My Scott O’Dell Challenge: The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

I’m on a three-year personal challenge to read and report history and story lessons from all the books that earned the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. This month I read The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, the 2007 winner.

The Green Glass Sea is set during World War II at the secret military installation, then known as The Hill, now known as Los Alamos. This is one of the places where scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb. The story follows two 11-year-old girls, children of scientists, who live at The Hill.

History Lessons:

Many of the civilian scientists had their families with them on The Hill. The kids didn’t know what their parents were working on, but they knew everything was very secret, and they couldn’t tell anyone. Even letters to their grandparents went through censors. Plus, their community didn’t officially exist. It wasn’t on the map, and all mail went through a P.O. Box. In the book, one high school senior has trouble getting accepted into college because the school he attended was top secret.

The kids on The Hill tried to have a normal life in a very unusual place. However, these were scientists’ kids. They weren’t average. The two girls in The Green Glass Sea were both extremely bright, but in very different ways.

One of the things that I thought was odd at first was the extreme reaction of the kids when they learned of President Roosevelt’s death. But one of the girls points out that she had never known anyone else as president. And they heard him all the time on the radio. I suppose children of the 1940s would’ve felt like they knew FDR; he was their friend, or even a pseudo grandparent. And since he was leading the nation in a giant battle against the Axis Powers, they might’ve wondered how life could go on.

Story Lessons:

The Green Glass Sea taught me about compelling beginnings and interesting characters.

In the beginning, we meet Dewey, who is waiting for her father to come for her, but a military woman comes, picks her up, and takes her to the train station. So there is tension right away because her dad doesn’t come, and she doesn’t know where she’s going.

Then bit by bit, we find out Dewey had been living with a grandmother, who had a stroke and was institutionalized, and was then staying with a rather uncaring neighbor. In addition, Dewey is an interesting girl who likes order and wants to know what to expect, and she keeps getting put into situations where she doesn’t know what’s going on. I felt sympathetic early on. Then, on Dewey’s trip, we see her personality and the positive ways she copes with change.

This leads right into my character lesson: The Green Glass Sea has two point-of-views. I liked Dewey so much I was a little resentful when the POV switched the first time, but I quickly found Suze interesting. Suze is not always likable–she sometimes acted mean–but readers can relate to her because she wants to be included by the other kids. And both Dewey and Suze are unusual. Dewey excels in math and mechanics, and Suze is very artistic.

Both girls change during the course of the book. Dewey has to deal with the worst circumstances, and she grows, but in a quiet, internal way. Suze grows internally, too, but she has the biggest change of heart and actions.

A heads up for teachers and parents: the language in this book is stronger than in many middle grade books. And the adults drink and smoke quite a bit, with few repercussions. Accurate for the time period, and yet minimized compared to real life–just something I want you to be aware of.

For more information about life on The Hill and other secret installations involved in developing the atomic bombs:

Women Scientists of the Manhattan Project

Voices of the Manhattan Project

Children of the Manhattan Project

History vs. Hollywood (Manhattan tv show)

Finally, here is Ellen Klages’ website.

Join me Nov. 25 as I look at the very different experiences of other children during WWII in the 1995 winner, Under The Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.

What are some other real-life unusual places children have grown up in? What kids’ books have beginnings that hooked you in the first couple pages? What child protagonists have you found interesting and relatable, even if he or she wasn’t always likable?

Sport of Cross Country Began As Kids’ Game

Notre Dame Cross Country Invitational

Photo by Phil Roeder [Flickr: Creative Commons]

All of my kids have been, or still are, harriers on their school cross country team. What’s a harrier? A long-distance runner who competes across open country.

Back in the very early 1800’s in England, school kids developed games that imitated the adult pastimes of hare hunts and steeplechases. The games became known as hare and hounds (harriers), as well as (the original) paper chase, where some of the kids would run ahead leaving a trail, such as pieces of paper, and other kids were the hunters. These games took place in the countryside, and the runners had to deal with things like hedges and streams.

The game caught on and became more organized. In 1877, England had its first national competition. Soon France and a few other European countries had joined the competitions.

Now, the races are often held in parks or golf courses, and the runners may run anywhere from 3 kilometers at the middle school level to 12 kilometers at the international level. Every course is different. Some are relatively flat; some are very hilly. It’s a fall sport, so at least in the upper Midwest, runners may run in extreme cold or heat, wind, and precipitation in various forms.

The runners compete at the individual level, but there is a team aspect, too. The runners receive points when they finish the race that corresponds to the place they come in. For example, the first finisher receives one point, the second receives two points, etc. The team with the lowest point total wins.

Cross Country has become an international sport, with the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) first World Cross Country Championship in 1973. According to the IAAF website, it has had world champions as young as 13 (female) and as old as 38 (male).

I was never a long-distance runner. Two miles were my longest track workouts. (By the way, track is a completely different sport.) I admire kids who discipline themselves, mentally and physically, enough to finish a cross country race. That’s quite an achievement!

Sports books are kind of sub-genre in children’s books, and many other kids’ books have characters who are athletes of some kind. But, I’ve only read two children’s books that have characters who are cross country runners: Wednesday Wars and First Boy, both by Gary D. Schmidt.

For more information about cross country:

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Running Times

International Association of Athletics Federation

Are you or have you ever been a harrier? What other kids’ books have cross country athletes as characters?

Dance is Unusual Form of Storytelling (For Me)

 

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Some of you would say, “Of course, dance is a form of storytelling. There’s nothing unusual about that.”

I sort of knew this before. After all, I’ve known the Hawaiian hula dance tells a story. And ballet tells a story. (I’m familiar with the story, The Nutcracker, and I’m familiar with the music. But–confession–I’ve never seen the ballet.)

Dance as a type of storytelling only sunk in for me recently. Maybe because I don’t understand dance. I thought it was mostly emotional expression. I’m sure some of it is. But some forms of dance are so much more.

My epiphany came from listening to author Jane Heitman Healy tell me about a presentation by Lakota/Anishinabe hoop dancer Kevin Locke at the recent South Dakota Festival of Books. Jane also wrote about his stories, music, and hoop dance at her blog, Read, Learn, and be Happy. His dance might not be a literal story, but it is full of symbolism and meaning. Because he explained/translated the symbolism, viewers can understand the “story” he’s telling.

Now if I just had a translator for other dances…

For more info about Kevin Locke, see his website.

What form of storytelling has surprised you? What other kinds of dance tell stories?

Antibiotics: The Miracles We Take For Granted

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

We’ve been fighting ear infections and strep throat at our house. One child has finished his round of antibiotics and a second one started.

I admit, though, I was more concerned about our messed up schedule than I was for their long-term health. Yet, less than 100 years ago, those same illnesses could mean serious, life-long health problems or death.

I take antibiotics for granted.

Antibiotics are relatively new in human history. They were accidentally discovered in the late 1920s, but not mass-produced until World War II. Since then, antibiotics have worked so well and been around just long enough that most of us Westerners don’t have living memory of life/sickness/fear before antibiotics. Things we consider nuisances now, such as scratches or ear infections, were literally a matter of life and death when our grandparents were children.

To get a glimpse at how frightened we’d be without antibiotics, just watch the news reports from Africa of the Ebola outbreak, the lack of treatment for everyone, and the mistrust of available healthcare.

Another way to “remember” how frightening illnesses could be is to read biographies, old letters and diaries, historical fiction, and classic literature. For example, more than one of Jane Austen’s heroines were in serious danger from getting chilled by walking in the rain. And Mary in the Little House books had a severe illness which left her blind.

I know we have overused antibiotics and are now are dealing with bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. And I know many people have compromised immune systems and live in fear of “minor” infections. I’m also glad we’ve learned about “good” bacteria and the need for exposure to some bacteria to strengthen our immune systems.

But, I’m thankful for antibiotics.

For more information about the history of antibiotics:

The Real Story Behind Penicillin

Antibiotics

The History of Antibiotics

Who are some historical people who died because they didn’t have antibiotics? What are some classic or historical fiction novels that would be very different if the characters would’ve had antibiotics? Have you been saved by antibiotics from possible death?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Charley Skedaddle by Patricia Beatty

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

Charley Skedaddle, by Patricia Beatty, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 1988, and is my challenge book for this month.

