Picture Book Giveaway To Celebrate My 100th Post

This is my 100th blog post! (I feel a little like Bilbo Baggins announcing his 111th birthday.)

To celebrate, I’m going to depart from my usual history-related post and give away a picture book I had the pleasure of helping, in a small way, to bring into the world.

Freddie the Frog® and the Invisible Coquí (Mystic Publishing, 2015) was written by Sharon Burch and illustrated by Tiffany Harris. In the story, Freddie and his best friend, Eli, meet new friends that introduce them to Latin music and teach them how to dance the salsa.


Photo by Deb Watley

More than a decade ago, Sharon, an elementary music teacher, developed a way to teach her youngest students music concepts that were generally only taught to older kids. Sharon wanted a way to help other music teachers do the same, so she created her own publishing company, Mystic Publishing.

The Invisible Coquí is the sixth book in the Freddie series. All six books feature a story, a dramatized audio CD, music, and activities, such as games or dancing.

I’m proud to have worked with and for Mystic Publishing from the beginning! And I’m grateful to Sharon for introducing me to the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI)!

For more info:

Freddie the Frog®

Music-lovers, parents, teachers, authors, illustrators, etc. (US residents and non-relatives only), to enter the giveaway, please post a comment and tell me what kind of music you liked as a child. I’ll conduct a random drawing of the commenters on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for my three-year Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2011 winner, One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia.

In this middle-grade novel, set in 1968, 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonette and Fern, are sent by their father from Brooklyn to Oakland, Calif., to get to know the mother who had abandoned them years earlier. While in Oakland, Delphine becomes involved in the Black Panther movement and begins to understand her mother.

Historical lesson:

Summer 1968–The sisters are sent to Oakland the summer of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated April 4 in Tennessee. But two days later, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy named Bobby Hutton was killed by the police in Oakland, CA. Hutton was a member of the Black Panther Party. In fact, he was the treasurer and the party’s first recruit. His murder sparked rallies by the Black Panthers in Oakland that summer. The Oakland rally organizers also sought the release from prison from one of the Black Panther leaders, Huey P. Newton.

Writing lesson:

A series–Often historical fiction books are stand-alones. They do not always have a sequel, and even fewer are part of a series, featuring a sequential story with the same characters. One Crazy Summer did have a resolution and could be a stand-alone book.

But, there are so many questions about Delphine’s parents that are left unanswered, it left me unsatisfied. However, I knew there are two books following One Crazy Summer–P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama. So, I have hope my questions will be answered.

How does an author write a self-contained story, yet set up a larger story that will not be completed until the end of a trilogy–or an even longer series?

The first book is the set up. We are introduced to the characters and some of their deep desires and questions. While a few questions are answered, many are not.

That can be hard for authors. We want to reveal all we know about our characters, but it will hold our readers’ attention if we don’t tell them everything we think they should know. We need to keep some secrets and not reveal them until it’s absolutely necessary. However, we do have to plant some hints along the way so the reveals make sense.

I don’t know if Williams-Garcia knew she’d have a couple sequels, but she did a good job of withholding information that I wanted to know until I needed to know it.

For more info:

Rita Williams-Garcia

Hutton killing shakes Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Join me Feb. 23 to talk about this year’s Scott O’Dell Award winner, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Do you have favorite kids books about the Civil Rights or Black Panther movements? What other stand-alone (at this point) books beg for a sequel?

Stretching My Reading Habits: Manga

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Photos by Deb Watley

A couple of my sons enjoy reading manga and watching anime. So before Christmas I was in the manga/graphic novel aisle of a local bookstore helping one son find a present for the other.

I also found a book for me.

I’ve read comics and graphic novels before, but never manga. I was under the impression that all manga was Japanese action/adventure stories like ones my sons follow.

I was wrong.

Emma caught my eye. I suppose partly because of the soft colors. Partly because it was a hardback book surrounded by paperbacks. But, it was the name, Emma, that made me pull it off the shelf for a closer look. I think I expected it to be a graphic novel version of Jane Austen’s Emma.

Wrong again.

Emma is an original story by Kaoru Mori, a Japanese mangaka–a manga artist. It’s the story, set in England in the late 1800s, of a maid and a wealthy man who fall in love but are separated by their socio-economic classes.

So, you ask, what is manga? According to my son, manga is a Japanese graphic novel. Although anime includes any animated tv show or movie, it’s generally known as Japanese animation.

Manga, like graphic novels, is a very broad category. It’s written for young kids, teens (young adult/YA), and adults. It consists of all the literary genres: adventure, sci fi/fantasy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, contemporary, etc.

Emma is a YA historical fiction romance.

Something else that separates manga from other graphic novels? It’s read from right to left–the pages, the illustration windows, and even the speech bubbles.

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Notice how the book opens on the left side.

I requested and received the book for Christmas, and I read it one day last week. In fact, I stayed up late to finish it.

It was fun to read, though sometimes I had to remind myself to read from right to left. What a fun way to read historical fiction, and a good way to stretch my reading habits!

For more info:

About manga and anime

Do you read different categories or genres to stretch yourself? What was your most recent read outside of your comfort zone?

Notable Bicentennials: Events from 1816


In 1816, Jane Austen finished the manuscript that was published as Persuasion the following year. Photo by reifyashi (Flckr/Creative Commons)

Since we’re just beginning to get to know 2016, last week I shared events from 100 years ago. Today I’d like to share another list of anniversaries, this time from 200 years ago:

  • In Europe and New England, 1816 was “The Year Without Summer.” The year before Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupted–for four months. Not only did the volcano kill many people, but it released so much ash that it helped change the global climate. New England had snow and frost, and Europe had lots of dark, rainy days.
  • In fact, Europe’s summer weather was so dark and wet, it played a role in the creation of one of the world’s great horror stories. Nineteen-year-old, British Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon-to-be Mary Shelley) was in Switzerland when she began to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, published the next year.
  • 1816 was a big year for British women authors. Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, was born April 21. Her wonderful novel was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell. I read Jane Eyre as a teen and didn’t get it. I read it as an adult and loved it!
  • Jane Austen also finished her manuscript, The Elliotts. This book was her last completed book before she died the following year, and it was published (also in 1817) with a new title–Persuasion. I have not read this one, so don’t tell me how it ends!
  • The American Bible Society was formed, and many of its early members were important in early America, such as John Jay, John Quincy Adams, and Francis Scott Key. Elias Boudinot was the society’s first president; he had also been the president of the Continental Congress. The society is still translating The Bible into every language of the world.

This list is literary-heavy. What other 1816 events would you add?

Notable Centennials: Events From 1916

The Ossuary at the Verdun Battlefield in France contains the remains of more than 100,000 people who died, both French and German, in the 1916 battle. Photo by John Blower/Flickr


Welcome to 2016! We like to observe anniversaries, especially major ones–like centennials, or centenaries. Here are a few events, both sad and happy, that occurred in 1916:

  • Much of the world was embroiled in the Great War (WWI), but the U.S. was trying to avoid being dragged into it. Verdun was the big battle in France; it lasted ten months. There were other battles, including the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrak. President Wilson was re-elected on the platform of staying out of the war. However, early 1917, Pres. Wilson requests a declaration of war.
  • Pancho Villa and about 1,500 men leave Mexico and make a raid in New Mexico. U.S. General “Black Jack” Pershing chases Villa back into Mexico. What was up with this? It’s something I’d like to know more about.
  • James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small, was born on March 10 (or Oct. 3 or Oct. 13–I’ve seen all three dates). He was one of my favorite authors when I was about twelve. I wanted to be a veterinarian, partly because of his stories.
  • One of the best movie actors ever–Gregory Peck–was born on April 5.
  • Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona books (among others) was born on April 12. Her character, Ramona Quimby, is one of my all-time favorite characters.
  • Explorer Ernest Shackleton and all his crew from the Endurance escape–and survive–from their entrapment in Antarctic ice.
  • The National Park Service was created on Aug. 25.
  • Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana) is the first elected congresswoman on Nov. 11.
  • And, finally, James L. Kraft patents tinned processed cheese. The following year, these tins of cheese, produced by Kraft and his brothers, become food for WWI soldiers.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. What other 1916 events would you add?

7 of My Favorite Christmas Tree Ornaments

Many of the ornaments on our family’s Christmas tree have special meaning to me. Here are seven of my favorites:

photo 11. I made this one in elementary school. I had a teacher who taught some of us how to cross-stitch, a hobby I enjoyed for many years. She showed us how to make these ornaments by stitching yarn onto plastic canvas discs.

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2. My great aunt made this ornament for my husband and me from photos she had taken at our wedding. This great aunt taught me how to sew and crochet when I was in second grade.

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3. I try to find a Christmas ornament from places we travel. This was an ornament sculpture of one of our honeymoon hotels, Banff Springs Hotel, in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

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4. This one is from a family trip to Puerto Rico.

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5. Some years ago, a group of friends and I got together regularly for tea. One Christmas I gave each of them, along with myself, a teacup or teapot ornament.

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6. Years ago, friends gave this to us. One of their mothers had decorated this blown-out goose egg.

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7. This one came from another couple. They had inserted a hand-tied fishing fly into the glass ornament.

Our children have also made us many ornaments. And we give each one of them an ornament every year. Someday when they have their own home, they’ll have a bunch of ornaments loaded with memories to begin their own collection.

Do you have favorite Christmas tree ornaments? What makes them special to you? What ornament traditions do you keep?



My Top 7 Christmas Movies


A benefit of living in the Northern Hemisphere is the cold, snowy, dark, long nights of December lend themselves to watching Christmas movies.

Here are my favorites:

7. The Santa Clause–A fun premise–what if the Santa succession was governed by a magical contract?

6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas–Boris Karloff’s voice.

5. A Charlie Brown Christmas–Christmas is Jesus, not all the sparkly trappings.

4. White Christmas–Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye!

3. It’s a Wonderful Life–The reminder that our lives affect others’ lives, and our lives might turn out better than what we would’ve chosen for ourselves.

2. The Nativity Story–A fairly realistic look at Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ story.

1. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe–Heroes, sacrifice, forgiveness, and a villain who subjects the kingdom to “always winter and never Christmas.”

What are your favorite Christmas movies?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE RIVER BETWEEN US by Richard Peck

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2004 award winner, The River Between Us by Richard Peck.

The young adult novel begins in 1916 when a teen boy, his two young brothers, and their father travel to visit the father’s elderly parents and aunt and uncle in southern Illinois. The boy meets his extended family for the first time, learns what happened to them during the first part of the Civil War, and how their war-time experiences fifty years earlier affected his life.

History Lessons:

Travels by car in 1916–One of the fun things about this story was seeing what it would be like to travel by automobile in 1916. The family packed extra cans of gas, endured multiple flat tires, and camped overnight at the side of the road–such a different way to travel than most of us experience.

For more information about life with the early autos, see the Henry Ford website. It offers fun diary entries of a fictional girl in 1919 whose family purchases their first car and takes their first major trip.

Reason for learning family history–One of the protagonists, Howard, states the reason well:

“Apparently, my dad had been young once, but I couldn’t picture it. Even at the age of fifteen I knew but little about who he was and where he’d come from. And so I knew but little about myself.”

Writing Lessons:

Narrators looking backward–A convention of children’s literature is that protagonists (and the reader) experience the story as it happens. This is one of the ways to tell if a story with a child protagonist is a children’s story or an adult story. In the latter case, the child protagonist usually narrates from a more mature point of view, giving comments about what he or she learned, or what event was yet to come.

In this book, Peck breaks that rule. He has two narrators who tell their stories, both from a future perspective. How does he do this and still appeal to child/teen readers who don’t like the lessons of memoir? He uses mystery, conflict, and a wonderful voice.

Here’s an example of one character describing another in an interesting, fresh, and just plain fun way:

“Noah was his silent self. Most times, he could make a tree seem talkative.” –Tilly

Two stories within the story–Peck frames the Civil War story with the 1916 story of the boy meeting his family. As I read I wondered why he began with the boy/extended family story. I thought the Civil War story was great and could stand on its own–the protagonist had her own, complete story arc.

Then when I read the last part of the 1916 story, I understood why. The Civil War story had more depth when we see how it affected the 1916 story, and Howard could not complete his story arc in 1916 without learning the Civil War story.

Join me Jan. 26 for my next challenge book, the 2011 winner, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia.

