Digging Up the Truth –an interview with #AudreyHepburn biographer, Robert Matzen

I am so in awe of Robert Matzen’s latest biography, DUTCH GIRL: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (on shelves next month: April 15th / GoodKnight), I reached out and asked for an interview.

Matzen’s answers are as riveting as the book, itself. See for yourself:

“…a long lost brother.”

Q. I was touched by DUTCH GIRL’s genuine, heartfelt Foreword by Audrey’s son, Luca Dotti. What was it like connecting with him?

Matzen: I had refrained from contacting with either Sean Hepburn Ferrer or Luca Dotti during the research and writing of the narrative because I wanted to be free of any family influence. It’s the same process I followed with Carole Lombard (Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3) and Jim Stewart (Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe)–let the facts take me where they take me and then let the family in on it. So after the last trip to the Netherlands, when I had come up with the first rough draft, I emailed them both. Luca responded right away to say he’d been trying to find me for months! He’s the family historian and had heard about my work from his contacts in Arnhem. Well, from there it’s as if I had found a lost brother. We realized from the first instant that we were on the same wavelength, with similar beliefs and creative impulses, which led to some great conversations. When he reviewed the manuscript and made corrections and additions, it felt pretty tremendous, not only because it was validating for me as a writer, but because Audrey’s son had become my creative partner.

“…how was I going to get at the truth?”

Q. Without divulging any spoilers, what was one of the biggest “ah-hah” moments in your research/discoveries? How did it come about?

Matzen: My temptation was to paint Audrey’s mother Ella as a villain. She had been on the record as pro-Nazi. She had met Hitler, and ran around with a Nazi boyfriend. She was also a stage mother through Audrey’s ballet career. Immediately at war’s end she had covered her tracks about that Nazi past, as did so many, which made it impossible for me 70 years later to determine her true sympathies. Man did I sweat that for quite a while–how was I going to get at the truth. Then came the aha moment when I realized that she must have done a 180 in 1942–if you read the book you will know exactly when and why–and the reason I know she flipped was because two unimpeachable sources trusted her: My Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders had located Count van Limburg Stirum’s diary in which he talked about Ella, and I had stumbled upon the all-important Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft. They’re the two male heroes in the book and very smart men. Both put their trust in Ella van Heemstra, which meant that heading into 1942, she had turned on the Nazis and was A-OK after all.

“Total, true inner beauty to match what was visible, plus incredible strength and courage.”

Q. How did your perspective of Audrey change as you worked on this book?

Matzen: I wasn’t a fan of Audrey Hepburn’s. Like everyone else I recognized the timeless beauty in that face, and admired her work for UNICEF, and that’s as far as it went. The only picture I ever saw of hers on the big screen was Robin & Marian. I’d never seen Roman Holiday, or The Nun’s Story. I still haven’t forced my way through War & Peace. To me you can’t be a big fan of somebody and try to chronicle their lives because how are you going to be objective? But over the three years getting to know her, walking in her footsteps and learning what I learned, I became not a fan of hers, but an admirer. I understand her so very well, and to me there’s nothing not to like, and a great many things to marvel at. Total, true inner beauty to match what was visible, plus incredible strength and courage.

Q. Which of the following Hepburn film titles best describes the path (or your writing process) of this phenomenal project?

a. Roman Holiday ——— d. Charade

b. War and Peace ——— e. My Fair Lady

c. Two for the Road ——— f. Other:_________

Matzen: Other: Secret People, a crazy, dark melodrama that was Audrey’s big break, really. She was about 20 when she made it but still a teenager at heart. There’s intrigue and angst, which mirrors the research phase, struggling for sources, building alliances, seeking support, digging through Nazi documents–talk about groping through dark alleys hoping to come out alive at the other end. And of course writing about the SS, SD, the war, particularly that war, is dark stuff, just like Secret People.

Q. Besides WWII and Hollywood, are there any qualities or common ground that you feel –or you’ve discovered–Carole Lombard, Jimmy Stewart, and Audrey Hepburn share?

Matzen: They’re three smart people, one an extrovert (CL) and the other two passionate introverts, but I’ll tell you one thing they had in common that’s pretty great: Each had a killer sense of humor. Imagine the three of them alone in a room at the same time–if that ever happens on the Other Side, hijinx will ensue.

