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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interview with Yona Zeldis McDonough author of biographies for children

In reading your biography I see you have always been an avid reader –because readers just have to read even if it is the cereal box in front of them at breakfast. All that reading didn’t get you thinking that maybe you could write something like that (stories not notes on cereal boxes. What changed for you to take up the goal to write what you love to do?
For a long time, I was intimidated by the thought of writing.  I had a friend in college, an English major, whose thesis was a collection of short stories. I was so impressed that he could produce this work but it seemed beyond me.  I went to graduate school in art history, which I found I hated.  But I was permitted to take other classes in the university, and on a whim, I signed up for a fiction writing class. That was my aha! moment.

You’ve written a number of children’s books about famous people who are an inspiration and role model to children. How did you get involved in writing those stories
Through my mother, who illustrated a number of them.

 Did you pitch the stories to the publishers or did they come to you with the ideas?
Both.  For the picture books (w/my mom) we pitched the ideas.  For the Who Was? series, I    was  asked to write to the bios.
Since you are an avid reader, does doing research for your biographies come easy? 
Yes, I love reading about people whose work and lives I admire. 

 Is there any one story that really touched you in doing the research that you learned something unique about the person?
So many! Reading about Harriet Tubman’s childhood as a slave: when refused a blanket by the people who “owned” her, she buried her feet in the ashes by the fire to stay warm. She was seven. Or reading about how Helen Keller was so frustrated and angry as a child that she tore apart the cake her mother had baked for her birthday.  Mozart, Louis Armstrong, JFK...there were wonderful, touching, defining moments in each of their stories.  

Your book, Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott, is ranked #16 for children’s literary biographies. Why do you think this book has such a strong appeal?
 It was, I think, a good combination of words and pictures.  I tried to tell Louisa’s story in a very forthright way, not sugarcoating its difficulties.  And the illustrations are exceptional—lush and dreamy. I love them.

I also see that a number of your children’s books were illustrated by your mother. What was that like? Did you have any conflict with what your vision for what the images should be as opposed to hers?
My mother, Malcah Zeldis, is a well-known folk artist.  We work very seamlessly together.  She has lots of ideas and we brainstorm to settle on one that we both feel passionately about.

You don’t limit yourself to biographies for children. You’ve also have two books on American icons namely Marilyn Monroe and Barbie. What intrigues you to write about them? 
I always loved Barbie as a child and wrote an essay about her that was published in the New York Times Magazine in 1998 or so.  The book grew out of that essay.   And the book did well, so I thought of another blonde bombshell who interested me: Marilyn Monroe.

 You seem to have a fascination for dolls as you have also written two children’s books that are about a young girl whose parents own a doll repair shop.
Yes, I am a doll lover from way back.  Now I collect dolls.  Don’t ask me how many I have because I don’t know!  But it’s a lot.

You say that Brooklyn has been a fertile ground for your writing. Is there anything in this book that touches your earlier life?
I suppose I am drawing on my childhood love of dolls, but also my childhood love for literature that was written long ago.  Even then I had a fascination with the past and loved books set in earlier times: ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, A LITTLE PRINCESS, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, UNDERSTOOD BETSY.

 Are you planning on this to be a continuing series?
 I’d love to do another if my publisher is interested.

 Did you have the idea for the second book as you wrote the first one?
No. It was only because the first book did so well that I was able to write the second.

What advice would you give to other writers for encouragement?
 Keep reading, and keep writing, even if it’s only a page a day.  Share your work with someone you respect, be prepared to revise, revise, revise and send your work out as far and wide as you can.  When it gets rejected, send it right back out again—don’t wait!

That's it for today's interview. I hope it has inspired you to read some of her books. If you would like to learn more about Yona and her writing, go to her website at

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