Thursday, August 12, 2004

History lives again ... in books

A unique series of student-oriented library books, created by local author Linda Jacobs Altman, presents the atrocities of the Holocaust in a way that fourth- and fifth-grade readers can comprehend.

"Everyone in publishing has always said you can't do a history of the Holocaust for grades four and five," Altman said, reflecting that the subject matter was considered too intense for young readers.

Altman, who had done several books for older readers, had written about the Holocaust before. She said that Brian Enslow, her publisher, called her up one day and ran the idea by her to do a six-book series, tracing the story of the Holocaust all the way from Adolph Hitler's rise to power to the Nuremberg trials and after, but to skew it for fourth- and fifth-grade readers. After "picking up her teeth," Altman agreed to meet the challenge.

"The divisions were easy to do," Altman said. Beginning with an introductory essay that would tie together all volumes in the series, Altman consulted her source material and began playing with leads. "All of a sudden, the words started coming. The flow was right, and I thought it had a good tone. You can't sound outraged; you have to be matter-of-fact."

Altman has software on her computer that evaluates her writing for its grade level readability. "It came in at fifth grade. So I called Brian back and said, OK, let's try it."

Just how does one write for the fifth grade? Altman said it goes beyond vocabulary and syntax. "You don't want to sugarcoat things, but you don't want to gross them out," she said, adding, "The chief difference between these books and the ones I've done for older readers, is that I don't use as many graphic examples." And by now, Altman said, she can "turn-on five. There's nothing to turning-on' high school," she added. "You just let it rip."

The Holocaust made an impression on Altman early in life, fueled by strong emotions from family members around her. "I was born in 1943, and a lot of the things that happened weren't known at the time," she said. "In 1945, when the war ended and stuff began coming out, I was 2-and-a-half years old." Altman said she remembers hearing broadcasts about the Holocaust over the radio. "Mother was crying and I couldn't understand why. But the combination of those words, and my mother crying ergo, something bad had happened."

Altman began her writing career by submitting articles for trade journals. When she got word that a textbook publisher was looking for "high interest, low readability" authors, she sent off a "skewed" resume and began studying readability formulas. Altman soon discovered she had a flair for the work.

Altman collects her material from a variety of primary sources, several of which are available on the Internet. "Sometimes, when I do a Google Search,' miracles occur," she said, recounting her discovery of a collection of slave narratives, posted online by the University of North Carolina. These were to prove instrumental in her research for an earlier project.

Discussing the tone of the series and that of a current project, a biography of Hitler, Altman said much of the repugnance concerning Hitler's beliefs are evoked by his own writing, and that of his followers. "It's very effective," she said. "I could not do with invective, what they do for themselves."

One of the hardest things to learn, Altman discovered, was to make sure everything was attributed. Referring to a recent essay in the newspaper's "Local Voices" column, "I agreed with everything he said," Altman said, "but I counted the adjectives and the unsupported statements. That is the hardest thing to do, and I still fall into it."

"The Holocaust in History" series was released by Enslow Publishers, Inc. in the spring of this year. Complete titles in the series include:

"Hitler's Rise to Power and the Holocaust;"
"The Jewish Victims of the Holocaust;"
"The Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust;"
"Resisters and Rescuers Standing Up Against the Holocaust;"
"Crimes and Criminals of the Holocaust;" and
"Impact of the Holocaust."

More information about the series can be found on Enslow's Web site at

Originally published in the Clear Lake Observer American

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