A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Madeline Martin On The Unexpected Discovery That Made Her Change Course Midway Through Her Novel

by Brendan Dowling on August 3, 2023

Madeline Martin’s The Keeper of Hidden Books introduces readers to Zofia, a bright high school student in 1939 Warsaw who loves nothing more than discussing books with her best friend Janina. When the Nazis occupy Warsaw, the young women are horrified by the violence and devastation the Nazis enact on their city. When Nazi officials begin to ban and destroy books from the friends’ beloved library, Zofia and Janina devise a plan to thwart their actions. What begins as a secret book club to read books that Hitler has banned soon turns into a highly organized movement to preserve books that the Nazis have slated for destruction. As the war escalates, Janina, who is Jewish, finds the lives of her and her family at severe risk when they are displaced into the newly established ghetto. Facing unimaginable odds and surrounded by the horrors of war, Zofia must figure out how to save her best friend. Madeline Martin’s The Keeper of Hidden Books is a love letter to the power of books and the enduring ties of friendship. She spoke with us about her incredible research process and the discovery that made her change course halfway through the novel.

The book is inspired by real life events and the extraordinary lengths that librarians and other people took to save books that were slated for destruction by the Nazis. Can you talk about how you first found out about this movement to oppose the book banning in Poland during World War II?

One of the things that was interesting as I first started reading was about the books that were being pulped. I was like, “Pulped? That’s so weird.” We’re all so familiar with the book burning that happened in Berlin, so it was weird that they would actually be pulped. But apparently, they were not only banning these books, they were also completely destroying them.

When the Nazis first came and occupied Warsaw, their ultimate goal for Poland was to completely kill off 85% of the Poles, keep the remaining 15% for slave labor, and pretty much turn Poland into a new Germany, another place for Germans to settle into. One of the first things they attacked was the culture. They wanted to get rid of the music, the books. They really wanted to dig the Polish culture out by its roots and completely demoralize everybody. Books were a major part of that. When they did the first round of banning—because there were several rounds of it—they ironically had books that they published that contained the names and titles of books they wanted to have banned. Generally these were people who were writing about topics and ideals that Hitler did not agree with. Of course, there were Jews who were on that list, there were Poles that were on that list. Anything that they felt could essentially detract from a Polish-German relationship, which is ridiculous because obviously their very cruel and aggressive oppression did more damage than any books possibly could. Essentially, it was attacking ideals that they didn’t believe in.

Not only was it that, but I feel like when you read books, you get to really walk in somebody else’s shoes, especially with lives that you will never have the opportunity to live. Oftentimes that gives a face to something that would otherwise feel faceless. That gives us an open mindedness and an acceptance of others that I feel like people who don’t necessarily read a lot of books have the ability to feel. To be honest, I really think that was a big part of the reason why book banning was so huge. Essentially Hitler was getting rid of this opportunity for people to know other people in a way that they would never have the opportunity to, to walk in their footsteps.

Initially they were just sending these books to be pulped. Then they found out that the drivers would actually pull over, steal the books back, and sell them on the black market because people still wanted to read these books. When that started happening, they had the Hitler Youth Movement come into libraries and manually rip these books in half, so that they wouldn’t have any more street value. They threw them into a pile and then those were sent for pulping. It was a complete eradication of this reading material that they felt was so harmful for essentially building empathy in people, in my opinion.

Zofia and her friends starting this book club where they’re going to be read banned books is such an act of defiance. Can you talk what these young women risked by starting this club, especially in 1939?

In the very beginning, they weren’t necessarily risking anything. When I create my characters, I look at the entire history of the country, rather than just looking at the time period that I’m writing in. With Poland, they’ve had a very tumultuous history, one that has really been filled with the fight for freedom. They were occupied by Russia for over 120 years before finally being granted their independence after the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. They had just celebrated twenty years of independence when the Nazi occupation rolled in. Even after the Nazi occupation, the Soviet Union really had control over them until 1990.

So you had this pocket of essentially twenty years of freedom. Twenty years after generations and generations of fighting for it, and Sophia and her friends were born in this tiny little pocket of freedom, this little bubble. When I was initially thinking about her character, I was thinking what kind of a person would she be? I thought, “She’s going to be rebellious. She’s going to be a fighter, because [her generation’s] been raised their entire lives hearing about how brave everybody has been to get them to the point where they are.” When she’s hearing about Hitler—and, of course, they’re hearing about all of these things that are happening against their country— it’s like the writing’s on the wall, that they know it’s coming. Her little act of defiance, especially as a reader, is to read these books that Hitler’s banning. When the club first starts off, there’s really no danger to them whatsoever, but it’s basically them staking a claim and saying, “Even though this is happening in another country, we’re going to read these books in solidarity.”

