Liza Wiemer, in her award-winning book The Assignment (Delacorte Press in 2020), explores discrimination and antisemitism. A champion of young people, education, and the Jewish experience, Wiemer speaks around the world on these topics, and recently recorded her TEDx talk “Owning This Will Change Your Life.”
Wiemer is an award-winning educator with over twenty years of teaching experience. The Assignment was named a 2021 Sydney Taylor Notable Book and has been published in Russian, Polish, Italian, and Korean. She authored two adult nonfiction books and several short stories, which were included in the New York Times bestselling Small Miracles series. Her debut picture book, Out and About: A Tale of Giving, will be published August 1, 2023 by Kalaniot Publishers.
In this interview, we ask Wiemer about the power of one individual, the impact teachers can have, the “why” of each project, and more.
Elizabeth Jorgensen (EJ): How did you come to write The Assignment?
Liza Wiemer (LW): It was April 4, 2017 and I was in the small town of Oswego, New York, to speak about my debut YA novel, Hello?, at an independent bookstore. There were a series of extraordinary events that took place during that time, including opening up Facebook, reading about the reprehensible assignment that inspired this novel, discovering that it was given in Oswego, and then meeting one of the two brave teens who spoke up against that assignment when I spotted her at my book signing!
EJ: You’ve presented at my high school several times. You ask students why they make the choices they do, or why they have a certain pet peeve, or why characters they write act a certain way. Why is “the why” so important to you?
LW: Who, what, where, when, and how often are the easy questions to answer. But why is the heart of the story. It reveals what’s underneath the characters’ joy, sadness, pain. It explains their actions. I had a challenging childhood, and I often didn’t understand the why behind my parents’ actions. It’s often agonizing when we can’t get an answer to why something occurred. For example: Have you ever been friends with someone, but that friendship ended and you have no idea why? Every time you see that person or hear their name, it triggers questions. Understanding why relieves tension, allows for resolution and growth. Somethings in life we’ll never get answers. When it comes to writing, however, providing a why is the soul of the story.
Every detail in a story should have a justifiable and meaningful why. Otherwise, it adds no value and should be cut.
NJ: You’ve been a mentor to us and have spent hours selflessly giving us feedback on early drafts of our middle grade text and reviews of our memoir. What do you see as the role of authors or teachers supporting each other?
LW: If you take a moment to look out a window and focus on the sky, you’ll see it’s so vast we can’t see it all. It’s a reminder that there are infinite positive possibilities in this world. I’m not saying that negativity doesn’t exist. Of course, it does. But why dwell on the negative? Or more importantly, what do we have control over and what actions do we take for positive change? This belief is a guiding force for me when it comes to helping others. Are we lifting each other up or dragging the other person down? Do we show the other person their strengths and encourage them? Or focus on weaknesses, leading to more insecurity?
While writing my debut young adult novel, Hello?, I created a mantra to inspire me to keep going: “Perseverance is the act of true role models and heroes.” It can be applied to many aspects of life. I have three manuscripts sitting in my computer that most likely will go nowhere. It adds up to about ten years of my life. I chose not to give up for a few reasons. 1. I feel like what I have to say can make a positive difference. 2. What message would I be giving my own children, my students if I gave up? So, I choose to preserve.
EJ: As I read The Assignment, I found myself examining every lesson and artifact I bring to my high school classroom. It made me think about how even the most well-intentioned teachers can make huge mistakes. Although the book is YA, what do you hope educators or adults take away from the book?
LW: Every person makes mistakes. I’ve seen teachers in similar situations like the one in this novel and instead of owning it, they double-down and attempt to justify their actions. It causes a lot of harm. Assignments like this are much more common than I could ever have imagined. Most go unchallenged and unreported. Gratefully, I’ve heard from teachers who’ve told me that this book has stopped them from giving a harmful assignment they’ve assigned in the past. This book is also being used in universities as a teaching tool.
Another takeaway is that we know adults and teachers are authority figures and the balance of power often rests in the adults’ hands. Why didn’t the teacher listen to the students’ concerns? The Assignment will make adults as well as teachers think about this. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Elie Wiesel, said that he learned just as much from his students as they learned from him. I love that. Everyone has a story. What can we learn from our students?
Finally, I hope this book will not only inspire others, but empower them to speak up against bigotry, hatred, and injustice.
EJ: The Assignment asks what it takes for tolerance, justice, and love to prevail. What role does literacy play in this or what our society values?
LW: I absolutely do believe that tolerance, justice and love will prevail because every time I go into a school, I meet incredible students who live it and fight for it. It’s what fuels me to keep going with this important work. If I focused only on the horrifying statistics and the animosity we see online, I would despair. There is a lot of work to do. There’s a Jewish text called “Ethics of our Fathers,” and one quote from it says, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
Despair leaves us paralyzed. Hope enables us to take action. And because books provide mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors, they are a cornerstone of hope. That being said, I’ve heard from many librarians and teachers that one of the challenges resulting from the pandemic is getting students to read. Literacy is the key to understanding the world around us, to seeking facts, to using critical thinking skills, and solving problems. So, I’m going to be bold and say that we must give students books that are relatable. There is a place for classics, but time and time again I’ve heard from teachers and students that they don’t read them. At the very least we must include modern stories that reflect their world. It’s one of the reasons why I wrote The Assignment. They’ll learn history while connecting it to their lives today.
NJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. We are continually inspired by the work you are doing.