Grateful American Kids

Oceans Apart: Anne Frank’s Iowa Connection

Written and Illustrated by Hallie Darnall & Haley Villont
For the series A BOOK by ME - True Stories Written by Kids for Kids

I was born in Iowa which is why I was especially pleased to learn that my friend Anne Frank had a pen pal there before going into hiding. I call Anne my friend because in the 4th grade in my rural school library, I chose to read her diary. Like millions of other kids around the world, I connected with this Jewish girl during WWII. I couldn’t believe such horrific things had happened just because someone was Jewish.

Anne Frank

Years later, I was working with youth preserving important stories for A BOOK by ME. I learned that prior to going into hiding, Anne Frank had an American pen pal named Juanita Wagner from Danville, Iowa. Juanita’s teacher Miss Birdie visited Anne’s class one summer and asked students to raise their hands if they wanted an American pen pal. It’s believed she then acquired the names of potential pen pals for her students back in Iowa. This is how the most famous face of the Holocaust befriended a girl from the cornfields of Iowa, not far from where I was born. Juanita’s sister and Anne’s sister became friends who wrote letters back and forth as well. Anne once held a map of Iowa in her hands looking for Juanita’s small town but gave up asking the question “is it near Burlington (a bigger city in Iowa). Yes, in fact it is.

Two students from Burlington were chosen to write and illustrate this amazing story. Their book titled Oceans Apart is in the A BOOK by ME Holocaust series. Because of this important friendship between Anne and Juanita, an educator named Janet Hesler has worked tirelessly to build a museum in her small town called Danville Station. This space Janet has created tells the story of Anne’s connection to Iowa. That accomplished, Janet worked tirelessly with Iowa’s Jewish Federations by her side to find a pre-WWII railcar, the kind used to transport Jews to the death camps. Today, they have a German railcar and they’re now fundraising to build a structure over it to protect it from Iowa’s harsh winters.

The Danville station is also collecting postcards as a mission to collect 1.5 million in remembrance of the number of Jewish children murdered by the Nazis. Knowing how they need help with fundraising, I thought if kids act out this important story, maybe the audience would donate toward the goal of protecting this railcar so students in Iowa and neighboring states can visit and learn from this for years. See below for more information and a free Reader’s Theater skit about Anne and her Iowa connection.

Deb Bowen, A BOOK by ME

We hope this book brings Anne Frank to life for students across the United States. It’s incredible just knowing she had an American connection; to the cornfields of Iowa, of all places. It’s especially exciting to us that Anne knew where our hometown of Burlington was when she found it on a map. This book is dedicated to teachers everywhere but especially “Miss Birdie,” Juanita’s amazing teacher in Danville. Also, it is dedicated to Katie Salisbury, our teacher, who discovered and shared this writing opportunity called A BOOK by ME® with us.

Hallie Darnall & Haley Vilont, Author & Illustrator

Oceans Apart is in the Heart for Humanity book set. Donors can buy sets of ten different stories for classrooms at

View the actual pen pal letters here.

Juanita Wagner – Anne Frank’s Iowa Pen Pal

One spring day in 1940, the seventh and eighth grade teacher Birdie Mathews, at the Danville Community School in Des Moines County offered her students the chance to correspond with pen pals overseas. A student named Juanita Wagner drew the name of a ten-year-old girl in the Netherlands—Anne Frank.

The name Anne Frank is familiar to us today because of the famous diary the young Jewish girl kept while in hiding from the Nazis. Her diary describes the usual adolescent fears about growing up, falling in love and being misunderstood by her parents. Yet, she also writes as a Jew hiding from the Nazis. Readers of the diary all over the world have come to see her as a heroine of the war because, in spite of all she suffered, she still felt that people were inherently “good at heart.”

Juanita Wagner 1941

The brief connection between Amsterdam and Danville was the work of Birdie Mathews. By 1940, Mathews was a veteran teacher. She had been teaching since age eighteen, beginning her career at nearby Plank Road rural school. Around 1921, she moved to the Danville Community School after over two decades at a country school. She had already taught a wide range of curriculum and varying ages and levels of students. No doubt this had made her a seasoned teacher who had overcome the professional isolation that often plagued rural and small town teachers.

