Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of The Doll Shop Downstairs (Viking, 2009) and its sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop (Viking, 2011). Together with her editor, associate publisher Joy Peskin, and the book’s illustrator, Heather Maione, they answer questions for The Whole Megillah.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Yona, let’s start with you. In your author’s note to The Cats in the Doll Shop (and, BTW, The Whole Megillah loves author’s notes), you explained the impetus for the book. Was it a surprise to you that your editor, Joy, suggested placing the cat experience in the context of the doll shop family?
Yona Zeldis McDonough (YZM): Yes, and a wonderful one! Joy is a very intuitive editor, and seems to know things about my work that I am not aware of until she points them out.
TWM: Your characters are so reminiscent of those in Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. Have you received that reaction from others? Was that an intention or a coincidence?
YZM: I have had that comment several times and I consider it a huge compliment. I read those books over and over as a child and felt that they became part of my literary DNA.
TWM: What drew you to write about the immigration period?
YZM: I was not after that period per se; I was captivated by the story of embargo and the impact it had on the doll repair business. So I was already working within that time period. Once I was there, the story of Tania seemed like a natural progression of the characters and events I had already set in motion.
TWM: In The Cats in the Doll Shop, Tania is an intriguing character who reminded me of how hard it must have been for our immigrant relatives who left everything behind. Did you have anyone in mind as a role model for her?
YZM: Yes, my own grandmother, who was in fact named Tania.
TWM: How do you go about the research for these historical fiction stories?
YZM: In all the usual ways: library, internet, actual visits to places when possible. I took a tour sponsored by the Tenement Museum when I was working on this book; it was quite helpful.
TWM: Do you seek out any subject matter experts to vet your manuscript?
YZM: Not usually.
TWM: Were there any particular challenges in writing either Doll Shop book?
YZM: Sometimes there were issues of pacing and plotting. I needed to make sure that the progression of time in each book was visible and clear.
TWM: Joy, what attracted you to The Doll Shop Downstairs? What do you think the attraction is for the market? (I, for one, thought I could never live without dolls.)
Joy Peskin (JP): The story reminded me of The All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (a comparison later made my multiple reviewers), and I have very warm memories of my mother reading those books to me when I was growing up. There is a sensitivity to Yona’s writing that really appealed to me, and I loved the dynamic among the sisters that she created. As an only child, I’ve always been fascinated by the way siblings relate to one another, and I felt that Yona honestly showed the unique combination of conflict and love that all sisters share.
TWM: Were there any particular challenges in editing and publishing either Doll Shop book?
JP: There weren’t any editing challenges—Yona was always open to my suggestions, and she ALWAYS made her deadlines. As for publishing challenges, I suppose it’s challenging to publish anything that doesn’t portray a futuristic world in which everything has gone wrong and one brave teen is trying to change things while simultaneously falling in love. As you could possibly tell from my tone there, I’m really more drawn to realistic fiction. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything more interesting that real life, both things that happened in the past or things happening in the here and now. But Viking’s publisher, Regina Hayes, and I really loved these books from the start, and we strongly believe there is still a market for gentle, classic books.
TWM: How did you decide to have the books illustrated? How did you select Heather as the illustrator?
JP: I imagined these as illustrated books from the start, with a handful of black-and-white line drawings throughout. Our art director, Denise Cronin, and our associate art director, Nancy Brennan, and I put our heads together to see which artist we thought would be right. We had to find someone who could do both the cover in color and the interiors in black-and-white line, and when we saw Heather Maione’s online portfolio, we knew she would be just the right match for The Doll Shop Downstairs. And luckily she was available again when we were working on The Cats in the Doll Shop.
TWM: Heather, what was the inspiration for your illustrations?
Heather Maione (HM): My main inspiration came from my ninety-seven-year-old mother. I’ve always loved listening to stories about her childhood growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East side. I especially enjoy hearing the details of how her brownstone was decorated, the clothes she wore, what she ate for dinner, etc. I’m also a big fan of old movies. More than the story line, I’ve always been intrigued by the art direction and styles of those earlier times. The setting of the beautiful Doll Shop stories was inspirational in itself.
TWM: How did you go about researching the time period?
HM: A visit to the Tenement Museum and searching the internet was most helpful, along with books specific to that era and the Lower East side.
TWM: How did you decide what to illustrate and how many illustrations accompany the text?
HM: There are many exciting illustration opportunities in each chapter that can enrich the reader’s experience. I was contracted to illustrate 15 black and white interior pics of various sizes and one full color cover art. With so many wonderful scenes in The Doll Shop books selecting only one to three pics a chapter was challenging.
I chose what I thought to be the most interesting and integral scenes to the story. The publisher agreed with most of my suggestions and in a few cases had even better ones.
TWM: What medium did you use for the cover?
HM: It’s predominantly pen and ink and water color, tweaked with color pencils, markers and touch of photo shop.
TWM: Had you always had in mind a sequel to The Doll Shop Downstairs?
JP: It was actually our director of field sales, Jackie Engel, who suggested it to me. Jackie was an early fan of The Doll Shop Downstairs. She gave the book to her two young daughters, who adored it. It was then a matter of finding the right plot for a second book, and that happened when Yona shared a manuscript with me about a three-legged cat. It just so happened that I used to have a three-legged cat, and I loved the idea, but I thought on its own, it wasn’t quite working. So I proposed that Yona introduce the cat to the girls from The Doll Shop Downstairs, and The Cats in the Doll Shop was born.
TWM: Has anyone ever considered merchandising dolls to accompany the books?
JP: Not that I know of, but that’s a great idea.
TWM: We’ve heard from any editors and agents that historical fiction is a tough sell. What are your thoughts on that?
JP: Per my earlier comments, it’s not as easy as dystopian, but there’s definitely still a readership for books like this. We just have to work a little harder to find it. But in a way, the preponderance of black covers on the market makes bright, cheerful covers like the ones on the Doll Shop books stand out even more.
TWM: Yona, are there other doll shop stories to come?
YZM: I hope so; I’ve got an idea for the third!