I’ve always been drawn to big event stories, especially those that impact the course of history and change the way things are done afterwards. The Hindenburg with its tragic mix of disaster and intrigue is one such event. Advances in technology keep the Hindenburg disaster fresh and current. It takes just a click of a mouse to access 1937 film footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Accompany that with the eye-witness radio report of Herbert Morrison and the Hindenburg event suddenly feels very personal.
The story of Werner Franz surfaced in 2010 while I was exploring topics for a new Sleeping Bear book. I knew it had a few features that would make it appealing to youngsters. For one, it had a natural story arc. Character, plot, climax, resolution – they were all bound together in the dramatic story of the young cabin boy struggling for his life. That the main character was a teenager was a bonus – young readers would be able to relate to him and his quest for adventure. Furthermore, the story was connected to a turning point in history, making it not only significant, but also a subject that might be of interest to schools. In other words, the story of Werner Franz had a number of market possibilities that could make it attractive to a publisher. What I didn’t realize initially was that 2012 marked the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster. My editor at Sleeping Bear pointed out the connection and the marketing potential of releasing the book in synch with the anniversary event.
While there was interest at Sleeping Bear, one big question remained: Could I write the story? I was invited to submit a manuscript for the publisher to consider. It was a challenge on several fronts. I had written two previous picture books for Sleeping Bear (G is for Golden Boy; S is for Scientists), but both were alphabet books where the structure of the book was a given. This was a full fledged story, the content was bound in historical facts, and the topics of life-death were fairly heavy ones for young readers to handle. Telling the story in the typical 32 page format of a picture book meant stripping away a lot of unnecessary detail and keeping the focus on Werner – his predicament, his decisions, his struggle to escape the inferno.
I wrote several variations of the story. To see how it played out in a 32 page format, I created a dummy book, cut the story into segments and tried different arrangements. I tried to envision opportunities for illustration. In places, I cut out chunks of detail where I thought the illustrator might be able to show it. Key to the pruning process was the adage: A picture is worth a thousand words.
Fortunately, Sleeping Bear liked the manuscript and a contract followed. There was still much pruning to do, though, and many discussions with my editor. David Geister was selected as the illustrator. David had illustrated S is for Scientists, and I respected the quality of his work and his quest for historical accuracy. I thought he was an ideal choice for a book of this type.
Over the months that David worked on the illustrations, my editor sent a few scans of some of his preliminary work, and she kept me in the loop of decisions being made about the book. Now and then, I was asked to verify details or, based on my knowledge of the setting, to comment on features that might be included.
Two details in the story presented problems. One was Werner’s actual escape route and the position of the water tank that helped save his life. There were conflicting versions of this in the print material and no clear indication of which was accurate. Another problem concerned the pocket watch that Werner finds at the end of the book. Some accounts mentioned that Werner returned to the crash site the day after the disaster, but they differed in what he found there. Some said he took a section of girder, others a statue. One or two mentioned a watch. Which was it?
Fortunately, Patrick Russell, an authority on the Hindenburg, was able to provide answers to the water tank/escape route problem. Patrick maintains a comprehensive website called Faces of the Hindenburg. Every detail about the airship, its crew and passengers can be found there. To determine the route used by Werner, Patrick researched blueprints and photos of the airship’s interior. The water tank that some sources said was ‘overhead’, Patrick figured was actually one of the ballast tanks alongside the keel gangway. When the Hindenburg lurched, the airship tilted. At the point when the ballast tank burst, it was above Werner who was struggling to make it up the incline. This might seem like a small detail, but telling it correctly was important to the accuracy of the book and to the way David would eventually illustrate it.
The other detail in question was the pocket watch that Werner retrieved from the wreck. Fortunately, Werner Franz had been interviewed on several occasions after the disaster and had been featured in a number of documentaries that I was able to access. In one interview on a DVD about the Hindenburg, Werner described his escape. He mentioned going back to the wreck the next day and finding the pocket watch that his grandfather had given him as a gift. Hearing that detail voiced by Werner himself verified the story ending and trumped other versions provided in secondary print materials.
A number of details about the Hindenburg surprised me – its vast size, its elegance and luxury, the hope it generated for the future of air travel. Mostly, though, I was surprised by how technologically advanced it was for its time. It was equipped with the latest navigational gear, finely tuned weather instruments, sophisticated communications systems. It was a model of all that was the latest and greatest.
In some ways, Werner Franz was a surprise, too. Initially, I didn’t realize that being a cabin boy aboard the Hindenburg was a type of dream job for him. He was an adventurous lad, thrilled with the prospect of visiting far-off places. He hoped to make a career out of zeppelin travel, work his way up the ranks and eventually become a rigger. Even after the disaster, he hung on to that hope. Despite his narrow escape, he would have jumped on the next available zeppelin had there been one.