On Sept. 1, New Jersey author Meg Wiviott released her new historical novel, Paper Hearts (Margaret K. McElderry Books). Based on the true story of best friends Zlatka and Fania — teenage girls interred in Auschwitz who risked their lives to create, exchange, and hide a heart-shaped origami birthday card on Fania’s birthday — the novel in verse chronicles an unforgettable act of defiance and hope amid the horrors of the concentration camp. New Jersey Jewish News sat down with Wiviott, who lives in Morristown, to discuss her background, her personal connection to the story, and the messages she hopes her book holds for modern-day society.
NJJN: How did you learn about and research the story behind the paper heart in preparation for the book?
Wiviott: I first got the idea for the book in November 2010 after learning about the paper heart on-line and finding out that a documentary had been made about it called The Heart of Auschwitz. After reading everything I could find on the topic, I visited the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre [where one of the paper hearts is on display] and also met with the filmmaker. Paper Hearts is based on truth and history, and I used film clips and the women’s own testimonies as research. While everything that happened in the story is true, survivors’ memories aren’t always there 70-plus years later, so I used other memoirs of Auschwitz to help fill holes.
NJJN: How do you feel about the book’s heroines, Zlatka and Fania?
Wiviott: I have such admiration and respect for these women. You never know how you’re going to react in a situation until you’re put to the test, and these women reacted with nerves of steel, kindness, humanity, and bravery. I’m in awe of what they went through and amazed by the way in which they came out on the other side whole.
NJJN: You authored your debut book — the award-winning children’s picture book Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, a story about Kristallnacht from the perspective of a neighborhood cat — in 2010. Tell us about your own Jewish affiliation and connection to both this book and Paper Hearts.
Wiviott: I describe myself as “a Jew by choice.” I grew up in Glen Rock, was reared as a secular Christian, and my family was very religiously “eclectic” — Christmas was Santa Claus and Easter was the Easter Bunny, and I felt that formal religion was always missing in my life.
Throughout school and college, a majority of my friends were Jewish, and my husband is also Jewish, which made me wonder if the world was telling me something. I converted to Judaism and the transition was very easy for me — it’s who I am. We’re Reform Jews and are members of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, where we’ve lived for 20 years.
As for my two Holocaust-themed books, I was moved by the opportunity to share these important stories with young people and would say that characters who are questioning their faith is an ongoing theme in all of my writing.
NJJN: Tell us about your professional background.
Wiviott: Though I majored in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’d been writing and creating stories ever since I was a child. Convinced that it wasn’t something I could make a living at, I stopped writing after college, but once I had my daughter and son and started reading books to them, my love of different worlds reawakened and I started writing for myself again. I joined a critique group, began submitting pieces, and ultimately went back to school and graduated with an MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011.
NJJN: What do you hope readers will take away from Paper Hearts, and how do you feel the book’s themes and messages resonate in today’s world?
Wiviott: When I write a story, I don’t necessarily envision a message that I hope to teach; all I can hope for is that a reader picks it up and takes away something meaningful from it, whatever that gem is.
That being said, every survivor’s story is unique and these stories need to be remembered and honored. When people see hatred or discrimination or injustice in the world, I hope that they’ll stand up and say, “This isn’t right.” Unfortunately, it’s still happening everywhere; mankind hasn’t learned from the Holocaust, and we need to take this to heart.
NJJN: What are you working on next?
Wiviott: My agent is in the process of submitting my contemporary young adult novel to publishers; it features, among others, two Jewish characters and covers several Jewish themes. I’m also currently working on another historical novel set in Los Alamos during World War II. And I’m truly enjoying being a new grandma to our 19-month-old grandson!