“Audrey Hepburn was up to her elbows in blood.”

Q. What “take-aways” would you like your readers to get from reading DUTCH GIRL?

Matzen: I’d like people to look at Audrey Hepburn with new respect and understanding, knowing now exactly why she was a hero. One of her biographers said basically, “She was only 14 or 15 in the war so she couldn’t have been in the Resistance.” Well guess what. That war made you grow up fast and the Resistance relied on young people down to kids as young as 9 or 10 as I document. Here’s the kind of war it was: Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft had dog tags made for his children–in case they were killed in the bombing or ground combat, he wanted to be able to tell whose body was whose so he had metal tags made for them to wear around their necks, each with a name stamped on it. The idea caught on and all the children of Velp had dog tags. There’s no surviving documentation that Audrey had dog tags, but I bet she did. They lived in one of the most beautiful villages in the Netherlands, a big-money place where people retired after making a fortune in the Dutch East Indies, but in 1944 and 1945, the war hit full force and oh brother did 15 year olds participate in it. Audrey Hepburn was up to her elbows in blood. Princess Ann went to war.

Matzen with three of the Velpenaren–Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, and Rosemarie Kamphuisen in Velp, June 2017. In Matzen’s words: “They, and a few other of the Dutch, have become family in the last two years.”

Q. What tips do you have for aspiring biographers?

Matzen: Two things: 1) In the field of biography, don’t trust what’s already been written about a person. I found so many errors in scholarship of Audrey resulting from one author trusting another author and repeating bad information. It’s really shocking in some cases. Always go back to primary sources as much as possible. Rudy Behlmer took me to the woodshed about that and I’ve never forgotten it. In the Errol & Olivia rough draft I stated that Lili Damita had been married to Michael Curtiz in Europe and Rudy flipped out. Where did I get that? he demanded. We were in the Smoke House in Burbank, sitting there, and I swallowed hard, looked him in the eye, and said I saw it on the internet. Word to the wise: Never say “I saw it on the internet” to Hollywood Historian Rudy Behlmer. He was as pissed as I was embarrassed and ever since that day at the Smoke House, I am careful. I’ve learned to deconstruct my subject and rebuild him or her from the ground up using primary sources. 2) My advice for anybody writing a book about anything is, write a thousand words a day. If you do that for 100 days, you have a book. Don’t worry if they’re good words or bad words, just corral all those words and worry about putting your brand on them later.

Q. What’s next? How do you follow a book like this?

Matzen: You know what, Erin? I have no idea. I have been working since 2011 pretty steadily on what has become my “Hollywood in World War II Trilogy” and it’s the strangest thing not to be working on something. I’m certain that I don’t want to settle on just any old thing as my next subject, which is a trap biographers can fall into. The publisher insists on an author keeping his name relevant. I want the next thing to come up and grab me. Back after Fireball I started to round up research on Basil Rathbone because Rathbone has never been done. I went out to Hollywood and poked around the places he lived and went to the Herrick Library nosing around trying to get myself into a Rathbone frame of mind, but it didn’t feel right. Baz and I just didn’t hit it off for whatever reason, so I let it go. Then my friend John McElwee–Greenbriar Picture Shows John McElwee–announced what I should do next: Jimmy Stewart in the war. We were sitting in a restaurant and he said that and I remember thinking, I can’t do that! Stewart refused to talk about the war, so where would the facts come from? But a few days later, after I’d slept on it, the idea snuck up and grabbed me. I thought, just because nobody’s ever done it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I relished the challenge of it and off I went chasing through the War Dept. records with Ann Trevor, my DC researcher. So now I’ll leave it to the cosmos to tell me what’s next. Some good story that’s never been told. Hopefully a WWII story because it’s the biggest, most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to the world. My wife sure wants to know what’s next because when I don’t have a book to work on I get restless and cranky.

Endless gratitude to Robert Matzen for sharing his insights and discoveries with us. For more about Matzen and his work, see RobertMatzen.com (I am hooked on his blog.), and follow him on Twitter at @RobertMatzen.

DUTCH GIRL: Audrey Hepburn and World War II is available for pre-order here. Check out my FIVE-STAR review of DUTCH GIRL.

