The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Elisa Boxer
Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company.
She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change.
She is the author of Covered in Color: Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Fabrics of Freedom, illustrated by Susanna Chapman (2022), SPLASH! : Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change (a Junior Library Guild Selection), illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (2022) One Turtle's Last Straw: The Real-Life Rescue That Sparked A Sea Change, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns (2022), A Seat at the Table: The Nancy Pelosi Story, illustrated by Laura Freeman (2021), and The Voice That Won the Vote: How One Woman's Words Made History, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger (2020).
For more information about Elisa, see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).
Her newest nonfiction picture book, Hidden Hope: How A Toy and a Hero Saved Lives During the Holocaust, releases on March 14th.
Welcome Elisa, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and your writing.
Maria, always great to be with you, thanks so much for having me back.
What was your inspiration for Hidden Hope: How A Toy and a Hero Saved Lives During the Holocaust?
In 2018, I was researching another book about the French Resistance, when I came across this photo online:
source: Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection
It’s a wooden duck on display at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and the duck’s hollowed-out compartment was used to hide secret documents from the Nazis. I wasn’t sure at the time where my research would take me, I just knew that I felt a strong pull to learn more.
As a Jewish journalist with family members killed in the Holocaust, I’ve long been drawn to uncovering and sharing stories of World War Two resistance and heroism. When I learned that a teenager used this duck to smuggle false identity papers, I knew I wanted to find a way to tell this story as a picture book.
It is such an amazing story. I am glad you figured out how to do it! What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?
I’m gonna reach back to the 1970s here. When I was in elementary school, some of my favorite books featured Frances the hedgehog, by Russell Hoban. In A Baby Sister for Frances, she packs a bag and runs away – under the dining room table. Two of my favorite things to do at the time were making forts and writing books. Being a Frances fangirl, I combined the two and wrote my earliest manuscripts under our dining room table. Here’s one. It was only released in paperback:
I used to love making dining room table forts, too. Great places for reading, thinking, & hiding. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Hidden Hope? How does this compare to your other books?
My original title was Hope in a Hollow, and I wrote the first draft almost exactly five years ago. Most of my books have averaged around three or four years from first draft to publication, although I have a book coming out next year called Full Circle (Sleeping Bear Press, illustrated by Vivian Mineker) that was 20 years in the making!
Wow, that will be interesting to see. What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for Hidden Hope?
Helping to shine a light on a story that was never supposed to be told. Whether it’s as a journalist or an author, I’m always acutely aware of the fact that Hitler’s plan was to eliminate every single Jewish person for all time. And yet here I am -- here we all are -- telling these stories of the horrors and the heroism that the Nazis tried so hard to hide.
That is amazing, daunting, scary, and humbling all at the same time. I am very glad you are sharing the stories. We can NEVER forget! What was the hardest, or most challenging part of researching and/or writing Hidden Hope? Why?
From the get-go, I knew this would be a tough project to put together, since there’s hardly any information available about this duck. What we do know is that it was made by a Dutch Resistance worker who carved it, along with other hollowed-out items, to hide documents from the Nazis. We also know it was used by French Resistance worker Judith Geller, the incredible heroine who used it as part of her underground missions. But specific information about her activities with the duck is extremely limited. So the book is based on what I was able to piece together from researching the operations of Judith Geller’s resistance group, combined with an account that illustrator Amy June Bates found and translated from Geller to her descendants, along with information I received from interviewing the staff at Yad Vashem.
That's cool that you and Amy were truly collaborators on this project; not just individually doing your own "half" of the book. Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Amy June Bates’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?
Everything about Amy’s illustrations amazed me… And still does! Each time I open the book, I see something new to appreciate. Whether it’s a strategically placed watercolor splotch on a basement wall, an empty plant pot on a windowsill, a piece of someone’s clothing peeking out from behind a closet (these are all actual details that I’ve noticed in the past couple of days), Amy’s intentionality and precision is off the charts.
Text © Elisa Boxer, 2023. Image © Amy June Bates, 2023.
She captures the darkness and despair but infuses it with so much hope and inspiration. And the overall old-world feel and mood of her art takes you right back to that time period. It’s tough to choose a favorite spread, but I have to say that a recent Booklist review echoed one that I can’t stop thinking about: The entire spread has the reader looking through a smashed, jagged windowpane and it takes my breath away every time I see it.
I agree with Booklist that it is "haunting," but also heartbreaking. Is there something you want your readers to know or hope they discover about Hidden Hope?
In addition to learning about this little-known hero and how her courage saved lives during the Holocaust, I hope this book emphasizes for readers of all ages the importance of feeling safe to be who they are in the world. One of the central themes in this book is hiding – hiding people, families, identities -- in order to survive.
But going beyond religion, I think there’s a place for books like this to gently and compassionately raise the questions: “Where and with whom might I not feel safe to express the full truth of who I am? Where and with whom am I hiding my authentic self?” And: “What would need to happen for that to change?” These are not particularly fun questions to think about. But I believe they are some of the most important questions we can ask. Because safe space to be who we are is crucial, especially in this day and age with so many people judging and attacking others for their identity and their beliefs. Genocide doesn’t begin with killing people. It begins with denying people the safe experience of being who they are.
I hope this book succeeds in raising these questions for everyone. The ones who need safety, the ones who need to help ensure that safety exists, and the ones who want to take it from anyone. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Absolutely! I’m in the process of gathering original quotes and writing profiles for my first YA book, Dear Younger Me: What 35 Trailblazing Women Wish They’d Known as Girls (Rowman & Littlefield). It comes out next year, and it features advice from some amazing women to their younger selves. Connecting with these women and having conversations about their challenges and how they’ve overcome them has been an extraordinary experience. I can’t wait to share more.
I’m also over the moon to have just seen the final art for The Tree of Life, which is so close to my heart and comes out next year from Rocky Pond Books. Working with editor/publisher Lauri Hornik has been a dream. And Alianna Rozentzveig has a gift for the most tender and moving illustrations. I’m eagerly anticipating art from Sofia Moore for Beam of Light, another Rocky Pond book due out next year. One of my favorite parts of this business is partnering with these phenomenal illustrators. I have such an appreciation for them and am in constant awe of what they do!
You have four great books coming out next year. We'll have to keep our eyes open for them. Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not?
Hmm, I’ve received so many great pieces of advice, but I have to say the one that’s been coming up a lot lately in writing and in other areas of life is the advice to take turtle steps. It comes from Martha Beck, who wrote one of my favorite books Finding Your Own North Star. It’s about re-programming limiting beliefs, accessing your intuition, aligning with your internal compass...
Anyway, she describes turtle steps as the tiniest manageable movement toward a goal or a task that feels overwhelming. So breaking the smallest step into something even smaller. Creating big shifts little by little. It’s similar to Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird, which I also love. She quoted E.L. Doctorow as saying writing is like driving a car at night, where you can only see as far as your headlights, just a few feet in front of you, but you can actually make the whole trip that way.
That you so much! I love encapsulating 'control what you can' in the ideas of "taking turtle steps" and "driving within your headlights."
Thanks again Elisa for stopping back by. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Maria, it’s always great chatting with you, thank you so much for having me over. And thanks for all you do to support our books!
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Hidden Hope: How A Toy and a Hero Saved Lives During the Holocaust.
To find out more about Elisa Boxer, or contact her: