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

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 and her blog at

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 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?

Memory: What If We Could Control It?

History is important to me, and dementia runs in my family, so I often think about memory.

It’s one of those things we sometimes wish we could control.

Children’s author Lois Lowry explored that “what if we could” possibility when she wrote The Giver, and she talks about it in the following video. Thanks to Jane Heitman Healy for sharing the video with me.

What do you think of Lowry’s theory of what could happen to people if we controlled memory?

Memories Are Invaluable, But Not Infallible Primary Resources

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

I was in my crib, in my dark room, and I could see my dad, down the hall in the lighted kitchen. Our family’s German shepherd-mix dog slept on the rug next to my crib. And my blue and white stuffed dog was in the crib with me.

This is my first memory.

Except it isn’t.

I did have a blue and white stuffed dog. Our real dog did sleep on the rug next to my crib. However, according to my parents, we never lived in a house that would have allowed me to see from my room, down a hall, and into the kitchen.

Memory is a tricky thing. Sometimes we remember certain things vividly. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we suppress memories.

What about my first memory? I’m guessing it was the memory of a dream based on things important to me–my dogs and my dad. But it stuck with me.

Perhaps we remember emotions better than facts. In my dream/false memory I felt safe. In other memories, I still feel the fear, anger, shame, happiness, etc. I felt during the event.

Writers of biography, history, and historical fiction depend on primary resources. Eye-witness accounts. Sometimes these are of recent events. Sometimes the accounts are memories of a less-recent event.

Sometimes the person provides accurate information. Sometimes the person’s memory is faulty. Sometimes the person lies. That’s why authors and historians look for multiple primary sources to determine facts.

However, there is no better way to find out how an event made someone feel than to read or listen to that person’s memories.

In your reading, research, and writing, how do you evaluate other people’s memories? What is your first memory?

Primary Resource: Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Mariah on the Move

Flickr: Creative Commons–Mariah on the Move by Pete Markham (2008, Lake Elmo, MN)


Winters in the Dakotas are cold, but some are extremely cold. The winter of 1883-84 was one of the extreme ones.

That winter Laura Ingalls was teaching during the week at a country school outside of DeSmet, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota). The school was far enough away she boarded with the family of one of school board members. But Almanzo Wilder picked her up on Friday so she could be home with her family over the weekend. One Friday was especially cold.

“All day the snow blew low across the prairie and toward night it grew colder still….

With my mind made up to staying, I did not listen for the sleigh bells as I always did when four o’clock drew near. I usually heard them while they were still some distance away, but disappointment had so dulled my hearing that I was completely taken by surprise when there was a dashing jingle of bells at the door….

I dressed warmly, high necks and long sleeves in both underclothes and dress, two warm petticoats woolen stockings, and high shoes. I wore a heavy coat, a thick, wool, knit hood, two thicknesses of woolen veil over my face the ends wrapped tied around my neck.

There was a heavy blanket under the buffalo robe over our laps and tucked tightly in around us and a lighted lantern underneath among our feet which added a great deal to the warmth….

About every two miles the frost from the horses’ breath would become frozen over their nostrils so they could not breathe. Then we would stop and Mr Wilder would climb out into the cold and the snow, cover each nose with his hands an instant and then he could strip the ice of[f], climb back into the cutter and we would go on. At times he would slip one hand beneath the robes, out of the wind into the warmth from the lantern, for a few minutes.”

–From Pioneer Girl, Laura’s autobiography written in 1930 and published in 2014.

I am so glad for cars with heaters!!

Does anyone know why Almanzo, as well as other settlers, put bells on sleighs? Were the bells just for fun, or did they serve a purpose?

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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1987 winner, Streams to the River, River to the Sea by O’Dell.

Although O’Dell helped set up the award, he did not give it to himself. The winner was and continues to be named by a committee. In addition, O’Dell did not accept the cash prize. He donated it to the Children’s Book Council.

Incidentally, only two people have won the award twice–O’Dell and Louise Erdrich.

Streams to the River, River to the Sea is the story of Sacagawea, the very young Shoshone woman and mother, who was a guide and interpreter for the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, across the Upper Midwest and Northwest to the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s.

