THE BOOK OF LIFE - Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster 5.1.19
1:04AM May 23, 2019
COLD OPEN Jonathan Auxier: "Seriously, I thank you for asking really interesting and heavy questions. I really appreciated that it's clear that you take the work of storytelling and how stories operate in the world very seriously. And I admire that enormously. So thanks." Heidi Rabinowitz: "Thank you!"
THEME MUSIC, INTRO Heidi Rabinowitz: This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Jonathan Auxier is the author of the middle grade novel, Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster. The book won the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish children's literature, and it was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Jonathan joined me via Skype from his home in Pittsburgh, and our wide ranging conversation included mentions of many resources from writing workshops to board games. Look for links to the things we talked about at BookofLifepodcast.com.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Jonathan, tell us about Sweep. Who's the girl, who's the monster, and what's their deal?
Jonathan Auxier: So Sweep is this story of a girl and her monster. It's set in 19th century London, and the main backdrop is the world of chimney sweeps. Now, when most people think of chimney sweeps, they think of adults climbing chimneys, we always imagined chimney sweeps as being these jolly happy people like in Mary Poppins, but it was a job that couldn't be done by adults. It could only be done by kids. Basically, grown ups couldn't fit inside chimneys. And so Sweep is the story of an 11 year old girl named Nan Sparrow who's one of these climbers and it's her job to go in and out of these chimneys and clean them out. And the work is absolutely backbreaking and incredibly dangerous. And she really has no way out. She's living in indentured servitude, and she is desperate to escape this world and this life. And in that desperation, she ends up discovering a creature inside a chimney. And that creature turns out to be something akin to a Golem. She names him Charlie and she ends up sort of raising him as a child, and then he becomes her protector. And so Sweep is the story of this girl and her monster and how they save one another and then go out and save other kids that are just like her.
Heidi Rabinowitz: What inspired this story?
Jonathan Auxier: Probably the biggest inspirations came from two different places. The first would be the world of chimney sweeps. Many years ago, my wife, who has a PhD in Victorian children's literature, was researching a book called The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. Many people consider this the first modern children's book. It came out a few years before Alice in Wonderland. And it's kind of a silly fantasy that I'm not a big fan of. But the first about 50 pages of the book take place in the world of chimney sweeps; these child climbers (they called them climbing boys often). It's a little boy named Tom, who is one of these climbers and the book very blithely describes this life that this kid has, and it's just brutal. It's sort of jaw droppingly horrendous, what goes on in this kid's life. I remember reading this book, and truly not being able to believe that this was how bad it was, I thought, surely the author was overstating the case. And I started doing research about these child climbers. And I learned that actually, the book was really pulling its punches and the truth of what their lives were like, was so much worse than anything I could have imagined. It's sort of on record as the most dangerous job in human history. Life expectancy was about five years. They would start children very, very young. The problem was, they didn't have a way to get inside and clean out a chimney. So you had to use kids, the smaller the better. So chimney sweep masters would basically purchase or rent or sometimes even kidnap beggars off the street and make them work for them. Every day climbing up these dangerous chimneys, just an awful, awful job. And I have this thing, I think it's human nature, where when I see something really awful, I can't always look away. When I talk to kids in schools, I liken it to that moment where you're on the road and you see this just gnarly piece of roadkill. And it's really traumatic and awful, but somehow your eyes get really big and you rubberneck it the whole way because you can't turn away from this horrible thing. And that was sort of how I felt about this pocket of history. And it wasn't just a small little blip. It lasted for hundreds of years before they actually finally intervened and made it illegal to have kids cleaning chimneys. And the more I researched, the more the world just kind of hooked into me. And so that was the first inspiration. The second thread also came from stories, but in an older tradition, and they came from stories about golems. When I was in college, I had an opportunity to travel overseas, just briefly, I got to go to Europe for my one and only time. And the place where I landed was in Prague for a couple of weeks. And prior to that, I had been kind of someone who was familiar with golems only through fantasy literature, and Dungeons and Dragons, where you get kind of generic golem figures. But I had really no idea about the rich history of golems in Jewish folklore. And I became really, really fascinated by that because I thought there was so much weight to it. And so for years I had been carrying the story of the Golem of Prague around with me. And that just lived inside me simultaneously to the chimney sweep stuff for years and years. And then one day as I was letting ideas flutter in my head, those two collided, and I thought of a child in this dire circumstance and what does she need to escape and I realized what she needed was a protector. And what greater symbol of a protector could I imagined but a golem. I think the question of who Charlie is, is a little bit complicated. He absolutely came from golem mythology and I was very very kind of moved by the richness and the gravity of that folklore. Within the book, however, he is not as explicitly a golem. In fact, if you kind of go through how he functions as a monster, he has more differences than similarities to the golem. You know, he's not made of clay, he wasn't made by a rabbi, he doesn't have a shem or a discernible kind of word that brought him to life. There are all these things that are inherent to the canonical Golem that aren't present in Charlie. And so the characters in the book are speculating about what he is and a golem feels like the closest thing they can find. The gap between Charlie's identity and the traditional Golem, part of the reason I created that space is a because anytime I work in a folklore tradition, I always try to do something a little bit different just to find new opportunity to expand on old stories, but also because I didn't want to presume to make Charlie the ambassador or a perfect representation of a culture that wasn't mine. That feels a little presumptuous to come in and lay full claim to an already existing tradition. The way the characters learn about Charlie is by learning about golems. There was a lot of complexity with that in writing the book actually, because I was really sort of hemmed in by the history, I think I had thought of golem folklore as being really ancient and well established. But the story of the Golem of Prague as a literary idea sort of emerged in the middle of the 19th century and golems at the time that this book is set were not something that were known widely in any culture, including in Jewish culture; they were more closely associated with the more esoteric and kind of fringe traditions of Kabbalah and things like that. And so golems were not a super well known thing in that time in place, the way we know them. Now, one of the challenges this book was figuring out how closely I could make Charlie the golem that I know in my mind that I think that readers who are familiar with golems would know, while still being accurate to what a golem looked like, and represented at the time that the book was set.
