth (Holiday House, 2005) and The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin, with Ela Weissberger (Holiday House, 2006). Let’s talk first about The Flag with Fifty-Six Stars. What about this particular story called to you?

When I saw the actual flag at the Museum of Tolerance I was deeply moved. To think that former prisoners at Mauthausen, one of the worse of the concentration camps, had the spirit and drive to create this gift for their liberators despite their weakened and miserable condition. This was a testament to the dignity and humanity of people.

My friend, Adaire, Director of Library & Archives at the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, showed me he flag and told me that children who came through to see it were interested in the mistake: the flag has fifty-six stars although the flag had forty-eight stars at that time, 1945, representing the states in the Union. Who made the mistake and why? I felt this was the basis of a true story that had to be told. No one else had done a book about Mauthausen and I wanted to do it.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The research took quite a while. Some of the information that the Museum of Tolerance had was not accurate. I tried to find out who exactly had made the flag and how. Although I never found out for sure, I did uncover information previously unknown.

I wrote to Simon Wiesenthal who was alive at that time. He had been in the Death Block at Mauthausen and I thought he might remember the flag with fifty-six stars. He didn’t but he sent me a wonderful letter about what the American flag and his liberators meant to him and gave me permission to quote.

I also spoke to survivors who could tell me more–Prem Dobias, a lawyer in London, and Mike Jacobs, a survivor from Poland who now lives in Texas. I looked through articles about liberation written by members of the 11th Armored Division and I spoke to the group’s historian who had made videos on the day of liberation. The whole process took a couple of years. And writing about this dreadful place for young readers was difficult. I needed to be truthful yet not horrific.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The challenges were many. How to write this story for young people without a child as the main viewpoint character? There were no children at Mauthausen. I later found out in reading Simon Wiesenthal’s memoirs that perhaps there was one, maybe two. The youngest person I could question was Mike Jacobs who was a teenager during his imprisonment.

Some of the people I interviewed, such as Prem Dobias, told me not to write this book. He said that Mauthausen was too terrible a place and children should not know about it.

On the other hand, my editor and I felt the story needed to be told. The making of the flag in our opinion was life affirming and full of hope.

Mike Jacobs’ message in his own book Holocaust Survivor (Eakin, 2001) is that he never gave up hope. He always believed that one day he would be free. And he encouraged me to do the book. He even came to LA with his wife for the launch at the Museum of Tolerance and I had the great pleasure of meeting him in person.

I just have to add that the research continues even now. I keep getting letters from relatives of former prisoners and their liberators. It’s so moving and gratifying to know that these people like the book and are glad that I wrote it. And sometimes they add information that is new to me and that we can incorporate in future editions.

What did Bill Farnsworth‘s illustrations bring to your text?

Bill Farnsworth’s paintings are glorious. I feel so lucky that my editor chose him as the illustrator and that he accepted. His art enriches the story and gives it warmth and emotion. We never spoke or exchanged letters until the book was published. And then I found out that Bill’s father was a G.I. and a photo of him was a reference for the beautiful double spread at the end of the book.

The Cat with the Yellow Star is a middle grade memoir in picture book form. For those who’ve yet to read it, could you tell us a bit about Ela Stein’s story and your collaborative process with her?

I met Ela while I was researching Fireflies. She was one of Friedl’s favorite art students and we used many of Ela’s paintings and drawings in our book. I couldn’t help but admire Ela’s strength and vitality and felt that hers was a story to be told. For friendship and music were tools for her survival as well as art.

Ela was chosen to play the role of the Cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar” that was performed at Terezin 55 times. To this day whenever it’s performed anywhere in the world she’s invited to attend and sing the final Victory March with the children who perform.

In fact, I met her in person when I went to see a performance of “Brundibar” that was given at UC Irvine in Southern California. I had seen Ela in so many videos that I immediately recognized her–and her voice–before we were properly introduced. We became friends and kept meeting at conferences, then visiting at each other’s houses.

Over a period of about five years we developed the shape of this book which tells her story. In addition to interviewing her many, many times, I watched her videotaped interview for the Shoah Foundation to help me understand the events of her life.

When I finished the first draft she went over it to check for accuracy and, of course, to give her approval. We went through her family photo album to select pictures for the book and when the first proofs were ready, she went over captions and text to make corrections.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write from the heart. Choose those subjects that truly excite you, move you, that you feel need to be told. Read, read, read. See what other authors do and try to understand good writing and what makes it good.

How about those interested in non-fiction? Could you pass on any tips to beginning researchers?

Try to use primary sources–interviews, letters, diaries, newspaper articles and so on in addition to reading. Find an angle, a bit of information, a detail that is fresh.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read. A lot. Many different kinds of books and The New Yorker, which is a terrific magazine for fiction and non-fiction. Also love movies, concerts, theater and working out at the gym. And spending time with my family.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter (Abrams, Fall 2006) and Delicious: The Work and World of Wayne Thiebaud (Chronicle Books, spring 2007), and a few other projects in the works.

Cynsational Notes

See more author/illustrator interviews and Jewish and Holocaust-related themes in children’s and YA literature. See also the picture book and multicultural book bibliographies.