Yona Diamond Dansky – Educator, Writer and Illustrator
Yona Diamond Dansky is a Philadelphia based writer, artist, lifelong educator, mother and grandmother with many stories to share. Moshu Worries , Yona’s first children’s book, draws upon her three-year-old grandson’s journey when Yona’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
I approached Yona for an interview because this is the book I wish my child had when I was diagnosed with a blood cancer. Most adults struggle to get their heads around a cancer diagnosis, so you can imagine how hard it is for children. How do you explain that a parent’s sudden hair loss， lack of energy and absence from the house for long periods of time？
“When Mom gets a serious illness, it takes family pet beagle, Mooshu, from his accustomed routines and beloved-pet status through unexpected and unwelcome sudden changes. He’s bewildered when he gets less affection and has to wait longer for meals and walks, but finally the family finds a positive way to include Mooshu in the new normal of dealing with Mom’s illness. His fear, loneliness and frustration fade as he enters the circle of compassion, comfort and closeness by Mom’s side. Mooshu Worries is a picture book that speaks to young children ages 3 to 8 with a close family member who is very ill.”
First of all congratulations on getting your book published, and secondly, I wish we could play my modified version of Proust’s parlour game in real life! What inspired you to write Mooshu Worries?
Thank you! It was such a pleasure to hear from you. I followed your progress through cancer treatments years ago online. Mooshu Worries was inspired by my daughter Mia, and her journey through chemo and radiation with a 3-year-old, my grandson (J). There was chaos in the household, and though he doesn’t remember it now, it deeply affected him at the time. He was frightened and confused. Being educators, both my daughter Mia and I looked to children’s picture books help. J loved books and easily sat through a read-aloud of every book we found, but would not sit for a second reading. Many of the books were in-your-face about cancer—understanding what it is, about losing hair, etc. That was nine years ago. I had images in my mind of writing a book that would be more comforting, perhaps viewing the experience through a dog’s eyes, so as to be a bit easier. I suppose I was also considering how it felt to be the family pet, Mooshu, who often stayed under the dining room table, watching everything happen around him, and waiting patiently for his next walk.
Have you always been a writer and artist, or is it something that you got into later in life?
I have never considered myself a writer. I can make myself understood, but just not in an eloquent way, so I have to work extra hard on writing. I’ve been surrounded by family members who are excellent professional writers….I have other strengths, but writing wasn’t one of them. I need to work especially hard to tell my stories well. I have always done art work, separate from a career as an educator. Since I was a child I loved to sew, to make things, paint, sculpt, even carve wood, learning a little from my father who was a master craftsman (woodworker, cabinet maker). I still sew art quilts and dabble at whatever I can get my hands on and find time to do . I value that I now have time to pursue some of these interests, but still wish there were more hours in a day. I just turned 71 and am feeling a sense of urgency!
Oh boy! Resilience, the magic word. I know some of us are just born with it but it CAN BE worked on. The trick is having someone to help motivate you, and then move slowly to having your own motivating feelings without depending on others.
How long did it take for you to get this book from an idea to print, and distribution? Was it difficult finding a publisher?
Though the experience happened 9 years ago, it took me a few years to find some time to put my thoughts to paper. With the images still in my mind, I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, attended a conference in New York City, and went to a few Meet and Greets to meet others doing the same. I found a few friends who were also looking to write children’s picture books, so we formed a critique group…but we were probably not going about it in a professional way—we were a bit too friendly and probably did not really know what we were doing. I sent my manuscript to a number of publishers, received rejections, and sometimes no response at all. I’m a persistent person and I really felt I had a story to tell, so I kept trying and decided that it may be easier to find a publisher if I also illustrated it myself. I had much to learn, even though I have always been artistic. I sketched out a book dummy and I finally found a small publishing house that was willing to accept my work. I am very grateful to Lara Paparo at Owl Publishing House.
How have you dealt with uncertainties in your own life and what are some of the ways that we can help our children build resilience in this bewildering world?
Oh boy! Resilience, the magic word. I know some of us are just born with it but it CAN BE worked on. The trick is having someone to help motivate you, and then move slowly to having your own motivating feelings without depending on others. I always loved finishing a project, and my parents were excellent role models. I think having reasonable goals can help, like breaking down a huge project into chunks. I broke it down into parts such as learning about the children’s picture book industry, learning how to write a manuscript, attending conferences, joining a critique group, learning new software to use for illustration (I tried a few things until I found what worked for me). That way it’s not so overwhelming. Every time I reached a small goal, I replaced it with another. While I was working full time, I really could only keep the ideas in my mind, but once I reduced my workload, it was easier. I still had a lot of caregiving to do, as my parents’ health was declining and they needed a lot of my attention, so I had to be patient and work on this project when I found time. Working on small chunks of the big project was the only way I could do it, and I was satisfied with the small increments of progress.
What other projects do you have in the works?
I’d love to learn InDesign and Photoshop but those will be on the back burner for now. I’m working on a second book (I have ideas for several more) in a series about Mooshu and the same subject, a family with a dog and a parent who is ill.
What is your most treasured possession?
I can’t discount my mobile phone which has a wonderful camera, but my most treasured possessions really are my memories, of many of the places I have travelled and people I’ve known. I also have some wonderful pieces of furniture that my father made, especially a secretary desk, made over 50 years ago . I’m trying to reduce my other possessions, as I have accumulated way too many things. My husband and I moved two years ago, and thought we down-sized, but we didn’t really.
Who are your heroes in real life?
They change but right now I am thinking of a woman from Honduras, an undocumented immigrant, who is living in a sanctuary church nearby, with her four children. People are trying to help her from being deported and separated from her children. I got to know her as I was teaching her to sew on a donated sewing machine, and working with her on basic English skills. It’s amazing what she needs to do to not lose her family, as she is virtually in a prison in the church. I greatly admire her strength and persistence in the face of so many obstacles, including the possibility of being deported without her children, to a very dangerous place.
What is a quality you most admire? Kindness
What other adventures are ahead for Mooshu?
In Mooshu Sniffs (I’m working on it now), Mooshu will be exploring community involvement by friends and family bringing good-smelling meals to the house when no one can cook. Further books will deal with gratitude and other issues but with the same topic, a household where a parent is seriously or chronically ill. Other book ideas that come to mind are inspired by watching my 4-year-old grandson, and hearing the things he says, such as, “Circle time is sooooo long!”
What advice do you have for emerging writers who have started writing later in life?
Do whatever you want! Time is limited. You can keep learning and doing, or not…some people prefer to read and learn that way. I love being active. I do Israeli folk dance twice a week and continue to swim regularly. I intend to keep active and learn and do as long as I can, and I urge everyone to do the same and be in the moment as much as possible. One piece of advice is not to put emphasis on doing something to make money, especially if it is an artistic endeavour. That never seemed to get my best efforts.
Find out more about about Yona and the Mooshu book series here at Mooshu Worries!