A Haunting Home Movie Inspired Lois Lowry To Write 'On The Horizon'

Apr 13, 2020
Originally published on April 12, 2020 6:20 am

Lois Lowry has written more than 40 books and won the Newbery Medal twice — for The Giver and Number the Stars — but she's never written a story in verse until now.

On the Horizon is about two pivotal moments in history: The attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima and the lives that were lost or forever altered by those events.

Lowry grew up in Honolulu, where the USS Arizona was stationed, and she moved to Japan at 11. She was inspired to write On the Horizon after rediscovering old home movies. One film, taken by her father, shows Lowry as a toddler playing on the beach in 1939 or 1940.

"I had seen those films before as a child ..." she says, "but I had not known, had not noticed, until it was pointed out to me as an adult, that in the background on the horizon, kind of shrouded in mist, was the outline of a ship."

When she showed that home movie to a friend who was also a Navy captain, he immediately identified the ship as the USS Arizona, the vessel that was bombed during the Pearl Harbor attack.

"I began to be haunted ... by the juxtaposition of the toddler playing on the beach, laughing, and, in the background, 1,200 young men who very soon will almost all be dead," Lowry says.

Lowry was inspired to write this book to explore "the connections that we all have to one another."

Kenard Pak made the illustrations for Lowry's poems in On the Horizon — vignettes of ships at sea, stopwatches, soldiers, mushroom clouds, a child on the beach.

"With this book in particular, I have to admit I was scared. ..." he says. "I think it's because a lot of my books are escapist in nature. I spend a lot of time in fields and on misty hills or looking out of a window."

When his agent approached him with Lowry's manuscript, he says his initial reaction was: I can't do this. But he also felt he couldn't say no — not just because he wanted the opportunity to work with Lowry, but also "because of how powerful the writing was."

Lowry understands those conflicted feelings — she wrestled with them as well as she wrote the poems.

"I've written many lighthearted books and this is a book that deals with loss, with grief. That alone, I think, is intimidating," she says. "How do you illustrate that?"

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Pak says his approach was to just spend time with the book. "There were good nights where I sat with it and didn't do much," he says. "I just dwelled."

His graphite illustrations are black and white and shades of gray. "I wanted to evoke the simplicity and the minimalism in Lois' writing," Pak says. He wanted the art to feel respectful.

He used photographs as the basis for the illustrations — a still from the home movie that had inspired the book, images of young people who were killed in Hiroshima, and images of sailors who died aboard the USS Arizona.

"They were haunting images," Pak says. "Definitely took me to another time and place. ... They're recordings of another time, this time maybe that's slowly fading. I think a bit of that sadness or thoughtfulness carries through those pictures."

HMH Books for Young Readers

In researching for the book, Lowry dug into the stories of the young men who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.

"There were 1,200 individual stories," she says. "Every life has a story, and it was hard to choose which ones to include in a thin book."

One that jumped out to her was a 17-year-old Marine named Leo Amundson. It turns out he grew up in the same small, Wisconsin town as her father.

"There was nothing remarkable about him, but there was that startling connection to me and to my life ..." Lowry says. "Perhaps his mother might have known my grandmother."

She says she hope the book helps make clear "that we do have these connections to one another."

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HMH Books for Young Readers

LOIS LOWRY: (Reading) I was a child who played in the sand, a little shovel in my hand. I pranced and giggled. I was 3. The ship sailed past. I didn't see.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Lois Lowry has had an impressive career. She's written more than 40 books and won the Newbery Medal twice. But she's never written a story in verse until now.

LOWRY: (Reading) I wonder now that time's gone by about that day - the sea, the sky - the day I frolicked in the foam when Honolulu was my home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "On The Horizon" is about two pivotal moments in history - the bombings of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and the lives that were lost or forever altered by those events. Lowry grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the USS Arizona was stationed. And she moved to Japan at 11. She was inspired to write "On The Horizon" after rediscovering old home movies.

LOWRY: When I showed a friend who had been an Annapolis graduate and a submarine commander, I showed him old films of me taken by my father, playing as a toddler on the beach in Honolulu in probably 1939 or '40. The date's not clear. But I was very small.

And I had seen those films before as a child when we did the old home movie thing. But I had not known - had not noticed that in the background, kind of shrouded in mist, was the outline of a ship, which my Navy captain friend identified for me from the silhouette. He said, that's the Arizona.

And when I realized that, I began to be haunted by the fact that - I guess by the juxtaposition of the toddler playing on the beach, laughing, and in the background, 1,200 young men who very soon will almost all be dead. That was the start of this book, which tries to explore the connections that we all have to one another.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been asking authors and illustrators how they worked together. Kenard Pak drew the vignettes of ships at sea, stopwatches, soldiers, mushroom clouds and a girl on a beach that accompany Lowry's poems.

KENARD PAK: With this book in particular, I have to admit I was scared.

LOWRY: More than previous books? And if so, why?

PAK: I think it's because a lot of my books are escapist in nature. I spend a lot of time in fields and misty - on misty hills or looking out of a window. When my agent came to me with your manuscript, I - my initial thought was, I can't do this. But I couldn't say no to it not just because I didn't want to miss an opportunity to work with you, Lois, but just because of how powerful the writing was.

LOWRY: But also, I think that the topic - and this was true for me as well. I've written many lighthearted books. And this is a book that deals with loss and with grief. That alone, I think, is intimidating. How do you illustrate that?

PAK: It was important for me with "On The Horizon" to spend time with it. There were good nights where I sat with it and didn't do much. I just dwelled. The art is in graphite. The approach was something respectful. I wanted to evoke the simplicity and the minimalism in Lois' writing. The editor and, I believe, you, Lois, had arranged some photographs for me to look at. And they were really the basis for a lot of the images you see in the book.

LOWRY: I probably sent him a still photograph from the old home movie. And it would've been blurry because of the way I lifted it from a computer screen. But that would've shown me on the beach and, in the background, on the horizon, the silhouette of the ship.

I think I also probably sent him photographs of me as a child. I don't know - plus, from the research that I did because the book focuses on several of the young sailors and a Marine who were on the Arizona and died there and then some young people who were victims of the bombing on Hiroshima.

PAK: Yes. In the book, there are, I think, at least half a dozen portraits of these men that Lois is talking about. They were haunting images. It might be a visual thing where the high res isn't there, so there's blur. And then there's the age of a photograph. But I also think they're recordings of another time, a time maybe that's slowly fading. And I think bit of that sadness or thoughtfulness carries through those pictures. And I think that's where a haunting comes from.

LOWRY: When I did the research to find out who was on that ship, of course, there were 1,200 individual stories. Every life has a story. And it was hard to choose which ones to include in a thin book. In reading about each young man, every now and then, something would jump out at me. And then I would include that one.

And the one that comes to my mind now is the fact a 17-year-old boy - there was a complement of Marines on the ship. And he was a Marine. He must have been a brand-new Marine. In reading about him and his life, I discovered that he had grown up in the same small town where my father had been born and grown up in Wisconsin.

There was nothing remarkable about him. But there was that startling connection to me and to my life, to the fact that perhaps his mother might have known my grandmother. I think the book tries, at least - I hope succeeds in making clear that we do have these connections to one another.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was author Lois Lowry and illustrator Kenard Pak talking about their book "On The Horizon."

LOWRY: (Reading) I think back to that sunlit day when I was young, and so were they. If I had noticed, if I'd known, would each of us be less alone? I've learned that there will always be things we miss that we don't see on the horizon - things beyond. And yet there is a lasting bond between us, linking each to each - boys on a ship, child on a beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.