Life & Culture

How a best-selling children's author beat Long Covid to write a book about Jewish heroines

Liz Kessler's new book is about two brave Jewish sisters who join the resistance in wartime Amsterdam


According to children’s writer Liz Kessler’s agent, whatever she’s writing about, the themes are the same. “It doesn’t matter if it’s mermaids or lesbians or the Holocaust or teenage girls in the resistance, but it’s always basically about our responsibility to other people, about social justice, about standing up for what you believe in and having a conscience."

The mermaids feature in Kessler’s phenomenally successful Emily Windsnap series which have been best sellers for 20 years, selling millions here and in the US. The lesbians refer to her YA debut  Read Me Like a Book, a coming of age, coming out love story that took 15  years to be published.

But it was her Holocaust book  When the World was Ours, published in 2021, that has brought her the most critical acclaim and loads of awards — 11 so far, mostly voted for by young readers. It’s currently up for the most prestigious children’s book prize in Germany too. “In 20 years of writing, I haven’t had anything close to the response to that book,” says Kessler. 

Writers often ask themselves if they’d prefer acclaim and awards but no money, or sales without literary recognition: “I always chose the sales,” says Kessler.  “And that’s what I got with Emily Windsnap. This is the first time I’ve had the other.” She thinks it is partly because of the subject matter, which tackled the subject unflinchingly, through the eyes of three friends, two of them Jewish, and goes where many children’s books fear to tread, right into the camps. “An exceptional read,” said the Times. 

Kessler always knew it would be hard to follow When the World Was Ours, but she had no idea how hard. She had the idea of a book about the Dutch Resistance when she and her wife Laura visited Amsterdam at the end of an arduous research trip for When The World Was Ours. A biography had recently come out about two sisters who’d been part of the resistance, and Kessler was drawn to the idea of writing about “such kickass amazing young women”. 

A visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam strengthened her resolve to write about Jews who were not just victims. Frank’s story is very important, she says, but it is so well known that it can obliterate other narratives.  “Anne Frank’s story is about this thing that happened to them that they had to suffer, that they had the strength to survive. Whereas the girls I wanted to write about were the ones who took the fight to the enemy.”  So, once When The World Was Ours was written and edited, she suggested a resistance book to her publishers.

Writing it though was one of the biggest challenges of her life. When The World Was Ours had come out in January 2021, when the bookshops and schools were all closed. In July 2021, Kessler caught Covid. “I limped along for three months and then by October I pretty much went to bed for six months. And that was that," she explains. It was the start of a struggle with Long Covid which took two years to put behind her.

Unlike some unfortunate people, Kessler’s heart and lungs were not affected.  For her it was the nervous system that came under attack.  “It’s like it switches on this button, that puts you into a constant state of fight flight freeze. And it takes away the off switch. And so your body, your mind, your everything goes haywire. Your brain and your body stop having the ability to give each other the right messages. And everything shuts down. You can’t just go, oh, it’s all in my mind, I’ll fix it. You have to deal with the physical, mental, even emotional stuff all at the same time.” 

 All of this played havoc with writing the resistance book, Code Name Kingfisher, which had to be delayed again and again, and so its publication this week is a bit of a triumph and another marker in her recovery. It weaves the stories of modern day Liv, battling bullies at school, and Mila and Hannie in wartime Amsterdam, hiding their Jewish identities and bravely fighting the Nazis in any way they can. In Kessler’s skillful hands the contemporary story doesn’t get swamped by the high drama of the historical element, and the way that Liv gains courage from learning Mila and Hannie’s story is moving and inspirational. 

Kessler’s father Harry’s childhood was the real-life basis for When The World Was Ours, and he has been to many schools to tell his story of being a child refugee from Vienna. Now sometimes Kessler finds herself meeting children who have heard her father speak. “They’re making these connections between a book they’ve read, and a real live human being who came into their school who experienced this. That I think is where the magic happens. These are the real lightbulb moments where they’re like, ‘Wow, this wasn’t just a book’.”

Her core beliefs, she says, remain unchanged since she was a teenager: “Kindness, justice and wanting a better world for us all.”

Now with her books about the Second World War, she’s issuing a challenge to the next generation: “This isn’t a history book, it’s a book to pass the baton to young people and ask them: is there any way you could do better than we’ve done?”

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