Creation Requires Focus

StockSnap_JLXDNN5BNE photo/Angelina Litvin

It’s amazing/sad/normal that it takes major life events to motivate us to do what we need to do.

I’ve been away from my blog a couple months. My father-in-law’s death was the major life event that precipitated my absence. Obviously, when major things happen, we have to let the lesser priorities slide. For me, that was my blog.

Although for some time I’d been thinking about what changes I should make to my writing life, just in the last two months I’ve faced my need to let my blog go for an extended period of time.

I need to spend my time writing my novels and nurturing the writing-relationships I already have. Instead, I’ve been spending lots of time researching and writing my blog to market and promote my work to potential buyers.

I will return to marketing eventually. But for now, I need to focus on the creating.

Perhaps focus should be my word for 2017.

I’ll keep my blog, including my contact info, online. I’ll also continue to follow and comment on others’ blogs–just not as often.

Dear readers, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you over the past three years. Thank you for your faithfulness, your comments and reading suggestions, and your encouragement. I want to nurture our relationship. Let’s stay in touch.

Book Inspires Me To Return To Old-School Hobbies


This book inspires me to finish this afghan–a project I’ve put away for years.

I recently enjoyed The Prairie Girl’s Guide to Life by Jennifer Worick (2007).

In this book, Worick described information about 1800s prairie life, such as curing meat or making button lamps. She also gave instructions for 50 prairie-type projects that us modern folk can try. The projects range from quilting and embroidery to panning for gold and saddling a horse.

In the past, people did lots of these activities because they had to, we can do them because we find great satisfaction in DIY and making-do.

I loved the reminders of how satisfying it is to do handcrafts.

Worick wrote:

“I continually meet women (and men) who are embroidering and canning and putting their own twists on old-school crafts and skills. Forget about granny chic; this is prairie chic, and it’s spreading like wildfire.”

I’ve done various handcrafts since I was a young child, partly because sometimes I needed to make-do.

For instance, I didn’t have a Barbie house. So, I spent hours making my own house. I used boxes, wallpaper samples, and household trash to make rooms and furniture. I believe I had more fun making the house than playing with it later!

One of my favorite hobbies has been crocheting. However, in the last few years, I’ve put most of my creative time and energy into writing. I miss crocheting.

In fact, I have a nearly-completed afghan that I began for one of my sons when he was about nine years old. He’s 17 now. I should get it done while he still lives at home, don’t you think?

I also want to learn to knit, spin yarn, and decorate a dollhouse.

What old-school hobbies or activities do you do? What would you like to learn how to do?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE BOMB by Theodore Taylor

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1996 winner, The Bomb, by Theodore Taylor.

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction is awarded each year to a children’s book by an American author, usually set in the Western Hemisphere.

In The Bomb, a teen boy named Sorry is one of the 167 people living on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean who are moved to make way for testing the new atomic weapons in Operation Crossroads immediately following World War II.

This young adult novel begins with Sorry and his family and neighbors living under Japanese occupation. Eventually, the Americans take control of the atoll as they advance toward the Japanese mainland. Uncle Abram listens to radio reports and keeps their neighbors informed of the progress of the war, including the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, soon after the war, the U.S. military pressures and manipulates Bikini residents into leaving their home because the U.S. has decided their atoll is the best place to test atomic bombs.

Sorry determines to stop the test.


Photo by Deb Watley

History Lesson:

Bikini Atoll and Operation Crossroads–My knowledge of this was rudimentary, at best. I appreciated learning about the residents of Bikini.

The U.S. dropped two bombs in the first round of testing. One detonated in the air and one in the water. There were many further tests during the next decade.

Although Taylor wrote in his author’s note that his novel was loosely based on the people moved from Bikini, he had personal experience with Operation Crossroads. He was a sailor on the USS Sumner, the ship which headquartered much of the operation’s early implementation. In Taylor’s epilogue and author’s note, he also wrote about what happened later to Bikini’s “nuclear nomads.”

Writing Lesson:

Two Stories in One–Taylor used a interesting structure to tell two stories at the same time. The text of the novel is Sorry’s story. However, Taylor also interspersed between chapters a short nonfiction narrative of the history of atomic research, weapons, and Operation Crossroads.

In nonfiction books or magazines, this is called a sidebar. I’ve seen these in picture books, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a sidebar like this used in a novel. This was an effective way of giving the reader historical context without bogging down the story.

Join me Feb. 28 as I talk about the history and writing lessons I learn from the 2002 award winner, The Land by Mildred D. Taylor.

For more info:

Theodore Taylor

Operation Crossroads

A Ground Zero Forgotten

What do you know about Bikini’s nuclear nomads? Have you seen nonfiction sidebars used in other novels?

Classic Stories and Manga



Photo by Deb Watley

A couple of my recent reads were manga versions (in the Manga Classics series) of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The Scarlett Letter was adapted by Crystal S. Chan and illustrated by SunNeko Lee, and Pride and Prejudice was adapted by Stacy King and illustrated by Po Tae.

Past posts about manga:

Stretching My Reading Habits: Manga

Manga and the Emmas

Because I began 2017 ill, I’m now very behind. For the next couple weeks I will focus on some other writing/teaching projects, and my next blog post will be on Jan. 31.

What have you read recently?




History: “Storied Road of Time”


“But soon history no longer seemed a clutter of dates and names in some dim, cold antiquity but became a storied road of time when dad told her old tales of wonder and the pride of kings. When he told the simplest incident with the sound of the sea in his voice, it seemed to take on such a coloring of romance and mystery that Jane knew she could never forget it. Thebes…Babylon…Tyre…Athens…Galilee…were places where real folks lived…folks she knew. And, knowing them, it was easy to be interested in everything pertaining to them.”

Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

This is pretty much how I feel about history. What about you? What makes people from the past become people you know?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: SHADES OF GRAY by Carolyn Reeder

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1990 Scott O’Dell Award-winner, Shades of Gray, by Carolyn Reeder.