The book takes place from 1939 to 1945 and Zofia and Janina are on the verge of graduating from high school when the book begins. How did you approach the changes that your characters would undergo, not only because of the war, but also because of growing up?

I have to say, first of all, it was really hard to write the teenage years because teenagers, unfortunately, can be very mercurial. I love to read YA and when I read YA, sometimes I get frustrated with the characters. I have to remind myself, “Madeline, they’re teenagers. They’re acting exactly how teenagers act.” But I also know that I’m writing for an adult audience. So while YA readers are a little bit more forgiving of that [temperamentality], I knew that adult readers wouldn’t be. I had to have Zofia avoid a lot of the teenage roller coaster ups and downs and getting mad for no reason kind of thing. And I say this as a mother of two teenage daughters, by the way. (laughs)

There really was just such a range of emotions that these characters experienced while they were going through all of this. In writing this book, I had to let myself experience those ranges. One of the hardest things for me to wrap my brain around—and it almost it felt like trying to think in 4D—was what it would be like to be born into freedom and stripped of that freedom after you’d had it your whole life. That was really one of the biggest things in Zofia’s life as she’s going through this book. First of all, they think, “We are definitely going to win this war. We have the best army in the world. There’s no way Germany can defeat us.” And then, not only do they get defeated, but all of these horrible atrocities start to happen. When they do stand up and fight back, they’re not just brushed aside, they’re crushed.

When you think about that, that’s when the realization of your freedom being completely stripped away really hits. It’s just all consuming, because what do you do when you’re one voice and everybody else around you is so scared that they won’t fight. How are you supposed to fight for what’s right? Especially when they see their culture start to disappear under the heel of a jackboot, that’s when they start doing little things like continuing with the book club, or trying to make sure that the books that are being destroyed are hidden away. As these experiences happen, every little victory that you have also starts to be a little bit more empowering. “What can I do next time, what can we eventually do together?” Ultimately that leads up to August 1944, when after five years of oppression, they finally get to stand up against the Nazis and fight back with the uprising.

I just have to say a little thing about that. [The uprising] happened on August 1st at 5pm, which was W hour. To this day, on August 1st at 5pm In Warsaw, the entire city goes completely silent, except for all of the alarms and sirens that blare in honor of the Poles who fought back against the Nazis in World War II. The fact that my book comes out on August 1st is honestly such a special, special thing for me.

Was that by design?

No, ironically it was supposed to come out on the Fourth of July. The funny thing is that when I was writing this book, I had a completely different idea that I was going with. It was going to be a dual POV with Sophia and Janina. I always keep researching while I’m writing. I got halfway through writing the book when I found these amazing diaries from librarians. They were talking about their time in World War II, working with the Warsaw Public Library, and how they had these secret warehouses and ran these secret libraries. I thought, “Oh my gosh, there has to be more!” I stopped everything and I dug and I dug and I unearthed so much amazing information. I’d already been to Warsaw by that point and I was like, “I need to go back!” But, of course, I didn’t have a chance to. I threw out the entire half of the book that I had, I redid all of my character charts, I redid my entire plot, and I rewrote the entire thing. I needed an extra month to work on that. It actually ended up being sort of serendipitous because the extra month bumped me from the Fourth of July to August 1st.

Reading the book, you get the sense of being plunged into every aspect of life in Warsaw from the siege to the occupation, and especially all the granular details of the resistance movement. What was your research process to unearth all these details that really bring the book to life?

Well, as a total research nerd, thank you. (laughs) I spent about ten months thoroughly researching this and had over 100 non-fiction books that I used. One of the interesting things about that is because Poland was really controlled by the Soviet Union until 1990, if I had a book that was published in Poland, I couldn’t use what it said, because it could have been censored by the Soviet Union. I had to use publications that were done either in America from people who published after the war, or things that were published in England. The Polish government, in exile, was located in London at that time, so there were a lot of publications coming out.

