I admit I had a false start on this prompt. I originally read it as outdoor traditions, and well, my family rarely did anything outdoors. I re-read the prompt and realized it was about local traditions. Many of mine revolved around the shul, Congregation B’nai Israel of Kearny and North Arlington. I wrote about the Purim Carnival and the Hebrew National hot dogs we got on Memorial Day, my father proudly wearing his Jewish War Veterans cap, and I proudly wearing the crepe-paper poppy.
I also recalled our annual Christmas dinner at the Jade Fountain Restaurant where we were also sent the night before Pesach so my mother got us out of her hair while she changed the dishes and made overall preparations for Passover. It was likely we’d run into other Jewish families from the area. In the years we attended the Jewish Y camp, Nah-Jee-Wah, in Milford, PA, we attended the reunions at a roller-skating rink in Union.
On a secular level, sure, we attended some parades on Kearny Avenue, the July Fourth fireworks in the high school stadium with a great view of the New York City skyline. I suppose during high school years, I must have gone to some Thanksgiving football games against Nutley.
One important tradition my mother established with her sister and brother was to visit their parents’ graves in the Zaromber section of Montefiore Cemetery, just past the mausoleum of Rabbi Schneerson. I often drove my mother to her sister’s in Flushing to take part in this ritual, which turned into an all-day thing. It was a great opportunity back at my aunt’s after the cemetery to indulge in family history, surrounded by photographs of my grandparents, Max and Rose Perlman (aka Pryzant). The three Perlman siblings kept up this tradition for many years even when they could barely walk. It must have ended when my aunt developed Alzheimer’s. My mother never felt “right” unless she visited her parents’ graves. Her mother died in September, just before Labor Day; that must have given rise to selecting the Sunday of Labor Day weekend as the day for the ritual.
This week’s prompt asks us to write about a photograph. I’ve done this many times before and recently adopted a new methodology that I use in my “Writing from and about Photographs” workshop (next one is September 14–see my website for details).
This time I chose to write about my paternal grandfather’s home, a 1913 corner lot house that he and my grandmother moved into in 1949. I took photos of the house in the early 1990s, but the owner–who had bought the house from my father in 1969 after my grandfather died–refused me permission to look inside.
It’s curious that a family that had lived for nearly thirty years in a two-bedroom apartment (and four kids) behind their mom-and-pop store on the main street would move to this bigger house when their children were already adults. I’m thinking my grandparents thought of it as more of a real estate investment and indeed they had bought some properties, including the apartment building where their store occupied the ground floor, and some properties in New Jersey beach towns.
But sometime between the early 1990s and now, someone completely revised the structure and got rid of all the charm and even the curbside tree. Not all renovation is an improvement. The house is boring now, stripped of stained-glass windows, an enclosed porch with awning, columns, and a Dutch colonial second floor.
I did it! I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, “Family, Survival, and Hope: The Persistence of Resistance and Rescue in North American Holocaust Literature for Children and Teens, 1940-2020.” I graduate with my Ph.D. in Holocaust & Genocide Studies on August 28 from Gratz College. I am now Dr. Krasner! My parents would have been so proud.
Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems garnered a great review from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books!
I have to rename a candy store in my work-in-progress, because I called it Sid’s and in the Weequahic section of Newark (NJ), everyone knew Syd’s as a hot dog and hamburger place. Any suggestions for a new name? Hymie’s? Meyer’s? Abie’s? Sol’s? Izzy’s?
This week’s prompt asks us to write about the things we wanted as kids but didn’t get.
My twin and I had our designated space in the “back-back” of the family station wagon. We loved to sit facing out and waving to people in the cars that surrounded us, trying to get them to wave back. We also made up songs about things we wanted. One of these songs was about wanting a puppy: “We want a puppy, we want a puppy, we want a puppy of our own.” Another was exclusively mine after weeks at Nah-Jee-Wah summer camp in the Poconos where I must have had a counselor named Helene. The song was: “I want Helene as my teacher, I want Helene as my teacher, I want Helene as my teacher.” Of course, Helene did not show up at Roosevelt School in Kearny, New Jersey.
What sticks with me is the memory of the songs themselves and the creativity involved in generating the tunes. The lyrics were hardly stellar. I made up a song about the Erie Lackawanna railroad (Erie Lackawanna, Erie Lackawanna, Erie like I want you) and another one that used the melody from the Kinks song, “All Day and All of the Night” (Erp, the burp, my sister’s a jerk, in the bedroom all day and all of the night). And then there was the one about Stuckey’s during a road trip south.
I never pursued music, although I tried playing the viola in the fourth grade and gave it up when my eldest sister told me the strings were made of cat gut. I did not eagerly participate in piano lessons with Mrs. S, because I preferred watching “Batman” and “F Troop.”