“I’ll leave it to the cosmos to tell me what’s next.”

I can’t wait to read what the cosmos has in mind for Matzen’s next book.

Can you?

DUTCH GIRL: #AudreyHepburn and WWII by Robert Matzen — book review

Audrey Hepburn fans, are you ready for this?

I hereby give DUTCH GIRL –Audrey Hepburn and World War II

by bestselling biographer Robert Matzen five stars.

Disclaimer: I received this wonderful arc of DUTCH GIRL from the publicist. On a whim, I contacted Mr. Matzen, as I have read every Audrey bio from Barry Paris (“Hepburn’s definitive biographer,” as Matzen puts it, and I fully agree.), Spoto, Maychick, –the list goes on, including her sons’ books: AUDREY HEPBURN, AN ELEGANT SPIRIT (Sean Ferrer) and AUDREY AT HOME: MEMORIES OF MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN (Luca Dotti). In fact, I even read Cornelius Ryan’s A BRIDGE TOO FAR, about the WWII Battle of Arnhem, in an attempt to “unite the dots” as Dotti writes in his heartfelt Foreword of Matzen’s book.

Do you know how thrilled I was to get this book?

And I was not disappointed.

DUTCH GIRL is a moving, fascinating, factual account of young Audrey’s life during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. To those who usually gravitate to novels or Audrey movies, I say take this non-fiction detour.

No, it’s not Breakfast At Tiffany’s –but I will note that Holly Golightly and Audrey are very much alike in their scrappy determination to survive and succeed. No, it is not My Fair Lady, although I would be willing to bet Audrey could relate to Eliza Doolittle’s frustration in re-learning speech patterns to reinvent herself. In a way, the war years depicted in DUTCH GIRL were Audrey’s acting teachers. Most definitely they are key to understanding her passion and determination as UNICEF ambassador.

DUTCH GIRL follows two other Matzen books that delve into WWII connections of classic Hollywood stars: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe; and Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 — GoodKnight Books. I am amazed at the compilation of original sources, diaries, and interviews that offer incredible insight into the life of this young girl who became Audrey Hepburn.

“a riveting and gut-wrenching story of a remarkable human being.”

I was part way through the book when we left for vacation and I took it with me because I couldn’t put it down. When I was done, my husband read it. In his words, it’s “a riveting and gut-wrenching story of a remarkable human being.”

In DUTCH GIRL, I not only found those missing pieces left out of previous biographies, I found myself rethinking my perspective on WWII. Gone was the notion that such a war could be boiled down to good vs. bad –although in the case of the world vs. Hitler, this is apt. In Audrey’s world, however, the lines of war were not as clear. Audrey’s experience, like so many others in war, was families torn apart, trapped in fear, chaos, and a deprivation that no one ever asked for–and yet finding a way to keep going. Her experiences are as relevant today as they were over 75 years ago.

So, yes, my friends, I recommend this book.

Brief unsolicited plug: DUTCH GIRL is available for pre-order now and releases next month–on April 15th.

Read it. Share it. Talk about it.

This year, May 5th would have marked Audrey’s 90th birthday. In my mind, I can think of no better tribute to her spirit than the release of Robert Matzen’s DUTCH GIRL.


True or false: TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE is full of Writing Prompts

A book review AND teaching idea for busy teachers…

As a former very-busy teacher, like YOU, I know every minute counts in your school day. So here’s how to mine this cool #kidlit book for awesome WRITING PROMPTS or quick writes, for any grades 1-12 (I’m serious here.):


by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson

Illus. by Lisa K. Weber

Walden Pond Press / Harper Collins

Starred review ALA Booklist

You may think this crazy-cool MG non-fiction book is too old or young for your class, but THINK AGAIN! Each chapter can be used independently. For upper grades, read the three too-amazing-to-be-true stories about the natural world and have students guess which is the lie. For younger grades, or if you have limited time–ha did I just say that?–I highly recommend you use the side bar in each chapter (with nine Truths and one Lie) as a read-aloud and again challenge students to guess which is the lie.  

Writing Applications: Great for quick writes, Critical Thinking, Persuasive writing, Opinion pieces, or informative/explanatory writing–from 1st grade on up–in which Ss state their opinion and must back it up. People, this is #STEM + #Writing + hooking reluctant readers. 

