Friday, January 19, 2024

Q&A with Elisa Boxer




Elisa Boxer is the author of the new children's picture book The Tree of Life: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World. Her other books include The Voice that Won the Vote. Also a journalist, she lives in Maine.


Q: What inspired you to write The Tree of Life?


A: In 2021, I was researching another book when I came across an article about a tree-planting ceremony in New York City. The tree was a descendent of one planted during the Holocaust. As a Jewish journalist and author with family members killed in the Holocaust, I felt compelled to know more.


I learned that a group of children had planted and nurtured the original tree in the prison camp Terezin, and that school children in Battery Park were going to care for this descendant tree.


A picture book began forming in my mind. I imagined that original group of children in the camp, sharing what little water they had with the tree, juxtaposed with this group of modern-day students, keeping alive not only the tree, but the memory of the children who planted it during the darkest of times. 


Q: What do you think Alianna Rozentsveig’s illustrations add to the book?


A: From the moment I saw Alianna's preliminary sketches for the book, I knew she was going to bring this story to life in ways that were better than I could have imagined. She absolutely has.


I didn't identify any specific children in the manuscript, and yet from the very first page--actually, from the cover--Alianna introduces us to each of these children whose unique personalities and expressions of worry, sadness, gratitude, excitement, and hope draw us in and make us feel like we instantly know them and love them. Her art is tender and breathtaking and heartbreaking.


One of my favorite spreads is described in a recent review from the Center for Children's Books: "Children in bright earth tones holding hands around the tiny, luminous sapling, staving off the darkness encroaching from the facing page, where Nazis salute Hitler among waving swastika flags." (Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review).


Alianna's art is so moving, and there are many examples throughout the book of her masterful juxtaposition of darkness and sorrow; hope and light.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read many books about Terezin, but I was a bit surprised that I couldn't find any references to the tree, especially since survivors had said the existence of the tree was common knowledge among prisoners.


I did locate a Czechoslovakian historian and expert on Terezin, however, who was a tremendous help with details of both the camp and the tree.


She provided valuable information on every detail, right down to the specific location of the tree, the size of the suitcases the prisoners would have been carrying, and whether the wooden bunks would have had mattresses.


The teacher in Terezin, who smuggled in the sapling for the children, survived the war. Her daughter wrote an account about the tree in Czechoslovakian, which I ran through an English translation program.


I also contacted a collections researcher at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in England, where one of the descendant saplings is growing. Through the Museum, I was able to gather more details, including survivor testimonies about the tree. 


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book called it a “gentle, accessible take on resilience.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was so pleased to read that description. My family members from Germany, Poland, and Russia were killed in the Holocaust, and I am deeply drawn to researching and sharing stories that expose the horrors of that time, while also highlighting the strength and resilience of the Jewish people.


It's challenging to do that with picture books, though, to find that age-appropriate balance.


That same Center for Children's Books review I referred to above said "Boxer threads the delicate needle of keeping hope alight while also writing with age-appropriate frankness about the horrors of the Holocaust and the reckoning with its aftermath." This was my biggest hope for the book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm looking forward to the launch event for Tree of Life this Sunday at the Maine Jewish Museum! We'll have a storytime, book signing, and children will be able to paint clay pots and plant seeds, in honor of the children in Terezin. 


My next book comes out in March, timed to coincide with Women's History Month. Dear Younger Me: What 35 Trailblazing Women Wish They'd Known as Girls (Rowman & Littlefield) is my first YA anthology, and I'm super excited that former congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabby Giffords wrote the foreword. 


I'm also working on another anthology, Unexpected Undercover: 50 Fearless Female Spies (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2026).


And I have several more picture books on the way, including two more this year: Beam of Light: The Story of the First White House Menorah (illustrated by Sofia Moore, Penguin/Rocky Pond) and Full Circle: Creation, Migration and Coming Home (illustrated by Vivian Mineker, Sleeping Bear Press). 


Deborah, it's always such a pleasure to join you here, thank you so much for having me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elisa Boxer.

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