April 11, 2020

Lois Lowry

Small stories of connection
Interview by
In On the Horizon, Lois Lowry reflects on her extraordinary childhood and the historical moment in which it occurred.
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Two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry is one of the most distinguished writers of all time. In On the Horizon, she reflects on her extraordinary childhood and the historical moment in which it occurred. As a young child, Lowry and her family lived in Hawaii, scant years before the attack on Pearl Harbor; after the war, they moved to Tokyo.

In the poems that compose On the Horizon, Lowry intertwines personal memories with the experiences of historical figures and ordinary people at Pearl Harbor and Japan who lived through same history as Lowry herself. BookPage spoke to Lowry about writing in verse, choosing which stories to tell and revisiting the past.

Tell us about the decision to tell this story of connections in verse. What did you find challenging about it? Rewarding?
Nine years ago, two other authors—Richard Peck and Cynthia Voigt—and I, all at the same time, without talking to one another about it, wrote novels in which all of the characters were mice. How on earth did that happen? Was there something in the atmosphere? It’s a mystery.

And now, this year, the book I was working on seemed to want to be written in verse. There is no other way for me to describe that. And so I wrote it that way—and later discovered that a lot of authors were writing novels in verse. Another odd coincidence.

I like the demands of poetry. It distills things, pares them back to their essence. Maybe that is what I needed to do with this narrative. It was a subject that had been haunting me for a long time. Was it a story? A memoir? I wasn’t certain. But it floated there in my consciousness for some years, images drifting and surfacing now and then. And that’s what poetry does, I think. When the images began to appear on the page in that form, it seemed right.

The servicemen portrayed in the Pearl Harbor poems are based on real people. How did you choose to tell these particular stories?
The selection of particular individual stories was the same for both the Pearl Harbor and the Hiroshima sections. Research provided me with many true stories, each gripping in its own way.

In the reading and rereading, though, I found that now and then one small, sometimes not terribly important detail would capture my attention. The 17-year-old Marine, Leo Amundson, on the USS Arizona, for example. He was no one special, really, until I discovered that he was from the same small town in Wisconsin where my grandmother lived and where my father had grown up. Had they known each other? Possibly. No way to know. But it made Leo special to me.

Or the sailor named James Myers. Nothing really unique about him, until I followed paths through the archives and found that his family had already lost their two other sons in tragedies unrelated to the USS Arizona. An old newspaper quoted his mother, an Iowa farmer’s wife, as saying, “I had bad luck with all my boys.” I couldn’t get the terse enormity of that woman’s statement out of my mind. Sometimes it was a visual image. Shinichi Tetsutani, about to have his fourth birthday, riding on his red tricycle the morning that he died in Hiroshima. And his parents, burying the tricycle beside him. I couldn’t erase that image from my consciousness.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of On the Horizon.

You moved to Japan not long after the end of World War II. At the time, how much did you understand about what had happened there?
I was 8 years old when the war ended, so my childhood had been permeated with war-related details: the thin blue stationery on which infrequent letters from my father in the Pacific arrived; the ration stamps that my mother used at the grocery store; the news coming from my grandfather’s radio every evening.

All of us as children knew about the war. We even played games in which the bad guys were the Japanese or the Germans—but we had no understanding of the uncertainty, the fear, the huge tragedy that was taking place. I think it was not until 1991, when my own son was a fighter pilot during the first Gulf War, that I understood what my mother must have gone through while my father was overseas.

In the poem “Now,” you mention the Hiroshima memorial. When did you visit it? How were your experiences of visiting Japan at that time different compared to your memories of your life there after the war?
I left Japan in 1950 when the Korean War began and my father, fearing for our safety, sent us back to the United States. (He was on the staff of the Tokyo Hospital and had to stay because of the casualties arriving from Korea.) As a child, I had spent summer vacations on an island in the Inland Sea, near Hiroshima. But I never visited that city then, nor did I during subsequent trips to Japan as an adult. Then in 2014, I had an opportunity to take a trip around Japan by boat, and during that trip we entered the Inland Sea, stopped at Hiroshima and visited the Peace Museum there. 

Japan, and especially Tokyo, is so different now. My house near Meiji Shrine is gone. Skyscrapers and high fashion have taken the place of the rubble and poverty that I remember. But some things, like the quiet courtesy, seem unchanged. I was walking in a park in Kyoto when it began to rain, and without a word a woman approached, smiled and held her umbrella higher so that I could join her under it. When we parted a little later, without thinking, I bowed slightly to her as a thank you. It came quite naturally and felt familiar to do so. Japan still feels, in a way, like home to me.

“It is always small stories . . . that remind us how connected we are to one another.”

Your author’s note contains a fascinating anecdote about a childhood encounter with a boy who grew up to become the illustrator Allen Say—who, as an adult, also remembered the encounter. Why do you think that moment was memorable to both of you? Has he read On the Horizon?
Allen, with whom I have remained close friends, read the book in manuscript form. I talked with him on the phone recently to confirm the accuracy of my pronunciations of Japanese words before I recorded the book as an audiobook. I had to ask him, too, for his original Japanese name (he is portrayed in the book with his childhood name, Koichi Seii) because I have only known him as Allen Say.

The moment described in the book, when we were both 11 years old and looking with both curiosity and suspicion at each other, would never have been a memorable one had we not met each other by chance almost 50 years later.

Many young readers are fascinated by World War II; your book, Number the Stars, has gained a wide readership over the years since its publication. I imagine you’ve received many letters from young readers about that book as well. Do any common themes emerge from those letters about their experience of the novel?
Although Number the Stars is set during WWII in Europe and deals with the Holocaust, its focus is really on the courage and humanity shown by Denmark during that time. I still—32 years after its publication—receive letters and emails from young readers all over the world. The thing that interests them, and that they write passionately about, is just that: the generosity and compassion shown to the Jewish people of Denmark in 1943. So often they write and ask me to tell them what happened to the young girls in the book, and I have to explain that the girls are fictional, but that the real people they represent did in fact survive and grow up and, like all of us, hope for a world free of prejudice.

“Reading, thinking and writing about events during World War II has reminded me again and again that our humanity unites us.”

Three decades and many books separate the publication of Number the Stars and On the Horizon. One is fiction, one is not; one is prose, one is in verse. Both address the same moment in world history. How has your own perspective on or understanding of that historical moment changed (or has it)?
This is a hard question to answer because right now we are feeling so many chilling undercurrents of discontent and divisiveness. Reading, thinking and writing about events during World War II has reminded me again and again that our humanity unites us. 

My son, when he was stationed with the Air Force in Germany, met and married a German woman. Her mother described to me being 9 years old, hiding in a basement, terrified, when the Americans—the enemy—entered her village. She said the soldier who entered the basement where she huddled, crying, was the first black man she had ever seen. He reached into his pocket and gave her a piece of candy.

It is always small stories like hers that remind us how connected we are to one another. These days we need reminding. I guess that’s why I keep telling them in whatever ways I can.

What other books about the war have been meaningful for you—either for young readers or for adults? 
Without question: Hiroshima by John Hersey, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

What is something you love about being a writer of books for young people?
The response, always. The heartfelt misspelled emails. I feel so connected to those readers.


Author photo by Matt McKee

Get the Book

On the Horizon

On the Horizon

By Lois Lowry, illustrated by Kenard Pak
ISBN 9780358129400

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