Interview with Mom’s Choice Award-Winners Michelle LeFevre and Susan McGough

Mom’s Choice Awards is excited to announce another post in our interview series where we chat with the inventors, designers, publishers, and others behind some of our favorite family-friendly products.

Welcome once again, Mom’s Choice readers, as we share an interview with one of our recent award-winners: sisters Michelle LeFevre and Susan McGough, author and illustrator of On Kona’s Pond. This is the story of Kona, a Bernese Mountain Dog, and his adventures with the wildlife around the pond where he lives. The magic happens with this gentle giant when he discovers that most encounters with many of the wildlife are peaceful and welcome his presence. This enchanting tale is perfect for young readers in preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary grades. It’s a great lesson for children in how we can accept one another with kindness and get along. And, not only does it include a glossary of all the animals depicted in the book, but kids love searching for Kona’s paw prints hidden within the illustrations.

MCA: We’re so glad you could join us today, Michelle and Susan! To get the interview going, please tell us something about yourselves. Michelle, why don’t you start?

I have dedicated my life to the learning and growth of children. Not only have I taught hundreds of children in my career, but with a degree in Early Childhood Development, I have opened, directed, and developed the curriculum for pre-schools in both California and Arizona. I created these curriculums with an emphasis on the reading program, which I feel is the first step to imagination and creativity.

After over 35 years of teaching, my husband, Steve, and I retired to Camano Island in Washington State. We live on a piece of property with a small pond teeming with wildlife, alongside our beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, Kona. Kona’s fascination and gentleness with wildlife captivated me from the time he was a puppy. Every morning, he seeks out the various animals that are in and around the pond, creating the whimsical and magical interactions that became the inspiration for my book.

My dedication to teaching children can only be rivaled by my dedication to family. My husband and I will soon be celebrating our 50th anniversary, alongside our four sons and our seven grandchildren. When I am not writing, I love cooking and creating recipes, hiking in the Pacific Northwest and taking photographs of everything around me. I took all of the photos of the wildlife used in On Kona’s Pond and sent them to my sister Sue, where she brought the photos to life with the beautiful watercolor paintings used to illustrate our book.

It has always been my dream to write a children’s book to share my love of reading with children everywhere. I hope that On Kona’s Pond will inspire imagination and creativity in all who read it.

MCA: What a beautiful part of the country to live in—and what a perfect backdrop for your book. Susan, what about you—what’s your story?

As the illustrator of our book, there were many experiences in my life that helped me to this place. As a child, I always loved drawing and painting, making life-size paintings of witches for the front door, the Great Pumpkin on Halloween, and the Wise Men statues at Christmas. I was an avid reader, as well; that has continued throughout my life.

At Pasadena City College, I majored in Art and was taught by such esteemed artists as Phil Cornelius. I then continued my art journey at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where my emphasis was painting, and I graduated in 1970. I started working with children during my college years as a camp counselor in charge of handicrafts and then after college working at the Children’s Centers in Pasadena. I often incorporated art into projects with them.

That continued after I earned my teaching credential in Elementary Education. My curriculum was interspersed with art, whether it was to illustrate poetry, create murals for my bulletin boards, develop scenery for plays, or teach basic art techniques in perspective, color theory, shading, and line drawing to my students. I took advantage of the wonderful resources here in Pasadena to expose my students to remarkable art at the Huntington Library, the Norton Simon Museum, and the Gamble House, to name just a few. Children’s Literature was always at the heart of much of my teaching and I found that even fifth graders enjoyed having picture books read to them. I had an extensive library for my students to use.

I had often thought about writing a children’s book and had a few ideas tucked away. But then, when my sister approached me with her idea about Kona and the pond, our ideas started to blend. I had been taking watercolor classes and decided that watercolor lent itself to the feeling we wanted to create for the book. Michelle wrote the rhyming text and supplied the photos for inspiration, and our book slowly became a reality.

MCA: How wonderful that you two could collaborate on this book! Michelle, could you describe your path to becoming a writer?

I have always loved writing even as a little girl. I wrote poems and always kept a journal. Knowing I wanted to be a teacher, I would create books that always rhymed. When I became a teacher my lesson plans always included an emphasis on reading. As a mom, I wrote in a journal about each of my four boys and created scrapbooks with stories and poems on each of them.

My path to writing this book began over 35 years ago when I started teaching young children. Reading time was always a very important part of my curriculum. When I chose a book to read, I took into consideration many factors, including:

  • Will the book hold the attention of a 4-year-old child?
  • Do the words on the pages of the book capture a child’s imagination and make them yearn to hear more?
  • Can I include the story to make it an interactive time with the children?
  • Are the illustrations big enough and clear enough to make the children curious about each page?
  • Does the story have a lesson and a teaching moment that allows me to ask questions and engage the children with comprehension?

This is what I set out to accomplish when I began to write my book. When I travel to schools and libraries to read my book to children, my heart is so full when all the points I want to make in my book become a reality. The children are so captivated with learning about the animals, protecting the animals, and learning about the animals that I included a glossary in the book.

MCA: What a rich background you bring to your writing! Tell us, what was your inspiration for writing On Kona’s Pond?

It was based on a couple of things. Both my husband and I retired in 2018. We had been living in Arizona for 18 years and we were looking for different surroundings. We were so happy to move to Camano Island in Washington State. In Washington, we were lucky to find a house surrounded by green trees, grass, and beautiful ponds. We soon discovered that there were so many animals that lived in around the ponds. We had geese, ducks, eagles, blue herons, deer, coyotes, beavers, and otters. I would watch all of them visit the pond, looking for food, water, and shelter. I learned about animals that we had never seen in Arizona.

Through new connections, we met a breeder of Bernese Mountain Dogs. It was our great fortune that we were able to get Kona eight weeks after he was born. When we brought Kona home, I was worried that taking Kona out by the pond might scare off all the animals. But much to my disbelief, the animals instinctively were not afraid of Kona and instead would watch him as he patiently sat and watched them throughout the day.

It was this gift of being surrounded by such beauty and animal life, along with an 8-week-old puppy, that I knew that I had the makings of a beautiful book.

MCA: Tell us, if you could leave readers with just one main lesson, what would it be?

Kona is a gentle giant and the animals that appear on and around the pond realize that he isn’t a threat, so they feel safe. Kona’s message is that he will “always protect them and forever sing their song.”

So, the one main lesson that I share in the book is that even a dog can show kindness towards animals that live among us and how important it is for all of us to do the same.

MCA: Are there any other key lessons to be found in the book?

It was important to me that I teach two lessons when writing this book. The first is to introduce and teach children about the animals that Kona interacts with. The glossary included in the book shares pictures taken on the pond along with information about each animal and their characteristics. The second lesson and more important lesson is how Kona tells his new friends that they are safe on his pond and that he will always protect them. It shows that even with differences, all the animals can live together on the pond.

MCA: That’s such an important message. What kind of response has your book received?

The response has been wonderful and heartwarming. I receive many, many pictures of children reading the book and pictures of pet parents reading the book to their dogs!

What I am most excited about with my book is the feedback from some of the teachers, librarians, and parents. The fact that the book shows repetition and rhyming helps them to engage the children and be interactive with each page.

They also mentioned how much the children loved learning about each of the animals while having the glossary in the back of the book really helps the children to identify what the real animals look like and to learn about where and how they live. 

MCA: Is On Kona’s Pond intended to be a stand-alone story, or do you anticipate making it into a series?

This is the first book that I have written, but having an almost 4-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, every day can be exciting. No matter where we take him, he is instantly the center of attention. So, I hope that there could be another series—of Kona’s travels on the Oregon coast, on the book tour through Washington-Oregon-California-Arizona, on new animals from National Parks, or whatever else might excite Kona on a day-to-day basis.

Right now, Susan and I are concentrating on promoting “On Kona’s Pond” as we are just getting into our second printing. I am always thinking about what Kona’s next adventure might be.

MCA: We at Mom’s Choice Awards certainly hope to read more about Kona and his escapades! Michelle and Susan, thanks so much for joining us today, and do stay in touch!

You can learn more about Michelle LeFevre and Susan McGough and their award-winning book, On Kona’s Pond, by visiting their MCA Shop pages.

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