In this middle grade novel, set in Virginia after the conclusion of the Civil War, 12-year-old Will is the son of a Confederate officer who was killed in battle. Will has also lost the rest of his family to violence and illness and is sent to live with his aunt–and her husband who refused to fight in the war.

History lesson:

Shenandoah Valley–Some of the more well-known battles of the Civil War took place in eastern Virginia. However, some lesser-known, but important battles took place in the Shenandoah Valley in the far western part of the state.

What I previously knew about the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War came from the Jimmy Stewart movie, Shenandoah, in which farming families suffered at the hands of both sides–Union and Confederate.

In fact, the valley was an important geographic area. The farms supplied food to the South, and the valley was an access point into the North. The two sides fought each other in the valley multiple times, with each side occupying at alternating times. Finally, in the summer and fall of 1864, Union forces went in again to retake the Valley, cut off the Confederates access into Union territory, and destroy food sources for the Confederacy.

Union General Philip Sheridan achieved all those goals, and his troops laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley.

In Shades of Gray, Will is from the city of Winchester, where there was major fighting in the 1864 campaign.


Writing lesson:

Lack of dialect–This book is set in the post-Civil War South, and Will lives with his poor, lesser-educated relatives. Yet, because Reeder didn’t use the phonetic, heavy dialect that books such as Tom Sawyer used, her novel is very readable, especially for young readers.

However, Reeder used enough Southern vocabulary to give readers a sense of the setting, and she occasionally used either vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar to show some of the characters had less education than others. Here are a couple examples:

“I’ll make a stew to go with the poke greens Meg cut along the road this afternoon.”

“That must smart right bad.”

For more info:

The Civil War Trust

Shenandoah Valley Battlefields

Carolyn Reeder

Join me Jan. 31 to talk about the 1996 Scott O’Dell winner, The Bomb by Theodore Taylor.

Have you read about or visited the Shenandoah Valley? Have you visited Civil War battlefields? Do you have family stories connected to the Civil War?


Always Winter? No, Aslan Is On The Move!

“The White Witch? Who is she?”

“Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

stocksnap_mx34y6nemc photo

“I’ve come at last,” said [Father Christmas]. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”

–Excerpts from one of my favorite books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.


Merry Christmas!

Gingerbread Houses Have Historical and Literary Connections


CH Patisserie, a bakery in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., displays this wonderful–and very large–gingerbread house. (Photos by Deb Watley)

Gingerbread houses are a fun, wintery decoration. Yet, they are also a fascinating bit of food craft, architecture, artistry, history, and literary tradition.

In the 1500s–in what’s now Germany–the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel featured an edible house. The story may have come first, or the gingerbread houses may have been an inspiration for the story. But, the story and the making of gingerbread houses seem to be linked.

Gingerbread dates back thousands of years ago. The ginger root was grown in China. But, a couple thousand years before Christ was born, the Greeks were using ginger to make gingerbread. This would have been a hard-style of gingerbread they used in religious ceremonies.

By the 11th Century, Europeans were making gingerbread shaped like people, animals, flowers, etc. Gingerbread was a festival food. In fact, some of the festivals were called gingerbread fairs.

Americans have adopted the hard-type of gingerbread for cookies and houses, but Americans also historically had a cake-like version of gingerbread. Both George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and Laura Ingalls Wilder were known for their cake-like gingerbread.


The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook contains Laura’s gingerbread recipe.

But why are the houses a winter tradition? I’m not sure, except of course, the frosting looks like snow, and the candies and gingerbread epitomize the sweets we eat at Christmas.

There is one other reason of a very practical nature alluded to in the book, The Gingerbread Architect by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chairman. The hard gingerbread stays hard in the dryer air of winter and furnaces (in the northern hemisphere). In a humid environment, the gingerbread would soften, and the houses wouldn’t be able to hold their shapes.

Sources and more info:

The History of Gingerbread (and a recipe)

Gingerbread: History, Traditions and Where to See the World’s Sweetest Artwork

A Brief History of Gingerbread


One of my kids’ favorite winter/Christmas picture books.

Do you like to eat gingerbread? Have you ever made gingerbread people and/or houses? What other literary and/or historical links are there to gingerbread houses?

Primary Resource: Thanksgiving Proclamation by Pres. George Washington, Oct. 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

Happy Thanksgiving! See you in a couple weeks!



Recently I was in one of my local book stores looking for several particular books. I didn’t find them.

Instead I found a book I didn’t know existed–and that I’m loving!

The World of Little House by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Ericksson caught my attention as I browsed the children’s history and biography sections.

It uses colorful illustrations by Garth Williams and original ones by Deborah Maze, including maps, diagrams of the various Little Houses, recipes, activities, and lots of information about Laura’s life and the world of the 19th Century pioneers.

One fun (or slightly gross?) fact I learned is that the pioneer women ironed everything, including undergarments, not just for appearance sake, but also for hygiene. You see, the heat from the ironing would eliminate insects and germs that washing alone didn’t do.


Another fun thing I learned was that Ma once made a square Thanksgiving Day pie. I was taken aback–a square pie? Why not? Ma used the pan she had available, and that was her square pan she normally used for baking two bread loaves at a time.


I also liked the timeline at the end of the book that put events of Laura’s life in perspective with events happening in the United States.

This is a wonderful book for any Laura fans or anyone wanting to learn more about the daily life of pioneers.

What was your last unexpected book find?

Bookish British Vacation: Book Stores & Historic Library

My recent trip to Britain had a decidedly bookish flair.

We visited some sights made famous by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, as well as some places with Harry Potter connections.

But, we also visited many book stores. Some were historic book stores that sell new books. Some were modern book stores connected with big companies. Some were small stores that sold used (and often rare and collectible) books.

