By Dhanika Pineda
Today we’re pleased to welcome Shirley Reva Vernick to the WNDB blog to discuss Ripped Away, out today, February 8, 2022!
Ignored yet again by his crush, Abe Pearlman wanders into Fortunes and Futures for a little diversion. The fortune teller reveals that Abe may be able to save someone’s life. But before he can ask any questions, he’s swept to the slums of Victorian London, where he finds that his crush, Mitzy Singer, has also been banished. Abe and Mitzy soon discover that they’ve been plunked down in the middle of the Jack the Ripper spree. To get back home, they’ll have to work together to figure out how the fortune teller’s prophecy is connected to one of history’s most notorious criminal cases. They’ll also have to survive the outpouring of hate toward Jewish refugees that the Ripper murders triggered. Ripped Away is based on real historical events, including the Ripper crimes, the inquests, and the accusations against immigrants.
So let’s go ahead and start generally. Would you mind telling me a little bit about your background, in terms of academics, ethnicity, family, anything you would like to share?
Sure. I have a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, and although I always knew I wanted to write, I didn’t major in writing or journalism or English or any of the likely suspects of majors because I was afraid I wouldn’t get a job. So I majored in economics thinking that, you know, no matter who I work for, it’s going to be sort of in the context of being within the broader economy. So that was sort of my reasoning at the time. But I wrote as I went to school, I wrote for the student newspaper and other other types of writing projects, so I did keep my hand in it. I, like the main characters in [Ripped Away,] I am Jewish and grew up in a Jewish family up on the Canadian border of New York State, right on the St. Lawrence River. I’m the youngest of five and I now live in Western Massachusetts with my husband, where we raised our two now grown daughters.
Thank you for sharing. So you decided to major in economics rather than writing, but why did you want to write even though you ended up choosing a different major? What sparked you to continue your passion for writing?
You know, that is such a great question. I think that at the root of it, what inspires me in writing is the creative aspect. So not only using my imagination, even when I’m writing nonfiction, but creating something, creating a written piece. And the way I first got interested in writing was when I was a little kid, like a preschool age before I knew how to read and write, I would take a pencil or a crayon and scribble something on a scrap of paper and hand it to my mother. And genius that she was, she would read off the beautiful lyrical prose or poetry that I had written, and it just made me feel so good. And I thought, Wow, if I can write this before I even know how to make my letters, imagine once I get some education. And beyond that, it was really a genuine interest in the creative process through words. And that has stayed with me ever since my first professional publication. That is something that I got hired to write and paid for when I was in high school. I submitted a short quip to Reader’s Digest for their column for more picturesque speech; it was actually a pun in the form of a question. And the question is, ‘Is a belly dancer a waist of energy?’ But waste is spelled like the body part W-A-I-S-T instead of ‘waste’ like garbage.
That’s creative! And so, moving now toward your current book Ripped Away, you did mention that you are Jewish, just like the characters in the novel. I was wondering, are there any portions of this book, obviously, it is historical fiction, but that are, you know, influenced by your lived experiences? Or what made you choose to write this book?
Yes, the short answer to that is yes. In general terms. My lived experience has a parallel in not only being different from my peers or my community in some ways, but feeling that way. Sometimes feeling it in a negative sense, sort of feeling that there’s intolerance or misunderstanding around me. Part of that is my faith, and part of that is I think most kids feel somewhat different or alone in some way. I also had something of a physical difference in that I had pretty severe scoliosis in junior high and high school. I wore a brace from my chin down to my thigh. And it was big and bulky, and I felt alone and different in that.
But more specifically with the content of Ripped Away that deals with xenophobic antisemitism in Victorian London, it relates to my family lore. Many of the Jews in London at the time that the story takes place were refugees from Eastern Europe who were fleeing antisemitic violence, including pogroms. Well, three of my four grandparents had fled Eastern Europe because of antisemitism. They came to the US, not the UK, but also around that same period of time. And in fact, one of my grandmothers fled Eastern Europe alone at the age of 12 because she was orphaned in a pogrom. So it just has a strong resonance for me.