Heidi Rabinowitz: I heard that you felt parenthood helped you to write this story? Can you talk about that?
Jonathan Auxier: Absolutely. So I said there are a lot of threads in this book and parenthood ended up becoming a very, very big thread. For several years, I tried writing my chimney sweep golem story, and it was going to be kind of a light adventure. But it wasn't quite feeling right. In some ways, I felt like I needed to find a story that totally had the weight that matched the gravity of both the chimney sweep history and the history of the golem. Finally, after years and years of false starts, and just hundreds and hundreds of pages written and thrown out, and written or thrown out, I finally wrote about five pages, which ended up being the first five pages of the book. And oddly enough, there was no golem in the first five pages. And it wasn't even about my main character, this girl. What it was about was how this girl was raised from a little tiny baby by this man she refers to as the sweep, who, unlike most chimney sweeps, in this time and age, he was not a cruel man, he was an incredibly kind man. And there was a sort of magic to the way he raised her. And even in this incredibly difficult life they had, there was a sense of wonder that he was filling every single moment with as he cared for her and taught her the trade and protected her. And I'd written this kind of perfect idea, like five pages, in which he raises her and cares for her. And it's beautiful and magical. And then one day, when the girl is six years old, she wakes up to discover that that man is gone. I wrote that. And it felt right. I wish I could describe it more precisely, but just as a writer once in a while you write something and, and you can feel like you've hit a vein while you're mining in the darkness. And I knew that this was my story. At its core, what I realized was going on in the story tied very closely to the idea of what it means to care for someone and also protect them. And then the bigger question of, what would you do if it was your job to protect someone and you knew you wouldn't be there to do it. As it so happens when I started the story, I was a young man in my 20s, I wasn't even married yet. I got married. And I eventually found these first couple pages. And I felt like I had a sense of what this book was. But I also knew I wasn't quite the person to write it yet. And so I put it in a drawer for several years. Because we were about to start a family, my wife and I, and I knew I needed to sort of deepen as a human being to really understand what it means to care for someone. And so I ended up having a bunch of kids. And that ended up becoming incredibly valuable, because I could really see firsthand what it was doing inside me. And how having to care for someone, even when it was inconvenient or difficult, was changing me. And as I started doing that, I realized that Nan, my character who when the book really locks into place is 11 years old, that she was going to be going through the same thing I was because when she finds this creature, he's not fully grown, he's born like a little baby. And before he can be big enough to protect her and fulfill that purpose, he's first helpless and needs to be raised by her. And so I was able to channel a lot of those emotions, in my own experience kind of into her journey, reconciling herself to this new role as the caretaker of this creature.
Heidi Rabinowitz: In the story, Nan tells Charlie that he is not a monster, when he asks, he says, am I a monster? Why did you use the word monster, rather than Golem in the subtitle?
Jonathan Auxier: The question, first of all, the subtitle is a tricky one. Because that's always a question of how you're presenting the book to the world and how you're trying to include and create a book that brings in as many readers as possible. I think, for me at some point, and I think this happens to a lot of writers, it's important to step back from what about a story is important to me as the storyteller, and understand that the story itself has taken on its own life. As we've talked about, the golem tradition was so central to my discovery of the story that it felt really inherent, but when I took a step back, I could understand that Charlie didn't perfectly fit that mold. And it would have felt misleading, to specifically identify him as a capital G Golem. That's one piece of it. And then the other piece of it is, there's a really strong thread in this book about monstrosity and what it means to be a monster. One of the discoveries I made while growing up, and people I think Nan's age 11, 12 years old, as they're learning more about the world, they start to learn that their understanding of what is a monster, it's going to change and grow and become more and more complex. I think at the beginning of the story, Nan senses that a big, ugly creature, like Charlie is a little bit monstrous. And if someone were to see Charlie stomping down the street, it would be terrifying to them. But as we start to see the dimension of some of the other characters in the story, including characters who are very well groomed and have a nice smile, and we see the monstrosity of what they're doing, we get a different understanding of what it means to be a monster. And so to me, that just felt like very fertile and kind of universal grounds to explore who Charlie was in a world that had multiple depictions of both monstrosity and evil and goodness.
Heidi Rabinowitz: It reminds me of Frankenstein, where you're never quite sure is Dr. Frankenstein the monster? Is the creature the monster? So sort of echoes of that same conundrum?
Jonathan Auxier: Absolutely.
Heidi Rabinowitz: I noticed that in some interviews about Sweep, you don't mention the Jewish aspects of the book. So talk about the Jewish content, and how Judaism fits into the story. And do you feel like you could have told the same story without referencing Judaism?
Jonathan Auxier: Oh, boy, that's a terrific question. So first of all, in terms of why I do or do not talk about it certain times, you know, Sweep is probably the most sweeping book I'll ever write. Because it covers so many different, pretty serious topics. It's child labor, and industrialization and poverty and a tiny bit of feminism and religion and magic monsters and chimney sweeps. And above all that element we talked about, of kind of what it means to be a parent, possibly losing child. And all this to say that sometimes when I'm asked to talk about the book, I'm asked sometimes to focus on a specific idea. And generally speaking, the plight of the chimney climbers, which is sort of news and kind of novel to a lot of people and central to the premise of the book, that seems to be the one that people ask about about a lot. That being said, when I'm in control of the conversation, I do talk about golems quite a bit. My school visits, which I do all over the country are really about sharing the books that inspired my own stories. I'm a big fan of talking about what I read to get me to a story because I want people to read those other things. And so that includes a conversation not only about golems, but also, you know, the culture and legacy of anti semitism, which was kind of woven into the backdrop of this story. And that's important for me to talk about, because unlike some elements of the book, anti semitism is not ancient history, it's still here. It's still horrifying. I live in Pittsburgh, we're very aware of this right now. In terms of the larger question of how Judaism fits into the story, I'm struggling with a concise answer, primarily because I'm not Jewish, and I would never presume to make myself the spokesperson for a tradition that I'm not part of. But I can tell you the way it influenced me in finding the story. Originally, I tried doing versions that were using a much more generic golem like creature. Those stories ended up just not working, they just felt a little slight. Every time I kept coming back to specifically Rabbi Loew's Golem, the Golem of Prague. And every time I came back to it, there was just such a profound undercurrent of sadness that I really couldn't escape and, and it really kind of got its hooks into me. And for me, that tradition in that specific story, which has many iterations and variations, but they all have a similar theme, which is that even when the Jews in the ghetto in Prague ended up having a happy ending for themselves being protected by the Golem, the Golem's own life is kind of tragic in that once that purpose is fulfilled, he either goes mad, or he resists having his life taken from him again. And there's always a sad ending for the Golem, even though there's a happy ending for the community. That exchange, that moral knot, was so complicated to me. And I realized that if I was going to write a story that was about pretty serious stuff, I mean, this is a book about child labor, it's about child abandonment, all of these heavy things, I needed to make sure my magic element wasn't a magic wand making everything better. But instead, it was a microscope training our focus on just how complicated and unwinnable some of these situations are. I love this question, could I have written this book without referencing Judaism? For me, I don't think this book would have worked without Nan seeking out and understanding what this creature was, apart from Judaism. Because one of the things that's going on in the story, and that happens to all of us as children, is a slow understanding that we are part of a larger community and a larger history. And that there's no such thing as a purely individual struggle. And in learning about the golem, as she does throughout the story,that education, in that history becomes probably the most central thing to her growth as a character. Because she's someone who's very cut off, she's got a lot of trauma and pain. And in the beginning of the book, she's constantly rejecting opportunities to care for other people. She really has this lone survivor mentality of she's just taking care of herself and keeping her head down and not helping anyone. And her trajectory over the course of the story is not to become some kind of leader of a rebellion or anything like that, but to, also not hide from just how awful the situation is not just for her, but other countless thousands of other kids that were just like her, and stepping into the larger movement for justice. And I think fundamentally, that's a huge leap for any person to go through, let alone an 11 year old in a story, and one of the most fundamental things that gets her there is this broadening of her understanding of her place in the world, and just how systemic and ongoing a history of oppression is. And the story of the Golem was the doorway into that. And I think honestly, without that, it really just becomes kind of a kid and a magic creature having some gee whiz adventures, which is a cool thing sometimes. This book needed more and, and I as a human being needed more as I was writing this and meeting and learning about these characters.