Photos by Bruce and Deb Watley

In Oxford, we visited Blackwell’s Book Shop. Our family joke is that it is like the Tardis–bigger on the inside. This historic store has it all–new books, old books, and lots of academic books.

In London, we walked down Charing Cross Road and found a concentration of book stores, including Foyles, Henry Pordes Books, Any Amount of Books, and Francis Edwards Antiquarian Booksellers (now Quinto and Francis Edwards).

Hatchards on Piccadilly was on my must-see list. It opened in 1797 and is the oldest book store in London.

We also toured the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It’s earliest origins in that location reach back to the 15th Century. During the Reformation, however, many of its books were removed and some destroyed. Thomas Bodley is credited with saving and re-invorgating the library in 1598 (with it opening in 1602). Although the many universities in Oxford have a library, the Bodleian Library is the library for the whole Oxford system. It now includes multiple separate libraries and buildings.

We were allowed to take photos in some of the gathering rooms at the Bodleian Library, but not in the collections rooms.

Do you take bookish vacations? To where? What are your favorite book stores and libraries?






My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: MORNING GIRL by Michael Dorris

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

For this month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge, I read Morning Girl by Michael Dorris. Morning Girl won the 1993 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

This very short novel could be considered a chapter book for young, independent readers–probably second and third graders. The two, young protagonists, Morning Girl and Star Boy, are siblings who live with their parents on a tropical island. The two children see their world in different ways and alternately love and pester each other.

I don’t do traditional book reviews in this series of articles about the Scott O’Dell Award books. Instead, I share at least one history lesson and one writing lesson I learned because of each book. This article is an exception. I will not have a history lesson this time, and you’ll see why not.


Writing Lessons:

Two protagonists–This novel has a couple structural things that make it unusual for early readers. First, Morning Girl has two protagonists who each tell their own stories in alternating chapters. I think this isn’t done much because young readers are still focusing on the skill of reading and just learning to connect with one major character. But, because this story isn’t complicated, I think it works.

Withholding important information–The second way this books is different from most books, for any age of children, is that Dorris withheld major information–the where and when of the story–until the very end.

I hate spoilers, so I won’t spoil the ending for you. However, this structure worked well for this first-person point-of-view story because the two main characters live a very small, sheltered life and have little concept of a larger world. The story is really about the children, and it feels complete. The younger readers probably won’t know the significance of the ending, but older readers may have an “ah-ha moment.”

Connecting the characters and the readers–Although many early readers will not be familiar with Morning Girl’s and Star Boy’s culture or way of life, they will readily connect with both characters because Dorris focused on something every young sibling understands–sibling and family relationships. The readers will quickly feel Morning Girl’s annoyance with Star Boy as well as Star Boy’s pleasure in annoying his sister. Dorris connected his characters’ world with his young readers’ world.

Imagery–Dorris did a wonderful job with Morning Girl and Star Boy describing their world to the readers in fresh and lyrically beautiful ways. Here are some examples:

“I don’t know how my brother came to see everything so upside down from me. For him, night is day, sleep is awake. It’s as though time is split between us, and we only pass by each other as sun rises or sets. Usually, for me, that’s enough.”

Can’t you just feel the sibling love?

“I closed my eye and concentrated on being a rock. I sank so deep into the ground that no digging stick could roll me from my hole. I became so hard that no tree or bush could take root on my surface. I slowed my thoughts until the quietness of the earth wrapped me in its heavy cotton.”

What other books for very early readers do you know of that have multiple point-of-view protagonists?

Join me Nov. 29 to discuss the 1990 award-winner, Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder.

British Kids’ Game Became International Sport Known as Cross Country

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

(I originally posted this article Oct. 21, 2014. If you get the chance, go watch a high school cross country meet, but wear your running shoes. The spectators often do a good deal of walking and running, too.)

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

Pottery Reveals Our Love For Beauty


Pottery Sherds (Flckr: Creative Commons by Iris Fernandez/The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)

Pottery sherds are important artifacts for archeologists. They can learn lots from those broken pieces of pottery, like what people group made the pottery, where they made it, and sometimes, what it held.

One of the ways they determine who made the pottery is by the decorative designs on the piece.

I am amazed that people who had to gather, grow, and hunt for every piece of food they ate still took the time to make beautiful things. The need to beautify even our basic possessions is a human trait. We are creative. We seek and appreciate beauty.

Even now.


My sister and my mom–and our pottery.

Last weekend I met my sister, Ruth, and my mom, Betty, at It’s Your Pottery in Omaha, Neb., to paint pottery. It was fun! The most difficult part was deciding which piece to choose.

I wonder, in 1,000 years or so, will archeologists find pieces of my pottery? What will they be able to determine about me?

What do you do to add beauty to your life?

Re-enactment at Pipestone, MN, Civil War Days Brings Details of 19th Century to Life


Photos by Deb Watley and Creighton Watley

Last month, I attended one of the Pipestone Civil War Days in nearby Pipestone, Minnesota. Highlights of this annual event include the re-enactors who dress in period-type clothing, demonstrate various 19th Century skills, and stage a mock battle.

This was only my second Civil War re-enactment I’ve been able to attend. But, I’ve learned something each time.

At my first one, years ago in Centerville, Iowa, my family played cricket. The sport was popular among Civil War-era soldiers. Modern Americans have the misconception that it’s a boring sport, but we found it fun to play!


At the Pipestone re-enactment, I realized how loud and smoky the cannons were. Even with wearing earplugs while a few cannons were fired, I could imagine what it must have been like during a real battle. The heat, smoke, noise, stench, would have been magnified. And the horrors of the wounded and killed soldiers and horses are almost beyond imagination.

Being able to experience some of those detail–in even a small way–helps me understand and appreciate what others’ lives were really like.


I also took home my own little (reproduction) piece of the 19th Century. I learned the shade felt wonderful, but the closed back of my straw bonnet trapped the heat. But the women wearing the straw hats (that sit on top of the head) with the wide brims benefited from both the shade and the breeze.

There are re-eactments of many different time periods and cultures (i.e. Roman-era, U.S. Colonial-era, etc.). Have you ever been to one? Have you participated as a re-enactor? What did you learn?


Welcome back! Vacations are ending, schools are starting, and next Monday is Labor Day! For some of us, this is the time we get back into our “normal” routines and dig into work. For gardeners and farmers, the summer growing season is winding down and the fall harvest will soon begin.

To help us commemorate Labor Day, Erin Hagar, author of the soon-to-be released picture book Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Woman’s Land Army of America, has joined us to talk about some amazing history connecting labor, women, and World War I.

Doing Her Bit cover

Thanks for joining us today, Erin! Please tell us about your book.

Doing Her Bit is based on the true story of Helen Stevens, a New York City college girl who spent the summer of 1917 training and working as a member of the Woman’s Land Army of America, colloquially known as “the farmerettes.” These women provided crucial farm labor at a time when there were worldwide food shortages and many men were leaving farms to fight overseas or work in factories.

During her training, Helen learns to plow, plant, work with livestock and tend to general farm upkeep. But she’s frustrated that her capable team can’t get hired. Whether a farmer will hire them, and how they’ll do when given the chance, is the central question of the book. (SPOILER ALERT: They get the chance, and they nail it!)

What drew you to writing about WWI and the Woman’s Land Army?

You could have filled a thimble with what I knew about farming and WWI combined. But when I heard Elaine Weiss talk  about her wonderful book Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America In World War I on my local NPR station, I was completely hooked. I had two thoughts: 1) How could I not have heard about these women before? and 2) Kids are going to love this “can-do” story.

Women participated in the war effort in multiple ways, but what made the WLA so amazing? 

The size, scope, and the level of organization of the WLA was truly incredible. There were state and national offices, partnerships with colleges and universities, and grassroots efforts to connect with garden clubs and other social outlets. It involved politics and recruitment and fundraising and training and PR and logistics. And it all came together within a year and a half or so. To think about this level of organization in the days before instant communication is mind boggling to me.

How is the WLA connected to labor issues and reform?

The WLA was built on the backbone of the suffrage movement, the labor movement, and other progressive causes. One concrete way this played out was with the farmerettes’ wages. The leaders of the WLA wanted the women to get hired, so it was tempting to consider charging a lower daily rate for their work then men would have charged. But this could have caused men’s wages to decline when the war ended, and they didn’t want that. They decided to have the Farmerettes earn the same daily rate as the male farmhands, usually about two dollars a day. Some of that money went back to the organization (for food and other logistical support), but most of it were wages.

In my story (and this part is fictionalized), the team agrees to work for one day with no pay, to show the farmer what they’re capable of. At the end of the day, the farmer haggles to get another free day. The image shows the two sides staring each other down as the sun sets around them. The text reads, “Helen dug her boots into that hard, packed earth. Men’s work deserved men’s wages.” It’s one of my favorite spreads in the book.

What is your research/writing process?

Well, I devoured Elaine’s amazing book and anything else I could find about the Farmerettes. I learned about the food shortages of the time, the debate about the U.S. entering WWI, volunteer efforts on the home front, and the social justice organizations (like the ones fighting for women’s suffrage) that agreed to temporarily shift their focus to support the war effort.

And I read Helen Stevens’ 1917 account of her summer in the WLA published in the New York Times. It was primarily a PR piece, designed to highlight the Farmerettes’ accomplishments and drum up enthusiasm for the next year’s recruitment efforts. I didn’t think too much about this account at first, though, because in the early drafts I tried to have a generic group of Farmerettes at the heart of the story.

Soon, though, it became clear that one of these women needed to be front and center, and of course it had to be Helen. Her NYT piece had so many rich details that I added to the story: her fear of snakes, the smelly turnip plants, the fickle Model-T that often refused to start. It was such fun to rediscover that piece with new eyes, when I was ready to take the draft in a different direction.

What was your publication journey for Doing Her Bit?

Soon after I learned about the WLA, I started the MFA in Writing for Children program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  I worked on this manuscript with two advisors there. I tried to write about the Woman’s Land Army as a longer nonfiction piece, but it seemed so ripe (pardon the pun) for a picture book that I settled pretty quickly on that.

An early version of the manuscript won a prize at the school, which gave me some confidence and some really helpful feedback from a publishing house. Based on that feedback, I revised and submitted it to Charlesbridge. It is the perfect home for this story, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work with the great team there.



Erin Hagar

Erin Hagar writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. She grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and now lives in Baltimore with her husband, two children, and a few too many pets. Erin works in curriculum and instruction at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learn more about Erin and her books at

Thanks, Erin!

Doing Her Bit will be released Sept. 13.  A great place to preorder/order a copy of the book is The Ivy Bookshop, an indie bookseller in Erin’s neck of the woods! I did!

Do any of you have family who participated in the Woman’s Land Army?


My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE SIGN OF THE BEAVER by Elizabeth George Speare

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1984–and the first–award-winner, The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare. This novel was also named an Newbery Honor Book that same year.

O’Dell began his award to honor American authors, especially newer authors, who wrote kids’  historical fiction set in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve challenged myself to read each one and write about the history and writing lessons I’ve learned or been inspired to research from each book.

In The Sign of the Beaver, Matt and his father have carved out a new home for their family in the woods of Maine in 1768 or ’69. Matt’s father then leaves Matt to take care of their growing garden while he returns to Massachusetts Colony to help Matt’s mother and younger siblings move to the new homestead.

While alone, Matt is robbed of his rifle and gets stung by bees. He is nursed back to health by a Native American man and his grandson, Attean. The grandfather requires Attean to supply Matt with meat, while Matt must teach Attean to read English.

The two boys start as enemies. Matt soon learns to see life through each Attean’s eyes, and he tries to earn Attean’s trust and respect.


