Jeff Gottesfeld Author Interview

Happy Fourth of July!

 Thank you for stopping by for a special author interview with Jeff Gottesfeld, author of Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

When I opened this gorgeous book from Candlewick Press I knew that I'd be sharing it between home and the classroom. I began with a reading at home to my 6 year-old. He requested it night after night after night. I finally dared to sneak the book to school to read aloud at the end of May, in honor of Memorial Day. My fourth graders sat in silent awe as they learned, many for the first time, about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Told in serious tones through the narration of the first Unknown, and set to the stunning visuals created by Matt Tavares, the book commands the respect of its audience. And one read through won't be enough.

Welcome, Jeff Gottesfeld! My questions will appear in bold.

You've said that you have walked National Cemeteries for Memorial Day for many years. Tell me a little about how this tradition came to be.

I've been doing it for so many years that it is hard to remember the first time. But I would imagine that the first time was in Nashville, TN when I lived there. My home was on one hill south from famed Shy's Hill, which played a big part during the Battle of Nashville in the Civil War (mid-December, 1864). There was something imagining the conflict taking place under my feet. On Memorial Day, things felt especially real. Then came September 11th, 2001, which reminded me that freedom is not free. And after I adopted my son from Russia in 2003 -- he was 10 at the time - I wanted him to understand that his new country also had a powerful tradition of military service and sacrifice, like Russia. We visited national cemeteries together. I've been to national cemeteries now so many places -- here in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and of course Arlington. It always feel like I am walking on hallowed ground.

You wrote this book for young people; at points during the process did you pause to imagine what they would feel as they experienced your words? And what hopes did you have beyond the reader closing your book after a first read?

I had that feeling from the first word of the first paragraph, which is the word "I." It starts, "I am an Unknown. I am one of many." For the longest time, I didn't tell this story in first person, through the eyes and soul of the first Unknown returned from Europe 100 years ago, and interred at the Tomb on Armistice Day (now Veterans Day), November 11, 1921. The narrative was a lot more conventional. It was also not very good. The moment I shifted to first person, it was all about the feelings the book would evoke, because it's a natural thing for readers to put themselves in the shoes of a first-person narrator. But here's the thing: This narrator has no identity, beyond being an Unknown. One reader's imagining of him is as valid as any other, which is exactly the point that I hope the reader would come to understand: the Unknown, through the sacrifice of his name and face, belongs to all of us. And the Tomb Guards, on the mat, strive for just one thing: perfection in service to the three Unknowns (from World War I, World War II, and Korea). Though they have been from all races, religions, and creeds, male and female, on the mat they are only Americans. These are rare foci in children's literature these days. Self-effacement, sacrifice, discipline, and devotion are not common themes. But kids' responses to TWENTY-ONE STEPS tell me that they resonate.

When writing a book about a standard of perfection, how did you carry on without doubting that you might miss something? Is there something you wish you had included that still tugs at you?

Omigosh, I love this question. All I could do was to do in my writing was what the Tomb Guards do as a matter of course, which is not just to strive for perfection, but take specific action in that question. If a Tomb Guard can shine her or his shoes for five hours before going out on the mat, I surely was going to go over every word of every sentence again and again and again, and do the same with Matt's art. Not only that, Matt did the same with Matt's art. So did I carry on without doubting that I would miss something? Heck no, I had that doubt all the time, and still do. I took some solace in how much Tomb Guards help each other when their Relief is on duty -- they dress each other, check each other, and work as a team as much as they do as individuals. Every word of this book was checked by Tomb Guards past and present, including the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has endorsed it. As for whether there's something I left out that I wish I had included, I can only say that I typically cringe when I read anything I've written aloud, because I always want to change it. But this book, that hasn't happened. So far, anyway. If I'd had another 200 words to work with, maybe I would have written about the selection process for the first Unknown (  But at its current length, I was happy by, "The End." I'm still happy.

Have you been present when a Guard of the Unknown Soldier has held your book for the first time?

Not in person, not yet. I look forward to it, a lot. I've gotten emails and calls afterward, though. This may well change in mid-July 2021, when I go to Washington D.C. to be part of the United Through Reading program Tribute to Military Families. If not then, it will surely happen around Veterans Day, 2021, because I've been invited by the Society of the Honor Guard to speak at the centennial convocation for the Tomb. I like public speaking. It generally does not faze me. But I'm scared to death by what is going to be the biggest honor of my life.

Any last thoughts you'd love to share with readers?

The only thing I would add is that in some ways I'm an unlikely person to write this book. I didn't serve in the military, no one in my family served, and when I was younger, my attitude about the American military -- many American institutions, in fact -- was skeptical. Skeptical, at best. As I've gotten older, that skepticism has most often changed to respect. For all our problems (and there is no nation that does not have problems) we've got a pretty good thing going here in the United States, and the military's high respect has been earned. I hope when kids and grownups read TWENTY-ONE STEPS, they'll appreciate that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Tomb Guards represents the best of our country. It's right in front of us. All we have to do is appreciate, honor, and remember.

Thank you for stopping by. My hope is that you've either gained new insight and created a deeper connection with the story and its creator, or that you have discovered a new book to add to your home and classroom libraries.

For an educator's discussion guide visit: Here

Learn more about Jeff Gottesfeld Here


Popular Posts