Jane Yolen Shares Why She Set Her New Novel During the Holocaust

mapping the bonesNearly 30 years after the publication of The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose, award-winning author Jane Yolen returns to World War II and captivates her readers with the authenticity and power of her words. Influenced by Dr. Mengele’s sadistic experimentations, Mapping the Bones follows twins Chaim and Gittel as they travel from the Lodz ghetto, to the partisans in the forest, to a horrific concentration camp where they are forced to work in a munitions factory. Filled with brutality and despair, this is also a story of poetry and strength in which a brother and sister lose everything but each other. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks Yolen about the inspiration for the novel, and about the connection between fairy tales and one of the darkest period in history.

YZM: What drew you to writing about the Holocaust again, this time for a slightly older audience?

JY: Actually, it had more to do with a breakfast with the editor in which we both spoke about wanting to do another fairy tale novel together, but only Hansel & Gretel drew me for some unfathomable reason. As we spoke about the fairy tale, and I said that at the end the witch was pushed into the oven… we looked at one another.

We are both Jewish and the word hovered between us. Because if two Jews are talking to one another and the word “oven” is not part of a conversation about food, it points in only one direction. The Holocaust. So I began to talk about the possibilities of the story, and she said to me, “I have goosebumps all over. If you write me two pages of what you just said, I will take it to the committee.”

So, not being an idiot, I did—though reluctantly. I’d already written two Holocaust novels—The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose. The last thing I wanted to do was immerse myself for years once again in the horrors of the Holocaust. But then I remembered something Elie Wiesel said about my first Holocaust novel—that soon everyone who had been in the war and survived would be gone and all we would have left would be stories. And I wanted to honor his memory, and the memory of all the people who died in the camps, so I had to go back again.