Photo by Deb Watley

History Lesson:

History of Maine–I’ve read other books that have piqued my interest in Maine, but I’ve never visited the state and know little about it. This novel gave me a snapshot of what it was like for settlers and Native Americans during the time between the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.

These days I think about Maine as an idyllic vacation spot and a good place to eat inexpensive, fresh seafood. But, during its Colonial and Revolutionary Eras, it was a violent place. There were many battles between whites and Native Americans, the English and French, and later the Americans and English.

Europeans had visited Maine since the late 1400s, trading and fighting with the Native Americans. In 1607, the same year as the English Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, there was another English try at settlement–the Popham Colony on the Maine coast. However, this didn’t even survive a couple years.

Maine entered the United States as part of Massachusetts. It wasn’t until 1820 that Maine broke away from Massachusetts and became a full-fledged state of its own.

Writing Lesson:

Writing cross-culturally–At the time of publication, Speare was well-known for her research skills. However, the themes of understanding and respect in The Sign of the Beaver are now overshadowed by Speare’s seemingly incomplete research, especially in Native American culture.

A major fault, especially for a book aimed at elementary-age readers, was her usage of the word s–w for a Native American woman. Yes, it was a common term used by whites at the time, but it was also very derogatory. And in the novel, Attean (one of the “good guys”) uses that word.

According to Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac’s 2011 introduction to the novel, Attean probably would have used a different, non-derogatory, word for woman. Bruchac added,

“In 1983, when The Sign of the Beaver was published, it was widely known by everyone connected in any way with American Indians just how problematic the word squaw is.”

The usage of this word by Attean was not true either to the time of the publication or to the time of the setting of the book.

Speare died in 1994, so we can’t ask her about her research process, but perhaps she hadn’t talked with any Native Americans from Maine to learn their perspective which is difficult to learn from the writings of non-Native Americans.

The Sign of the Beaver has become a cautionary tale: writers need to make sure they accurately represent any culture they write about that is different from their own.

For more information:

The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maine

Penobscot Bay History

Maine Secretary of State Kids: Detailed History

Maine’s First Ship: History of the Popham Colony

New York Times Obit of Elizabeth G. Speare

When I get to visit Maine someday, where should I go and what should I see/experience? What Maine books have you read? What are your favorite well-done cross-cultural books (where the author writes about a culture other than his or her own culture)?

Literary Vacations to Story Settings


Have you ever taken a trip to see a specific location because it was the setting of a book? Or the setting of a movie or tv show based on a book?

I’ve been to a couple Laura Ingalls Willder sites (DeSmet, S.D., and Mansfield, Mo.), and I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the setting of Anne of Green Gables (Prince Edward Island, Canada).

This summer I’ve read three kids’ books (Hitty, Her First Hundred Years; The Penderwicks at Point Mouette; and The Sign of the Beaver) set in Maine, and I didn’t realize any of these were Maine books before I started. They rekindled my desire to visit Maine.

Someday, I also want to see New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were filmed. New Zealand made such a beautiful Shire, Rivendell, Rohan, and Gondor.

How about you? What story settings have you visited? Where do you want to visit?

Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer Features Central Nebraska History


Stuhr Building/Photos by Deb and Bruce Watley

Recently my husband and I visited the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, Nebraska.


Visitors begin at the recently renovated Stuhr Building. This building features exhibits giving an overview of the area’s history, from Native American life to the railroad’s influence.

Then we went to the Gus Fonner Memorial Rotunda which housed Native American artifacts, as well as cowboy and horse artifacts.

The museum grounds also feature multiple historic homes and a re-creation of a representative 1890s pioneer town dubbed Railroad Town.


This rural church reminded me a little of one I attended as a small child.


This log cabin was built in the 1850s in the Grand Island area. It had two rooms and a loft and was the home of a family of six.


The museum also has a replica of a Pawnee earth lodge, circa 1830s. This was big enough to be home to more than 30 Pawnee at a time.

A fun thing about living history museums is talking with the interpreters and learning details about the daily lives of the people the museums represent.

At one home we visited, the interpreter pointed out one of the light fixtures. It was both gas and electric. The homeowners were well-off financially and had electricity, but the electric company turned off the electricity at 5 p.m. Then the homeowners used gas (which they made themselves, like acetylene gas) to light their home in the evenings.

In addition to the living history aspects of the museum, the Stuhr Museum also houses collections and archives that are available for researchers.

For more info:

Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer

Have any of you been to this museum? Another living history museum? What’s the most surprising thing you learned?

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village Is Active Archeological Site

One of my favorite South Dakota places to visit is the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village just off Interstate 90, and my family and I visited last weekend during its annual Archeology Awareness Days.

This prehistoric Indian village, occupied about 1,000 years ago, is the only ongoing archeology site in South Dakota open to the public. Thanks to the Boehnen Memorial Museum and the Thomsen Center Archeodome, people can visit year-round.

For a month every summer, Augustana University in Sioux Falls and Exeter College in Oxford, England, sponsor a joint field school dig for their students. This is the only time of the year visitors can watch archeologists work at the site.

During each field school month (usually mid-June through mid-July), the museum and field school also hosts Archeology Days for one weekend. During this weekend, a variety of experts on Native American culture have exhibits or do demonstrations, and visitors can get involved by throwing spears with atlatls (a type of lever) or making pottery.

The field school students and archeologists will be continue to work at the site through mid-July.

For more information:

My previous visit

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

Have you ever attended the annual Archeology Days at the Indian village? Have you visited any archeology site? Is so, where?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE ART OF KEEPING COOL by Janet Taylor Lisle

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book for this month is the 2001 award winner, The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle.

This middle grade novel is set during 1942 on the coast of Rhode Island and begins with cousins Robert and Elliot watching the military transport huge guns (think cannon-type) through their town to the fort on the coast. The boys soon get to know a German-immigrant artist who becomes suspected of being a Nazi spy.

