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The Best Single Mom in the World : How I Was Adopted

Interview with Mary Zisk, author of the novel "The Best Single Mom in the World."

Interview by Allison Martin

Mary Zisk is an adoptive mother and the author and illustrator of "The Best Single Mom in the World." In this colorful children's book, a single adoptive mother and her young daughter take turns sharing their adoption story at bedtime.

What inspired you to write your book?

In 1994, not married at age 43, I decided I needed to be a mother in my lifetime and adopted my daughter Anna, then aged 3, from Russia. As Anna grew and acquired her new language, I wanted to use picture books as a way to tell her about adoption. But all the books I found had both a mother and a father adopting. The closest book I found to our situation was the Dr. Seuss classic "Horton Hatches the Egg" in which a frivolous bird leaves Horton the faithful elephant to hatch her egg for her. So I saw the need for a book that a single mother could read to her child that explains the process and the joy of adoption. I've been wanting to write and illustrate a children's book since my 7th grade project book dummy was rejected by a publisher. Seeing the growing trend in single-parent adoptions, I finally had the right story to tell.

What did you wish to accomplish?

I wanted to tell an adoption story in a very simple way for young children and their moms. Probably because my daughter has speech delays, I kept the book's language is simple and clear, but full of love. I want our children to feel that a single-parent family IS a complete family, based on commitment and love. I want our children to feel valued and valid in society. I have read my book to Anna's school class, so she and I are very open about her origins and how our family was formed.

What advice do you have for parents on sharing their adoption stories with their children?

Start using the word "adoption" as early as possible, even before your child is speaking. Then honesty should be the basis for all we tell our children, but telling them information that is appropriate for their age level. My book helps at the earliest stage of discussion about the nuts and bolts of the adoption process.

I've also looked for situations in our day-to-day living that relate to her adoption story. For instance, we just adopted an older dog from a rescue group, and I've been able to correlate his initial anger to my daughter's early anger when she first arrived. If I see anything about Russia in music, art or current events, I point it out to her.

Everyone's story is so different, yet the basic elements are similar. When talking about the birthmother in the book, I said that the birthmother "wanted the best for you, but she couldn't take care of you." There is a controversy about saying the birthmother loved the child. My local adoption support group feels that by using the word "love" we may worry the child, because if WE love them, we may also give them up. I also chose not to say that the birthmother had "made a plan", as is often recommended to adoptive parents, because of my daughter's situation. The child in my book was adopted as an infant. In my daughter's case, she lived in an impoverished and neglectful birth home until she was two and a half. At that point the Russian officials terminated the birthmother's rights and put my daughter into an orphanage. The birthmother had not made a plan. This is still a difficult issue to discuss with my daughter, but as she has grown, I have been able to bring in more details. For instance, in school they began to discuss the dangers of alcohol. At that point, I was able to bring up her birthmother's alcoholism. But we still have major issues to deal with as she grows.

Could you talk a bit about your artwork?

I'm a graphic designer by profession, but have always painted for pleasure, including painting trips to Hawaii, Death Valley, Italy, and China.

For the artwork in my book, I used gouache, an opaque water-based paint. Each painting is chock full of patterns and colors, much like our home. I collect Italian ceramics, and love folk art from other countries, and these influenced my use of pattern. My daughter has always loved search-and-find types of books, so I put in lots of details. (How many times can you find the doll? Can you find our bird Sassy?) Of course some of the images are my fantasies of the perfect home, like the lush garden.

In creating the characters, I painted a mom and daughter who don't look alike (I've always wanted curly hair). I created a little girl who looks like she could come from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, or the United States. In reality, Anna and I look very much alike, as I've heard happens a lot in adoption.

All in all, I wanted my book's paintings to have a homey environment full of love and comfort and security, because that is what we adoptive parents want for our children.

Interview Copyright Allison Martin 2002

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Born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, Mary Zisk has been drawing since she was in a highchair. Professionally a graphic designer, Mary has art directed several magazines such as Art & Antiques, and PC Magazine. She now designs for freelance clients out of her studio Zisk Design in Ridgewood, NJ. Mary has painted for pleasure since she was 10. Painting tours with other artists through China, Italy, Hawaii, and the American Southwest over the years helped her fine tune her craft. Mary has worked in most media, but used gouache for her book in a style described by Kirkus Reviews as “a profusion of pattern and exuberant color reminiscent of Eastern European textiles or pottery.” Mary and daughter Anna live in New Jersey with a poodle, a cockatiel, two guinea pigs, five hermit crabs, six fish, and an aquatic frog.
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