Monday, February 6, 2012

An interview with Marcia Vaughan - Irena's Jars of Secrets

Today I'm pleased to interview Marcia Vaughan, author of Irena's Jars of Secrets (2011 Lee & Low), a 2012 Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the  Older Readers category.  This interview is part of the official Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

If you have not yet read Irena's Jars of Secrets, it is the true story of a courageous young Polish Catholic woman who saved the lives of more than two thousand children trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, and destined for concentration camps during WWII.

Q. I had never heard the story of Irena Sendler prior to reading Irena’s Jars of Secrets. I understand from the Afterword that the Communist Polish government did not promote the heroism of Ms. Sendler. Can you share with us how you first discovered Irena’s story?

Marcia Vaughan
 © Marcia Vaughan
I came upon the story of Irena Sendler quite by accident. I was watching the Today Show three years ago when Matt Lauer announced he was about to read the obituary of a woman few people had ever heard of, a woman who helped rescue 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. As I listened I could hardly believe what I was hearing. How could one woman and a small group of rescuers save so many lives! I had to know more and I knew young readers would be amazed by her courage and all the ingenious ways Irena Sendler and her team smuggled babies and young children out of the Ghetto past the German guards. I wanted to know about her life and what compelled a Polish Catholic woman to risk death time after time to save Jewish children. I felt young readers would want to know as well.

 Q. I am always interested in the collaboration (or lack thereof) between authors and illustrators. How did Ron Mazellan become your illustrator, and did you share any discussions over the artwork, which is, by the way, a fine complement to your story.

As author I am the storyteller. I’m not much of an artist at all. Publishing companies have editors and art directors who select artists to illustrate children’s picture books. While I researched the facts of Irena Sendler’s life, the illustrator researched the appearance of the characters and what Warsaw, Poland looked like during WWII. He used this information, his creative imagination and incredible talent to tell the story in pictures. Believe it or not, Rod Mazellan and I have never communicated directly about the story. He was free to interpret the story and bring the words to life as he wished. What a marvelous job he’s done!
Q.  Were you able to interview any survivors saved by Irena Sendler? And if not, how did you choose which particular rescues to highlight in the book?

While there were quite a few websites with reputable information on Irena Sendler, there were few books published when I was doing research. The most helpful book was written in German so I had it translated into English. I hope soon there will be many more books available for children, teens and adults about Irena Sendler’s incredible life. When selecting scenes for the book I tried to include examples of the variety of ways children were rescued. I was most impressed with the dog that was made to bark to cover the cries of frightened infants. I was also amazed that children were smuggled past guards in suitcases, tool chests, inside bundles of laundry,even under the floorboards of vehicles. For every child that was rescued, there was a story to tell. Yad Vasham was another excellent source and many emails were exchanged. I also contacted Stefanie Seltzer and other individuals who were extremely helpful. And my hat’s off to Louise May, VP and Editorial Director at Lee & Low Books for her invaluable help.

 Q. And finally, When ever I read a story of selfless heroism, I cannot help but think what I would do in a similar situation. Of course, this is somewhat of an imponderable, but after all of your research, do you have any thoughts on what compels some people to risk their own lives for the sake of others?

I’m not sure what compels some people to risk their lives to save the lives of strangers. Nor do I understand how others can sit back and do nothing when witnessing cruelty. When I read about people like Irena Sendler, or Abbie Burgess [Abbie Against the Storm, Beyond Words Publishing, 1999], who is left alone to care for her ailing mother and two little sisters while keeping the lighthouse running during a vicious winter storm, or the teacher who broke the law and taught a young slave to read and write before Emancipation [Up The Learning Tree, Lee & Low Books, 2003] it makes me wonder if I would have the courage to act as bravely. I do know that as I write about such people it inspires me to find my inner strength and be the best person I can. I hope in reading Irena’s Jars of Secrets children learn to look inside and find their own greatness.
Well said.  I hope so, too.  Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me and the readers of Shelf-employed.  Congratulations on your Sydney Taylor Honor Award.

Irena Sendler (1910-2008)
 Warsaw, February 13, 2005
Copyright: Mariusz Kubik

 About the Sydney Taylor Book Awards:

The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries since 1968, the award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category.

See the complete list of Sydney Taylor award, honor, and notable books for 2012.
The complete blog tour schedule is posted on the ALJ Blog.

Blog reviews of Irena's Jars of Secrets @
Today is Nonfiction Monday.  The roundup host is Capstone Connect.


  1. Great interview. Irena's Jars of Secrets was such an interesting book, I wondered how Marcia got the idea for it.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating interview, and for participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour!

  3. Very interesting! I look forward to reading the book. I had seen a play about here a few years ago put on by a group of teens who had been inspired by her life and work.

  4. I love the blog tour this week. We are hosting illustrators as well for Lily Renee. :) I love your questions and how it illuminates the creative process even further. :)

  5. Oh, so lovely! I am most eager to read.

    Thank you Marcia for picking up on this story and bringing it to the rest of us. A simple news story that, without you, could have been lost on most of us!

  6. Teachers and librarians: you may also wish to have a copy of the PBS DVD program about Irena Sendler which was broadcast on May 1, 2011. The film features Irena Sendler in the last long interview she gave before she died in 2008, along with her co-workers and many of the children they saved. Very moving.


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