History Lessons:

1. Be as accurate as possible. Sacagawea’s real life was documented mostly in Lewis and Clark’s writings. So her story was told from their point of view. We don’t really know what she thought. We aren’t sure what the correct spelling or pronunciation is of her name. (I’m using the spelling used in the novel.) And what many people thought they knew about her later life probably isn’t true.

O’Dell wrote in his author’s note that Sacagawea lived to an old age and was buried in what’s now Wyoming. But by the mid-20th Century, research had shown she had likely died at Ft. Manuel (which is now part of the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota) in 1812 or 1813.

O’Dell did a good job showing how important Sacagawea was to the success of the Corps’ mission. Yet he did not show the Corps’ choosing of their winter camp site (Ft. Clatsop). Each member of the corps, including York (Clark’s black slave) and Sacagawea (female and Shoshone), had an equal vote!

2. Provide back matter. This should include bibliographical information, additional pertinent historical information, and explanations of what is factual versus what is fictional. O’Dell did use an author’s note which explained Lewis and Clark’s mission, and he named his sources. However, I would have appreciated more info. I think back matter is more common than it was nearly 30 years ago. I’m glad.

Since historical fiction is often used in school, it is an opportunity to give students resources for finding out more information and thinking critically. As a writer, I also like it when authors explain where and why they took artistic license for the sake of the story.

Writing Lessons:

1. Tell a story. Historical fiction is not a biography. It’s a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and it usually has a main character who grows emotionally. Real life might be stranger than fiction, but it often doesn’t seem to make sense. A story must make sense.

O’Dell told an engaging story. The fictional Sacagawea starts as a strong girl, with little control over her life, who does what she can to make the best of her situation. The novel ends with a young woman who chooses to change her situation.

But to tell this story, O’Dell compressed time, created a romance between her and Clark, and gave Sacagawea a happy ending.

2. Focus on the protagonist. Even though the novel includes most of the Lewis and Clark’s trip, the novel begins with the day Sacagawea is taken from her home in the mountains by men from another tribe to their home territory next to the Missouri River, in what’s now North Dakota. Lewis and Clark don’t show up until the book is about half over. For the first half, Sacagawea is working on staying alive and trying to make the best of her slavery and forced marriage.

Then during the famous trek, we don’t see every day. We see days that are important to Sacagawea (except the Ft. Clatsop vote), how she contributes to the success of the trip, how she stands up for herself, and how she feels about the people around her.

3. Choose protagonist carefully. By telling Sacagawea’s story, O’Dell chose a well-known historical figure that already interested many people. This means a large readership. Plus, most of Sacagawea’s life was not documented, so there is room for fictionalization in parts of her life.

However, she was also such a well-known figure that readers notice and care if the story is inaccurate.

Novelists have a responsibility to make their characters as factual and authentic, for the characters’ time and place, as possible.

It’s a difficult balancing act to fictionalize someone famous. I think that’s why many historical fiction protagonists are fictional people who interact with the real people. There’s more freedom to tell the protagonists’ stories.

For more info about Sacagawea and my 3-year reading challenge, see:

California Indian Education

Native Americans: The True Story of Sacagawea and Her People

Standing Rock Tourism

My Scott O’Dell Challenge

Join me Jan. 27 for my next challenge book, the 2008 winner, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.

There are many books about Sacagawea. What are your favorite ones?

Historic Purse-onality Exhibit at Siouxland Old Courthouse Museum

I visited the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls, SD, last week and enjoyed its newest exhibit, Historic Purse-onality. It was very interesting to see how the function of purses changed through the decades and how the function affected the appearance, especially the size, of purses. It was also interesting to see how the function of purses was affected by the changing roles of women.

Several hundred years ago, men carried their money pouches on the outside of their clothing, but women had pockets under their clothing. The pockets were private and hidden.

Beaded reticule ca. 1900 All photos by Deb Watley

Beaded reticule ca. 1900
All photos by Deb Watley

Then the reticule–a tiny bag women carried outside their clothing–came into fashion during the 18th Century. The reticules were controversial at first because some felt the reticules were still part of female undergarments. Eventually, purses became a symbol of femininity and necessary for well-dressed women. Now, purses, as well as pockets, are used by both men and women.

Why the change? In part, the changing role of women.

At one time, husbands controlled the money, so in the 1800s, women’s purses may have carried a mirror, an early form of an appointment calendar, a fan, opera glasses, and a pistol. But as wives began to have more control of the family marketing, and began to earn money, women needed a place to carry money, cosmetics, hygiene products, and work-related items. The purses grew larger.

