Karen Levine was a reluctant first-time author. When her critically acclaimed children’s book, Hana’s Suitcase, came to market in 2002, she was no stranger to media—then a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—but didn’t anticipate the hundreds of appearances she would do during the book’s first few years.
“I have always been a producer, not a host—a behind-the-scenes person—unand all of a sudden there was this tremendous interest in the story and I had to go out in the world in a way I’d never done before,” she told PW.
Now, two decades later—and on its 39th Canadian printing—the book is set for its 20th anniversary edition. It follows the real-life story of a suitcase sent to Fumiko Ishioka, the curator of a Holocaust museum exhibition in Tokyo. The name of the owner on the case received from the Auschwitz Museum, Hana Brady, pushed Ishioka to go beyond the exhibition she was curating and trace the history of Hana’s family, including her death in the camp, and how their lives changed as the Nazis came to power. It’s a tale that Levine first came across in the Canadian Jewish News, and which she turned into a 2001 CBC radio program.
That could have been it if not for Levine’s friend Margie Wolfe, publisher of Toronto’s Second Story Press, hearing about the story. Wolfe said that with the press having produced a couple of books related to the Holocaust before, and her family being survivors, she was quick to recognize the project’s potential. “When [Levine] was doing this documentary [she] said, ‘Why don’t you listen?’ ” Wolfe told PW. “And so I did, and I loved it, loved it, loved it, and almost instantly knew that it could be a great book for young people. It had all the right things in it. My problem was convincing Karen to write it.”
For Levine’s part, she said that Wolfe’s nudging wasn’t successful at first, but that it was the long-time feminist publisher’s determination, also coming from Hana Brady’s brother George, that got the piece to print.
Levine said, “I didn’t take it all that seriously because I had a full-time job, I had a six-year-old kid, and I’d never written a book before. But both George and Margie were very persistent and so I decided to give it a try.”
Since its first publication, the book has been adapted into a documentary film, a 2006 stage play, and was re-released on its 10th anniversary. With numerous awards—including the Yad Vashem Prize for Children’s Holocaust Literature—and with enough foreign editions that both Wolfe and Levine have lost track (it’s at least 40), Levine said she’s now speaking to parents who were children when the book first hit shelves. It’s a demographic she never thought she’d be involved with and one that has sustained Second Story’s Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers.
“My son was six when the book came out. He’s now 26, and [his whole world of kids] encountered this book. It was very exciting for me to be able to connect with his world through the book. I’m somebody who never thought I would work with kids, I never thought of being a teacher, but I have enormously enjoyed connecting with them,” Levine said.
This latest edition, Wolfe said, was originally to be a celebration of the book’s many accolades, but its significance has shifted due to the uptick in antisemitic incidents worldwide. “I think the book is important, and why it’s coming out now is important, not just to tell us about history, but to tell us about consequence—for kids to see that another child is suffering, other people are suffering, and why. And the ‘why’ can be because they are a Jew, or they’re a Muslim, or because they have a disability, or because they’re gay. But there is a real connection between how we behave as individuals and how society behaves as a whole.”
With much of the current conversation around children’s literature focused on what kids are presumed to be capable or incapable of handling, Levine is resistant to the idea that stories such as Hana’s Suitcase shouldn’t inform young readers about the atrocities of the past. “The kids wrestle with that stuff, and wrestle with the notion of what it can be to take action when you’re young and what it is to be a bystander. All these big, important questions are sitting in this story,” she said.
It’s a story that Levine said also brought some closure to George, who died in 2019 at the age of 90. “George had struggled all his adult life with terrible sadness about what happened to his sister, obviously, and had nightmares about what happened to her. But, through the process of meeting all these readers, and realizing what an impact the story had, his nightmares came to an end.”