Have you ever ridden in a Model T? What’s the most adventurous mode of travel you’ve tried? What other books do you love to read because of the author’s voice? What other books frame a complete story within another complete story?

My First Visit to My Mother’s Family


1970 M.C.I. MC-7 - Greyhound

(Flickr: Creative Commons–dfirecop)


I was about five years old when I had my first bus ride–not on a school bus, but a Greyhound bus. It had big cloth-covered seats. (Our car had vinyl seats.) And it had a bathroom at the back of the bus!

My mother took my two-year-old sister and me to see her parents in northern Wisconsin. We lived in Minnesota at the time (the closest we’d ever live to my mother’s family). And we hadn’t seen them since they’d come to see my newborn sister. My mom took the opportunity and was brave enough to take us on the bus. I have no idea how long it took. I vaguely remember being in the dark, so maybe it took us a day and night. That’s a long time on a bus. We must have had patient traveling companions.

My grandparents lived next to the Wisconsin River. My two vivid memories of their house was the view of the river from a bedroom window (when I was supposed to be napping) and my grandmother’s wringer washing machine.

I had never seen one before. It had the washing machine side, a wringer, and a tub for rinse water. If I remember right, Grandma would take out each clean item of clothing out of the washer, run it through the wringer into the rinse water, then run each rinsed piece through the wringer again before drying them. But I don’t remember if she had a dryer or if she hung the clothes on a line.

My other memory of that trip was visiting my great-grandmother in the nursing home. She was senile. That’s what they called it forty-some years ago. I’d bet she had Alzheimer’s. I don’t remember her talking much, if at all. My mom said she had reverted back to speaking German.

German was Great-Grandma’s first language. She came to America with her parents when she was about three. I wonder if she remembered the boat ride to America? Did she remember how they travelled from the East Coast to Wisconsin? Did she remembered my mother?

Great-Grandma is the only relative for whom I have an immigration date. It’s ironic that as much as I like history, I know very little about my own family history.

Do you remember the first time you met a grandparent or great-grandparent? Were you able to communicate and get to know each other? Did they teach you about the past? Your family history? How did your grandparents do laundry?

Decorating With Art: Picture Books

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I decorate my home with art, aka picture books.

I keep my decorating simple, and I mostly change the decor and art with the major seasons, with a few extra holidays thrown in.

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What’s your decorating style? Do you use picture books in your decor? If so, how do you display them? Do you have favorite artists/illustrators?


Recently I was perusing the shelves of a used bookstore, and I ran across a book that made me stop in disbelief: LAURA INGALLS WILDER’S FAIRY POEMS!

Could it be true? Did one of my favorite authors write poems about fairies?

I checked the publisher to make sure it was a legitimate book.


Okay. It must be so.


I bought the book.

It was published in 1998. The poems were compiled by Stephen W. Hines, an expert on Wilder and her newspaper columns. Hines also wrote an introduction for the book explaining how the fairy poems came to be.

In 1915, Wilder was visiting her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in San Francisco. Lane was a writer, too, and wrote some poetry for the San Francisco Bulletin. But, she was so busy at the time that Wilder wrote some for her. Wilder usually wrote about farming and chickens for a rural newspaper, but she also enjoyed writing poetry.

Fairies may seem like a huge departure from Wilder’s writings about chickens, farming, and homesteading that we are most familiar with, but Wilder’s writings also showed her love of nature. And her fairy poems are really charming nature poems. Plus, Laura had a childlike imagination and, of course, later wrote for children.

The book’s illustrations by Richard Hull are also fun.

After reading the book, I was surprised to find another Wilder-fairy connection. A post on The Cottonwood Tree reprinted a 1922 newspaper column in which Wilder retells a fairy story.

Did you know Wilder wrote fairy poems? What unexpected literary treasures have you found at bookstores? Used bookstores? Yard sales? Libraries?

More Books Added to Running List of World War I Books for Children

WWI books for kids/Photo by Deb Watley

A sampling of WWI books for kids/Photo by Deb Watley

The Great War (1914-1918) was called great because it encompassed so much of the world. It was hoped to be the War to End All Wars. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The Great War is now known as World War I.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of WWI, I’m compiling a running list of children’s books about the WWI-era that I have read, or that you have recommended to me.

The books I’ve just added to the list are in bold type and annotated.

Picture Books

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

And the Soldiers Sang by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Gary Kelley (2011, The Creative Co.)–fiction–A young Welsh soldier experiences the Christmas Truce on the Western Front during the first Christmas of WWI.

Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story by Deborah Hopkinson, and illustrated by Steven Guarnaccia (2013, G.P. Putnam’s Sons)–fiction–A young American boy learns how to knit and participates in a three-day knitting competition so he can contribute to the war effort.

Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Woman’s Land Army of America by Erin Hagar, and illustrated by Jen Hill (Coming Fall 2016, Charlesbridge)–fiction

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the Pooh by Sally M. Walker, and illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss (2015, Henry Holt and Co.)–non-fiction.

Middle Grade

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool–fiction

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo–fiction

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

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales) written and illustrated by Nathan Hale (2014, Amulet Books)–graphic novel, gives an overview of the causes, countries involved, battles, and results of WWI.

Stubby the War Dog: the True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum (2014, National Geographic)–non-fiction–Stubby, a stray dog, adopts some U.S. soldiers, accompanies them to the trenches in France, saves their lives, and comes home a hero.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (2014, Faber and Faber)–A continuation of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It books when the Psammead–a sand fairy–turns up in the British Pemberton children’s gravel pit again right before the oldest boy is sent to the war in France. As the war continues, the other older Pemberton children grow up, one becomes a volunteer nurse, and another becomes a soldier. Meanwhile, the Psammead deals with his past sins.

The Silver Pony by Sonya Hartnett, illustrated by Don Powers (first published in 2014, by Penguin, Australia)–Two French girls, Marcelle and Coco find an English soldier hiding in the woods. As they help him survive and return home to his sick brother, he tells them stories connected to the silver pony figurine his brother gave him to help him “do his best.”

Remember the Lusitania! by Diana Preston (2003, Walker Publishing)–non-fiction–Eyewitness accounts of the last voyage of the Lusitania, the British passenger ocean liner torpedoed by a German u-boat in 1915.

Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics (Women of Action) by Kathryn J. Atwood (2014, Chicago Review Press)–non-fiction–This book features women from both the Allied and the Central Powers.

Young Adult

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson–fiction

Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery–fiction

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost–verse novel

The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman (2010, Clarion Books)–non-fiction–A thorough look at the causes, the nations, the battles, the technology, the people, and the effects of WWI.

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

Native Americans’ Day in South Dakota

Crazy Horse National Monument II

Photo at Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota by Deb Hultgren/Flickr: Creative Commons

Since 1990, South Dakota has honored Native Americans’ Day as a state holiday on the second Monday of October. (I’m a day late.)

According to the S.D. Legislature, “Native Americans’ Day is dedicated to the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state.”

In honor of all Native Americans (not just those in South Dakota), here’s a list of my previous posts with Native American connections:

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE GAME OF SILENCE by Louise Erdrich

Interview: Caroline Starr Rose, author of BLUE BIRDS

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: 5 Lessons from Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O’Dell

Dance is Unusual Form of Storytelling (For Me)

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

Annual Archeology Awareness Days at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

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

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

American Indian Artistry at the Old Courthouse Museum

For more information about Native Americans’ Day, Crazy Horse, and the Crazy Horse Memorial in the South Dakota Black Hills, see the Crazy Horse Memorial website.

Book Giveaway: WWI Books for Kids

My WWI kids' book giveaway package/Photo by Deb Watley

My WWI kids’ book giveaway package/Photo by Deb Watley

In just over a month, on Veterans Day, the United States will honor those who’ve served our country as a member of our military. This day has its origins in Armistice Day on 11-11-1918 at 11 a.m., the day the fighting of The Great War (World War I) ceased.

We don’t talk a lot about World War I in the U.S. I suppose it’s because our military was only involved for less than two years. However, Europe was decimated, and the world is still dealing with the repercussions of that war.

In honor of the centennial of Veterans Day and World War I (1914-1918), I’m giving away a group of recently published kids’ books about the war.

To enter the giveaway, please comment below. I will conduct a random drawing the morning of Tues., Oct. 13. Entries will be limited to non-relatives and to those with U.S. postal addresses.

How did The Great War affect your family? What are some books about the war you’d recommend?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: FORTY ACRES AND MAYBE A MULE by Harriette Gillem Robinet

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

The book I read for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge this month was the 1999 award winner, Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet.

This middle grade historical fiction begins in April 1865 when Pascal’s brother, Gideon, returns to the plantation after serving Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army in Georgia where he’d heard that Sherman had ordered that former slaves be given “forty acres and maybe a mule.” Pascal and Gideon set off, along with a little former slave girl, to obtain their new land. They meet up with an older man, and the four form a new family. They escape men wanting to return them to slavery, make friends with a poor white family, obtain their land, start farming, and even attend school. But then, Sherman’s order is rescinded.

History lesson:

Sherman’s order–In January 1865, Gen. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15–approved by President Abraham Lincoln–that some coastal land and islands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida be given in forty-acre chunks to former slaves and white union supporters. Sherman’s plan was two-fold: it would be a punishment for the Confederate plantation owners to lose their land, and it would be a means for the freed slaves to support themselves.

At this time the war was still raging to the north, but the Freedman’s Bureau was helping the former slaves in some of the Union-controlled area with legal matters, and various organization were opening schools for the newly freed.

However, in April, President Lincoln was assassinated, and his successor, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order in September depriving most of the freedman of their new farms.

Writing lessons:

Dialect–Many older books, especially historical fiction, use a lot of dialect. The dialect can bring to life the time period and the culture. However, dialect can be difficult to read. The usage of dialect in Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule made it hard for me to read. A child, with even less exposure to historical dialects, might have an even more difficult time.

The heavy usage of dialect (as well as accents) has fallen out of favor with current readers. Why?

I believe we are even more removed from the historical dialects than our parents and grandparents were. But, also, we also don’t have the patience to struggle with books that are more difficult to read.

I’m not advocating “dumbing down” language and stories, but at least for newer readers, we can give them the flavor of other times and places without making the text discouraging to read. We can judiciously use authentic vocabulary and grammar to suggest the different time, place, culture–keeping our characters’ dialogue authentic to their racial, social-economic backgrounds–without replicating a totally accurate dialect.

For more information:

Sherman’s Field Order No. 15

Harriette Gillem Robinet

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Join me Oct. 27 to discuss the 1986 winner, Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia McLachlan.

Have you read any other of Robinet’s books or other stories for kids about the beginnings of Reconstruction? How do you handle dialect?

15 Ways to Make the Most of a Writers’ Retreat, Workshop, or Conference

This is a very common scene at writing conferences./Big Stock Photo

This is a very common scene at writing conferences./Big Stock Photo

Last week I wrote about the differences between writers’ retreats, workshops, and conferences; how to choose between the three; and why you should go. Maybe I’ve convinced you to give one of the three a try. Great! But how can you make the most of that experience?