Heidi Rabinowitz: I want to warn listeners that this question contains spoilers, but here we go. On one notable kid lit blog, there was a conversation in the comment section, suggesting that Charlie's bodily sacrifice (that's the spoiler) makes him a Christian Golem. And they were implying that that's not okay. I saw a similar comment on a Christian book review blog that this made him a Christian Golem. And of course they were fine with that. Can you talk about what Charlie's sacrifice means to you?
Jonathan Auxier: This is such a cool question. And a fascinating, important one. I mean, first of all, I would say whenever you write stories, sometimes you're going to get a reader who didn't like something you did, and they wish you'd written it differently. And for me, I often hear that and I think, really, they also wish I'd written it in a way that would have fundamentally changed the story's DNA. And, and so that person, I usually say like, what you're describing sounds like a wonderful story, and I sincerely hope you write it, because I would love to read it. Because on a fundamental level, I don't want to get between a reader in the text and tell them they're wrong about something they see, that feels like a very sacred space that I don't have a right to intrude on. So all I can do is really give my own understanding of the story, as someone who has lived with it for quite some time and explain some of my intentions. So self sacrifice. For me, that doesn't feel like a uniquely Christian idea. Resurrection, yes, but sacrifice not. As we talked about, at its core Sweep is about the fragility of being a parent and being a protector and about what you have to be prepared to give up in order to protect someone else. And any parent has felt this. I, for a not fun portion of my life, had a very, very sick child. I know that I would have switched places in a heartbeat with that kid. And so to me, self sacrifice is inherent to the human experience. And it transcends or proceeds all specific religious ideas, and we see shades of it in ancient religions, including Jewish stories, but more importantly, we see it every day in our own lives. So what I would say is basically that Christ is an image of self sacrifice. But it's not the other way around. Self sacrifice is not necessarily the image of Christ because it precedes and transcends that. And then there's the related question, which is why does Charlie have to die at all? And that's certainly a question that some readers are asking. That's a question Nan asks, and honestly, that for me 100% came from golem folklore, the Golem is such a compelling blend of social victory and personal tragedy. And even when he protects the people in the community, he himself is destroyed and in completing his work, he becomes obsolete. And and I knew from the start, Charlie had to die and that that was devastating for me. And so I felt obligated to find a way to make sure that his inevitable death had purpose and meaning. So for me, it seemed like saving who he saves in the way he saves them was the only answer.
BREAK: Hey, Book of Life listeners, Heidi here. I interrupt this podcast with an important announcement. I'll be hosting a book of life live show in Woodland Hills, California near Los Angeles on June 17, 2019 at 5:30pm as part of the Association of Jewish Libraries 54th annual conference. Guests include Joni Sussman of Kar-Ben Publishing, and author /illustrator/musician, Barney Saltzberg, famous for his book, Beautiful Oops. The live show is free. Conference goers get in automatically. All others must RSVP by June 10 to be unlimited. Email me at BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com for details. Now, back to your regularly scheduled podcast.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Let's talk a little bit more about the lives of the 19th century chimney sweeps. Were there any interesting facts that you learned that didn't make it into the book, that you can share with us?
Jonathan Auxier: I've written books that are set vaguely in historical eras before but I'd never written a book that was really set in a moment in history. And the research was really overwhelming. Because you can't have a character cross the street without learning what that street's made of and what their shoes are made of. Fun, weird fact: fancy streets in Victorian London were paved in wood because it was super quiet underneath the carriages. So the research about chimney sweeps; there were so many pivotal and important texts that brought this stuff to light. Something a lot of people overlook, and I certainly did for years, reading a book like Oliver Twist, when Oliver is about to be kicked out of the workhouse (and that's a kid who had a pretty terrible life) he's about to be kicked out of the workhouse and they're willing to sell him to whoever will take him. And in that book, there's a two page scene that Dickens writes where a chimney sweep comes by, and notices that Oliver is small and offers to buy him. And at that point, Mr. Bumble and the other men running the workhouse confer amongst themselves and decide that they can't in clean conscience, sell Oliver, who they hate and want to get rid of, to a chimney sweep, because that would be tantamount to his death sentence. So everything that happens to Oliver in that book, all of the horrible, crazy, insane things are considered the better outcome for him, than working for a chimney sweep. And what's crazy is again, for me, I was really struck as I started reading about what these kids went through, and how awful was how long it lasted, it really was about 200 years, where this was the main practice. And it was important necessary work. Because if a chimney wasn't clean, fires would start in them and your house would burn down and your neighbors; the Great Fire of London was started effectively by a dirty chimney inside a bakery. So the work was essential. And we needed someone to do it. But no one was willing to invest in technology to make extending mechanical brushes, even though they had the designs and kind of ideas for that. They were using kids because these kids were disposable. And it wasn't happening a million miles away in