Vander Zee, Ruth
VANDER ZEE, Ruth
Born near Chicago, IL; married Vernon Vander Zee; three children.
Writer and educator. Worked previously as a middle-school teacher.
Erika's Story was listed among the Year's Best books in the Miami Herald, and received best books citations in Germany.
6,000,000 Stars, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, Creative Editions (Mankato, MN), 2000, published as Erika's Story, 2003.
Also author of "Discover Your Gifts and Learn How to Use Them," a curriculum for middle-school students.
The author of the books Erika's Story and Mississippi Morning, teacher and writer Ruth Vander Zee has always had a love of stories. However, it was not until 1995 that she began writing her stories down on paper. As a child, Vander Zee listened to her father's tales, and she continued in the family tradition by making up her own stories to entertain her cousins. When she grew up she continued the habit, entertaining her own three children with original tales. At age forty she returned to college to earn her degree in education. After being a middle-school teacher for several years, she finally decided to put her words on paper, first by writing curriculum, then by writing picture books.
Vander Zee's first book, 6,000,000 Stars, was later republished as Erika's Story. Based on a true story, the book tells of a Jewish girl named Erika who survived the Holocaust by sheer luck: Her desperate mother threw the infant Erika from a train heading toward a German concentration camp, realizing that was the child's only chance at a future. Discovered near the train tracks and raised by a village woman, Erika wonders what her parents' lives were like before the Holocaust. "Did they hold her close and kiss her before throwing her away to save her life?," wrote Hazel Rochman in a Booklist review, summing up some of Erika's questions. Joanna Rudge Long commented in Horn Book that, with its picture-book format, Erika's Story "would make an effective introduction to the Holocaust" for younger students."
In Mississippi Morning Vander Zee deals with another serious subject. Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, the story deals with racism and the Ku Klux Klan. The father of twelve-year-old James William runs the general store in their small Mississippi town. Even though James William knows his father does not think it "natural" for white and black people to spend time together, the boy sneaks off and goes fishing with his friend LeRoy, the son of a black sharecropper. LeRoy avoids fishing next to a certain tree because, as he tells James William, the Klan has hung black people from its branches. Becoming attuned to the racial divide in his town, James William overhears talk of a black preacher's house being burned down. Although the truth is difficult, the boy eventually comes to terms with the truth: his father is one of the men committing these acts of hate.
Mary N. Oluonye, reviewing Mississippi Morning for School Library Journal, called the book "a sad, poignant story," and a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "Vander Zee's dialogue crackles with import." Hazel Rochman commented in her Booklist review that while its "picture-book format may keep older readers from picking up the book on their own, … the subject will spark classroom discussion even among some young teens."
Explaining why she choses serious topics for her picture books, Vander Zee explained in an interview posted on the Eerdmans Books for Young Readers Web site: "I believe that the story-teller has a unique opportunity to tell children the truth. All story-tellers tell the story of life. I believe children want to hear the truths of life told in a way that give them hope and courage. If children and adults can talk about tough moral issues based on my stories, I am happy." She also offered the following advice to young writers: "Read. Read. Read. And listen to the stories around you. They are everywhere. Then put the pen on the paper and start writing."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Erika's Story, p. 495; October 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, "Normalcy and Terror," p. 406.
Horn Book, January-February, 2004, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Erika's Story, p. 106.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2004, review of Mississippi Morning, p. 921.
Publishers Weekly, December 22, 2003, review of Erika's Story, p. 61.
School Library Journal, September, 2004, Mary N. Oluonye, review of Mississippi Morning, p. 182.
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers Web site, http://www.eerdmans.com/ (April 22, 2005), interview with Vander Zee.
Ruth Vander Zee's Home Page, http://wwwruthvanderzee.com (April 22, 2005).*