Now we carry tablets, phones, items for baby and children, cosmetics, work papers, keys, self-defense tools, etc. And some of our purses are huge.

Not only did the size and shape of purses change through the years, but so did the materials used and the manner of their production. At first the reticules were seamstress-made or homemade (fabric, beaded, embroidered, knitted/crocheted, etc.). They were made to be beautiful and functional and, I’m sure, also reflected the personality of the maker &/or wearer. Now, factory-made purses are the norm, and designer-labeled purses can cost hundreds of dollars. I think, though, there have been recurring times when homemade purses were in vogue, especially the 1960s and 70s.

In the last 125 years or so, purses may have also been made of leather, exotic animal leather, metal, plastics, and a variety of fabrics.

Crocheted drawstring bag, ca. 1920. This is similar to my first crochet project.

Crocheted drawstring bag, ca. 1920. This is similar to my first crochet project in the 1970s.

Prada designer purse

Prada designer purse

At times, a woman might have only one or two purses. Sometimes women had a purse to match each outfit. Now, it seems, women like to have a variety of purses, to change with seasons or functionality needs.

Honeymoon outfit with matching purse, pumps, and hat, ca. 1963.

Honeymoon outfit with matching purse, pumps, and hat, ca. 1963.

In the Harry Potter books, my favorite object is Hermione’s magic purse. A small reticule-style purse, it carries whatever Hermione put in it, yet the purse stays the same size and weight. She carried lots of books, medicine, a tent, clothing, and a ton of camping gear. The even more amazing thing is that she could always find what she needed.

I saw several purses like that in the exhibit. No, they weren’t magic. But their expanding metal opening reminded me of how wonderful Hermione’s purse was.

Purse with expanding opening ca. 1925

Purse with expanding opening ca. 1925

Men have begun carrying bags again, thanks to tablets, etc. and briefcases seem to be out-of-date. Now they often carry messenger-style bags.

I love purses, and I love multiple styles. I’m fairly short, so I tend to like medium-size, cross-body styles for hands-free usage. However, I often carry a reading book and writing supplies, so I like the practicality of a tote-style purse–even if they do get heavy.

The exhibit showed how modern American women tend to carry too much in their purses. According to the US Department of Agriculture, we should only carry 2.2 pounds. Chiropractors say purses should weigh less than 10% of our body weight.

My purse weighed more than 3 lbs, and I didn’t even have a book in there.

purse on scale

My purse weighed about 3.25 lbs., a pound more than recommended by chiropractors.

My purse weighed about 3.25 lbs.

Maybe we should just resort to backpacks. I have several of those, too.

What era does your purse hearken to? What’s more important to you in a purse, function or appearance? What unusual things do you carry in your purse? How much does your purse weigh?

Primary Source: Good Newes From New England by Edward Winslow Records Another Time of Thanks

Statue of Edward Winslow, St Andrews Square, Droitwich, Worcestershire

Statue of Edward Winslow in Droitwich , Worcestershire, England, by Roland Turner/Creative Commons


Edward Winslow, one of the original Pilgrim colonists and leaders, wrote about the fledgling settlement. One of his books, Good Newes from New England: A True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimoth in New England, was published in 1624. It covered events from the winter of 1621-22 (after the “first Thanksgiving”) through the summer of 1623.

Winslow wrote about another time of thanksgiving–this time a “solemn day.” During the summer of 1623, a drought was withering their corn fields. The lack of corn was a constant worry for the Pilgrims, and if the crop failed they wouldn’t have food for the winter or seed corn for the following spring. Also, the colonists feared that expected supplies from England had been shipwrecked.

“These and the like considerations moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before him, but also more solemnly to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer. To that end a day was appointed by public authority, and set apart from all other employments; hoping that the same God, which had stirred us up hereunto, would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls, if our continuance there might any way stand with his glory and our good. But Oh the mercy of our God! who was as ready to hear, as we to ask; for though in the morning, when we assembled together, the heavens were as clear, and the drought as like to continue as ever it was, yet, (our exercise continuing some eight or nine hours,) before our departure, the weather was overcast, the clouds gathered together on all sides, and on the next morning distilled such soft, sweet, and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days, and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived; such was the bounty and goodness of our God.”

