Interviews

Interview with Shirley Reva Vernick, author of RIPPED AWAY

Shirley Reva Vernick is an author who explores difficult topics and makes them relevant for young readers. Her newest book, RIPPED AWAY (Fitzroy Books, 2022), is a time-travel story that takes readers back to the days of Jack the Ripper. She explores the antisemitism of the time and offers readers an interesting look, perhaps a new take, on a well-documented crime story. It is a riveting story that will captivate kids (and adults).

I always enjoy learning about an author’s research and writing processes and I’m excited to share my interview with Shirley. 

How did you discover the history of Jack the Ripper had an element of antisemitism?

Shirley Reva Vernick

I’m forever trying to make up for my avoidance of history classes during my school days, when I assumed history was all about memorizing dates and battles. As an adult, I voraciously consume history books, blogs, films, and more. One of my favorite things to do is Google “modern Jewish history” and see what pops up. I learned about the antisemitic element of the Jack the Ripper story through one such trip down the internet rabbit hole.

Tell me a bit about the research you did for RIPPED AWAY?

I immersed myself in the facts of Ripper history, as well as in the socioeconomics, culture and zeitgeist of the era, both in London and the wider world. This entailed doing a lot of one of my favorite activities: reading! Regarding the Ripper history specifically, I read newspaper reports from 1888 (the year of the Ripper), court documents, and diverse modern analyses of the crimes. To understand what it was like to live in the London tenements at the time, I used relevant books, government websites, museum information, and other resources. How much would a loaf of bread have cost in 1888? What were some common idioms people used? What was the outdoor market experience like? I had so many questions I wanted answered!

What inspired you to write a time-travel story to share this history?

I wanted readers to easily relate to the challenges facing Jewish immigrants during the Ripper spree. To best facilitate this, I decided that the main characters should have modern sensibilities, contemporary communications styles, and a familiarity with 21st century customs. That immediately spoke to time-travel. Also, I like the adventure implicit in an abrupt change in time and location. What child (or adult) hasn’t daydreamed about traveling through time?

Why do you think Mitzy and Abe were “chosen” to travel back in time?

Abe and Mitzy both have a lot to give to the Jewish community in Victorian London: a sense of agency, a priority on social justice, and a lived experience of how much better and fairer a society could be. Abe and Mitzy also have a lot to gain from the experience. They learn that we all need to help each other in the face of intolerance…that even a couple of kids can make an impact. In other words, the two friends develop greater compassion and a sense of self-empowerment. This personal growth prepares them to make the most of life when they return to the here-and-now.

You tackle serious topics in RIPPED AWAY – including a violent serial murderer, antisemitism, poverty, and more. As a writer what challenges did you face in keeping the content appropriate for a middle-grade novel without minimizing the impact?

First, I knew from the outset that Jack the Ripper would not appear on the pages. It was society’s reaction to the Ripper spree that I wanted to explore, not the actual murders. The Ripper crimes would be in the background only, while their impact on people’s psyches and bigotries would be highlighted.

Regarding topics like antisemitism and poverty, I worked hard to strike a balance between realism on the one hand and sensitivity to the audience’s age on the other. To achieve this, I carefully selected what details to describe and what anecdotes or vignettes to paint. Then I used broad brushstrokes to evoke the rest of the picture. This process involved a lot of editing and revising, which, believe it or not, I enjoy!

 Thanks, Shirley!

Shirley Reva Vernick is the author of four MG and YA novels. The Blood Lie is an American Library Association Best Fiction for Young Readers pick and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honoree. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterflis a Junior Library Guild selection. Ripped Away will be released on February 8, 2022.

Shirley is a graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars. When not creating stories, she mentors incarcerated individuals with their writing via the Prisoner Express program. You can find her online at ShirleyRevaVernick.com.

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