Shlemiel Crooks

Children's Books

By Anna Olswanger

Publisher : NewSouth Books

ABOUT Anna Olswanger

Anna Olswanger
In addition to being the author of Shlemiel Crooks, Anna Olswanger is a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates.

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Anna has made "The Home of the Blues" the backdrop to many of her fiction stories, including "Chicken Bone Man," More...



Shlemiel Crooks is Anna Olswanger's modern folk tale about the Jewish immigrants of 1919 St. Louis and their tug-of-war with Pharaoh over their Passover wine made from grapes left over from the Exodus from Egypt.

Shlemiel Crooks is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and PJ Library Book. See for more information.

A family musical based on Shlemiel Crooks premiered this spring at the Kaufman Center in Manhattan. See

My father, Berl Olswanger, was a wonderful storyteller. When he died in 1981, I longed to hear his stories again about growing up in the 1920’s in the neighborhood of Goat Hill in Memphis, Tennessee. Maybe I couldn’t hear his stories again, but I could learn more about the background of his stories and who his parents and grandparents were. That was when I started genealogical research. I went to St. Louis, where my grandparents had lived before coming to Memphis, and discovered through synagogue records, wills, and newspaper articles that my great-grandparents Elias Olschwanger and Dora Sacks had arrived in St. Louis from Varniai, Lithuania; that Elias had taught Talmud in the Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol synagogue; that he had given money to help Jews in Europe suffering in World War I; and that when he died, he had left a tzedakah box for what was then Palestine. From his ship's passenger list, I discovered that he, and later his sons, then his wife and daughters, had each come to this country with one piece of baggage. Those early years of genealogical research deepened my connection to Judaism. I decided I wanted to learn more about the religious traditions of my ancestors. I wanted to become observant and say kaddish for them because no daughters or sons remained alive to preserve their memory. And, I wanted to publish my research about my ancestors for my own family and for other researchers. So, in 1983, I published the first issue of the Olschwanger Journal, a magazine that included interviews, documents, photographs, letters, family news, a yahrzeit list, and a family directory. The magazine won a Certificate of Award at the first International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies (IAJGS) Conference in Jerusalem, Israel. After publishing the second, and then the third issue, of the Olschwanger Journal in 1993, I began to lose my enthusiasm. I was finding the research tedious and I had become bored spending long hours in front of microfilm readers in libraries and in public records offices. Those pre-computer days meant that collecting the information and editing it for publication were time-consuming and expensive.  Still, I wanted to continue to pay tribute to the ancestors I had discovered through my research. It occurred to me to write a children’s book about them. I had started my writing life as a playwright, so I could have written a play about them. But during graduate school, when I was pursuing an MFA in playwriting, I went to London to try to find a group of actors to write for. While I was in England, I made a trip to one of the university towns and visited a large bookstore (this was before Borders and Barnes and Noble). Wandering throughout the store, I found myself in the children's book section. There, I discovered picture books and between the covers of each book were the script, costumes, lighting, and stage set, everything in the theater that I thought I had needed to produce a play.  However, I didn't need a theater. My tribute to my great-grandparents could be a children's picture book. What would this children’s picture book be about? I had the kernel of my story in the second issue of the Olschwanger Journal, which I had published in 1984. That issue contained a reproduction of a Yiddish newspaper article about the attempted robbery of my great-grandfather’s kosher liquor store.  This is the English translation of the article: Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger Almost Robbed Shlimazel crooks, their work was unsuccessful. Last Thursday at 3:00 a.m. in the middle of the night, several men drove to the saloon of Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger at the corner of 14th and Carr Streets. They opened the saloon and removed several barrels of brandy and beer. Mr. Mankel who lives on the second floor, upon hearing what was going on in the saloon, opened the window and began shouting for help. Benjamin Resnik from 1329 Carr Street, hearing the shouting, shot his revolver from his window. The band of crooks got scared and left everything, including their own horse and wagon and ran away. Police immediately came and took everything to the police station. What could be funnier than this for a children's book? Crooks, who left with less than they came with!  From that Yiddish article, I created Shlemiel Crooks (not Shlimazel Crooks like in the article, as I suspected that "shlemiel" was a more widely known word). After adding the ghost of Pharaoh, the prophet Elijah, and a talking horse to the story, I was in business. I submitted Shlemiel Crooks to over one hundred publishers and subsequently, I received over one hundred rejections. Along the way, the magazine Young Judaean published the story and it won a "Magazine Merit Award" from the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, but no offer came from a book publisher. What I didn't realize at the time was that as I continued to research book editors and send out the manuscript, I was learning the children's book publishing business. In 2003, frustrated by all the rejections, I decided to self-publish Shlemiel Crooks as a miniature book for collectors.  Almost immediately (the universe has a sense of humor), I received an offer from a publisher to publish Shlemiel Crooks as a children's picture book. The offer came from NewSouth Books, a small publisher in Alabama with, as far as I knew then, no Jews on its staff. This was not the big New York publisher I had been waiting for, but I said yes, and it turned out to be a happy choice. The book became a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and a PJ Library Book. It opened the door for me to visit schools where I met hundreds of students. It resulted in offers to adapt Shlemiel Crooks as a puppet show and as a musical for children.  Best of all, Shlemiel Crooks allowed me to pay tribute to my great-grandparents. Although I don’t have my own children to give their story to as a gift, the way my father gave his stories to me as gifts, I can give the story of my great-grandparents to any child who reads or hears Shlemiel Crooks. Because of the interest I developed in book publishing while submitting Shlemiel Crooks to editors, I moved to the New York area in 2000 and enrolled in the Certificate in Book Publishing program at New York University. In 2005, I interned with Liza Dawson Associates and soon joined the agency, where I now specialize in picture books like Shlemiel Crooks. I am delighted to have a job helping to bring children's books into the world.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"... sit down and read it already." 

Ken Gordon, editor of
"This is some wonderfully oddball Passover story." 

The New York Times Book Review
"You should be so lucky as to find a Passover story that combines a surprisingly droll exposition of the flight from Egypt (right down to the pilfered raisins), with an account of the foolish crooks in St. Louis, who, in 1919, really did try to steal some of the special spirits Reb Elias Olschwanger had ordered for sale before the holiday. Well told and illustrated." 

"Shtetl humor and magic realism come to St. Louis in 1919 in this wry Pesach story based on the experience of the author's great-grandfather, who sold kosher wines. While Reb Elias is at synagogue leading a Talmud discussion (OK, an argument) about the first Passover (when the Israelites were booted out of Egypt), Pharaoh's ghost arrives in St. Louis, still sneaking around and trying to put one over on the Jews. He persuades a couple of crooks ('onions should grow in their navels') to steal Reb Elias' special Passover wine, but with help from the prophet Elijah and a talking horse, the bumbling thieves are chased away by noisy neighbors. The boldly colored woodcuts give life to the city neighborhood, the foolish villains, and the lively arguments as well as to the daring Israelites, escaping across the desert three-thousand years ago. The best thing here, however, is Olswanger's Yiddish storyteller's voice, particularly the hilarious curses she weaves into the story: 'His teeth should fall out, except one, then he could have a toothache.' Great for reading aloud." 

The Jerusalem Post
"The fun, colorful illustrations complement Olswanger's humor. Children and adults alike will laugh out loud. For the best effect, read with an Eastern European accent." 

The Chicago Jewish Star
"... the vivid images will appeal to a child's sense of humor and imagination." 

The Jewish Standard
"Written with stylized humor and charm, Yiddish flavor positively drips from each sentence. Simply splendid." 

The Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books
"An entertaining and well executed tale that is chock full of subtle humor." 

B'nai B'rith Magazine
"This colorfully illustrated children's book tells the tale of some dirty rotten no-goodniks in 1919 St. Louis. How rotten, you ask? 'Onions should grow in their navels,' chides the book's opening paragraph, which kicks off 'an amusing modern-day parable ... [with] a music all its own.' Music here includes the gentle and evocative Yiddishisms that pepper the text and convey that special down-home flavor." 