The drought was broken, and the Pilgrims learned the supply ship hadn’t been shipwrecked and was still coming.

“So that having these many signs of God’s favor and acceptation, we thought it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that, which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God, which dealt so graciously with us; whose name for these and all other his mercies towards his church, and chosen ones, by them be blessed and praised, now and evermore.”

For more info about Edward Winslow, see the Pilgrim Hall Museum website.

Under the Blood-Red Sun Movie

My previous post about the book Under the Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury was very timely! It turns out a movie has been made of the book–and it is just out! I’ve ordered my copy!

You can order a DVD, Blu-Ray, or digital version. See for more info.

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: 5 Lessons From Under the Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1995 winner, Under the Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.

The book opens on a fall day 1941 near Honolulu, Hawaii, when eighth-grader Tomikazu’s grandfather decides to hang out his newly-washed Japanese flag–where the neighbors can see it. Tomi and his little sister were born in Hawaii, and their parents and grandfather are first generation immigrants. His father is a fisherman, and his mother is a housekeeper. Tomi and his friends–Japanese, white, Hawaiian, and Portuguese–depend on family, friends, and baseball when their world is turned upside-down on Dec. 7.

Writing lessons:

1. Start off with tension. In the first three pages, we see Tomi arguing with his grandpa about showing his Japanese flag. Even kids who might not know the historical context will still see that Tomi is very nervous about what his grandpa is doing, and they argue about whether Tomi is Japanese or American. We don’t get a break, either, as the first chapter ends with the neighborhood bully messing with Tomi’s father’s beloved pigeons. I had to keep reading!

2. Half-point death. I’ve been learning–over and over again–how books and movies usually have something major happen right in the middle It’s often a death or near-death, and it can be literal or symbolic. This plot technique give structure to a story. It also allows the character to hit a low-point, yet come back with a new or slightly different motivation and/or goal. It seems to be a point where the character has to dedicate, or rededicate, himself or herself to the goal. In the case of Under the Blood-Red Sun, the half-point death is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the arrest of Tomi’s father.

3. Focus on the character’s experience. Salisbury keeps the focus on Tomi and his world. First we get to know Tomi, his family, and the issues that this eighth-grader is dealing with, including a science project, baseball games, a bully, and pre-war racial tensions. Then, when Pearl Harbor is bombed, we see it from the distance of Tomi’s mountain home. It gives the reader, especially young readers, some distance from the horror of that day. However, Salisbury does bring some of the horror to Tomi because a Japanese plane flies right over his home and the pilot shoots at them.

Another way Salisbury shields young readers is by keeping all the human deaths “off-screen,” yet he brings death close when the pigeons die. [I won’t say more–spoilers.] We see the awfulness, in a way that hits Tomi, and the readers, worse than the deaths of unknown soldiers. Plus, the story is Tomi’s and how he learns to stand up for himself and his family–yet in a way that honors both himself and his family.

History lessons:

1. Japanese internment/arrests on Hawaii. One of the horrible things about WWII was the mass arrests and internment of the Japanese-Americans by the U.S. I knew about the internment of whole families from the West Coast, but I wasn’t as familiar with what happened on the Hawaiian islands. It happened there, too, but slightly different. Right after the bombing, many Japanese men were arrested, just because they were Japanese, but especially if they were leaders in the Japanese community. There was so much fear that they may have helped, or would help, the Japanese government attack the US. Later, many of the men are transferred to prison camps on the Mainland and many of their families were sent to join them.

In the book, Tomi’s father is arrested right away. The loss of his income puts the already-poor family into immediate crisis. Plus, Tomi lives with the anxiety of not knowing where his father is, if he’s okay, and if or when he’s coming home.

2. Examples of hatred, fear, compassion, bravery, and honor. One of the best things about historical fiction is how it makes events and people real to us. It makes us care about others’ stories.

In Under the Blood-Red Sun, we see how ashamed Tomi’s grandfather is that his beloved birth country would attack the U.S., and how it hurts him so much because of his culture’s emphasis on honor. He kept trying to teach Tomi about family honor, yet he was betrayed by his former land. We also see the reactions of Tomi’s neighbors toward them. Some responded with hate, some were just afraid, some continued to give their friendship and support. Salisbury brought it all down to concrete examples that Tomi experiences and then readers experience through Tomi.

