“I always have 50,000 things crammed in my head, and writing is a way to get half of them out,” Daniel said.
Lying on his bed listening to the soundtracks from epic movies, he draws inspiration from even the smallest cues, like a few bars of music, a strong sentence in a book or an action sequence in a video game.
Two years ago, Daniel took on the challenge of telling a different kind of story – that of a real character, living in the real world. She is 96-year-old Frieda Roos Van Hessen, a Holocaust survivor living in Charlotte.
And instead of adding her story to his laptop collection, he wrote it as a book to be published for children.
The idea came from his father, Stuart Gittleman, who told him about A Book by Me, an organization created by Illinois native Deb Bowen in an effort to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors.
“I just wanted their stories to live on,” Ms. Bowen said. “The most creative way I could think of was to introduce them to young people and get them to write and illustrate the stories.”
Daniel types his latest story. Ms. Bowen helps pair interested young writers with survivors, and gives them tips for interviewing and writing. She then takes their illustrated pages and prepares them for publication.
WRITING ABOUT REALITY
Daniel embraced the writing process. He first read Ms. Roos’ autobiography, “Life in the Shadow of Swastika,” and then interviewed her over the phone before starting the book.
As a character for a story, Ms. Roos had more than enough personality. “She’s a firecracker,” Daniel said. She could inspire any number of stories.
But it wasn’t up to him to create a story – the characters, relationships and action sequences in her life were already written in history.
Born in Amsterdam in 1915, Ms. Roos spent years performing as a singer. During the Holocaust, she escaped Nazi soldiers eight times, and remembers watching her parents get taken away by armed soldiers when she was in her 20s. They were then killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Daniel’s challenge was two-fold: He had to break down Ms. Roos’ story into scenes that an elementary school student could understand, and to do so in a way that wouldn’t be too graphic for a young child.
MEETING MS. ROOS
Re-telling the story wasn’t hard for Daniel, he said. He grew up reading comics like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, and he said he is able to think like a comic strip writer – to tell a story with just a few sentences and a well-thought-out picture.
When choosing words and images, he was able to remain sensitive to the fact that his target readers are young. He drew from his own experience as a child learning about World War II.
“I remember what would scare me and what wouldn’t when I was that age,” Daniel said.
But while Daniel had no problem drawing information for the book from Ms. Roos’ autobiography and phone interviews, his perspective on the project changed dramatically when he visited Ms. Roos at her home.
“She brought him to the place of really connecting to it emotionally,” Daniel’s mother, Sandra, said.
Ms. Roos showed him items she saved from her twenties, including a patch she once had to wear which read, “JOOD.”
“It was a mark of persecution, but she holds onto it,” Daniel said. “It all kind of came at me like a tidal wave,” he said.
He made a point to include the patch in the illustrations in his book, which he drew with his mother, a local artist.
“It’s a history lesson, but it’s so much more than that,” Ms. Bowen said. “There are all kinds of social injustices that we need to help kids understand,” she said.
“It’s tragic that such a young mind needs to be troubled,” Ms. Roos said. She is conflicted about the children’s book project.
“I hate the children to no longer be children,” she said. “On the other hand, it can’t be early enough that they can be warned about the dangers of antisemitism.”
Ms. Roos travels around the country telling her story to adults, and has appeared several times on the “700 Club,” a television program on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“I keep my heart out of the story,” Ms. Roos said, “because if I had my heart in it I wouldn’t be able to speak.” The opportunity to speak and share her message is “a great responsibility,” she said.
And through Daniel’s book, her story will be shared with even more people. All Book by Me stories are reviewed by Ms. Bowen together with the Holocaust Board of Education to check them for historical accuracy, and she hopes to one day soon get them into schools nationwide.
Ms. Bowen has 50 completed books from young authors around the country, including Daniel’s, waiting for publication. But she needs to raise funding in order to finish the process. It costs about $250 to prepare each book, not counting printing costs, she said. Recently, the son of one of the featured survivors sponsored four books, she said, and she hopes more people will come forward to do the same.
“IQ is important, but it isn’t everything,” she said. The holocaust survivor books develop students’ EQ, their emotional intelligence, she said. “We’ve got to get kids feeling about what they’re reading.”