School Library Journal
"This delightful story is based on a true incident reported in the St. Louis Jewish Record in 1919, in which Reb Elias Oschwanger's liquor store was almost robbed of its Passover wine (brought in from the Land of Israel no less) by a couple of inept thieves. But that's not the whole story because Reb Elias also recounts his own version of the exodus from Egypt, with the Hebrews absconding with linen and jewels and raisins—raisins? Anyway, you remember the part where Pharaoh chases after the Israelites and ends up in the Red Sea? Turns out his ghost is still wandering around St. Louis of all places, whispering in the ears of the crooks who go rob the store, only they get scared off by some noisy neighbors and a talking horse. This tale is a pleasure and a hoot; it rings so true with the voice of a Yiddish grandmother that it's practically historic fiction (minus the ghost). The boldly colored, expressive illustrations enhance the humor so you shouldn't get bored." 

Publishers Weekly
"If the fools of the fabled village of Chelm knew any better, they might be a little jealous of the attention Olswanger pays to a pair of bumbling thieves . . . In 1919 St. Louis, the two shlemiel crooks of the title plan a heist of Reb Elias's new shipments of Passover wine, egged on by the ghost of the Pharaoh that had enslaved the Israelites in Egypt. Fortunately for Reb Elias, the 'lowlife' klutzes make enough noise to rouse the sleeping neighbors and are forced to flee the scene of the crime, leaving the goods—and their horse and cart—behind. Inspired by archival newspaper accounts of a similar event experienced by one of her forebears, the author stirs bits of family history, Jewish heritage and humor into her literary stew, with an unusual recap of the Passover story added in. The predominant Yiddish inflection and phrases are sure to give adults a chuckle ... Newcomer Koz delivers arresting woodblock print artwork featuring thick black lines and a deep, jewel-tone palette. Her attention to old-world detail and a few funny scenes of the crooks in action or on the run give this project plenty of visual charm." 

Jewish Book World
"This lovely book is a winner on two levels. It introduces the reader to a fascinating period in American Jewish history, while providing an extremely humorous and entertaining story ... The Yiddishisms of the characters add authenticity to the imaginative events." 

Memphis Parent
"Olswanger weaves Judean storytelling customs with the humorous true tale of thieves who attempt but fail to steal Passover wine from her great-grandfather, who owned a saloon in St. Louis, Missouri. [She] cites Jewish texts, the Jews Biblical journey from Egypt, and the explanations of the Passover ceremony, all with authentic Yiddish wit and a fast pace kids will enjoy." 

Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter
"While researching her family history, the author discovered an ad and a news report about her great-grandfather in the St. Louis Jewish Record, which inspired this quirky funny story. It involves the attempted robbery of Elias Olschwanger's saloon, which has just been stocked with kosher-for-Passover wines. Instigating the shlemiel crooks is the ghost of Pharaoh, who still has it in for the Jews. When the horse pulling their wagon—incited by the ghost of Elijah—croaks 'Crooks, crooks,' loud enough to wake the whole neighborhood, the 'no-good crooks' run off. Part of the plot includes an idiosyncratic version of the Exodus, told by members of the Talmud Society that Reb Olschwanger leads. Familiarity with the actual biblical account is needed to enjoy this parody, but no prior experience is needed to find the 'shtuss' raised by the neighbors hilarious. Dayenu—a quirky story is just the beginning! Yinglish imbues the story with a distinctive cadence, created by some Yiddish words like 'gonif' and 'gevalt' and even more by a Yiddish-inflected narrative voice replete with curses ('worms should hold a wedding in their bellies'), questions instead of statements ('You think only Pharaoh knew how to play a little dirty?'), self-corrections ('But after Mr. Balfour—excuse me, Lord Balfour . . .'), and exclamations like 'Listen,' 'Hoo-ha!,' and 'Such a tummel . . .!' So flavorful a style, syntactically different from most of what children hear and read, requires close attention, so the audience is likely to be elementary rather than primary grade children, not to mention older people whose distance from Yiddish and from an immigrant setting is not as great as children's. The strong, almost rough, linocut illustrations establish an earthy urban milieu, adding humor and more tam to a savory story." 

The Jewish Ledger
"As fun to read as it is to hear. Here's a chance for your family's best storyteller to brush up on his or her humorous stage presence and Yiddish accent ... Inspiring!" 