Here are 15 ways:

  1. Pick one that fits your goals &/or genre.
  2. Research speakers beforehand. Check out their websites, blogs, books, etc.
  3. Bring and trade business cards/illustrator postcards. At some conferences, I’ve traded lots of cards, and at others I’ve traded very few, if any. But, it’s better to have the cards and not need them than vice-versa.
  4. Wear layers. Conference rooms can either be very hot or very cold.
  5. Look for past years’ photos of the conference online to see how attendees dress. Attire may be casual, business-casual, or business. Some conferences will also have a formal banquet and/or a themed costume mixer/dinner.
  6. Be friendly and interested in others. Mingle. Introduce yourself, even if it’s only to the person next to you in the lunch line.
  7. Talk with the speakers. But, give them privacy when they’re on the phone or in the bathroom.
  8. Refrain from pushing manuscripts on other attendees or speakers. Conferences are for education and connections, usually not sales. Focus on what you can learn! However, if you find someone compatible, you might agree to become critique partners.
  9. Volunteer to help the conference committee. It is easier to get to know others who are active in the organization, as well as the speakers, if you spend time with them and show you are willing to help and to learn.
  10. Pay for a critique. Conference critiques are fairly inexpensive. Listen, ask questions to clarify, don’t ask to submit the whole thing, and don’t argue.
  11. Have realistic expectations. It is very rare for a writer to make a sale at a conference. More likely agents or editors might ask the writer to email a manuscript or a partial manuscript to them. And it’s even more likely for writers to realize their manuscripts need more work before they are ready for submission.
  12. Make your own schedule to fit your needs. For example, if you are writing and you’re on a roll, feel free to skip a session to keep writing. It’s your conference–make it work for you. Also, some conferences sell recordings of the sessions. It’s worth it to buy them to listen to any you miss, or to re-listen to later.
  13. Make a goal (perhaps to talk with three people, or to find out how to write a query letter, or even to talk to an editor without freaking out). But stay open to the unexpected good things (like talking to the person next to you and learning they love the same books you do, or getting an autograph and maybe even some encouragement from a well-published author, etc.).
  14. Be prepared to experience a range of emotions. You might experience information overload. You might be very excited to make friends with people who love the same books you do and who love to write. You might be very excited to learn how to improve your writing or to learn the ins and outs of the business. You might not be able to sleep because your mind is racing. Or you might despair because you realize your writing isn’t as good as you thought it was. You might be crushed when you don’t receive that hoped-for contract. So, be prepared to experience both the roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. And, be prepared for the let-down when you get home and you deal with exhaustion and your regular life. REMEMBER, IT’S NORMAL.
  15. After the conference, submit manuscripts, send thank-you notes to speakers and conference planners, and follow-up on social media or email with all your new contacts.

What are other tips I should include?

Writers’ Conferences, Workshops, and Retreats: Why Should You Go and How to Choose

Photo by Big Stock Photo

Photo by Big Stock Photo

One of the things I love about writing is that writers can self-educate. We don’t have to earn a degree, or a license, or complete a residency to write.

I don’t mean that writers only teach themselves and never learn from other teachers and writers. And I don’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue formal education. Those are wonderful things!

What I mean is that if we want to improve their writing and learn about the business of publishing, we can do much of the legwork ourselves. We can read excellent books similar to our writing style, we can study books about writing, we can practice writing on our own. We can also find tons of help on the internet, and we can join various writers’ groups.

Another thing we can do is attend writer’s conferences, workshops, and retreats.


10 reasons to go to a conference, workshop, or retreat:

  1. To learn writing skills.
  2. To learn about the business-side & market trends.
  3. To get books autographed by your favorite authors.
  4. To bring home a list of books to read.
  5. To meet editors, art directors, and agents, find out what they’re looking for and realize they are people, too.
  6. To meet people who like to do same thing and won’t think you’re crazy when you say your main character won’t behave.
  7. To make new friends and form critique partnerships/groups.
  8. To get a critique by an industry pro.
  9. To gain access to publishing houses that are closed to submissions.
  10. To be inspired.

Differences between conferences, workshops, retreats:

Conferences—In general, conferences tend to be open to all writers, from beginners to multi-published authors. Some have hundreds of attendees–some are smaller, some are larger.  There are usually multiple speakers, and maybe even break out sessions, intensives, pitch sessions, critiques, award banquets, autograph parties, and lots of networking. Conferences can be very generalized, with something for every writer. Or they can be specialized by focusing on a certain genre.

Workshops—These tend to be smaller, more specialized, and hands-on. For example, the workshop might focus on writing picture books. There might be fewer speakers, and attendees might be required to bring a manuscript to work on. Expect to have class sessions, but also expect time during the classes to practice on your manuscript. There may also be times to share your work with each other.

Retreats—These are usually getaway times for writers to focus on their work-in-progress. Retreats tend to be very small and to be at places that promote creativity, rest, and productivity–interesting that the same place can promote all three. The faculty may teach some intensive workshops, do individual critiques, or lead critique groups. There will probably be lots of time worked into the schedule for alone work, but also time for socializing with the other attendees.

How to decide what type to attend:

I’ve gone to all three types and have loved them all. What you choose depends on what you want to learn or work on. It depends on your personality. It depends on your time and money budgets, as well as your family and work situations.

If you’re new to writing, go to a fairly local general writers conference to soak up information on a broad variety of topics, but especially writing-related topics.

If you’re working on a writing project and want to improve in specific areas–such as characters or plots, try a workshop.

If you’re really invested in writing projects and a writing career, try a retreat.

If you’re ready to investigate and/or pursue publication, go to a conference that has editors and agents on the faculty.

Do your homework. Some conferences are focused on the craft side of writing. Some are focused on the business side of writing. Some are a mix of the two. Some conferences are for writers, some are for booksellers/publishers, etc.

There are also conferences for almost any type of writing you can think of–mystery, romance, Christian, non-fiction, children’s, educational, speculative (science fiction, fantasy, paranormal), etc. Many of these conferences are part of writing organizations, such as Romance Writers of America, American Christian Fiction Writers, or the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

Look for local and regional conferences, etc., too. They may not have the large number of big-name speakers, but they might have a big-name speaker or two, and it will cost a lot less to go to. Also, the faculty/attendee ratio may be much lower, so it’s more likely for you to have a conversation with a speaker at a smaller conference.

How to locate conferences, workshops, and retreats:

  1. Check online at the websites of writer’s organizations.
  2. Use the search engines to find writer’s conferences, etc.
  3. Read the blogs or social media of authors, agents, and editors. They often mention conferences, etc. they will be attending or speaking at.
  4. Ask other writers what conferences they’ve been to.

Finally, if you just can’t get away from home, work, family, or you hate being in even small crowds, or you need to keep your costs down, try an online webinar, workshop, or conference. I’ve done these, too, and found them to be helpful, as well as time-efficient and cost-efficient.

What conferences, workshops, or retreats have you attended? What kind do you prefer? What other benefits have you experienced by going to a conference, etc.?

My First Day of First Grade

My first day of first grade. Photo by Betty Hickman.

My first day of first grade. Photo by Betty Hickman.

In honor of the back-to-school season, here is a photo of me on my first day of first grade.

There were two important things about that day:

  • I had a new denim purse.
  • I walked to school by myself.

What do you remember about some of your first days of school?

The Big Slide in Sioux Falls’ Sherman Park Offered Excitement to Riders

The Sherman Park Slide, Sioux Falls, SD, ca. 1900--Courtesy Center of Western Studies, Augustana College

The Sherman Park Big Slide, Sioux Falls, SD–Early 20th Century–Courtesy Center for Western Studies, Augustana College

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the history of roller coasters, and I learned their origin dates back about 400 years ago to ice slides in Russia. About that same time I wrote that post, in a moment of serendipity, I ran across a historical marker in my city of Sioux Falls, SD, that marked the spot of a giant wood slide!

The Big Slide was located at the top of a hill in Sherman Park from approximately 1913-1920. Just over 100 years ago, Edwin A. Sherman, an early businessman and civic leader in Sioux Falls, donated about 50 acres west of the city for a park. Sherman devoted much of the rest of his life to developing parks in both the city and the state.

The park became a popular place for swimming in the Big Sioux River. But, another of the amenities of the park was a wood slide almost 300 feet long, beginning at the top of a steep hill. Near the bottom of the hill, the slide continued over a road, but high enough horses and buggies could go under it. Imagine the fright the horse felt when a screaming person slid above it?

The slide was lined with tin, and riders would sit on waxed paper to go faster, or a piece of old carpet or burlap to protect them from the heat of the tin. However, the slide had a short life before it was deemed dangerous and dismantled.

Historical marker for Sherman Park Slide, Sioux Falls--Photo by Deb Watley

Historical marker for Sherman Park Slide, Sioux Falls–Photo by Deb Watley

For anyone interested in looking for the marker, it is next to a short rock wall that has a bench built into it. In addition, there are a few Native American Indian Burial Mounds close by.

Location of the marker for the Sherman Park Slide--Photo by Deb Watley

Location of the marker for the Sherman Park Slide–Photo by Deb Watley

Check out the Sioux Falls website for more info about Sherman Park’s history.

I had another serendipitous find while researching The Big Slide. The Center for Western Studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls has a wonderful library! I will be spending more time there!

Have you heard of the Big Slide? Do you know any family stories about the slide? Do you know the purpose of the rock wall/bench? Was it a waiting area for slide riders, or perhaps seating for small concerts, etc.? Would you ride a 300-foot wood slide?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE GAME OF SILENCE by Louise Erdrich

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2006 winner, The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich.

The Game of Silence is the second book in Erdrich’s Birchbark Series which follows an extended Anishinabe (Ojibwa/Chippewa) family through the 1840s-60s in the Upper Midwest. Erdrich also won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2013 for Chickadee, the fourth book in the series. In fact, Erdrich is the only author to earn the Scott O’Dell Award twice.

I did things backwards, and I read and blogged about Chickadee first. I’ve since read the rest of the series. The first three Birchbark books focus on Omakayas, a young Anishinabe girl, and Chickadee takes place years later and focuses on Omakayas’s son.

In The Game of Silence, Omakayas, about nine years old, and her family receive word that the American government is planning to push them out of their homeland on Moningwanaykaning (Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, now known as Madeline Island, WI) into Minnesota, territory of the Bwaanag (the Dakota and Lakota) who are hostile to the Anishinabe. But, first, Omakayas must deal with her pesky little brother, her warrior cousin, an angry boy refugee, and her gift of dreams.

History Lesson:

The Sandy Lake Tragedy–Although we don’t see it first-hand through the eyes of Omakayas, The Game of Silence is set into motion by what becomes the Sandy Lake Tragedy. The U.S. government had promised the Anishinabe they could stay on their lands near Lake Superior, and the government promised yearly payments. The payments were usually made on Madeline Island, WI. However, in 1850, the payments were going to be made near Sandy Lake in northern Minnesota Territory, requiring the Anishinabe to travel far from their homes.

From what I understand, the movement of the payment wasn’t predicated by the Wisconsin white people’s desire for the Anishinabe land. It turns out there were government leaders, including Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, who wanted the Anishinabe to be relocated to northern Minnesota. Why?

Because the presence of the Anishinabe presence in Minnesota would bring economic gain to themselves and Minnesota. Anyway, the leaders had convinced President Zachary Taylor to relocate the Anishinabe. When the Anishinabe ignored the relocation order, Ramsey and others made a plan to lure the Anishinabe to Minnesota for the land payments, believing the Anishinabe would be so far from their homeland they would decide to stay.

The payments were to be made late October. When the more than 4,000 Anishinabe arrived, the government payments hadn’t. But, winter and diseases soon arrived. To complicate matters, there wasn’t enough shelter or food, and much of the food there was spoiled. Many Anishinabe died.

When a tiny partial payment finally arrived in early December, the Anishinabe decided if they were going to die, they would do it back in their homeland. However, they had to walk through heavy snow to get home, and hundreds more died on their way. Altogether, more than 400 died that winter.

In 1852, a group of Anishinabe travel to Washington, D.C., to request President Millard Fillmore stop the relocation, and he does order it to stop and requires the payments to be made at Madeline Island. The Anishinabe also had white supporters, especially missionaries and newspaper editors.

One of the Anishinabe leaders who made the trek to D.C. is Chief Buffalo. There is a leader named Buffalo in the beginning of The Game of Silence. I believe he’s the same man.

Writing Lesson:

An Active Protagonist–Omakayas’s life is turned upside down because of the Sandy Lake Tragedy. She cannot change the big situation. Middle grade readers will relate. They are often affected by big, terrible situations they have no control over.

However, the protagonists in middle grade books do exercise personal agency. In fact, their story arcs are often how they realize or decide that they can make certain decisions and act on them. They learn to be proactive and not just reactive.

For example, Omakayas cannot change the situation between the Anishinabe and the U.S. government. But, she does make choices that affect her life and the lives of her family members. And, although she and her family have been victimized, she chooses not to be a victim.

For more information:

Louise Erdrich (who is also an owner of a Minneapolis, MN, bookstore)

Sandy Lake Tragedy and Memorial

Chief Buffalo and Benjamin Armstrong

Join me Sept. 29 as I blog about the 1999 winner, 40 Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriet Gillem Robinet.

Have you read any of The Birchbark Series? If so, which one is your favorite?

Summer Means Ice Cream

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Last week I wrote about one of the staples of summer–roller coasters. However, another one of the much-loved things about summer is ice cream.

On a hot day, it’s a treat to open the freezer, take out the container of ice cream, and scoop out a bowl-full of the cold, creamy good stuff.