Published in 1987, Charley Skedaddle is set during 1864-65. It opens with New Yorker Charley Quinn, a 12-year-old who is proud to be a member of the Bowery Boys Gang just like his older brother Johnny, who died at Gettysburg. Trying to honor his brother, Charley fights boys from the rival gang, the Dead Rabbits, and he likes it. But when Charley learns his soon-to-be brother-in-law plans to send him to boarding school, Charley runs off with the 140th New York Volunteers to fight the Confederates. Charley’s first battle isn’t what he expected and he runs–skedaddles–away.

 

History lessons:

I’ve read Civil War stories since I was very young, but there always seems to be something new to learn. In this book, Beatty introduced me to The Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 Virginia. I had heard the name, but knew little about it. The Wilderness was an area where the trees and undergrowth grew so closely together that it was easy for soldiers to get separated and lost–and hide. Beatty also described a touching scene where General Robert E. Lee tried to lead an infantry charge, but the soldiers were so concerned about his safety they refused to continue unless he remained away from the worst action.

Because Charley was so young, and musical, he became a drummer boy. The fact of drummer boys is not new to me, but Charley is about the same age as one of my sons, so the thought of a 12-year-old in battle hit home for me. Also, even though he was a frightened boy who ran from a horrible situation, he was still considered a deserter and could have been shot. In fact, Beatty mentioned in her author’s note that both the Union and Confederate boys Charley’s age were shot as deserters.

 

Story lesson:

I noticed Beatty only let readers see through Charley’s eyes and experience, his point of view. For example, in the beginning, Charley was upset because his sister was marrying someone who he detested and who was planning to ship him off. His sister might’ve had a good reason for this, but we don’t learn what it is. We just see Charley’s bewilderment and resentment. Later in the book, an old mountain woman insulted him and locked him up. Again we see Charley’s resentment. Readers might suspect the woman had a good reason for doing so, but we don’t find out for sure until later.

In my own writing for kids, I’m aware that I shouldn’t be too kind to my adult characters. I need to focus on my protagonists’ incomplete knowledge and his or her reactions to the adults so the readers identify with the protagonist instead of the adults.

 

For more information:

My post introducing my three-year Scott O’Dell Award Challenge.

The Civil War Trust’s Website about The Battle of the Wilderness.

A Children’s Literature Network bio about Patricia Beatty.

 

Join me at the end of October to talk about the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award book, The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages.

 

What is your favorite novel set during the Civil War? What Civil War battlefields have you seen?

Blog Break

 

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

 

I’m very fortunate. I am attending both a weekend regional novel revision retreat and a four-day national writing conference this month. However, that means I am reading, writing, and revising in preparation for the big events.

So, my next post will be Sept. 30 to discuss My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book, Charley Skedaddle by Patricia Beatty.

Until then, may you have a lovely September!

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Bo At Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill

 

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

My Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction book for this month is the 2014 winner, Bo At Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill and illustrated by LeUyen Pham.

Hill’s novel portrays a year in the life of Bo, a little girl in the 1920s Alaska. Bo was abandoned by her mother, and was taken in by a couple of gold miners who team up to raise her. The unusual family settled in a mining camp next to an Eskimo village, and the villagers and other miners became Bo’s extended family.

History Lessons:

Bo at Ballard Creek is set in a time period and place I’ve never read about before. Any Alaskan historical fiction I’ve read has been about rural teachers or dog sled dogs. But this is about the gold miners after the heyday of the late 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. According to Hill’s website, many of these miners had found they liked Alaska and decided to stay, some marrying Eskimo or Indian women.

Hill, who lives in Alaska, has many miners in her family ancestry, and lived in a mining camp when she was the same age as Bo, said members of her family and other people she knew inspired many of the characters.

The story is also very descriptive about the mining process. I learned the miners dug while the ground was frozen so the shafts wouldn’t collapse, but they used steam to warm up the soil enough to actually dig it out of the shaft.

Also, the characters in the book preferred Alaska in winter, versus the summer, because traveling was so much easier in the winter. In the summer the ground was swampy, and people relied on boats to get around. But in the winter, when everything was frozen, people travelled by foot or dog sled much quicker. Of course, now, many travel in Alaska by plane. But in Bo at Ballard Creek, Bo and the villagers were excited to witness the first airplane land at their village.

It’s cool to see how Bo and the villagers may be in the wilderness, but they stay as current as they can. For example, everyone subscribed to at least one magazine, and they traded them back and forth so everyone could read them. They also loved music and played the latest records on their Victrolas. And many of the females wore their hair in the short styles of the 20s.

Writing Lessons:

The blurb on the back of the hardback is from the Horn Book review and compares Bo at Ballard Creek to Little House in the Big Woods. It’s an apt comparison. Like Little House, Bo at Ballard Creek has lots of description of Bo’s daily life and the people she visits in and around the village. It’s also a quiet story. Although there are some sad and serious events, Hill describes them gently. This is not an action adventure or edgy book. It’s refreshing to see a major publisher (Henry Holt) offer a “quiet” book.

Bo at Ballard Creek is unusual to current books in another way, yet still similar to Little House in the Big Woods. Both books are considered middle grade books and are targeted to fourth through sixth graders, yet both protagonists, Bo and Laura, are very young, like about four years old.

Generally protagonists would be close to, or just a little older than the targeted readers. However, four-year-olds wouldn’t be able to read this book, nor would they understand many of the descriptions. Yet, it works really well to see this story through a four-year-old’s eyes. We see the innocence, the love, and the joys/frustrations in Bo’s daily life that we might not see if she were 11-years-old.

For more information about Kirkpatrick Hill and Bo at Ballard Creek, see Hill’s website.

Also, here is a link to more info about the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge.

Join me Sept. 30, for my next challenge book: Charley Skedaddle by Patricia Beatty, the 1988 award winner.

Have you read Bo at Ballard Creek? What do you know about post-gold rush Alaska? Do you know any gold miners? Do you prefer quiet books or adventure/edgy books? Why?

 

Washington, D.C. On Fire?

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

 

Imagine enemy soldiers coming into Washington, D.C. by night. The President and the top leaders have already left town. The Declaration and the Constitution have been hidden. A few national treasures are saved by the First Lady.

But the soldiers burn the major government buildings, including the Capitol Building.

Americans are devastated.

This isn’t the work of terrorists. Nor is it some dystopian future depicted in a novel or movie.

This happened–200 years ago on Aug. 24, 1814.

The U.S. had been at war with Britain since 1812. The U.S. was upset about Britain’s navy impressing sailors off of American ships, and some Americans wanted land in Canada.

Much of the war did not go well for the U.S., and the burning of Washington, D.C., was the lowest point. However, it reinvigorated the Americans, and the next month the Americans held off the British at Ft. McHenry, near Baltimore. This, in turn, inspired Francis Scott Key’s penning of “The Star Spangled Banner.” By the way, the American heroine of the burning of Washington, D.C., was First Lady Dolley Madison.

The War of 1812 is largely unknown to modern Americans. We didn’t win it, but it shaped our fledgling nation. Here is an excellent article on the Public Broadcasting System website about the significance of the war. The war also had other theaters besides the D.C. and Maryland area, including Canada (which we invaded), the Great Lakes and the nearby territories, and New Orleans.

The Americans were at war with the British, but the Native Americans were also involved, on both sides of the war. In fact, Salt, a wonderful children’s novel by Helen Frost, is set in the Ohio/Indiana Territories in 1812 and shows the friendships and strife between the settlers and the Native Americans.

What stories, true or fictional, do you know about the War of 1812?

 

Summer Camps Lead to Lifelong Memories

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

At my first summer camp, when I was eight, my roommate and I heard a rumor that some boys had put itching or sneezing powder on the beds in the girls’ dorm. We were so convinced we had a counselor search our beds. Nothing. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but I don’t know how the boys would’ve gotten in unseen, nor do I know what itching/sneezing powder is. Pepper, maybe?

