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.

Anna Olswanger first began inter­view­ing Rab­bi Rafael Gross­man and writ­ing down his sto­ries in the ear­ly 1980s. She is the author of the mid­dle grade nov­el Green­horn, based on an inci­dent in Rab­bi Gross­man­’s child­hood and set against the back­drop of the Holo­caust. She is also the author of Shlemiel Crooks, a Syd­ney Tay­lor Hon­or Book and PJ Library Book, which she wrote after dis­cov­er­ing a 1919 Yid­dish news­pa­per arti­cle about the attempt­ed rob­bery of her great-grand­par­ents’ kosher liquor store in St. Louis.

Anna lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band. She is a lit­er­ary agent and rep­re­sents a num­ber of award-win­ning authors and illus­tra­tors. Vis­it her at www​.olswanger​.com.