In My Award Challenge posts, I don’t do an actual book review. I don’t say whether or not I like the book. I usually stick to the things I’ve learned from the book, both historical and writing.

However, this time I want to point out how relevant this historical fiction novel is to the present. The year this novel–which deals so much with the human nature of fear after an attack–won the Scott O’Dell Award was the same year the United States reeled from the 9-11 attacks. Since then, we’ve been attacked often enough that discerning between healthy fear and unhealthy fear is an ongoing struggle.


History Lesson:

WWII Defenses on East Coast–I knew there were Nazi U-boat attacks on the East Coast during the war, but it was a bigger problem than I knew, especially in 1942 as the United States was mobilizing and heading to the European Theater. I knew coastal residents watched for enemy aircraft and covered their windows at night, but I hadn’t given any thought to secret and camouflaged coastal fortifications.

In her author’s note, Lisle wrote that she based the opening scene from the novel on a historical event. Big artillery guns were transported through her town in 1942. Although she didn’t witness the gun transport, she did remember, as a kid, seeing the ruins of a WWII fort and defenses.

Writing Lesson:

Memoir-style–There is a major difference between a kids’ book with a child protagonist and an adult book with a child protagonist. In kids’ books, the protagonists live the story or adventure as the readers read the story, even if the story is written in past tense. This means the kid protagonists don’t know how their stories end.

In adult books that have kid protagonists, adult narrators are telling about their childhood experience, but also elaborating on that and telling what those experiences meant. This is memoir-esque.

Most kids’ books do not use this memoir writing style because kid readers like to experience the story with the protagonists. Generally, kids don’t look back over their lives. They focus on the now and the future.

Kid readers want to experience the story with the protagonist. They want to learn things on their own. They don’t want adults telling them what the adults learned through the experience.

Lisle does use the memoir style for this novel. Yet it still works for a kids’ book. Why?

First, because she uses the memoir-style sparingly through most of the book, either to set the scene, to show the passage of time, or to show Robert realizing Elliot sees life differently than he does. But then, Lisle seamlessly moves into a scene where readers see the story unfold.

Second, although Lisle ends the story with a grown-up Robert, he is a young man. He is still more relatable to the readers than if Robert were looking backward as an elderly man. Kid readers can more easily picture themselves as young adults versus elderly adults. Also, with Robert looking back as a young adult, he has matured some, but he doesn’t know it all. He’s still a work in progress.

Lisle does a good job of letting adult Robert give some extra insight into the situation without telling us what lesson he learned.

For more information:

Janet Taylor Lisle

A Brief History of the Coast Artillery Corps

The True Story of a Family Caught in a WWII U-Boat Attack

Join me Tuesday, July 26, to talk about the lessons I learned from the 1984 O’Dell Award winner, The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.

What other kids books are set on the East Coast during WWII? Do you know of other kids books that are written in a memoir-style? How did the author make it work?

25+ Kids’ Books About Summer Camp


Photo by Michal Parzuchowski

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.


I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but I didn’t know how the boys would’ve gotten in unseen, nor did I know what itching/sneezing powder is. I still don’t. 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.

There are lots of kids’ books about summer camp. Here are more than 25 (most of which are new to me):

Picture Books and Early Chapter Books:

  • The Berenstain Bears Go to Camp by Stan and Jan Berenstain
  • Cam Jansen and the Summer Camp Mysteries by David A. Adler
  • A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee
  • Cowboy Camp by Tammi Sauer, illus. by Mike Reed
  • The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder by Peter Brown
  • Froggy Goes to Camp by Jonathan London


  • Agnes Parker…Happy Camper? by Kathleen O’Dell
  • Camp Confidential series by Melissa J. Morgan (more than 20 books)
  • The Baby-Sitters Club Super Special Edition #2: Baby-sitters Summer Vacation by Ann M. Martin
  • The Great Summer Camp Catastrophe by Jean Van Leeuwen
  • Holes by Louis Sachar
  • How Tia Lola Saved the Summer by Julia Alvarez
  • I Want to Go Home by Gordon Korman
  • Letters From Camp by Kate Klise, illus. by M. Sarah Klise
  • Like Bug Juice on a Burger by Julie Sternberg, illus. by Matthew Cordell
  • Middle School: How I Survived Bullies, Broccoli, and Snake Hill by James Patterson, Chris Tebbetts, and Laura Park
  • Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
  • Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
  • Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary
  • Spy Camp by Stuart Gibbs
  • Summer Camp, Ready or Not! by Sandra Belton

Young Adult:

  • Hidden by Helen Frost (older MG/younger YA)
  • Jersey Tomatoes are the Best by Maria Padian
  • Lumberjanes series by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke Allen
  • There’s a Bat in Bunk Five by Paula Danziger (older MG/younger YA)


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

June 14: Flag Day in the United States

In the United States, we remember June 14 as Flag Day to commemorate the anniversary of the Continental Congress’s decision on June 14, 1777, that our new nation should have its own flag.

Lots more info about the history of our flag and Flag Day:

Flag Timeline (Independence Hall Association)

History of the American Flag (PBS)

Fast Flag Facts (

The Origins of Flag Day (U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

Flag Day (U.S. Publications)

Deconstructing History: American Flag (

The next video is 13 minutes long, but it’s informative and very well done by the National Constitution Center.

What does Flag Day mean to you? How do you observe it?

Summer Reading


Books I may read this summer. I’ve already started several. Photo by Deb Watley

I read a lot in the summer.

That’s been true since I was a kid. Summers meant long, unscheduled days and lots of reading time. The best part was that I didn’t have to do any reading for school, so I could follow my own interests.

That meant reading and rereading animal stories, the Nancy Drew series, and books by Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. As an adult I still like to reread favorites once in a while, but that is not an exclusively summer thing for me.

Now my summer reading habits aren’t much different from the rest of the year, except when I travel or go to the pool. Then I want books that don’t take too much concentration and aren’t too dark or sad.