However, I loved going to my church’s annual summer kids’ camp. In fact, since much of my summer camp perceptions were built around the movie The Parent Trap (starring Hayley Mills), I was a little envious my own camp lasted only five days instead of multiple weeks like the movie camp.

Camps are still a huge thing for kids. And there are so many options to choose from: church camps, sports camps, art camps, music camps, scouting camps, 4-H camps, etc. They often involve making crafts, swimming, boating, horseback riding, and singing around a campfire. But they all involve fun activities, late nights, and new friends.

As I write this, one of my sons is finishing his week of summer camp. He did a mountain hiking trip, so I imagine it will take him a few days to “come down from his mountain-top experience” and re-enter normal, day-to-day life.

Did you go to camp as a kid? As a counselor? What are some of your favorite camp memories? Do you know what itching/sneezing powder is?

August 1914 Sees Launch of Ernest Shackleton’s Most Famous Antarctic Adventure

Ernest Shackleton: Gripped by the Antarctic By Rebecca L. Johnson

Ernest Shackleton: Gripped by the Antarctic
By Rebecca L. Johnson

This summer marks the 100th year anniversary of the beginning of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to the Antarctic.

Shackleton hoped this voyage would make him famous for being the first explorer to cross the continent of Antarctica. But, when his ship became stuck in the ice pack, he and his crew were stranded for more than two years. They faced subzero temperatures, icy water, starvation, and months of darkness, but Shackleton brought every crewman safely back to England. Talk about an extreme survival adventure!

My guest today is Rebecca L. Johnson, author of Ernest Shackleton: Gripped by the Antarctic (2003, Carolrhoda Books), a biography for young readers.

Rebecca, why a biography about Shackleton? What drew you to him?

I traveled to Antarctica three times on grants from the National Science Foundation as part of their Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. I had heard of Shackleton and his adventures long before I first arrived, but actually being in some of the places where he and his men had traveled and camped, and experiencing firsthand the wild, frigid, often terrifying environment of the Antarctic continent, made Shackleton really come to life for me. I was inspired to write about him, and especially the story of his Endurance expedition, which is one of the most thrilling tales of survival against all odds that I know.

How did you research Shackleton’s life?

I used as many primary sources as possible, reading copies of his letters and diary entries to get a sense of Shackleton as a man, a polar explorer, and a leader. Fortunately, it’s possible to access a great deal of this material on the internet now. I also have an entire shelf of Shackleton biographies that I used as authoritative references. During my research trips to Antarctica, I had the privilege of visiting Shackleton’s hut on Cape Royds that he and his men used as a base for his Nimrod Expedition of 1907-09. Being there, surrounded by articles from the expedition that are perfectly preserved in the dry polar air, was a marvelous experience, like traveling back in time.

You’ve written many non-fiction books, but how was writing a biography different from writing other non-fiction?

To write a biography you need to try to get into someone else’s head, to try to understand their motivations, their fears, and their desires.

Sometimes people think non-fiction means dry and boring, but your book made me feel like I’m almost stranded in the Antarctic with Shackleton. I love this sentence on page 79: “All through the night they sat huddled together, listening to the thump of floes and the explosive, hissing breath of the killer whales that circled the boats in the darkness.” How did you breathe such life into your biography?

By trying to use authentic details and writing in a way that draws the reader into the story using all of his or her senses. Personal experience helps, too. I’ve heard ice floes thumping together and killer whales exhaling in the icy waters of McMurdo Sound while the wind raged with enough force to knock me over.

Have you been to the Antarctic since you’ve written the book? On the author bio on the book’s back flap you mentioned you wanted to travel to South Georgia Island, the island where Shackleton is buried. Have you been able to?

It’s still on my to-do list!

I’m inspired by Shackleton’s optimism and how he kept up the morale of his men, as well as his persistence. What lessons has he taught you, as a person or as a writer?

Shackleton never gave up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. No matter what dire things happened, he maintained a positive attitude and was able to instill in his men the same motivating confidence. Whenever a project I’m working on feels overwhelming and I start to doubt myself, I often think of Shackleton. He would laugh at my worries (or procrastinations) and tell me to get on with it.

What is your next book?

I just released two new books this year. They are When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses, and Chernobyl’s Wild Kingdom: Life in the Dead Zone. I’ve got a book in progress about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and along with that, I’m pursuing an idea about a recent and remarkable dinosaur discovery.

 

Rebecca L. Johnson

Rebecca L. Johnson

Rebecca L. Johnson has brought science to life in dozens of award-winning books for children and young adults, including Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead (ALA Notable, Junior Library Guild Selection, Junior Library Guild Top Pick, Kirkus Best Children’s Books, and more) and Journey into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures (Benjamin Franklin Award, Orbis Pictus Honor Book, Junior Library Guild Selection, Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books, and more).

Whenever possible, Johnson works directly with scientists whose work she is writing about. She has made three extensive trips to Antarctica on grants from the National Science Foundation, spent months at sea diving on the Great Barrier Reef, descended into the ocean’s abyss aboard the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible, hiked miles (most of them vertical) in search of endangered kakapo on New Zealand’s Little Barrier Island, fought off mosquitoes and land leeches in the rain forests of Queensland, and tagged green sea turtles along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.

Born and raised in South Dakota, she has lived on several continents. In schools where she has given presentations about science in Antarctica, she’s often known as “the woman who almost got killed by a leopard seal.”

Thanks, Rebecca!

I like to do my exploring in the pages of books. Readers, how about you? Do any of you like to explore the relatively unknown parts of our world? What kind of adventures have you had?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s selection in my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson. Jip, His Story won the historical fiction award in 1997.

Jip is an abandoned boy who knows nothing about his background, other than he was left on the road. He lives at the local poor farm and takes care of everyone else. But, when a mentally disturbed man is sent to the farm, Jip’s life begins to change.

 

Writing Lessons:

Somehow I missed the date at the beginning of the book, so it took me a long time to figure out that it is set in the mid-1800s. I knew it was either 19th Century or very early 20th, but I couldn’t narrow it down until the last half of the book.

And you know what? I was okay with that. To be fair, the cover image helped me. But, Paterson hooked me with her characters and gave just enough details so I could picture what was happening. I didn’t need to have paragraphs upon paragraphs of setting details. When Paterson did give details, they were pertinent, like the teacher giving Jip the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

So my takeaway–only use relevant details as seen through the character’s experience. Sometimes, that will mean lots of description, sometimes it won’t.

As for character, Jip has a hard life, but what endears him to me is his love for his friends and for animals. He has a very unusual capacity for compassion, especially for someone who has experienced so little. But as Jip loves his friends, we see they love him in return. And it’s his love for his friends and his sense of responsibility for them that gives him his purpose in life, as well as puts him in the most danger. Very well done.

 

History Lesson:

There are lots of historical things to talk about in this book, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. So I’ll focus on the thing that was new to me–the poor farm.

Poor farms were very common in the 19th and 20th Centuries. If a person could not take care of themselves, had no family to provide for them, and church and charity funds were exhausted, people could be sent to these poor farms that were funded by local taxpayers. Able-bodied people were to raise food to help offset the costs, but often the residents were elderly, very young, or mentally handicapped or disturbed.

In Jip, he is the most able-bodied and responsible, and he’s only 12ish. One of his dear friends was “simple” and another was a “lunatic.” But they helped him as they were able.

Poor farms were not great places, but sometimes they were an improvement over some of the previous ways of helping the poverty-stricken.

The novel also showed how vulnerable people were economically. One of the families who came to Jip’s poor farm was the widow and children of a drunkard. Once the father died, they had no way of providing for themselves. This vulnerability flew in the face of conventional wisdom of the time. People often thought poverty was self-inflicted, possibly by laziness or immorality.

For more history of poor farms, check out these sites:

Minnesota Public Radio

Historical Overview of the American Poorhouse System

USA Today

 

Bonus lesson:

When I was researching Katherine Paterson, I saw she had written a book called Lyddie (1991). Jip’s teacher was named Lyddie, and it turns out the book is about Lyddie’s early years as a Factory Girl in a textile mill in Lowell, Mass. However, a really cool thing about both Lyddie and Jip, His Story, is that both main characters listened to someone read Oliver Twist, and they became so involved in the story that it actually helped them survive their tough circumstances, and then to move beyond survival. What great examples of how important Story is to us!

