Did you read my review of Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the Children’s Ship? If you want to learn more about the book’s author, Deborah Heiligman, continue reading.
Check out what it takes to become an award-winning author who adeptly engages today’s youth.
Before accepting your first writing position at Moment magazine, did you have any indication that writing would become your career path?
I WANTED TO BE A WRITER, BUT GROWING UP (IN ALLENTOWN, PA) I DIDN’T KNOW JUST REGULAR PEOPLE COULD BE WRITERS. MY BIG BROTHER WAS A JOURNALIST FOR A WHILE, SO I THOUGHT MAYBE THAT.
I WAS EDITOR OF MY HIGH SCHOOL NEWSPAPER. I THOUGHT I’D TRY FOR A JOB AT OUR LOCAL PAPER ONE SUMMER DURING COLLEGE. I DIDN’T GET THAT JOB. I WAS DISCOURAGED. BUT I DIDN’T GIVE UP!
I GOT TWO JOB OFFERS MY LAST MONTH OF COLLEGE: ONE WAS ON A SOCIAL WORK PATH, AND THE OTHER WAS TO WORK AT A MAGAZINE. I TOOK THE MAGAZINE JOB. AND THAT, AS THEY SAY, MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.
Does being married to a fellow writer make it easier or more challenging to excel as a YA/children’s author?
EASIER! JON IS A FANTASTIC WRITER (AND HUMAN) AND WE ARE EACH OTHER’S MAIN WRITING AND EMOTIONAL SUPPORTS. HE’S A LITTLE OLDER THAN I AM. WHEN I WAS FIRST STARTING OUT I REMEMBER SAYING TO HIM, “YOU WON’T LET ME SEND SOMETHING OUT THAT STINKS, RIGHT?” AND HE SAID, “OF COURSE NOT.” SO I HAD A SAFETY NET.
I ALSO LEARNED SO MUCH ABOUT WRITING BY READING HIS STUFF, AND EDITING IT. ALSO, BEING AT HOME WITH SMALL KIDS I ALWAYS HAD ADULT COMPANY. I WOULD HAVE GONE CRAZY OTHERWISE, EVEN THOUGH I LOVED BEING A MOTHER.
Can you single out three things from your early writing experiences that helped you become an award-winning writer?
OH INTERESTING QUESTION. I LEARNED SO MUCH AT MY SECOND JOB IN PUBLISHING– WORKING AT SCHOLASTIC NEWS. I LEARNED HOW TO WRITE ABOUT DIFFICULT TOPICS FOR A YOUNG AUDIENCE. I LEARNED HOW TO DO RESEARCH (THIS WAS BEFORE THE INTERNET!) AND LEARNED TO FOLLOW THE EDICT OF AT LEAST TWO SOURCES, THREE IF THE FIRST TWO DISAGREED.
THE STANDARDS AT SCHOLASTIC NEWS WERE VERY HIGH. I HAVE KEPT MY STANDARDS HIGH. ALSO, IN MY EARLY YEARS I WROTE A LOT. I LEARNED ALONG THE WAY TO MAKE EVERY BOOK A BOOK OF MY HEART. ALSO, I DISCOVERED THAT IF I COULDN’T THEN IT WOULDN’T BE AS GOOD. I DO MY BEST WORK WHEN THE BOOK IS TRULY FROM MY HEART, A BOOK I JUST HAVE TO WRITE.
What prompted you to switch audiences and start writing for children?
MY SECOND JOB! I WANTED TO MOVE TO NEW YORK CITY, AND THAT WAS THE JOB I GOT. I LOVED IT SO MUCH.
Can you identify any challenges you faced when you made this transition?
NOT REALLY. I HAVE ALWAYS REMAINED A CHILD INSIDE, SO I JUST INSTINCTIVELY KNEW HOW TO WRITE FOR KIDS.
What steps do you take to create an authentic voice that resonates with children, middle readers, and young adult audiences?
I DON’T REALLY THINK OF IT THIS WAY. IN EVERY CASE I JUST GET DEEPLY INTO THE BOOK AND THEN TRY TO TELL THE BEST STORY I CAN. IT’S ALL ABOUT STORY FOR ME.
As a gifted writer, you have written books for all ages of children. What is the best part of writing for younger readers?
I LOVE KNOWING THAT MY BOOK IS LIKELY TO BE THEIR FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH A TOPIC. I ALSO LOVE WRITING FICTION FOR A YOUNG AGE BECAUSE YOU CAN BE VERY PLAYFUL.
What do you hope your readers will learn from reading nonfiction books that focus on actual people and history?
I HOPE THEY BROADEN THEIR WORLDS AND MINDS. I HOPE THEY REALIZE WHAT A BIG AND VARIED PLACE THIS IS, AND HOW MANY INTERESTING STORIES THERE ARE.
Why did the fuzzy photo of the red custom lifejacket cause you to spend five years working on Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship?” Is that the average time you spend researching, writing and editing a middle grade or young adult books?
YES, I SPEND A LOT OF TIME ON MY BOOKS. VINCENT AND THEO:THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS TOOK FIVE YEARS. I LOVE TO GET VERY DEEPLY INTO A STORY, CONNECT WITH THE PEOPLE IN AN INTIMATE WAY, AND THEN PRESENT THEM AS I HAVE COME TO KNOW THEM.
WITH TORPEDOED, THERE WAS JUST SO MUCH COMPELLING IN THE STORY, SO MANY EXAMPLES OF BRAVERY AND ALTRUISM, OF COMMUNITY AND FRIENDSHIP. I REALLY LOVED WORKING ON THIS BOOK SO MUCH. AND THEN BEING ABLE TO MEET AND SPEND SO MUCH TIME WITH JOHN AND SONIA, IT WAS A TRUE JOY.
