Sonia Levitin mined both her personal history and major historical events for her award–winning books for children and young adults. Her family fled Germany in 1938 for Switzerland, later settling in America. Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1956, Levitin later worked as a newspaper columnist before the publication of her first book, Journey to America, in 1970. The book, which detailed her family’s struggle during the Holocaust, was an instant classic and won numerous awards including the Jewish Book Council National Book Award. She also won awards for more playful books, like Rita the Weekend Rat in 1971 and Incident at Loring Groves in 1988, and her 1987 book on the airlift rescue of Ethiopian Jews, The Return, was also highly regarded and awarded.
Whether Sonia Levitin is writing picture books, mysteries, humor, historical adventures, or Young Adult novels dealing with the struggle of young people to find freedom and meaning in their lives, she says “I’ve come to realize I am always writing my own life story, blending personal experience with research and, of course, imagination...I write for young people because I remember my own youth so well.”
It was a memorable childhood. In early 1938, three-year-old Levitin escaped from Berlin, her birthplace, to Switzerland with her mother, Helene (1897–1993) and her two older sisters, Vera and Eva, while her father, Max Wolff (1898–1968), a clothing designer and manufacturer, made his way to the United States. Separated again in Switzerland, they suffered many hardships before the penniless family was reunited in New York in 1939. Years later, Levitin would write of her family’s traumatic uprooting in her first children’s novel, Journey to America, published in 1970. It won the Jewish Book Council National Book Award and was an American Library Association Notable Book. Silver Days (1989) and Annie’s Promise (1993), two additional books based on her family’s experiences and adjustment to America, would follow among her over thirty works published to date, bringing Levitin much critical praise, many devoted readers, and innumerable awards.
As her parents struggled to make a living, first in New York and then in Los Angeles, Levitin grew into an avid reader and determined that she would someday be a writer. In 1952, Levitin entered classes at the University of California at Berkeley where, early in her first semester, she met Lloyd Levitin, marrying him one year later. She completed her degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania in 1956 and the couple returned to the San Francisco Bay area, where Levitin worked as a teacher until the birth of son Daniel (b. 1957), followed by daughter Shari (b. 1962). She was accepted into the Directed Writing Program at San Francisco College to work with Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Oxbow Incident, because Clark was impressed by the subjects she chose, thoughtful and serious issues dealing with war, aging, love, sacrifice, and freedom.
Writing Career Beginnings
As Levitin began to write in earnest, she began with publicity articles, then became a newspaper columnist. But her acceptance as a writer of fiction came only after she turned what she had intended to be personal family memoirs for her children into Journey to America, a children’s classic still in print after thirty years.
Levitin’s ability to diversify showed itself early in her career. She followed her biographically inspired award-winning first novel with a light middle-grade work, Rita the Weekend Rat (1971), while her next published work was the painstakingly researched Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony (1973), nominated for several important prizes. Fascinated by history, Levitin later wrote The No-Return Trail (1978) about the Bidwell Bartleson Expedition westward in 1848, winning the Western Writers of America award for the best juvenile western of 1978 and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. She successfully attempted picture books, among them Who Owns the Moon, A Single Speckled Egg, A Sound to Remember, Nobody Stole the Pie, The Fisherman and the Bird, and All the Cats in the World. She continues to work expertly in this form. Meanwhile, her humorous high school novel The Mark of Conte won the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Best Fiction Award in 1981. This same organization gave her its Distinguished Body of Work Award that year, a recognition repeated in 1994.
But Levitin’s most distinguished works were yet to come. “Courage is a constant theme in my writing,” says Levitin. “It is very important to me that the characters in my books speak out and get themselves involved.” She has demonstrated this in her contemporary Young Adult novels, such as The Year of Sweet Senior Insanity (1982), Smile Like a Plastic Daisy (1984), A Season for Unicorns (1986), and Incident at Loring Groves (1988), which won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award. Even Nine for California (1996), Boom Town (1998) and Taking Charge (1999), her highly successful picture book series based on the westward expansion, shows feisty Amanda’s ability to deal with change and challenge—much as Levitin’s own family did decades later.
