Monday, April 23, 2012

Process Talk: Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen on The Princess of Borscht, Part 1

Ruthie's grandmother is in the hospital and suffering on account of hospital food. Ruthie to the rescue!

It's my great delight to host my wonderful VCFA colleagues Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen as they talk--to each other and to me--about The Princess of Borscht, a delightful story of ingenuity, cooking, and family love.

What you should know. Leda and Bonnie actually got to collaborate on this book, in a manner that authors and illustrators typically do not.

What else? Oh, yes, I asked them if they could talk about the spaces between adult and child perceptions that form the core of this lovely story of family relationships and the creation of tradition. Okay I may have said "liminal" spaces because, you know, I like that word, and because I was thinking--overlap, gaps, betweenness. Between childhood and adulthood, between fiction and truth, and now in collaboration, between text and image. So okay, the question may have been more than one question. It may have gotten a bit soupy, in fact.

But look what they did with it!  Welcome, Leda and Bonnie. Part 1 of 3.

Leda: Bonnie and I are delighted to be here with you, Uma. Thank you for inviting us to join you. You asked several thoughtful questions which challenged our small brains, so we decided to ask each other questions first. Warming up, as it were.

Bonnie to Leda: What sparked the idea for THE PRINCESS OF BORSCHT?  

Leda: I wish I could answer. All I remember is that my husband, Bob, said something like this: “Somebody should write a story about borscht.”  I said, “Good idea.” That was 10 years ago. The dream-come-true part is that Bonnie and I were in a writing group back then, and when I read the draft, she wanted to illustrate it. I still have the drawing she did in 2002 of Ruthie, which she presented to me. And then we dreamed for a long time. A very long time. So long. Until Neal Porter took the manuscripts and called Bonnie. Then—even longer.

Bonnie: Were the three royal ladies people you actually encountered or did you make them up?

Leda: I made them up, but I based them slightly (I am avoiding a libel suit, hee hee) on family members on my mother’s side—her generation and above. They always seemed to be having more fun than we were, even when they argued, which they did a lot. Then I thought about the rule of three, and I wanted to give the story a bit of a fairy tale/wise woman theme. Wise women who argue, that is.

I’m afraid I’ve never met any real royalty. But I ask Bob to call me “la principessa” at all times.

Bonnie: is your childhood environment reflected in the community in the story?

Leda Schubert and friends
Leda: Yes. In fact, I lived in an apartment building in a housing project in southeast Washington, and we kids ran in and out of each other’s apartments all the time. Our parents were very communal, sharing child-rearing and food and everything else, and they also knew how to have fun. For example, we had an ongoing water pistol battle with our neighbors across the hall. In my flawed memory, we opened the apartment door only after donning raincoats. I’ve tried to write about this, but it’s hard to write a picture book with guns in it, even if they’re plastic.

By the way, I got married in 1989, and I hadn’t seen those families in a very long time. Everyone still alive showed up for the wedding, and I realized how deep those connections were. I called them all my Other Mothers. It was true. I think Mrs. Lerman (also my grandmother’s maiden name), Mrs. Goldberg (an homage to Molly Goldberg), and Mrs. Rosen come from there—all the Jewish mothers.

Uma: Ha! Oh those Other Mothers are amazing. Hear their voices in this tiny snippet:
"We're using my recipe," said the Empress.
"Mine," the First Lady said. "With onions."
So go off and read The Princess of Borscht, and Leda and Bonnie will get to my soupy questions--in the next round.


  1. Hi, this is great! I just enjoyed (very much) reading your article 'No Joke! Humor and Culture in Middle-Grade Books' in the Horn Book Magazine this month! I was delighted to find your blog tonight. I grew up in India, returning to the US for high school and college. I'm on a constant search for more picture books from around the world, mostly because my son is only 5, but middle readers soon enough that will be more authentic, respectful, whole and humorous. I'll keep reading. Sincerely, Allison

  2. Thanks, Allison. I'm very glad you enjoyed the article.