What are the three most important messages that you hope readers will walk away with after completing this book?
1. WAR IS TERRIBLE; INNOCENTS DIE
2. ORDINARY PEOPLE CAN BE HEROES
3. CONNECTION WITH OTHERS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD
In the Note to Readers you mention the struggles you encountered when trying to research the lascars, the sailors from India. How did you compensate for the fact that racism and classism from the war era prevented a paper trail or historical record for such a large group of people?
FIRST OF ALL I TRIED EVERYTHING I COULD TO FIND FIRST-PERSON ACCOUNTS, AS I SAY IN THE BACK OF THE BOOK. AND SECONDLY, I USED EVERY PIECE I COULD ABOUT THE LASCARS TO SHOW THAT THEY WERE THERE, AND THEY PLAYED A BIG PART IN THE STORY.
MY DREAM IS THAT SOMEONE IN INDIA OR WITH RELATIVES IN INDIA WILL READ THE BOOK AND SAY, HEY MY GRANDFATHER TOLD MY FATHER ABOUT THAT, AND THERE IS THIS LETTER….. AND THEN MAYBE WE CAN ADD TO THE BOOK IN THE PAPERBACK. I’VE ALREADY HAD THAT HAPPEN WITH SOME OF THE WHITE PEOPLE ON THE SHIP!
In our digital age, most things are accessible online. Did your research include any travel? If so, what needed to be accomplished outside your home?
OH YES, I MADE A TRIP TO ENGLAND TO INTERVIEW SONIA AND JOHN, TO GO TO THE IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, TO SEE LIVERPOOL, AND TO GO THROUGH MARY CORNISH’S SUITCASE.
I SAW A U-BOAT, AND I ALSO SAW THE MURAL ABOUT MICHAEL RENNIE. YOU CAN SEE SOME PHOTOS ON MY WEBSITE AND LINKS TO ARTICLES ABOUT MY TRIP.
Can you single out anything that you learned during your personal interviews with subjects that wasn’t previously recorded or touched you in a special way?
I GOT TO HOLD SONIA’S JEWELRY BOX, WHICH WAS A HUGE MOMENT. STAYING WITH HER FOR FIVE DAYS WAS ONE OF THE MOST INSPIRATIONAL TIMES IN MY LIFE. SHE IS AMAZING–SHE HAS BEEN THROUGH SO MUCH AND EXHIBITS SO MUCH COURAGE AND RESILIENCE.
I MET JOHN BAKER IN PERSON. I COULD SEE HOW HURT HE STILL IS BY THE EVENT, LOSING HIS BROTHER.
I AM SO GRATEFUL I WAS ABLE TO MEET THEM BOTH IN PERSON. FACETIMING/SKYPING WAS NICE, BUT THE IN PERSON MEETINGS WERE GOLDEN.
Talking with students in schools, and more recently via video conferences, connects you with your main audience. Can you describe three things you learned from these experiences?
I AM GOING TO ANSWER THIS IN A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT WAY. WHEN I WENT ON TOUR FOR TORPEDOED, I LEARNED HOW MUCH CHILDREN WANT TO HEAR THE TOUGH STORIES. AT FIRST I SKIRTED AROUND SOME OF THE SADDER THINGS IN THE BOOK. WHEN I TOUCHED ON THEM, AND SAW THE KIDS’ REACTIONS, I KNEW I SHOULD SAY MORE, AND I DID.
BY THE END OF THE FIRST WEEK, I WASN’T HOLDING BACK AT ALL. I HAD AN AUDITORIUM OF 800 MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS (I THINK 7TH AND 8TH GRADERS) ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON. YOU COULDN’T HEAR A SOUND.
KIDS ARE HUNGRY TO LEARN ABOUT EVERYTHING. THEY ARE ESPECIALLY INTERESTED IN THE TOUGH TRUE STUFF OF LIFE— THE TRAGEDIES AND THE INJUSTICES. THEY WANT THE HOPE THAT THEY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. AND THEY CAN.
Can you share anything about the books you are currently researching, writing, or editing and projected publication dates?
I AM WORKING ON A BOOK IN A SERIES THAT ISN’T PUBLIC YET, SO I CAN’T SHARE IT. BUT I JUST TURNED IN MY FIRST DRAFT. IT’S ABOUT A BAD-ASS WOMAN AND I LOVE HER. I GOT TO INTERVIEW HER DAUGHTER AND GRANDCHILDREN. IT WAS AMAZING.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A MORE IMPORTANT TIME FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE OF ALL KINDS AND MOST ESPECIALLY BOOKS BY AUTHORS OF COLOR. I WOULD LOVE TO MENTOR AUTHORS OF COLOR WHO WANT TO WRITE NARRATIVE NONFICTION. IF YOU ARE READING THIS AND WANT HELP, PLEASE EMAIL ME.
TORPEDOED BOOK AWARDS
- Winner of SCBWI’s 2020 Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction for Older Readers
- ALA 2020 Notable Children’s Book
- 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award Finalist
- Horn Book FanFare 2019
- Kirkus Best Book of 2019
- Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Older Readers 2019
I received a complimentary copy of Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “the Children’s Ship”
Sandra Bornstein is the author of May This Be the Best Year of Your Life. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She was a licensed Colorado teacher who taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad. Sandra also taught college-level courses at Front Range Community College and the University of Colorado-Boulder.
In addition to reviewing books and interviewing authors, Sandra is an award-winning author and lifestyle and travel journalist. Many of Sandra’s travel stories appear on the For Readers Page. TheTravelingBornsteins website showcases recent travel and lifestyle stories.