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Lois Lowry’s latest book finds ‘something human and personal’ in mass tragedy

Lois Lowry's new book is called “On the Horizon: World War II Reflections.”
Lois Lowry's new book is called “On the Horizon: World War II Reflections.”Matthew McKee

While isolating at home this pandemic year, author Lois Lowry published her 47th book. “On the Horizon: World War II Reflections” is an extraordinary work in verse for kids and adults about the bombings of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, and Lowry’s connection to these historic events. We caught up with Lowry, 83, at her home in Maine to ask about the book and its timely reminders about empathy and the ties that bind us.

Q. I believe this is your first book in verse. How did you decide to use verse this time?

A. I’ve come to realize that books seem to tell you how they want to be written. This one came to me in vignettes, in images, not as a narrative with a “plot.” I have a shelf of poetry collections and almost every day I open a book at random. … So poetry as a form was there waiting for me, when the topic beckoned me to it.

Q. How did you first discover your personal intersection with these historic events?

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A. As a child growing up in the pre-television days, getting out the projector and showing home movies was always a treat. There was my sister in her Halloween clown costume once again; there I was, on the beach with my visiting grandmother, laughing because the breeze was tugging at my hat. Such inconsequential scenes. But they were our lives, played out again and again.

At one point, I had the old films transferred to videotape and showed some of the scenes to friends. One of them — an Annapolis graduate, a retired submarine commander — pointed out what I had never seen before: that there, on the horizon, behind me as I played on the beach in 1940, was the outline of a ship, shrouded in mist. Recognizing the silhouette, my friend said, “That’s the Arizona” [the ship sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor].

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The cover of Lois Lowry's “On the Horizon: World War II Reflections.”
The cover of Lois Lowry's “On the Horizon: World War II Reflections.”Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers

The room fell silent. All of us knew what that represented. And I became haunted by the juxtaposition of the laughing child, unaware of the tragedy unfolding behind me. But it was a long time before I figured out, some years later, what to do with it.

Q. The way you humanize several of the people who died during this awful time feels especially relevant to the pandemic. It demonstrates the difficulty in mourning so many people. But “On the Horizon helps do just that. Was that your intention?

A. I think it was my intention without my formally recognizing it. I’m aware of it now, so often, when I see a montage of “those we’ve lost” on the news. And there they are: the individuals, their smiles, their stories; and we feel a desperate sadness, a sense of loss that we don’t muster when we simply read the horrific numbers.

When I found that there was an actual list of the names of those 1,100-plus young men on the Arizona, and ways to dig into their backgrounds — and then, as I expanded the book to include the Hiroshima victims and read their individual stories — it made something human and personal out of the vast impersonal concept of war.

Q. I know you get a lot of mail from readers. Can you single out a specific response to “On the Horizon”?

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A. In the book, there is an account of a sailor named James Myers who died at Pearl Harbor and left two little boys, Jimmy and Gordon. I came across a newspaper interview with [James’s] mother in Missouri. She had already lost her two other sons: one in the military, the other struck by lightning as he brought the cows in from pasture. To the interviewer, Mary Meyers said, “I had bad luck with all my sons.” The heartbreaking stoicism of that woman’s statement stayed with me and I used it in the book. Then one day I got an e-mail from a man in his 80s who told me, “I am Gordon.” I was stunned. Across those vast distances of time and geography, the little fatherless boy and the laughing child on the beach had found each other.

Interview was condensed and edited. Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.