For more information about my Scott O’Dell Challenge, see this post.

 

Join me the last Tuesday of August for the 2014 award winner, Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill.

Have you read Jip, His Story? What endears a character to you? What do you know about poor farms? When has Story helped you survive or thrive?

Good Earth State Park Provides Place For Good Exercise

One of my sons is training for a Colorado hiking trip. So last Saturday, he put some weight in a backpack, and we, along with my other kids, went to Good Earth State Park just east of Sioux Falls, SD, for some practice.

Good Earth is South Dakota’s newest state park and is at the Blood Run National Historic Landmark. The name Blood Run comes from a the name of a creek that joins the Big Sioux River.

The park has several walking trails, running through prairie and woods bordering the Big Sioux River. The trails have gentle slopes and make for an easy hike. But, there are several higher places that give wonderful views of nearby farmland, hills, valleys, prairie, old oak woods, and the river. Visitors can also see across the river into Iowa.

Besides being a wonderful place to enjoy the scenery and listen to the birds, Good Earth is also the location of a very special historical site. It was the site of a Native American village from about 1300-1700 A.D. The villagers were from the Oneota culture, and included the Ioway, Ponca, Omaha, and Otto tribes. This was also a major trading location and ceremonial site.

(Photos by Deb Watley)

photo-17

photo-11 A lazy bend of the Big Sioux River.

 

photo-9 This photo is from a lookout that gives an expansive view of Iowa. The Native American village was on both sides of the river.

 

They remind me of Frodo and Sam.

 

photo-14 The flowers were beautiful!

 

photo-12  

We walked for about an hour. There is a water fountain at the parking lot, but I’d suggest carrying a water bottle. Also, make sure you bring bug spray! We used a lot!

For more information about Good Earth, check out its official website.

Have you been to Good Earth State Park? What is your favorite thing about it? Where do you like to hike?

Favorite Activities for the Dog Days of Summer

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

We are in the Dog Days of Summer!

I used to think the Dog Days were the days of August that were too hot to do anything but be lazy–like a dog. But, the Dog Days actually include almost all of July and go into September in the northern hemisphere. And it’s not just the heat of the summer that makes them Dog Days. The term comes from thousands of years ago when the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians thought Sirius (the Dog Star), which is part of the constellation Canis Major, added to the heat of the sun because it rises with the sun during that part of summer.

Whatever the background, the Dog Days now have certain activities associated with them, like lazing in a hammock; eating ice cream, watermelon, sweet corn on the cob; sipping lemonade; swimming; etc.

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite summer activities was reading long historical fiction books while sitting in the porch swing on our front porch. Now, I sit in air conditioning and eat ice cream or frozen yogurt.

For more information about the history of Dog Days, check out this website.

What are your favorite things to do when the days are long and hot?

Annual Archeology Awareness Days at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

 

Archeodome in Mitchell, SD--photos by Deb Watley

Thomsen Center Archeodome in Mitchell, S.D.–photos by Deb Watley

 

Last weekend my family and I attended Archeology Awareness Days at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village at Mitchell, S.D.

The archeology site, which is South Dakota’s only one open to the public, was an Indian village 1,000 years ago.

One feature of the special weekend is the variety of experts who do demonstrations of various Native American skills, such as flintknapping, the making of stone knives and arrow or spear points. My sons enjoyed playing traditional Lakota games demonstrated by Mike Marshall of Mission, S.D.

The big draw for me is that the weekend coincides with the archeology field school that is in session each summer. The field school consists of archeologists and students from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD, and from Exeter College in Oxford, England. The month of the field school is the only time the public can watch archeologists dig at the Indian village.

An unusual thing about the site is that because it is a permanent site, the Thomsen Center Archeodome has been constructed over one small area of the village, allowing temperature control. Not many other field schools take place in air-conditioning! The building also houses a lab and display areas.

 

Examples of stone knives

Examples of stone knives

 

Cache pits began as food storage units and eventually became trash receptacles.

Cache pits began as food storage units and eventually became trash receptacles.

 

The Archeodome sits over an old part of the village where the residents worked outside.

The slight depressions in the foreground are the locations of earthen lodges.

 

My kids loved throwing the atlatl, a type of spear.

My kids loved throwing the atlatl, a type of spear.

 

We’ll be back to the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village!

What archeological sites have you been toured?

Running List of Children’s Books Set During WWI Era

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Saturday was the 100 year anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. This event was the spark that set off World War I which officially began one month later on July 28, 1914.

This war is one of the U.S.’s forgotten wars. Perhaps because we were involved for a much shorter time than other nations and did not suffer as horribly as much of the world.

There aren’t many children’s books, at least in the U.S., about this war. In fact, there are no Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction Books covering the WWI era. However, there are some very good books about the war, and I expect more will be released as the world honors the 100 year anniversary mark.

I’m compiling a running list of children’s books about the WWI era that I have read and can recommend (in bold), or that you have recommended to me. This list will be limited to books available in the U.S., but not limited to just our nation’s experience.

 

Picture Books

Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon & illustrated by Henri Sorensen

 

Middle Grade

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

The Usborne Introduction to the First World War by Ruth Brocklehurst & Henry Brook (non-fiction)

 

Young Adult

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost

 

What children’s books set during the WWI era would you recommend for my list? Why?

My Scott O’Dell Challenge: The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2010 winner, The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press, 2009).

The Storm in the Barn is set in 1937 Dust Bowl Kansas where 11-year-old Jack feels weak and useless. He’s picked on by bullies. He disappoints his father because he’s too young to help much on the farm. And he is totally powerless to cure his sister’s dust pneumonia. However, in an abandoned barn, Jack finds something strange, wet, and menacing that could bring back the rain.

History lessons:

1. Wizard of Oz books. One of the cool things about this book is that Phelan uses the Wizard of Oz books to connect to Jack’s story. The famous movie with Judy Garland as Dorothy hit the theaters in 1939, but the series of books by L. Frank Baum had been out for decades. The children of the 1930s would have known these stories. I love the connections Phelan made. For instance, Jack’s sick sister, Dorothy, is reading Ozma of Oz (1907) where the character Dorothy finds a desert, a familiar landscape to a Dust Bowl child.

2. Jack Tales. Phelan also used another literary, albeit oral, tradition in The Storm in the Barn. The fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer/Slayer, are two examples of a Jack Tale. These folktales came from Europe to America, especially Appalachia and the Ozarks. Jack Tales follow a distinct pattern where Jack represents the ordinary boy who uses pluck, trickery, and often magic, to defeat his foes, often giants or wind kings.

3. Dust Bowl jack rabbit drives. Growing plants was extremely hard during the Dust Bowl because of the lack of rain. Then the jack rabbits would eat the plants, competing with people for food. So people would organize a drive where they would corral and kill the rabbits. Necessary, but brutal.I first learned about the jack rabbit drives only a year or so ago and, until now, have never seen them included in a children’s book. I was impressed at how Phelan handled the topic and showed how it impacted the people involved, including Jack.

Writing lessons:

The Storm in the Barn made two firsts as a Scott O’Dell Award winner.

1. It is the first graphic novel to win the award.

2. It is the first not-strictly historical fiction book to win this historical fiction award. The Storm in the Barn is also part fairy/folk/tall tale. But, it’s faithful to the spirit of America’s folklore.

It’s another example of an author/illustrator using an unusual way to successfully tell a touching and powerful story.

For more information:

The Folklore Tradition of Jack Tales

Matt Phelan and The Storm in the Barn

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

 

Next month’s selection will be the 1997 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson.

Have you read The Storm in the Barn? What other Jack Tales do you know? What is your favorite Dust Bowl-era children’s book? What other historical fiction graphic novels have you read?

Nebraska Novel Retreat

A week ago I attended the Nebraska Novel Retreat, brainchild of Nancy Wagner (N.L. Sharp), just outside of Schuyler, Neb. This retreat was the culmination of a year-long three-part retreat series focusing on writing novels for middle grade and young adult readers.

