Talking with Caren Stelson and Ellie Roscher

In this very spe­cial edi­tion of Peace-olo­gy, Ellie Rosch­er sat down with Caren Stel­son to talk about Caren’s newest book, Stars of the Night.

Ellie:  Caren, thank you so much for writ­ing this book, and thank you for tak­ing the time to sit down and talk to me about it! First off, tell us a lit­tle about who Nicholas Win­ton was and what Stars of the Night is about.

Stars of the NightCaren:  Ellie, you are so kind to sug­gest we focus this Peace-olo­gy arti­cle on my lat­est non­fic­tion pic­ture book, Stars of the Night: The Coura­geous Chil­dren of the Czech Kinder­trans­port. There are real­ly two sto­ries entwined in this pic­ture book — the chil­dren of the Czech Kinder­trans­port and the man who saved them, Nicholas Win­ton. I tell the sto­ry from the point of view of the chil­dren, using the col­lec­tive first per­son “we.” It starts out, “When we were sev­en or eight or nine or ten, our home was the old city of Prague. Deep down, this sto­ry is about courage — both for Nicholas Win­ton and the chil­dren. To me, the sto­ry is also about love, resilience and the deter­mi­na­tion to build new homes after los­ing fam­i­lies to war.

Most of us are unaware of the Kinder­trans­port move­ment dur­ing the nine months lead­ing up to the start of WWII. After the dead­ly pogrom known as Kristall­nacht, the “Night of Bro­ken Glass,” Novem­ber 9 and 10, 1938, it became crys­tal clear to Jews in Ger­many, Aus­tria, and Czecho­slo­va­kia that their lives and liveli­hoods were threat­ened. The per­se­cu­tion they had expe­ri­enced under Germany’s Hitler had now turned dead­ly and could get worse. Many of these Jew­ish par­ents made the dif­fi­cult deci­sion to find a safe pas­sage for their chil­dren to Eng­land, one of the only coun­tries open­ing their doors to these child refugees.

Decem­ber 1938, the young 29-year-old British stock­bro­ker, Nicholas Win­ton, stepped into his­to­ry. Win­ton found him­self in Prague dur­ing a win­ter hol­i­day and soon became com­mit­ted to help­ing as many Jew­ish Czech chil­dren to safe­ty as he could. He saved 669 chil­dren from the Holo­caust. No one knew of this achieve­ment for fifty years, not even the chil­dren Win­ton saved. Stars of the Night cap­tures the arc of this sto­ry for young readers.

Stars of the Night

Ellie:  What made you want to write the book?

Caren:  Sev­er­al years ago, my old­er broth­er Bill sent me a short video clip of the Nicholas Win­ton sto­ry with the mes­sage, “I think this will inter­est you.” I played that clip over and over. Each time, I cried. I still tear up watch­ing it. You can watch it here.

Sir Nicholas WintonI was drawn to this sto­ry for many rea­sons, but most impor­tant­ly this sto­ry is part of my fam­i­ly his­to­ry. I’m from a Jew­ish fam­i­ly. My grand­par­ents are immi­grants from Europe. When I think about the Kinder­trans­port, I won­der that if I were born in anoth­er time and place, would I have been lucky enough to be on one of those trains filled with chil­dren head­ed to Eng­land? With that ques­tion, I read and researched as much as I could about Nicholas Win­ton and the Kinder­trans­port move­ment. Before this research, I spent years study­ing WWII to write a pre­vi­ous book, Sachiko, A Nagasa­ki Bomb Survivor’s Sto­ry, about a lit­tle girl named Sachiko Yasui who sur­vived the Nagasa­ki atom­ic bomb and grew up to be a peace­mak­er. I’ve been immersed in this his­tor­i­cal time for a long while. I’ve always been inter­est­ed in learn­ing about chil­dren who grow up dur­ing per­ilous times and find their way to hope, com­pas­sion and peace. Stars of the Night is such a story.