In the past ice cream was an extra special treat because if you wanted some, you needed cream, eggs, and sugar–all of which might be in short supply. But first, months earlier, you had to cut ice out of a lake or pond and store it until you wanted it.

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, Farmer Boy, Wilder relates a story about a time Almanzo and his siblings are home alone and decide to make ice cream for themselves:

They dug a block of ice out of the sawdust and….pounded it with hatchets till the ice was crushed. Alice came out to watch them while she whipped egg-whites on a platter. She beat them with a fork, till they were too stiff to slip when she tilted the platter.

Eliza Jane measured milk and cream, and dipped up sugar from the barrel in the pantry. It was not common maple sugar, but white sugar bought from the store. Mother used it only when company came. Eliza Jane dipped six cupfuls….

She made a big milk-pail full of yellow custard. They set the pail in a tub and packed the snowy crushed ice around it, with salt, and the covered it all with a blanket. Every few minutes they took off the blanket and uncovered the pail, and stirred the freezing ice-cream….

They could eat all the ice-cream and cake they wanted to; no one would stop them.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful–except for all the work and waiting?

I confess, I’ve never liked homemade ice cream. I’m a hard-packed ice cream girl. And I like my ice cream with bits of chocolate, nuts, or peanut butter in it.

What’s your favorite ice cream? Do you make homemade ice cream?

10 Kids’ Books in Honor of the 70th Anniversary of the US Development and Dropping of Atomic Bombs

Statue in honor of Sadako at the Children's Peace Monument in Hiroshima Peace Park. (Big Stock Photo)

Statue in honor of Sadako Sasaki at the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima Peace Park. (Big Stock Photo)

This week marks the 70th anniversary of a momentous time for the world. On Aug. 6, 1945, the US dropped the atomic (uranium) bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A few days later (Aug. 9), the US dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. Japan’s surrender was announced Aug. 15. The formal surrender ceremony took place on Sept. 2 (VJ Day/Victory Over Japan) on the deck of the USS Missouri, officially ending World War II.

It was one of those “best of times, worst of times.” Yes, the war was over. But the bombs brought unheard of deaths and destruction, as well as the ongoing threat of global nuclear destruction.

Here are 10 kids’ books that describe the building of the bombs and the end of the war.


1. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr (1977)–MG–Based on a real girl, this story is about Sadako Sasaki, who survived the Hiroshima bombing when she was two, but succumbed to leukemia, caused by the radiation, when she was twelve. Before she died, Sadako began to make 1,000 origami cranes in hopes of getting well. After her death, Japanese children led the movement to finish Sadako’s 1,000 cranes, and to build a monument to honor Sadako, other victims of the bombing, and to promote world peace.

2. Hiroshima: A Novella by Laurence Yep (1995)–MG–Twelve-year-old Sachi and her classmates were clearing away houses to make fire lanes in Hiroshima the morning the atomic bomb obliterated her city. Sachi was the only one of her classmates to survive, but suffered from debilitating and disfiguring burns. A few years later she is chosen for treatment in the United States where she overcomes her fears of the Americans.

3. Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac (2005)–MG/YA–Ned, a young Navajo boy, is taught at his boarding school that anything Indian is bad, but when WWII starts the US military wants the Navajo to use their language to foil the Japanese. Ned joins the Marines and helps the US win the war.

4. The Gadget by Paul Zindel (2001)–MG–Thirteen-year-old Stephen joins his father at Los Alamos where his father is working on a secret project that will end the war. But, when Stephen finds his dad distant and distracted, he teams up with his new friend, Alexei, to uncover the big secret. He learns that neither The Gadget nor Alexei are what he expects.

5. The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (2006)–MG/YA–The scientists at Los Alamos were allowed to have their families at the secret base. The children went to school, played with friends, and learned to live with very tight security measures. Two girls–Dewey, a young math and science genius, and Suze, an artist–become unlikely friends in an unlikely place.


6. Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki (1980)–Picture Book–This book was first published in Japan and was classified as non-fiction. The story dramatizes a family’s experience during and after the bombing in Hiroshima. Although the book is based on the facts of an actual family, it seems to have fictional elements. Perhaps it would be considered historical fiction if it were published now. However, this book handles the horror of a young girl’s experience in a sensitive and truthful way that young readers can understand and handle.

7. The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb by Edward T. Sullivan (2007)–MG/YA–Sullivan thoroughly describes the development of atomic research, the building of the atomic bombs used during WWII, and the involvement of key scientists and military leaders.

8. J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Brain Behind the Bomb by Glenn Scherer and Marty Fletcher (2008)–MG/YA–This biography about Oppenheimer also describes the discovery of fission, the need for the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the bombings, as well as Oppenheimer’s efforts to keep atomic weapons from being used again.

9. The Bomb by Steve Sheinkin (2012)–MG/YA–America and Britain, with help from German and Jewish scientists and Norwegian resistance fighters, successfully raced the Nazis in building the first atomic weapons. No longer needing the bombs to beat the Nazis, the US used them against the Japanese. However, the Soviets stole many of the secrets of the bombs, and the new atomic weapon race became one between the US and the Soviets. This book explains why the security measures described in The Green Glass Sea were necessary, but unsuccessful.

10. The Secret of the Manhattan Project by Doreen Gonzales (2012)–MG/YA–This book also details how scientists discovered fission, the political and human situations leading up to and continuing throughout the war, the urgency behind the U.S. creation of atomic weapons, how the weapons were used, and how the atomic age affects us now.

For more info:

US Army Center of Military History

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

What other kids books should I add to the list?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE HONORABLE PRISON by Lyll Becerra de Jenkins

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1989 winner, The Honorable Prison, written by Lyll Becerra de Jenkins.

In this young adult historical fiction set in the mid-20th Century, 17-year-old Marta and her family are put in house arrest at a remote military base because of her father’s stand against the dictator. The Latin American family suffers from exposure, hunger, illness, isolation, betrayal, and the constant threat of violence. They are the fortunate ones.

History Lessons:

Latin America–I appreciated The Honorable Prison because it covered a time period in a nation I knew little about.

According to this New York Times article, Jenkins’ story is set in Columbia around the middle of the 20th Century, during a time of much violence and repression, also known as “la violencia.” Jenkin’s father experienced some of that because he spoke out against a dictator in the 1950s.

It was enlightening to see Columbia through the eyes of a teen girl and not just through news headlines about a faraway place. It certainly helped make the place, time, and people alive to me.

For more information about Columbia:

National Geographic Kids

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Writing Lessons:

Vague setting–Jenkins wrote this story for American teens about a place that is very foreign to them. Yet, I believe she deliberately left out many of the setting details. Why?

First, Marta’s story–not the political details–is the first priority. Too many unfamiliar details could bog down the readers.

Second, I believe Jenkins kept things a little vague so the readers could imagine this story happening anywhere in the world where free speech is repressed. Readers can’t just say, “Oh, that’s a sad story that happened a long time ago a long ways from me.” No, the reader can imagine themselves in Marta’s situation.

Tense–It’s unusual that The Honorable Prison, as a historical fiction, is told in present tense. Often historical fiction is told in past tense because the story takes place in the past.

It’s also unusual because this book was published in 1988. Present tense YA books are popular right now, especially in fast-paced, adventure stories–think The Hunger Games trilogy.

Present tense was a great choice for The Honorable Prison! First, it adds a dimension of danger and tension to the story. As I read, I knew things were going to continue to get worse for Marta and her family, but because it’s in present tense, my subconscious couldn’t tell me that Marta makes it through okay.

The second reason the present tense works so well is that most of the story takes place while the family is under house arrest. They simply can’t go out and do stuff. Their interactions with other people are very limited. And, as the family sinks into starvation and despair, they become even more lethargic and even incoherent. Jenkins use of the present tense adds movement to the story that the plot on its own would have trouble doing.

Join me August 25 for my next Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book, the 2006 winner, The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich.

What kids’ historical fiction books about Latin America do you recommend?

10 Middle Grade Historical Fiction Novels in Honor of America’s Birthday

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

The Declaration of Independence was signed 239 years ago this month, marking the official beginning of America’s fight to become an independent nation.

Join me at the Cybils blog, where I featured 10 recent historical fiction middle grade books that bring the ups and downs of America’s past to life.

The Cybils is short for the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards. Each year the organization seeks to honor books that both excel in literary quality and appeal to children.

My Favorite Summer Reading Places

Big Stock Photo--Very similar to my swing. I wish I had thought to add pillows.

Big Stock Photo–Very similar to my swing. I wish I had thought to add pillows.

My summers during high school were wonderful! I had long amounts of reading time, and my favorite place to read was in our front porch swing. I spent many happy–hot–hours on that swing.

I have multiple places I like to read now, but during the summer, one of my favorite places is in front of the wave pool at our local water park. I can catch some sun, cool off in the wave pool, listen to the waves, not feel guilty about undone chores–and even though I’m surrounded by people– be totally alone with my book.

There are a few hazards, though, such as the starling that landed on my head. I’m thankful he didn’t leave any parting gifts!

During my porch swing days, I’d devour huge historical fiction novels. I can still dig into big or deep books during the summer. But, I’ve learned that when I take a book to the wave pool, it has to be just the right kind of book.

It must be:

  • an easy read–there are lots of distractions at the water park
  • not too serious–I’m willing to wipe a few tears, but I don’t want to bawl in public
  • paperback–to keep my bag light
  • a book I own, not a friend’s or the library’s–there will be water and sunscreen involved.
Photo by Deb Watley

Photo by Deb Watley–The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina (The Roman Mysteries #6) by Caroline Lawrence–from summer of 2014.

I’ve found that Caroline Lawrence’s The Roman Mysteries Series are perfect for reading at the wave pool. Lawrence has described her middle grade series as Nancy Drew set in AD 79. Here’s a photo of The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina (book 6) from last summer. I finished book nine a couple of weeks ago. I’ve already ordered book ten.

Where’s your favorite summer reading spot? What do you like to read there?

Visiting the Battleship South Dakota Memorial for the USS South Dakota BB 57

Battleship South Dakota Memorial, Sioux Falls, SD (All photos by Deb Watley)

Battleship South Dakota Memorial, Sioux Falls, SD (Photos by Deb Watley)

Last week a couple of my sons and I visited the Battleship South Dakota Memorial in Sioux Falls, SD (12th & Kiwanis Ave.). This state treasure is both a memorial and museum that showcases the WWII-era USS South Dakota (BB 57).

The ship was launched in June 1941, but still under construction when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. However, in August 1942, the battleship headed out to the South Pacific and was in battle within a couple of months.

During it’s WWII service, most of which was in the Pacific Theater, the USS South Dakota and it’s sailors were in so many battles and performed so well that it earned the most medals and awards of any other WWII American battleships.

The USS South Dakota was decommissioned after the war, and in the 1960s set for the scrapyard. But, a group of South Dakotans worked to save the ship. Although they weren’t able to save the whole thing, they were able to obtain parts of the ship that became the backbone for the memorial/museum in Sioux Falls. The museum also holds many photographs and mementoes donated by the ship’s sailors.

If you get a chance to go to the museum, watch the video which gives a good overview of the battleship and the memorial. And walk around the concrete outline of the ship to see some of her key pieces, like the mast, anchor, and one of her 16-inch guns.

USS South Dakota outline, anchor, museum, and mast.

USS South Dakota outline, anchor, museum, and mast–from the bow.

The Sodak had nine 16-inch guns. This was the only one saved for the memorial.

The Sodak had nine 16-inch guns. This was the only one saved for the memorial.

SD bell

Interesting facts about the USS South Dakota:

  • The Sioux Falls, SD, Washington High School band performed at the June 7, 1941, launching ceremony in New Jersey.
  • The USS South Dakota was also known as Battleship X, Old Nameless, and Sodak.
  • Twelve-year-old Calvin Graham, the youngest medal-earning service member of WWII, served on the Sodak. As late as WWII, it was still fairly common for underage kids to lie about their age and join the military. There may have been more than 1,000 underage kids in the service.
  • Ninety-five men died in action.
  • The ship hosted multiple sports teams, including its own baseball team.
The Sodak's baseball team played against other ships' teams, including the ?, on which the famous pro baseball player Bob Feller was part of.

The Sodak’s baseball team played against other ships’ teams, including the USS Alabama’s, on which the famous pro baseball player Bob Feller was a member.

