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Ashes Hardcover – Bargain Price, February 4, 2010

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Hardcover, Bargain Price, February 4, 2010
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Editorial Reviews Review

Q&A with Kathryn Lasky, Author of Ashes

Award-winning author Kathryn Lasky has written many fiction and nonfiction books for children, including the Newbery Honor Book Sugaring Time. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come to write Ashes?

A: I have never had a great desire to write a Holocaust novel. There have been so many and so many great ones—Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic. But what fascinated me most was what led up to the all-time catastrophe, the tragedy of modern times. What lethal combination of elements combined in a critical mass to allow a nation to go mad. Then I came across the Heinrich Heine’s blood chilling words, “Where they burn books, they will end by burning people.” The book burning seemed the exclamation point that marked this pre-Holocaust time. It was the point of no return. So I realized the early thirties was the period I wanted to delve into. And then I thought, I do not want the perspective of a Jewish person, but a gentile—in other words not a girl whose life was threatened, but whose sense of humanity was threatened; where she begins on some level—most likely a subconscious level—to question what it means to be human.

Q: Ashes' protagonist, Gaby, loves to read, but she’s also very interested in physics, astronomy, and politics. Growing up, how were you like Gaby? To what extent is she based on you?

A: Gaby is based on me to no extent. I was terrible in math and I nearly flunked physics in high school, but I did love to read. So reading is my only common ground with Gaby.

Q: Ashes takes place in pre-World War II Germany. Previously, you have also written books set in ancient Rome (The Last Girls of Pompeii), 17th Century American colonies (Two Bad Pilgrims), 19th Century Russia (The Night Journey), and elsewhere. What do you like about writing historical fiction? Which have been your favorite time periods to write about? Are there historical eras that you haven’t written about yet that you want to?

A: Well the period in Ashes is certainly not my favorite time, but it is a fascinating one. Writing historical fiction is like time travel. It requires that I slip into another time, discard my 21st century prejudices and mannerisms and try to experience life from a different perspective. Considering the Earth is over 4 billion years old, it is safe to say that there are many eras I haven’t written about as yet. I must admit that I probably won’t write about a novel on blue algae or green algae or whatever the first life form was that took hold when the Earth finally cooled off a bit. I don’t see much room for character development, and I love writing about clothes and food—so that’s kind of out of the question with algae, obviously. The only food they “eat” is sunlight and photosynthesis, although fascinating, does not a novel make.

Q: Which scenes in Ashes were most difficult to write? Which scenes did you most enjoy writing?

A: I think the most difficult scene to write was the book burning itself. I had made three trips to the Holocaust Museum where I saw photographs and actual news film footage of the burning, and I have a lot of books in my own library. You know the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”? Well, I had to find those thousand words that would make the book burning as compelling, as horrifying, as it was in the pictures. It was a multi-dimensional scene to write. In one sense I wanted the reader to feel as if he or she were watching this as they would a film. But there was also the dimension of Gaby’s viewpoint—she, too, was watching, at first from an office window looking down on the scene, and then she finally enters the scene. While I was writing this, I was trying to weave together what a camera operator on a movie would call different depths of field. The one thing that the photographs and the film footage could not convey was the smell—the smell of the fuel used to burn the books, as well as the smoke and the lost scent of the linden trees. So in this way, I felt I had an advantage over the visual representations I had studied as I could convey what these odors were like using language.

Q: What is the most interesting and surprising fact that you discovered about the Weimar Republic as you did your research?

A: I’m not sure if there was one fact per se. But it is curious that during the era of the Weimar republic—a rather short era at that—art and decadence mingled in a fascinating way. Berlin was a magnet for some of the most creative people of that era including W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Josephine Baker, and countless others. There was an amazing art exhibit that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum around the time I was starting the book called Glitter & Doom, The Art of The Weimar Republic and it perfectly captured this tango of art and decadence.

Discussion Questions for Ashes

1) Each chapter of Ashes starts with an epigraph—a quote from a famous poem or novel. How do these epigraphs relate to the chapters that follow them? What does each quote contribute to the story? Can you think of other quotes, from songs or movies that you like, that could work as epigraphs for some of these chapters?

2) Why does Gaby keep her Diary of Shame? Why do the events that she lists make her feel ashamed, and how does writing them down help her work through that feeling? Do you think Gaby overcomes her feelings of shame by the end of the book?