Check out the following links for more info about the Hawaiian Japanese internmentGraham Salisbury, My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge, and another WWII-era Scott O’Dell Award-winning book.

Join me Tuesday, Dec. 16 (before my Christmas blog break) to talk about the 1987 winner, Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O’Dell.

Children’s historical fiction is full of difficult subjects, yet handled in appropriate ways for younger readers. What are some other books (for readers younger than 14) that deal with war, death, prejudice, in an intense but appropriate way? Next month will be the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. How should we commemorate that day? How do we differentiate between a government’s action from an ethnic group’s culture? What are some other books/movies that have a midpoint death?

30 Days of Thanksgiving–Part 3

Thanksgiving Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Today concludes my naming of 30 things (one for each day of November) for which I’m thankful:

21. Four seasons. Does it get boring to just have hot/dry and cold/wet seasons? People near the equator don’t get to see the leaves change color or feel the joy of shedding coats, hats, gloves, and boots.

22. Modern meteorology, forecasting, and communication. It’s not perfect, but we often have advance notice of severe weather.

23. Sunshine, especially in the winter. It may not actually warm things up, but it helps my attitude and feeling of well-being.



24. Coffee, hot chocolate, hot tea, but mostly coffee. I love the feeling of comfort and well-being that accompany warm drinks. Is that because we tend to sip warm drinks, so it means a break from the hustle and bustle of normal life?

25. Exercise. I don’t get enough, and I don’t always like it. But, I’m glad it’s something we can do “for our health and for fun,” and not like it often has been in the past, and still is for many people in the world, where they must do so much physical labor it literally wears them out at a young age.

26. Indoor plumbing. Remember–it’s winter in South Dakota.

27. Written & oral history. Our history is sometimes ugly, but could you imagine if you didn’t know anything that happened before your birth? How would we put anything into perspective?



28. Fire fighters and police officers. Every day they go to work, they risk injury and death.

29. The spouses and children of fire fighters and police officers. They live with a daily stress I can only imagine.

30. Mrs. Turner, my junior high English teacher, who encouraged me to take her high school journalism class. Sometimes it just takes one teacher to say “You can do it!”

My previous 30 Days of Thanksgiving posts: Part 1 and Part 2.

What are you thankful for?

30 Days of Thanksgiving–Part 2

Thanksgiving Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

In an effort to live a life of gratitude, I am naming 30 things (one for each day of November) I’m thankful for. I’m not taking my health, friends, family, and material blessings for granted, but I’m challenging myself to think beyond those things.

I posted Part 1 last week.

I’m thankful for:

11. Snow plow operators. I live in South Dakota. Winter can last six months. ‘Nuff said.

12. The ability to read.

13. My mom. She passed her love of reading to me–by example, by buying books and magazines, and by letting me go to the library on my own.

14. School and public libraries. I spent many childhood and adolescent hours in libraries. I still do.

October color in South Dakota. Photo by Deb Watley

October color in South Dakota.
Photo by Deb Watley

15. A beautiful South Dakota October. Now that winter has hit, October seems more precious.

16. The internet.

17. My mother-in-law. She once held my hair when the stomach flu got the best of me.

18. Time to catch-up with friends.

19. Veterans, including my brother, my mother, my father, two uncles, my grandfather, and my father-in-law. Thank you for serving! Happy Veterans Day!

20. My nephew, who is currently serving in the Army.

What are you thankful for?

30 Days of Thanksgiving–Part 1

Thanksgiving Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Thanksgiving Day is one of my favorite holidays. But I’m determined to be thankful everyday, to live a life of gratitude, expressing it to others and especially to the One from whom all good things come.

This month I will name 30 things (one for each day of November) I’m thankful for. I’m not taking my health, friends, family, and material blessings for granted, but I’m challenging myself to think beyond those things.

I’m thankful for:

1. Electricity–yes, a material blessing, but something I’m very glad to have, especially as winter darkness descends on the Northern Plains.


Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

2. Color–Isn’t it wonderful we don’t live in a monochromatic world? Did you know there are colors our eyes can’t see?

3. Memory–In a family who’s dealt with lots of dementia, I’m very glad to remember who I am and who my loved ones are.

4. Ability to sleep all night.–I remember what it’s like to have small children.

5. Right to vote.

6. Piano lessons my parents made me take.

7. Music.

8. Stories.

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo


9. Snowflakes. Each one is unique. None is this big!

10. Not getting that Barbie house I wanted as a child. I had hours of fun making cardboard boxes and household items into my own Barbie house.

