I’ve always had a fascination with why people do what they do: what makes one person a hero, and another evil?
This all started for me around age 10, when my parents took my brother, sister and I to visit a World War II museum in Germany. The site was a former death camp, called Dachau, where thousands of innocent people had been circulated through for either immediate death through gas chambers, or prolonged death through extreme overwork, and malnourishment.
I tried to grapple with what I saw in the museum. It was gut-wrenching…traumatizing.
A question began to underline every action I took, every thought I had: what steps are required to create a monster? How do ‘regular’ people end up committing acts of great evil?
Monsters aren’t born, they’re developed over time. Take this photo of Adolph Hitler as a baby:
He is as innocent as any other baby, at that moment. Later, as we know, he became one of the most heinous, criminal, amoral mass-murderers in history. What was the path that led him from that photograph, all wide-eyed innocence, to the man who sent millions of innocent people to their deaths? How did that happen? As a writer, I had to answer that question by writing about it. My illustrated young adult novel, The Great & the Small, is my answer.
Finding the Villain
Every story needs a villain. In the case of The Great & the Small, I needed a really bad, but believable villain. So, who? The moustache-twirling guy who glares over his black cape would be too obvious—and fake. True villains are hard to spot. If they had to wear a sign that said, “WARNING-BAD GUY!” life would be easier, wouldn’t it?
The villain had to be subtle. Appear reasonable. Charming, even.
Then I read a book about Joseph Stalin. As the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union for around 25 years, he killed millions of his own people.
Stalin, who was also known by the nickname ‘Koba,’ was charismatic, ‘a people person,’ a charmer. Men and women were drawn to him, wanted to please him, and seemed to almost worship him.
Stalin as a young man
Stalin, the mass-murderer, was followed out of love, not fear. He was a master of manipulation. He enjoyed bringing in victims to chat with them, reassure them…and then have them killed. Like a cat who plays with a mouse before it eats it. Only we’re not talking about mice.
You would think everyone would’ve stopped him. Just like with Hitler and his “final solution.” Stalin was only one guy, right? But the people who tried were silenced, and their families sent to work camps never to be seen again. His followers believed that those who had whispered such lies about their beloved leader must be wreckers!…spies!…traitors!…until it was their turn to go to the death camp.
In Real Life
How hard would it be to stand up against a Hitler? A Stalin? Fortunately, most of us will never know. Most of us will never be a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King Jr., or a Nelson Mandela, people whose iron wills are forged in the fires of tyranny and oppression. But there is a heroism that comes from making the right choice, as much as you can, day after day, even when no one’s watching…especially when no one’s watching. The world changes because of such unsung actions, as a pool of water changes from the ripples of a tossed pebble. It changes for the better because of the actions of everyday heroes, upon whose shoulders we all stand. One of my favorite quotes is by Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote, “Not everyone can be famous, but everyone can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”
Author & Illustrator: A.T. Balsara
Book Title: The Great & the Small
Release Date: October 31, 2017
Deep below the market, in the dark tunnels no human knows exist, a war has begun. Lead by the charismatic Beloved Chairman, a colony of rats plots to exterminate the ugly two-legs who have tortured them in labs, crushed them with boots, and looked at them with disgust for as long as anyone can remember.
When the Chairman’s nephew is injured and a young two-leg nurses him back to health, however, doubt about the war creeps in. Now the colony is split—obey the Chairman and infect the two-legs with the ancient sickness passed down from the Old Ones, or do the unthinkable…
Available for Pre-Order Now
A.T. Balsara lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband.
She is the proud mom of two adult daughters, two dogs, two cats, and two hives of bees.
She writes and illustrates for young children up to young adults, and can be found at: