Anita Lobel, the Caldecott Honor artist, is known for sunny children's books filled with flowers and folk motifs. But as the title of her first full-length book makes clear, her own childhood was not rosy: No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War (Greenwillow, Sept.), describes five years of flight from the Nazis. Five years old when the Germans occupied her native Krakow, she and her younger brother spent the war posing as the daughters of their Polish nanny, seeking refuge in a convent and even secreting themselves in the ghetto before they were caught and sent to concentration camps. After the war, they were brought to Sweden to recuperate; against all odds, they were reunited with both parents, who joined them in Sweden in 1947 and brought them to the U.S. five years later.
Perhaps even more astonishing than the experiences described in the book is Lobel's writing style, praised in PW's starred review for its unpitying voice and "heartstopping candor." As Greenwillow publisher Susan Hirschman puts it, "The book is not about the child, it is the child."
Interviewed in her apartment in Manhattan's SoHo district, Lobel speaks with a voice as warmly colored as her pictures, its timbre reflecting sophistication, irony and keen self-knowledge. Dramatic without being theatrical, she measures the impact of a phrase or a gesture. Hers is "a little story," she says. "It was five years out of my life. And I'm going to be 65 next year. And so many, many things have happened since that were not cataclysmic. It's an ordinary, working life. I think, What's the big deal?"
In fact, that "ordinary, working life" served as the original framework for No Pretty Pictures. Lobel had joined a writers' group in 1991 or '92; she'd "always like the idea of writing words without pictures," she says, and, because she was recuperating from an injury, the timing seemed right. The group kept her "on course&" -- knowing that she would be reading work out loud to an audience once a week gave her added incentive.
At first she would write "any old thing"; then, listening to others' pieces, "most of them very preoccupied with going to the psychiatrist, with turning around corners in your own neighborhood, endless effluvia in the bedroom," she chose to dig a little deeper.
She began writing the pieces that now constitute her book, but they were interspersed, she says, "with things today, and they would creep in, as a memory." For example, writing about having misplaced valuables belonging to her boyfriend led to a flashback about her nanny losing a jacket into which was sewn the family's last remaining jewelry.
Putting the Pieces Together
Last summer, at the urging of her boyfriend, Lobel showed the accumulated writings to Hirschman, her editor ever since her first book, Sven's Bridge, published in 1965. Hirschman responded quickly, asking Lobel to take the episodes relating to her childhood and unify them. All the pieces were there, says Lobel; she had simply to create the continuity.
Never having worked on a project of more than picture-book length, Lobel was not sure what to expect from the editorial process. She was delighted to be paired with Virginia Duncan, Greenwillow's executive editor, who worked with care and patience. "She's the opposite of me -- quiet and stoic," teases Lobel. Duncan claims no extraordinary contributions: the sharpness of Lobel's memories, the precise quality of her details, her voice, "those are all her gifts," says Duncan.
"I don't know if this story could have been written if it hadn't been surrounded by the other things that I had written as well," Lobel says, "because one thing illuminated the next. And then I found the voice. I found the voice of the younger person lurking in there somewhere."
Lobel does not read Holocaust literature ("I do not even like the term") and resolutely rejects a view of herself as a victim. "I expect I will be asked a lot, 'Wasn't it difficult to write, wasn't it painful to dredge these things up?'" she says. "I have to say that it wasn't. I wasn't in analysis with myself. I was shaping events that had happened. It was exalting; it was exciting. I was so glad it was 55 years later."
"I don't want to feel as though I have done something, and now I can lie back," she says, regarding her finished book. She wants to write more, perhaps about her first four years as a youth in New York. "Unless I'm felled by a stroke or my eyesight fails, I'll just continue working. Because that is what I identify myself with. I feel that work -- not a job, but work -- defines what I am. Friends, lovers, children can betray you -- and you can betray them. But with work that you do yourself -- whether it's good work or bad work, if you've done it and decided, that's it, I've finished -- you may not have done justice to yourself, but you haven't betrayed yourself."