3) How does Gaby’s opinion of Hertha change over the course of the book? What do you think of Hertha? Is she a Nazi; is she one of the story’s “bad guys”? Does she have a good side? Find evidence in the text to support your argument.

4) What’s Gaby’s relationship with Einstein like? Does she seem impressed by his acclaim and scientific genius? If you were Gaby, and could have a conversation with Albert Einstein, what would you ask him?

5) How does witnessing the book burning change Gaby’s perspective on herself and on Germany? What impact does it have on her actions in the last chapter?

6) At the end of the book, Ulla makes a very difficult decision. Why do you think she makes the choice that she does? If you were Gaby, would you support Ulla’s decision? If not, what else would you say to try to make her change her mind?

7) Why do you think this book is called Ashes? What else would have been a good title for it?

8) What German words did you learn from reading Ashes?

9) What other books does Ashes remind you of? If a friend told you he/she liked Ashes, what would you recommend that he/she read next?

10) Ashes takes place in Germany, more than 75 years ago. In what ways is it still relevant to readers today? Do you still relate to the characters and the things they go through? Do the social and political events of this book give you contest for understanding present-day America?

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In 1932 Berlin, blond 13-year-old Gabriella looks like the Aryan purists’ ideal, but her strongly anti-Fascist family members are derisively called “white Jews,” and her astrophysicist father is friends with Einstein, whose theory of relativity is termed “Jewish physics” by the Nazis. From Gabriella’s viewpoint, Lasky tells a gripping story about Hitler’s early rise to power, including the Germans’ bitterness about their suffering after World War I. Though the filling in of background history sometimes feels slightly contrived, the story is strengthened by the complex, individual characters, such as the pro-Hitler maid who is tired of being poor; the beloved teacher, who wants Gabriella to be a Hitler Youth leader; and Gabriella’s sister, who becomes pregnant while dating an ardent Nazi. Like Anne Frank, Gabriella loves American movie stars. She is also a big reader, and at the start of each chapter, there is a quote from authors such as Hemingway, Heine, London, Remarque, and Twain, whose books are among those publicly destroyed in the wild, historic book burning that is the climax of this story. From the opening quote, by Heine—“Where they burn books, they will end by burning human beings”—the personal and the political history will haunt readers. Grades 6-12. --Hazel Rochman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Juvenile; 1 edition (February 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670011576
  • ASIN: B0044KN1Y4
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,361,505 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Hi Readers! Thanks for coming by my author page. I've written all sorts of books - from fantasy about animals to books about science. One of my favorite animal fantasy series, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, is a major motion picture. I liked writing about Ga'Hoole so much that I decided to revisit that world in a different series, Wolves of the Beyond. I've recently added a new Guardians book: The Rise of A Legend, the story of Ezylryb, the great sage of the Ga'Hoole Tree. Another new book just came out, the first in the Horses of the Dawn series. I think of it as an equine retelling of the Spanish conquest of the New World. Visit my website, for the latest news. All my best, Kathryn

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca Herman HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on February 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Thirteen-year-old Gabriella Schramm lives a comfortable and happy life with her middle class family in Berlin, Germany in 1932. Her father is a scientist who studies and teaches physics at the university. Because of his work, Albert Einstein is a friend of the family. Gaby enjoys reading books, going on after school outings to the zoo and the movies with her best friend, Rosa, and spending summers at her family's vacation home by the lake. Her biggest worry up until now has been the teacher who confiscates the books he catches Gaby reading during class. But all that is about to change, as Adolf Hitler grows in popularity and power.

First, Hitler's private army, in their brown uniforms, begins to fill the streets of Berlin. Then the persecution of Jews and communists begins. Intellectuals and scientists like Gaby's father are a target, too, for teaching un-German ideas and for not supporting the Nazis. Gaby is increasingly worried that her older sister Ulla's boyfriend may be a Nazi. And even the books Gaby enjoys escaping into in these troubled times are becoming a target. As her entire world changes and seems to crumble around her, Gaby must come to terms with all that she has lost.

