Monalisa DeGross: collecting words
An interview by Jen Kopf,
February 1995

As a child, author Monalisa DeGross was fascinated with words -- the complex words, the mysterious words, the words that seemed exotic when you sounded them out loud.

Words like "hieroglyphics," a luscious mix of vowels and consonants that gives no clues to its English meaning even after you can pronounce it.

"I loved any word that sounded different," DeGross said. "Hieroglyphics just looked so strange to me, but when I saw the picture it was matched to in the dictionary, it suddenly made sense."

Writing about that love of literary exploration, DeGross has just released her first book, Donavan's Word Jar.

For DeGross, Donavan's Word Jar was a labor of love that ended up including family members and acquaintances, and reflects an African-American childhood filled with storytelling.

"There were lots of stories in my mother's family," DeGross said in a telephone interview from her Maryland home. "They weren't necessarily folkloric, they might be just, 'This is how I caught the bus today.' There was always a beginning, a middle and an end to the conversation."

She also grew up in an era "where the generations weren't separated. The adults were interested in what the young people thought and involved every day."

DeGross's love of words and her devotion to family both are obvious from the first page of her book about Donavan Allen. The young boy enjoys being like all the other kids in his third-grade class.

He "forgets" to eat the broccoli and cauliflower Mom packs in his lunch. He grabs his book bag and runs when the bell rings at the end of the day.

And he loves collecting stuff. Donavan's best friend collects marbles. Another buddy collects buttons. But Donavan collects words. Writing interesting-sounding words on long yellow strips of paper, he adds them to a collection in a large glass jar.

Soon, though, his jar is full.

Mom and Dad both have suggestions. He seeks out Grandma when he really gets stumped. But serendipity -- one of Donavan's newest words -- brings him the solution he needs.

There really is a Donavan, DeGross says. It's her 25-year-old son. Other characters also have real-life counterparts. And Donavan really does have a special relationship with his grandmother.

"It's not just a book for African-American children," DeGross said. "I love those chapter books by Beverly Cleary, and I wanted to do something like that for all kids, black, white or whatever."

She also wanted to show children and adults communicating, something that's not always found in children's books.

"Maybe it's because I came to children's literature later in life. I began writing when I was about 40," DeGross said. "But I noticed that it's like the children pop out of nowhere in many books, and that's not the way life is.

"So, in the book, I wanted to show the father having a business, I wanted to show the family relationships. I'm so pleased when people notice that."

When Donavan's Word Jar finally was released, she said, "I was overwhelmed, because it takes on another life once you see it in print, when you see it all come together."

The message that comes across for kids of all backgrounds, DeGross said, is sheer joy with the sound, meaning and malleability of words.

And, in the age where even kids' toys are high-priced collectibles, that matters.

"Words are free," she said. "It doesn't matter how much money you have. You can collect them. You can start your own word jar."

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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