It is quite likely that when a student asks you for a book about the impact of war on real people, you will recommend a title by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. When our reviewers gave highly recommended ratings to two of her new titles, Making Bombs for Hitler and Adrift at Sea, we decided it was time to learn more about Skrypuch herself.
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s books have received numerous awards and honors—and for good reason. Skrypuch can take a subject like famine (Enough, a picture book about the Ukranian famine), genocide (Armenian Genocide Trilogy), refugees (Adrift at Sea, Last Airlift, and One Step at a Time, about Vietnamese refugees), or war (World War II Trilogy and others), and turn it into something that is not just suitable for children but, perhaps more importantly, that children can relate to also. With protagonists who are children themselves, her books invite young readers to place themselves in these circumstances and think about how they might have responded to the same situation. But enough of that for now; you’ve read her books, you already know all of this. It’s time for us to get to know a little bit more about Marsha herself.
When did you know you wanted to become a children’s book author?
I wanted to write books ever since I began reading at age nine. I write the stories that burn in my heart – the stories that if I don’t write I won’t be able to sleep at night.
Writing specifically for children wasn’t a conscious decision until much later.
Why do you think it is important to write books for children that deal with such tragic events (refugees, war, genocide)?
We need to be respectful of children’s intelligence. I will never write a book that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Young people deserve nuanced, tough, and interesting stories about real life and real history. Letting kids chew on gritty stories about real history is just as important as giving them good food. Reading about what other young people had to go through in different times and places gives a child the strength and context to deal with their own challenges.
I want to give children a safe way to feel what it’s like to live in the midst of war and what it’s like to have to make impossible choices. But most importantly, when you live inside a character that you’ve grown to love, the whole concept of “us” versus “them” falls away. Literature set during tragic times is one of the best ways to help a reader develop empathy.
Is there any advice you would give to teachers/librarians about how best to approach your books that deal with such topics?
By leaving lots of room for discussion.
Even though my books are set in far off places and times, young readers will be able to relate, either from personal history or the experiences of friends and family. Giving students a safe opportunity to discuss the events in my books and how that might relate to things they already know about is cathartic.
My books will definitely generate questions and this is a good thing. For example, with Adrift at Sea, readers may initially be horrified when Tuan’s mother leaves her youngest daughter behind, but teachers and librarians can have their students speculate what would change in the story if Van had escaped at the same time as Tuan. Would she have been able to stay quiet in the truck? Would she have survived the sun and thirst? Ask your students if they have ever had to make a hard decision, or if their parents have had to make a hard decision that they disagreed with. Talk about consequences and alternatives. Ask if anyone in their own family (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents) or circle of friends had to flee their home. If they don’t know, suggest they ask. Teachers and librarians can get their students to interview a family or friend about a time that they had to escape from danger.
Similarly, in Making Bombs for Hitler, teachers and librarians can ask students what they would do in the various circumstances that Lida finds herself in. How would the story have changed if Lida hadn’t lied about her age? What if she had taken a sandwich from Inge instead of the large shirt? She could still have shared with her friends, but how would the story have changed? Ask your students if they’ve ever felt that they were being treated unfairly because of something beyond their control. Ask if they can think of someone else who may have been treated unfairly for something beyond their control.
Most important: ask about when they’ve treated someone else unfairly because of something beyond a person’s control.
Ask if any family member or friend ever lived through a war. Perhaps give an assignment for students to interview someone who has lived through a war. How is war different if you’re a soldier, or civilian, or prisoner?
What do you enjoy most about your school visits?
I’ve written for all grade ranges, so one of my favorite things is being able to spend a day at a school and to meet every single student.
Often, I’ll incorporate a short module about my own learning difficulties and how I hated reading when I was young. I’m dyslexic, and didn’t read a book until I was nine years old. It’s because of my own reading challenges that I write the kinds of books that I do. There are lots of children who struggle with reading for a variety of reasons but so many of them are just one book away from being a passionate reader. What that book might be is different depending on the child, but for me, it had to be real and it had to be about a young person who faces a huge challenge.
I now consider dyslexia to be my secret weapon. I can retain what I read because I remember in images, and I can hold different types of information in various rooms in my head. This helps when writing complicated stories and linked novels. Also, because I remember in images, when I create a story, it’s like a movie in my head. All I do is run after the characters and write down everything they do.
I show students my grade four report card – the year that I failed. They’re shocked by all the red circles, but it also helps them realize that failure is a step along the way, not a destination, and not a label.
Young people impress me with their insight and compassion. After reading Making Bombs for Hitler, an 11 year old boy told me that he would never take his parents for granted again, and he would never complain about what he got for supper. I visited International English language schools in Europe last fall, and one grade three teacher emailed me ahead of time, letting me know that her students were worried about how Van (from Adrift at Sea) was doing now. I contacted Van before the visit and she sent me a photo of her and her husband and children, all with broad smiles. That grade 3 class was thrilled.
Was there a special teacher/librarian who inspired you?
Good, caring, and compassionate teachers and librarians are what makes the world tick and there certainly wouldn’t be avid readers or authors without them. I was blessed with many inspirational teachers and have been helped by many librarians, but one special librarian stands out.
She was the adult librarian at the public library in my home town of Brantford Ontario, Canada. After failing grade 4, I’d had it up to here with children’s books. They didn’t have enough story to keep my mind from wandering, but I knew I had to learn how to comprehend a book or I’d never get out of grade 4. I went upstairs to the adult department and asked to speak to the librarian. I politely requested an adult library card, explaining my rationale – that children’s books had no story and I needed an adult book with good story or I’d never learn how to read.
“I can’t give you an adult card,” she said. “But with the card you’ve got, you can get into the room for older children and there are books with stories that will keep your attention.”
She walked with me down the steps and led me to a room at the other end of the corridor. I had seen older children go into this room, but thought little kids like me weren’t allowed. It was filled from floor to ceiling with big books.
“You can borrow any of these books,” she told me.
I selected Oliver Twist because it was so thick I thought no one would catch on to my reading difficulties even if it took me a long time to finish it. I’m grateful to that librarian for not shooing me away or assuming I should only read little kids’ books.
I kept on renewing Oliver Twist for a full year, but I did finish it. Not only that, I loved it. For the first time in my life I read a book that put a movie in my head. It was after reading Oliver Twist that I decided that I wanted to write the kinds of books that put a movie into people’s heads.
From grade 4 to 8, I read a lot of the books in that room but I didn’t read another children’s picture book or chapter book or genre novel until I was doing my graduate degree in library science. I took the children’s literature course and was blown away by the breadth and depth and quality of books available for children of all skill and interest levels. Children’s literature had blossomed as I matured.
It was at library school* that I realized writing gritty meaty children’s books was something I was meant to do.
For more info about me, my books, and school visits, my website is:
*Editor’s Note: Skrypuch has a master’s degree in library science