2022 Reading Challenge

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Guest Post – On the Challenges of Writing an Adult Book from a Child’s Point of View by Sonia Korn-Grimani (Redux)

[This post originally presented itself on October 9, 2012. If you wonder why it’s reappeared, visit here.]

At the age of eight, little Sonia Korn is declared an enemy of the German State. She and her family are given a grim option; either find a way to disappear, or be rounded up and sent to certain death. After a perilous escape to the Belgian border, and becoming caught in the chaos and carnage of war-torn France and Belgium, Sonia finds that she must give up everything she knows and loves just to survive. This is the complex true story of one girl, who rises from war’s ashes to sing the songs of hope and love world-wide. A heart-wrenching and poignant memoir, by internationally renowned singer Sonia Korn-Grimani.


Today we talk with author Sonia Korn-Grimani and editors Sarah Beth Goncarova and Yary Hluchan, who worked with Sonia on her memoir Sonia’s Song. Sonia’s Song is a memoir of her childhood in Germany and Belgium leading up to and during World War II. The book is written in the first person, and for a large part of the story, it is written from a child’s point of view. What were some of the challenges you faced writing an adult book from a child’s point of view?

Sonia: For me, as these were my own memories, I wrote as the memories emerged to the surface, but it was hard differentiating the voice of my child self with my adult self, as everything has a tendency to get blended together when you think about something for over 70 years!

SBG: We made a decision early on in the editing process to try to separate out the child’s narrative from the adult Sonia’s thoughts as much as possible. We did this for a number of reasons, we wanted the narrative to flow as smoothly as possible, and really wanted the reader to be immersed in the child Sonia’s psyche. But there were a few places where we let the adult Sonia’s voice come through as a narrator, mostly to fill in the historical context for the reader.

YH: It helped that Sonia, like many children of war, had to adopt an adult’s self-reliance at an early age—and in fact the title of the memoir’s German edition translates to “Lost Childhood.” Still any child’s experiences will be more limited than an adult’s, and we should see them learning to make nuanced judgments. I was looking for that while editing the manuscript.

Sonia: I think it flows very seamlessly, not betraying one bit how much work went into it!

SBG: In many ways, children see things much more clearly than adults do. I know that it takes effort for me to observe something without judgment. Describing scenes in a child’s voice felt like a very natural way of stepping back and surveying the scene. And also, kids see details that adults sometimes overlook, and sometimes those details can be very descriptive and telling.

JE: One of my favorite scenes is when 7-year-old Sonia is tracing the patterns of the rug on the floor with her finger as her mother is meeting with friends trying to discuss escape options to get themselves out of Germany. “I look down and notice the flowery pattern on the rug looking like a thorny maze of with many dead-ends.”

Sonia: That detail was very telling as to what was about to happen to us over the next few months and years; a dangerous maze with many dead-ends.

YH: Another challenge we faced, and I think any author writing an adult’s book from a child’s view point would face was creating getting a voice that was believable as a child’s without the sweetness and innocence becoming too saccharine. And that detail reminds me of seeing friends’ children focusing on a detail in the environment—I can even remember doing that.

SBG: Making the voice childlike, without it becoming childish. It is a fine balance but an important one to find, or else the author runs the risk of undermining the seriousness of the message.

YH: A major challenge for us was deciding our intended audience was. In a book that is centered around the war, there are many traumatic events that are perhaps a young-adult reader wouldn’t be ready for.

JE: When your book blurs boundaries, how do you make the distinction? Even though it’s written from a child’s point of view, it’s not a book for children, it’s a memoir, but it’s also so much more than that… so how you decide who you are writing for?

SBG: I think we relied on subject matter rather than the reading level, and we eventually decided that it was an adult book, but one that high-school aged kids could learn from, as it would help them have a fuller understanding of what it was like to live through this period of history.

Sonia: And many people have written me and have said how this book has touched them; that they felt like they were right there with me. I’d like to think that writing my book has not only helped me, but has helped other people have a better understanding of this time.

***

Sonia Korn-Grimani earned her doctorate in French literature and the teaching of foreign languages, and directed a multi-cultural language program at UNESCO. With her husband John, and their children Anthony and Renee, Sonia traveled and lived all over the world. She taught foreign languages at the university level, and performed frequently to the delight of audiences worldwide. In her album Cantos al Amor, Sonia sings in 16 languages.

In 1989, Dr. Korn-Grimani was knighted Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, and in 1996 she was decorated Officier des Palmes Académiques. These decorations were awarded in recognition of her lifelong dedication to and promotion of French culture and language.

Sonia continues to sing regularly at UNESCO events in France, and is also frequently invited to share her Holocaust experiences as a guest speaker in high schools, universities, synagogues and churches.

 

 

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