  • The Sodak was the first American battleship to bombard a main Japanese island (July 14, 1945).
  • The Sodak had several Kingfisher aircraft that were used for scouting and sea rescues. Since there was no runway for the Kingfishers to take off from, these planes were catapulted off the ship’s  stern.
  • The model of the ship was built as a type of prototype in the 1930s, before construction on the actual ship began.
The model cost $50,000.

The model cost $50,000–during the 1930s.

For more info:

The Boy Who Became a WWII Veteran at 13 Years Old

USS South Dakota

Since we’ve just celebrated America’s Independence Day, here’s a big shout-out to all those men and women who have served and died for our country, and especially to the men from the USS South Dakota!

What WWII memorials have you visited?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s historical fiction novel for my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2009 award winner, Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Chains begins in the spring of 1776, when Isabel and her younger sister, Ruth, are sold to a New York couple posing as Patriots. Isabel’s main goals are to take care of her sister and to not anger her new masters. However, as the war between the Patriots and British envelopes New York, Isabel begins to see the larger issues of freedom and determines to be free of all her chains, physical and otherwise.

History Lesson:

Slaves caught in the middle–In the novel, as well as in the appendix, Anderson shows the fate and dilemmas of the black slaves during the Revolutionary War. Black men fought on both sides of the war. Some were slaves who served their soldier owners, some were slaves serving in place of their owners, some were freedmen, and some were runaways.

Some chose to fight on the side of the Patriots, believing that once the colonists were free from Britain, the Patriots would free the slaves. Some chose to fight on the side of the British because the British promised freedom.

The thing I didn’t know was that when the British promised freedom to runaway slaves, it was only to slaves of Patriots, not Loyalists. In fact, they would return runaway slaves to Loyalists.

Anderson points out that neither the Americans nor the British offered freedom to slaves because of opposition to slavery. Any promises of freedom, by either side, was war-time strategy.

Writing Lesson:

Rising stakes–Often writers like their characters so much, they have trouble making trouble for their characters. But, if there isn’t enough conflict, there won’t be a story.

Anderson did a great job making things tough, and tougher, for Isabel. I’ll try not to give away any spoilers, but Isabel starts off as a slave with no control over her future. This is ground-level conflict. Then Anderson gives Isabel a young sister who is helpless without her. So, now, the conflict doesn’t just involve Isabel, but also someone she loves.

Then the two girls are sold to a cruel couple. This couple is pretending to be Patriots in Patriot-held New York. However, not only are they Loyalists, but they are plotting against George Washington. Isabel begins to spy for the Patriots, then the British take control of New York. Each point of conflict gets bigger and has greater stakes, or consequences, for Isabel or people she cares about.

Anderson makes things worse for Isabel, including having Isabel experience torture and near death. Why do this? The increasing conflict/stakes builds tension in the readers and keeps them reading the story. If the worst that can happen isn’t very bad, or if it happens right away in the book, readers will lose interest.

For more information:

Laurie Halse Anderson

Fighting…Maybe For Freedom, But Probably Not

Revolutionary Changes and Limitations: Slavery

Slavery, the American Revolution, and the Constitution

Join me, July 28, for my next challenge book, the 1989 Scott O’Dell Award winner, The Honorable Prison by Lyll Becerra de Jenkins.

What other kids books deal with slavery during the American Revolutionary War? What children’s authors do you admire for making things increasingly tough for their characters?

Black Hills Family Vacation Wonderful Start to Summer

Last week my family had a quick trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota. We watched a little of the state high school track meet, visited a college, and did some sightseeing.

One of my favorite vacation things to do is visit museums, visitor centers, and bookstores. We did all three, and I came home with several books.

A couple of my souvenirs. All photos by Deb Watley.

A couple of my souvenirs. All photos by Deb Watley.

I’ve been out to the Black Hills a couple of other times, but this was our first visit to Wall Drug. I knew it was a big tourist stop, but was thrilled to find Wall Drug also housed a bookstore!

Hole in the Wall Book Store at Wall Drug

Hole in the Wall Book Store at Wall Drug.

We visited the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City. The museum houses many fossils from the area. The paleontologists who run the museum were the ones who dug up Sue, the famous T-Rex. Then, in Lead, we learned about the former Homestake gold mine at the Black Hills Mining Museum.

We also admired lovely scenery, including Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon and the Badlands east of the Black Hills–such different topography, yet so close to each other.

Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon

Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon

Badlands, South Dakota

Badlands, South Dakota

Of course, we ate at some local landmark restaurants: The Firehouse Brewing Company and Tally’s Silver Spoon, both in Rapid City, and The Homestake Chop House in Lead.

In a previous trip to the Black Hills, we attended a chuckwagon supper, and we visited Mt. Rushmore, Bear Country, the Cosmos, and Hot Springs’ mammoth dig. I’ve yet to visit the Crazy Horse sculpture, the Petrified Forest, or any of the caves. Guess we’ll have to go back!

Have you visited the Black Hills? What are your favorite spots?

Even though I’m not traveling now, I’m still in vacation-mode. I’ll return to my blog on Tuesday, June 30. Happy summer!

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2012 winner, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.

The story is set in the historical town of Norvelt during the summer of 1962, when 11-year-old Jack spends lots of time reading a set of history books, digging a fake bomb shelter for his dad, trying to keep his nose from bleeding, and helping his elderly neighbor write obituaries for the original homesteaders of Norvelt who may not be dying of natural causes.

In addition to winning the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Dead End in Norvelt also won the 2012 Newbery Medal.

History Lessons:

Norvelt–During the Depression, the government set up 100 homesteading communities in which poverty-stricken families, especially coal-mining families, could have a nice home and enough land to grow their own food. The communities had cooperative farms and businesses, and the residents helped each other build their homes.

Norvelt, Penn., was one of these communities. The residents eventually bought their homes and the businesses were privatized. It was Jack Gantos’ hometown, and it still exists.

Importance of history–Most historical fiction books just deal with one time period or location. However, this novel includes stories from many eras and places. And Jack and his neighbor, Miss Volker, connect those historical stories to Jack’s current story.

Dead End in Norvelt is a tribute to the importance of remembering our history, and it includes wonderful quotes about history. Here are a few:

  • “But if you don’t know your history you won’t know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking.” –Miss Volker
  • “History isn’t dead. It’s everywhere you look. It’s alive.” –Jack
  • “History began when the universe began with a ‘Big Bang,’ which is one reason why most people think history has to be about a big event like a catastrophe or a moment of divine creation, but every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories.” –Miss Volker
  • “The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you’ve done in the past is so you don’t do it again.” –Jack

Writing Lesson:

Comparisons–One way authors give a unique voice to their writing is by avoiding clichéd comparisons–metaphors and similes. As the narrator, Jack describes situations with original, and story-specific comparisons. All his comparisons come from what he’s been thinking about–and they are unique to him. None of the other characters in the book would make the same comparisons.

For example, one night Jack watches a house burn down. He compares the glowing ash to confetti at a magical fairy celebration in some ancient world. The flames leap and wave goodbye. The house “was a piece of history dropping to its knees before disappearing forever.”

For more info:



Jack Gantos website

Speech by Gantos at the 2011 National Book Festival

Join me June 30 to discuss what I learned from the 2009 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Have you visited Norvelt or any of the other homesteading communities? What are some quotes you love about the importance of learning history? What other books use unique comparisons?

2015 Tulip Festival in Orange City, Iowa

I’ve been focusing on flowers the past couple weeks with a post about South Dakota flowers and a post about flowers and children’s literature.

This week I want to share photos with you from my visit to a small town festival dedicated to flowers–and the town’s Dutch heritage–The Tulip Festival in Orange City, Iowa.

Photos by Deb Watley

Photos by Deb Watley

purple tulips

orange tulips

multi tulips

The festival parades include people dressed in traditional Dutch costumes.

The festival parades include people dressed in traditional Dutch costumes.

Check out the shoes the local high school band wears.

Check out the shoes the local high school band wears.

Orange City's Chamber of Commerce

Orange City’s Chamber of Commerce

My favorite festival food--funnel cake!

My favorite festival food–funnel cake!

Was anyone else in Orange City last week? What are your favorite things about town festivals? What other flower-related festivals do you know of?

Flowers and Children’s Literature: A History & 2 Lists

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Last week, I shared some of the flowers and blooming trees that are important to spring in South Dakota.

This week, I want to share how flowers have played an integral part of children’s literature. First, there are some beautiful illustrations in vintage children’s books. See Jill Casey’s post April Showers Bring May Flowers on her blog, The Art of Children’s Picture Books.

In other children’s stories, flowers have been important to the plot, the theme, or the characters, beyond a title or a character name.

Children’s fiction books I’ve read in which flowers are important:

  • The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illus. by Robert Lawson
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Dandelions by Eve Bunting, illus. by Greg Shed

Other flower-related children’s fiction books, but ones I haven’t read:

  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  • The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, The Legend of the Bluebonnet, and The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola
  • Flower Fairies books by Cicely Mary Barker
  • Sunflower House by Eve Bunting, illus. by Kathryn Hewitt
  • Flower Fables by Louisa May Alcott
  • April Flowers by Donna Jo Napoli
  • What Flowers Remember by Shannon Wiersbitzky

What books should I add to my lists?

May Flowers in South Dakota

Crab apple blossom/Photo by Deb Watley

Crab apple blossoms in my backyard/Photos by Deb Watley

“Sweet April showers do spring May flowers.”

Thomas Tusser (England, 1524-1580)

Bleeding hearts at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls

Bleeding hearts at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls

In the past week I’ve also seen lilacs, violets, crocuses, daffodils, tulips, pear trees, apple trees, and dandelions in bloom.

What is blooming in your part of the world?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Worth by A. LaFaye

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

The historical fiction book I read this month for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2005 winner, Worth, by A. LaFaye.

Worth is set in Nebraska in the late 1800s and begins with an accident that breaks 11-year-old Nathaniel’s leg. The injury is so bad he will never walk normally again, let alone handle the labor required on his family’s farm. Nathaniel’s father brings home John Worth, an orphan boy, to do Nathaniel’s work, and Nathaniel deals with his hurt and resentment at being replaced on the farm and perhaps even in his father’s heart.

History Lesson:

Orphan Trains–I’ve been reading a lot about Orphan Trains, so this wasn’t a new topic for me. But it is fascinating–and not talked about much.

In the early to mid-1800s, there were so many, many orphans and street kids in New York City, and they often had very hard lives–sleeping in doorways, starving, begging, stealing. Charles Loring Brace believed the children would be welcomed by farm families who needed extra hands, and the children would benefit by leaving the city’s temptations and dangers and by living with families. His organization, The Children’s Aid Society, sent groups of orphans or abandoned children by train to various locations from 1854-1929.

The Society had requirements for families seeking children: the families were to treat the children as their own, feed, clothe, and house them, as well as send them to school. Older kids were supposed to be paid. There was some oversight, but not nearly enough. Many children were taken just to be free labor. Many were abused. But, many also ended up in good situations. The Children’s Aid Society started the Orphan Trains, but there were other organizations that followed suit.

Writing Lessons:

(Lack of) Description–I noticed there weren’t a lot of setting details or description in Worth. Readers know it’s set on a Nebraska farm, near a small town. There’s little description of clothing, scenery, etc. However, the details LaFaye includes give just enough information to help a reader picture what’s going on.

Some readers might miss reading about all the historical details, but those same details slow down the pace of the story. Children tend to want their stories fast-paced. They want to know what’s happening to the protagonists; they don’t want to get bogged down in details. LaFaye did a great job keeping the story going and only giving the necessary details.

Twist in Point Of View (POV)–Of the Orphan Train stories I’ve read, the Orphan Train Rider has always been the protagonist. It’s understandable. These were children who had dramatic and traumatic stories. However, LaFaye switched it up. Her protagonist is Nathaniel, not John. I really appreciated this! Partly because it gave some variety to the stories I’ve been reading, and partly because it is a good example of how to give a common story a unique twist.

Switching the POV character brings up lots of “what if” questions. Imagine a family takes in an orphan. What if the family already has a child? How does that child feel about the orphan? What if the family takes in the orphan to replace the work of a child who wants to contribute but can’t? What if the child is afraid the orphan will replace him in the family, too?

