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The story starts on August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans with a fury. The damage was unimaginable and the suffering of those affected was sprawled on the 24 hour TV news. Many philanthropic and social justice organizations responded to the need, and I was fortunate to be able to join a relief mission to New Orleans under the inspired leadership of by Rabbi Joel Soffin. We helped to rebuild three homes destroyed by the storm, including the home of a Holocaust survivor who had done battle with the racist and anti-Semitic David Duke and the home of an elderly Hebrew school teacher whose hand-written academic scholarship was destroyed by the waters of the storm.
I went back the following March, leading a group from my own synagogue, and we brought home-cooked and frozen meals to distribute with the meals on wheels program in New Orleans along with clothes and medical supplies for the grassroots clinics that that blossomed deep in the Ninth Ward. We played bingo with the residents of a nursing home who no longer had volunteers come to visit, cleaned yahrzeit plaques at one synagogue and brought and catalogued library books at another synagogue whose books were turned to mush.
When I came back to New York, I began to write a story for children about the storm, or more specifically about resilience. The hero is a feisty nine-year-old girl named Gertie, who must flee New Orleans with her family in the wake of Katrina. She leaves behind her house, her friends, her “stuff’ and life as she knew it before the storm. In the ensuing year, she discovers what’s really important, including the love of family, community, faith and the healing magic of tikkun olam, helping the world to be a better place. And so my book, “When the Hurricane Came,” was born.
When the story was awarded the 2009 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award, I was flying high. First of all, I had been a tremendous fan of Sydney Taylor, the author of the All of Kind Family series as a young girl, that amazing series about a family of five girls living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was (naively) sure that this award meant that traditional publishers would be calling me. I fantasized about bidding wars for the book.
I sent an inquiry to all of the publishers I could think of and then I waited. And I waited and I waited. I followed up with phone calls or emails where appropriate. And then I waited some more. It was the middle of the economic turndown. Publishing was no longer a profitable enterprise. All books are now only being published as ebooks. Publishers could only take a chance on well-known names. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was a downer. Who would want to read it?
As one publisher said to me, “The market isn’t in your favor. After all, how many young Jewish girls were in New Orleans at the time of Katrina?” I turned this over in my head. And with some degree of overstepping, I wondered aloud, “And just how many Jewish girls were locked up in an attic in Amsterdam?”
And so, I was at an emotional low point when I began randomly looking at items in the 2010 Lilith Auction. Hmmmm, a beautiful antique Japanese tea set for my daughter who collects tea pots. Go for it. And then I saw it. A ticket to an all day workshop on Alternative Publishing, at the BookExpo America in New York.
Most of us buy books from publishers whose names we know. But the extraordinary changes in technology, digital publishing and publishing on demand have changed the rules of the game. Year ago, publishing houses that helped people to publish their own works were called “vanity presses,” a term quite wounding to the very vain egos of their writers. But things have changed and the field is now opening to people who are outside of the mainstream in some way. I put in a bid in the Lilith auction and I won the entrance pass for the conference. There was a wonderful parallel process for me. Alternative publishing was exactly what Lilith had been for all of these years. Now here was Lilith helping to open up this possibility for myself and my own creativity.
The conference was an eye opener. After listening to a day’s worth of amazing stories, I chose to work with an alternative publisher, Createspace. Partly I was inspired by stories of others who had published with them and partly because it is a sister company of Amazon and they make it remarkably easy to get one’s books listed on the Amazon site. And so, my career in alternative publishing began. I should say that I’ve had the joy and pleasure of having three books published by traditional publishers (Jewish Lights, Skylight Paths) and there is definitely a thrill that accompanies that path. But now I was pursuing another one.
I was on my own. Before actually attempting to publish my book When the Hurricane Came, I decided to beta test the whole process by publishing a children’s book I had kept in my files for many years, Cookie the Seder Cat, a whimsical children’s book about two sister cats, Oreo and Cookie, who prepare the Seder together. The illustrations are photographs of our cats from my children’s childhoods. In doing the Cookie book, I learned how the various features of Createspace worked, and also in what areas I would need more help. The Cookie book let me see that I would be willing to pay for the help of the Createspace staff for the computer intensive issues of layout. I even treated myself to getting professional help with designing the cover. It was a go.
It’s hard to describe the joy of getting the actual book in the mail. It’s even more joyous to hear the feedback of young people who read the book and identify with or are inspired by Gertie. Gertie, by the way, is the name of one of the sisters in the All of a Kind Family series, and Gertrude was my mother’s name. Giving her name life again in this energetic and social-justice-minded young girl is my tribute to her.
So with the book finally published by Createspace, I was able to enter it into the 2012 National Jewish Book Awards. This past March, my book, When the Hurricane Came, was named a Finalist, Children’s and Young Adult Literature, National Jewish Book Award.
Thank you Lilith. My experience with the auction is a mirror image of your message to Jewish women. It’s worth taking a step outside of your comfort zone, outside of the mainstream. Each of can be empowered to making our personal dreams a reality. So look at the items on the auction and take a chance. It may change your life .
Nechama Liss-Levinson is a psychologist and author. Her most recent book, When the Hurricane Came (Createspace), was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards.