Many Nerdy Book Clubbers are already familiar with Sara Holbrook through her books of poetry for young readers, including I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult and The Dog Ate My Homework. We also know Sara through her work with “partner-in-rhyme” Michael Salinger that helps students and teachers from around the world understand how writing poetry can meet the needs of living in the modern world.
Sara Holbrook’s newest book is The Enemy: Detroit, 1954 (Calkins Creek, 2017). Loosely based on her own childhood experiences, The Enemy’s narrator is Marjorie, a twelve-year old who sees the tensions of the Cold War play out in her home, school, and community. Marjorie’s responses to the suspicion, paranoia, and xenophobia so prevalent in that era are powerfully relevant to our own troubled times.
I’m honored that my long-time friend Sara agreed to share her insights with Nerdy Book Club members in a recent email interview.
When it comes to writing, you have done so much—poetry for young people, spoken word poetry, think pieces, books for educators—but this is your first novel. What brought you to writing a novel for middle-grade readers?
As a poet, I tend to write in first person. I think it keeps me honest. I have written hundreds of poems in a middle grade voice, from I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult to I’m Not So Bad. That is how I have chosen to write my story over the years, part fiction and part memoir. The Enemy came to me in multiple voices, from multiple points of view. The final chapter of the book is a true story that I would occasionally relate to friends. Finally, I decided I wanted to write about it, and it grew into the book.
What about The Enemy do you hope will appeal to young readers?
Marjorie, the protagonist, claims she is not shy, but she struggles with speaking up for what is right. I think (hope) young readers will cheer her on as she finally triumphs in finding her own voice.
One thread of The Enemy deals with how immigrants are welcomed by some and mistreated by others. Were you aware of that back in 1954, or is that thread more informed by what you see happening in 2017?
First, I was only six in 1954. But growing up, I certainly was aware of immigrants, as I grew up surrounded by them. Many of my friends had a grandparent who spoke broken English, or no English at all. I remember once babysitting at the house of an immigrant family and being astounded by their empty closets. Among my parent’s friends, the term DP, was widely used to label folks who had European accents. That said, I don’t remember overt bullying by kids against immigrants in my school. I have, however, heard these reports from adult friends of mine who came here as children. In the school district where I live now–Mentor, Ohio–a few years ago, there was a high school student, a recent Croatian immigrant, who tragically committed suicide due to extreme bullying. News reports cited a culture of aggressive conformity in the school. Also, I have family who actively work helping stranded migrants on our southern border, so immigration is a topic we often discuss. Studying history and (frankly) age have given me more perspective on the great sacrifices immigrants make moving to a strange place to start over, a place where acceptance is not guaranteed. This I have written about in an adult poetry book, From the Park Bench (2015), in a persona poem.
Came the Irish Catholics,
who hated the protestants,
who hated the Poles,
who hated the Germans,
who hated the Italians.
The Serbs and the Croats brought their hate with them.
And everyone hated the Jews.
All that hate waved through the ghettos.
After the war followed the hillbillies, blacks, and Latinos
who began to unite the city
in some kind of new-improved hatred.
Cultural diversity is a crock.
Everyone wants to be with their own kind
or the closest thing to it
and hate ain’t no recent invention.
I like how the author’s note at the end of The Enemy explains what various family members were like in 1954 and to what degree they inspired various characters. There isn’t much there about you though. So, what were you like in junior high, and how are you still kind of the same?
I was a total geek, glasses and braces. I was a daydreamer, quietly rebellious, and I was skeletal and could barely hold up a pair of corduroys. I was so shy I’d turn purple if anyone talked to me. I did collect maps and brochures from National Geographic and spent long hours at the library where I got into trouble more than once for sneaking into the adult section. Am I the same? As an adult I consider myself a plainclothes revolutionary. But I will say that, like Marjorie, I have sometimes had to give myself a little kick to speak up for myself. I have a people-pleasing tendency that I have to fight against pretty much daily.
The dialogue in The Enemy is especially appealing. Marjorie, the twelve-year-old narrator, has a lot of clever lines, and other characters’ words are written in ways that make clear how a readers’ ear is supposed to hear them. How does that work? Do you catch snippets of conversation and build from there, or do you base a character’s language on the voice of someone you know, or something else?
I spent a lot of time speaking the dialogue and internal monologues out loud as I wrote. I have always felt that with performance poetry, my performance feeds my writing just as much as my writing feeds the performance. So it is natural to me to speak the words as I write them. I worked until it sounded natural, true to the characters.
At one point in The Enemy, Marjorie asks her mother, “What’s worse, a commie or a Nazi?” What is Marjorie trying to figure out with that question?
That is actually the first line I wrote in the book. It held its place as the first line of the book for the first few drafts, even. Marjorie is surrounded by the fallout from WWII— her neighbor Mrs. Fisher who hasn’t overcome the loss of her son – her own father’s experiences in the war – Nazi’s are known as the worst of the worst. Or they used to be. Now Marjorie is hearing of a new political enemy, the commies and the Russians and they have a bomb that could wipe out the world. She wants to know which enemy to worry about. She doesn’t really know much about the commies or Russians, WWII has personally touched her.
The kids in The Enemy lived through traumatic events of historic proportions, although the refugee children confronted them more directly than the American kids on the home front. Drawing on your understanding as a mom and grandmother and educator with a lot of international experience, what can you say about how children deal with things when their worlds become so chaotic or violent?
World events so affect kids. In one extreme, they can be caught in the crossfire. In cases such as with Marjorie, talk about newsworthy events comes to them by way of media and parent discussions. We know kids mimic adult behaviors and we see this in The Enemy when Bernadette insists that the circle of friends sign a loyalty oath. In my own case, I remember having discussions with girlfriends about whether we would grow up to have children. We were worried and would talk about “the bomb.” I was suspicious that perhaps this was a false memory, until I found it confirmed in contemporaneous interviews that Studs Terkel did with kids. The interviews appear in the final chapter of his book, The Good War. Kids take the siftings of parents’ conversations and actions and build their own realities. One thing I had to do was make sure I wasn’t relying on childhood false narratives and passing them off as history. Throughout the writing of the book, I confirmed every one of my memories through research. From McCarthy’s book banning and Mr. Wizard’s recipe for a volcano, to actually tracking my father’s Army unit’s movements in the European theater to confirm his stories, I searched and found documentable evidence for the stories in the book. My meticulous editor, Carolyn Yoder, even had me make a bibliography of my research.
The young people in The Enemy are just living their everyday lives—school, parents, friends, teachers—but the paranoia and politics of the larger society keep causing things to happen that those kids do not fully understand. Do you think today’s American middle-schoolers are more aware of world events going on around them, and if so, how does it affect them?
When the twin towers came down, Michael Salinger and I took great care to guard his then second grade son from fearsome news reports, muting the sound of the TV when he entered the room. Still, three or four days later, he came to his father and asked, “When are we going to get bombed?” He’d heard just enough to create a false narrative that had him plenty scared. According to multiple reports, hate crimes in the US are up 20% as a result of the recent election. Unfortunately, according the Southern Poverty Law Center, bullying and hate crimes are also up in schools and the increase can be directly linked to the election of Donald Trump. Kids reflect the mood and culture of the parents. If they sense fear or hostility in their parents, that is going to be apparent in their actions. Students outside this country (I have visited over 50 schools in more than 40 countries) tend to be far more aware of world events than our kids, sadly. I see that reflected in the poems that they write. We have seen popular culture overwhelm news events in the minds of young people, and that’s not only tragic, it’s dangerous. I think part of our jobs as middle grade educators is getting them outside of themselves and their immediate environs and help them see the greater world.
You and Michael do a lot of work in overseas and American schools. What have you discovered that is universal about school-age children?
Kids want to know. Too often adults who are pressed for time resort to speaking to kids in directives–go there, read that, sit quietly–rather than taking time to explain what’s going on and answering questions. As parents and educators, the very best thing that we can do is to encourage their natural curiosity. I hear two things from middle grade kids all over the world: 1. I’m not like those other kids, and 2. Nobody listens or cares what I have to say. This feeling is universal.
Many educators, myself included, cheered your January, 2017 Huffington Post piece “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems” in which you described how the STAAR test in Texas used two of your poems as test questions that you found incomprehensible. What else do you want to say to educators who love making a difference in the lives of students but who are burdened by the accountability culture that sometimes gets in the way of their work?
The testing emperors have no clothes. The STAAR questions/answers were beyond incomprehensible; they were fiction created by an anonymous author of unknown scholarship. The author of those questions had no idea why I put a stanza break in here or used a simile there. Not a clue. When it comes to interpreting aesthetic literature, the authors just make stuff up. And yet kids’ lives and teachers’ lives depend on a 12 year-old’s ability to guess the answers made up by the author of the test. What do I say to the teachers? Keep questioning the quality of the tests, talk to parents about the quality of the tests. Stop being ashamed. Any test that purports to measure a student’s abilities that does not take into account any input from the teacher is bogus on its face. The tests attempt to evaluate both the student and the teacher in one test, and consistently fail at both.
I did write a follow up article, which appeared in The Washington Post, “Why I Would Never Tell a Student What a Poem Means.”
What else do you still want to do as a writer and educator? Will there be more novels?
I have two other novels in the works. Borderline is set in 2005 on the border between Tucson and Nogales. The protagonist is Hannah who has been sent to live with her grandmother, an activist on the Mexican border. The grandmother is Marjorie. I have one more novel in mind, set in Detroit in 1967. I’ve also been scratching on a novel in poetry and have a couple ideas for other poetry projects and one teacher resource. This is the first week of summer, when school visits are over and writing time begins. I’m excited to get to work.
Thank you for the many ways that your life and work and generosity have affected so many students and teachers around the world for so many years. You never need to wonder if you have made a difference. As you look back, what is most gratifying about all you have accomplished?
Writing with kids. I love it. I am constantly flabbergasted by their insights and take such joy as I see them taking baby steps to finding their voices and just becoming. I have had so many rich opportunities and I am deeply grateful for all the teachers and administrators who have invited me into classrooms, both by inviting me for school visits and using my work in their classrooms.
Visit Sara Holbrook online at www.saraholbook.com and follow @saraholbrook on Twitter!