There were never bad feelings about not getting what we wanted. I suppose the biggest “thing” we may have wanted was a baby brother. That never happened either. My twin and I were more than enough for our parents to handle and we were daughters No. 3 and 4. Our parents were done.
How do you decide whether to send work to literary journal general submissions to enter contests? This is something I’m grappling with right now. The contest I have in mind has a deadline of February 1, 2023. I have a few poems I think are contest-worthy, so I’m thinking I’ll enter the contest and see how it goes. I can always send the poems to literary journals if they don’t place. How do you decide?
Summer courses are winding down. This week I’m beginning to prep for September courses, finalizing syllabi and setting up the courses in learning management systems and integrated or not-integrated third-party applications. My first day back in the classroom is before Labor Day.
Just learned yesterday that a short story, “The Diaries,” that I wrote years ago using the Amherst Writers & Artists method, will be published by Kelsey Review, the literary journal of Mercer County Community College. It takes place in the Netherlands and deals with Anne Frank and the versions of her diary.
Olswanger, Anna. A Visit to Moscow. Illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg. Berkeley, CA: WestMargin Press, 2022, 72 pp.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted the form of a graphic novel for you?
Anna Olswanger (AO): As soon as I entered grade school, I became a comic book reader. Every week I was at our neighborhood pharmacy to see what that’s week’s delivery had brought. I bought every copy of Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Flash, Archie, Millie the Model, Little Lulu, Wonder Woman, any character. As I got older, I lost interest in comics because I began to see the art as flat, both literally and figuratively. There were no shadows, no depth, but I remained enamored of the combination of art and text and I think that’s why I fell in love with picture books as an adult. I always wanted to see fiction for adults published with illustrations, but years ago at a writers’ conference when I asked an editor if any publisher would consider illustrated short stories for adults, the editor curtly replied, “Adults don’t need illustrations.” I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I do.”
It’s been at least 30 years since I heard that editor speak, and the market has evolved. Graphic novels, both for young readers and for adults, contain art that has depth and shadows. Graphic novels are not only acceptable for adults, but are appreciated by reviewers and book buyers, especially librarians. I am glad that A Visit to Moscow could find a home in this format.
TWM: How did you decide on starting the story from Zev’s perspective? (And for point of clarification, which Zev is this? The boy or the brother who perished?)
AO: Zev at the opening is not the brother who died in a concentration camp, but Zev, now an adult, who was the boy in the main section of the book. The book opens just after the moment of the adult’s Zev’s death. He is looking down at the area in Lebanon where he stepped on a land mine and sees the lush landscape— scenes of a cliff, ruins on a rampart, a lake and valley. He thinks he’s looking down from heaven, and then everything starts to disappear. He can’t remember his name or who he was. He hears a voice and follows it. He sees a man (later we realize it is the fictional version of Rabbi Grossman, the rabbi who visited Zev and his family in the Soviet Union) at his Shabbat table with his family. The man is about to tell his family a story, and the story is his meeting Zev and his parents during a visit to Moscow.
It seemed natural to me to start the story from Zev’s perspective because I knew I wanted the ending to be from his perspective, and that the book would circle back.
TWM: Yevgenia, how did your own background affect your illustrations? How did you decide on textless panels?
Yevgenia Nayberg (YN): Many ideas are the result of a collaborative process, and after some time it’s hard to recall how things happened exactly! If I remember correctly, I originally painted one full-page image and the editor suggested including several textless panels throughout the book. I thought it was a great idea because having these panels alters the pace of the story. My favorite panel is the snowy Moscow. The main events of the novel happen in the summer, and the winter panel shows the passage of time without words.
TWM: Anna, what were the satisfactions in writing/illustrating this narrative?
AO: I felt a kind of closure at having written it because originally the story was part of a longer novel for adults that Rabbi Grossman and I began writing in the 1980s. We never finished it. The novel included the episode of Rabbi Grossman visiting the U.S.S.R. and meeting the real-life version of Zev and his family. I thought the episode was deeply meaningful, and because it was the one part of the novel that was based on fact, I was disappointed over the years that the story would never be publicly told. But as graphic novels became more popular, I began to think that the episode could be developed into book-length with added art. And when we—Yevgenia, the editor, and I—were able to accomplish that, I felt a sense of relief that I had done justice to the little boy and Rabbi Grossman.
TWM: The challenges?
