Rona Arato is the author of a range of nonfiction titles for middle readers focusing on history, biography, science, invention and design. She ventured into historical fiction with the publication of Ice Cream Town, loosely based on her father's remembrances on coming to America. Her most recent title about the immigrant experience offers the reader a truly unique experience. Mrs. Kaputnik's Pool Hall and Matzo Ball Emporium combines history, fantasy, and mystery. America's favorite pastime, baseball, comes into play as well. It certainly takes a skilled writer and a good storyteller to seamlessly bring these together in one fun story. What makes this so special is that it can be read on several different levels. Some may just enjoy the dragon fantasy. But they will be getting so much more. They will learn how immigrants adjust to a new life and a new language in a new culture. Speaking about this book, a teacher told Rona that she was discussing teamwork and problem solving through the immigrant experience when her students began to talk about the issue of bullying within the story. Here is a magical storyline and lively characters that take the reader into the past before they realize they are absorbing history.
Although Mrs. Kaputnik's Pool Hall and Matzo Ball Emporium was published in 2010, the character of Mrs. Kaputnik has been around a lot longer. About twenty-five years ago, she appeared in stories that Rona created for her children. There was also a fire-breathing dragon that cooked matzo balls. She wrote the stories down, and about five years ago dusted off this one and talked with her editor about it. After many discussions and many rewrites, "Mrs. Kaputnik" was ready to be published.
Right from the start we know there will be elements of magic. Shades of the folktale Jack and the Beanstalk immediately spring to mind when Moshe Kapustin sells his firewood to a mysterious stranger in the forest in exchange for a strange egg. While Rona did not intentionally create this allusion, she said it probably was there subliminally. When her children were small she would create fractured fairytales as bedtime stories. "Folktales are universal and just naturally come into our stories. You could say they are ingrained in our DNA."
When she sits down to write, Rona blocks out everything. She does not plot out the story but rather devises a general outline. As she creates a character she tries to be that person: "What would I do? How would I feel? What would I see? In this case, for example, I envisioned the Statue of Liberty, the river, and the activities of the street. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in a child's place but I work at that and then fill in the details. Computers are a big help in many ways. For this book I was able to pull up an early twentieth century map of New York City. I completely immerse myself in the characters and let them lead. They just take over and tell me where they want the story to go. The story then begins to unfold." In the case of Mrs. Kaputnik's Pool Hall and Matzo Ball Emporium, Rona started with Mrs. Kaputnik as the main character. Of her Rona says, "She was a woman who had to keep her family together in Russia, on the trip to America, and in New York. However, this was to be a children's book and, therefore, I had to focus on the children."She chose to have a sister, Shoshi, and brother, Moshe. Shoshi is slightly older. Their involvement is fairly equal without the necessity of making them twins and it provides two perspectives. With characters such as Nick the Stick, Dingle Hinglehoffer, and Yicky Stickyfingers, I asked Rona how she came up with the names and the characters. Aloysius P. Thornswaddle was another character in the original bedtime stories she told her children. As the characters and story developed, Rona drew a giant chart with Thornswaddle in the middle that showed the interconnectedness of all the characters. Her editor was also helpful in the development of characters. Salty, a helpful sailor, just appeared to her, rising out of her subconscious. When she finished one of the versions of the story her editor wanted Salty to be more involved. Rona's revision gave Salty a more prominent role and tied him to Aloysius P. Thornswaddle, too.
Rona wrote and rewrote three complete versions of this story over several years. While working on the ending she would go back to make adjustments in the story. She would look at why a character changed, or she would make the necessary changes to the character in the beginning of the story. "There is an editing process that exists all the way through the writing of my books," says Rona. Within the final version there were another three or four re-writes. All of this, of course, results in a story in which all the characters and actions neatly fit together. "It is easier to write long than short," says Rona who says she overwrites. "Just like when you are sewing and have a dress pattern, you have to start trimming. It is important to be concise and tight in writing." Her foreshadowing is done at the end. "Just like in a painting, the extra touches and shading are done at the end." If needed, some scenes are added--such as making Snigger afraid of heights. Sometimes, more interaction between characters is necessary. She sometimes needs to give a character a push. "The best asset is a good editor who will tell you what is wrong and needs to be fixed. Sometimes, I just step away for a while. The problem can usually be worked out. There are times when it is best to abandon what I have done and start over by tightening the story or getting rid of a character," offers Rona. "A good editor can be very helpful in offering solutions to problems. In the case of Snigger the Dragon, I wanted him to stay in New York. My editor thought it made more sense for him to return to the Amber Forest in Russia, but I did not agree. Then I came up with the idea of having Snigger join a circus. That was the perfect solution. In the end, the book has to be the author's version, not the editor's."
To create historical fiction, a great deal of research is required. Rona finds history fascinating and hopes to instill that in her readers. She wants to give the reader a good story to read while learning history. In 2007, her book Ice Cream Town was published. It is a more serious story, loosely based on her Polish father's experiences as an immigrant after World War I. In Mrs. Kaputnik's Pool Hall and Matzo Ball Emporium , the Kapustin family is Russian and arrives in the United States about the turn of the twentieth century. The immigrant experience takes place on the Lower Eastside of New York City. Rona herself was born in Brooklyn in the Williamsburg section. "It is a very trendy area now, but wasn't when I was a child," she laughs. In addition to family recollections, Rona studied the kinds of ships that crossed the ocean. She read accounts of people who came, and learned about the journey. She had, of course, done a great deal of research for Ice Cream Town, but with an earlier timeframe for Mrs. Kaputnik's Pool Hall and Matzo Ball Emporium there was much to discover. She needed to know what the clothing looked like, what food they ate, what an apartment looked like and how the streets looked during the setting of her story. Rona visited the tenement museum at 97 Orchard Street where she absorbed many wonderful details. (http://www.tenement.org/) Of course she also visited Ellis Island. Dragon research was required. Would it be a European or an Asian dragon? While visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York City to learn about mystical animals, Rona came upon the phrase, "No animal is so wise as the dragon." That was it; it had to be a dragon.
When I asked Rona if she had anything she wanted to say to readers, parents, and teachers, she said, "Mrs. Kaputnik's Pool Hall and Matzo Ball Emporium was fun to write. I had a good time with the characters and liked writing about the bad guys. This book was a labor of love."
Her next project is completely different. When I asked her what she was working on, Rona said she is in the process of conducting interviews for a World War II story based on her husband's experiences in Bergen Belsen and his liberation by the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. It is an incredible story. Rona is a gifted writer and storyteller. I am anxiously awaiting its publication.
Visit Rona Arato at http://ronaarato.com/ where you will find information about her books and presentations.