Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour: Tammar Stein on The Six-Day Hero

Welcome to the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! This week, the 2018 winners and honorees will be answering questions around the Jewish/bookish blogosphere. Tammar Stein, Honor author in the Older category for The Six-Day Hero, was kind enough to chat with me about the story of Motti, a twelve-year-old Israeli boy whose life changes very quickly at a complicated moment in history.

How much of a role did your family’s memories play in this story?

That’s a great question! Before I wrote a single word, I had spent over six months researching the time period of May-June 1967. I needed to understand the geopolitical events that led to the Six-Day War, but also to understand what life was like in Israel back then. Part of the way that I was able to get all those little details was to speak with my parents. My father was an 18-year-old Israeli soldier during the Six-Day War and my mother was a teenager, living in Haifa. Over and over, I would call them to ask about some minutia. The more we spoke, the more I probed, the more their memories bubbled up. The food, the songs, the routines of daily life, all those rich details, as well as the emotional impact of the war on them all made it into the book. 

What surprised you most as you researched the war?

When I started my research, I knew very little about the Six-Day War. Namely that it was short, it reunified Jerusalem, and it tripled Israel’s landmass. Knowing only those few facts, I assumed that Israel’s winning the war was a foregone conclusion. That, as wars go, it wasn’t that scary or dangerous for Israel. But I was completely wrong. The month of May in 1967 was terrifying for Israelis. Every day brought more bad news: another former ally backing away, another Muslim country joining the coalition against Israel. At a time when 30% of Israelis were Holocaust survivors, some Arab leaders were calling for a new Holocaust. It didn’t seem like an empty threat. It seemed like history repeating itself.

Was it challenging to balance the immediate, sometimes funny details of Motti’s immediate experience with the larger, more serious events going on?

From the get-go, I knew that The Six-Day Hero was a book about a 12-year-old boy and his brothers. I wanted him to be relatable and interesting to my readers and that meant I had to infuse the natural humor and comedy of a 12-year-old’s life. It helped that during that time period, kids had astounding physical freedom. Between school and dinnertime, the city was theirs to roam unsupervised. It might be a modern parents’ nightmare, but it’s a novelist’s dream.

I loved the scene where Motti and family meet his dad’s old friend Daoud once they’re allowed to enter Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. Can you talk a little about the idea for that friendship?

It was my late mother's idea that I write a novel for kids about Israeli history. She was sick with cancer when I finished my first draft and she called me after she read it. She told me she had had a dream that Motti’s dad had a Jordanian friend in Jerusalem. She had even dreamt his name: Daoud. That whole scene was completely her idea. She was right, of course. Friendship between Muslims and Jews, between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews exists.  It’s not a dream. The lovely thing is that for a lot of my readers, that is their favorite part of the book. I love that my mom left such a beautiful, hopeful fingerprint on this book.

Motti’s older brother, Gideon, is exactly the same age as Israel. What does that mean to you?

I wanted to make the point that Israel was so young. It’s kind of a unique situation. When you live in a young country, there are so many things that can feel unsettled. There isn’t that certainty that it was always there and will always be there. 

Thanks, Tammar! And check out Bildungsroman later this morning for an interview with Kathy Kacer, Honor author in the Teen category for To Look a Nazi in the Eye.