When Monalisa DeGross set out to be a writer, she began by writing what she read — romance. It was an editor who turned her eye to the possibility of writing for children. DeGross considered the young people she knew. She thought about her love of words and the storytelling tradition in her mother’s family. Those memories helped give birth to her debut chapter book, Donavan’s Word Jar (HarperCollins, 1998). School Library Journal called it, “A gentle, thoughtful story of a young African-American boy’s discovery of the power of words.”‘
Since that time, DeGross has written a wonderful picture book, Granddaddy’s Street Songs, and a second Donavan book, Donavan’s Double Trouble, which was named to the Capitol Choices, Noteworthy Books for Children list. She’s at work on a third Donovan book which will feature his sister, Nikki.
DeGross, project manager for a family reading circle program at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, has been praised for writing stories that explore intergenerational relationships and celebrate family bonds.
On Day 27, we are proud to salute Monalisa DeGross:
I read that you started writing seriously at age 40. What inspired you to follow that path?
I think it takes some of us longer to find their creative path. The urge to create is powerful; however for some finding the path is difficult. It was for me. I tried painting, photography, pottery, decorating and all types of needlework; however, everything I put my hand to did not sustain my interest long. I’d blithely move from one project to another. Once I told my husband I wanted to take music lessons. He assured me that wasn’t a good idea. I’d always been a voracious reader, just about any genre. At that time, romance was a favorite. A friend and I decided that we could write a better romance than the ones we were reading. So, we started co-writing. She got busy and dropped out. I kept writing. I realized that I liked taking the stories that I created in my head and putting them on paper. I never finished that story.
Sometimes I think that I reached children’s writing after a long and winding road; but perhaps not. I should not have been surprised at my choice when I consider that I had collected children’s picture books since the 70s. I work in a library and am surrounded by books and I am friendly with many of the children’s librarians. In fact, when I began writing Donavan’s Word Jar I thought it was going to be a picture book.
What called to you about children’s writing?
The challenge of writing about themes and characters that will capture the attention of an audience whose experiences are different and yet similar to my own. There are some givens about the experience of being a youngster and growing up that are universal. I have traveled the path that my readers are on and yet the times, tone, inventions and the events of today separate us. People and events shape each generation: television, soul music and Martin Luther King shaped my life. My grandchildren are being shaped by laptops, You Tube and Barack Obama. Somehow I have to maneuver around these new events and inventions and tap into the universal feelings of being and growing up. It’s a challenge to think about the myriad of feelings I experienced during childhood and try to capture them for a contemporary audience.
In three of my books I deal with questions that will always exist. In Granddaddy, it’s the question most youngsters ask: “What was life like long ago?” In Word Jar, Donavan’s dilemma is: “How can I share something that I love?” And in Double Trouble Donavan’s question is: “Can I accept that someone I love is changed physically?” I am writing for a new generation and the challenge is remember how it feels to be young – but knowing that the path to solving the age old questions are different. Their approach and energy is different. It’s a challenge that I worry about and am trying hard to meet.
How did your first book, Donavan’s Word Jar, come to be?
I submitted what I thought would be my ‘great American novel’ to an editor ( you know the one- where characters appear on page 27 and you don’t hear about them again until page 207). After being rejected by several editors, one asked me if I’d ever thought of writing for children. I was surprised and more than a little unsettled. It’s like you’ve auditioned for a part in a drama and the director asks “ever thought about comedy?” After sharing the suggestion with a girlfriend she said: “Well, why not try?”
I started thinking about what might interest a young person. Like most writers you start at home. You either think about your own childhood or some youngster in your family. The story began about a young boy who liked to use long, impressive words, my nephew, I couldn’t advance the idea, and so I searched for something else.
At the time, everyone was collecting something. I began to think about something that a youngster could collect. It came to me that words were something that everyone loved, and that a young person didn’t need money or an adult to help collect words, just a pencil, paper and a jar. The book was rejected by several publishers until my boss, a librarian, took it to HarperCollins. And the rest, as they say ‘is history’.
How does your work as a project manager for a family reading circle program at Enoch Pratt Free Library inform your writing?
The Family Reading Circle is a program that brings parents and youngsters together one night a week for six weeks to share a meal, read and discuss two picture books. There are usually about ten families (no more than twenty five people). I do this at three locations – two sessions (Spring & Fall). This means that for a year I am meeting with about 30 families for twelve weeks. I get to know the families well. The youngster are between the ages of 10 and 15. They must be accompanied by an adult caregiver: parent, grandparent, sibling over eighteen. The care-givers ages mostly range from late twenties to late seventies. In each group there is a large age-range.
I get to hear the youngsters and their care-givers thoughts, points of view, outlooks and voices. I enjoy the opinions, observations, comments and sometimes vigorous debates we have during those sessions. I am always thinking of stories to shape or characters to create. Some I discard. Others I file away for use one day.
You have one picture book, Granddaddy’s Street Songs. Was that inspired by real life?
I loved writing Granddaddy’s … and Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are wonderful. Arabber is a term used for people who sold fruits, vegetables and seafood from horse-drawn wagons, the term is identified with Baltimore. I grew up watching the Arabbers move from neighborhood to neighborhood each identifiable by the way they decorated the wagons and sometimes the horses. Many of the Arabbers advertised their wares in a bluesy, sing-song fashion.
I remember going to the Baltimore Museum of Art and seeing a collection of black and white photographs chronicling the glory days of Arabbers. I was mesmerized by the photographs. Seeing photographs of men and women that I had known and knew in a museum was jolting. I realized that these men and few women were a dying breed. I wondered if young people would ever know these people existed and made their living this way. That they’d paid rent, fed their families and sent their kids to college. Arabbers also served another important function. They delivered fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood to a whole population during segregation, which kept people of color from the better supermarkets. So I decided to try and write about that time. The book is out of print. I hope that it comes back. Many people ask for it.
Any plans to write more?
Yes. I have several ideas, but I haven’t mastered the brevity that picture books require. I’m working on it.
Your wonderful book, Donavan’s Double Trouble, debuted nine years after your first Donavan story. What was the path to publication?
I certainly didn’t mean for it to take so long. After Word Jar, I decided to get an undergraduate degree. I worked full-time and attended college part-time. Getting a college degree was something I wanted, so I major in Communication. Sometimes I think I should have been writing during that time, most times I think it was right for me. It took me six long years to finish. Two years ago, I met an editor from HarperCollins at a book conference and she asked me what happened — why had I just dropped out of sight.
I explained and we then discussed how well Word Jar was doing. She asked if I had written anything – I had started a second Donavan. I sent it in and we began again.
Why did you decide to feature Donavan in a second story?
Even though I had not written anything, I was still visiting schools doing talks and signing books. During the Q & A at every school I visited, the youngsters wanted to know about Donavan and his sister Nikki. After visiting, I’d go home and write a bit on a second Donavan. I’d write or re-write a chapter and then put it down. After I renewed my acquaintance with HarperCollins, I was assigned an editor and began to write. My editor was easy to work with and persistent. I needed that to get back in the game.
During that time young soldiers were returning from Iraq. It made me sad to see newscasts of the young wounded men and women returning home. I wondered how youngsters felt when someone they love came home altered. So I placed the everyday problems that a youngster has with math and school events beside a more serious occurrence – a favorite uncle coming home in a wheelchair. I wanted to reveal Donavan’s discomfort and embarrassment at his uncle’s disability. This is an older Donavan, a more complicated Donavan. He eventually works it out, with a little help from his family and friends.
Will there be more Donavan books?
I certain hope so. I have a few ideas I am exploring. I loved books that grow a character. My next book is about Donavan’s sister Nikki.
What do you hope young people take away from your books?
I hope that when young readers finish reading my books that they feel satisfied. The satisfaction a reader feels when they have just spent time with characters they recognized and enjoyed. I hope they see something of themselves in my characters and their situations. I want to create major and minor characters that captures the reader’s imagination, perhaps they will think about them long after they’ve closed the book. I also hope that they talk about the book with their friends. I really want young readers to discover something new and interesting about themselves while reading my books.