In addition, pogroms, like the one I just referred to, were often sparked by blood libels. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with blood libels, but a blood libel is a form of antisemitism when a Jewish community gets blamed, when a gentile, usually a child, disappears or is killed or hurt. Sometimes, a gentile child really would disappear, and sometimes it was just made up that it was, but that would be the excuse for the violence of the pogrom. So the antisemitism around Jack the Ripper was a blood libel, it was a form of blood libel. In my sort of lived experience, but definitely in my family lore, there was a blood libel in my hometown in northern New York state when my father was in high school there. In fact, it’s the subject of my very first novel, which is also historical fiction. So it’s really close to home for me. And even though I wasn’t born yet when that happened, it resonates down through the generations. And finally, while the antisemitism that I have directly, personally individually experienced is, thankfully, much milder than a blood libel or a pogrom, it has been there in my life, so I can relate in a very firsthand way as well.
So speaking of antisemitism, why did you choose to put this very heavy, serious content in the context of a children’s book? Why did you think it was important to frame it in this way rather than say, a more adult novel?
I wrote it as a book for children because I think children are our best hope for making the world better now and in the future. So I wanted to go right to the source of the audience that I hope can get something meaningful out of this and think about it and talk about it, with adults and other children.
What lessons are you hoping that people will take from this book, both adults and children? Is there a different lesson you think each group should take?
Yes. I think there are lessons for each age group. For children, what I hope they will take from it is we really need to help each other, whether that be in the face of intolerance or something else. And even if you can help just one person, as the main characters in this book do, that is really big and really vital. In fact, the Talmud, which is the body of Jewish law, says that whoever saves one life saves the whole world. And to me, that means one person can make a difference, and everybody who is at all able to really has a responsibility. Anybody who’s physically, geographically able has a responsibility to proactively show kindness and compassion to others. Hopefully, adults already know that.
So what I’m hoping that adults will take away from it, besides hopefully reading what they find is a compelling story in a really interesting episode in history, is this: In the book, Ripped Away, the children Abe and Mitzy have to learn the value of helping others the hard way. They have to do it by themselves in completely foreign and risky circumstances. But adults, we adults as parents and guardians, as teachers, as librarians, as counselors, we can help and our kids learn. We can encourage them to learn about this and to really internalize it from the safety of the classroom, the library, the home, the larger community. Be it through readings, related stories and then talking about it, other projects, other sorts of interactions, we adults have that responsibility.
And so, back to the genre of this book being historical fiction, why do you choose to write in fiction rather than personal essays, non-fiction, other genres? Why do you think fiction is a good outlet for this?
I think that fiction is a good outlet for many reasons. I think that number one, it allows me to make the main characters children where they might not otherwise specifically be in a way that I could write about non-fictionally, and I think that kids like to read about kids. Kids identify more with stories about kids. So that’s the main reason. And also, writing fiction allows me the flexibility to massage and develop the plot in a way that carries what I’m what I’m trying to say in a focused, but hopefully, fast paced and interesting storyline.
So through fiction, why do you think it’s important to emphasize diversity, especially in children’s fiction and children’s literature? And further, how do you see this being accomplished through your book Ripped Away?
Yeah. Well, I think it’s important to emphasize diversity in children’s literature, really for two reasons. One is that every child deserves to see himself or herself in children’s literature. So that includes children from what is usually called a minority or underrepresented standpoint. The other reason is that I strongly believe that all children’s lives will be enriched if they can get to know characters who come from different backgrounds, different demographics, different experiences, different situations. And I really feel that children who spend time with diverse characters and learn about them will make better, more compassionate global citizens. In that way, diverse children’s literature can make happier individuals and a better world community as a whole.
The way I think Ripped Away achieves this is, well, first, obviously, through the religious minority angle; the Jewish characters in the face of a non-Jewish majority that is xenophobic and antisemitic. Also in so far as Abe and Mitzy are traveling through both time and space to be in this Jack the Ripper setting, there’s also the experience of just difference in culture, slang, just all the different things that would make up the culture of the time. The fashion, what’s polite to say and not to say, currency, money. All those things are showing how we all take for granted the things that we grow up with, whether it’s dollars versus pounds or driving on the left side versus the right side of the street. But, just because it’s our way here and now doesn’t mean it’s that way everywhere or at all times and it can make us appreciate both our own circumstances and ‘the other.’
