Trouble begins when a swastika is found on a school wall in one of Gordon Korman’s latest books for younger readers

Forty-four years after one of his Grade 7 writing projects—for an English class assignment at German Mills Public School in Thornhill, Ont.—was published by Scholastic Canada as This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, Montreal-born Gordon Korman has maintained a storied career. June 2022 saw the publication of The Fort, the 100th book under his name.

And his works have received numerous accolades along the way: Linked, published by Scholastic in July 2021, earned Korman a Sydney Taylor Book Honour and a National Jewish Book Award.

Set at a middle school in the fictional Colorado town of Chokecherry, the story is told from multiple perspectives: that of resident popular kid Link, newly-arrived student (and the school’s only Jewish kid) Dana, art club president Michael, an obnoxious YouTube personality named Real Talk, and others.

The novel’s main conflict begins when a swastika is found adorning a wall at the school, forcing this small town to face the unpleasantness in its past. Meanwhile, as an organized effort to fight the hatred, a group of kids inspired by the Paper Clips Project work to create a giant paper chain with six million links.

A resident of the Great Neck area of Long Island—where he settled after first moving south of the border to attend New York University film school—the 58-year-old Gordon Korman sat down with The CJN’s book columnist Hannah Srour-Zackon to discuss Linked, and decades of writing for middle-grade readers.

What inspired you to write this novel?
Not many of my books have a Jewish theme, and not many of them are all that serious, but I was just fascinated by the Paper Clips Project in Tennessee.

It’s the least likely middle school in the world to have done that project. It’s in the middle of an extremely rural area—to my knowledge the nearest Jewish person was very far away—and one with a horrible human rights record. These kids were looking at the historical puzzle of the Holocaust and getting hung up on the number six million. We all know that six million is a lot, but have any of us actually seen six million of something all in one place? It’s a simple and tangential approach to the Holocaust, but there’s a brilliance to it too.

How did you land on a paper chain project for the book?
It may not be as big with kids today, but I feel like I spent my entire elementary and middle school life making paper chains. One of the first things that those kids in Tennessee discovered was that though you can go to Staples and buy a box of a hundred paper clips at a time, it’s really, really hard to get to six million. With something like paper chains, here is this really mundane activity that every kid in school does at some point where the only way to do it is one link at a time, but then every now and then, you remember what every one of those links corresponds to. It’s a great way to jump back and forth between remembrance and just the regular day-to-day of being a kid.

You alluded to the fact that the area in Tennessee had a KKK past. What inspired you to bring that into Chokecherry in the novel?
This is kind of random, but I’d seen the Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman. When I think of the KKK I think of it being a long time ago and it’s really not: that movie took place in the ‘70s and it was very much still a thing.

That was when it sunk in that this could be a part of the more recent past of this town in the book. I also didn’t want the swastika issue to be specifically an antisemitic event. I wanted to broaden the threat of those acts of vandalism to be generally racist and white supremacist: something that everybody should feel threatened by.

In a way there’s not a lot of debate between ‘swastikas are bad’ versus ‘swastikas are great, we need more.’ It’s more between people who feel this needs to be fought against and resisted, and people who think, ‘Whoever does them probably doesn’t mean it. Let’s just ignore the problem.’

What you bring up is interesting because the book does deal with the possible different intentions some people, especially kids, might have when drawing a swastika.
One of the things that came up when my editor and I were first talking about this idea is a kid I remember in my school who was a pretty good artist. He became fascinated by swastikas and would incorporate it into his designs. I don’t think he was a horrible person, I’m pretty sure he just knew that it got a rise out of people, and that he shouldn’t do it.

The funny thing is when I mentioned it to my editor who is also Jewish, he said he knew a kid like that in school too. They were so convinced that this guy meant them no ill that they actually had an intervention. You can sort of flirt with the awful at a time in your life where you don’t really comprehend the full depth of the awful.

This book is timely in a way since there have been many reported instances of antisemitic graffiti in schools, and the conversation around how we are dealing with this in schools is being revived.
This happened to be a coincidence, but my son was on a soccer team with Jonathan Greenblatt (the head of the ADL)’s son. When I first sat down to plot out Linked I got together with him and asked, “If you were contacted by a school that was having this happen what would you do? What resources would you make available?”

He helped me out and put me in the right direction as to what schools would do to respond. The first thing I was amazed at is that schools today have these kinds of issues every day, every week, every month. Even this fall I have a couple of school visits where the schools originally contacted me not because they’re fans of my other books, but because they were specifically attracted to Linked because they have dealt with incidents like that in their school in the last year or two.

Linked deals with some pretty serious topics such as antisemitism and the Holocaust. The book also deals with the impact and influence of social media on middle school-age kids. What was your process for addressing these serious issues for a middle-grade audience?
As soon as I thought of the story, I knew that the best way to do it was going to be from multiple perspectives to keep it from being too serious. I’d be able to have some narrators who were funnier and some who were more serious.

As for the social media aspect, I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I have three kids. My kids would always share the YouTubers they followed (and TikTok-ers in the case of my younger son). So observing them gave me a bit of perspective.

Writing about Real Talk, from the very start I loved the idea that he was a celebrity to these kids and not that well-known among adults. He was a blessing and a curse as someone who was exploiting this school and the division in this community, but at the same time their paper chain project never could have succeeded if it wasn’t for the attention that he brought.

In the novel, the character of Link discovers that he’s Jewish. I’m curious what led you to take him on that specific journey.
The Second World War and the Holocaust are close enough that you could literally be 12 or 13 years old and be connected by only two generations to that time. In my mind I was thinking about Madeleine Albright. She was the person in my mind who was an older adult when she learned she was Jewish. It struck me that this could work for Link as well and—obviously keeping the spoilers out of it—having Link make a discovery like this, it really made him look at almost everything in a different way.

What messages do you hope that your readers will take away from this book?
I’m not really a message kind of guy. In the end, what I feel like Linked really owes readers is a good story. If you as a reader need the message “swastikas are bad, racism is bad, antisemitism is bad,” I don’t think reading one book is going to change very much. One of the things that I think is so great about all storytelling, and reading in particular, is that it makes you see and think about the world from so many different perspectives that you might not have thought of before.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gordon Korman’s next book, The Super Teacher Project, will be released in January 2023.