Once an eighth-grade teacher, Alan Gratz now writes books for middle schoolers that entertain while encouraging readers to ask questions of the world around them. In his newest historical thriller, Grenade, WWII comes to Okinawa, where Japan demands that boys such as 13-year old Hideki defend their home against the American soldiers they’ve been told to fear. Gratz spoke with PW about the appeal of stories set during WWII, his mission to write social thrillers, and the importance of writing for children who are transitioning into adulthood.
Grenade is your third novel set during WWII. What is it about this time in history that keeps drawing you back?
I hadn’t planned on writing a bunch of books set during WWII. Prisoner B-3087 and Projekt 1065 are both set during WWII. Refugee has a WWII angle to it; one of the three stories is set during WWI. I also had a story in Brooklyn Nine, way back at the beginning of my career, that took place during WWII. So, with Grenade, there are three that are specifically set at that time. I had been writing a bunch of different time periods and mysteries, sports, science fiction, and fantasy, then I was asked to speak with Jack Gruener, whose story was told in Prisoner B-3087. His story was incredible, and I was happy to help him tell the story; then I went back to writing other books. My next book was Code of Honor, which is a contemporary thriller. Then, I started getting fan mail from kids. I’ve received more about Prisoner than all my other books combined. They kept asking when I would write more about WWII.
I’m fascinated by WWII and always have been. I’ve always been interested in writing about history, but I was more interested in different time periods. Kids were really responding to Prisoner, though. I was accidentally on the front end of a trend. WWII books, particularly for MG, have been really, really strong. So, I listened. Then came Projekt 1065. I’ve had the idea for Grenade for quite some time but was trying to find my way in. When I realized that, at least for the moment, I was having a lot of success with WWII books, the idea for Grenade percolated back to the surface.
How do you see the themes of war and discussion of the refugee crisis resonating with today’s readers?
For one thing, I think kids are experiencing more of the world than ever before. They have classmates and people in their communities and churches who are refugees. They’ve been going through active shooter drills since elementary school. They see and hear hateful rhetoric from politicians on the news. They’re watching television shows and movies that have a lot more sex, language, and violence than ever before. They’re more worldly because the world is coming at them and they are looking for books that deal with that. Books that help them answer questions that they have about the world they’re seeing and form opinions about that world. Books like Refugee and others help to open a window into a world that they may see briefly on television or hear about, but that they don’t know in depth. Being able to walk in a refugee’s shoes and being able to follow the life and the story of a refugee on the page, their world comes to life. A refugee is now a person with a name, a face, and a story; they go from being statistics or nameless faceless immigrants coming to take our jobs to becoming individual stories of people that need our help.
I love that middle schoolers have a very clear sense of justice. Middle schoolers see the world in black and white. As they get older and more jaded and more influences come into their lives, like politics, religion, community, and family, their opinions are pushed and pulled. In middle school, if you introduce them to a real-world dilemma, they, more times than not, opt for the thing that make the most sense to them. If people want to get married, it shouldn’t matter who they are. If a refugee needs help, we should help them. I tell stories about refugees and people who are victims during war and they look at me stunned and actually say out loud, “What?!” And I think, oh, you dear hearts, you’re so innocent! But I love that their first reaction is that there’s a right and a wrong.
WWII was perhaps the one war where our reasons for fighting it were incredibly clear, especially in retrospect, when we see the actions of Nazi Germany clearly and we understand what we stopped. We understand why the sacrifice was worth it. Other wars? WWI? Korea? Vietnam? The Civil War? Believe it or not, you still find a lot of controversy. But WWII? We have real, clear-cut reasons for fighting that war. There are clear bad guys and clear good guys and very little politics.
You mentioned that you had the idea for Grenade for quite some time. From where did the inspiration for this story originate?
I visited Japan in 2010 when I was invited to be the writer in residence at the American School in Tokyo. It was incredible. I was there for six weeks and worked with sixth, seventh, and eights grade students on writing historical fiction. When my program was finished, I stayed with a family for two more weeks, spending a total of two months in Japan. While I was there, I met a very old man who had been a kid on Okinawa during WWII during the Battle of Okinawa. I meet lots of people in my travels and, once they know what I write about, everyone has a story to share. So many of these stories are incredible, they’re about people showing incredible bravery, particularly when they were young, fighting in a war. But this guy, his story... It was only in passing that he told me, and I didn’t get to sit down with him and learn more. I’ve tried to find him again but haven’t been able to. But he told me that, when he was a kid on the island of Okinawa, the day that the Americans invaded, “The Japanese army pulled me and all the other middle school boys out of school. They lined us up, gave each of us a grenade, and told us to go into the forest and not come back until we’d killed an American.” That piece of history that he opened to me, which I’d never heard or read about, stayed with me for years.
When with other writers at conventions or workshops, at some point, I’d always bring up this story. It became a running joke: Alan has this idea and he doesn’t know how to get it into the story. For years, I knew I had an incredible beginning to a true story, but what happens next? This guy survived by dumping his grenades and hiding, which is the sane thing to do, but that wasn’t going to make a novel. I wanted to take that initial astounding moment, where these kids, these untrained kids, were given grenades and were sent out to fight battle-hardened American soldiers and marines, and tell that story. I finally found my way into it with Refugee. I realized that if Refugee is the story of what happens when war comes to your country and you leave to find a place of safety, then Grenade is the story of what happens when war comes to your country and you can’t leave, when you become a refugee in your own country.
