Author engages youth readers and educators
By Claudia Hurst
Almost every seat in the Cinemark Theater at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum (DHRMM) was taken on Tuesday, July 11, as teachers and community members gathered to listen to author Alan Gratz.
This speaker event was presented in conjunction with the Candy Brown Holocaust and Human Rights Educator Series, generously supported by Candy and Ike Brown. The Educator Series offers teachers, librarians and counselors the opportunity to learn about different topics related to the museum’s educational mission. The conversation with Alan Gratz was a part of the “Teaching Holocaust Literature” segment of the Education Series, which was open to the public.
Gratz, originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, as a full-time writer. He is a bestselling author with 19 published books. Each of Gratz’s novels explores human rights, primarily through a lens of historical fiction. His books target young readers with complex topics.
Gratz explained that as a child he was not an enthusiastic reader, which has influenced the ways he writes his books. He strives to write books that would have engaged him as a young reader. His books have a fast plot, short chapters and cliffhanger endings. However, Gratz believes that the idea that his books are “social thrillers” is the main reason his novels are so appealing to young readers.
This is a term that Gratz picked up from watching an interview with Jordan Peele, Oscar- and Emmy-winning director, writer, actor and producer. Best known for directing the horror film “Get Out,” Peele explained that social thrillers are meant to entertain, but also challenge individuals to think about sophisticated topics. In a similar manner, Gratz believes that his books allow young readers to put faces, names and stories to a statistic. Gratz presents difficult topics about human rights in a way that allows his young readers to empathize.
Gratz spent a large portion of the event speaking about his two novels that focus on the Holocaust: “Prisoner B-3087” and “Refugee.”
Published in 2013 and based on a true story, “Prison B-3087” follows Jack Gruener, a young Jewish boy, through his experiences in World War II and in the 10 different concentration camps he survived during the Holocaust. While talking about the book, Gratz discussed the unique experience of meeting with Gruener and his wife, Ruth Gruener, through the writing process. Gratz described these meetings as “mining Jack’s mind for memories.”
Transitioning to one of his newer novels, Gratz declared that “Refugee” had been his most successful book so far. This story follows three individuals from different backgrounds and time periods — all of whom are leaving their homes in hopes to find asylum in a new country.
Josef and his family are trying to escape Nazi Germany by boarding the MS St. Louis bound for Cuba. Isabel and her family attempt to escape Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba and move to the United States. Mahmoud, a Syrian refugee, struggles to flee to Germany.
Gratz explained that the inspiration for this book came from a few different directions. At first, he planned to write this book from the perspective of an individual on the MS St. Louis. However, after finding a refugee boat on the coast of Florida, Gratz knew he had to include an anecdote about the current immigration from South America to the United States. Gratz then determined that if he was telling the stories of each of these refugees, he wanted to include a story about the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.
The result is a novel that intertwines each of these accounts of relocation and aims to give young readers a historical, and present, perspective of refugees.
The Q&A portion of the event focused on getting to know Gratz through his novels — what his favorite book of his is, which one was hardest to write, what is his writing process like and of course a question about banned books.
As many fans of Gratz know, he is not shy about the topic of banned books. He even wrote a book in 2017 titled “Ban this Book.” During this segment of the event, Gratz listed a few of his books that are banned in certain states. He also explained that his books have been banned for content, but he criticized the way other authors are faced with a different reality where their books are banned because of who they are as an author or the way they identify.
Gratz’s ability to engage an audience is not only specific to his books. As I watched his presentation, I understood his success in the industry of storytelling. Gratz was able to talk about heavy topics to a group that included a young crowd, while also cracking jokes, quoting his fan mail and sporting a fedora hat and bright red sneakers. His personality engaged the audience to listen to the knowledge he wanted to share.
While many young readers likely attended the event as a fan of his work, I am confident that they left feeling inspired. As Gratz said, “Books build empathy. Empathy leads to compassion. And compassion changes the world.” He not only motivates his young supporters to read, but he shows them that their actions can create positive change.