some factory thatyou didn't have to look at. These kids were coming into our own homes and risking their lives. Life expectancy was five years. So if you started young, you wouldn't live to see the end of your childhood. So I learned a ton of really bleak facts about what happened to these kids. One of the things that I thought was really fun that I tried my best to get into the book and didn't quite work is that most of these children never bathed, they were completely covered in black soot from head to toe. If they outlived their childhood, they'd get a terrible kind of cancer called soot wart which came from that from all the soot based abrasions on their bodies. But as they're running around in these just completely kind of coal black rags, most of them barefoot, they have these bright blinking eyes and these flashing white teeth anytime they open their mouths. And so rich Victorian ladies would buy charcoal off of these boys in the firm belief that this would whiten their teeth. So because I guess because by contrast, that these these climbers' teeth looks so bright. That's probably my favorite piece of trivia that I still retain. But honestly, I have to say, I spent nine years researching this book. And maybe you've had that thing in your life where you studied like mad for an exam, and you knew everything and you did the exam. And as you're walking out of the room, it's already filtering out of your brain. And I have felt that so profoundly, I look back at some of my notes, and I'm like, wow, I knew a ton of stuff that I don't remember. Once it got into the book, I think my brain was very excited to jettison an enormous amount of trivia about Victorian London and labor.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Understandable.
Jonathan Auxier: The best book bar none that I read about this was called The Last of the Climbing Boys. And it's by a man named George Elson, who was an actual climbing boy who managed to basically survive his life as a traveling chimney sweep climber. And he ended up becoming not super wealthy, but like a respected middle class businessman. He taught himself how to read and write. And he ended up writing his own account of the work and of his life. And it's an absolutely fascinating book. It's utterly riveting. Because it's just first hand account of this incredibly bizarre and, to my eyes at least, awful existence that he's pretty okay with. It's very strange reading the thing, the horrors of his childhood that he looks back on with fondness.
Heidi Rabinowitz: What was he nostalgic for that to you seems horrible?
Jonathan Auxier: I don't know the intentions of him in writing this book, he comes across, or at least he wants to present himself, as almost like a Huck Finn rogue, who can't really be pinned down. And part of the reason he keeps ending up doing this sort of job is because he just refuses to do any other kind of work that would pin him down in any more stable fashion. So it keeps on running away from home. Now I'm reading it and I'm also seeing how casually he's talking about just the horrible abuses that are being heaped on him by family and by people he works for. And, you know, he's like, Well, you know, I got beaten for six weeks, and then I had enough and I moved on up the road. And he says it like it's nothing and I'm reading it, my jaw on the floor. It's just a bizarre and fascinating document. And it truly is one of a kind, because he was he was really one of the last people who ever had this job before the Chimney Sweepers Act finally took place in 1875.
Heidi Rabinowitz: You're mentioning the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875. So talk about May Day and the chimney sweeps' holiday, and how that history fits in with the activism that takes place in the story and with the real life activism of the 1875 change in the laws.
Jonathan Auxier: So some people, slightly more evolved people, were incredibly aware of how awful this tradition was. And they worked very hard to put a stop to it for well over 100 years. I mean, William Blake was writing about it in his poems, Songs Of Innocence and Experience and you get people like I think it's Jonas Hanway, the inventor of the umbrella and also one of the major people pushing for reform 100 years before my book takes place. Lady Montague was a major figure in trying to reform this. And it never worked, they would pass little laws that were just being ignored over and over again, until in I think 1874, 1875, a boy named George Brewster, who was 12 years old at the time, was being forced to clean out the chimneys in a hospital, and got stuck inside them and part of the chimney collapsed on him. When soot built up inside these chimneys, sometimes they built up in these giant hard sheets. And if you're not careful when you're prying it loose, it'll kind of avalanche onto you. And so he basically just was buried underneath the chimney he was climbing and they had to pull apart the chimney stack. And they brought him to a hospital and he died later and it was very, very public. And for some reason, finally public outcry broke through and people decided enough was enough. I don't know why it was this boy's life because this was really happening all the time to these kids. But for some reason this was the one that is sort of the last straw. And that led to Lord Shaftsbury, who had spent his whole career trying to implement change, partnering with groups called friendly societies, most of them were made up of women in the aristocracy who were socially minded. And they ended up creating the 1875 Chimney Sweepers Act, which finally stuck. It outlawed the use of children. In the book Sweep, I have a character who has a death that's a little bit similar to that as sort of a trigger for change. But I also figured that if I've got a book with a golem in it, I probably can take one or two other liberties. And so what I wanted to do is actually have some of these children take control of the fight for justice, I didn't really like the idea of sort of adult savior sweeping and and fixing these kids, or at least not by themselves. So what I ended up doing is using another piece of true climber tradition, which is the May