Simon and the Bear

I was feeling stuck for awhile, but now the creative juices are flowing again. Nothing like a good idea to make an author feel better! My mood always improves when I have something to work on.

I’ve received a lot of feedback from friends who follow this blog telling me how they enjoyed following the creative process as I was working on The Snake. Pirate and I are still waiting to hear from my agent on that one. I’ll let you know what develops. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on another story. How about if I let you take another look behind the curtain.

My friend Stephanie Lurie, who is an editor at Hyperion, has been asking me for a Hanukkah story for the past year. The last two I sent didn’t fit her needs. Too old for the audience. She’s looking for something for younger children. That’s the opposite of how I work. The story comes into my head, I write it, and then I figure out what age group it’s for. The only way I can come up with something is to keep writing. If I can keep coming up with good stories, something’s bound to hit the mark.

I’ve had an idea in the back of my head for a long, long time. It goes back to an article I read years ago in The Forward, which is a newspaper focusing on the American-Jewish community. I have a warm spot in my heart for The Forward. I remember when it was the main Yiddish newspaper in America. Every morning, before I left for school, I’d walk over the the candy store and pick up a copy of Der Vorvarts for my grandma. (I have a good story connected with that. I must remember to post it some day.)

The story was about a young immigrant who was literally walking to America. He walked from his home in Eastern Europe to the port of Hamburg. He couldn’t afford a ticket to America, so he worked until he could pay for a ticket to Britain. There his luck turned for the better. He was a locksmith by trade. A new steamship leaving for American needed a locksmith on board. In return, he’d get free passage across the Atlantic. The young man applied for the job and got it.

Unfortunately, the ship was the Titanic. He was not one of those who survived, although he didn’t go down with the ship. His body was found on a ice floe weeks later.

I’ve had that story on my mind for a long time. I couldn’t shake the image of the young man alone on the ice floe, watching his ship sinking, and wondering what would happen next. Would a miracle happen and he’d be rescued? Or would cold and hunger slowly take him?

The story as it was wouldn’t work for a picture book. First, it’s too sad. Second, the character is too old. What to do?

The image hung around in my head for a couple of years. I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. Yet, I didn’t want to discard it. I felt there was something here. If only I could find the key to the story.

Suddenly, last Saturday night, I found it. Make the character younger, a boy of about elementary school age, and have him heading to America all by himself. He’d find a job and when he earned enough money, he’d send for the rest of his family. Not realistic, you say? Read your history. Plenty of kids came here alone, with only a name scrawled on a piece of paper of someone who might or might not meet them at the pier. My Uncle George was supporting his mother and two sisters when he was twelve. His father died and he was the only breadwinner. Irving Berlin, America’s great composer, was on his own when he was thirteen.

So what would I call my hero. Simon, which was my grandfather’s name. He and his brother Jonah were orphans. They never went to school. Their childhood could have come out of Dickens. Whoever took care of them packed them off to work when they were six. I once asked my Uncle Sol if his father ever talked about his childhood in Poland. Very little, my uncle said. It was probably so awful that he didn’t want to remember it. Uncle Sol did remember his father telling him two things. One, being hungry all the time. Two, how good the black bread tasted. There was nothing in America like it. (Most likely, Uncle Sol added, because it was all he got.)

I don’t have any fond memories of Grandpa Simon. He never cracked a smile. I was scared of him. But since he never got a break in life, I’ve always wanted to give him his own book. So let him be my brave hero in this story, leaving home with a promise to work hard and one day bring everyone else over.

He’s on board the ship. Now what? This ship hits an iceberg and starts sinking. (Just like that movie!) Simon’s a brave boy. He stays on deck, helping people into the lifeboats, until there’s only one boat left and only one place in it. He and another man are the only ones left aboard. They have to choose who goes and who stays.

How will they do that? Aha! This is a Hanukkah story, right? That’s what Steph wants. Okay, let them spin the dreidel. That lets me get one of the Hanukkah icons into the story. I’ll fit the other two, the menorah and the latke, in later. Simon calls the letter and wins a seat in the boat. The man asks him to tell his family he loves them. He knows that his chance of surviving is zero. Simon thinks about this and comes to a decision. He’s lost his father; it’s not right that other children should lose their father, too. He gets out of the boat and gives his seat to the man.

In the context of my story, Simon has proven himself worthy of a miracle. Will he get one? (What do you think, gentle reader?)

The lifeboat pulls away. The ship sinks. Simon jumps from the bow onto the iceberg. He’s all alone in the middle of the ocean. His survival chances look slim. All that Simon can do is hope. Then he remembers that this is the first night of Hanukkah. He lights the menorah and unpacks the latkes that his mother has sent along with him. (See how I got the other two icons in!)

Now it’s time to start resolving the story. What happens next? A polar bear shows up. I’ve been to Churchill, Manitoba, where we saw plenty of polar bears in the wild and learned a lot about them. They can swim for miles and miles across the ocean, going from one ice floe to another. Simon wonders if the bear likes latkes. Better to eat latkes than him! It turns out that the polar bear does like latkes. The bear eats a couple; Simon eats a couple. Then the bear lies down on the ice and goes to sleep. Simon wonders if the bear will let him snuggle against her to get out of the wind. He presses himself against her fur. The bear puts her paw over him, as if he were one of her cubs.

The next day the bear goes fishing and brings back a salmon. The last time I was in Alaska I watched brown bears fishing. I’ve never forgotten it. These enormous animals were as dainty as guests at a wedding buffet. They picked big salmon out of the water, peeled off their skin like a banana peel, and delicately munched away from the tail to the head. I had the polar bear share her fish with Simon. Has he ever eaten raw fish? No, but I have. Sushi. Not bad at all.

So Simon and the bear float along on the iceberg, eating fish and potato latkes. Every night Simon lights the Hanukkah candles. Now to wind it up.

The eighth night arrives. It doesn’t appear that anyone will be coming to rescue Simon. Sooner or later, the bear will leave. Then what? No food, no warmth. Simon’s chances look bleak.

Then he hears a voice. The bear jumps in the water and swims away. (I don’t need her anymore. She’s served her purpose here.) A passing ship has seen the light of Simon’s Hanukkah candles and sent a boat to investigate. Simon is rescued.

When he gets to New York, he finds he’s a celebrity. He meets the mayor and the mayor is…couldn’t you figure it out by now? The man to whom he gave his seat in the lifeboat! So Simon gets a job and first-class tickets for his family, courtesy of his new best friend, the mayor.

My brother Jonathan has spend most of his career in New York City politics and knows Mayor Bloomberg fairly well. Some of that lies in the background of this story. Our grandfather came to New York a hundred years ago, a penniless immigrant who could barely speak English, and now his grandson hobnobs with the mayor. That’s something I often think about. And I’ve made my career writing stories in a language none of my grandparents could speak.

So Simon’s story has a happy ending and I have something to show Steph. I sent it off today. I hope she likes it, but there are so many factors that determine whether or not a story is accepted. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. I’ll let you know what happens.

It’s a good story, the best I can do. And that is the best anyone can do.

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