As I mentioned in my previous post about the retreat, the highlight of this final session was spending time with two children’s literary agents who taught classes and critiqued our manuscripts.

I love writing conferences and retreats, but my writing has improved the most from participating in retreats. And this retreat series has been the most intensive and challenging one I’ve ever done.

It wasn’t all work, though. I’ve become friends with the other attendees over the past year, so it was fun to chat with them. And, since the weather was perfect, I spent a lot of time outside admiring the scenery, soaking up the sunshine, and listening to the wind blow through the prairie grasses.

A walking path

A walking path at the St. Benedict Retreat Center–photos by Deb Watley

 

This reminds me of the opening of the Little House on the Prairie television series.

This reminds me of the opening of the Little House on the Prairie television series.

 

Where do you go to improve your craft or experience mental refreshment?

Fun and Unusual Bicycle Decorations

A few weeks ago I did a post about my childhood and adulthood love of biking. Not long after that I saw an unusual bike display at my local grocery store. Check this out!

Photos by Deb Watley

 

Let me zoom in a bit.

photo-2

 

photo-2

 

The bike is completely covered in yarn. I think it’s a combination of knitting and crochet. I love the streamers coming from the handlebars!

This bike sweater is totally impractical, but totally fun!

What’s the best decorated bicycle you’ve ever seen?

Books That Connect Me to D-Day

D-Day: The Normandy Invasion

U.S. Army/Flickr Creative Commons

 

Friday, June 6, 2014, is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the day the Allies landed at Normandy in France during World War II and started their march east to Nazi Germany.

I think D-Day became real for me years ago when I read The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan.

Now, I’m working on D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 by Rick Atkinson and Kate Waters (2014), which is adapted for children from Atkinson’s book The Guns at Last Light. I found D-Day in the children’s section of one of my local bookstores, but I think most kids would not enjoy it until high school–partly because most 20th century American history doesn’t seem to be covered in classes until high school–unless they are history or military enthusiasts.

I don’t have any family stories about it: my grandfather served in the Pacific, and my great-uncle was sent to France after D-Day. But a dear friend, Enfys McMurry, wrote a book about the history of my previous hometown, and she included stories of people I knew or knew of (or knew of their family) who participated in the invasion. Her book is Centerville: A Mid-American Saga (History Press, 2012).

What’s your, or a friend or family member’s, D-Day story? What’s your favorite book or movie about D-Day? Do you know of other kids books about D-Day?

 

The Fighting Ground by Avi (My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge)

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

 

Each month I read a book from the list of Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award winners. The award honors children’s books, written by American authors, that deal with the history of North or South America. This month I’m discussing the 1984 winner, The Fighting Ground (1984, Lippincott/Harper Collins) by Avi.

The Fighting Ground takes place in rural New Jersey during the Revolutionary War and begins with 13-year-old Jonathan helping his wounded, ex-soldier father on their farm. Jonathan longs to become a soldier and fight, and he defies his parents to join the local militia to stop the oncoming enemy Hessian soldiers. However, during the skirmish, Jonathan is terrified, runs away, and is captured by the Hessian soldiers. He learns his enemies are human, and sometimes his allies act like monsters.

History lessons:

Just like any war, motivation and pride can get in the way of principles. War brings out the ruthlessness of some and the compassion of others.

Specifically, for this story, it was interesting to note how long it took people to go from place to place during the 18th Century and how isolated people could be. There were small villages three or four miles from Jonathan’s home that he’d never visited.

Unlike during modern wars, Jonathan also met his enemy. However, he couldn’t understand the German the Hessians are speaking, and that added to his fear of them. The soldiers are also frightened because they get lost in “enemy territory,” and they don’t speak English. It showed the human side of the boy’s enemy and the reality of combatants who don’t speak each other’s language.

On Avi’s website, he wrote that that his idea for The Fighting Ground came from reading a historical marker in New Jersey about a fight between some Hessians and the militia and how insignificant it was in the grand scheme of the war. However, Avi thought that skirmish was significant for the people involved.

Story/writing lessons:

This was a very focused story. It starts about 10 a.m. one day and ends just over 24 hours later. It’s less than 160 pages long and doesn’t have chapters. In fact, it’s broken up into time segments of various lengths. Some are multiple pages, and some are only a paragraph or two. So, it’s an encouraging read for someone who might get bogged down in lots of descriptions, backstory, or large blocks of text.

Avi used third person, but I felt like I “was” Jonathan. In fact, I had to double-check because when I finished the book and was thinking about it, I thought it actually was in first person.

I also liked how Avi used the setting to affect and reflect the actions in the story and Jonathan’s state-of-mind. Before the skirmish, storm clouds gather, and then after the fight, rain, fog and mist cover the land, adding to and mirroring Jonathan’s confusion. In Avi’s blog, he mentions he doesn’t purposely add symbols. He just wants readers to enjoy reading his books and read into it what they see for themselves. However, I think he purposefully did use the weather, very effectively, to set the mood.

On a side note, Avi will be in Sioux Falls Sept. 26-28 for the South Dakota’s Festival of the Book. For more info, see http://www.sdbookfestival.com. Also, check out Avi’s website at http://www.avi-writer.com.

Join me June 24 for my next book in my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge, The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan, which earned the 2010 award.

Have you read The Fighting Ground? What lessons did it teach you?

6 Activities & 5 Children’s Books to Add Meaning to Memorial Day

Big Stock Photo: Tahoma National Cemetery, WA, on Memorial Day

Big Stock Photo: Tahoma National Cemetery, WA, on Memorial Day

Memorial Day began as an unofficial day of remembrance following the Civil War and may have started with people in various communities, especially Southern, putting flowers on the graves of both the Confederate  and Union soldiers. In 1866 the Union soldiers organization named the observance Decoration Day, and a big ceremony was held at the new Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

 

World War I brought a couple changes. One was the decoration of graves of U.S. soldiers killed in any combat, not just the Civil War. The second change came about when Moina Michael started wearing a poppy in response to the famous poem, “In Flanders Field.” Now the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) runs the Buddy Poppy Program to help support poor and/or disabled veterans and veterans’ widows and orphaned children.

 

In 1971, Decoration Day became a federal holiday, was renamed Memorial Day, and placed on the last Monday of May. Previously, it had been celebrated on May 30.

 

Many members of my family served in the U.S. military, and when my brother was in Iraq and Afghanistan I was very conscious of the soldiers who were in harm’s way. However, maybe because all my military family members lived–which I’m very thankful for–I forget about others’ sacrifices. I’m not good at remembering unless I have something personal at stake. Well, I do again. One of my nephews has enlisted in the Army.

 

How can we honor those men and women who served and maybe even died for us?

  • Attend a Memorial Day ceremony or parade.
  • Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance, a minute of silence at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.
  • Donate money to a veterans’ group or buy a Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) paper poppy.
  • Send a note or a care package to a someone we know who’s serving in the military.
  • Watch a documentary or patriotic movie.
  • Read a fiction or non-fiction book about a soldier.

 

I love children’s books, and many of them deal with war, soldiers, and soldiers’ families. Here are just five kids’ books I’ve read that can add meaning to Memorial Day:

  • The White Table by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Mike Benny
  • Bull Rider by Suzanne  Morgan Williams
  • Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry
  • The Fighting Ground by Avi
  • Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith

 

For more information about Memorial Day:

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Memorial Day History

The Buddy Poppy Program

 

What does Memorial Day mean to you?

How do you observe it?

What other kids’ books would you recommend?

Bookmobiles: Bringing the Books to the Readers

 

Bookmobile horse and cart in Washington, D.C.; Flickr; Crossett Library Bennington College

Bookmobile horse and cart in Washington, D.C.; Flickr; Crossett Library Bennington College

Bookmobiles have been in use for more than a century. I don’t know the date for the photo above, but I’m thinking very early 20th Century.

