In April 1940, the German military entered Denmark and began occupation. They met little resistance from the nation’s leaders, who felt fighting would only result in a significant loss of life for Denmark’s people. When their nation didn’t rise to the occasion, a group of young boys did. Led by 15-year-old Knud Pedersen and his brother, the Churchill Club committed countless acts of sabotage against the Nazis. This group of schoolboys was eventually captured and their imprisonment sparked the fire of resistance in their country. Author Phillip Hoose, known for his nonfiction works on the heroism of teenagers, weaves together his interviews with Pedersen with his own narrative in this moving and unforgettable story: The Boys Who Challenged Hitler. Here, we talk with Hoose about the profound impact imprisonment had on the boys, the importance of telling true stories of teenagers throughout history, and his favorite memories from the late Knud.
Bookish: This book came from your own research as well as your interviews with Knud Pedersen. How did you decide on the balance between using Knud’s own words to tell the story and using your own?
PH: As the work progressed I developed a sense of when more context was required for the reader to achieve full understanding. I filled in when needed. Also, I gave first drafts to several middle school students and invited them to write extensive notes: what worked, what didn’t, what they didn’t understand, what else they wanted to know. Then I met with them one at a time, and took notes on their reactions. That helped a lot.
Bookish: In an interview with Publishers Weekly, you talk about needing to find the right protagonist for your stories before you write them. What made Knud the right protagonist?
PH: Knud’s actions, along with those of his mates, set major events in motion. The screen was wide and Knud was at the center of the action. His police docket was longer than anyone else’s. He and his brother spent more time in Nyborg prison than the others. Knud was in his mid-teens. It’s easier for a young reader to identify with a protagonist aged 15 than 19. And he was just one of those young people who simply grew up in a very dramatic time.
Some young people just wake up to find themselves perched on the end of history’s plank. At such times, small acts can spark monumental change. Claudette Colvin entered history’s spotlight while simply riding the bus home from school. Her decision to keep her seat was, she later said, impulsive, but based on a lifetime of anger and frustration with the injustice her people suffered. As she put it: “History kept me in my seat.” Knud Pedersen and his friends likewise took a stand at a tinderbox moment that set major events in motion and placed them in great peril.
Bookish: You dedicate the book to young people who have the courage to make up their own minds. In your own childhood, do you remember moments where you had the courage to make a decision that the adults around you may not have agreed with?
PH: When I was in college, in the late 60’s, times were very turbulent. The Vietnam War was at the heart of everything. I opposed U.S. involvement, and I was active and vocal in my opposition. But the courage required for me to speak out was nothing compared to what Knud and his mates had to summon to do their sabotage work. They repeatedly risked their lives and were punished by harsh imprisonment.
Bookish: Knud sadly passed away last December, five months before the book would be released. What do you think he would want readers to take away from this book and his story?
PH: I asked Knud that very question on my final day of a week’s interviewing in Copenhagen. Here’s what he said:
“Don’t always believe that the authorities are doing the right thing. Sometimes they are doing it for profit without thinking about the ethical consequences. You are of an age as a young man or woman where you can reflect with other ideals than the money-making ideal. You should think, ‘Is this right or wrong?’ from a human point of view…. My advice to the young people is to make up their own minds. Sometimes they have no reason to believe in the adults who are running things, and history proves it… This is what I would say to young people—though I’ve never done it before. Don’t believe the politicians.”
Bookish: The books you write cover the history of people rarely featured in history books: teenagers. Why do you think their stories, no matter how incredible, are so often overlooked?
PH: Teenagers’ stories go untold because—until the internet—adults wrote nearly all the stories. It’s really a shame, too. Adults and young people can experience the same phenomena very differently, and write about from greatly different perspectives. The youthful perspective is extremely valuable. And of course many stories—particularly those of girls and young people of color—went untold because these groups were not encouraged, or were forbidden by law, to learn to read and write. More than anything I hope the work I’ve done will encourage more young people to write their own stories.
Bookish: I loved Knud’s story of his first art exhibit (held in his prison cell and featuring nudes to annoy the guards). What story did he tell you that struck you the most?
PH: There were so many, it’s hard to choose. I loved the story of Knud trying to work up the nerve to hold hands with Patricia on the beach. His hand would get closer—within an inch of touching—but this guy who repeatedly took on the Nazis couldn’t close that inch-wide gap. I loved the inner Knud.
Bookish: The boys frequently talked about using their stolen weapons to attack or even murder the Nazis, but they never manage to cross that line. Do you think their story would be remembered differently if they had? Would their actions have had the same impact on the Danish people?
PH: It’s just so hard to speculate about something like that. I suppose that had they murdered German soldiers they would have been executed shortly after they were captured. I guess that would have made them Danish martyrs, which would have been of some value, but not as much as being taken alive. That the first citizens to resist occupation were so young inspired many Danes, shamed others, and angered still others. But their arrest shocked the nation. It stirred conversation, which turned to action.
Bookish: The boys’ actions sparked a resistance movement and saved many people. While they’re seen as heroes, the aftermath of their experiences left many of them troubled and depressed. Knud said of his brother’s death, “His death was the result of high intelligence combined with low tolerance for jails and/or maybe wars.” Can you talk about the profound effect that these events had on these men?
PH: Knud was deeply affected by his incarceration, which lasted more than two years. He was very claustrophobic. When I met him in Copenhagen, he refused to ride in elevators, even though it took forever for him to climb up flights of stairs with his cane. He would not fly in airplanes. In the hours before his death, he was resisting entering the sled for a body scan—he was terrified.
Eigil Frederiksen struggled with suicidal thoughts while he was at Nyborg, and perhaps never really overcame the scars of imprisonment. The older boys had it really tough. Having your liberty taken away is very profound. I doubt that people who have not been incarcerated can really understand. These boys paid a big price for their patriotism.
Phillip Hoose is an award-winning author of books, essays, stories, songs and articles. Although he first wrote for adults, he turned his attention to children and young adults in part to keep up with his own daughters. His book Claudette Colvin won a National Book Award and was dubbed a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2009. He is also the author of Hey, Little Ant, co-authored by his daughter, Hannah, It’s Our World, Too!, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, and We Were There, Too!, a National Book Award finalist. He has received a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, a Christopher Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, among numerous honors. He was born in South Bend, Indiana, and grew up in the towns of South Bend, Angola, and Speedway, Indiana. He was educated at Indiana University and the Yale School of Forestry. He lives in Portland, Maine.