Author Spotlights

Volume XII – Janet Skeslien Charles, The Paris Library

Cece chats with Janet Skeslien Charles, author of The Paris Library, one of Goodreads most anticipated books for 2021.

Cece chats with Janet Skeslien Charles, author of The Paris Library, one of Goodreads most anticipated books for 2021.

Volume XII

Janet in APL KrystalKenneyALP2020 110 resizedJanet in the American Library of Paris 

Photo Credit: Krystal Kenney

Have you ever wondered what levels of courage you would be able to muster in times that require extraordinary bravery, times where your belief in the greater good of helping people far outweighs your own safety?

“When I heard this story I had to sit down and write it,” says Janet Skeslien Charles.

When I heard about this book, I had to sit down and read it.

A native of Montana, Skeslien Charles grew up next door to Claudine, a war bride who captivated her little neighbour with stories of the appalling events that happened in Paris during the Second World War. Along the way, Claudine also taught Skeslien Charles how to speak French.

“Even as a kid, I could see that Claudine was very brave to leave everything behind. It took a lot of courage for her to leave her job, her friends and her family in order to come to Canada. Claudine sparked my interest in going to France,” the author says.

It was during her two-year job tenure at the American Library in Paris, (ALP), that Skeslien Charles first heard about the bravery and heroism of the ALP library workers during the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War.  

The Paris Library, which is based on a true story, is a testament to the importance and the power of books, most especially in troubled and challenging times. The intricacies of friendship, which are built on trust and the intimacy of fear, can also be destroyed by those very traits.

The heroes in this book are not the soldiers at the front or the soldiers in the foxholes, but rather everyday people who refused to be bowed by the travesties of evil.

And so, in the telling of the story, one that outlines the bravery of the ALP staff, who defied the Nazis and delivered books surreptitiously to the library’s Jewish subscribers, at great danger to themselves, Skeslien Charles fosters a real connection between the reader and the main characters. We know that these women and men are based on true portrayals of ALP staff. As we walk the journey with Odile, (one of the main characters), her boyfriend, Paul, Odile’s dear friend from the States, Margaret and others, I too felt like I was walking through the hallowed rooms of the ALP, sharing quiet conversations between the stacks with the directress, Miss Reeder, who welcomed all to the Library:  ‘students, teachers, soldiers, foreigners and French.’

“I wanted to write about the bravery of the librarians who were instrumental in keeping the library open,” says Skeslien Charles.

American Library in Paris resizedPhoto Caption and credit: The American Public Library

There is a quietness to Skeslien Charles’ story that speaks volumes in the telling, done in a way that invites the reader to be a ‘part of’.

As we got comfortable with each other – truism –dedicated lovers of the written word, readers who are enthralled with the very idea of books and consider them true friends, seem, at least in my experience, to form the kinds of immediate connections that spark lovely dialogue relative to a book’s characters, plot, or surprise actions or treacheries – Skeslien Charles and I chatted about some of the book’s characters.

And so, when I expressed my disappointment to the author relative to the conduct of Odile’s boyfriend, Paul, the author was quick to defend him; it was as if Paul was a mutual friend whose inventory we were taking.

That is the power and the skill that Skeslien Charles has in engaging the reader.

The research that the author had to immerse herself in, in order to get the details just right, was intensive. It included the knowledge garnered from her several years at the French National Library, as well as delving into archive copies of the New York Herald Tribune’s Paris editions, studying cigarette ads, girdle ads and fashion ads from the late 1930s and 1940s, “one dress I saw had squirrel tails attached to the hem,” Skeslien Charles says. The author also interviewed her husband’s grandmother and a woman who fought in the resistance and now lives in Versailles.

Skeslien Charles also accessed background information about the German occupation of Paris from back issues, (1939-1940) of a publication called the Library Journal.

Interestingly, it is this periodical that has just named The Paris Library as #1 Pick of The 20 Indie Next Great Reads for February.

Knowing that in the initial days of the occupation, the Nazis pillaged the Polish library and killed the head librarian of the Ukrainian Library after he had catalogued that library’s full collection, the librarians at the ALP knew that even though it would be dangerous delivering books to their Jewish subscribers, they had to do it.

Skeslien Charles’ imagery and the dialogue that runs through The Paris Library brilliantly nurtures the reader’s investment in the storyline, the characters, and the tumultuous situations that are happening.

The illustrative phrases the author uses resonate:

“A library without members is a cemetery of books.”

“The braided crown of her hair had become halo.”

And in a poignant moment when two friends – one Jewish, the other not- were in the throes of extending an olive branch to each other, the exchange of dialogue between the men left me breathless.

“Was it hard to take the first step?” a library patron asked the man who was initiating the peace offering.

“It would have been harder to lose a friend,” the man replied.

Often it is in the telling of a book that the story, more than any other component, resonates and Skeslien Charles singular use of the Dewey Decimal system- a ubiquitous system that libraries have adopted to identify and organize books by topic and genre, is used charmingly by the author. Emotions were categorized by using their specific call numbers under the Dewey Decimal system; for instance, when speaking of a character that Skeslien Charles hoped would be OK, her strategy was to wish that person the appropriate emotion as catalogued in the Dewey Decimal System: Hope 152.4. I found it a wonderfully ingenious way to draw the reader in, in a playful and intelligent manner.

Another way Skeslien Charles sparked readers’ interest was to paint the backdrop of Paris streets in such a way that we hid in darkened Parisian doorways with Odile as she scurried through the streets delivering books to Jewish patrons.

Take it from me, a lover and supporter of libraries, and a cash cow for book stores.

The Paris Library is a book that you will want to buy from your local bookstore, or borrow from your local library. It is, I promise, a story that will inspire, (Dewey Decimal #822, key to a new life), uplift, and make you feel better about the courage and the resilience of the human spirit.

It will also, has it has for me, inspire some personal reflection on how you, as an individual, would fare in Odile’s situation, one that takes courage, fortitude and great heart.

My hope, (Dewey Decimal #152.4) is that each one of us would be at the forefront of that kind of story, acting with the courage of character displayed by the workers of the American Public Library.   

Genevieve Graham and Janet Skeslien Charles in Toronto 2019 resized“I cannot separate the writer from the person.”
Photo credit: Krystal Kenney

Want to be part of the cutting edge connected reading crowd? Make sure to come back next week for my chat with Mary Lawson, author of A Town Called Solace. 

Looking for a mind-bender on these cold March days? Check out Cece’s review on You Can’t Catch Me.

Rearranging your rooms for a spring clean? Grab some ideas here 

Itchy travel feet? Take an Adventure by Chicken Bus here

Have you heard about the new developments in the Sherman Murders? Click here to read Cece’s chat with Kevin Donovan, author of The Billionaire Murders.

Send me a note and let me know who your favourite author is, as well as your fav book. Who knows – you might meet your author bestie on this very blog.

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Cece is the feature cover writer for several prestigious publications and is an informed, connected and enthusiastic book blogger at  Her first book, *The Love Story,* was published in 2019. Her second book will be coming out in the spring of 2021. Cece is also working on a book of Daily Reflections for Auto Immune Condition Warriors.

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