On July 25, 2016, I received a message on Facebook from librarian Wendy Watts Scalfaro asking if I would be interested in coming to her Syracuse-area high school to conduct workshops about my YA novel, Hello?. It’s important that I mention that Wendy and I had never met in person. We were Twitter friends and she was taking a “Teacher’s Write” class that was a part of
In September 2016, Wendy contacted River’s End Bookstore to arrange for a book signing and I finalized the event on December 7, 2016. We set the date for Tuesday, April 4, 2017
I traveled to the Syracuse area on Sunday, April 2, 2017. I had a full-day school visit on the 3rd. On the 4th, I decided to leave extra early for Oswego. It was pouring and my windshield wipers could barely keep up. I was concerned about driving in those conditions, especially since River’s End Bookstore was quite a distance away. At one point, I wondered why Wendy had contacted this bookstore when there were at least a half-dozen bookstores within the Syracuse area. I was truly baffled. It took me nearly an hour to get to Oswego. At this point, I was desperate for caffeine and ended up stopping at this grocery store.
It’s hard to tell from the photo, but this parking lot is slightly bowl-shaped. I had pulled into a spot on the right side of the photo, but because of the amount of rain, the lot was flooded. I didn’t want to get out of my car because I was wearing knit Ugg boots and my feet would have been soaked through immediately. So, I did something I normally wouldn’t do to pass the time: I went on Facebook.
That’s when I saw this article posted by my aunt.
I clicked on the link. To my shock, I discovered that this antisemitic school assignment debating the Holocaust took place in Oswego. I contacted my aunt. I contacted writer friends, attaching the link to my text message, saying, “Can you believe I’m in this town?” I spoke to fellow author, Gayle Rosengren, and told her and my aunt that I needed to figure out a way to get in touch with Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April, the two teens courageous teens who refused to do the assignment. Although they and one other student did an alternative, that left over 70 students who created a memorandum from the Nazis’ point-of-view. Even though the assignment had been completed, Archer and Jordan were determined to never have anyone else be in a position of having to do this assignment. I was impressed by their conviction and very much wanted to let them know that I thought that they were brave and their actions heroic. The problem, however, was that I had no idea how to get in touch with them. It’s not like I was speaking at a local high school. Finally, I made the decision to ask the bookstore owner for his help. I planned to purchase copies of my YA novel Hello? and ask him to send them to the teens along with a personal note. I was nervous. What if the owner disagreed with the teens’ stance and advocated in favor of the assignment?
I decided the risk was worth it. At this point, my expectations for the evening were low. It was still raining and I wasn’t sure how many people would come out in the rain to hear me speak. I arrived a half-hour early, and once again rehearsed how I would approach the owner about my special request.
In a blink of an eye, everything changed. I took four steps into the bookstore and immediately recognized Jordan. I stopped in my tracks and said, “Oh my goodness! It’s the world-famous Jordan!” Her face morphed from confused to surprised. “How do you know who I am?” she asked. I showed her my phone. It turned out that Jordan worked at the bookstore.
I did purchase my book for both teens and inscribed it with a message of gratitude. That night, I had a three-way call with Jordan and Archer. I was amazed by their strength, courage, and determination. I was in awe of their decisiveness: the assignment was wrong. No one should advocate for genocide.
It might seem like it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t. The day before had been one of the most challenging I’d had as an educator and speaker and I admit that I wondered, Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? It was a bad moment. And then it got worse. That evening, I received the sixtieth + rejection for a YA novel that I had worked on for over six years: “Thank you for your query. Sorry it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to get back to you. I’m afraid XXXXX is a pass for me. I’m just not connecting in the “must have” way that I’d need to offer representation. Best of luck,” ____Agent Z
I was done. Clearly, writing was not what I was supposed to do with my life. So, I called my elder son Justin and told him that I’d reached my end and that maybe I should attend UW-Milwaukee and get a master’s degree in psychology. Justin, oh-son-of-mine, said what I’ve said to him on many occasions. “This will pass. It was one bad moment. Don’t give up.”
Obviously, I didn’t. But that’s because I couldn’t turn my back on all the amazing series of events that lead up to what transpired the very next day. I believe in miracles. I believe in Divine Providence. For me, writing this novel has been an experience of that faith.
Other things that transpired that were, in my opinion, amazing.
Early on in my research, I connected with Syracuse University Professor Emeritus, Alan Goldberg, Coordinator Spector/Warren Fellowship and Director Regional Holocaust & Genocide Initiative, School of Education. Professor Goldberg was one of the individuals who spoke out against the real assignment and was involved in creating new curriculum to be used in New York Schools. For me, what was remarkable is that Professor Alan Goldberg shares the same name as my father, Alan Goldberg. It was the first time in my life I’d ever met someone who had the same name as my dad.
On November 3, 2017, an author friend of mine, Debbi Lakritz, told me about the Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ Seminar, which was to take place on Sunday, November 12th in New York City. At this point, I had finished several drafts of my new novel and was ready to find an agent. This seminar sounded like a fantastic opportunity. There were several issues, however. The cost of the conference and buying a plane ticket. Money was extremely tight. My husband had been freelancing for several years and we were definitely struggling. I talked to my husband about the event and my concerns. Without any hesitation, he encouraged me to go. I contacted Evie Saphire-Bernstein, the program manager at the Jewish Book Council. Despite missing the deadline, she welcomed and encouraged me to be a part of the event. Her kindness was the open door I needed. So I signed up and bought my plane ticket.
At the seminar, I met some fantastic people, many have become friends. I also reconnected with Lizzy Mason, a publicist from Bloomsbury (now Page Street), who spoke at the event. We’d met on several occasions at Book Expo America events and so seeing her made this event even more special. We discussed this novel, and from that conversation Lizzy became one of my biggest cheerleaders. I also received valuable feedback from two agents: “This is an important topic, but you need to rewrite your novel from third-person omniscient to first person. I got the message and promised myself that I would start again. But the most incredible thing that transpired at the seminar was a meeting Random House publicist Josh Redlich. I introduced myself right after his panel discussion, shared the elevator pitch for The Assignment. He said, “I know who would love this book. Send it to Beverly Horowitz. I sent myself a email with her name…and…
Many rewrites later, I was ready to send my manuscript out to agents again. This time, I received requests for the entire novel almost instantly. One of those agents was Steven Chudney, who turned out to be my dream agent. When it was time to submit to editors at publishing houses, I asked Steven to include Beverly. He put her on the top of the list.
Within a few weeks we had an offer from Beverly. So, there you have it. What a journey! Thank YOU, dear reader, for being a part of it.