Molly Lamken Cone produced more than 40 children’s books in her career, ranging from young adult novels to introductions to Judaism for younger readers. She regularly drew on her own experiences for inspiration: her Mishmash series was based on her rambunctious dog, Too Many Girls reflected her memories of her brother’s disappointment at the birth of her youngest sister, and Number Four was inspired by a story she heard of a Native American boy who was bullied at school and later “accidentally” drowned. She also wrote books on the environment, an account of Henrietta Szold’s life, and a number of books on Jewish history and practice, such as Who Knows Ten: Children’s Tales of the Ten Commandments in 1965 and The Story of Shabbat in 2000.
Molly Cone wrote for over four decades, producing more than 40 books. They include young adult novels, short story collections, middle-grade fiction, Judaica for young readers, and non-fiction on ecological and educational topics. Asked the usual “What do you do for ideas?” her response is “The truth is, it isn’t I who gets the ideas—it’s the ideas that ‘get’ me.” Her work frequently incorporates bits and pieces of her family life, as well as the love of Jewish culture that so enriched her childhood.
Early Life & Family
She was born Molly Lamken on October 3, 1918, daughter of Arthur (Abe) and Frances (Fanny) (Sussman) Lamken, in a big square house in Tacoma, Washington. She grew up there, the middle child of five, with a brother and three sisters, two parents, and a live-in grandmother. Her childhood was, she says, “calm and sure and sound,” in a family that observed kashrut and Shabbat and eagerly welcomed frequent visits from aunts, uncles and cousins. Her love of reading was so large a part of her being that her father called her Molly-with-her-nose-in a-book. This safe world ended with her mother’s death three months before she graduated high school and her father’s less than three years thereafter.
Cone knew from childhood she wanted to be a writer. In high school, she edited the school paper, made her first writing sale—a sales letter for a local business college—and, in her senior year, met Gerald (Jerry) Cone, older brother of her brother Floyd’s best friend. After graduation, she attended the University of Washington and worked at various jobs, mostly writing advertising copy. On September 9, 1939, one week after the invasion of Poland, she and Jerry Cone married; their oldest daughter, Susan, was born in 1941, followed by son Gary (1946) and daughter Ellen (1956). She worked at various writing jobs during the war and when her husband returned from service, they started a business producing direct-mail pieces, which later expanded into a general printing firm.
Early Writing Career
Cone’s first stories were published in children’s magazines. Her first book, Only Jane (1960), written after the birth of her third child, was the outgrowth of a short story in her files. After it was published, Cone kept on writing. Too Many Girls (1960) was loosely based on her memories of her brother’s disappointment at the birth of her youngest sister Estelle. A Promise is a Promise (1964) came from her feelings of ambivalence as the child of a Jewish family in a mostly Christian neighborhood. You Can’t Make Me If I Don’t Want To (1971) resulted from a going-away party for a family moving to Israel who never arrived at the party because their young son had run away. Mostly, she says, she writes “about the way things are for ordinary kids—the ludicrous happenings in sometimes unhappy situations.”
Inspiration and Themes
Among Cone’s books most popular with children are her humorous Mishmash books, a series of seven books about a far too friendly dog, loosely based on Tiny, a Cone family pet, whose exuberance far exceeded the family’s tolerance. Mishmash (1962) and Mishmash and the Substitute Teacher (1963) were reissued in paperback in 2000 and Mishmash and the Big Fat Problem (1982) in 2001. Cone’s fiction always starts with something real: her daughter’s teenage oblivion to the family inspired Simon (1970); a Seattle newspaper column about a man who painted his fence white on his side and black on the other when an African-American family moved in next door prodded her into writing The Other Side of The Fence (1967); an incident she heard at a seminar of an Indian boy’s conflict in his high school and his subsequent seemingly accidental drowning set her to writing Number Four (1972); a sabra’s (“prickly cactus pear,” nickname for native Israeli) story about once seeing Henrietta Szold moved her to write the story-biography Hurry Henrietta (1966); her feelings about the preservation of nature led to her award-winning Come Back Salmon: How a Group of Dedicated Kids Adopted Pigeon Creek and Brought It Back to Life (1992) and to Squishy, Misty, Damp and Musty: The In-Between World of the Wetlands (1996).
Cone’s constant awareness of the role of Judaism in her life is reflected in her numerous titles of Jewish interest. Hear O Israel (1972, 73; pb 1978, 1998) is a storybook series published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), introducing Jewish concepts to young children. Who Knows Ten: Children’s Tales of the Ten Commandments (1965), another important work, accessible and not at all didactic, also by UAHC was updated and republished in 1998. Among her other titles of Jewish import besides several Jewish holiday books: Dance Around the Fire (1974); Listen to the Trees: Jews and the Earth (1998); The Mystery of Being Jewish (1989); and The Story of Shabbat (2000).
For general readers, published by Washington State Jewish Historical Society, in association with the University of Washington Press, is Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State (2003), co-authored by Molly Cone, Howard Droker, and Jacqueline Williams. Cone is also among the 30 women in the Seattle area selected to be part of the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Community Stories oral history project, focusing on Jewish women in Baltimore, Omaha, and Seattle.
Avid world travelers throughout their marriage, Molly and Jerry Cone remained rooted in the Seattle area where they lived with a sweeping view of Lake Washington. Molly Cone passed away in 2016.
Selected Works by Molly Cone
Mishmash Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962–1982.
Stories of Jewish Symbols. New York: Bloch Publishing, 1963.
Who Knows Ten? Children’s Tales of the Ten Commandments. New York: Union of America Hebrew Congregations Press, 1965, 1998.
The Other Side of the Fence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.
The House in the Tree: A Story of Israel. New York: Crowell, 1968.
The Green, Green Sea: A Story of Greece. New York: Crowell, 1968.
Leonard Bernstein: Biography. New York: Crowell, 1970.
The Ringling Brothers. New York: Crowell, 1971.
The Amazing Memory of Harvey Bean. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
The Mystery of Being Jewish. New York: Union of America Hebrew Congregations Press, 1989.
Come Back Salmon. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1992.
Listen To The Trees: Jews and the Earth. New York: Union of America Hebrew Congregations Press, 1995.
Hello, Hello, Are You There God? New York: Union of America Hebrew Congregations Press, 1999.
Cone, Molly, Howard Droker and Jacqueline Williams. Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
Cone, Molly. Something About the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 11 (1991): 85–99, Volume 28 (1982): 65–67, Volume 115 (2000): 37–39. Gale Publishing.
Articles in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 30, 1975.
Los Gatos Times Observer, Nov. 22, 1977.
Bremerton Sun, April 25, 1981.
“Obituary.” The Seattle Times. March 27, 2016.