Mary Cronk Farrell’s 2014 work of young adult nonfiction, “Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific” certainly made a splash. The Spokane writer saw her book of Army and Navy nurses serving in the Pacific during World War II become Junior Library Guild selection, and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.
Now she has two new books out. Well, sort of. For “Irene’s Children,” Farrell adapted the best-selling book by Tilar J. Mazzeo for young audiences. It tells the true story of Irene Sendler, a Polish woman known as the “female Oskar Schindler” for saving 2,500 children by smuggling them out of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during World War II.
Her other book is another true story, this one of labor activist Fannie Sellins, who ran afoul of big industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan.
Farrell will mark the launch of both books on Thursday with a panel discussion on social justice at Auntie’s Bookstore. But first, she took some to participate in a Five Questions With email interview.
Q. Two books? At once? Are you trying to make everyone feel lazy? But really, why write about two different women in two different books aimed at two different age groups all at once?
A. True confessions … I wrote “Fannie Never Flinched” about 10 years ago, and sold it to Abrams Books for Young Readers in 2013. When the chance came for me to work on “Irena’s Children,” Fannie was already “in the can” as we used to say in the news business. My future projects did get a little jammed up, though. Crossing my fingers on that.
Q. What was it about Fannie’s story that you found remarkable?
A. Fannie’s compassion for working people, for women and children was incredible. Beginning as a union organizer in St. Louis sweatshops where she worked as a single mother of four, Fannie eventually worked with coal miners in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania. Fannie was doing a man’s job in a man’s world, she stood up against the hired guns of some of the most powerful industrial corporations in the country. She was willing to go to jail, rather than forgo her right to free speech. When company thugs threatened to kill her, she didn’t leave town, she continued to show up at the mills and mines, working for what she believed in so strongly, the worth and dignity of working people. Her courage and her compassion inspired me. And the fact she was shot down, from behind, and her killers were acquitted, despite a crowd of eyewitnesses who testified the attack was unprovoked – this roused my sense of injustice.
Q. In “Irena’s Children,” your job was to adapt a previously published book for young readers. Was that a different challenge?
A. Adapting “Irena’s Children” was much easier than researching and writing a whole book by myself. I really enjoyed envisioning the story with a narrative arc that would satisfy young readers. The challenge was dealing with the material, the Nazi genocide machine. I took seriously the possibility that my words in this book might be the first close-up account of the Holocaust some young readers encounter. For readers to understand Irena Sendler’s astounding courage, they need to see clearly what she was up against.
Q. Did you find these two women had much in common?
A. Besides being incredibly compassionate and courageous, both Fannie and Irena were “all in” type people. They didn’t go for half measures. They were fully engaged in the world around them. They believed their actions mattered, that they could make a difference. Smaller choices all along the path of their lives lead them to the big choices they eventually made.
Q. At the Auntie’s event next week, what are you hoping that readers of all ages come away with?
A. I hope people come away inspired. I hope hearing the stories of these two women will help us all feel that we do have the power to make a difference, that we can work together to promote more justice in our community.