Linda Glaser shares the story behind her story …
The seed was first planted for Bridge to America, my middle grade historical fiction, when an elder in our community, Phil Myzel, spoke to my daughter’s 6th grade class about growing up in a shtetl (a small Jewish village) in Poland. I was eager to hear Phil’s presentation because all four of my grandparents had been Jewish and had come from small villages in Eastern Europe.
Phil immediately impressed me with his remarkable memory. However, what fascinated me the most was that, despite growing up in extreme poverty, he had an amazingly positive spirit. Clearly, he had been a mischievous young boy with plenty of spunk. And even in his 80’s, he still possessed a charming youthfulness and zest for life.
His story completely captivated me. I woke up in the middle of the night and started scribbling it down. Not long after, I had written what I thought was the entire story—about twenty pages. Excited, I sent it to my friend Jeanne Miller who always gives me positive feedback. She gushed and said she loved it and couldn’t wait to hear more. Even more excited, I read it to my younger daughter, then in 3rd grade, hoping for a similar glowing response. Instead she said with characteristic honesty, “It needs a lot of work.” Well, that was deflating. I was sure glad I had asked Jeanne to read it first! However, I found out that my daughter was right. It did need a lot of work.
After a year, I read my first complete draft to her fourth grade class to see if children would find the story appealing. I was thrilled that they seemed to truly enjoy it. There’s a possibility that they also enjoyed being read to, a chapter a week, instead of doing routine schoolwork. Nonetheless, their enthusiasm carried me through another full year of revisions. I read the new version to a new set of fourth graders the next year. Both years, as a culmination, Phil met with the children. It was a highlight for everyone.
During that time, I kept interviewing Phil (Fivel in the story). He kept remembering more and more details, all too good to leave out. So I spent hours trying to seamlessly work each little tidbit into the story.
My biggest challenge, however, was that I didn’t want the story to end when Fivel and his family finally headed off to America. That was the logical place to end the book. However, I felt it was important to show our beloved and feisty Fivel as an awkward new immigrant struggling to fit in, facing the painful challenges experienced by so many new immigrants. I finally found a way to keep the emotional thread of the story engaging enough to bring Fivel to America.
During those years of writing and revising, Phil cheered me on. And during those years of rejections and discouragement, my mother urged me to keep submitting it now—while Phil was still alive. I finally received a book contract from Houghton Mifflin—seven years after my first attempt to capture the story on paper. Happily, Phil was very much alive when the book was finally published. In fact, he came to a number of book signings with me.
He lived to a ripe old age and always remained young at heart. For the rest of his life, he proudly hauled around copies of Bridge to America in the trunk of his car. Whenever anyone asked (and often when they didn’t) he’d rush out to get one.
I am especially pleased that Phil’s bright spirit lives on in many young readers’ hearts. I continue to hear from teachers and librarians that even the squirmiest kids, who won’t sit still for other read-alouds, do listen to Bridge to America and even beg for “just one more chapter.”
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