Yeah, definitely. So in the here and now, we’re definitely seeing a lot more of this diversity being put into children’s literature. Do you feel there was any of this when you were growing up or do you feel like there was a lack of thought?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. You know, there were some. The one book that comes to my mind, as I’ve been thinking about this, is a book called The Chosen, which was probably recommended to me by a parent, one of my parents, or maybe even my rabbi, because it’s about Jewish characters. There definitely was a dearth of it. And, you know, I just don’t remember having access to much of anything at all with main characters of color or characters from, say India, the Middle East, just so many countries, it was really sort of the default white middle class character.
So what do you think that a character like Abe or Mitzy would have done for you as a child if you had been able to read about someone like them?
You know, I am just barely exaggerating when I tell you that. I really didn’t know there were other young Jewish kids when I was growing up. There had been a somewhat bigger Jewish community where my father was growing up there and there was a synagogue. But by the time I came around there, there was one other family that had two kids who were in the high school with me, but I really thought that that was reflective of everywhere.
And then I went to college, and I think a third of the population was Jewish, and I just watched the other Jewish, i.e., minority kids who were a minority in the same way I was a minority. You know, they thought nothing of the fact that half of their dorm was Jewish, whereas I was stunned and thrilled about it. So what the book would have done for me when I was a kid is let me realize that there are definitely other Jewish kids out there, and every individual has a different life experience than another. But some of those experiences are very similar. And I would have felt solidarity both ways. I would have been rooting for them, and I would feel like after reading the book that they were sort of with me in my head rooting for me. So I think it would have been valuable.
Definitely. So speaking of your characters, I did have a question. I wanted to know why you decided to make Mitzy blind when they turned back in time.
Part of the reason that I made Mitzy blind was that from a plot standpoint, I wanted to make it so Mitzy and Abe couldn’t just secretly pass notes to each other. I wanted to make it really hard for them to communicate frankly with each other when their Victorian London families were around. And the other reason that I did it was that I wanted one of the characters—and I chose Mitzy—to experience something additional besides being Jewish. You know, being Jewish during Jack the Ripper in London, in the slums is not the same as being Jewish in a nice US village where she has basically everything she needs.
But she was Jewish in contemporary times and in the time slip, I wanted one of the characters, I wanted Mitzy, to experience a different additional form of being different, being a minority, never having experienced it before or expecting to experience it. Then I sort of let the character run and tell me how she was going to respond to that.
Interesting, thank you for explaining that! So to a more general audience, are there any books that you would recommend just about anything in general, anything at all?
There are so many good books out there. I love Steinbeck, so I loved The Red Pony when I was younger. I loved Grapes of Wrath when I got a little older. I think he has that triptych of nailing plot, character and character development, setting and all the imagery. And I think whether you’re a kid reader, an adult reader, or you’re a writer or an aspiring writer or anything, there’s just so much to learn there. And this is sort of like out of left field, but I’ve been thinking recently about how much I loved the Pippi Longstocking stories when I was a kid. It was Astrid Lindgren’s birthday recently, and I read that, so I think that’s what got me thinking about it. And that really inspired me too. It helped me love reading, and it made me realize that characters can be really quirky, and it’s okay.
Shirley Reva Vernick writes MG and YA fiction featuring diverse characters. Her newest novel is Ripped Away (Feb. 8, 2022 by Regal House Publishing). Learn more at ShirleyRevaVernick.com.
Dhanika Pineda is a Literary Journalism and English student at the University of California, Irvine. She is an aspiring journalist who is passionate about storytelling in a way that is more helpful than harmful, more accurate than trend-worthy, and more honest than persuasive. When she’s not reading and writing for classes, she’s usually still reading and writing for fun. She especially enjoys cultural narratives, poetry, and fantasy. To give her eyes a break from words, she likes to cook, bake, and nap. You can find her on Twitter @DhanikaPineda.