AO: Rabbi Grossman died in 2018. All of the rabbis who went on the Rabbinical Council of America trip with him had also died, as had Mrs. Grossman, the rabbi’s wife. So, there was no one to answer the new questions I had about the narrative and setting. I was able to get some everyday details from Soviet Jews who had left the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and of course, Yevgenia brought her own experience to the book as the illustrator, but I had no definitive answers to my questions. I only had the notes I had taken when I interviewed Rabbi Grossman in the early 1980s, and that was already 15 years after his trip. That was why the graphic novel finally had to be called historical fiction, and not a graphic memoir.
TWM: Yevgenia, let’s turn back to you. What were the satisfactions in writing/illustrating this narrative? The challenges?
YN: Finding the right light was the most satisfying part of this project. It is the combination of luminosity and fog that set the visual mood for the story.
The main challenge was to keep the composition dynamic. There’s not much physicality in the story; No one is running. The scenes are usually limited to two to three people. However, there’s a lot of internal action. To be able to show that without resorting to grimaces was quite tricky.
TWM: What advice do you have for those aspiring to write and/or illustrate a graphic novel?
AO: The same advice for those aspiring to write in any format: read widely in the format and try to develop an intuitive feel for what it can encompass. Because graphic novels are so visual, I think authors also have to trust in the skills of the illustrator, the same way that a picture book author has to trust in the skills of the illustrator that an editor brings on board. I know that some authors of graphic novels map out every panel for the illustrator, but I think that is stifling to the illustrator’s creativity. Still, a graphic novel author has to think about the flow of panels, which includes the flow of text and page turns, the same, really, as what picture book authors have to think about. Most important, I think they have to love the format.
YN: I would say, have a clear vision of the atmosphere of the story. Know how to visually slow down and speed up the narrative.
This week prompts what we’ve lost and what we’ve found. I sort of ignored the first part and decided to focus on a time around 1967 when I saw my father start to drown in the pool of Boston’s Midtown Motor Inn. I ran to him and because of the water’s buoyant quality, was able to get him up. I was ten.
There were two other incidents where I helped my father. First, my son and I were in his car with my mother, and we were coming back from a vacation in the Catskills. We were driving along Rt. 17 South on a dreary, rainy Sunday. Both my son and my mother fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of the rain and the windshield wipers. I was sitting behind my father and in the rearview mirror I could see his eyes closing. I yelled, “Daddy!” to wake him up and I stayed on him like white on rice until we arrived safely at his house.
The other incident took place on a Tuesday, I think, and a wave of intuition maybe came over me. I had a sitter that night and decided instead of what I was going to do, I went to my parents’ house. Good thing I did. My father was incoherent, and my mother was hysterical (normally, she was quite stoic). My father, a diabetic, couldn’t even hold a tissue. I forced my mother to call 911. I knew one of the EMTs from high school and was able to rattle off a list of my father’s meds. I don’t know now why or how I would know that, but I did. Apparently, my father’s blood sugar had dropped too low.
All this made me realize that I mobilize in a crisis when it’s not about me. I also had to question how did I happen to be there at the precise moment when my father needed someone.
I finished the first draft of my next historical novel in verse and have sent it on to my poetry mentor and the historical subject matter expert. I hope to get feedback by mid-month so I can revise and get it to my agent around Labor Day for her review.
I found a developmental editor to work with on a middle-grade graphic novel. It’s something I wrote during my Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program as prose, and after taking the Southampton Writers Conference workshop on graphic novels in 2020, I revised into a graphic novel script. It takes place in 1939 as the New York’s World’s Fair, “The World of Tomorrow,” opens.
Encouraged by my cohort in the Kenyon Review online poetry workshop, I’ve begun work on a full-length poetry manuscript. If anyone is interested in my Zoom readout to a poetry writing group, please let me know and I’ll send you the link.
This week’s prompt provides a few options for writing about inheritance:
Write about something handed down–could be a physical object, a personality trait, or a hobby
Write about what you did not inherit
When you look in the mirror, what traces of the past look back at you?
I chose the first option and wrote about inheriting my father’s love of books and music. How we spent Saturday nights at Korvette’s in West Orange in the Book & Record department or at Sam Goody’s on a Monday night at the Garden State Mall. We amassed books and records. In his later years, my father curated lists of books he wanted from Publishers Weekly and other sources and phoned them into Eddie at The Strand in New York City. The Strand was such an experience! That’s where I bought Art Spiegelman’s Maus, not knowing then how iconic it would become.
I also placed large orders for the Scholastic Book Club and loved the book fairs.
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Some very quick things: I’m PhinisheD! I graduated Sunday evening with my Ph.D. in Holocaust & Genocide Studies from Gratz College. The commencement ceremony was emotional, including a cantor-like rendition of Hatikvah. I’m dedicating part of Labor Day weekend to … Continue reading →