I have this massive, massive collection, and I bought them all because I love to keep them. I’m one of those people who’s like, “I knew it was in that one book on this one page!” I can find it and see exactly what I need. (laughs) There was over 100 nonfiction books. I didn’t read all of those cover to cover—I wish I was that good. A lot of times I’ll need it for just a paragraph, but it will have such a powerful piece of information that it’s worth it.

Like I said, I did get to go to Warsaw. I went for two weeks and I stayed in Old Town. One of my favorite things to do when I get to a new location is go to my maps, type in museums, and see how many museums pop up near me. There were a dozen museums that were less than a mile away, so it really was the perfect location. I hired a private tour guide who had a laundry list of things that I wanted to get more information on. Her tours went anywhere from eight to sixteen hours, and she talked almost the entire time, just this just wealth of knowledge. Any questions I had, she had answers. I even sent her questions after the fact. She really was such an invaluable source of information as well.

I didn’t get a chance to visit the library because unfortunately I’d already visited Warsaw when I decided to go that route. The Warsaw Public Library has this amazing [online] collection of historical photographs. I went through and printed out every picture that was from 1938 to 1945. I actually put together a map for myself where I had every single floor [displayed], so that while I was writing the scenes in the library, I could stay true to the actual layout even though I didn’t get a chance to visit.

I wanted to get back to it to the friendship that propels the book between Janina and Zofia. Can you talk about what went into creating Janina?

Initially when I was going to do a dual POV with this book, I was going to have Janina’s POV and I was going to have Zofia’s POV. Going from 1939 to 1945 was already like trying to put lightning in a jar. Once I realized I had all the information about the library, adding in the additional elements of the library was too big for two POVs. I had done significant amount of work on Janina’s character, including doing research not only on Jewish life before the war, but also during the war in the ghetto and after. I actually have one book that details out all of the different vending stalls—who owned what and what they sold the goods for. It was just amazing.

With Janina’s character, it’s interesting because after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, there were supposed to be pure equality through Poland. By pure equality, I mean between Poles and Jews. I’m trying to think now, but I think 30% of the population of Warsaw was Jewish. Even still, there was a lot of antisemitism that they faced. They had pogroms, which is why I had Janina’s uncle having been in one. That’s really why her parents assimilated a little bit more. They have a toe in the Jewish community, but ultimately, for the most part had assimilated. As I did my research, I found that even though you could have some friends who were Jewish and Polish, it really very segregated unless there was assimilation.

Another significant relationship Zofia has is with her favorite author, Marta Krakowska. I’m sorry for asking such an ignorant question, but is she a real person?

No, she’s not. With Marta Krakowska, I really wanted to have a mentor for Zofia when it came to her writing. The goal of it was always for her to find her way and finally write this book of her heart, being the book that I basically wrote for her. I wanted her to have an author who was a mentor to guide her in that direction. I knew from the very beginning that [Marta’s theory of writing that] you have to die 1000 deaths was ultimately going to be you have to live 1000 lives. I wanted Marta to be a little bit harder and a little bit skeptical. I didn’t ever want to impose that kind of personality on any other authors who were in existence, especially an author who had lived during World War II who would have fought for being able to publish books and for the freedom of others. It just felt like that’d be wrong, so I made up my own character. That way I could do whatever I wanted with her and it didn’t feel like I was soiling anybody’s memory. It was just a safer route to go.

Finally, what role has the library played in your life?

The role of libraries for me has been huge. Honestly, librarians are my superheroes. I was an Army brat growing up, and that meant that we had to move every four years. It was especially hard when we would movie in America because you would go to American schools where everybody had been best friends since they’d been born. It was really hard for a painfully shy little girl. I’ve gotten a lot more outgoing—I feel like the military kind of forced me in that role—but as a little girl, I was very, very shy. I was not the type of person to walk up to a table full of girls and ask if I could be their friend, so I always found myself in the library at every new school. As a result, I got to know the librarians more than I got to know my classmates when I first moved, because I would read about a book a day. I’d go back in there with my next book, ask what should I read next, and they would guide me toward another book. In the pages of those books, that’s where I really found acceptance. All those wonderful librarians and school librarians really helped guide me through some of the more difficult parts of my childhood with all the moving that we did. I think that’s something for librarians to keep in mind, that when they are helping these kids pick books, you never know what they’re going through and what an impact it can make on their lives. So, thank you, on behalf of all little kids.


Tags: , , ,