People in both rural and urban areas still depend on bookmobiles. The mobile libraries are usually housed in a customized bus/rv/truck, and some are in bicycle-pulled carts. It depends on the place. Here in South Dakota, the Siouxland Libraries uses a motorized bookmobile to bring books and materials to area preschools and daycare centers

When I was very young, we lived in a small town of about 300 people in northern Minnesota and travelled to a larger town about an hour away once a week or so for groceries, etc. There wouldn’t have been time for going to the library or money for going to a bookstore. We didn’t have a lot of children’s books at home, yet, so the bookmobile’s book selection expanded my world and helped me learn to love reading.

My bookmobile stopped in front of our house. How convenient is that? Better than waiting for a shipment from Amazon! I remember kneeling or sitting on the floor of the bookmobile and choosing one of my favorite picture books, The Giant Jam Sandwich, by John Vernon Lord.

For more information about bookmobiles check out these sites:

Bookmobiles: A History

American Library Association (see the Bookmobiles at a Glance document)

What was your childhood library like?

My Bicycles: Freedom and Fun

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

I have loved bicycling since before I can remember.

To be honest, my first two bikes were tricycles. I don’t remember my first trike. But, I have a scar on my forehead from a head to handlebar moment.

I do remember the second tricycle. I had hours of fun on it, even long after I was too big for it. Not only was it my bike, but it was also my horse, and if I turned it upside down, it was my spinning wheel.

I did move up into several different two-wheeled bikes. When I was a teen, I bought one of those for myself. We were a one-car family, so in many ways that bike gave me some freedom. I would go for long bike rides around town. In fact, I have more fondness for my time on that bike than for my time in my first car. The bike was fun; the car was necessary.

Now, I have a different bike. It has a sort-of vintage style, but with lots of gears. It’s great for pleasure riding, and it’s a lot more fun than running or walking. I hope to spend many hours this summer on the bike trails!

I have a great-uncle in his 90s who still loves riding his bike. He rode a bike during WWII in Europe. And now, even though he doesn’t drive anymore, he rides his three-wheeled bike around his town.

What was your first bike? Do you still ride?

Chickadee by Louise Erdrich (My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge)

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

The book I’m featuring this month is the 2013 winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction: Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, published by Harper Collins in 2012. Chickadee is the fourth book in Erdrich’s Birchbark House Series and is the second one of Erdrich’s works to be given the O’Dell award. Her first O’Dell award was in 2006 for The Game of Silence, book two in the Birchbark House Series. In fact, Erdrich, who belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the only author to have won the award twice.

In Chickadee, set in the 1860s, a young Anishinabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) boy named Chickadee and his family live in a forest near the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota. A kidnapping forces the family to leave the forest for the Great Plains, causing them to adapt to new ways of life. And with the help of the bird he is named after, Chickadee discovers his own strength and resourcefulness.

History I learned:

1. The Obijwe. This was the first book, fiction or non-fiction, I think I’ve read about the Obijwe, who lived in the woods and lakes regions of northern Minnesota. I found it interesting how the Obijwe family adapted to life on the prairie. For example, in the woods, they would make containers from birchbark, but on the plains they had to make-do with the one wooden bucket they had. Some of the family members also learned how to ride horses so they could join buffalo hunts on the plains.

2. The Metis. They were of both Obijwe and French-descent and had their own distinct culture.

3. Ox cart trains. Before the railroads came to the frontier, these caravans of ox carts, mostly driven by Metis, brought furs and other goods down to St. Paul to trade and then take back to Pembina (North Dakota). The carts were very noisy. Here is a link to a website that has a sound clip of just one cart. (Scroll down.) Imagine what a line of 200 carts sounded like.

4. Mosquito swarms. At one point, a giant swarm of mosquitos descend on Chickadee, his Uncle Quill, and the ox cart train. It is not an inconvenience. Both humans and oxen are in great danger of being killed . Many of us have experienced mosquitos, but never in such a degree. That is one of the things from the past that I’m glad is gone.

5. Female Obijwe hunter. An aunt of Chickadee’s is a hunter and warrior. Pretty cool! I had never heard of a North American Native American woman who did that. Have you? Was it common?

Story/writing lesson I learned:

Sometimes it’s okay to buck the trends and/or conventional wisdom in literature. For example, Chickadee’s family is a loving, functional family. I know there are lots of families like that in stories, especially children’s stories, but there are also an awful lot of dysfunctional families. And there should be, to reflect reality and to give a story it’s conflict. However, it was nice to see a loving family.

Another conventional wisdom rule Erdrich broke was to include lots of Ojibwe vocabulary. It did make the story a little harder to read, but the context around the Ojibwe words explained the meaning, and Erdrich includes a glossary at the end of the book.

Finally, Erdrich switches point of view a lot, even within a chapter, and that’s rarely done in children’s books.

I will eventually read Erdrich’s first O’Dell winner, as well as read all the books in her Birchbark House Series. But, in an attempt to alternate between the newer and older winners, for my next O’Dell Challenge post, on May 27, I will feature the 1985 winner, The Fighting Ground by Avi (Lippincott).

Previous posts about my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge:

Scott O’Dell Award Challenge

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Have you read Chickadee? What did you learn?

Marilyn Kratz Interview: Feed Sack Dresses and Wild Plum Jam–Remembering Farm Life in the 1950s

a801  353301  06
Today we are joined by author Marilyn Kratz. She has had about 650 stories, poems, articles, and newspaper columns published in her almost 50 years as a freelance writer. Her children’s stories have appeared in Highlights for Children, High Five, Hello, and magazines in the Cricket and National Wildlife Federation magazines. She writes for each issue of a regional magazine and writes a twice-monthly nostalgia newspaper column. She has had five books published. She is also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and has been a presenter at several of their regional conferences, as well as local conferences. She is a retired elementary teacher living in Yankton, SD.
DW: When did you start writing, and what did you write?
MK: I started writing when I took ten years off from my teaching career while my children were little. At first I wrote exclusively for children. Since retiring from teaching, I have expanded into other types of writing and enjoy them all.
How did you balance teaching, writing, and caring for a family?
Balancing all aspects of a busy life is much easier when you’re young. I don’t think I could do all that now. However, one trick I used to keep writing in spite of all my other tasks was to come up with stories while doing household chores. I always tried to have the first line of the story and the names of the characters as well as the plot well thought out before actually sitting down to write. There just wasn’t time to “sit and think.”
cover_feedsack
How did Feed Sack Dresses and Wild Plum Jam–Remembering Farm Life in the 1950s come about?
My newest book, Feed Sack Dresses and Wild Plum Jam – Remembering Farm Life in the 1950s – came about as the result of reactions to my newspaper column, upon which the book is based. People told me they enjoyed my columns because they brought back their own memories. I decided to put together a collection of them, along with some new article, recipes, poems, and family photographs in the book.
I’ve heard and read so much about farm life during the 30’s and 40’s and before. But, after reading your book, I see the 50’s were a decade of change for farm families. Electricity seemed to be one of the biggies. Why do you think we don’t hear more about that decade? What were some of the other big changes?
People are so wrapped up in their lives these days that they don’t often think of life in their parents’ childhoods. It was so different back then. I think it’s important for people these days to remember what life was like back then so they have a better understanding of that simpler life and appreciate what it contributed to our lives today. One of the most important aspects of life back then was the closeness of families geographically. Nowadays, people are so scattered that they hardly get to know their relatives. Of course, the biggest change is the result of technology. It has made life so different for people from what it was years ago that they only way they can even know about those past days is to read about them or have an older person tell about them.
Did listening to soap operas on the radio teach you to love story? If so, how?
I suppose soap operas contributed to my love of story because it wrapped me up in other people’s lives. It was a lot like reading a book, chapter by chapter.
Now that spring has arrived to South Dakota, we’ve started using our grill. You mentioned that the first time you saw someone grill hamburgers was on a family vacation to California. Did you have other types of cook-outs or picnics as a kid?
We had lots of picnics. Each spring there were huge Sunday School picnics for everyone in the church. Family gatherings at Grandma’s house on the Fourth of July were held on her shady front yard. Some Sunday afternoons, Mama would pack a picnic lunch, and we’d drive to Pickstown to view the building of the dam there. When we took our one and only road trip to California, we ate in the car or roadside parks  all the way out and back because we couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants.
What did you like to read as a kid? What do you like to read now?
I liked the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Tammy series, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books among many others. I loved hearing my teacher in rural school read from the Bobsey Twins books. My favorite book of all time, which I reread regularly, is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. These days, I read lots of young adult books as well as classics and some of the new best sellers. Right now, I’m reading The Book Thief.
Thanks, Marilyn! Do you have any upcoming book signings?
Loretta Sorensen and I will do a joint signing at the Sioux City, IA, Barnes & Noble of our new books on Saturday, Sept. 20, from 1-3 p.m. Loretta’s book is Kernels of Corn History. Mine is Feed Sack Dresses and Wild Plum Jam – Remembering Farm Life in the 1950s.
Marilyn’s book is also available in downtown Sioux Falls at Zandbroz Variety.
I can relate to listening to the radio as I do housework, especially the ironing. But my iron is much different from the one Marilyn would have used as a child. How is your life similar or different now than it was, or would have been, in the 1950s?

