Adam Gidwitz, author of the Newbery Honor Book The Inquisitor’s Tale, dives back into historical fiction via Max in the House of Spies, a fantastical middle grade spy novel and the first in a duology. In 1939, German Jewish 11-year-old Max doesn’t want to board the Kindertransport and leave his family behind for England, but his parents insist. He ends up living with an aristocratic family of British Jews, and he did not arrive alone; he’s joined by an invisible dybbuk and kobold perched on his shoulders. As tensions rise back in Germany, Max, determined to reunite with his parents, hatches a dangerous scheme: return to Berlin as a British spy. Gidwitz spoke with PW about the questions that keep him up at night, how he likes to take care of his readers through his work, and whether sliced bread existed during WWII.

In your letter to readers at the beginning of Max in the House of Spies, you write, “A book of answers is a manifesto. A book of questions is a catalyst.” What do you hope this book catalyzes?

Conversation. But also, critical thinking. I’ve gone to a bunch of schools over the last few weeks talking to kids about this book, and each time, I pose a question for them, inspired by the Albert Camus quote at the beginning of the book: “Between the truth and my mother, I choose my mother.” I ask them, “Which would you choose?” And these kids—between fourth and eighth grade—they’ve been having these really powerful debates about what to do when you’re faced with what is right vs. what you love. How do you choose between them? I don’t know the answer, but I want them to think about it, because we are all facing those choices regularly, especially with everything that’s going on in the U.S. and the Middle East.

We have emotional and personal affinities. We also have, if we allow ourselves, an awareness of what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes those things align, and sometimes they don’t, and figuring out how to navigate the world when our sense of justice doesn’t align with what we feel is just about the most important thing a human can do. And so, I hope to catalyze conversation, but I also want to challenge my readers to think about their assumptions and the way they normally behave in the world.

Was it difficult to write from the perspective of someone who didn’t know that WWII was about to begin?

That was actually one of the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying parts about writing Max in the House of Spies. When you’re writing a novel, you’re living the lives of your characters, and you’re creating an imaginary world that you have to inhabit for years.

The world I built is radically different from the way we normally think about what that time period was like, because we tend to only think about the concentration camps, or about D-Day. But for most of that period, people didn’t know where it was leading.

For Nazi-supporting Germans, it was the golden age. The economy was roaring, they were stronger than all the other countries in Europe, and at the beginning of the war, they were winning. But if you were Jewish, or non-white, or gay, or disabled, or any of the people the Nazis were targeting, it was a time of mounting terror and uncertainty. People were saying to each other, “This is as bad as it could possibly get,” and there was every reason to believe that was correct. It had never gotten any worse; the Holocaust had never happened before. So, when the father of the household decided, “We’re gonna stay here, it can’t get any worse. In a couple of years, this will pass,” he was half right: in a few years, it did pass. Unfortunately, almost everyone was murdered during those few years.

We don’t live in the past; we live in the present. When we’re looking at the past, we know what that period’s future will be, but we don’t know our own future. So, in fact, the present is much more like that uncertain period before the Holocaust than anything else, because like them, we don’t know where right now leads. We live in this moment of both hope and denial, all at the same time.

Why did you include Stein, the dybbuk, and Berg, the kobold, as Max’s invisible companions?

The impetus was, if I’m writing about WWII, I need some way to infuse comedy into this experience. It’s terrifying to be alone as a kid waiting to be shipped to England and then—as we see at the end of the first book and through the second book—to be a Jewish kid on his own in Nazi Germany. Max also wouldn’t know about certain things that we know now, things that are going to become important for plot purposes. So, to have two grown-ups, so to speak, be there to give him perspective was really important to me.

It’s also very important to me, especially when I write about dark subjects, to take care of my readers—I want them to feel a little bit scared, and I want them to feel a little bit challenged, but I also want them to know that they’re taken care of. That’s my job as a storyteller, and Stein and Berg are kind of my avatars in that way. Between the comedy and the perspective that a child would need—both Max and the reader—they were able to provide those.

You write in your acknowledgments that early readers helped to make this book “richer, funnier, faster, and kinder to its readers.” Can you elaborate on that?