What are you thankful for? How do you cultivate a life of gratitude?

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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

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

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

History Lessons:

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

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

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

Story Lessons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Scientists of the Manhattan Project

Voices of the Manhattan Project

Children of the Manhattan Project

History vs. Hollywood (Manhattan tv show)

Finally, here is Ellen Klages’ website.

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

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

Sport of Cross Country Began As Kids’ Game

Notre Dame Cross Country Invitational

Photo by Phil Roeder [Flickr: Creative Commons]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about cross country:

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Running Times

International Association of Athletics Federation

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

Dance is Unusual Form of Storytelling (For Me)


Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

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

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

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

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

Now if I just had a translator for other dances…

For more info about Kevin Locke, see his website.

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

Antibiotics: The Miracles We Take For Granted

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

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

I take antibiotics for granted.

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

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

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

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

But, I’m thankful for antibiotics.

For more information about the history of antibiotics:

The Real Story Behind Penicillin


The History of Antibiotics

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

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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

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

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


History lessons:

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

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


Story lesson:

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

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


For more information:

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

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

A Children’s Literature Network bio about Patricia Beatty.


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


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

Blog Break


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Big Stock Photo


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

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

Until then, may you have a lovely September!

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


Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

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

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

History Lessons:

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Lessons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Washington, D.C. On Fire?

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Big Stock Photo


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

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

Americans are devastated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Summer Camps Lead to Lifelong Memories

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Big Stock Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you research Shackleton’s life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s still on my to-do list!

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

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

What is your next book?

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


Rebecca L. Johnson

Rebecca L. Johnson

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

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

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

Thanks, Rebecca!

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

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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

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

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


Writing Lessons:

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

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

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

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


History Lesson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota Public Radio

Historical Overview of the American Poorhouse System

USA Today


Bonus lesson:

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

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


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

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

Good Earth State Park Provides Place For Good Exercise

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

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

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

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

(Photos by Deb Watley)


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


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


They remind me of Frodo and Sam.


photo-14 The flowers were beautiful!



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

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

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

Favorite Activities for the Dog Days of Summer

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Big Stock Photo

We are in the Dog Days of Summer!

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

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

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

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

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

Annual Archeology Awareness Days at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village


Archeodome in Mitchell, SD--photos by Deb Watley

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


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

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

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

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

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


Examples of stone knives

Examples of stone knives


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

What archeological sites have you been toured?

Running List of Children’s Books Set During WWI Era

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Big Stock Photo

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

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

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

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


Picture Books

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


Middle Grade

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

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


Young Adult

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost


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

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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

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

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

History lessons:

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

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

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

Writing lessons:

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

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

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

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

For more information:

The Folklore Tradition of Jack Tales

Matt Phelan and The Storm in the Barn

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction


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

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

Nebraska Novel Retreat

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

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

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

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

A walking path

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


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

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


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

Fun and Unusual Bicycle Decorations

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

Photos by Deb Watley


Let me zoom in a bit.





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

This bike sweater is totally impractical, but totally fun!

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

Books That Connect Me to D-Day

D-Day: The Normandy Invasion

U.S. Army/Flickr Creative Commons


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

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

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

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

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


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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award


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

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

History lessons:

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

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

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

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

Story/writing lessons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


For more information about Memorial Day:

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Memorial Day History

The Buddy Poppy Program


What does Memorial Day mean to you?

How do you observe it?

What other kids’ books would you recommend?

Bookmobiles: Bringing the Books to the Readers


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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about bookmobiles check out these sites:

Bookmobiles: A History

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

What was your childhood library like?

My Bicycles: Freedom and Fun

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

I have loved bicycling since before I can remember.

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

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

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

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

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

What was your first bike? Do you still ride?

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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

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

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

History I learned:

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

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

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

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

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

Story/writing lesson I learned:

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

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

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

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

Previous posts about my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge:

Scott O’Dell Award Challenge

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Have you read Chickadee? What did you learn?

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

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

My “First” Book


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

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

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

What was the first book you chose for yourself?

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

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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:

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#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.

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#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.

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