Joan Betty Stuchner is an award-winning author. Her recent release, HONEY CAKE, takes place in Denmark during World War II. It is a story of hope during a very dark time. Joan Betty was born in Leeds, England, but has lived in Vancouver Canada since 1965. She says she “always had a head full of stories, but didn’t write many of them down until I was in my twenties.” Along with numerous books, her poetry has been published in Ladybug Magazine and her stories have been featured in Spider magazine. Joan Betty has worked as a teacher, performed as a storyteller live and on television, and has appeared in many stage plays with local community theatre companies. Currently, she works as a library assistant and also teaches part-time at her synagogue school. She lives with her husband and son in Vancouver, where she enjoys a lovely view of both sea and mountains from her balcony.
Tell me about your new book, HONEY CAKE.
HONEY CAKE is set in Denmark during the Nazi occupation of WW2. It’s the story of a Jewish boy David, and his Christian friend Elsa, whose lives are disrupted by the war and also by the presence of enemy soldiers in their beloved city of Copenhagen.
David’s sister is a university student who is hardly ever home. Shortly after David finds out that she’s actually working for the resistance, he too is called upon to run a very dangerous errand. Still, for a while it seems as if David’s biggest problem in life is his inability to do math. But something much more serious is about to happen.
In 1943 the Nazis decide to round up all the Jews on Rosh Hashanah. That’s when the Danish people are put to the test. It’s really a story about how people cope under difficult circumstances, and try to live as normal a life as possible. It’s also about courage, loyalty and friendship. Ordinary people, grown ups as well as children, become heroes by simply doing what’s right.
It sounds like a very serious book, but there’s also humour in the story, coupled with suspense. And it leaves the reader with a feeling of hope for humankind. It made me feel that way when I’d finished writing it. HONEY CAKE is a chapter book and it would be suitable for some grade two children, but I know some grade fives who have enjoyed reading it too.
I must mention that the US edition is published by Random House, and the Canadian edition is published by Tradewind Books. Award winning artist Cynthia Nugent illustrated the story with wonderful line drawings, and Joanne Renaud created the beautiful US cover.
What inspired this story?
It began when I sent what I thought was a very funny story to Mike Katz of Tradewind Books in Vancouver. He e mailed me a few days later: ‘Let’s talk.’ I thought, great, he likes my story. But when I phoned him it turned out he wasn’t interested in that story at all. He said, “How would you like to write a picture book about the Danish rescue of Jews during World War II?”
Right away the idea really appealed to me. I did my research, created characters that I felt very close to, and eventually what happened, of course, was that the 2,000 word story became a 10,000 word story. It wasn’t a picture book any more!
How much research was involved?
I read some history books, especially those with personal recollections – it helps that I work at a university library – and I also checked the internet.The stories of ordinary Danes, both Jewish and Christian, fascinated me. I was especially struck by the courage of Danish children. But I also had a stroke of luck that sometimes happens when you’re writing, when your antenae are up there and pointing in the right direction.
Someone at my temple, that I’d known quite casually for a few years, turned out to have been one of the Danish children rescued and sent to Sweden. Her name is Bente Nathan Thomsen, and not only was she generous with her time, telling me little personal stories and anecdotes, she also lent me a videotape that she had made for a Jewish archive. It detailed many of her experiences. There were more stories than I could use, of course, but Bente’s information helped to add so much more colour to the book.
What was the most interesting thing you learned?
It’s difficult to choose. There are two things that really stand out for me. The first is that when the Danes found out about the Nazi plan to round up all the Jews, almost the whole country mobilized. People rode around the streets on bicycles warning Jews. They tore pages out of public phone books and went to the houses of people with Jewish sounding names. The escape route was organized almost overnight. The bottom line was that in Denmark everyone was family.
The second discovery that blew me away was that all of the Danes imprisoned in Theresienstadt camp survived the war – except those who died from natural causes. King Christian and Danish officials kept in touch with them throughout the war. I think the Germans kept on hoping the Danes would become their allies.
What are you working on now?
Well, my last book JOSEPHINE’S DREAM, just came out in the US (Silverleaf Press) It’s illustrated by another fabulous artist, Chantelle Walther, and is a picture book about the late, great Josephine Baker.
As usual I have too many stories on the go (four short novels to be exact), but the one that’s closest to completion takes place in 18th century England. One of the characters is a highwayman. (He’s an actual character from history. In fact, I once sat on the iron bed in his old prison cell). There’s a lot of humour in the story, some mystery and suspense.
The boy in the story longs for more adventure, so I’ve already got a sequel in mind that places him in a town of smugglers. Entire towns were involved in the smuggling trade. And again, by coincidence, it turns out that most of the English coastline, where I spent my summer holidays as a child, was for centuries, used by smugglers.
Joan Betty, it’s been wonderful getting to know you. I look forward to reading your future books!