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Editor’s note: We at the Reformed Journal are very excited about the release this week of Dana VanderLugt’s book Enemies in the Orchard, and invited Dana to share how the book came to be along with a short excerpt from it.

I was sitting in the back of an eighth grade classroom, a guest in a reading intervention class of about ten students—none of whom saw themselves as any good at reading or writing. They had a guest speaker that day, the author and Calvin University professor, Gary Schmidt. They had just read Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, a book they loved, (also a book I love and have recommended to students over and over and over). All you really need to understand about Schmidt—as a writer and a person—is that when the middle school teacher reached out to him to ask if he might Zoom in to answer a few of her students’ questions, he offered to make the hour drive to the school to talk with them in person. 

Gary Schmidt

Schmidt told us about how he wrote the book in two parts: half before his wife died, then, after taking a long break, finishing it many months later.  He talked about how it was based on his experience visiting a juvenile detention center and about the several locked doors he had to pass through to meet the boys who inspired his characters. 

One student, tucked in a corner of the classroom, dressed in worn jeans and big, brown farm boots, sat silently with a solemn expression on his face. When asked if there were any final questions, he waved his hand.  Schmidt nodded to him, and the boy, bigger than all his classmates, stood to his feet to speak: “Why did you have to kill that character? Why did you have to write that?”

A few years ago, while preparing a graduation lecture for a master’s degree in creative writing, I began researching the question of how authors deal with grief and pain in children’s and YA literature in a place I know so well—the middle school.

As someone who taught eighth grade English for nearly 15 years, I wanted to first listen to middle grade readers to hear what they had to say about the topic of sadness in the books they encounter. 

I conducted a non-scientific survey in which 230 students shared their thoughts on the subject of sadness in books written for them. I asked about favorite books they’ve read that made them sad. I also inquired, “When you’ve personally been upset or sad before, name something an adult has said or done that has really annoyed you.”

The students echoed the same sentiment: when they’ve been upset they are told things like: “Stop crying,” “Get over it,” “You’re overreacting.” “Act your age,” and “Suck it up, Buttercup.” The overwhelming answer to my questions was that adults too often minimize their feelings. 

Ryan, age 14, said: “I hate when people invalidate my emotions and opinions because they’re simply older and have more experience.”

Rachel said: “‘It’s going to be okay’ is kind of annoying because not everything in the world is actually okay.”

The middle school students made it clear that books come to the rescue by taking their lives and their problems seriously—perhaps doing a better job of it than many of the adults in their lives. 

Books written for young readers are powerful when they don’t explain away the world, but pay enough attention to its pain to light a path, knowing that readers can keep moving forward in the dark when they feel less alone and less afraid, finally seen and heard. 

Some protest that we should shield children from sadness, or at least save it until they get older. Some might say today’s books offer kids too much, but I wonder if they remember being read aloud to, if they had third grade teachers who reached for the tissues in the final page of Charlotte’s Web, or have ever witnessed a young reader’s empathy swell as they confront the injustice experienced in the pages of The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963.

As a teacher and now literacy coach, I can’t tell you how often I’ve fielded questions from parents who question books that they feel are “too much” for kids— books that tackle subjects that parents worry may be too hard and heavy for them.

This concern is understandable. Our world isn’t always kind, and this wish to shield children from pain comes from an honorable place.  But literature also offers protection, the protection of giving readers a chance to face, rather than turn away from, hard things. The protection of practicing emotions like grief, joy, empathy, and anger. 

The author with students

Allowing room for pain and grief in children’s and young adult literature allows readers to avoid the shame of not living a life full of happily ever afters. When stories include sharp, painful corners, there’s room for readers’ own sharp, painful corners.

In a recent essay called, Joy and the Excavation of Suffering, Nadia Bolz Weber writes about joy in a women’s prison, not in spite of suffering, but because of its connection to it: “Facing, holding, and speaking honestly of our own suffering and the suffering of others can feel brutal. Like pieces of ourselves are being scooped out. True. But what is also true is the way that it excavates something in us that joy can then fill that much deeper. It doesn’t justify the suffering, it just follows it.”

I taught middle school for more than a decade, and read mostly books written for my students. I never felt I was reading “down,” I was simply reading good books.  Even so, as a writer, until about five years ago, I only wrote essays aimed for adults. But a spark of a story—a story my dad had shared 20 years earlier about German prisoners of war who had once been employed on my grandfather’s orchard—began to grow in a corner of my mind.

I knew when I began that I wanted to write the novel in verse. Young readers have been flying through novels written in verse for decades, and as a teacher, I often found that I could convince a student, especially a reluctant reader, to try a verse novel on the very premise that it contained more white space and fewer words. I fell in love with verse novels alongside my students and for many of the same reasons: distilled down to their essence, these novels grabbed my heart; their spare and lyrical lines took my breath away, all while taking me less time to read. Their poetry, a genre that can intimidate, was beautiful, the stories were engaging, and the space on the page was a gift.  It’s a bit of a paradox:  the attribute that lures many young readers into a verse novel—its white space—provides a chance for them to read faster while also allowing them permission to slow down.

