Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of The Woodcarver's Daughter, a new middle grade historical novel for kids set in the early 20th century. She has written many other novels for adults and for children, and she lives in Brooklyn.
Q: What inspired you to write The Woodcarver's Daughter, and how did you create your character Batya?
A: I don’t feel like I created Batya; I feel like she came to me fully formed, clamoring to be heard.
I had gone to the Museum of American Folk Art to see a show of carved carousel animals—mostly horses. Because the museum has a special mission to promote the work of women—particularly unsigned, unattributed work, like embroidery, quilts, rugs etc.—there was a wall note explaining why there were no women carvers included in the exhibition.
The reason? Girls were not allowed to join the guild, and so would have been unable to gain the necessary experience, tools, and materials to become woodcarvers. When I read that Batya came bounding into my mind, wanting to tell me her story.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "Charming, warming girl power in early-20th-century immigrant New York." What do you think Batya's experiences say about the role of girls in Russia and also in New York in the early 20th century?
A: Oh, there is so much to say about that! Girls in both Russia and America had so many obstacles back in those years—education was denied, and their perceived sphere was so small.
And yet despite that, some of them broke out of the mold and went on to create very different kinds of lives for themselves. Batya is one of those rule-and-mold breakers.
Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything surprising?
A: My research came mostly in the form of reading and a few site visits, like to the Tenement Museum in New York City and The New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, and of course the exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art, which sparked the idea.
I was fascinated to learn about how Eastern European woodcarvers, many of whom were Jews and who worked on synagogues, bimas, Torah scrolls and the like, were hounded of their homes by pogroms and other forms of anti-Semitism and then reinvented themselves in a secular context in America.
I also read about the Golden Age of Carousels, and the importance of the carousel in American leisure life, as well as the factories that produced them.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
A: I never really think about that because it seems a both unknowable and presumptuous. Every reader is unique and hence, every reading experience unique. What I hope of course is that the story resonates with readers of different backgrounds and experiences, and that they each find something to love about it.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve always got a few things going on at the same time; shifting between genres/manuscripts is like a palate cleanser for my mind.
So right now I’m finishing up drafts of both a middle grade novel and an adult novel, both, as it happens, set in New York City in the years 1915-1920.
And I’m also excited about working on true picture books—those classic, magical and timeless tales of 1,000 words or fewer. One of these manuscripts, The Blue Glass Heart, was just accepted for publication by Kar-Ben Publishing and will be out in 2023. So I’m pretty excited about the forthcoming publication and want to delve deeper into that form.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: That I’m obsessed with Pomeranians; I’ve had several of these little fluff-balls and right now have two—Willa, who is an ancient-for-a-dog 15, and Dottie, who is 3 and both a puppy at heart and the puppy of my heart.
I’ve including Poms in some of my novels, and in Two of A Kind, a Pom both begins and ends the story, and plays a pivotal role in it. I’m fully intending to write a children’s book featuring Poms in some way—perhaps even from the dog’s point of view!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Yona Zeldis McDonough.