Author Ackerman presents at book club celebration event

An Oct. 4 event at the Encinitas Library was one of many in the region this year designed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the One Book, One San Diego community reading program.

With 2009 featured author Diane Ackerman returning to give a presentation to an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 250 people, then answering questions, the event was a perfect example of what makes the program so influential.

As Ackerman, 68, explained in her presentation, her 2007 book “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the true story of World War II era zookeepers — Jan and Antonina Zabinski — in Poland who helped save more than 300 people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in empty animal cages.

Antonina, Ackerman says, is the type of hero everyone can relate to.

“The idea is that of compassionate heroism,” Ackerman told the Encinitas Advocate. “The thing that is extraordinary about Antonia is that her life was in danger every single day, she was a civilian hero. She must have had an enormous amount of courage, but her form of heroism didn’t involve blowing anything up (like many of the classic heroes in storytelling).

“It had to do with compassion and making sure that the people in her care would survive the war with enough of their humanity intact that they wouldn’t be traumatized and unable to function for the rest of their lives. And there are people doing that every single day on this planet.”

In addition to being an absolutely compelling story, the narrative nonfiction book is an incredible tool for learning history. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is totally nonfiction down to the dialogue between the characters, which was taken from first-hand accounts and diaries. It took years of research in libraries and in the field for Ackerman to feel comfortable that she had captured the story and the sights and sounds of the period correctly.

“In these days of internet information and wonderful libraries, it’s possible to find out the kind of sensory details that you might want to put into something,” Ackerman explained. “I could find out the navigation pattern of birds over Warsaw in 1939, so I knew what the zookeeper’s wife saw when she looked up in the sky. Or, I knew what animals the zoo had and I could find out what kind of sound they would make, which would call first in the morning. Or what type of smells would be present.

“I read every book I could find by the zookeepers … and books by people who knew them. I could read sermons by the rabbi in the ghetto. There were even documents that the people in the ghetto hid and buried.”

It is that combination of educational detail and thought-provoking story, which led One Book One San Diego to select “The Zookeeper’s Wife” as its 2009 book. Each year, the program chooses a book that everyone around the county and beyond reads — more than 12,000 people were involved last year — and libraries host events such as discussions, workshops and presentations relating to the book or its topic.

This year’s featured author is Carlos Eire, who wrote “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” the story of a young boy’s journey from Cuba to the United States. In addition to many discussions about the book and its themes, upcoming One Book, One San Diego events include Cuban cooking classes and Cuban dance workshops.

“The idea is to have a community-wide book club (and) discuss issues that are relevant to our region through high-quality literary work,” said community engagement manager Clare Pister, who added that One Book, One San Diego is a partnership between KPBS, the San Diego Public Library, the San Diego County Library and a long list of other community partners.

“It is important to us as a program that we expose our community to really well-written books that tell important stories. ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ also has that call to action element that we look for in the books that we feature … how can we emulate the characters in this book and serve our communities better.”

For One Book, One San Diego’s 10th anniversary, it is bringing back many of its past authors for presentations like the one Ackerman gave at the Encinitas Library. That specific event was especially timely as “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is being made into a movie, starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina and coming out March 31, 2017.

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