Interview with Barbara Bietz

  • July 15, 2017
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Please welcome author Fern Schumer Chapman. Junior Library Guild has selected her new book, Is It Night or Day? (March 2010), as a spring title. In a starred review, Booklist called the work ”powerful and eloquent,” adding, ”as with the best writing, the specifics about life as a young immigrant are universal.” A prequel to Chapman’s first book Motherland, the new book explores a little-known program which rescued some 1,200 youngsters from the Holocaust. Chapman’s first book received honors including Barnes & Noble Discover Title, BookSense 76 pick. The Illinois Association of Teachers of English named Chapman the “Illinois Author of the Year 2004.” 

I’m so pleased that Fern was able to talk with me about her work and the fascinating story about her own family.

Your new book, Is it Day or Night? is a prequel to Motherland. Can you share a bit about your creative process and how that affected the writing – and sequencing – of your books?

My mother came from a small German town of 2,000 people and only two Jewish families. Her family had lived in that town since 1721. When she was only 12 years old, my grandparents sensed the growing anti-Semitism in Germany and sent my mother to this country all by herself. Eventually, her parents were killed in concentration camps. My mother coped with her losses by never talking about her past.

Finally, for a variety of reasons, my mother decided she wanted to return to her town in 1991, and I went with her on the trip. Everyone in the town remembered her and, when we returned, each resident was confronted with his or her sense of responsibility for the past. In addition, my mother began to open up about her childhood and I began to understand her. Motherland captures these experiences.

When I wrote the book, I didn’t know anything about the program that brought my mother to America. Neither did she. But after the publication of the book, I learned about a small American rescue operation organized by Lutherans, Quakers and Jewish organizations that brought ten children at a time from Europe to America on cruise ships. Between 1934 and 1944, this organization brought over about 100 children a year, saving about a thousand children. My mother was one of what is now known as the “One Thousand Children.”

Readers of Motherland had many questions about my mother’s child immigration experience and, as I gained answers, I realized that I could write a prequel and capture this untold chapter of history.

Consequently, I wrote Is It Night or Day? Through the prism of one girl’s story, readers of this book experience my mother’s bewildered efforts to assimilate in America, her struggle against constant feelings of abandonment and isolation, and the daunting work necessary to rebuild a life in the face of unspeakable loss — challenges for every child immigrant.

Now that both are published, which one should be read first?

Both books stand alone so a reader can pick up either one or both. Motherland is a memoir that examines the legacy of the Holocaust, but Is It Night or Day? is a work of historical fiction. I have imagined my mother’s voice and recounted some of her experiences along with some of the other “One Thousand Children.” Since I told the story from my mother’s 12-year-old perspective, it can be read by adults and young adults.

Both books are based on your mother’s experiences. How much did you rely on her accounts and how much research did you do on your own?

Motherland captures the experiences on two trips to Germany and it is based upon my perceptions and my mother’s accounts of her early life. Both books required research to understand the historical and psychological aspects of these experiences. However, there is very little material available about the “One Thousand Children” so that presented its own challenge. A book of diaries and letters by the “One Thousand Children” called Don’t Wave Goodbye was invaluable.

What are some fun facts about you?

Hmmm…I am a research hound. I deeply believe knowledge is power. As a journalist, I taught myself to gather as much information as possible before writing about any subject. And I don’t let any of that research go to waste. I use leftover material in my blog at

Fern, thank you for sharing your thoughts and your writing process. I wish you continued success with your books!