My “First” Book

photo-2

I am blessed by a mother who loves to read, and we always had books in our house. Many were library books, but Mom also bought books. However, we often lived in small towns and didn’t always have book stores, so Mom ordered books from book clubs. Do you remember those? The company would send you a book each month or so, and you could choose to buy it or send it back.

When I was small, Mom chose all my books, except for library books. But, in second grade I got a couple store-bought books. I think I picked them out, too. I’m not quite sure. But I do remember devouring one of the books in just a few days. As years went on, I was able to get a few more books in that series to keep, but they were always available in either my school library or public library, and I read the complete series multiple times.

My first two books I (must have) chose to own: Nancy Drew books.

What was the first book you chose for yourself?

Spring Cleaning: Past and Present

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Today is April 2. Have you done your spring cleaning yet? Me, either.

Years ago, women would do a huge spring clean. Perhaps wood or coal-burning stoves and furnaces had something to do with that. As soon as the weather was nice enough, their houses would get a good airing-out and cleaning.

In the Little House books, set in the late 1800s, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes the annual event. Laura’s mother, Laura, and her sisters would empty the house of its furniture, empty and refill the mattresses for their beds, scrub the floors, etc. Whew! I have it easy!

I don’t remember my mom having a big spring cleaning tradition. If she did, she must have cleaned while my siblings and I were at school and out-of-the-way. But, when the weather would get nice and we had a clothesline, she’d start hanging wet laundry outside to dry.

I don’t do really do a huge spring clean, either. But, every spring I sweep out the garage, wash and put away the winter coats, snow pants, hats and gloves, and have my minivan detailed–and not all on the same day. This year I’m also cleaning my kitchen cabinets with Liquid Gold.

What spring cleaning traditions did your family have? What do you do now?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Three things I learned from Island of the Blue Dolphins

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

Since I love both historical fiction and children’s books, I recently challenged myself to read all the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction winning books. But, to start things off, I read O’Dell’s first children’s book, and possibly the one he’s most known for, Island of the Blue Dolphins.

O’Dell had written non-fiction, short stories, and novels for adults. But once Island of the Blue Dolphins was published in 1960 and then received the Newbery Award, one of the most distinguished awards for children’s literature, he continued to write more historical fiction for children and earned the Newbery three more times.

At the beginning of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana is 12 and lives in a village on a small island. A ship full of Aleuts, captained by a white man, comes to the island to hunt sea otters. The captain makes a deal with Karana’s father so the tribe can share in the results of the hunting. But the captain and the Aleuts double-cross the villagers. In the resulting battle most of the tribe’s men are killed. The hunters leave, and the villagers survive for months on their own. However, their elderly leader knows they need help, so he takes a canoe to the land far to the east. Eventually a ship comes for the villagers, but the weather is bad and the ship only stays long enough to load the villagers and what they can carry. In the hurry and confusion, Karana sees her little brother is left alone on the island. She jumps overboard and swims back to her brother. But the ship sails on and doesn’t return.

Not only is the book set in a historical time-period, but O’Dell based the story on a real woman’s experience.

There really was a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island, off the coast of Southern California, for 18 years (1835-1853). People on the mainland knew about her, though, and a priest at the Santa Barbara Mission asked Capt. George Nidever to watch for her when he was otter hunting at San Nicolas. Nidever did find her and brought her back to Santa Barbara. He thought she was about 50 years old, but apparently they could communicate only through sign language. Unfortunately, the woman lived less than two months after coming to the mainland, and she was buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.

San Nicolas is now a base of the U.S. Navy, and archeologists have worked on the island for years. But recently, some archeologists found a cave where the woman may have lived or used for storage. Here’s a link to the Los Angeles Times article about that potential find: “‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ woman’s cave believed found”.

O’Dell used the facts for inspiration, but he changed things for the sake of the story.

For example, Karana probably wasn’t on the island as long as the actual woman was, and Karana was much younger than the woman. This last detail made Karana’s story work for kids. However, according to the Scott O’Dell website, O’Dell didn’t realize his story would appeal to kids until children’s author and friend, Maud Lovelace, admired the manuscript.

And although he fictionalized the story, O’Dell was respectful of both the woman and her culture.

When I read Island of the Blue Dolphin as a kid, I don’t think I focused on the history aspect. In fact, I only found out it was based on an actual person within the past few months. I thought it was a story about a girl who figured out how to use what she had to survive on her own. That seemed to be a theme in many of my favorite childhood books.

Finally, there is very little dialogue in the book, yet it works.

Other than her pets, Karana is alone for much of the book, so there are many pages with no dialogue. Perhaps that was more common in books 50 years ago, but now that would make for a hard-sell. The current trend for novels (and not just kids’ novels) is lots of action and a fast pace. But, Island of the Blue Dolphins is full of action. Karana battles the elements, fights wild dogs, tries to sail in a leaking canoe, hunts a devilfish, and makes a few friends (one human and many non-human). These may not be big-explosion-type actions, but they are actions that have huge stakes for Karana.

O’Dell used the first person point of view, too. So, although Karana may not be talking to others a lot, it feels like she is talking directly to me, the reader.

The next book I read for the challenge will be Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, 2013 winner. Join me, and we’ll talk about it April 29.

Have you read Island of the Blue Dolphins? What did you learn from it?

Archeology Toolbox: Geophysics

Big Stock Photos

Big Stock Photos

Archeologists are known for digging in soil to find forgotten or lost artifacts, buildings, cities, and even human remains. But a shovel is only one of the tools archeologists use, and it is not always the best one.

Sometimes archeologists use tools and techniques that allow them to “see” underground without digging.

This past Sunday, Steven DeVore, a geophysicist for the National Park Service, spoke at a Sioux Falls-chapter of the South Dakota Archaeological Society program at Augustana College. Since one of my characters in the novel I’m writing is an archeologist who uses various geophysical techniques at a South Dakota dig site, I attended the program to learn more.

I learned there are about five or six different techniques that can be used, and archeologists might use just one or a combination of all of them, depending on the ground conditions and the goal of the surveying. Some of the techniques use probes that insert electricity or microwave energy into the ground and can get readings from various depths. Then the results can be compared to each other and aerial photos or old maps to help identify things like structures, hearths, pits, fence lines, trails, utility pipes, and graves.

The fascinating thing is how the archeologists can understand the mapped results of the tests. DeVore showed slides of a number of sites where geophysical techniques were used. I saw lots of blobs and dots, but I could also see straight lines which are usually man-made. Other times, I could see circles with a dark spot in the center. Those were probably outlines of Native American earth lodges with the remains of a central hearth.

DeVore mentioned that the equipment they use is expensive to buy, but with them archeologists can map out large areas of land in very little time. Plus, geophysics can give a big-picture view and understanding to an entire site, where digging can give great detail in very small areas. Another advantage to using geophysics is that whatever is buried doesn’t have to be exposed by digging, which in turn, “destroys” the site. It’s also very useful in finding graves without disturbing the human remains.

I learned two specific details I hadn’t known before. The first one is a common-sense thing. In a resistance survey, the archeologist sends electricity through the ground. They can’t do this one if the ground is too wet! Common-sense, but I hadn’t thought about it, and I certainly don’t want my character electrocuting himself or anyone else!