Betty Ann Wagner 1943

In this period of time, teachers had few opportunities to interact with colleagues outside of their buildings. Even help from the Iowa State Department of Education seemed distant and limited. In an effort to bring new teaching practices and ideas to rural teachers, the University of Iowa and other colleges brought traveling workshops called Tri-County Institutes to regional locations. The institutes met for a half or whole day session of speakers and workshops. The institutes minimized the isolation of rural teachers and furthered their professional growth.

“Miss Birdie,” as her students called her, acquired more teaching resources through travel. She was even a bit of a local celebrity when she sent home lengthy letters to the Danville Enterprise sharing stories of her 1914 trip to Europe. Her letters became front-page news, and her travel experiences became classroom lesson plans. Her students often spent afternoons gathering around Mathews to hear about her adventures. In order to open their eyes to the world beyond, she frequently sent postcards to her students from her travels overseas and across the country. It is believed that on one of these trips she acquired the names of potential pen pals for her students.

Because pen-pal writing as classroom practice was still fairly rare at this time, only creative teachers such as Birdie Mathews would have set up situations in which their students could learn first-hand about the world. Some Danville students wrote to other children in the United States, but many, including Juanita Wagner, chose to write to overseas pen pals. In her introductory letter in the spring of 1940, Juanita, age ten, wrote about Iowa, her mother (a teacher), sister Betty Ann, life on their farm and in nearby Danville. She sealed the letter and sent it to Anne Frank’s address in Amsterdam.

In a few weeks, Juanita received not one, but two overseas letters. Anne had written back to Juanita, and Anne’s sister Margot, age fourteen had written a letter to Betty Ann, Juanita’s fourteen-year-old sister. “It was such a special joy as a child to have the experience of receiving a letter from a pen pal overseas,” Betty Ann Wagner later recalled. “In those days we had no TV, little radio, and maybe a newspaper once or twice a week. Living on a farm with so little communication could be very dull except for all the good books from the library.”

The Frank sisters’ letters from Amsterdam were dated April 27, 1940 and April 29, 1940 and were written in ink on light blue stationary. Anne and Margot had enclosed their school pictures. The letters were in English, but experts believe that the Frank sisters probably first composed their letters in Dutch and then copied them over in English after their father, Otto Frank, translated them.

In her letter, Anne told of her family, her Montessori school, and Amsterdam. She must have pulled out a map of the United States because she wrote, “On the map I looked again and found the name Burlington.” Enclosing a postcard of Amsterdam, she mentioned her hobby of picture-card collecting. “I have already about 800.”

After the war was over, Betty Ann Wagner was teaching in a country school in eastern Illinois. Still curious about the Dutch pen pals, she wrote again to Anne’s address in Amsterdam. A few months later, she received a long, handwritten letter from Otto Frank. He told about the family hiding, of Anne’s experiences in the “secret annex” and how Anne had died in a concentration camp. This was the first time Betty Ann learned that Anne had been Jewish. “When I received the letter, I shed tears,” Betty Ann recalled. “The next day I took it with me to school and read Otto Frank’s letter to my students. I wanted them to realize how fortunate they were to be in America during World War II.”

More about Oceans Apart >

Postcard Project

Anne Frank collected postcards and even sent one of hers to her pen pal Juanita in Iowa. Danville Station hopes to collect 1.5 million postcards in memory of the children murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. They would love to get postcards from all 50 states and other countries too. more

Free Reader’s Theater Script Students Can Perform

A powerful Reader’s Theater script which the story of the Anne Frank connection to Iowa has been written by Dr. Marrietta Castle. The script can be obtained here for free.

Students in schools, youth groups, service clubs, etc. are encouraged to act it out for a community audience and take an offering to help Danville Station.

Both postcards and / or donation checks to Danville Station, PO Box 304, Danville, IA 52623

Oceans Apart is available from Amazon.

A BOOK by ME, a book series developed by Deb Bowen, empowers students to preserve history by telling the story of unsung heroes in our communities. For the young participants, it’s a guided cross-curricular project that gathers stories of people who do amazing things but have received little or no recognition. Students learn how to publish a picture book that is a primary source document with photographs and a biography.

Since 2003, Deb Bowen has been arranging meetings between students and individuals from the WWII generation. This intergenerational storytelling results in unique storybooks written and illustrated by kids for kids in the A BOOK by ME series. More about Deb Bowen >


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