Of course, I was doing a lot more research about this time, this one man’s story, and stories like his. I found that this happened to hundreds more kids and, not only were they given one grenade, some were given two: one to kill an American, one to kill themselves. They were told American were monsters that would capture, torture, and kill them and that the second grenade was to prevent them from becoming prisoners. Many of them didn’t have to use the second grenade; when they ran up against American servicemen, they were killed very quickly and easily. I tried to show in the book that this is what happens when innocent people are caught between two bigger powers and myriad ways of killing.
The Battle of Okinawa was the last major battle of WWII and one of the bloodiest. At the beginning of the battle there were 450,000 Okinawans on the island and, at the end of the battle a month later, it’s estimated that 150,000 Okinawans remained. They estimate that nearly 2/3 of the civilian population died and that there were almost no men over the age of 18 left alive. It’s a part of the war we don’t talk about. I mentioned earlier how so much of WWII is black and white, but, in the Pacific, it’s not as clear. The plan was that Okinawa would be the last jumping off point for a full-scale invasion of mainland Japan, but the Battle of Okinawa was so terrible that the U.S. brass decided to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. Whether or not that decision was right is a whole different debate, but they chose to do that because of how awful the Battle of Okinawa was. Still to this day, there are many American men who survived fighting in the Pacific who will never speak about what they saw or did. It’s very different from the European theater. It felt like this was a story that needed to be told.
Is there a message you’re hoping to communicate to readers through your work?
Yes and no. My number one goal is to write a book that a kid can’t put down. I’m trying to write a book that will grab you by the lapels and won’t let you go. Do I want my young readers to take something else away? Yeah. Definitely. There’s no question about it. I heard a really great podcast interview with Jordan Peele, who referred to Get Out as a “social thriller.” I heard that, and a bell went off in my head. I realized that’s what I’d been trying to do with my last few books. I’d been trying to write books that are great reads and also mean something, but I didn’t have a great way of referring to it. I love the term social thriller.
How do you balance representing the darkness of war with writing a book that is appropriate for a young audience?
Yeah, this is difficult; it’s something I struggle with. There were some really terrible things that happened during the Battle of Okinawa that my first draft of Grenade included. My editor came back and said, “I don’t know about all of this.” I feel that it’s my duty and my service to the people who lived and died during events to not sugarcoat things and to be honest. It’s also my duty to my young readers. I want them to know that, when they pick up my book, I’m telling them the way it really was, not some modified version because they’re young. My terrific editor, Aimee Friedman, knows I’m trying to push the boundaries and it’s her job to push back a little bit until we find that right place in the middle. I tell readers that people jump off cliffs, but I don’t tell you what happens when they fall. I leave that up to the imaginations of my readers and that’s the only concession that I make. I’m honest about the horrors of war, but I don’t feel like I must be graphic in my description of what happens. That allows a kid in fourth or fifth grade to not be scarred by something on the page. I try not to use profanity, but these guys would be cursing left and right. One of my favorite ways to get around this is to say something like, “Ray cursed.” There are ways to be honest about how things were, but not be graphic.
Several of your books fall in between the categories of middle grade and young adult and are recommended for ages 10 and older. Aside from the content perhaps requiring a slightly older age recommendation, why are you drawn to writing for this age group?
I do love that transitional time. I love the term “young adult,” which in publishing we think of as a very specific age. Readers in eighth grade or high school. But I love it for a different reason: it talks to the two people these readers are. They are young. When I visit middle schools, these kids will come running in from the playground all sweaty from playing kickball, playing with fidget spinners, and talking about Fortnite. They are definitely kids. But then I can talk to them about the Holocaust, the Hitler Youth, terrorism, war, and refugees and they go with me. They are adult enough to flip that switch. You can go from being a goofball one second to serious adults the next. As adults, we forget. We either look back and think they’re all child and should be protected from the horrors of the world, or we think they’re all adult, they shouldn’t be horsing around anymore. But they’re both!
Middle schoolers particularly are at this amazing time when they’re beginning to look beyond the world of their school, their street, their home. They’re starting to look at the larger world and ask bigger questions. That maturity shift happens for different kids at different ages. For some it’s sixth grade, for me it was probably freshman year—I was a very late kid. Those are the kids I am writing for.
Many of your novels are historically set. What does your research process entail?
Unfortunately, I don’t get to travel to every place I’d like to write about. In that case I’d be writing books about Iceland, Australia, and Machu Picchu. When I visited Japan, it was because I wrote a book about Japan; that was really why I got invited over. My biggest chunk of research is from books. History is told by the winners, so there are a number of accounts about the Pacific theater from American servicemen and historians, which I read, but it was more important to me to have accounts by people who were Okinawan. Grenade is really the story of the Okinawans caught in the middle of this war, so, for that, I knew I needed to know a lot more about what the battle was like for the people of Okinawa. I found this amazing book called Descent into Hell. It’s a big thick book created by a newspaper in Okinawa. The newspaper realized that the people who could tell these stories were passing away. So, the newspaper began interviewing anyone and everyone. These accounts aren’t even interviews, they’re exactly what the people said. They’re astounding. This book had so much stuff in it. It was a treasure trove to see different walks of life represented, unfiltered.
Once I wrote the book, we then, of course, had sensitivity readers: a reader who is Okinawan and a Japanese reader who specializes in Okinawan history, people from that community and culture, people who are experts. I will never ever know as much as a person from that community. Never. I know this going in and try to go in humbly and do as much research as I can. I do my best, then I’ll get people to read and tell me what they know. The rest—the mistakes—are all on me.
You do many school visits each year. What is the most rewarding part of doing those?
I used to be an eighth-grade English teacher. My favorite part was the eighth graders; I could do without administration, grading, and parents, but being in the classroom with the students was awesome. Now, I get to go in and just do that. I get to be the rock star author getting them fired up about reading and writing and bigger issues. When you write books for kids, it’s hard to reach your audience one-on-one. Kids aren’t really supposed to be on social media and, when they are, they’re not following authors. So, this is how I get to talk to kids. Getting to hang out and hear their excitement and how they’re starting to engage with the world is my favorite.
Is there a creator, or creators, whose work has influenced the way you approach writing or the stories you choose to tell?
I was a reluctant reader, or, as Donalyn Miller says, a dormant reader. I liked reading, but it took an exceptional book to hold my attention. In seventh grade, I was assigned Tuck Everlasting and I remember being moved by the story. The concept of death so frightened me. I loved living and, when I understood mortality, it really scared me. Tuck Everlasting was the first time I read a book for kids that took me seriously, that talked about a really serious issue in a grown-up, straightforward way. Natalie Babbitt took me seriously. The way she told the story really made me stop and think. I like to think I’m doing something like that for my readers, that I’m assuming maturity and intelligence of my readers and that they think about things. I’ve written books that are flat-out entertainment, and there’s a place for that, but lately I hope that the books I’ve been writing are for the kids who are thinking about bigger issues.
I received a letter last Christmas from a parent whose child had read Refugee. The reader cried while reading and he and his parent had deep thoughtful discussions [about the book]. The boy came to his mother and said that instead of getting Christmas presents, he wanted to donate money to UNICEF. His mother wrote this amazing letter about how my book impacted her son and how thrilled she was that he was a person who cared about other people. All kids are self-absorbed—it’s their nature—but he was becoming a young man who cared about other people. I wrote back and told him how much I admired him, and he responded to tell me he’d raised $1,000 from friends and family to donate. I hope that, in some small way, I’m following in the footsteps of Natalie Babbitt.
You’ve written historical fiction, fantasy, sports-themed, and contemporary novels. What can readers look forward to next?
The tentative title is Operation D-Day. I wanted to call it D-Day, but there’s a lot of books with that title. It’s the 75th anniversary next year. It’s amazing to think about how long ago and not long ago that was. It’s infamous, a day the world came together to begin to end WWII. It’s been written about many times and [there are] lots of movies about it, but I wanted to write something accessible to middle school readers. That’s exactly who it’s written for, but there are a lot of adult characters in it. It’s something my editor and I have struggled with: how do you write a book for kids when the major players are adults? Traditionally, of course, most kids’ books have a kid protagonist. One of the characters is an Algerian girl who is a fighter in the Muslim French resistance. There are kids who are involved when the battle comes inland a bit. And then, of course, so many of the people who fought in the war were really kids. There weren’t middle schoolers, but they were 17, 18, 19 years old. When I think about what an idiot I was at that age, I cannot imagine the burden put on those kids.
It’s very easy to look at D-Day through the lens of being a military achievement. I do that, but, at the same time, I’m looking at the social elements. The black soldiers who couldn’t interact with the white soldiers. The women journalists who were not allowed in the same battle zones as male journalists. The French Algerian Muslims who fought in the resistance. When we talk about WWII, we must remember it was a world war. Many people were wrapped up in it, not just white, middle class American men. I’m trying to write a book that shows D-Day from many points of view and how it was a huge coordinated effort. How much was actually a failure and how astounding it is that it did work. I think there are 10 to 12 points of view throughout, but it’s not like in Refugee. One person leads to the next, so there’s a sort of domino effect to tell the story of D-Day in one day.
Maybe 10 years ago, I would have written a straightforward account of D-Day. It would have been a very white book with just one perspective. Now, today, I’m trying to write social thrillers and books with diverse casts. I made a commitment to stop writing books full of white people. That’s not the world. I go to school visits with diverse communities and I was like, I refuse to write books that only reflect what I see in the mirror.
I’m kicking around a couple ideas for after. “Putting fictional kids in danger since 2006”—that’s my tagline. I wish kids were never in those situations, but there are many, many kids the world over who are in dangerous life-threatening situations. I want to remind kids with comfortable lives how good we have it.
Grenade by Alan Gratz. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-338-24571-4