The other cool thing I learned is that archeologists sometimes use remote controlled model airplanes or drones, outfitted with cameras, to take aerial photos. Doesn’t that sound like fun? I may have to add that detail to my story!

American Indian Artistry at the Old Courthouse Museum

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Last week I attended the monthly meeting of the Sioux Falls chapter of the South Dakota Archaeological Society (SDAS). Usually the group meets at Augustana University, but last Thursday the group met at the Old Courthouse Museum and toured the American Indian Artistry exhibit.

The exhibit had examples of baskets and pottery; bows, arrows, and clubs; bowls and horn spoons; but the focus was on the painting, beading, and quilling used to decorate moccasins, clothing, bags of various sizes, handles of clubs, and knife sheaths. The moccasin in the above photo is similar to the ones at the museum, except the ones in the exhibit had beads, and the one in the photo looks like it has quilling.

I’ve seen beading before, but quilling was new to me. In traditional quilling, the women would soften porcupine quills, in their mouth, and then flatten the quills, either between their teeth or with a bone tool. Then they would sew these in rows, like an embroidery satin stitch. Many of the designs were also painted. I don’t know if the quills were painted before or after the sewing. And I don’t know if they used needles or made holes in the skins with an awl. Can any of you tell me?

I was so impressed by two things at the exhibit: First, beading and quilling must have taken an immense amount of skill and time. I’ve done enough embroidery and cross-stitching to have an idea of the work involved. And I nearly always followed a commercial pattern; only once or twice did I make up my own design. I wonder if the beading and quilling would have been a winter occupation? Can you imagine doing that by firelight? And without a magnifying glass?

The second thing that hit me is that we crave more than just survival. We also crave beauty. Especially if it is symbolic to us. That makes me think of the movie The Monument Men (which I still haven’t seen). Is art important enough to die for? I don’t know. Maybe. But, it is certainly a gift to us to have so much of the world’s art preserved. Life is so much better when it includes some kind of beauty, whether it’s visual art, music, or literature, etc.

Just for fun, there’s a third thing that impressed me at the exhibit. The museum displayed lots of bags of various sizes and uses, all decorated with paint, beads, and/or quills, so maybe I shouldn’t let myself feel frivolous for loving colorful purses! How do you combine functional and beautiful?

If you’re in the Sioux Falls area, Augustana College and SDAS are hosting a program about the use of geophysics in archeology, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Mar. 16 in the Gilbert Science Center on campus. The program is free and open to the public.

Retreating for a Writers’ Retreat

Big Stock Photos

Big Stock Photos

A couple of weekends ago I took a break from my normal life and went to the Nebraska Novel Retreat at the St. Benedict Center outside of Schuyler, NE. (However, I didn’t sit outside and work like the woman in the above image. It was only 30 degrees outside, so I squirreled myself away inside.)

The Nebraska Novel Retreat, the brainchild of children’s writer and sixth-grade teacher N.L. Sharp (Nancy Wagner), is for writers who are working on novels for middle grade (4th-6th graders) and young adults (6th-12th graders). Like most retreats, this one offered a chance to focus, write, attend classes, and make connections with other people who love doing the same thing I do.

But Nancy’s retreat is unique because it is not a one-time thing. It actually takes place in three separate sessions over the length of a year and culminates with the attendees spending two days with a children’s book agents. Not only that, but we get to submit a query letter, synopsis, and 20 manuscript pages to the agents for critiques.

Writers go to retreats for different reasons. I chose the Nebraska Novel Retreat because a couple friends recommended it, it’s relatively close to me (meaning I didn’t need to fly), and it offered the depth, accountability, camaraderie, and agent-incentive I needed. The accountability? Everyone who attends gets a critique group. We work with them throughout the year, too, either in-person or by email.

I attended the first session last June, and so this was my second session. I worked with my critique group and attended several of the classes. But, I’m really close to finishing a draft of my novel, so I skipped a couple other classes to hide away and write.

Retreats are a good place to eliminate distractions, and this one at the monastery retreat center in rural Nebraska is an especially good place. We had internet access, but cell phones didn’t work in the building. And there are no tvs!

However, the biggest distraction, yet also one of the best things, at the retreat was the camaraderie with the other writers. The retreat center has set meal times, so we ate together, and of course we talked during our class and critique times.

As for the agent-incentive, my deadline for my submission packets is May 1. Back to work for me!

The Scott O’Dell Award inspires my 3-year challenge

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

I’m getting ready to give a presentation about the major book awards for children’s books to my local children’s writers/illustrators books, and one of those major awards the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

O’Dell wrote many children’s historical fiction books, but may be best known for his first kids’ book, The Island of the Blue Dolphins (Houghton Mifflin, 1960) which won the Newbery Medal, possibly the most prestigious kids’ book award for text, 1961.

O’Dell set up the annual award (plus a $5,000 prize) to honor an American author of children’s historical fiction whose book is set in the Western Hemisphere. The award committee also prefers newer writers. So far, 31 books have been awarded the prize.

However, to my shock, I’ve only read four of those books! Therefore, I’m challenging myself to read the rest! Once a month I will post what I’ve learned from that month’s book—history-wise and writing-wise. I don’t really do book reviews, so I’ll focus on what I like and what I’ve learned. It will take me the next three years because by the time I get close to being done, there will be two new winners.

Will you join me? At the end of March we’ll talk about The Island of the Blue Dolphins. No, it’s not a Scott O’Dell award book, but it’s the one that started it all.

U.S. President-Dakotas connection

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota -- BigStock Photos

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota — BigStock Photos

South Dakota has a special place to celebrate Presidents’ Day–Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills! And one of the four presidents on the giant sculpture has a connection to the Dakotas.

When this president-to-be was a young man, he came to Dakota Territory for a hunting trip and invested in a cattle ranch in what is now western North Dakota. Not long afterwards,  both his wife and his mother died, and he moved out to the ranch and became a full-time rancher for several years. He actually had two ranches, and you can see that area now in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Although he didn’t live in South Dakota, he does have one more South Dakota connection. He signed the bill creating Wind Cave National Park, also in the Black Hills.

So in honor of Presidents’ Day, I have one more picture book for you. To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by C.F. Payne. (Disney-Hyperion Books, 2013) is a beautiful and very well-done picture book biography.

I’ve long been inspired by Roosevelt’s tenacity, especially as a child when he read voraciously and worked so hard to gain his health. Rappaport covers Roosevelt’s childhood and tells about his love of collecting animals. She tells how his parents even had to warn guests to check for his snakes in their water pitchers! Roosevelt had a way with words, and Rappaport uses many of his quotes to help tell his story.

Cover of To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by C.F. Payne

How did you celebrate Presidents’ Day? Have you ever been to Wind Cave, Mount Rushmore, or the Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Presidents’ Day: 5 Picture Books

In honor of Presidents’ Day, check out these five picture books about some of our presidents:

John, Paul, George & Ben by Lane Smith (Disney-Hyperion Books, 2006)—very funny look at George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin.

Camping With the President by Ginger Wadsworth and illustrated by Karen Dugan (Calkins Creek, 2009)—about a camping trip President Theodore Roosevelt took with John Muir.

Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain and illustrated by Larry Day (Dutton Children’s Books, 2011)—about Jefferson’s and Adam’s friendship and how they worked together to found our nation, and how their differing opinions led them to not talking for many years, and then the renewal of their friendship.

George Washington’s Teeth by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora and illustrated by Brock Cole (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003)—At the same time Washington was fighting for and building his nation, he also fought a losing battle with his teeth.

Farmer George Plants a Nation by Peggy Thomas and illustrated by Layne Johnson (Calkins Creek, 2008)—showcases Washington’s constant farming experiments and innovations at Mount Vernon.

Welcome!

History is story. It’s not lists of dates, names, and battles.

It is story that engages us. It is story we remember. It is story that helps us understand and gives meaning to the past and the present.

It’s the big stories that affect personal stories. It’s the personal stories that affect big stories.

History. Story.

Welcome to my blog! We’ll talk about story (especially for children), memory, history, and archeology.