Another thing I like about LaFaye’s POV switch-up, is that it allows the family to become three-dimensional. In other Orphan Train stories I’ve read, the families seem to be extremely wonderful or extremely horrible. But Nathaniel’s parents are very well-developed and realistic. Both his mom and dad do good things and bad things. For example, Nathaniel’s mom is a very loving and understanding mom to Nathaniel, but she is mean to John–at first. She goes through her own story arc.

Title–Coming up with a good title can be challenging. Titles need to be catchy and introduce the protagonist, situation, or theme, yet not give away the ending. Word play is effective, too, because it makes the readers think, even after the book is done. LaFaye used one word, with a double meaning, and didn’t give anything away. I started the book thinking the title introduces one of the characters, but by the end the title had lots more meaning!

For more info about A. LaFaye, see her website.

Join me May 26 for my next award challenge book, and the 2012 winner, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.

Do you know any descendants of Orphan Train Riders? What books have you read that gave a unique twist to a common story? What are some of your favorite book titles?

Interview: Caroline Starr Rose, author of BLUE BIRDS, Crafts Verse Novels Quilt Square by Quilt Square

head shots 017 Caroline Starr Rose, author of two middle-grade historical verse novels, Blue Birds and May B, is also a former elementary teacher. And, the spark for her newest book came from a subject she and her students were studying–the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.

Blue Birds (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015) centers around two girls: Alis, a lonely colonist girl who delights in her new home, and Kimi, a Roanoke Indian girl who is angry at the Europeans for bringing death to her father and sister.

DW: How did you approach and write Alis and Kimi’s separate point-of-views (including the differences in their histories, cultures, and languages)?

CR: Having Alis and Kimi share the story was not my original plan. But once I realized Blue Birds hinged on their forbidden friendship, I knew I couldn’t tell just one girl’s side of things. And that sort of terrified me. There are some people within the writing community who feel you must live a culture in order to write about it. I’m a non-Native author. What right did I have to speak for a Roanoke child? I had to trust my ultimate qualifications came from having once been a child and from my understanding of the beauty and security that thrives in friendship. Once I got to this place, each girl’s voice felt distinct and clear and strong.

What historical research did you do?

A lot! I’ve never come to a new piece of historical fiction with a plot and characters already in mind. Instead I’m drawn to an era or event and trust a story will bubble up to the surface in the midst of my reading. When I first begin my research, I start with non-fiction titles written for children. These books give a broad, clear overview and point to specifics that appeal to children. I make extensive lists of titles mentioned in these books’ bibliographies and search for them at my library or buy them online. At this stage I also do a thorough search of any and all books on my subject in my local library system. If I have friends who have written about a similar topic or era, I’ll ask for book recommendations.

Once I’ve gathered my reading material, I begin a notebook devoted to the future book. Here I collect quotes, facts, questions, maps, lists, timelines and the like. Ideas about the book begin to emerge, mainly through “what if” and “what about” questions, though I’ll focus on the research for a good six months before committing to any specific story ideas.

What draws you to certain historical topics/eras/settings?

It’s usually not the big events that catch my attention but the quiet, everyday lives of regular people. But really, so many things draw my curiosity. It’s easy for me to get hooked!

What is your process for writing verse novels? Do you start in verse or prose?

I go in knowing my setting well and my protagonist semi-well. As far as plotting goes, I have a sense of some key turning points and usually the ending (though I’m not quite sure how to get there). From there, since I start directly with the verse, the writing is painfully slow. (A fantastic day would be 750 words. I rarely keep count of such things, because it’s kind of discouraging). What I love, though, is how organic it is. I see a quilt as a metaphor for a verse novel. Each poem is a square. As I move from poem to poem, I trust a pattern is emerging in the overall story.

How has your process for writing Blue Birds differed from writing May B? The process was very different. For May B., I was only responsible for being familiar with an era. With Blue Birds, I had to learn about an era, an event with spare records, and two Native American tribes that no longer exist. This is the first time I’ve included real people from history in something I’ve written. While they only had minor roles, it felt like a big responsibility.

When did you start loving poetry and verse? Does poetry come naturally to you, or is it something you learned to do?

I grew up with A.A. Milne and Shel Silverstein. I also danced ballet very seriously for 10 years and feel like my love for rhythm and movement and patterns, which are so much a part of verse, stems a lot from this time. As for writing verse, it wasn’t something I planned but something that sort of happened to me. Once I found the format that most honestly told May’s story, I felt like I also found a way to write that felt like home.

Many authors connect to their characters and story through music, photos, artwork, etc. How did wearing a pearl necklace help you?

This is so goofy, I know, but it really worked for me. Because Kimi and Alis secretly share a pearl necklace, wearing one regularly while working on revisions kept the characters close. When I was writing or even at the grocery store, it was like the girls were with me. Blue Birds cover high res How did you come to the title and the symbolism of Blue Birds? I’m awful at titles and am always amazed when an editor lets me keep one! Alis’s love of nature meant I wanted some sort of creature indigenous to the Outer Banks that would catch her attention. The animal also needed to be included on the Algonquian word list the Roanoke and Croatoan would have spoken (Only a list remains, as this dialect no longer exists). The eastern bluebird worked perfectly. From there, the symbolism grew on its own. The girls “become” bluebirds, restoring joy and bringing happiness to each other. There is strength in who they are together. This ties nicely with the wooden bluebird Alis’s Uncle Samuel carved for her. The Roanoke believed objects held power (montoac), and like the necklace, the bird is something the girls share.

Friendship is a huge theme in Blue Birds. How did your own experiences making friends, often after a family move, affect your story?

I suppose I know what it feels like to be an outsider and to feel lonely. Two of my childhood friendships played a major role in the creation of the girls. These friendships were a place I could be myself. They were fun and wonderful and freeing, but I also took them very seriously in a way that perhaps we lose as we grow older. There were a lot of “you’ll be my friend forever” sorts of vows, you know? I’m proud to say this has held true!

I was also fascinated with the experience I had when coming home to the US after an exchange in Australia. My own country and culture were downright strange. I wanted to explore that transformation.

How has teaching children helped your writing?

Teaching is a daily reminder that every person counts. I hope my books reflect this.

What were your favorite childhood books?

Little House. Anne of Green Gables. Ramona. The Chronicles of Prydain. The All-of-a-Kind Family. Mary Poppins. Dr. Doolittle. Those biographies about famous Americans that were really more story than history. The Shoe books (Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, etc.). Every time I’m asked this, my answer varies. There are so many!

Thanks, Caroline!

For more info about Caroline, see her website.

Comment prompt: How have you crossed language or cultural boundaries to make and/or keep a friend?

Guest Post: 3 Historical Fiction Books My Students Love by Jenna Watley

Jenna photo

Hello everybody!  I’m Jenna Watley, a 4th grade teacher in the Omaha, Nebraska area.  I’ve been in education for six years, and I teach all subject areas, but history and writing just happen to be two of my favorites!  I also have a passion for fashion (hence the name of my blog, The Fashionista Teacher), and enjoy experiencing life with my husband of almost four years and our two fur-babies, Lucy and Henry.

When I first started teaching at my current school, my team decided to have the students complete a “Genre Challenge” throughout the year, in which they were required to read 20 books of various genres, including realistic fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, biographies and information text.  It has been such a great way to help our young readers experience new authors, series and genres of literature that they might not typically choose on their own.  As a part of the challenge, students read three historical fiction books throughout the year, but I’ve found that many choose to read more than the required amount because they end up really liking historical fiction more than they originally thought!

Today I’m sharing three of their favorites:

jenna--book spines

#1 I Survived series

I couldn’t choose just one book from this series because my students love them all!  The I Survived books are by far the most popular historical fiction choices in our classroom, and even my struggling readers really enjoy these entertaining, easy-reads.  The series is written from the perspective of a young boy who experiences major historical events, including the September 11th attacks, the sinking of the Titanic, and Pearl Harbor.  Many kids even express interest in reading more about the topic once they’ve completed the book and love to connect their new knowledge to other texts and discussions in the classroom.

I survived 2 photo

#2 Al Capone trilogy

Al Capone Does My ShirtsAl Capone Shines My Shoes, and Al Capone Does My Homework are also popular choices for the “Genre Challenge.”  Set during the Great Depression, main character Moose and his family move to Alcatraz where his father takes a job as a prison guard, and his sister with autism attends a special school in San Francisco.  My more advanced readers really enjoy this series, and I appreciate the history lesson taught, as well as the character building lessons woven in throughout.

#3 Papa and the Pioneer Quilt 

I used this book as a read aloud to kick off the Oregon Trail mini-unit, which is part of our Nebraska studies.  The students really enjoyed following Rebecca and her family on their journey to Oregon, and the quilting pieces she collected along the way to document her memories.  It led to a great discussion about the hardships pioneers faced on the trail and the special meaning quilts had to settlers as a way to document their journey.  A few of my other favorite read-alouds are C is for Cornhusker, Unspoken (pictures only), and Sarah Plain and Tall.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.30.01 PM

It has been a pleasure to share with you today!  Thanks so much, for the fun opportunity, Debbie!  Happy reading, everybody!

Interview: Kirby Larson, author of Dash

Author Kirby Larson has joined us to answer questions about historical fiction and her latest book, Dash, which is also this year’s winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson

DW: Congratulations and welcome! What were your favorite books as a child?

KL: I was crazy for Pippi Longstocking (I wanted to be her!) and I loved Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, too. Other favorite reads included anything by Marguerite Henry, the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron, and the Encyclopedia Brown books. I recall reading lots of biographies in 3rd and 4th grade, and all through grade school you could find me with my nose in a comic book.

How did you go from a history-phobe to an award-winning historical fiction novelist?

It was all about the human connection. As a young student, I had no concept that history could be personal. Then I heard that snippet of a story about my great-grandmother homesteading in eastern Montana prior to World War I and I was hooked — how did she manage it? Why did she attempt it? And why did she never talk about it? Once I began trying to answer those questions, I realized there are so many rich and wonderful stories waiting to be told, stories about the people — generally girls and women — who did not make the headlines but who still accomplished remarkable things. I have enough such story ideas now that I think I’ll be writing until I’m 99.

Dash cover

I love your author’s note and how the actual Mitsi’s story sparked your idea for Dash. Ideas are followed by research and writing. What did you need to learn about to write Dash, and how did you accomplish that?

That particular episode in American history — the incarceration of nearly 120,00 people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens — has been one I’ve done lots of reading and research about. So I was fairly well grounded in the general elements of the story. My research for Dash required me to gather more details about Mitsi and her unique experiences. Fortunately, I was able to connect with her family and they were extraordinarily generous in sharing photos, letters and other personal documents. In addition, there has been very little written about experiences at Camp Harmony for younger readers. I had to familiarize myself with the camp so that I could move my characters around on that stage in a believable and authentic manner. I am so grateful to Mr. Louis Fiset for sharing a rare map of the camp with me.

What is your typical writing process?

Have you ever come upon a traffic accident and a police officer says something like, “Move along: there’s nothing to see here”? That’s what writing is like for me! My process is a huge, disorganized mess that no one else should ever be exposed to.

You’ve written before about WWI and II, especially in the U.S. West and Pacific Northwest. What is it about those eras, and those geographic regions, that speaks to you?<

There is a great discussion happening right now about the need for diverse books; I heartily agree that it’s so important for kids to be able to see themselves in literature. When I was growing up, I never saw kids like myself in books. I especially never saw kids that lived in the northwest. It seemed the stories I read took place in the midwest or on the east coast. I think we have a fascinating history here on the west coast and I want to make it as familiar to young readers as Chincoteague was to me. As to the eras I’ve written about: one thing a novelist needs is conflict. And what better source of conflict than a war? Though I do have two more WWII novels coming out, I also have two novels in the works that are set in 1910, sans war.

Thanks, Kirby!

Kirby is also the author of other children’s historical fiction, including Hattie Big Sky (a Newbery Honor book), Hattie Ever AfterThe Friendship DollDear America: The Fences Between Us, and Duke. For more info about Larson, see her website. In addition, check out my post last week about Dash and My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge.

Dash swag

Kirby and I have a copy of Dash and some Dash swag to give away to one lucky, random commenter (U.S. only). The winner will be announced next Tuesday. Do you have a question or comment for Kirby?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Dash by Kirby Larson

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

About a year ago I challenged myself to read all the winners of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and to blog about the history and writing lessons I learned from each book. At one book a month, this challenge will take me more than three years, but I’m about one-third of the way to my goal.