Ellie: When you first saw the illus­tra­tions, what struck you? What do the illus­tra­tions add to your pow­er­ful narrative? 

Caren: A pic­ture book is a pic­ture book because the illus­tra­tions help deep­en the words on the page. Illus­tra­tor Seli­na Alko did a mas­ter­ful job of doing just that. Selina’s deep artis­tic sen­si­tiv­i­ty helped bring this dif­fi­cult sto­ry to a child’s lev­el. Using her sig­na­ture style of lay­er­ing and col­lage, she visu­al­ly set the his­tor­i­cal tone of the book. For exam­ple, if read­ers look care­ful­ly, they will spot recipes from a cook­book of the time, or bits of embed­ded news­pa­per arti­cles. This tech­nique not only enhances the sto­ry, but brings read­ers back to the page to search for more inter­est­ing clues.

I love Selina’s approach to the art in Stars of the Night. And I love Seli­na! She and I hadn’t met each oth­er until after Stars of the Night was pub­lished. When we did final­ly meet, it felt like we had known each oth­er for a long time. While we worked on the book in our sep­a­rate homes in New York City and Min­neapo­lis, Seli­na and I had some kind of men­tal telepa­thy going between us. For exam­ple, when Seli­na added col­ors to five spe­cif­ic chil­dren who appear through­out the sto­ry, I knew exact­ly who those chil­dren were in real life. I had researched them. I could name them. It felt Seli­na and I were liv­ing this sto­ry together.

Stars of the Night
illus­tra­tion © Seli­na Alko, from Stars of the Night, writ­ten by Caren Stel­son, Car­ol­rho­da Books, 2023

Ellie: What do you hope kids glean from read­ing Stars of the Night and know­ing this story?

Caren: Ellie, you ask such good ques­tions. I’d like to answer this ques­tion in four parts.

For younger read­ers, ages 7, 8, or 9, I hope they real­ize, besides their par­ents, there are good peo­ple in the world who, even as strangers, will take care of chil­dren as if they were their own — par­tic­u­lar­ly under dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. There are peo­ple in the world like Nicholas Win­ton who see the neces­si­ty to act to help chil­dren, even in the face of dan­ger. The Dalai Lama said of Nicholas Win­ton, “We must car­ry [Nicholas Winton’s] spir­it from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion … Then humanity’s future will be brighter.”

For old­er read­ers, I see Stars of the Night as an ear­ly oppor­tu­ni­ty to step into his­to­ry and ask ques­tions about WWII and the Holo­caust. What hap­pened to the children’s par­ents and why.  I wrote an exten­sive his­tor­i­cal time­line in the back mat­ter of the book to help answer some of those ques­tions. I hope Stars of the Night will spark old­er children’s curios­i­ty about oth­er aspects of WWII and encour­age them to research oth­er sto­ries from this dif­fi­cult time. We have much to learn from that war that will guide us today and into the future.

For all read­ers, I hope they will remem­ber one mother’s lov­ing mes­sage to her daugh­ters before they climbed aboard a Kinder­trans­port train:

There will be times when you’ll feel lone­ly and home­sick. Let the stars
of the night and the sun of the day be the mes­sen­ger of our thoughts and love.

Stars of the Night
illus­tra­tion © Seli­na Alko, from Stars of the Night, writ­ten by Caren Stel­son, Car­ol­rho­da Books, 2023

These lines not only soothed two chil­dren on their way to Eng­land, but the words remind us we can be held togeth­er in love no mat­ter where we are, no mat­ter what hap­pens. The par­ents of the Kinder­trans­port made the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice. They helped their chil­dren find safe­ty in the arms of strangers when safe­ty was not avail­able to them. These chil­dren who had a “tick­et to life” went on to live their lives. They had chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of their own. Today, over 7,000 descen­dants of the 669 chil­dren are liv­ing because of Nicholas Win­ton. “Save one child, save the world,” so says the engrav­ing on a ring giv­en to Nicholas Win­ton by the chil­dren he saved. What a beau­ti­ful mes­sage to us all.