Along with being an author, you’re a playwright. Please tell us about that part of your writing life.
I entered a playwriting contest sponsored by a local television contest. My play won and the television station, in collaboration with a local theatre group. produced a teleplay. It was televised on a local station and aired in Delaware, Maryland, and Washington D.C. Seeing and hearing actors perform my work was a thrill. I still write plays. I haven’t tried to get them published or staged. I really enjoy writing dialogue. I think that’s a strong point in my writing. A librarian told me that she especially loved the dinner scene in Double Trouble. She felt that I handled the conversation at the dinner table very well.
What has been the proudest moment of your writing career?
What makes me proud is when I meet youngsters who have read any of my books and they really get into the characters. When youngsters talk about Donavan, Nikki, Grandma or Uncle Vic familiarly, I feel proud. I think: It’s working. They are connecting with the characters and I created the characters.
My toughest moments are when I’m thinking about how I want a scene or encounter to read and I can’t get it right. In my mind I know what I want to write; but, I can’t do it. I have to stop and try to figure out a way to make what I’m saying clearer. Also, when I’m writing a scene and I want it be funny – it’s hard to be funny on paper. A really tough moment is when the book comes out and I get the finished product and I read it and wish I could have done better.
If you could go back and whisper in your ear when you were just starting out, what would you say?
Take your writing seriously, respect the craft of writing and please, please, please find some discipline.
Could you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?
The next book features Donavan’s sister, Nikki. It takes place over summer vacation. It’s about friendship among three girls. It’s hard to have a trio friendship. Nikki and her cousin Vonda are good friends – a new girl moves in the neighborhood and the three girls try to juggle their friendship. So far that is what I think is going on. I hope it will come out in 2011.
What’s your greatest joy?
One of my greatest pleasures is at the end of a writing session discovering something on the page that was not there when I started. I may have thought I was going in one direction and my imagination took another direction. Sometimes it’s a pleasure to be on a journey with characters that I’ve created.
The Buzz about Donavan’s Double Trouble:
2009 Capitol Choices, Noteworthy Books for Children
Washington Post (Kids Post), Book of the Week
“Donavan’s a word geek, but there aren’t words to describe his frustration with math and his embarrassed reaction to his favorite Uncle Vic’s homecoming. Vic Carter Johnson had once been a fun-loving basketball star and firefighter. He had taught Donavan and his sister crazy dance moves like the cabbage patch, the snake and the running man. But when Uncle Vic’s legs are blown away by a bomb attack while his National Guard unit is on active duty, Donavan is left to figure out how to accept this new version of his adored uncle.
Monalisa DeGross’ latest novel is a follow up to Donavan’s Word Jar, and readers will remember the warm-natured affection of this African-American family. Donavan’s friends Pooh and Eric also provide encouragement and acceptance as Donavan struggles to sort out his math block and his feelings. Adult readers may question the juxtaposing of math homework and the seriousness of Uncle Vic’s injuries, but young readers will empathize with Donavan’s angst.
While the pacing of the novel is measured, DeGross’ words shine in the dialogue between Donavan and his grandmother. In a competitive game of Scrabble, Donavan reveals his difficulty with numbers and his uneasy feelings about Uncle Vic. Grandma gives him counsel and hope, peppered with teasing and affection. In other scenes, as Donavan grapples with his problems, the language teeters on didactic, but the obvious well meaning of Donavan’s family and teachers soften the lessons. A nice moment comes when Donavan’s little sister tries to explain three-digit multiplication. Frustrated that his sister is better with numbers than he is, Donavan can’t believe she solves one of his math homework problems. But she reminds him that she loves math the way he loves words. It’s a sweet reminder that everyone has talent for something.
Always, Donavan comes across as a sincere boy, trying to do his best despite his shortcomings. He never gives up, and in the end, that may be the key to solving his double trouble. Young readers will also enjoy the pencil-sketch quality of Amy Bates illustrations.”
– Children’s Book Page
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