This month’s book is the newest winner (named in February 2015): Dash, written by Kirby Larson.

After the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Mitsi’s best friend Dash, her dog, is her only friend, until she meets a new neighbor, Mrs. Bowker. Mitsi wants life to get back to normal, but soon the government declares that she, her family, and the rest of the Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast must leave their homes for relocation camps. To make things worse, Mitsi is not allowed to bring Dash with her.

History lessons:

Relocation: I was somewhat familiar with the incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the U.S. during WWII. However, it was eye-opening to see the camps through Mitsi’s eyes. For example, housing was terrible–some families lived in old horse stables.

However, Larson also showed how brave some of the Nikkei (those with Japanese ancestry) were, how they tried to establish a normalcy (schools, newspapers, landscaping), and how they looked out for each other. I was also thankful to see, again through Mitsi’s eyes, that some Americans remained loyal to the imprisoned Nikkei and tried to help them.

Author’s note and acknowledgements: I’ve said it before that I love it when historical fiction authors include an author’s note detailing historical context and additional information. In Larson’s, she reveals her novel was based on a factual Mitsi (Mitsue Shiraishi), who although an adult during WWII, was separated from her dog, Chubby.

Then, in her acknowledgement page, Larson included a website by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, which provides lots of information, first-hand accounts, as well as suggestions for educators. The website also included a terminology section which was very helpful to me, because sometimes official vocabulary used at the time of an event is not accurate. So I learned why, and with what, some of the old terminology should be replaced.

For example, during WWII, the places the Nikkei were sent were called Internment Camps. But, according to Densho, internment is a term for imprisoning non-citizens during wartime. However, two-thirds of the Nikkei “interned” were American citizens. The camps are more accurately named incarceration/prison/concentration camps.

Writing lessons:

Plot Twist: This is trickier to talk about because I do not give away spoilers. But, there is a plot twist near the end of a story done so well I can think back and recall the trail of clues.

Since I’ve been studying and writing fiction, I can often predict a book or movie ending. However, Larson surprised me. How? She planted clues throughout earlier parts of the novel that suggested one thing, but ended up meaning something different. I can’t say anything more!

Author’s Note/Acknowledgement Page: Not only did Larson tell how she learned factual Mitsi’s story, but Larson also wrote about how Mitsi’s story made her think how she hates to be apart from her dog, Winston. This led to her wondering how difficult it would have been for Nikkei children who were separated from their beloved pets. Those thoughts led to Dash.

Therefore, when I’m developing story ideas, I should ask myself “what if”-type questions, such as how would this situation impact a child? How would I respond?

Finally, Larson thanked people who helped her with her research. It is confirmation to me to keep asking for help. People often go out of their way to aid researchers and writers share stories that need to be told to the next generation. In fact, Larson has agreed to help me! Dash cover Join us next Tuesday for an author interview (and a book and swag giveaway) with Kirby Larson about Dash!

Larson is also the author of other historical fiction for children, including Hattie Big Sky (a Newbery Honor book), Hattie Ever After, The Friendship Doll, Dear America: The Fences Between Us, and Duke. For more info about Larson, see her website.

For another Scott O’Dell Award winner about a Japanese American WWII experience, see my post about Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.

Have you been separated from a pet for a lengthy time? How did you cope? What other children’s books about the WWII Japanese American experience can you recommend? As historical fiction writers, especially for children, how do we include the vocabulary of the past, yet be honest and respectful?

Daffodils: History, Story, and Dementia Connections

Daffodils (photo by Deb Watley)

It’s almost daffodil time in South Dakota! Well, not quite. Soon. I planted daffodil bulbs last fall, and I’m looking forward to watching the plants grow and bloom into little bunches of sunshiney-color.

Daffodil is the common name for any flowers in the narcissus (Latin/scientific name) genus. Daffodils are sometimes called jonquils, but jonquils are one species of daffodil.

Daffodils come from regions around the Mediterranean Sea and Middle East. The Ancient Greeks and Romans loved the flowers. In fact, Romans brought daffodils with them to Britain. They thought the flowers had medicinal benefits. Turns out, they were right.

Now farmers in Wales are growing fields of daffodils for a specific plant extract, galantamine, that is used to slow the progression of dementia.

Daffodils also have a couple big connections to literature. The first is to the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man given good looks and immortality by the gods. The wood nymph named Echo fell in love with him, he rejected her, and she grieved until nothing was left but her voice. One of the goddesses, Nemesis, punished Narcissus by causing him to see his reflection in a pool of water. He fell in love with his appearance and would not look away from his reflection. Eventually, he disappeared and a flower was left.

The daffodil may or may not be the actual flower the Greeks associated with the myth. But the scientist Linneas picked a certain wild daffodil species he thought was “the one.” He named it Narcissus poeticus (Poet’s Daffodil).

The other major daffodil-literature connection is William Wordsworth’s famous poem, Daffodils (written in 1804 and inspired by a journal entry of his sister, Dorothy). The poem begins with the line, “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” and ends, “And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.”

In another serendipitous connection, in the video below, Gary Glazner is reciting the last two lines of Daffodils with a class of preschoolers. The really wonderful thing is he uses poetry (and started the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project) to interact with dementia sufferers.

Dementia has, and continues, to affect my family. So, I love it that my favorite spring flower helps, in more ways than one, those who suffer from dementia.

For more information:

The Flower Expert

American Meadows

The American Daffodil Society

National Symbols of Wales

Treating Alzheimer’s Disease With Daffodils

Wordsworth Trust

The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project

Do you grow daffodils? What other daffodil-story connections are there? Especially with stories for children? What is your experience reciting poetry with children? Elderly? Dementia patients?

Two Books Added to Running List of Kids’ WWI Books

WWI books

World War I, also known as the Great War, began in 1914 and lasted through most of 1918. But, it’s one of the U.S.’s forgotten wars–perhaps because we were involved for a much shorter time than other nations (we didn’t join the fighting until 1917), we didn’t suffer as horribly as much of the world (no battles on our homeland), and the causes were complicated and ending messy.

There aren’t many children’s books 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. I’m compiling a running list of children’s books about the WWI-era that I have read and can recommend, 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. The books I’ve just added to the list are in bold type.

Picture Books

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

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the Pooh by Sally M. Walker, and illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss (2015, Henry Holt and Co.)–non-fiction

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

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales) written and illustrated by Nathan Hale (2014, Amulet Books)–graphic novel, gives a good overview of the causes, countries involved, battles, and results of WWI.

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?

Interview: Jennifer Thermes, Illustrator of The Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder


Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illus. by Jennifer Thermes

Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illus. by Jennifer Thermes

Recently I celebrated my blog birthday by giving away a copy of Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, written by Yona Zeldis McDonough and illustrated by Jennifer Thermes.

The children’s biography was published by Christy Ottaviano Books in 2014. The Children’s Book Council recently named it to its list of 2015 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

One of the things I liked about the book was its “Little House feel,” and Jennifer’s illustrations helped give it that feel.

I’m excited to ask Jennifer some questions about Little Author in the Big Woods and some of her other projects, including creating maps. Welcome, Jennifer!

By Jennifer Thermes, illustrator of Little Author in the Big Woods

Illustration used with permission by  Jennifer Thermes, from Little Author in the Big Woods

Deb: How does your process differ when you’re working on historical vs. contemporary or animal illustrations? What about your process when you only do illustrations vs. when you write and illustrate?

Jennifer: When I’m illustrating someone else’s story the process is pretty much the same across different types of projects. First, I want to portray the emotion and personality of the characters, whether human or animal. I’m also thinking about how to show the story setting, the composition of the drawings, and how the shapes and colors flow across the pages of the entire book. These elements all work together to add another layer the story. I’ll usually figure out the specific details I may need afterwards, though sometimes searching for photo reference can help spark ideas.

Writing and illustrating my own story means a lot more playing back and forth between the words and the pictures. It’s a lot of messy fun, and is definitely not a linear process!

I also enjoy maps. What sparked your interest in them? How are drawing and painting maps different from creating other illustrations?

Call me a map geek, but I’ve always thought there’s something wonderful about getting lost in the details of a map, and imagining what different parts of the world are like.

The maps are much more of a design puzzle to solve. I have to work within the parameters of the page size to fit the land shapes, while also placing text and visual elements in the illustration. I started out as a designer, so I love the challenge.

By Jennifer Thermes, illustrator of Little Author in the Big Woods

Illustration used with permission by Jennifer Thermes, from Little Author in the Big Woods

You’ve mentioned that you’ve been a Little House/Laura Ingalls Wilder fan since childhood. How did your illustrating Little Author in the Big Woods come about? What kinds of research did you do? How many illustrations are in the book? What media did you use?

Though I had worked with my editor before, the project came about pretty much the way most authors and illustrators are paired together– she felt my style of drawing had the right feel for the book. It was wonderful serendipity that I also happened to be a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. There is so much information about Laura on the web, so finding photo reference for the drawings was fairly easy. The illustrations were done in pencil and watercolor, and I think there are over one hundred. (I lost count!)

Jennifer Thermes, circa 1970s

Jennifer Thermes, about 1976

What’s next for you?

I’m very excited to be working on a book I’ve both written and illustrated called Charles Around the World. It’s a picture book biography about Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, and it will have lots of maps! The book is scheduled for Fall 2016 with Abrams Books for Young Readers. Right now I’m going back and forth with the editor and art director on revisions, and hope to be starting final art soon.

Jennifer Thermes is a children’s book author, illustrator, and map illustrator. Her second book as author/illustrator, Sam Bennett’s New Shoes, was a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book. Her books as illustrator have received a Kirkus starred review, been included in a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book list, and been recognized in 3×3 Magazine’s Children’s Illustration Annual. A Horn Book Magazine review for the middle-grade novel Maggie & Oliver described Jennifer’s black & white art as “warm pencil drawings reminiscent of Lois Lenski.”

When not making art, Jennifer loves to read and work in her garden. She lives with her family and an assortment of cats, dogs, and uninvited mice in an 18th century farmhouse in Connecticut.

See more of Jennifer’s work at www.jenniferthermes.com.

Thank you, Jennifer!

Readers, what literary characters were your childhood heroes? (For me, also Laura, Nancy Drew, Jo March) What books do you love, as much for the maps as for the story? (Lord of the Rings) What questions do you have for Jennifer?

Interview: Jane Kurtz, Author of Anna Was Here


One of the books I’ve read and enjoyed recently is Anna Was Here (Greenwillow Books, 2013) by Jane Kurtz. In the contemporary novel, 10-year-old Anna deals with her fears by preparing for emergency situations and recording her plans in her Safety Notebook. But, she wasn’t prepared for the day her father announced the family was moving from Colorado to his tiny hometown in Kansas so he could pastor a struggling church. Once the family gets to Oakwood, Anna has to deal with a new school, a cousin that hates her, her dad’s new busyness, and a tornado.

That’s how I learned sometimes the best things and worst things come together.” –Anna 

Jane knows what it’s like to move. She’s moved many times, including to and from Ethiopia. She also survived the 1997 Red River Flood in North Dakota and experienced living in temporary housing provided by FEMA. Jane is the author of many other children’s books, including Lanie: Girl of the Year 2010; River Friendly, River Wild; I’m Sorry, Almira Ann; and Fire on the Mountain. Jane also teaches writing for Vermont College’s MFA program.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 8.21.05 PM

Welcome, Jane! You’ve written both historical fiction and contemporary stories. How did you decide to make Anna’s story contemporary?

Creative writing generally takes a lot of exploration and experimentation. I had tried writing historical fiction with some of the stories I heard at Goering family reunions in Kansas and South Dakota and from talking to my husband’s mom about her life as a child and young woman. Years ago, I had also tried writing a completely contemporary version of Anna’s move from one state to another (only she was a boy in that version). In playing around, I ended up knitting together some of my threads into one book. For someone like me who is fascinated by different genres and who has written a lot of different things, it’s never obvious exactly how a story might come out or end up.

How did you weave in the historical threads without taking away from Anna’s story?