When I started writing this book, I was very much inspired by John le Carré. I love le Carré because he took the spy novel and made it a literary art form. His books are as deep and emotionally challenging as any novel that I’ve read, and one of the things that le Carré does is, when you start chapter one, you’re like, “Wait, who are these people? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? I’m completely lost.” Then, by the end of the chapter, you’re like, “Oh, that’s what they’re doing. That’s amazing.” But then the next chapter starts, and you’re like, “Wait, who are these people?” It’s this constant act of trying to catch up. So, the first draft of this book was constructed much more that way; you didn’t really know what Max was thinking, or why he was doing what he was doing. While I kept some of that, my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, encouraged me to bring everything in closer to Max, in part with the help of Stein and Berg, so as not to lose our child readers.

The very first draft of this book was also 135,000 words long, and Max’s entire story was told in one volume. That’s tough for a kid to digest. So, breaking it into two parts, and creating an arc in each one, was another way I wanted to be kinder to my readers. It’s also very important to me, especially when I write about dark subjects, to take care of my readers.

In your end notes, you mention how your family friend, Michael Steinberg, was one of the children sent to England via the Kindertransport. Were you able to talk with him about his experiences?

Michael passed away 10 or 12 years ago, so I didn’t get to talk to him about this book, but I certainly knew his story from him. Luckily, he wrote a short unpublished memoir about his experiences during that time, and I have that. Many of the basic things that happened to Max in the first chapter such as being on the ferry to England and being picked up at the dock are all based on Michael’s life.

How long did it take to feel as if you’d done enough research to write this book?

One of the great things about writing about the Middle Ages for The Inquisitor’s Tale was that my wife is a professor of medieval history. I had an expert right there in the house. Plus, there’s very little documented about the Middle Ages, comparatively speaking. Very few people could write and very few books from then survived. So, I had to do a lot of imagining around what it was like to live in the Middle Ages.

Writing about WWII was the opposite. Other than the current day, it is potentially the most thoroughly documented moment in history. So, how could I feel comfortable carving out a little path through it? I took a class on Nazi Germany during this period that was taught by Steven Remy, who wrote Adolf Hitler: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works. He read Max in the House of Spies along with some other folks, such as Katherine Locke, who’s been writing about this time period for years. After a while, I felt like I knew, when Max entered a room, what that room would physically look like. I had read so much that I could imagine all the little details of Max’s life, and then once I imagined them, I double-checked them.

My editor was ruthless. We went through an enormous fact-checking period. At one point during Max’s spy training, he starts making sandwiches on sliced bread, and Julie asked, “Would they have had sliced bread?” It turns out that while it was definitely invented and had already been introduced in England, it maybe wasn’t widespread enough that the English government would have stocked it in Max’s cottage as he was undergoing spy trying. What would bread have been wrapped in anyway? A bag? Paper? What about the song I reference—“We’ll Meet Again,” sung by Vera Lynn? I learned that she was voted sweetheart of the English forces in 1941, and her songs were everywhere. Thinking about which songs would have been on the radio and what the characters would have thought when they heard them was fun. Because we went through all that stuff, it made me feel more secure about the questions that could come up about the big things.

All your books have personal roots relating to your family history, your students, and your wife. Are there any other factors that inspire your stories?

With Max in the House of Spies, I didn’t start with, “I’m going to write a book.” I started with trying to understand why people collaborated with the Nazis. I did a ton of reading about that. There were two things that stuck with me the most and motivated writing this book. The director of the Stasi Museum in Berlin once said, “Why is everyone so interested in collaborators? Everyone collaborated—99.9% of the people collaborated. The interesting ones are the ones who didn’t.” But I’m really interested in the 99.9% of people who did.

Another was a 1970s study in France that was researching French supporters of the Nazis, because in the 1970s, many of those people were still alive. The conclusion the psychologists came to was that there were as many reasons to collaborate as there were collaborators. Everyone had their own reason for supporting the Nazis: money, power, protecting your loved ones, making yourself feel smart, making yourself feel like you weren’t wrong in the first place, hatred of Jews, hatred of other people.

In the second volume, Max in the Land of Lies, I’m writing a lot about Nazis. But in Max in the House of Spies, I’m writing a lot about the British Empire, which has been a force for oppression and evil in many situations. In some ways, we all collaborate with something. Why do we do that? How do we justify it? They’re questions that I wanted to explore, and my books are always explorations about questions that torment me.

Max in the House of Spies: A Tale of World War II (Operation Kinderspion #1) by Adam Gidwitz. Dutton, $18.99 Feb. 27 ISBN 978-0-593-11208-3