Middle Grade fiction can sometimes be accused of not addressing real issues or staying towards PG topics. The Privateer believes that this is nonsense, MG can be every bit as powerful as adult or YA, sometimes even more so, which is why it’s refreshing to see something that won’t shy away from Tough Topics. Meet Anna Olswanger, who as well as being a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates is an exceptionally talented writer whose novel Shlemiel Crooks was even turned into a musical at Lincoln Center’s Merkin Hall in New York
Hi, thanks for joining the Privateers! Can you tell us about Greenhorn? What inspired you to write it?
I heard the real story of Greenhorn thirty years ago in Israel. The rabbi of my synagogue stood in the front of our tour bus as we approached Jerusalem and 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.
I knew as soon as the rabbi began talking that the story was important and that I wanted to write it, but what I didn’t know was how I could make the story mine. I was childless, born in America after the Holocaust, and my grandparents and great-grandparents had left Eastern Europe in the 1890s, years before the Holocaust. What did I know about what this little boy had gone through?
But my rabbi, a witness to the story, was preoccupied with leading his large congregation and couldn’t write the story. I had no idea where the little boy was forty years after the Holocaust, so I couldn’t ask him to write the story.
I knew if I didn’t write the story, it would be lost. I had to write it.
Many illustrated books, for younger audiences, deal with lighter or “kid-friendly” issues. Was it important that Greenhorn, and its subject matter, be written as MG rather than YA or adult?
I had originally self-published Greenhornas a miniature book for Judaica collectors. I didn’t think of it as a story for children. A few months after I sent the miniature book to the publisher of my first book as a holiday gift, she called to say she wanted to publish it as an illustrated book for middle grade readers.
“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. She said she liked the way Greenhorn brought the Holocaust home and gave it a human face. She later wrote me: “My son Julien, still my best reader of middle-school fiction, was emotional in confirming it was a book for NewSouth.”
Who’s your favourite character in the Greenhornand why?
Daniel. When I first heard the story about a little boy who had lost his family in the Holocaust and who wouldn’t let a tin box out of his sight, one of the things I couldn’t stop thinking about was his loneliness. Daniel had lost his parents, siblings, and extended family to the Nazis. He had no one left who shared his memories, no brother or sister, no parent, no aunt or uncle. And what he latched on to, literally, was a tin box that held something he considered a connection to his family. It was his loneliness I wanted to write about.
Is there any scene you are particularly proud of and (without giving too much away) can you tell us why?
The ending. It represents for me what true friendship is. Daniel had been reaching out to the narrator the whole time, and we didn’t know.
With the surge of e-publishing and the indie industry, it can be a hard to know what to read next. What sets your novel apart from the others in your genre?
There are many reasons to write about the Holocaust. Most people agree with philosopher George Santayana (and before him, Edmund Burke) that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, so one reason people continue to write about the horrors of the Holocaust is to ensure that the horrors will never happen again. I don’t totally agree with that reasoning. I think it’s important to write about the opposite of the horrors—the acts of courage and kindness, even if small—because acts of courage and kindness are what we want to repeat, not acts of cruelty. So, even though Greenhorn is a story of a child who suffered horribly, it is also the story of a child who left his past behind with the help of a friend. It is, above all, a story of hope.
What aspect of the writing did you find most challenging?
I was concerned about the ethics of creating fiction based on the Holocaust. If I wrote only the story I heard and refrained from inventing anything from the time of the Holocaust itself, I would be able to honor what the real Daniel went through. This was a challenge because Rabbi Rafael Grossman, who was the basis of the “Aaron” character (the narrator) and who told me the real story in the 1980s, didn’t remember every detail forty years later, and certainly not seventy years later when the story was about to be published and I was revising it one last time.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to up and coming writers, especially of MG?
Write in the genre that you read. You may love to write middle grade books, but if you love to read picture books, YAs, mysteries, travel books, or serious adult nonfiction, maybe you should be writing in one of those genres. A participant at a writers’ conference I used to help organize struggled to get her children’s books published, and then she wrote a personal essay about racism that won an award. She received an invitation to read the essay at the opening of an exhibit about school desegregation. She now writes for adults about social justice. It’s not a defeat to move on.
Finally, if you could visit any historical period in time, where would you go?
My own childhood. This time, I would cherish it.
A classroom based discussion guide can be found here