word craft


Avi’s 2024 Summer Blog Series

Susan Campbell Bartoletti

From Avi: As I did in the sum­mer of 2023 and the sum­mer of 2022, I’ve invit­ed 13 admired mid­dle grade authors to write for my blog for the next three months. I hope you’ll tune in each Tues­day to see who has answered these two ques­tions we’re fre­quent­ly asked by read­ers. You should have a list of ter­rif­ic books to read and share by the end of the sum­mer … along with new authors to follow!

Where did you get your idea for a specific book of yours?

Hitler Youth Susan Campbell Bartoletti

One of my most pop­u­lar books is based on a true story.

In the midst of research­ing and writ­ing a non­fic­tion book, Hitler Youth: Grow­ing Up in Hitler’s Shad­ow, I vis­it­ed the city of Nurem­berg in Germany.

This is the city where Adolf Hitler held mas­sive Nazi par­ty ral­lies dur­ing the 12 ter­ri­ble years called the Third Reich. This is the city where Hitler bla­tant­ly show­cased his glar­ing vio­la­tions of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Nuremberg rally

In Nurem­berg, I stood on the con­crete podi­um where Hitler had once stood.  I looked over the now-decay­ing Zep­pelin field where Hitler addressed hun­dreds of thou­sands of Nazi sol­diers. In plain view of the world and world lead­ers, Hitler was build­ing his army and machin­ery of war.

Empty Stadium
speaking in the stadium

Stand­ing there, I found myself over­come with immense sad­ness, and won­der­ing, just as I had won­dered as a kid, why no one stopped him.

I knew sto­ries of sev­er­al Ger­man offi­cers who had attempt­ed to assas­si­nate him and failed.  I won­dered if any young peo­ple had protest­ed or formed resis­tance groups.

This is what I know about young peo­ple: Young peo­ple have a strong sense of jus­tice. They know right from wrong. They don’t like the fact that life isn’t fair, and they want to fix it.

And yet I also knew this: Dur­ing the Third Reich, approx­i­mate­ly 82% of Germany’s eli­gi­ble young peo­ple between the ages of 10 and 18 who could prove their Aryan ances­try belonged to the Hitler Youth. By law, they had to join. Many, my research and inter­views revealed, enjoyed their membership.

This led to the next ques­tion: Who were the 18% who didn’t join? Why weren’t they members? 

That ques­tion — writ­ing is about curios­i­ty — led me to the true sto­ry of Hel­muth Hüben­er. At the age of 17, Hel­muth was the youngest per­son on death row in Nazi Germany.

three friends

The Boy Who Dared Susan Campbell BartolettiMy heart turned over. It led me to the ques­tion: What did Hel­muth do?

The short answer is this: He was a polit­i­cal pris­on­er. At a time when the Nazi gov­ern­ment banned books and made it ille­gal to lis­ten to for­eign radio broad­casts and to crit­i­cize Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, and the war — doing so was pun­ish­able by prison or death — Hel­muth and his two best friends broke the law. They formed their own resis­tance group. Their goal was to expose Hitler’s lies and tell the truth about the Nazis and the war.

The long answer — and how Hel­muth ulti­mate­ly saved the lives of his two friends — can be found in my book, The Boy Who Dared.

What’s your best writing advice for young writers?

My best writ­ing advice? Be curi­ous. Ask ques­tions. A lot of questions.

I ask a lot of ques­tions. I always have. Even as a kid, I asked a lot of ques­tions. Some were sim­ple yes and no ques­tions (Can I have a goat? The answer was yes. We had a goat named Girdy.)

a goat named Girdy

Oth­ers were sci­en­tif­ic (If I take my mother’s umbrel­la to my tree fort and open it and jump, will I float like Mary Pop­pins? The answer was no, and my moth­er wasn’t hap­py about her bro­ken umbrella.)

Some ques­tions helped me make new friends or under­stand peo­ple bet­ter or even under­stand myself (What kind of music do you lis­ten to? Will you be my part­ner for that project? Am I brave?)

Oth­er ques­tions were philo­soph­i­cal (Why is there war? Why do peo­ple hate peo­ple they don’t know? Why did peo­ple believe Hitler’s lies?) Oth­er ques­tions helped me to under­stand some­thing (How did World War II start?) 

I looked for answers every­where: from my moth­er, my teach­ers, and oth­er adults; from ency­clo­pe­dias, from news­pa­pers, from books in the library; and from friends.  (We didn’t have the inter­net back then.) I even learned from dumb ques­tions. (I refer you to the umbrel­la sto­ry above and Girdy the Goat turned out to be a bad idea.)

Writ­ing is about curios­i­ty. We don’t need to know all the answers. But we do need to be curi­ous enough to ask ques­tions and to look for answers. We need to know how to take our think­ing further.

The world is a puz­zling place. (Peo­ple are puz­zling, too.) There are many ques­tions that demand answers. Writ­ing is about find­ing those ques­tions, ask­ing those ques­tions, and search­ing for answers. That’s how writ­ers find ideas to write about. It’s our curios­i­ty that dri­ves us to write the story.

Your mind is like a mus­cle. The more curi­ous you are, the more you exer­cise your curios­i­ty, the stronger your mind will grow, and the bet­ter writer — and thinker — you’ll become. How far are you will­ing to think? Are you will­ing to ques­tion? Are you will­ing to look for answers?


Susan Camp­bell Bar­to­let­ti and friend
(pho­to: Alia & Mia Rava)

A recent book by Susan:

How Women Won the Vote: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Their Big Idea

In time to cel­e­brate the 100th anniver­sary of woman suf­frage in Amer­i­ca comes this page-turn­ing, stun­ning­ly illus­trat­ed, and tire­less­ly researched sto­ry of the lit­tle-known DC Women’s March of 1913.

Enjoy this intro­duc­tion to suf­fragettes Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. Paul and Burns met in a Lon­don jail and fought their way through hunger strikes, jail time, and much more to win a long, dif­fi­cult vic­to­ry for Amer­i­ca and its women.

Includes exten­sive back mat­ter and dozens of archival images to evoke the time peri­od between 1909 and 1920.

6 thoughts on “Summer Blog Series: Susan Campbell Bartoletti”

  1. Thank you, Avi, for choos­ing Susan Camp­bell Bar­to­let­ti as your first guest blog­ger of the sum­mer. Susan’s delves into his­to­ry are pro­found­ly rel­a­tive today. And her inquis­i­tive­ness— often play­ful— Is her talisman.

  2. Thank you, Susan! Your blog was spot on: truth­ful, engag­ing, and offer­ing nec­es­sary infor­ma­tion, not just on the writ­ing process, but life. Stay curi­ous. You are one of my favorite writ­ers, and my list isn’t that long. All the best. Edie Pagliasotti


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