BETHLEHEM — Bethlehem Central Middle School students discovered that history books are not the only way to learn about world history — illustrations work too.
Acclaimed illustrator and author Vesper Stamper visited the school for an art class and presentation on Tuesday, Oct. 22 to speak on how she illustrates historical fiction novels, gets inspiration from real-life world events and how art can start a genuine conversation about topics like humanity, discrimination and dignity. Speaking before a packed auditorium of students as part of their social studies curriculum, Stamper also talked about her education and the creative process behind her recent 2018 young adult book, “What the Night Sings.”
The book revolves around Gerta, a teenaged Holocaust survivor, who lost her family and the life she knew in Nazi concentration camps during World War II but she has to learn how to rebuild herself and rediscover her Jewish faith after liberation. With hauntingly beautiful illustrations, the reader learns that liberation does not necessarily make things better for Gerta as she has to stay in a displaced persons camp.
“What the Night Sings” has been nominated for a National Book Award, a finalist for a Morris Award, recognized among the Golden Kite Honor Books under young adult fiction, won the Sydney Taylor Book Award, named best young adult book of 2018/2019 by Young Adult Library Services Association, and noted by the Wall Street Journal as one of 2018’s best children’s books.
The students learn that “What the Night Sings” is more than just an illustrated novel; it deals with heavy themes like World War II, the Holocaust and its aftermath, genocide, concentration camps, Judaism and anti-Semitism. Stamper said that while many Americans know about World War II, not many would recognize infamous concentration camps like Auschwitz and the reality for many displaced people after liberation.
Similar to the events in her book, Stamper brought up that Bergen-Belsen, one of the real-life concentration camps located in Lower Saxony, Germany, was turned into a refugee camp after it was liberated in April 1945. Despite much hopelessness among the displaced people, she said, “By June, teachers started a kindergarten there, less than three months after people were dropping dead there. I just was fascinated by this because the reason why they were still in the camp is because all their relatives had been murdered and their homes had been taken over. … There was still rampant anti-Semitism all throughout Europe and people would attempt to go back to their towns but face brutality. So, many people stayed in the concentrations camps even after they were freed, many of whom were teenagers.”
Stamper also said it “was mind-boggling” that a few years after liberation, more than 1,000 weddings happened and over 2,000 babies were born at Bergen-Belsen.
She gave an example of how a Czechoslovakian woman named Lilly lost some of her family members in Auschwitz but she and her two sisters survived despite being transported to five different concentration camps. She then met a man named Ludwig Friedman at the Bergen-Belsen refugee camp and she wanted to start a family and get married in a white wedding gown, as a sign of hope and rebirth. Friedman eventually crafted a wedding gown out of a silk parachute with the help of a seamstress — Lilly and Friedman then married on Jan. 27, 1946.
“That gown, because it was so precious, was passed from girl to girl who’s getting married and Lilly stopped counting after handing it to 17 women and it was far more,” Stamper said. “Why did it matter to have a white wedding dress? It was a way to say that they survived through chaos and disaster, and they were determined.” The gown, she said, is now on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Stamper said stories like Lilly’s and the message of hope even after liberation were what helped inspire her “What the Night Sings” book. She added that she also visited many former Nazi concentration camps as part of her research process.
Stamper connected her creative process to how she was born in Germany and grew up in a Jewish home in New York City “that, for me, was not a safe place. I had never met my father because he was not a good man and he’s an alcoholic and violent towards my mother, and when I was eight, she left him and never looked back. So, my mother was my hero in many ways and she had her own difficulties. As a result, my childhood was filled with many issues of abuse, neglect, trauma and mental illness, and I was honestly grateful that I had art and friends to go to.”
Stamper pursued drawing and visual art at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, obtained a bachelor of fine arts in illustration at the Parsons School of Design and a master of fine arts in illustration as visual essay at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Besides her personal and professional background, Stamper also showed slides with news headlines and photographs relating to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; the Charlie Hebdo shooting and Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege in Paris, France; and how every week, Jewish people are attacked violently in Brooklyn which are captured on surveillance footage. While she said that anti-Semitism and violence towards Jewish people are not new concepts and still happen in recent years, numerous students’ eyebrows rose when she reminded them that Sunday, Oct. 27 was the first anniversary of the aforementioned Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
“Jews are once more the most targeted group for hate crimes,” she said, which led her to pose a thought-provoking question to the students before her, “Would you rather be safe or strong?”
That question, Stamper said, also helped inspire her to write “What the Night Sings,” once again showing how complex her creative and writing processes were. When her presentation concluded, Stamper gifted one student a copy of her book via a raffle.
“What the Night Sings” is available in bookstores and online. For more information, visit www.vesperillustration.com.