And so, with my middle school students in mind, I began to tell a story in poems. I researched stories of German POWs, this American experiment of solving our labor crisis during the war by employing our enemy, and then attempted one scene: what it may have been like the day a group of prisoners, men and boys plucked out of war and shipped across an ocean, arrived on an apple orchard where a young girl and her family lived. 

I was once told as I prepared to take an Enneagram test to answer the questions the way my adolescent self would answer, because even as an adult, that young girl is still the inner core of who I am today.  It turns out writing a book for young readers required me to do much the same—to be attentive to that tender, vulnerable, figuring-out person I once was; that tender, vulnerable figuring-out person I still am; and the tender, vulnerable, figuring-out people who might read my pages.

My highest hopes for my novel are found in the acknowledgements, the final words in my book, as I thank readers by sharing the words of Frederick Buechner: “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”  

That’s the gift of stories—no matter the age of the reader—the way they open up our worlds, open up our minds, while also coming close enough to whisper to our innermost parts that we are seen and known.

Poems are excerpted from Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, published by Zonderkidz, 2023. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[Please note:  Claire’s older brother Danny is serving in WWII.]

Kicking Around
Tuesday, September 12, 1944

I can tell Mama wants to talk to Daddy alone
about bringing Germans right here
to our house on the orchard,
because as soon as I’m finished eating,
she brooms me out of the kitchen,
hands me a pail, and points to the garden.
“Gather up the rest of the green beans.
I’ll be canning another batch tomorrow.”

As I trudge the gravel path to the garden,
my feet discover a stone, 
a misshapen, rust-colored rock 
broken free from the hard-packed ground.
Slowly passing it from one foot to the other,
I kick the stone like I kick this news
around in my mind. 

Once in the garden,
I drop my bucket and knees in the dirt,
search for the green beans
camouflaged in the leaves. 
I’m glad to be allowed to wear jeans
around the farm,
instead of the dresses and Mary Jane shoes
Mama forces me to wear
anytime I leave.

I look down to see a faded scuff on Danny’s boot
and remember last summer. 
The day the two of us raced along the train tracks.
Just as we heard an approaching whistle,
Danny’s foot got caught under the rail. 
I grabbed his hand and pulled him
to the safety of the ditch.
After the train rumbled past,
shaking the ground we sat on,
we retrieved his boot,
pulled off in the scuffle,
beat up, 
but salvageable.
I could see he was trying not to cry. 

Rather than tease him about his almost-tears,
I kept my mouth shut
and tiptoed behind him into the bathroom,
avoiding Mama and her worried questions. 
Helped wash the gravel
from Danny’s cut knees and palms.
My hands steady
as his trembled.

Now I look around to make sure I’m alone
and then talk
to my brother.

“You think this is a good idea?” I say.
I can see him here,
across the row from me,
balancing on his haunches, 
lifting up the vines, overgrown and tired at summer’s end.

“I don’t know,” he says, not looking up.
“I know Dad needs the help, but I hate the thought
of Krauts walking on our land, 
touching our trees,
coming close to our house.”

I nod and agree.
“I thought we were supposed to hate
them, not give them jobs.”

Before my imaginary brother can answer,
a squawking hawk flies overhead,
swoops into a nearby tree.
My privacy invaded by a bird,
I feel embarrassed, 
too old to be playing pretend.

I put my head down
and get back to work.

Herrenvolk: No translation to English
Closest definition: master race
Thursday, September 14, 1944

At dusk, we ride toward the sunset
 and the train grows quiet but not still.
Like nervous chickens trapped in a pen,
we squirm and shift in our seats.

Since we were young,
we’ve been told 
over and over
that we were special,

Teetering between
 homesickness and motion sickness,
my brain spins and fiddles
with the idea that perhaps
being in the enemy’s grasp
is better than being in the battlefield:
dehydrated, empty-bellied,
 meat for mosquitoes.

It is hard to feel besondere— 
 after being captured
 in the French countryside,
commanded and marched 
forward by the enemy.
When orders were barked at us
 barked orders at us
while we scavenged for cigarette butts
in the mud.

It is hard to feel ehrenwert—
when my fingers still shake
from pulling a trigger
 that sent bullets barreling forward.
When in the silence
my heart still beats heavy,
reminding me
of what I took from other men, 
other kids, 
who wore the opposite colors.
Men and boys
I watched wail,

It is hard to feel sauber—
when I can still feel the fleas
that buzzed around us
 like we were dogs,
still taste the worms that fought 
for their share of our food rations.
A shower may have washed away
the dirt and sweat,
but already I can smell my filth again,
the grime that seeps 
into every inch of my pride.

It is hard to feel treu—
 ready to give up my life
for the Führer,
when everything I was promised
the history lessons I was taught in school,
the duty and discipline
pounded into my head during military training,
the patrioic songs I was encouraged to sing,
grow fainter and fainter
with each turn of these train wheels
that crisscross serene American towns.

