Prolific YA author Todd Strasser turns to two topics of the moment in his latest novel, The Good War, which looks at the rise of white nationalism through the lens of a middle school’s first foray into e-sports. Strasser spoke with PW about his concerns about the hate speech circulating in our society and the writing tactics he used to best reach young readers with this book.
Why did you choose e-sports as the medium to explore white supremacy’s reach toward teens?
I think I did it because it is a vast platform for not only playing games but for the dissemination of ideas. When teens play, they are also chatting—they are on Discord. It was originally created for gamers but is now used by lots of people. Part of the problem I see is where kids are getting their information—there is so much more of it now on the internet. There is so much bigotry, hatred, etc. on the web. I chose e-sports because I thought it was a topic that could reach kids, since it was something that they would gravitate toward and be willing to read about.
Your characters seem to be unaware of not only the nuances but even some of the basic facts of WWII. Does this reflect your experience with teens, either through direct contact or research?
It is both through contact and research—I picked seventh grade because it was my understanding that kids weren’t really studying European history and WWII until eighth grade. This was an area where they could be exposed to these notions without having a sense of where they come from. I think that a large percentage of seventh graders are not yet aware of the Holocaust.
One of your characters is not only recruited online by a white supremacist gamer but also persuaded to attend a white supremacist rally. Why did you have the recruitment go that extra step?
Well, that’s the reality of the situation. Crosby, being so young, had a glorified image of what this group/movement was. He was indoctrinated into this idea—the perfect candidate who wanted to join this heroic battle “saving white people.” I wanted to show the reader the reality of what that meant.
None of your main characters comes from the groups that we recognize as being targeted by the Nazis, such as Jewish, LGBTQ, disabled, Romani, or persons of African descent. Is there a reason that you didn’t create a character from one of these groups?
Yes, because this is a message for all young people, whether they know a Jewish person or a gay person or not. You don’t have to be Jewish to be hated. You don’t have to know a Jewish person to be concerned about the amount of hate and disinformation that is out there in our society today. I wanted everyone to understand that it isn’t an issue just for people who know someone who is Jewish, gay, handicapped. I wanted everyone to be aware of the hate seeping through society.
Did you finish this during Covid and, if so, how did writing during the pandemic affect your writing? Have you considered writing a book related to Covid?
I actually did finish it during Covid. Something of the black humor being shared among writers is that, being people who work solitarily, nothing has changed for us vs. people who have to go out to go to work. So, my working life hasn’t really changed at all.
I had an idea for a Covid book but didn’t follow through since I thought there’d be thousands. It was about the inequity in our society, set in a resort area where the poor rely on work from the wealthy. Then with Covid disrupting supply chains etc., there is a complete reversal where the working people have the skills to survive—hunting, gardening, and the like—so that they are in a position of power. I didn’t write it, but I was tempted to.
Why was this the moment for you to write this book, given that racism has been around forever and e-sports have been growing for several years?
A couple of years ago, there was a photo of young men from Wisconsin, dressed up for their prom doing the Nazi salute. For the past four or five years, there has definitely been an increase in the openness in hate gestures, speech, and symbols. More than in any recent time. Some of the kids in the photo claimed that it was an impromptu joke, but it reflected the normalization of hate speech, gestures, and symbols in our society. What does it say about us that we’ve reached the point where we can make light of a political ideology that intentionally committed genocide? The idea that we’d pop the Nazi salute on a whim? These kids were much older than my characters but still didn’t know what they were doing.
This tale doesn’t have a particularly subtle tone. Why did you choose to take such a direct approach?
For a couple of reasons. I published my first YA novel in 1979. I don’t feel that subtlety works as well now as it once did. To reach the readers that I wanted to reach with this book, I didn’t feel that subtlety was the right approach. I needed to be more direct—I wanted to reach young people that are impressionable. Also, there’s nothing subtle about hate speech or hate crimes.
This book is coming out on the 40th anniversary of my book, The Wave, which is still enormously popular around the world. It’s about an experiment that a teacher does with his class to help explain how the Nazis were able to take over German society. Without the students realizing it, the teacher is able to turn the kids into little neo-Nazis through various exercises. I’ve been reunited with the same editor and publisher, so there’s an interesting circling around to a similar topic.
What do you think is the appeal for young people of role-playing a group such as the Wehrmacht, which clearly had ties to Nazism and racism?
When I was 12, I was fascinated with war. I had these little green plastic army men. There is something about that age and wanting to pretend to be at war. I couldn’t tell you why that is—I think that still continues, that kids these days still want to do that. WWII is still enormously fascinating—kids like to take sides and play games. For whatever reason, these kids in this book didn’t want to switch sides but just stay as one side, the Germans, for the year.
What’s the most fun writing-related thing you’ve done during quarantine?
Skypes with classes, not just about my books but about writing skills. I enjoy helping kids and teachers get excited about writing. I truly believe that a great deal of the issues that we are facing come from a lack of good education available to everyone. I’ve done these Skype sessions for quite a while, even before quarantine, and I do them for free. Given the circumstances, it is even more important than ever. A lot of the problems that we are facing right now find their roots in inequities in education. It’s really a shame.
The Good War by Todd Strasser. Delacorte, $16.99 Jan. 26 ISBN 978-0-593-17365-7