Detroit Jewish News
"Shlemiel Crooks is not written like any other children's book you've ever read. It's more like you're in the middle of a conversation, and you're being talked to by your grandmother, or your grandfather, or someone who doesn't know from Britney Spears: 'Hoo-ha! Mrs. Moskowitz, who lived with her little boy next door to Mankel, started screaming like the bedbugs were eating her alive. Let me tell you, a voice like a canary she didn't have.' ... So fun, and so wonderfully illustrated, it's absolutely irresistible." 

Jewish Woman
"Writer Anna Olswanger used a 1919 newspaper clipping from a St. Louis Jewish newspaper that she discovered when researching her family history as the seed for her recent book, Shlemiel Crooks. Her great grandfather Reb Elias Olschwanger was a saloon owner in St. Louis and this book is the story of the thieves who tried to steal his shipment of Passover wine. Written in Yiddish inflected English, punctuated with amusing (but non-toxic) curses, this is a book that children and their parents will enjoy, for its delightful story and for its glimpse of a colorful Jewish community of another time. Paula Goodman Koz supplies richly-hued illustrations." 

Wine Spectator
"At last, a wine book for children. (I'll have to call my agent and tell him to resubmit my masterpiece, Daddy's Awful Fond of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.) Well, not really, but this charming book teaches the story of Passover through the theft of kosher wine from a saloon in St. Louis in 1919. The colored wood-block illustrations lend a look that blends the old and modern, but the star of the show is the voice of the narrator. If the name Hyman Kaplan means anything to you, or you have a well-thumbed Joys of Yiddish handy, you should drop what you're doing and go buy this book." 

Steven Kellogg, award-winning author and illustrator of over 100 children's books, including the Pinkerton series
"The distinctive music of the story telling and the atmospheric illustrations create an early twentieth century urban folk tale with character, humor, warmth, and grit." 

Sid Fleishman, Newbery Award winner for The Whipping Boy
"Shlemiel Crooks manages to be both poignant—and laugh-out-loud funny. A gem." 

Uri Shulevitz, Caldecott Medal winner for The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship: A Russian Tale
"Delightfully told in a colloquial, folksy style, sprinkled with gentle humor by Anna Olswanger, and beautifully illustrated with strong woodcuts by Paula G. Koz." 

Simms Taback, Caldecott medalist
"Anna Olswanger's Shlemiel Crooks, told with Yiddish inflection, is a fine addition to the growing number of stories about the Jewish immigrant experience in America. Mazeltov!" 

Arthur Yorinks, winner of the Caldecott Medal for Hey, Al
"Buy this book—you should only have good luck coming out of your ears—and you'll laugh out loud. A delight!" 

Barry Moser, winner of the American Book Award for design and illustration of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
"I have been reading Anna Olswanger's stories for ten years or more, and I love them—never a boring moment where she is concerned. She is a gifted story teller and a fine writer, and Shlemiel Crooks is one of her most delightful tales. Ms. Koz's illustrations are a perfect complement." 

Eric Kimmel, winner of the 2004 Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award
"Two dopey burglars, a talking horse, a wagon loaded in Passover wine, and Pharaoh and Elijah duking it out in St. Louis make for a great Passover story. All we need is W.C. Handy to set it to music: St. Louis Ganovim!" 

Johanna Hurwitz, author of the Riverside Kids series
"This is a good—no I lie—it is a great story: funny, original and perfect for a new twist on the Passover holiday. Based on her own family's history, author Anna Olswanger has created a tale set in St. Louis in 1918. Read it. You should live to be a hundred and tell others to read it too." 

Fran Manushkin, author of Latkes and Applesauce: A Hannukah Story
"It's 1919, and Pharoah, still angry at losing his Israelite slaves, has reappeared, after 3000 years in St. Louis—yes, St Louis!—and is bent on stealing the community's Passover wine-wine descended from the original grape seeds the Israelites took with them from Egypt. But thanks to a talking horse (encouraged by Elijah the prophet) and some wonderfully noisy neighbors, the wine and Passover are saved! Anna Olswanger's deliciously funny story and Paul Koz's colorful art, carry a strong flavor of Yiddishkeit as well as a timeless message of the joy and strength of community."