Remaining highly readable, Levitin’s books increasingly wrestle with important issues, whether past, present, or future. In 1987, The Return, an extraordinary work based on Operation Moses and the airlift of ten thousand Ethiopian Jews to Israel, won numerous awards, including the National Jewish Book Award, the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award and the PEN Los Angeles Award for Young Adult fiction. However, its most unexpected prize was the biennial Children’s Book Prize given in 1989 by the German Bishops’ Conference to that book which “best promotes faith and Christian values.” Levitin, the first Jewish author to be recognized by the German Catholic Church, agonized over the irony of this prize before deciding to return to Germany for the first time in fifty years to receive it in person.
Later Books and Awards
Escape from Egypt (1994), a biblical novel of the Exodus, put human faces on two young people among the throngs following Moses into the desert, while Adam’s War (1994), an intermediate story, showed a young boy learning the cost of using violence as a solution to any problem. The Singing Mountain (1998), Levitin says, deals with “a self that must be reckoned with and understood.” This story of a young man who finds his Jewish identity during a trip to Israel reflects the experience of the author, whose relationship to Judaism has become far deeper since she traveled to Israel to research The Return in the late 80s. The Cure (1999) demonstrates the author’s courage and skill in weaving together a true historical incident with a possible science fiction future, showing chillingly the cost of apathy, ignorance and hate.
Dream Freedom (2000) tells of the terrible plight of the Dinka people of Sudan and of a group of American students who begin to make a difference. It is a book, Levitin says, “born from emotion” and clearly demonstrates her credo that while her characters may be of different backgrounds and races, they are alike in their needs and feelings.
Two picture books published in 2001, When Elephant Goes to a Party and When Kangaroo Goes to School, amusingly demonstrated etiquette for the young, while Clem’s Chances: A Western Adventure (2001) tells of a young boy in search of his father, missing in California’s gold fields. Levitin’s next book, Room in the Heart, a story based on Denmark’s rescue of its Jews, will be published in 2003 and adheres to her stated passion for writing about “the quest for freedom, with ordinary people as heroes who can stand alone with their conscience.”
Levitin’s conscience has led her to support actively many of the causes which inspire her work. For example, she and her family have endowed a Once Upon A World Children’s Book Award annually presented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance Library and Archives in Los Angeles, where she and her husband live.
Adam’s War (1994).
All the Cats in the World (1982).
Annie’s Promise (1993).
Boom Town (1998).
Clem’s Chances (2001).
The Cure (1999).
Dream Freedom (2000).
Escape from Egypt (1994).
The Fisherman and the Bird (1982).
Incident at Loring Groves (1988).
Journey to America (1970).
The Mark of Conte (1976).
Nine for California (1996).
Nobody Stole the Pie (1980).
The No-Return Trail (1978).
A Piece of Home (1996).
The Return (1987).
Roanoke, A Novel of the Lost Colony (1973/2000).
Room in the Heart (2003).
Silver Days (1989).
The Singing Mountain (1998).
A Single Speckled Egg (1976).
A Sound to Remember (1979).
Taking Charge (1999).
The Year of Sweet Senior Insanity (1982).
Who Owns the Moon (1973).
Yesterday’s Child (1997).
Numerous, including Jewish Book Council Best Juvenile Fiction.
Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award.
National Jewish Book Award.
American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.
Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Distinguished Body of Work Award (in 1976 and again in 1994).
Frischer, Rita Berman, “Sonia Levitin’s Return” Los Angeles Jewish Journal, January 19–25 (1990).
Levitin, Sonia. Essay in Something About the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 2, Gale (1986): 111–126; and Volume 68 (1993): 130–134.
Sonia Levitin Papers from the de Grummond Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi, Collection No. DG0611, dates 1970–1989.