THE BLOG

Lifting Hope Out of Horror -- on that day

09/10/2011 05:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2011

This is a story about nightmares and dreams come true.

This is a story about how life can be filled with sadness and disappointment, and sometimes, bad things -- things that are so bad that the word "evil" doesn't even begin to describe the horror.

But this is also a story about how out of the bad and sad and disappointing things, and yes, even the evil and horrible things, we can find goodness and happiness and fulfillment in helping others.

Like many stories, this one begins at different times and places.

It certainly can begin in New York City on September 11, 2001, when life in America was ripped free of its bearings. A day all of us can still see ten years later, so clearly. We close our eyes and we recall with great pain, the silver glint of airplanes, the cornflower blue of the clear September sky, the roaring orange flames, the billowing black smoke and shattered glass, the people injured, killed and running, the two gargantuan towers collapsing into crowded streets.

It also begins a week later, when a remarkable pre-school teacher in Great Barrington, MA, sitting quietly in religious services, heard something.

"It was like the top of my head was lifting off," recalls Andrea Patel. "Suddenly, words began to pour into my head, words with cadence, words with page turns, words that swam around and around and around inside of me."

Andrea -- who had never written a book before -- went home and wrote the words down. And then she put them away. A couple of weeks later, she found them again. She showed them to a writer friend, who was deeply moved. The writer friend told her that she had to do something with the words.

But what?

Soon the words were calling to her again. Soon the words were swimming faster in her head. But this time they were accompanies by illustrations. Like the words, the illustrations demanded to be expressed on paper. In simple form. "I needed to try to begin to make sense again of the world at the most basic level with a pre-schooler's understanding," Andrea says.

Within days, Andrea found herself busy shredding pieces of colorful tissue paper. She refused to use scissors or any other object that could be construed as a weapon. While her pre-schoolers were napping on their mats, she ripped tiny pieces of tissue by hand and began to construct her illustrations.

Before long, she had a book. A book she referred to at that point, simply as "September 11th." The book was missing only one illustration, however. An illustration of the World Trade Center tragedy, the twin towers collapsing in flame.

Andrea says that she couldn't bring herself to do that terribly upsetting illustration in the presence of her three-year-old students. So one Saturday afternoon, sitting with a box of Kleenex, she sat down at home and using a straight edge, constructed an image of the two towers in flames.

Before we go forward with Andrea's story, we need to take a little detour in order to tell another story. A few years before Andrea wrote and illustrated her book, I finished writing my first novel, called Dreaming Maples. Two different New York literary agents loved the book. Each one, at different points, was convinced she could sell the book to a publisher. Each one tried, sending out dozens and dozens of letters, but alas, neither succeeded.

I took so many rejections on that first novel that I thought I would fall apart. But at some point in 2001, I decided what the heck, maybe I will just go ahead and publish it myself. At the time, self-publishing wasn't nearly as popular as it is today. There weren't dozens of self-publishing companies out there ready to snatch up your manuscript. I decided to start my own small publishing company to get my novel into print.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was driving up to Williamstown, MA to meet my cousin, an artist and painter named Pat Rotondo. She had very generously offered to do a painting for the book's cover. When I left my house about 9:45 a.m., the second tower had just fallen, and I was bawling. When I pulled into the parking lot at the Clark Art Institute at 11 a.m., my cousin was sitting calmly on a bench in front of the museum, waiting for me. She was smiling.  She hadn't heard the gut-wrenching news about what was happening to New York City, where she had lived and gone to art school.

As the fires raged in New York and Washington, D.C., my cousin and I walked around the Clark in a state of shock. We kept asking what everyone else was asking, how is it that humans are capable of such horror? And yet, staring at the paintings, we had the images of human wonder before our eyes, too. At one point we stood before a Renoir painting called "The Blonde Bather," where a key scene in my novel takes place.

Later that day, in the parking lot of the Clark, my cousin took from her car the painting she had done for the cover of my book. More tears poured, as I stared at one of the most beautiful and haunting images I'd ever seen. That day the dream of my publishing company, Star Root Press, started to seem real.

Not too long afterward, Andrea's story and my own started to converge. It was a Saturday in November, the weekend before Thanksgiving, when she phoned me at home. Andrea and I belong to the same synagogue in Great Barrington and the rabbi there had suggested Andrea call me. "Rabbi Zecher said that you'd started a publishing company," Andrea said.

I laughed. "Yeah, well, I have, but I wouldn't call myself Random House." She asked if I'd look at the children's book she'd written about September 11th. I told her I would, but I hardly expected to do more than that. The next day, in temple, she handed me a box with the illustrations and writing inside. By the time I reached the last page, I was wiping my eyes and shaking my head in amazement.

I knew what I had to do. I told Andrea that I wanted to publish it. And if it were humanly possible, I said we would have the book out in time for the Christmas holidays -- which was a month later.

Miraculously enough, we did it. The next three weeks were crazy. Andrea and I worked harder than we'd ever worked before. And we found people to help us. People worked miracles for us. People worked miracles for on that day. There was the photographer, Mark Schmidt, who photographed the book's illustrations in a matter of days. There was the graphic artist, Bonny Curless, who spent 18 hours one weekend designing and typesetting the book.

And then there was the printer, Michael Ryan, who bumped press schedules and drove final proofs 80 miles round-trip to my house so that we could make our scheduled publication release date the week before Christmas.

Because of all this, Andrea and I were able to drive 450 copies of the book, hot off the press, to New York on Christmas Eve day. We donated the books to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Services, where volunteers brought them immediately to the big white tent at Ground Zero, and to the three family service centers in Manhattan where families of the victims were receiving assistance. Part of our plan included donating a portion of all book sales to a scholarship fund set up for the children of September 11th victims.

Within six months we had sold nearly 3,000 copies of the book. Moreover, early in 2002 we learned that PBS' Reading Rainbow had selected the book for review and promotion. The nationally-televised book show for children had praised on that day for its uplifting and redeeming message about the tragedy, which suggests to children (and adults) that "sometimes bad things happen in the world. But there will always be good things in the world too. You are one of those good things."

In conjunction with the Reading Rainbow promotion, which was aired in different television markets across the nation, a major West Coast publisher acquired the rights to produce a hardcover version of the book.

Ten years later, that hardcover version is still for sale on Amazon.com. The simple message of Andrea Patel's book continues to move people. Continues to offer hope. As on that day suggests, despite the bad things that happen in the world, each of us can always do something to make the world a better place.

"You can help by sharing. You can help by playing and laughing. You can help by taking good care of the Earth. You can help by being kind to people. Yes. Whether you're three years old, or thirteen years old, or thirty years old, or one-hundred-and-three years old, you can help."

Meanwhile, in April, 2002, I published my first novel, Dreaming Maples. In part because of all the attention Star Root Press attracted after publishing on that day, sales of the novel were brisk and the book did very well.