If you like this suggestion, I’ll be back next month with another one.


Writing with upper grades at the International School in Curitiba, Brazil.

True fact: In addition to writing #kidlit, I’m a credentialed, fingerprinted, English/Theater teacher with decades of classroom experience. I love prep (Yeah, I know. Go ahead and judge.), creating engaging lesson plans, the first day of school, motivating students of all ages, and I’m betting you do too.

THANK YOU for all you do!

3 NEW Picture Book Pairings

These picture book pairings are for busy PreK-2 Teachers and Librarians:

I’m sure you’ll agree that pairing picture books on a similar topic is a fabulous way to introduce new genres to students. With the school year winding down, and your summer book lists growing, here are three pairings of new and upcoming picture books for your TBR stacks:

Topic–Education for all 


by award-winning author Patricia Newman

Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

(Lightswitch Learning/ May 2018)  

Neema wants to go to school, but Mama cannot afford the uniform or supplies. Neema saves her money and dreams big dreams, until one day hope skips down the street… Back matter includes primary source interviews from students in Kenya.

Lyrical and lovely, Neema’s Reason to Smile reminds us that education is the greatest gift we can give a child, and that with enough love and determination, dreams sometimes do come true. Moving, important, and inspiring.

Katherine Applegate, Newbery Medal Winning Children’s Author

Pair this with…


By Baptiste and Miranda Paul 

Illustrated by Isabel Muñoz

(Little Bee Books/ Simon & Schuster / May 2018)

This well-researched picture book is also both fiction and non-fiction. The book follows thirteen students from different countries as they head to school via very diverse ways. Sidebars add details about each country.

Publishers Weekly: The accounts…based on the commutes of actual children, are told in vivid first-person narratives...Images made to resemble snapshots show each child in class and ready to learn, but readers will grasp the subtle message about how profoundly different a universal experience can be. 


Topic–Women and girls in #STEM/ #STEAM


By Jim Averbeck

Illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail

(Margaret K. McElderry Books/ June 2018)

Sophia quickly learns her new pet comes with two giraffe-sized problems in this enterprising sequel to One Word from Sophia, which was named one of the Best Picture Books of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews.

Starred Review from KIRKUS: Sophia proves she’s not only a gifted linguist and negotiator (One Word from Sophia, 2015), but a brilliant engineer, as well… Fun, clever, and empowering, this is the rare case of a sequel that outshines its predecessor

Pair this with…

COUNTING ON KATHERINE–How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

By Helaine Becker

Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

(Henry Holt BYR / June 2018)

This is an important picture book biography of mathematician Katherine Johnson, who worked for NASA during the space race, and whose notoriety increased after the film, Hidden Figures.

Starred review from KIRKUS“A picture-book biography of a humble genius who excelled in a career once out of reach for most African-Americans. An excellent biography that will inspire young readers, especially girls, to do what they love.”


Topic–Getting Ready for Kindergarten


By Mike Ornstein

Illustrated by Kevin M. Barry

(Sleeping Bear Press/ July 2018)

The bus driver is a pirate! Arrrr you ready for this fun read? Using humor and pirate-speak, Kindergarrrten Bus addresses some of the concerns and anxiety that many children feel on their first day of school or at the start of any new undertaking.

Pair this with…


By Erin Dealey

Illustrated by Joseph Cowman

(Sleeping Bear Press/ August 2017)

Full disclosure: I wrote this one, which is why I feel qualified to suggest you consider it as a non-fiction pairing, with A to Z information about what to expect in Kindergarten. 

 School Library Journal: PreS-K—The alphabet frames this collection of activities for kindergarten, highlighting 26 (and more) words and challenges for youngsters anticipating the highlights of a school day. As rhyming verse introduces each activity, a sidebar lists Countdown and Challenge activities for more adventurous readers and their parents… this well-organized book will encourage readers to practice new words, learn through hands-on creativity, and face new challenges.  

Leave a reply and let me know what you think. Or use the comment section to add your own new pairing suggestions.

Happy End of the School Year, my friends.

You’re almost there…


Happy Summer Reading! 

Getting started: Picture Book writing for Student Authors.