Where we fiction writers often go wrong is when we forget to envision a scene from inside the skin of our protagonist. There’s a big chunk of me that shares DNA with Anna, so when I was seeing the Kansas community and its history from her brain, I was recalling the stories that had intrigued me when I heard them for the first time– or even for the fourth and fifth times. I teach writing in an MFA program, and often when I’m reading a student’s work and feel bumped outside of the story, it’s as if I’m hovering above the character looking down instead of experiencing the world from the inside of her looking out. That’s the best way I know how to describe what we’re usually doing wrong when we accidentally jar our reader with the sensation that we’ve included details that don’t belong.

You’ve written that you revised Anna Was Here for four years before you found Anna’s voice. How did you go about that revision process?

Well, I actually found Anna’s voice in the first real draft of this novel– the start of the four years. But I had a lot of other things to discover about her story. The safety notebook wasn’t in the story at that point, for example. I knew Anna would be nervous about tornadoes when she got to Kansas…because that’s part of the DNA that Anna and I share. But I didn’t immediately realize all the other things she would worry about. (I didn’t think about feral hogs until I was driving and heard a report on the radio, for example.) And I didn’t know her worries had started with wildfires in Colorado until a friend of mine lived through those wildfires. Revision is always a matter of having smart people read my drafts and talk to me about my story plus keeping my eyes and ears open to the world around me for fascinating things that might belong. It’s also a matter of continuing to study the craft of writing. The MFA program where I teach at Vermont College fills me up with new knowledge and ideas twice a year at residency. So does every book I read and admire.

So many children deal with family moves, how did you speak to the emotions many children experience yet give Anna’s story a unique twist?

In the oldest version of the story, I probably didn’t give it too much of a unique twist. But as I kept thinking about it, knowing that a family move is a pretty common situation for middle grade fiction, and knowing that I had to make the story fresh, I kept seeing the secondary characters more clearly and I kept finding interesting details to build scenes around. For example, I saw emu products at a Kansas farmer’s market one day. The woman in that booth gave me quite a tour of her farm, and she talked and talked about why raising emu turned out to be perfect for her. My husband grew up on a farm in Kansas, but farming is changed a lot since then. A lot of kids won’t see the lives of farmers reflected in books these days. So farming details—that came from research—and church details—that came from memory and experience—and family details—that came from my life and from observation– became the clay for shaping each new scene with interesting dialogue, thoughts, and actions.

Thank you, Jane!

For more info about Jane, see her website at www.janekurtz.com and her blog at www.janekurtz.wordpress.com.

Did any of you experience a childhood move? How did you deal with, and perhaps, accept the change? What is one of your best/worst thing experiences?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Stepping On the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1992 winner, Stepping On the Cracks, by Mary Downing Hahn.

Set during 1944-45, sixth-grader Margaret and her best friend, Elizabeth, look forward to the war ending and their brothers coming home, but they dread crossing the path of their class bully, Gordy. When the girls discover Gordy is hiding one of his brothers, a deserter, the girls must decide whether to turn them in, or help them.

History Lessons:

Domestic violence laws–This is such a huge topic, I can barely make a dent in it. There is still too much domestic violence, but now we have more laws for prosecuting abusers and naming mandatory reporters. However, as recently as 50 years ago, people had little legal recourse against an abusive spouse/parent.

Blue/Silver/Gold Star Banners (Service Flags)–After 9/11, when many of our military men and women were sent into combat, I started seeing the Blue Star Banners. But, they weren’t a new form of honor or patriotism. The banners date back to World War I and were the brainchild of the father of two sons fighting in the war. Since then, the U.S. Dept. of Defense adopted the banners and developed display regulations.

Basically, an immediate family member of a service person in combat zones may display them. Each blue star stands for a service person. If the person dies or is killed, a gold star replaces the blue, and a silver star is used for a wounded/injured/ill man or woman.

Writing Lessons:

A big issue, without didacticism–While Hahn shows the evil of domestic violence, when it comes to war and objections to war, she leaves things more open-ended. The characters explore the issues of war/objections to war, and Margaret’s family members choose opposing sides, but it doesn’t seem like Hahn is forcing one view on readers. Hahn shows how and why good people can believe differently. Never let it be said children’s literature is fluff. This book tackled big issues and gave me lots to think about.

A sympathetic antagonist–In the beginning of Stepping on the Cracks, Margaret and Elizabeth hate Gordy. I disliked him, too, and feared for the girls. But, by the end of the book, even though Gordy still wasn’t a wonderful kid, I was rooting for him. How does an author get readers to root for the antagonist, even without giving him or her their own point of view?

  • Hahn shows Gordy caring about something–and that important thing is at risk. In this case, he cares about his brother, even when he doesn’t agree with his brother’s actions, and he cares about his younger siblings.
  • Hahn shows Gordy is also endangered by someone else–his father.
  • Hahn lets Gordy show compassion for Margaret and show bravery in protecting his family.

For more info:

Women Against Abuse

Federal Domestic Violence Laws

The Service Flag of the United States

The Blue Star Banner

Silver Star Families of America

Mary Downing Hahn

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge

Join me March 31 to talk about the 2015 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Dash, by Kirby Larson.

Have you ever flown a Service Flag? If so, thank you for your loved one’s service and sacrifice. What other kids’ books present both sides of an issue, yet allow readers to decide what they think? For what other antagonists do you end up rooting?

Congratulations to the Winner of the Author in the Big Woods Giveaway!


Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illus. by Jennifer Thermes

Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illus. by Jennifer Thermes

The winner of the book Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, written by Yona Zeldis McDonough and illustrated by Jennifer Thermes, is Mary Scarbrough!

Mary, email me at Debbie.Watley@gmail.com with your postal address, and I’ll get your book in the mail!

Little Author in the Big Woods Giveaway

Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illus. by Jennifer Thermes

Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illus. by Jennifer Thermes

To celebrate a year of blogging I’m giving away the book Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Yona Zeldis McDonough and illustrated by Jennifer Thermes (2014, Christy Ottaviano Books, 156 pages).

This is a delightful biography aimed at early elementary-aged children. The illustrations and book design give it the familiar Little House feel.

To enter, comment and let me know if you’ve been to any of the Little House sites or museums. (I’ve been to DeSmet, S.D., and Mansfield, Mo.) I will randomly choose a winner (U.S. commenters only) and post the winner’s name on Feb. 24.

Primary Resource: “A Day With the Cow Column” by Jesse Applegate

Cowboy at Cattle Drive

Flickr: Creative Commons–Stuart Rankin: Cowboy at Cattle Drive (Colorado, 1970)


The first large wagon train to Oregon Territory took place in 1843. Jesse Applegate was one of the leaders of the cow column, the great herd of thousands of cattle driven to Oregon with the settlers. The cattle moved slower than the wagons, so those who owned more than a few cattle travelled with the cattle, while those who only owned a few travelled with the faster group.

In this recollection, published in 1877 in the Transactions of the Fourth Annual Re-Union of the Oregon Pioneer Association, Applegate recounts a typical day for the cow column. First in the column, the women and children walk near the wagons and gather flowers. Then, several boys or men herd the very “docile and sagacious” horses who seem to always behave.

Not so with the large herd of horned beasts that bring up the rear; lazy, selfish and unsocial, it has been a task to get them in motion, the strong, always ready to domineer over the weak, halt in the front and forbid the weaker to pass them. They seem to move only in fear of the driver’s whip; though in the morning, full to repletion, they have not been driven an hour before their hunger and thirst seem to indicate a fast of days’ duration. Through all the long day their greed is never sated nor their thirst quenched, nor is there a moment of relaxation of the tedious and vexatious labors of their drivers, although to all others the march furnishes some season of relaxation or enjoyment. For the cow drivers there is none.

Apparently thirty-some years after the trek, Applegate is nostalgic about just about everything else–except for working with the cattle. I’m surprised he doesn’t mention the odor, dust, flies, or noise that would accompany thousands of cattle.

I have no experience with cattle. Are they really that temperamental?

3 Tips in Writing Stories That Are Both Funny and Serious


Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

In my last post I wrote how humor in the historical fiction Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis helped make a serious story appealing to a broader readership.

It’s the “spoonful of sugar” idea that humor can make it easier for a reader to take the “medicine” of a serious theme or a sad event. It also can make the serious part hit harder, which can be a good thing.

Or not.

Last week I attended a play that was billed as a comedy. For the most part it was. However, there was one very sad bit. I wasn’t expecting it, and it hit me harder than if I’d been ready. I was angry. Why?

Because I’d been blindsided.

But comedies can deal with serious plots or themes without making their readers/viewers angry. Serious stories can include humor to help the reader/viewers process difficult things.


1. For a serious story, give the point of view character or narrator a humorous voice from page one. Like Elijah in Elijah of Buxton. The topic deals with slavery. Not funny–at all.

Yet, Elijah has the voice of an innocent child who tries, often unsuccessfully and humorously, to figure out the adults around him. The humor draws us in at the beginning, and we can’t help but follow–and hurt with–Elijah as the story becomes more serious.

2. For a comedy, make sure there is plenty of foreshadowing of serious events or themes. 

3. Keep pacing in mind. Humor can give the reader or viewer small breaks in-between the intense scenes–like the times a roller coaster climbs the hills, giving riders a chance to take a breath before they start screaming again. Sprinkling humor in-between intense parts also helps keep the humor from being insensitive to tragedy.

Let’s look at the recent Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier as a case study. The movie’s premise is serious. The hidden bad guys plan to take over the world by eliminating millions of people who they deem to be future problems. However, the movie uses lots of humor, especially banter, at the beginning. As the stakes ramp up, there is less humor.

Then, before the final battle, Stan Lee makes a cameo as a museum security guard who discovers Cap’s uniform is missing, and he says, “Oh, man. I’m so fired.” This tiny injection of humor gives viewers a place to take a breath before plunging into the most intense scenes.

What are examples of comedies that handle serious elements well? What are other examples of serious stories that include humor appropriately and effectively?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

I’ve challenged myself to read, and blog about, every winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. By focusing on one each month, it will take me more than three years. My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book for this month is the 2008 winner, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.

It’s set in Canada in a community of free, but mostly former black slaves from America, just prior to the American Civil War. Elijah, the main character, is the first free boy to be born in Buxton. Even though he hears stories from his parents and the other grown ups, he is still a little sheltered from the horrors of slavery. He feels responsible when money to be used to buy a family from slavery is stolen, and he and a friend set out to get the money back, even though it means risking capture in America.

Writing lesson:

Use humor. Historical fiction tends to be sincere, heartfelt, and serious. Elijah of Buxton deals with the very weighty topics of slavery and injustice, but the novel has a lot of humor in it. Especially the first half. The humor helps us laugh with Elijah, causing us to bond with him, so we let ourselves feel with him as he encounters more serious things. Humor makes it fun to read, causing us to let our guard down, and then the serious parts hit us harder.

Yes, it can be hard to find humor in certain eras and settings. But, children have a way of finding things to laugh about. They, like Elijah, make observations, try to make sense of things, and end up pointing out the ironic.

I love to read humor, but I have a hard time writing humor. I’m in the sincere, heartfelt camp. However, perhaps historical fiction would appeal to more readers if we included more humor.

History lesson:

Buxton Mission/Elgin Settlement, Ontario, Canada. In the late 1840s, the Rev. William King inherited black slaves from his late wife’s family in the American South–except Rev. King opposed slavery. He wanted to set the slaves free, but knew it wasn’t a good option in the South. In fact, even in the American North, fugitive slaves could be captured and sent back into slavery. So, they weren’t free until they crossed into Canada. So when the Presbyterian Church sent Rev. King to Canada, the church and the Elgin Association helped Rev. King buy 9,000 acres in Canada and establish the community of free blacks.

There were other communities of free blacks in Canada, but Buxton/Elgin was distinguished by its rules and its school. The residents had to purchase and work land, build a specific style of home, complete with flower and vegetable gardens, and the children had to attend school. The school earned a such a high reputation for its quality that many white and native neighbors chose to send their children to the Buxton school.

My favorite quote:

“If you go at it ‘specting something bad to happen, all you gunn do is draw that bad thing to you. You caint be timid ’bout nothing you do, you got to go at it like you ‘specting good things to come out of it.” –Mr. Leroy

For more info, see:

Christopher Paul Curtis

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

Black History Canada

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge


Join me Feb. 24, 2015, to talk about the 1992 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn.

Do you have family stories connected to Buxton or other similar communities? Have you read other books about Buxton? What other kids’ historical fiction combine humor with serious topics? How do you feel about the combination of serious and humorous in stories?