It’s hard to imagine
every again raising my arm
in a Nazi salute
as we slip past silent homes,
homes we were assured were burning
with death and destruction,
filth and fury,
when instead I see 
windows glowing lightly
and smoke rising lazily from woodstoves that warm
well-fed families
sleeping safely in their beds.

The anthems of my Hilter Youth dissipate
and screams of the dominance of a German nation
are drowned out
by the overwhelming silence
of a wide sky
lit by stars
rather than bombs

Their Arrival
Monday, September 18, 1944

I’m not sure what I expected.
Hard-looking men weighed down with chains?
Feeble, war-torn prisoners thin with despair?
Mechanical soldiers with hatred blazing in their eyes?

I watch from the front stoop
as a flatbed truck pulls into our driveway,
the back end weighed down 
by a delivery of Germans.
Mama says we shouldn’t be staring,
but stands close enough that I can feel her
warm breath against my back. 

I count ten men,
the way I count deer when I spot them
gathered in a nearby field.

The guard is first out. 
A rifle hangs loosely on his shoulder,
as if he has no intention of needing it.
He strolls to the rear of the truck,
yanks open the wooden tailgate, and
turns away, pulls a cigarette out of his pocket,
bends to light it.
He doesn’t look like someone who is worried
about anyone trying to run. 

I expect to see handcuffs or shackles,
but the prisoners’ arms and legs stretch 
free as they climb out of the truck
and wait for directions.
Tall and lean,
cheeks ruddy, clean shaven,
shoulders trained to stand strong.
Most look closer to my age than my father’s.
Several run their fingers through their hair,
attempting to slick it back 
in place after their windy ride.
Three lean lean close together, whispering, grinning, 
smiling like they have jokes saved up in their pockets.
One blond boy stands apart
from the rest of the group.
He bites his lip,
looking more nervous and shy
than fierce and brave.

Dressed in blue military fatigues
with the letters PW 
stamped on their backs, 
they raise their heads,
peer out into the trees,
glance around at the barns, 
our house.

I can hear the low buzz of their mumblings, 
words I know must be German.
It’s a mean language
imitated by kids playing war in the schoolyard
with wooden guns and sticks,
or shouted by angry Nazis in the movies.
Even from here, their words sound harsh
and guttural, like the constant clearing of throats.

I’ve never spoken a word of German
but reckon it would feel like speaking
with a piece of hard candy in my mouth.

As Daddy moves from the barn to greet them, 
Mama yanks my sleeve, urging me back into the house,
“Enough now, Claire,” she scolds
as if she wasn’t right beside me.

I close the door behind us.

Unsere Ankunft: Our Arrival
Monday, September 18, 1944

The truck slows 
and turns right.
A wooden sign in the shape of an apple
waves us into an orchard drive.
I shiver and cup my hands, 
exhale warmth into my numb fingers.

The driveway forms a T. 
A big barn towers at its top, 
a work shed to the right,
a dirt road to the left.
From where we stand, the land rises before us.
Hectares and hectares of apple trees stretch
 across the horizon.

A farmhouse, the owner’s place,
flanks the driveway’s right.
A woman and girl, 
probably the farmer’s wife and daughter,
stand on the front Veranda,
Both in skirts and cardigan sweaters
and nearly the same height,
the girl looks like a younger, slimmer
 reflection of her mother,
who stands close behind her, on guard,
a kerchief covering her head
 while the girl’s golden hair, tied half up, 
waves in the morning breeze.
Their arms crossed at their chests.
I don’t need to be close
 to see the concern in their eyes.

My mind flashes to Mutti, my sisters,
 knowing that the little girls I left 
will be older, taller, harder
or if
I return.

Like the day I was captured,
 I want to raise my arms,
show this woman and this girl
 my empty hands.

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, released in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at and on X @danavanderlugt.


  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    The premise is right. Shielding children from real, raw human life does not equip them to face real, raw, human life. Gary Schmidt knows that. You do, too, Dana. Thank you for sharing this poignant versing of your story.


  • Henry Baron says:

    Young adult but older readers too who read, absorb, and are moved by Gary Schmidt’s books are blessed by having “more to be Christian with,” as Henry Zylstra put it in his Testament of Vision.
    I trust Enemies in the Orchard will do the same.
    Thank you, Dana.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    A gift to the world is this book whose time is then, now, and always.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    It continues to puzzle me why parents who think some books are “too much” for their children, don’t seem concerned that their children are regularly asked to huddle into classroom corners during lockdown drills. Such innocence about the nearness of violence or sadness or trauma is no longer an option, and yet it is books, incredibly, some parents think we must protect kids from.

    And, oh my, these excerpts from your book are amazing: I already care about these two young people. I’m calling the book store today. Thank you for this book!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Your writing makes me young again, and I am deeply moved. A treasure

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Dana, I had a Dutch immigrant parishioner in Ontario who as a teenager had been forced into Germany by the Nazis as a “guest worker.” He worked on a farm. He told us he came to love the German family he had to work for.

  • So interesting! I am fascinated by all the personal connections the story I am hearing. And they all seem to go along with the themes of the book!

  • Jane Brown says:

    The verses of the German soldier Karl really hit made stop of feel/ think – Thank you