Day parade that takes place in London, on May Day as a big, big event, big celebration. And one of the big parts of that tradition was for 200 years, the chimney sweep climbers are all considered good luck. They are part of a central parade that marches through the city. Sometimes people throw coins at them, or they'll give them these things called coal pies. It's kind of the one day these kids get to be seen and celebrated publicly. And I think it ties back to like early pagan traditions. But there's this figure called the Green Man, who's this giant man dressed in foliage. And the Green Man always marches with these boys as they dance through town with May poles, the whole deal. And so as my story was sort of moving through a year and getting to the May Day parade, I realized that that was a perfect opportunity to show how collective action could incite social change for good. So I definitely used some sleight of hand there and made the kids who are marching in this advocate a little more clearly during what should be a happy politics-free parade, turning it into much more of a protest for what they're going through in a way that finally breaks through to the people watching. And that was certainly a fiction, but I felt like it was important, writing for kids today, because I think we've seen, you know, as recently as Parkland, that sometimes adults are refusing to unplug their ears and open their eyes. Maybe the kids who are suffering the most are the ones who need to lead us to greater wisdom and justice.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Excellent. So after the Act of 1875, where children were no longer being sent up the chimneys, how did the chimneys get clean and prevent fires from breaking out? What did they switch to? Because it seems like just like a very sudden change in practices.
Jonathan Auxier: Well, this is a crazy thing. There was actually a man I believe his name was George Glass in 1825. So 50 years before this, there was a contest put out by one of these friendly societies, with a decent cash prize to design a mechanical brush. These chimneys were very small, just for context, these chimneys averaged about nine inches square, which is the same surface area like a sheet of paper, and they were covered in soot and grime, the edges were sharp. A chimney could stay on fire for up to three days after the fire below had been extinguished. So kids would find themselves in burning chimneys, they get stuck there and suffocated, it was awful. Putting a brush up there, what they would call a mechanical brush, but really, it's just it's sort of like what we're used to from Mary Poppins with the extending rods. And it's sort of retractable at the end, that was invented as early as the 1820s. And people didn't want it. I would love to say it was like all greedy industrialists or something. But it was also frankly, a lot of it was the women running houses, they thought kids did a better job. And they didn't want to pay for this contraption that they didn't think was quite as thorough. They thought there was nothing like the personal touch of a four year old child's blistered hands to clean this. And so everyone sort of culturally, as a society just plugged their ears and ignored that as an opportunity. But when the law came into place, I think these brushes just took over pretty readily and kind of changed everything. And I should say that this wasn't just about chimneys, these kids were the worst of the worst in terms of labor, in the history of the industrialized world, really. And they were sort of a bellwether for other social change. All of the labor reform we had around child labor came after this particular act. And so this was the thing that really started transforming our understanding of how we need to treat children, and how we need to give them space and kind of protect them in childhood. And in some ways, that's incredibly humbling, because I really believe that if these kids hadn't suffered the way they did, as awful as it is, I think what they went through was a sacrifice that made all of our lives and the lives of countless millions of other people better.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Wow. What message do you hope readers will take away with them from reading Sweep?
Jonathan Auxier: So Sweep is not the most subtle book. I find when I'm writing a book, I often end up stumbling upon like a single sentence that could fit on a bumper sticke. It's not some complicated sort of heavily laden intellectual concept. It's usually something very, very simple, and could be the lyric to a song or something like that. And at one point, pretty much in the middle of this book, I had one character, this boy who was a mudlark, these are children who clambered around the banks of the Thames, which were filled with human filth, but they also had other trash in them. And they would take and clean this stuff up. And this is part of the the ecology of London poor. And this boy, Toby, makes an observation about what it means to look out for and care for someone else, and that we save ourselves by saving others. And for me, coming back to this issue of parenting, I have three little girls. Now, obviously, kids are awesome, and I love them. But they're also a pretty major intrusion on a lot of those concerns, and just my own neuroses in my own mind. But there's something very powerful about having a little human creature who will literally die if you don't care for them. But I found in myself, and when I talked to other parents as well, the sort of surprise discovery, which was that whatever I thought I needed in life to fix myself, I wasn't going to get by directly pursuing me and my own concerns. And that it's actually in the act of caring for and saving someone else that life gains meaning. We save ourselves by saving others.
Heidi Rabinowitz: You're right, it would fit on a bumper sticker! Sweep won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish children's literature, and it was also a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. So Mazel Tov! And I wanted to ask you, was that a surprise to you? Were you familiar with these awards before Sweep was recognized by them?