Final­ly, my endur­ing hope for Stars of the Night is this:  That read­ers ask: What kind of per­son do I want to be? Who will be my mod­els and men­tors to help me become that per­son? By remem­ber­ing Stars of the Night, I hope read­ers find the courage to rec­og­nize bul­ly­ing behav­ior and learn how to act against it. I hope they think about the pow­er of wel­com­ing peo­ple of dif­fer­ent back­grounds into their lives and be curi­ous about their his­to­ries and tra­di­tions. I’d hope chil­dren believe in the pow­er of kind­ness, empa­thy, and com­pas­sion. These were the qual­i­ties that shone through the actions of Nicholas Win­ton. These are the qual­i­ties of peace­mak­ers every­where who bring greater light to humanity.

Stars of the Night
illus­tra­tion © Seli­na Alko, from Stars of the Night, writ­ten by Caren Stel­son, Car­ol­rho­da Books, 2023

Ellie: How do you see Stars of the Night as a book about peace, and why is it impor­tant to read today?

Caren: Ellie, you and I have writ­ten about the qual­i­ties of peace­mak­ing through­out all our Peace-olo­gy arti­cles. In con­trast, Stars of the Night is about war and the ter­ri­ble things that can hap­pen dur­ing war. Yet Stars in the Night helps all of us, in stark terms, real­ize how pre­cious peace is, that we all have a stake in keep­ing the peace, that we must nev­er take it for grant­ed. We see the destruc­tion of war hap­pen­ing today in Ukraine. We see the fear and despair on children’s and their par­ents’ faces. As adults, we know this kind of trau­ma takes years to heal and real peace to emerge.

Wars are not just between nations. We know war comes in dif­fer­ent sizes and shapes. Anger and vio­lence erupt in fam­i­lies, at school, on the play­ground, in our neigh­bor­hoods, our cities, our nation. The themes of Stars of the Night can spark impor­tant con­ver­sa­tions to under­stand the ugly ele­ments that stoke vio­lence — fear, prej­u­dice, pro­pa­gan­da, scape­goat­ing, unhealed trau­ma, pow­er-grab­bing. The story’s themes also calls for cru­cial con­ver­sa­tion about the ele­ments of peace­mak­ing— deep lis­ten­ing, empa­thy, com­pas­sion, kind­ness, con­flict res­o­lu­tion, restora­tive jus­tice, among oth­er peace lit­er­a­cy skills par­ents and teach­ers need to help devel­op in our chil­dren. At the very core of this sto­ry, Stars of the Night helps us see how imper­a­tive it is to care for one another.

Sir Nicholas Winton

Let me end with this: Last Sep­tem­ber while my hus­band and I were vis­it­ing Lon­don, I had the won­der­ful expe­ri­ence of meet­ing Nicholas Winton’s son, Nick Win­ton. We met at Liv­er­pool Street Station’s “Hope Square” where stands a large, bronze stat­ue ded­i­cat­ed to the chil­dren of the Kinder­trans­port. Nick was kind enough to write a mes­sage on the back cov­er of the Stars of the Night. What Nick wrote sums up every­thing we’ve just talked about:

Nick Winton and Caren Stelson

This book tells my father’s sto­ry through the eyes of the chil­dren he helped to save from the Holo­caust. It is a reminder of the huge dif­fer­ence any one of us can make in the lives of oth­ers. Our world depends on it. It is down to peo­ple like him, peo­ple like us, to make the change we want to see.  (Nick Win­ton, son of Sir Nicholas Winton)

Ellie:   Caren, you are a gift. Stars in the Night is a gift. Con­grat­u­la­tions, and thank you.

Ellie:   Oh, Ellie, thank you!

For more infor­ma­tion about Stars of the Night vis­it Caren’s web­site.

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