"THE STORY THAT CANNOT BE TOLD" by J. Kasper Kramer (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 400 pages, $18).
"The Story That Cannot Be Told," a novel for middle-grade readers, portrays one brave girl's fight against injustice during the months leading up to the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Ten-year-old Ileana and her parents live in Bucharest and struggle to survive amid mandatory curfews, severe rationing of food and limited access to everything from housing to electricity to art of any kind. It's the only life Ileana can remember, and she writes about it in her beloved "Great Tome," a homemade notebook filled with stories.
Author J. Kasper Kramer (the pen name of Chattanooga writer Jessica Miller, a Nashville native) skillfully weaves historical fact with Romanian folklore and Ileana's own adaptations of classic fairy tales to portray a society in crisis. "The Story That Cannot Be Told" is a tribute to the tenacity and resilience of the Romanian people. By turns charming and heartbreaking, the book is beautifully written and, like all the best fairy tales, its deceptively simple style illuminates powerful truths.
Kramer answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.
Q: Why is it important to write literature for children about difficult topics like the Romanian Revolution?
A: When complicated, frightening things happen in the world — war and famine, political unrest, even genocide — children experience the hardship and horrors alongside adults. I think we often lean away from this truth in media because it upsets us, and we hide difficult topics from children out of a desire to protect them or a fear that they won't understand.
But if we don't write about the tough stuff — and if we aren't honest in our portrayal — the children who've experienced hardship won't have stories to help them cope. (And aren't those kids the ones who need stories most of all?) I also believe writing about difficult situations helps create empathy. "Number the Stars" [by Lois Lowry] wasn't an easy read for me as a child, but it set the tone for how I felt about the Holocaust for the rest of my life, and that was important.
Q: A central theme of the book is the power of art, especially storytelling, to initiate change. Ileana says, "The most dangerous thing of all was to write." What has writing this book taught you — or reinforced for you — about that power?
A: I think it's important to note that when corrupt governments take control, one of the first things they do is put systems into place that work to silence not just intellectuals, but artists. We saw this in Nazi Germany. We saw this in Communist Romania. And we're seeing it now today.
People like professors and scientists are targeted because they have the power to spread knowledge. Writers, directors, actors, musicians — they have that power, too. And in many cases, they have the ability to reach a broader audience and to trigger a more emotional (and therefore more immediate and impactful) response.
Writing is dangerous in the way that telling the truth can be dangerous. There will always be people who react negatively — usually because they're afraid — and these people will work to silence you.
But that makes it all the more important to keep telling stories as loudly as we possibly can.
Q: Although the novel is based on the history and culture of Romania, what aspects of the story draw from your personal experiences? Did you perhaps cherish a Great Tome of your own?
A: In my author's note, I talk about how "Story" was inspired by my Romanian friends in Japan. Many events in the book come from their personal experiences growing up under Communism. In fact, that's why I knew Ileana needed to be a child — she's about the same age my friends were in 1989. The stories they told me were from a child's perspective, and I couldn't separate that from my own retellings.
Of course, there's a great deal of me in Ileana, too — obviously her love for stories and desire to be a writer. My own version of the Great Tome existed in a rainbow-colored collection of floppy disks, which held all my books.
Also, just like some of "Story" came from my friends' real family histories, some came from my family history, too. For instance, my mother's great-uncle Germaine was a fighter pilot in World War II. After crashing in occupied France, he crawled inside a haystack to hide. The only reason he survived was because a young farm girl secretly brought him raw eggs to eat. I won't give away the scene that inspired, since it's a bit of a spoiler, but if you've read the book, you can probably guess!
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.