Ashes is a fascinating and often troubling look at life in Germany during Hitler's rise to power. Gaby was a very likeable heroine. I especially enjoyed that she loved reading and that books were her escape into another world, which reminded me of myself at her age. If you enjoy historical fiction and are interested in this time period then I highly recommend you read this book, and I also think it would make good supplemental reading for preteens and young teens learning about this era of history in school.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By J.Prather TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I am a big fan of this author, so I picked this up all ready to be excited about the story and to benefit from Ms. Lasky's great talent. Unfortunately, this novel never really grabbed me. I am not this book's target audience, which I would guess to be middle schoolers. The writing to me felt rather flat. I can't fault the author on her history, however I think it's the story that suffered here. It takes place during such a turbulent time, and Gabrielle is 13 years old - also a turbulent time. Those two things together should have produced incredible drama and emotion, however they weren't conveyed here. The plot felt very contrived and the pacing very strange. This girl lives next door to Albert Einstein, gets to wear a scarf belonging to Josephine Baker and ends up at the theatre with Goebbels??

I feel that this would still have worked well as an upper elementary introduction to this time period had not the story of Gabrielle's sister Ulla been included. Ulla falls in love with a Nazi and gets pregnant. There's much discussion between Gabrielle and her friend Rosa about "doing it" and even a visit to a cabaret to witness political humour, nude backdrops, and daring costumes.

I think the only time the book succeeds are the chapters describing Hitler's election. Here is the raw emotion, the confusion and fear that seemed to be missing earlier. This occurs two thirds of the way in however and I found myself really having a hard time sticking with this book up to that point. I can't imagine this being a popular choice with teens. This story is told so much better in the book The Boy Who Dared. This one is just OK for me.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Aubrey Lively on January 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I enjoy historical fiction, but it almost seems unfair to classify this book: it rises above genre. It's a coming-of-age story, & it's a human story. Post-WWI Germany is just its tumultuous setting, although "just" is hardly an appropriate adjective. When we define something as a "setting," there seems to be the implication that it's distinctly less relevant than plot or characterization. But of course, none of us can really separate the setting of our lives from the plot, & it is often as much our setting as anything that gives us character, makes us who we are. Lasky writes as if she understands this deeply.

Ashes is as fun to read as mind-candy & perhaps it is that that makes its beauty all the more stunning. Several times, I had to stop reading--just to breathe. It's not a breathless adventure novel; it's just that its...authenticity...takes you that much by surprise. In retrospect, I don't think I've ever read a truer book, on either side of the library.

If you've ever read anything else by Kathryn Lasky, assume nothing about this novel. I read The Night Journey to the kids the week before I read Ashes. Thirty years have passed between the publication of the two books, & it shows. Lasky's skill has developed so incredibly in those intervening years that she is almost unrecognizable from one book to another. Ashes reads as if it were a story she'd been wanting to tell her whole life & finally, she's pulled together the words & the images, & the result is a masterpiece, a life's work.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Teen Reads on June 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Gabrielle Schramm lives in the kind of family that encourages intellectual curiosity and exploration. Her father is a scientist who works with Albert Einstein and loves to probe the mysteries of the universe. As for Gaby, she loves to read --- often more than one book at a time --- so much that she sometimes gets in trouble for reading novels or poetry when she should be studying. But Gaby has little clue at the start of her story just how contentious reading --- and books --- will become over the next several months of her life.

It's 1932, and Gaby is starting to realize that things are changing in Berlin. She doesn't understand everything that's going on, but she knows that Hitler's Brown Shirts (the private army forces known as the Sturmabteilung, or SA) often take over movie theaters and clubs, that comments belittling the work of Einstein and other "Jewish physicists" are becoming more popular, and that she herself, with her pale blond braids, has been receiving more comments about her appealing (i.e., Aryan) looks.

When Gaby's older sister becomes romantically involved with a young Nazi sympathizer, and when Einstein starts talking about emigrating to America, Gabrielle begins to understand the extent of the changes the rising Nazi party will have on her life. But when the Nazis start burning books --- some of the very books Gabrielle treasures --- the real horror of the nascent Nazi regime finally sinks in. Can the Schramms continue to explore their intellectual pursuits in this new society?

In ASHES, Kathryn Lasky thoughtfully interweaves Gabrielle's growing understanding of the adult world --- especially surrounding issues of sexuality --- with her increasing awareness of other adult concerns: politics, betrayal, divided loyalties and threats to freedom.
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