In this feature debut, Words & Pictures Editor Gulfem Wormald talks to Liz Kessler about representation of the Holocaust in her new book When the World was Ours.


January 27th marks Holocaust Memorial Day. This year’s theme is One Day. One Day that devastated lives; One Day that brought hope. One Day children were safe in their homes; One Day they were not.

According to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the aim of this day is to bring people together to learn more about the past, to empathise with others today, and take action for a better future.


In Liz Kessler’s new book When the World was Ours, one day, Leo, Max and Elsa were three best friends and the next, their lives changed in ways they would have never imagined.

The cover of Liz Kessler's latest book.

What was your biggest motivation to write about such a sensitive topic like the Holocaust? 


I have wanted to write a book on this theme for many years. My father had an experience in his early life that led to him managing to escape Nazi-occupied Vienna, and then Czechoslovakia, in 1939. The details of the event couldn’t be more appropriate for this year’s HMD theme of ‘One Day.’


My father was on a boat trip on the River Danube in Vienna with his father. During the trip, he – then aged four – nearly scuffed a woman’s dress. My grandfather told him to be careful, and this led to a conversation with the woman and her husband. The conversation led to a day spent together, which led to a thank you letter from the couple, a Mr and Mrs Jones from England. This thank you letter would prove, five years later, to be the one thing that would enable my father and his parents – a Jewish family – to escape from Nazi rule and come to England. It truly was ‘one day’ that changed everything, and the extraordinary act of kindness from Gladys and William Jones undoubtedly saved my family’s lives.


The original letter from Mr and Mrs Jones.

What challenges did you encounter when writing about this theme?

I am not a historian and have never written a book based on historical facts before. I’ve often said that the great thing about writing about mermaids is that no one can tell you that you’ve got your facts wrong! Writing about the Holocaust is the other end of the scale! The amount of research I had to do for When The World Was Ours was certainly a challenge, but one I welcomed because it has always been at the top of my priorities that this book would be truthful and respectful to the facts of history – and to my own heritage. So the first challenge was simply the amount of research I knew I would have to do. The books, websites, conversations and so on. But within that, probably the biggest challenge was when my wife and I went on a three-week research trip in a camper van around Central Europe. We visited five countries, four concentration camps, numerous museums, synagogues, walking tours and exhibitions. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done, but on an emotional level, it was the most difficult thing I have ever done for a book. Visiting the scenes of such cruelty and horror had an intense impact on me, and much of it was very difficult to process. But I think it all helped to give the book the depth and truthfulness I wanted it to have, and I am so glad that we did that trip.

How did it feel when your work finally reached readers?​


When my work finally reached readers it felt wonderful! Writing this book was the most intensely emotional experience of writing that I’ve ever had, and to know that it’s out there reaching young (and not-so-young!) readers fills my heart.


 Liz Kessler with her father. 

Did anyone or any specific incident inspire you to write about the Holocaust?


As mentioned above, my dad’s story inspired it. But he didn’t just inspire this book. My dad has inspired me all my life in so many ways. He is a truly incredible man. (Aged 91, he has just done a charity event cycling 900 miles over 90 days and raised over £10,000 for guide dogs!) Writing this book was, in many ways, something I wanted to do for him, and I’m so glad to have been able to share it with him.


What sort of reaction (positive and negative) did you receive once your work was published?


I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever had such an overwhelmingly positive response to anything I’ve written. I’m so grateful to all those who have read it and told me what it meant to them. It means everything to get feedback like that.

Do you have any advice for authors/illustrators who want to write about challenging themes?


Write from the heart. Be as faithful to events as you possibly can. Do your research. Be respectful. Don’t cut corners. Focus on the characters and the story, not on anything to do with commercial ambitions. And make sure you run it by others, including sensitivity readers if necessary.


Would you like to add anything else?


Just to say thank you for offering me the space to share a bit of background to When The World Was Ours. This book means more to me than anything I’ve ever written and it’s lovely to be able to talk about it to people like you!

When The World Was Ours is now available in paperback: 

Liz Kessler is the author of twenty-three books for children and young adults. Her books range from Early Readers to books for Young Adults and include the internationally best-selling series about half-mermaid Emily Windsnap. Her new novel, When the World Was Ours, was inspired by her father’s childhood escape from the Nazis just before the second world war. The book is aimed at young (and not-so-young) adults. Liz lives with her wife and their dog in rural Cheshire. Twitter: @Lizkesslerbooks

Gulfem Wormald is the Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact: Twitter: @GulfemWormald

Tonka Uzu created the feature image illustration. She is an author/illustrator and art educator based in Cambridge, UK. Her Picture books are internationally published and her work has been part of the CICLA, Beijing exhibition in 2020 and The Bologna Illustrators Exhibition in 2011.

This illustration represents the memory, identity and the inherited trauma of the descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors. It was initially created in response to Dr Yvonne Zivkovic's presentation on intangible heritage in migrant literature, illustrating a moment from The Cherrywood Table (2012) by M. Bodrožić. Through Dr Zivkovich's research Tonka was also first acquainted with the Babi Yar Holocaust massacre in Ukraine. Twitter: @tonkauzu

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a GREAT site! Surely I'll be following. Congratulations and the best of luck!


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