Stars of the Night: An Interview with Author Caren Stelson

On the eve of World War II, the Czech Kindertransport rescued 669 children from Nazi persecution. The new nonfiction picture book Stars of the Night: The Courageous Children of the Czech Kindertransport by Caren Stelson and illustrated by Selina Alko sensitively tells the powerful true story of the children’s journey to safety from their collective perspective.

Read on to learn about author Caren Stelson’s research, creative decisions for the voice of the book, and her special trip to meet Nick Winton, son of Nicholas Winton.

What drew you to the story of the Czech Kindertransport?

After writing SACHIKO: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, I knew, as part of my continuing interest in World War II, I would revisit the war in Europe and the Holocaust. My father was a captain in the U.S. infantry during WWII. He fought through Germany as a Jewish American officer. My grandparents are Jewish immigrants from Europe. After the war, some of their family members who remained in Europe were never heard from again. As a child, I grew up in the silent shadows of World War II, but I never knew quite what or how to write about it.

When my older brother Bill sent me a clip of the story of Nicholas Winton and the Czech Kindertransport, I got goosebumps. I saw resilient children and brave parents saying good-bye to each other. I saw people stepping forward to give these children safe passage as war began to brew. And I saw one man, Nicholas Winton, pour hours of energy and effort to save 669 of these children. If you are a writer, goosebumps are everything. If you get them, they tell you to pay attention to a story. It may be the story you need to write.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from my research?

The most interesting thing I learned during my research was how many volunteer refugee organizations were working in Britain, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to give Jewish children their “ticket to life” and to find a safe home for them in England. Sadly, England was the only country that welcomed 10,000 children through its doors. I thought about all the children all over the world today who are in need of safety. We could all do so much more to help children who find themselves caught in wars or terrible poverty. They too need a ticket to a brighter future.

What was it like meeting Nick Winton, son of Nicholas Winton? When did this trip take place?

Last September 2022, my husband Kim and I were traveling in the U.K. Our last stop was London where we met Nick Winton, son of Sir Nicholas Winton, and his lovely wife Dominique. I had an advance copy of Stars of the Night with me for Nick as a thank you for his support and the beautiful statement he wrote on the back cover of the book. London is a big city. I had no idea where to suggest we meet until I remembered the Liverpool Street Station where the 10,000 children arrived on the Kindertransport in 1938-39. A large bronze statue stands in the middle of the plaza depicting the children arriving with their name tags around their necks and suitcases in their hands.

When I saw Nick and his wife arrive, I got goosebumps again. Here we were at the very place where Nick’s father stood welcoming the children he helped save. After photos, the four of us went out to lunch. I knew Nicholas Winton had died in 2015 at 106 and that Nick had taken care of his father those last few years. But I didn’t know Nick’s sister Barbara had passed away recently from cancer. Barbara, Nick said, was the family historian. Nick talked about his commitment to step in and shoulder the story and legacy of his father. I’m honored Stars of the Night can help shoulder that legacy too. Nicholas Winton’s motto was: “If something is not impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” Nick is determined to keep his father’s story alive to inspire all of us to care for the world today.

How did you decide to use the collective “we” as a voice for the story?

I don’t think I “decided” to use the collective “we” in the story. That voice came to me in an early morning dream. I remember waking up with the sound of those words in my ear. I immediately went to my writing desk and wrote them down. That morning I wrote much of the first draft without stopping. I just followed the voice and the path of the story.

I had done a tremendous amount of research before writing. I filled myself up reading memoirs of children of the Kindertransport as well as books and articles about the Holocaust. I watched films about this time period. I visited museum exhibits and wandered through websites. By the time those first lines of the story came to me, I had done so much research about Nicholas Winton and the Kindertransport, I felt as if I were one of those children on the trains. Each child’s experience is an individual’s story, but collectively these children faced great loss, loneliness, and trauma. All the children, no matter who they were, had to find courage to make new homes, new friends, and find new pathways forward.

What do you hope children will learn from this book?

Such a great question. I hope children learn a lot from this book. (I’m smiling as I write that sentence.) From the content of the story, young readers will learn about a perilous time in recent history when a group of people were singled out just because they were Jewish, no other reason, and were forced to face terrible trauma, even death. Through words and illustrations, they will feel the raw impact of discrimination and the pain of war. But the history of the Holocaust and the particular facts of this time can wait until the readers of Stars of the Night are older—in middle school, high school, and college—and are more mature to handle the hard history. Some of that hard history is available in the back matter of the book to place the Kindertransport in greater context for older readers and adults.

Two intersecting stories are revealed in Stars of the Night—the children’s story and Nicholas Winton’s story. Yes, young readers will feel the danger of this historical time, but what I hope most for is that readers bring their empathy to the children who had to say good-bye to their parents and go on a journey into the unknown. I hope young readers will think about the courage it took and the resilience it demanded of the “kinder” to leave their families.

Can Stars of the Night help young readers face moments when they may need courage and resilience in their own lives and trust those strengths are part of them? I hope so. I also hope children understand that there are people in the world, like Nicholas Winton, who stand up to bullies, who reach out and help others in need, who know kindness can save people. Most of all, I hope young readers of this story become kind, strong, and courageous people who are not afraid to step up and help others all through their lives.

Praise for Stars of the Night

★”A not-to-be-missed, inspirational book about courage, heart, and the necessity of caring for others.”—starred, Kirkus Reviews

★”A necessary and inspirational book about a little-known light amid a dark period of history, this book should find a home in all libraries.”—starred, School Library Journal

★”[Q]uiet but immediate. . . . The in-the-moment text combines with emotional acrylic, colored-pencil, and collage illustrations in Alko’s signature style to create a dreamlike atmosphere.”—starred, The Horn Book Magazine

“In a collective voice . . . Stelson describes rising tides of anti-Semitism, tearful partings, scary journeys by train and boat, meetings with British foster families, and then a return to Prague at war’s end to search out the scanty remnants of families and, long after, to learn who had organized the escape.”—Booklist

“Stelson employs a communal we to narrate this story of 669 primarily Jewish children of the Czech Kindertransport . . . Impressionistic acrylic, collage, and pencil art by Alko is embellished throughout with sparkling stars and round yellow orbs.”—Publishers Weekly

Connect with the Author

Caren Stelson is the author of A Bowl Full of Peace: A True Story and Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and received numerous other recognitions. Caren and her husband, Kim, live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They have two adult children, Aaron and Beth, and two grandchildren, Reid and Lucy.

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