Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Q&A with Miriam Halahmy

Miriam Halahmy is the author of Saving Hanno: The Story of a Refugee Dog, a new middle grade novel for kids. It takes place during World War II. Halahmy's other books include The Emergency Zoo and Hidden. She lives in England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Saving Hanno, and for your character Rudi?

A: Rudi and his dog, Hanno, first appeared in my MG novel The Emergency Zoo (Alma Books, 2016). The Emergency Zoo is based on the largely unknown, true story of the cull of 750,000 pets in the UK at the outbreak of World War II. People didn’t feel they could look after pets during the war. My book imagines that a group of children hide their pets in a den in the woods to save them.

Nine-year-old Rudi, who is Jewish, arrives in the UK from Germany in early 1939 and lives with foster parents. They have also given his dog Hanno a home. However, as war looms, the foster parents decide to put the dog down. So Rudi takes Hanno to the Emergency Zoo to save his life.

After The Emergency Zoo was published in the UK, I was approached by PJ Our Way, which gifts books on Jewish themes to Jewish children. They have distributed six million books worldwide. They asked me if I would write Rudi’s story from the Zoo. I thought this was a great idea and so Saving Hanno was born.

Saving Hanno opens just after Kristallnacht in November 1939 when terrible pogroms were orchestrated by the Nazis against the Jewish community all over Germany. A hundred Jews were killed, synagogues burned down and Jewish shops smashed.

Kristallnacht is a turning point for Rudi and his family. Rudi has to make a huge sacrifice to save Hanno’s life. He will save Hanno three times in the book. Rudi’s devotion to his dog helps him to cope with arriving in England as a refugee child and at times he has to be enormously brave, way beyond his years. I think that children will find this very inspiring in the book.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: When I was researching for The Emergency Zoo I came across a most surprising piece of information. There was a Kindertransport dog! The Kindertransport refers to the rescue of 10,000 German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jewish children from the Nazis on trains arranged by the UK. The trains ran from November 1938 until September 1939, bringing the children to England.

I read an article about two German Jewish children who had a place on the Kindertransport but couldn’t bring their dog. They wrote to an animal charity in England and asked if they would help. The charity agreed and the dog was saved. This was the start of Rudi and Hanno’s story which develops in Saving Hanno.

I love doing research and read a great deal about both children and pets in World War II. Although the plan was to evacuate the children and put the pets down, many of the stories I read showed how brave both children and animals were in the war, despite horrendous air raids and terrifying conditions. I wanted to show something of this in my books set at this time. I felt that it would be inspiring for my readers and show a different side of World War II.

Halahmy and Reich
My research took me to newspaper articles and libraries, as well as to surviving members of the Kindertransport. When I read out the opening chapters of Saving Hanno to this amazing group of people, the chair of their organisation, Sir Eric Reich, commented, “That’s exactly what happened to us!”

Writing Saving Hanno gave me the opportunity to explore Rudi’s back story in 1930s Germany under Hitler and the Nazis. I wanted to show the experiences of a Jewish family in those dark days and the difficult decision to send Rudi and his older sister on the train to England.

The book is written from Rudi’s point of view and contrasts his life in Germany with his new life in England as a Jewish refugee child, coping with a new language, a new school, different food and strange customs. Rudi’s parents cheer him up about leaving home by telling him he will be a pioneer, going first to pave the way for when they arrive. Rudi decides to keep notes of everything to help his parents when they arrive in England.

Here is an example of Rudi’s notes:-
A cup of tea is a nice cuppa
Dinner is called tea
Never eat in the street. It’s rude.
A bob is a shilling which is twelve whole pennies. You can buy lots of candy with a shilling.

But I also needed specific information about the life of a young boy in Germany in 1939, such as what they would eat for breakfast. So I asked my German friend, Martina, and she asked her father for some of the lovely details I have put in the book. For example, Rudi ate dark rye bread in Germany and had never seen white bread before. I put German words in the book, thinking of Martina’s children, Johannes and Julius. Their father, Chad, is American so they are fluent in both German and English.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: There are several areas that I think will interest children in Saving Hanno. This book shows the experience of a refugee child which is as current today as it was for Rudi in 1939; it shows the specific experience of the Kindertransport and how the British saved 10,000 Jewish children from almost certain death in the Holocaust; it shows how children responded to the threat of war; it shows the plight of animals in war and it shows how the approaching war affected the UK, with the blackout, gas masks, air raid shelters and the evacuation of children.

My book also highlights the concept of good Germans in World War II; Germans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who were not Nazis and didn’t follow Hitler. Rudi doesn’t reject his German heritage. But he shows that he doesn’t agree with the war or with the Nazis. I hope that this will stimulate interest in this aspect of World War II.

Q: You've written for different age groups--do you have a preference?

A: No, I don’t think so. Basically I write novels and I know from reviews and comments, that all my books are enjoyed by children and adults alike. I believe that if you have written a strong story with a good plot and great characters, then any reader can enjoy the book. Once I have the idea for a book I immerse myself in research and writing and then my audience becomes anyone who is inspired to read my work.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have now written three books on the theme of animals, children, and World War II. The third book, Rip to the Rescue, will be published by Holiday House in 2020. Writing three historical novels has given me a taste for this wonderful genre. History has always been a passion of mine. So I am currently writing a novel set in the first half of the 19th century in the North of England.

I received an Arts Council Grant for the research and writing of this book which was a wonderful affirmation of my work. I hope to finish the book by summer 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think that World War II is of great interest to young people. It was such a long and complex war and affected all the countries of the world. A great deal has been written about it. Finding original stories about pets in World War II has been a treasure house for me, particularly as I have always loved animals.

The writing of Saving Hanno has allowed me to explore the life of a Jewish child in this era from an original perspective – the Kindertransport dog. As I am also Jewish, the Jewish focus of the book was of particular significance to me. I hope that Saving Hanno can add a new chapter in the breadth of historical fiction about this era and about the Holocaust.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Miriam Halahmy.

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