Dear Wonderful Teachers:


On Monday, I talked to a class of Student Authors who are writing their own picture books, and weren’t sure how to get started. It reminded me of the Picture Book Unit that was always a hit with my students.

Have you ever tried this?

  1. Pair up Kinders or first graders with your Student Authors.
  2. Student Authors interview their buddies using a Children’s Book interview worksheet (see below) to gather ideas about their characters and story. 
  3. Student Authors write books starring their new buddies. 
  4. Meet back with the buddies for a Book Party and have Student Authors read and present their finished books.

But let’s back up here.

Some students will have ideas right away.  

Most have NO IDEA where to start. 

Here’s the interview sheet I use: 

In Section I, the Student author gathers information about the characters.

I. Main Characters

  1. Name/ Nicknames:                                                                                                                     
  2. Best Friends                                                            
  3. Who do you live with? Mom ? Dad ? Grandparents? Aunt or Uncle? Guardian
  4. Sisters & Brothers? (Older or younger? )
  5. I share a bedroom with: (This might be a great conflict!)
  6. Do you have any pets? (What kind? Names? Who is your favorite?)
  7. **What kind of pet would you LIKE to have?**What would you name it?


Section II helps the Student author brainstorm about possible settings. 

  1. Where do you live? Where would you like to live?
  2. What does your dream home look like? (Color? Two-story? Ranch? Apartment?)
  3. If you could go ANYWHERE in the world, where would you go? (Be sure to ask for details.) Why? Who lives there? What would you do?


Section III gives the Student author ideas about the story itself. What situation will or protagonist find himself/herself in? 

  1. Favorite food:
  2. Least favorite food:
  3. Favorite book: (Be sure to ask about the main character, what happens, etc.)
  4. Favorite toy/ Least favorite toy:
  5. What would you like to be when you grow up? (What do they do?)
  6. Favorite t.v. program? (Ask for details if you aren’t familiar with it.)
  7. If you could do anything–or be anyone– in the whole world, what would you do? Who would you be?
  8. If you were a Mom or Dad, what would you tell your kids?
  9. What kind of rules do you have at home?
  10. The best thing about Kindergarten/First grade is:
  11. The worst thing about Kindergarten is:


Section IV provides details to help the Student author illustrate the book. 

Describe the child you are interviewing–or draw a quick sketch/stick figure. Be sure to note:

  1. Hair: ( color; style, length, curly?)
  2. Height: (Average? Tallest kid in the class? Shortest?)
  3. Personality: (Quiet? Shy? ENERGETIC ? Confident? Mischievous? )


Section IV E may generate other ideas for the book–plus it’s fun to ask the Kinders/first graders these questions. ; ) 

Have him/her answer these questions:

  1. I have freckles. Yes   No              
  2. I wear earrings. Yes   No              
  3. I lost a tooth. Yes                 No               *Did the Tooth Fairy come? What happened?
  4. I like to climb. Yes               No              
  5. I like to laugh. Yes                No              
  6. I like school. Yes                 No              
  7. I like recess!!!!! Yes               No              
  8. I like to dance. Yes                 No              
  9. I like to take baths. Yes               No              __________________________________________________
  1. My favorite color is: .
  2. My favorite ice cream flavor is:
  3. My favorite song is:
  4. My favorite game is:
  5. I am good at: (sport? art? activity?)
  6. My birthday is: (Date, if possible)
  7. This is what I’d like to do on my next birthday:

Added perks of this unit: 

  1. The cross-age element is just as amazing for the big kids as their buddies. 
  2. Middle grade and high school Teachers and Student Authors have an excuse to read, read, READ the amazing picture books that are out there! Bring in as many as you can. Have a read-a-thon. Have Student authors analyze their favorites and use them as mentor texts. Ready, set–GO.
  3. Your Student Authors will actually complete this assignment. WHO COULD DISAPPOINT THEIR BUDDY?  

I can’t recommend this cross-age activity enough!

If you try it, give me a tweet @ErinDealey or leave a comment below.

*If you would like a pdf of this interview worksheet, let me know. 

Go for it, my friends.

Raising writers = Raising readers.

PS If you’re using DECK THE WALLS for your annual holiday program,


I would love to see video or photos!