Jonathan Auxier: I love the world of children's literature. I was extremely familiar with the Sydney Taylor Award and vaguely familiar with the National Jewish Book Award. And I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that this book had been looked upon so favorably. I really wanted to proceed very carefully, because I knew I was writing outside of my immediate culture. And I know that that's the thing that even well meaning people can really mangle and do a lot of harm. I worked with a lot of outside readers, and not as a way of shielding myself from criticism, but because I wanted to get it right, these characters had lived in me so long, and I felt the importance and the urgency of their stories so keenly that the idea that I could ruin their lives, the characters' lives, by mangling some facts, or doing shoddy research was really overwhelming at points. But it was such important and valuable work. And every time I talked with a reader, and I would come back with something that would deepen my understanding of what the book was and where itcould go, all this is to say I didn't, in any way, anticipate those incredible marks of approval, and they really are just overwhelming. And I'm incredibly humbled by it. And I feel tremendous gratitude, that at the very least I didn't screw up the story for these characters. were counting on me not to screw it up. There are no words for what a tremendous honor it is.
Heidi Rabinowitz: You are the founder of a project called Story Guild. Can you tell us more about that?
Jonathan Auxier: Absolutely. You're the first person who's asked me about Story Guild! I think one of the things I feel very passionately about is teaching writing. There are writers at certain levels who fall through the cracks. We have very strong systems for setting up truly amateur writers starting out there for stories. We have all sorts of workshop programs, whether it's SCBWI, or local programs that really do that part. And we have MFA's that helps writers professionalize. But I find there's a big gap between a somewhat professionalized writer and an actual person having a publishing career. I know a lot of people who came out of grad school, I teach in a graduate program. And often they'll kind of sit on their one thesis and keep picking at it for years and years and submitting queries. And slowly, it just kind of trickles off and life takes over. And that makes me really sad, because a lot of these people are tremendously good writers. And so for years, I was trying to figure out how you could alter a graduate program to make it do a couple of the things that I wanted it to do. And then I realized, I could do something totally free. And so I ended up starting a workshop program that's specifically designed for slightly professionalized writers, people who have already written one novel. So it's a cost free way for people who need just that little bit of push. They are actual writers, but they need to push on to kind of the next thing. It's sort of like a more professionalized and slower version of NaNoWriMo, with professional oversight. I think there's so many authors who want to do stuff like this and do not have the time. And this whole program is designed working around the schedule of these busy authors so that they can do something helpful in a way that doesn't derail their ability to write or tour or just live their life.
Heidi Rabinowitz: For any listener who is interested in that, what's the web address where they can find out more?
Jonathan Auxier: If you're interested in learning more about the Story Guild, you can go to my website, which is thescop.com. There's a tab on there for the Story Guild, it tells you all about it, and how you can sign up. We presently have workshops that are going in seven satellite cities. If you're an author whose interest in something like that, please, please, please reach out to me. It's super low labor. It's really fun. It's really rewarding. I ran a satellite workshop this September, I got to hear a handful of brilliant new manuscripts from brilliant young writers. It was fun all around and it took a very little of my time.
Heidi Rabinowitz: So on your website, I saw that you are a fellow board game enthusiast. So that was very fun for me to see. And I wanted to ask you if you could think of a board game that pairs well with Sweep, or if you can't, if there's any other particular game you'd like to recommend.
Jonathan Auxier: I absolutely love board games. Actually, one of my very best friends in Pittsburgh owns a board game store in Squirrel Hill. So every week he comes over with a new game. So I'm getting a constant influx of the new hot board game to play. I even brought to him, like what's a game that pairs really well. There's a couple out of print ones. There's not even a really good golem board game, which surprises me. So some intrepid designer, one of your listeners, make one please. The closest thing I could think of for game that fits the book would be Flashpoint. That's a game that came out a handful of years ago. It's a cooperative game. Similar to something like Pandemic, where everyone sitting at the table is playing together against the board, the game Flashpoint takes place in a house and you are a firefighter and you are trying to put out a fire before it overwhelms you. It's a really fun problem solving game. It can be brutally hard, which I enjoy in a game as well, especially if I'm sharing my victory or misery with others. So that's a game that pairs nicely, but I have to say, I played a lot of games in 2018. And my number one game was something I played right at the end of the year that I absolutely adored. It's a game called Spell Smashers. I played a lot of different word games. I love words. I love wordplay. And I have never played a game that is so good. It's really a perfect balance. Because I find often with word games like Scrabble, you get one guy at the table who's extremely experienced and he just annihilates everyone. And Spell Smashers is basically a word game that's built around almost like a Dungeons and Dragons questing sort of thing where you keep on marching into forests and killing monsters and the way you attack the monsters is by playing a word out of your hand, you get cards with different letters. But the way the game is designed, it's basically half word work and half just general strategy. It's a game that rewards you for being very smart about how you play certain words at certain times. So just being a genius at making long words is not really the only skill in the game, which means it really levels the playing field. I played it with groups of all levels of experience. I even played an augmented version with my six year old daughter who's just now starting to read. And I just love this game. It's called Spell Smashers. And it's absolutely terrific.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Cool. There's a game I also wanted to mention that I thought kind of fit in with the theme of Sweep, and I haven't played it but it sounds like it's a good fit. It's called Rise Up: The Game of People and Power. And it's about that kind of activism that we see in Sweep. It's from the TESA Collective. TESA stands for the Toolbox for Education and Social Action. And they make games to teach people how to change the world. So I thought that sounded like it's probably a reasonable fit, although I haven't played it myself.
