The ProsenPeople

A Story of Hope

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 | Permalink

by Anna Olswanger

An agent and author reflects on why she wrote her newest book

The year I became a literary agent, an independent press published my first children’s book. Now, seven years later, the same press has published my second children’s book. But this is not a column about an agent who is learning how tough it is to be an author. 

This is about something else.

As an agent, I attract a fair number of queries about Holocaust-related books because of my interest in Judaica. I rarely ask to see these manuscripts, and I’ve never taken on the authors as clients. I know I can’t sell their work. Not many editors, especially of children’s books, want to buy books about Jewish suffering. 

So why is my new book Holocaust-related?

I had originally self-published Greenhorn as a miniature book for collectors in 2006. A few months after I sent it to the publisher of my first book as a holiday gift, she called to say she wanted to publish it.

“Why?” I asked her. 

She said it was a provocative little book (this is the publisher who took the “N” word out of Huckleberry Finn, so she’s no stranger to being provocative), and the book’s image of a tin box and its contents haunted her. 

That made me think about why I wanted to tell the story.

I first heard it on a tour bus in Israel in the mid-1980s. I had traveled there on a group trip with my synagogue, and as we approached Jerusalem, the rabbi told us about a little boy who had lost his parents in the Holocaust, who wouldn’t speak when he came to live at the Brooklyn yeshiva where the rabbi was in the sixth grade, and who wouldn’t let a tin box out of his sight. The story about the little boy stayed with me for years.

My rabbi, a witness to the story, was preoccupied with leading his large congregation. He wouldn’t write the story. And I had no idea where the little boy was 40 years later, so I couldn’t ask him to write the story. Was it my responsibility? How could a childless woman, born in America after the Holocaust, whose ancestors had left Eastern Europe in the 1890s, tell this story of a little boy who couldn’t let a tin box out of his sight? 

But I knew if I didn't write the story, it would be lost.

How to tell it? Interview the rabbi? Create a video? An audio?

Like many people in publishing, I wonder about the future of books. I see people walking along streets disengaged from their surroundings. They are listening to their iPods or looking at their iPhones, and they are not reading books. 

At home they have Facebook, Twitter, videos, computer games to entertain them, which means that books have to be flashy, electronic, fast to compete. 

But also like many people in publishing, I believe in silence and traditional books.

So I wrote the story about the little boy who survived the Holocaust as a book for young readers. And as I began to write the story of Greenhorn, I also began to discover what I was writing about. 

Because when I really listened to this story, I heard in it something deeper than suffering, something deeper than loss. The little boy, who wouldn’t speak when he came to America, who wouldn’t let the tin box out of his sight, made a friend. Later, he agreed to live with his friend’s family. And then he let go of his box. The little boy moved on. The story had hope.

And something happened to me in the years that I was writing and revising the story: I moved on. I went from being a woman saddened by not having her own family to being a woman immersed in the joy of children’s books as an author and literary agent—and in my middle 50s, a woman who married for the first time. I have a husband now, the start of my own family. 

So part of the story is mine now, too. The part that is hope. 

It may be tough to sell a children’s book about the Holocaust, but it’s even tougher not to have hope

And hope is what this column is about.

Anna Olswanger is the author of Greenhorn, published by NewSouth Books. She is a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates. This essay originally appeared in Publishers Weekly and is reprinted with permission.