'Devil's Arithmetic' author pens new Holocaust novel

'Mapping the Bones' is a new Holocaust novel for teens from Jane Yolen, author of famous teen novel which inspired Showtime movie.

JTA,

Holocaust Memorial
Holocaust Memorial
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More than 30 years ago, Jane Yolen had already made her mark in the world of children’s literature. Among the nearly 100 books she had written were fantasies and folk tales, picture books and the popular “Captain Toad” chapter book series. Her gift for spinning original fairy tales earned her the reputation as the American Hans Christian Anderson.

But when her editor, Deborah Brodie, suggested she write a Jewish children’s book, Yolen dismissed the idea.

Sure, she was Jewish, she recalled telling Brodie, who was Jewish, too. But, growing up, Yolen’s family wasn’t particularly observant. And although she had minored in religious studies at Smith College, Yolen told Brodie she would have to do as much research as someone who wasn’t Jewish.

Brodie persisted.

“She was a classic nudzh,” Yolen recalled fondly all these years later of the late editor, a giant in the world of children’s publishing.

But Yolen, best known as a fantasy writer, had a spark of an idea for a Holocaust story that would lead with a girl bored and indifferent at her grandparents’ Passover seder. When Hannah opens the door to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she finds herself transported back in time to a Polish shtetl where the Jewish villagers are on the verge of being shipped to a German Nazi concentration camp. Only Hannah knows the horrifying tragedy that the future will bring.

Yolen relented and wrote a first chapter. She assumed it would end at that. Instead, Brodie sent back a contract.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to try this,'” she said in a phone conversation with JTA from her home in western Massachusetts.

The result was “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” a Holocaust novel that when it appeared in 1988 was nothing like anything that had come before. The book garnered critical acclaim, earned multiple book awards and was made into an Emmy-winning Showtime film starring Kirsten Dunst.

The popular fantasy novel has sold more than 1.8 million copies, is used widely in middle schools across the country and has been in continuous print since publication.

Now, three decades later, Yolen, 79, has written “Mapping the Bones” (Philomel), a Holocaust novel for a new generation of teens. The year is 1942, in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, where 14-year-old twins Chaim and Gittel Abromowitz make a daring escape with their family. Separated from their parents in the forest, the twins hide with Polish partisans, and are later captured by German soldiers and forced into a slave labor camp.

Through brutal treatment, suffering and loss, the sister and brother bond with other camp prisoners, sustain each other, and find light through the young boy’s moving poetry that serves as a testament to loss and memory.

“Mapping the Bones” is Yolen’s third Holocaust novel; the second was “Briar Rose (1992).

“I look at all three and I realize it’s not just the Holocaust that binds them together. It’s remembering,” she said.

“Whenever we think of the Holocaust, we think of remembering. We think of never forgetting. Soon all we will have are the stories. Soon we will have no one left who was there.”








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