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

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?"

/ HMH Books for Young Readers
HMH Books for Young Readers

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
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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

/ HMH Books for Young Readers
HMH Books for Young Readers

Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.