Jonathan Auxier: I have not heard of this. And I absolutely will be heading down to my friendly local game store and see if I can pick up a copy because that sounds like a perfect pairing.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Jonathan Auxier: What was your favorite board game? In the last year or so?
Heidi Rabinowitz: Oh, good question. It's not super new. But a game that I really like is Super Fight.
Jonathan Auxier: I don't know anything about it, tell me.
Heidi Rabinowitz: It's a card game. And it's very simple. It's got cards with different creatures or characters. And it combines a character with some traits. So it could be like a giant robo (and then you pull another card for a trait) that has tentacles, (and maybe another trait) that is chewing gum. And somebody else is creating a creature in the same way. And then it's a fight of who would win. But the fight, and I think this is actually an expansion, is to have it not be just a straight up fight. The fight might be who was better at winning a debate, who could stay underwater longer, roller skate more successfully, you know. So it's different kinds of battles. Oh, and then the way you decide who wins is basically just by convincing your friends. It's very subjective. But if you have an imaginative group of people, you can have some really fun conversations based on this game.
Jonathan Auxier: How cool, I will definitely keep my eyes peeled for that, because that sounds totally delightful. Super Fight. Fantastic. Thank you.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Sure. In the spirit of Nan's activism in the story, let's talk about Tikkun Olam, which means healing the world. What action would you like to invite listeners to take to help make the world a better place?
Jonathan Auxier: I love this question. And I love that you run a podcast where you ask a question like this. As fun as board games are, you know, honestly, I did a Skype visit last Friday with a reading group in New York, a bunch of kids. I don't know if it was just early enough in the morning that I had no defenses. But they asked questions that got super personal. And I ended up saying stuff. I was almost like weeping as I was talking to them. And one of the kids who couldn't have been older than you know, 10 years old, stood up and said you talk about issues like child labor not being resolved in our world. What are we supposed to do about it? And I'm going to say what I said to them. It was an unguarded moment, I was really caught off guard by the question. But what I say is what I at the most fundamental level believe, which is, there is so much ugliness, and so much pain, and so much corruption and so much systemic violence, and prejudice, and destruction in this world. And I think in many ways, I grew up in a generation that tried to make those things go away by ignoring them. If we pretend we don't see the problem, then the problem doesn't exist. And that has been a terrible practice. Just because something makes us feel uncomfortable, doesn't make it go away. In fact, sometimes it makes it get much, much worse. And so I think especially as I think about the books I write for younger readers, I can tell them to break their piggy bank and send a couple dollars to a specific charity, which that's great. But the thing globally that I want every kid to do, what I want to do myself, is not looking away. I think it's absolutely essential that we are with clear unblinking eyes bearing witness to what's going on in the world. not pretending that our clothes didn't come from companies who have factories in places where children are being used to make us clothes or adults are being used to make those clothes and not being given a subsistence level wage. not ignoring that just because it's not in front of us. I think it's our job first, to see and bear witness to what's going on. Because the way evil spreads and the way evil grows, and the way evil gains influence, is by being invisible. That's not the most active step. But it also knows there's no way to take action until we as an entire culture, are first doing this. First really, really seeing things and reckoning with what's happening in the world around us and how we may or may not be complicit in what's happening.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Jonathan Auxier, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Jonathan Auxier: Thank you so much for having me.
TEASER Craig Taubman: Hi, my name is Craig Taubman, and I am honored to be on The Book of Life. And I dedicate this next episode to Aria (Aria, right?), who said the world would be a better place if everybody stopped littering. So let's do it, Aria, okay?
OUTRO Heidi Rabinowitz: If you enjoy the Book of Life podcast, please become a patron at Patreon.com/BookofLife. Leave a review on iTunes, or a comment on our blog at BookofLifepodcast.com. You can also like our page Facebook.com/BookofLifepodcast, follow us at Twitter.com/BookofLifepod, email us at BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com or leave us a voicemail at 561-206-2473. The Book of Life is a podcast service of the Feldman Library at Congregation B'nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida, at CBIboca..org and it's supported in part by the Association of Jewish libraries at Jewishlibraries.org. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading!