Friday, February 21, 2020

Flight for Freedom

Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family's Daring Escape from East Germany
by Kristen Fulton; Torben Kuhlmann
56 pages; ages 5-8
Chronicle Books, 2020

theme: bravery, family, biography

In the days when Germany was divided by a wall, life was very different.

On one side, children watch TV and eat pizza. On the other, children wear uniforms and – if they are lucky – get to eat a banana once a year. Peter lived on the wrong side. The side with scratchy uniforms, no cartoons, and no fruit. Then one night, he discovered a picture of a hot air balloon hidden beneath his parent’s mattress. His parents had a plan!

What I like about this book: Kristen shows us how Peter’s family scrimps and saves to buy materials to build a hot air balloon. She shows how they work secretly into the dark night. She shows the urgency –  they have one chance to try an escape – and the difficulty of both constructing the balloon and of choosing this path of resistance.

And there’s back matter galore! There’s an entire spread devoted to construction, materials, and engineering of the balloon. She’s included a page about escape attempts, and a note about how this story came about.

I met Kristen at a Highlights Foundation workshop about a year after she finished writing Flight for Freedom. I remember her dedication to finding the “golden nugget” of a story, and how she encouraged other writers to write the hard stuff and stick to the facts. I called her up last week and she graciously answered Three Questions:

Sally: What inspired this story?

Kristen: I was looking for my first nonfiction idea, you know, something to write about. I was perusing back issues of Time magazine and came upon a paragraph about a family escaping from East Germany in a hot air balloon. I immediately emailed Peter, using Google translator, and we corresponded. Eventually I traveled to Germany and talked to the family. I also visited the museum where the balloon is on display. Seeing the location and balloon really helped me feel the story in the way a character might feel it.

I also had an opportunity to see a section of the Berlin Wall on display at the Smithsonian. There were bits of graffiti on one side, and the other just had scratches and felt cold. That was the East German side. People couldn’t go near the wall because it was guarded by soldiers.

Sally: You finished Flight for Freedom back in 2012, and here we are, eight years later. Is that a long timeline for publishing?

Kristen: It is. The editor who initially acquired it ended up moving to another publisher. Fortunately, Ariel Richardson at Chronicle loved the original manuscript and that’s where the book found its home. The longest wait was for the illustrator; I really wanted Torben to do the artwork.

Sally: What advice do you have for writers?

Kristen: Do your research. When you think you have enough, keep on going. If you’re writing a picture book, do as much research as you think you’d need to write a chapter book – you want to have enough that you can choose what you put into the story.

Then focus. In this book I focused on just one family and the balloon. With picture books, less is more because the illustrator will fill in the other half of the story with their art.

And, very important, stay true to the facts. Don’t change anything and don’t make anything up. Even when the research isn’t going your way, don’t fudge the truth.

Beyond the Books:

You can see the escape balloon and flimsy basket in this video, taken at the museum in Germany.

Read the Time article that inspired Kristen’s story here, and then another over at the Washington Post here.

Thank you for joining us today, Kristen. You can find out more about her books at her website.
We’ll join Perfect Picture Book Friday in a couple weeks -  once the Valentine story contest ends. PPBF is a gathering of bloggers who share their reviews of picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

1 comment:

  1. I've been looking forward to this book ever since it was announced. I would have waited that long for Torben, too. He's a magnificent illustrator whose style fits so perfectly with this topic. I've got to pick up a copy.