We recently got into contact with Jennifer Voigt Kaplan, author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel Crushing the Red Flowers. Read more to learn about her work and personal experience as a writer!
Please tell us about the book in your own words.
Crushing the Red Flowers is the story of how two ordinary boys cope under extraordinary circumstances during the pogrom we call Kristallnacht. The novel alternates perspectives between two twelve-year-olds, Emil, a German Jewish boy, and Friedrich, a boy in Hitler’s Jungvolk. The two boys find themselves scrambling to keep up with the striking changes of 1938. Friedrich struggles with a cruel, new Jungvolk leader and a jailed uncle, while Emil tries to escape the anti-Semitic fog that’s seeped into every cranny of his life. Then on November 9th, the world unravels and nightmares leak onto the streets. They each must push past the person they thought they were because neither is certain they’ll survive what comes next.
Crushing red flowers (poppies) symbolizes the end of the distinct political, social, and economic culture that was present in Germany between the world wars. The Jewish characters explore patriotic loyalty, emigration, newly clouded German Jewish identity, and the optimist/ pessimist dichotomy that was present in the German Jewish community before Kristallnacht. The non-Jewish characters highlight the debate about how much Germans challenged Adolf Hitler and delve into the nuanced experience of German resistance to Nazism.
Did any of your family’s history help inspire you to write this book?
Yes, I’ve done a lot of research for this book, but my first stop was conducting interviews with family members: two German Jews and two German Christians. They’ve been very supportive. From my own experiences growing up, I also got so many questions from peers. From the Jewish perspective, I heard, “Why didn’t your family just leave?” I’d also felt vilified for being German. If you look at some of the older Hollywood movies, all the bad guys are German. The real question is, how could this happen to the beautiful, civilized country of Germany? To me, these questions revealed underlying misunderstandings in our society. My book tries to show the suffering and poverty and decline of politics that made it ripe for an extremist like Hitler to rise to power. There is little discussion as to why it unfolded, and my book looks to show how complicated this was.
What was your greatest challenge in writing this novel? Emotionality. Writing about one of the most disturbing periods of history was no easy feat and it was important to remember that difficult topics are difficult for everyone: kids, parents, educators, and writers. Crushing the Red Flowers took me years to write. That’s a long time to cognitively live in 1938 Germany and it was especially taxing because my book is based on true family experiences.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Remain focused on day-to-day joy. The journey to publish Crushing the Red Flowers was lengthy, even by the monstrously slow standards of the publishing industry. But as I look back, I treasure all the varied moments that were necessary to create it — collaborating with my family, teaching myself the craft of novel writing, establishing relationships with fellow writers, and learning all about the publishing business. So, yes, it was a long journey, but also an affecting, vital, wondrous journey that I am honored to have had.
What’s your favorite fruit?
Choosing a favorite fruit is like choosing a favorite child. They are all so wonderful, so it's impossible to pick! But I am biased for bananas at breakfast. And partial to pineapple at picnics. But then again, I always select strawberries for smoothies. And adore apples with my almonds. And who doesn't love to munch on mangos? So, what's my favorite? Fruit salad!
For more information about Voigt-Kaplan's work, you can visit her website here.