My one summer reading habit is that I love to read Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries books while I’m at our local wave pool. I’ve read so many while soaking up the sun and listening to lapping water that those things are linked for me.

I recently heard someone say that each summer he reads about America’s Founding Fathers. I hadn’t thought before about focusing an entire summer on one topic or one author. That could be a rewarding experience.

Do you adjust your reading habits for summer (types of books, locations, etc.)? Do you make a summer reading list, read best-sellers, old favorites, one series? What constitutes a summer read for you?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: BULL RUN by Paul Fleischman

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge Book for this month is the 1994 winner, Bull Run, by Paul Fleischman.

This young middle-grade novel follows multiple protagonists, both children and adults, from the beginning of the Confederate attack of Ft. Sumter in April 1861 through the first battle of Bull Run three months later.

Writing Lesson:

Multiple protagonists–In my last award challenge post, I mentioned that it is unusual to find kids’ historical fiction with multiple protagonists, with the exception of romances or verse novels.

Bull Run is neither.

In Bull Run, each protagonist has his or her own first person point of view chapters reoccurring throughout the novel, and each protagonist has his or her own story arc.

There are a lot of protagonists–16, in fact. They represent both the North and the South, soldiers and civilians, young and old, male and female, black and white, slave and free. In other words, Fleischman is giving readers a thorough overview of the battle.

Fleischman also structured this novel this way to be used as a play or readers’ theater text, which makes it a good story to spark classroom discussions.


Photo by Deb Watley

History Lesson:

The First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas Junction)–This battle took place on July 21, 1861, and was the first major battle of the Civil War. Soldiers were inexperienced, and many on both sides of the war expected to quickly win the war.

Although the Confederates won this battle, they were not able to follow through to end the war. Both the Union and Confederates realized it would not be a short war.

Bull Run is probably one of the most well-known battles of the war for me, and yet many of the websites I looked at for more info focused on the decisions of the generals and movements of the groups of soldiers.

Novels, such as Bull Run, include many of those battle details, but also give readers insight into the motivations and experiences of the individuals involved.

I think hooking kids into stories about historical people is a very effective way of getting the kids interested in learning more about an event.

For example, one of Fleischman’s protagonists is a free black man from Ohio who is frustrated at not being able to fight with other free blacks against slavery, so he hides his identity and joins a white regiment. Another one of Fleischman’s protagonists is an orphan from Arkansas who decides to join the Confederate calvary just so he can have a horse of his own. Then there’s the artist who plans to record the battle and ends up joining it.

For more info:

Paul Fleischman

Civil War Trust: Bull Run

Join me June 28 to discuss the 2001 Scott O’Dell Award Winner, The Art of Keeping Cool, by Janet Taylor Lisle.

How did you get interested in history? What other kids’ historical fiction have you read that shows lots of viewpoints of the same event?

Literary Treasure Hoards, or AKA, Used Bookstores

A treasure hoard is a hidden cache of jewels, coins, or other valuables. To me, bookstores and libraries are full of treasures–books, both older and newer. Although used bookstores are not hidden, they are often overlooked.

I love used bookstores. When I purge my bookshelves, I sell what I can at a couple local used bookstores. While the employees decide what they’ll buy, I browse the shelves and often buy more books.

At used bookstores, sometimes I find newer books, but I also find classics and wonderful older books. Sometimes I find books helpful for historical research.

Part of the fun is that I never know what I’ll find. It’s a treasure hunt for me.


Photo by Bruce Watley

A few weeks ago, I posted about a recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg. There is a used bookstore there–Mermaid Books. At that visit we arrived after the store closed, so I only scored a photo.

But, several years ago, I was able to shop at Mermaid Books. I discovered a couple old treasures I didn’t know existed.


Photo by Deb Watley

For more information about Mermaid Books, see

This is the first installment in a series about literary treasure hoards/used bookstores I visit.

Do you shop at used bookstores? If so, please tell me about them!

Manga and the Emmas


Two different Emmas–Photo by Deb Watley

At the beginning of the year I wrote about my “discovery” of manga because I found a book  titled Emma, which I wrongly thought was a version of Jane Austen’s story.

The Emma I had found is a delightful historical fiction series set in Britain around 1900, created by Kaoru Mori. I read book one in the series, where the title character is a maid who loves a man above her station in life.

But, guess what? I recently discovered there is a manga version of Jane Austen’s Emma! This is an adaption illustrated by Po Tse and published in Udon Entertainment’s Manga Classics series.

I think manga is a wonderful way to introduce well-loved stories to readers who wouldn’t normally read classics.

Have you read any classics or old favorites in an unusual format?

Historical Place: Colonial Williamsburg


A street in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia–Photos by Deb and Bruce Watley

I was in Virginia last weekend for my husband’s graduation. The festivities included visiting some friends’ home in Williamsburg for fun, as well as an academic meeting.

But one day we were able to squeeze in a couple short visits to Colonial Williamsburg.

We’d been to Colonial Williamsburg several years ago and saw lots of the interpreters at work in various colonial occupations and the inside of a number of the historical buildings. So, I survived not getting to see everything this time.

That’s part of the beauty of Colonial Williamsburg. You don’t have to do a tour or spend a whole day there to benefit.


You need to buy a pass or tickets to get into the buildings, such as the printer’s or the milliner’s shop, and interact with the interpreters there. But, there are certain places, such as a pub or a garden, where the general public is welcome. And there are interpreters, that ride horses or stroll up and down the street, who interact with visitors.


A few streets are open to cars, but most are only accessible by walkers, runners, and bicyclists–and without an entrance fee. There is also a commercial area on one end of the little community that boasts restaurants, book stores, ice cream shops, mall-type clothing stores, and cheese and candy stores, etc.


On this visit, we hit up some of the shops and strolled down part of the main road. The thing that I really noticed this trip was how beautiful the gardens were, especially since they are about a month ahead of our gardens in the upper Midwest.




Have you visited Colonial Williamsburg or another living history-type place/monument/museum? What is your favorite thing about visiting historical sites?

Japanese Gardens at Terrace Park in Sioux Falls

There is an expression that says something to the effect that we take things in our own backyard for granted. That’s often true.

I’ve lived in Sioux Falls for nearly seven years and just visited the Japanese Gardens at Terrace Park for the first time last month. However, I was able to visit twice–a couple weeks apart, so I was took photos of spring’s arrival at two different stages.



Late April:


Same scenery–Mid-April vs. Late April:

In the late 1920s, Joseph Maddox, the caretaker of Terrace Park, began constructing and planting the Japanese Gardens. But, during World War II, the gardens were vandalized. Then in the late 1980s, the local Shoto Teien Japanese Garden group formed and made it its mission to help the city restore and renovate the gardens.

I found the gardens to be a pretty and serene place.

For more info on the gardens:

Terrace Park and Japanese Gardens Now Listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Looking Back: Japanese Gardens

Terrace Park Japanese Gardens

Have any of you been to the Sioux Falls Japanese Gardens? What is some local treasure you’ve recently discovered or want to visit?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: TWO SUNS IN THE SKY by Miriam Bat-Ami

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction is an annual honor given to an outstanding kids’ historical fiction set in the Western Hemisphere. Each month I read one of the award winners and point out things I learned or things of which the book is an excellent example.

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2000 award winner, Two Suns in the Sky by Miriam Bat-Ami.

This young adult historical fiction novel is set in Italy and Oswego, New York, during the last couple years of World War II. It features two protagonists: Chris, an Irish Catholic girl from Oswego who wants to break free of her life and join the war effort, and Adam, a Yugoslavian Jewish boy who is a refugee from the Holocaust.

Adam and part of his family are brought to the Emergency Refuge Shelter at Ft. Ontario (just outside Oswego), the only U.S. refugee camp during the war. The two teens fall in love, but neither one of their families approve.

This novel contains some mild sexual content.

Writing Lesson:

Multiple point-of-view protagonists–Most kids’ historical fiction I’ve read have only one protagonist. In fact, the only kids’ historical fiction I can think of off-hand with multiple protagonists are verse novels–and next month’s challenge book.

However, lots of young adult (and adult) romances also have multiple protagonists. Although Two Suns in the Sky is not a true romance–it’s more like the Romeo and Juliet kind of romance–the story is told from both Chris and Adam’s first-person point-of-views.

This works well in a suspense or mystery when the author wants the reader to know more than the characters do. But it also works well in showing differing viewpoints of the shared events.

Previously, authors may have had multiple protagonists, but they told the story from an all-knowing narrator’s point-of-view. Now, more often, each protagonist narrates his or her own story (sometimes in first-person, sometimes in a very close third person), with each getting his or her own scenes or chapters. This allows readers to experience the story with the protagonists.

However, each protagonist must have his or her own story arc and undergo some type of change or growth by the end of story. In a nutshell, the author is giving the reader two intertwining and interdependent stories.


Historical Lesson:

Two Suns in the Sky opened my eyes to a situation I knew nothing about–the Emergency Refugee Center at Ft. Ontario, outside Oswego, New York, at the end of World War II. Much of the U.S. population did not know the extent of the horrors of the Holocaust until late in the war. Many who did know that the Jews in Europe were being persecuted wanted the U.S. to help Jewish refugees. Finally in 1945, President Roosevelt ordered the opening of one refugee camp, Ft. Ontario, to about 900 refugees (mostly Jewish) from Europe.

The refugees were told this was a temporary situation; they would be returned to Europe when the war was over. But, apparently, no one had made clear to the refugees they would be kept in a camp and not just “let loose.” When they arrived in the U.S., put on trains, and taken to a fenced-in military fort, many had visions of the Nazi concentration camps and understandably panicked at first.

However, the children were allowed to attend the local Oswego schools, and some Oswego locals supplied food, clothing, and friendship to the refugees. In fact, some of the locals testified to and lobbied the government to allow the refugees to stay and become citizens. The government did allow the refugees to immigrate to the U.S. without having to go back to Europe.

For more information about the Emergency Refugee Center:

Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum

Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario

National Archives–Refugees Registering at the Fort Ontario Refuge Camp

Barbed Wire Haven

Join me Tuesday, May 31, to talk about the 1994 winner of the Scott O’Dell Award, Bull Run by Paul Fleischman.

Do you prefer stories with one or multiple protagonists? Have you heard of the WWII Emergency Refuge Shelter in New York? Do you know of other books about the refugees who lived at the shelter?

The Dangers of the Defense

I’m very proud to announce my husband successfully defended his doctoral dissertation yesterday. He assures me that his experience was nothing like the fellow (who is a little like Amelia Bedelia) defending his master’s thesis in the following video.

How about your educational/publishing experiences? Have they felt anything like this? Have you had any Amelia Bedelia experiences?

Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary!


Photo by Connor Watley

Children’s author Beverly Cleary will turn 100 years old April 12!

She wrote many books, but The Mouse and the Motorcycle, the Ramona books, and the Henry Huggins books, are among her most famous.

I was introduced to her when I was in either kindergarten or first grade. My teacher read a story to us about a girl with boing-boing curls. However, I didn’t know the name of the book or remember the characters’ names.

I went on to become a voracious reader, mostly books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisea May Alcott, the Nancy Drew series, and books about dogs or horses.

Somehow I managed to grow up without coming across the story of the boing-boing curls again.

When I became interested in writing for children, I became a regular patron of our local town’s children’s library and often browsed the shelves.

That’s how I found the Beverly Cleary books. I remembered The Mouse and the Motorcycle from my childhood, but I hadn’t read any of the Ramona books. I had a vague idea this series of books was famous, so I started reading my way through them.

Lo and behold, those boing-boing curls are in Ramona the Pest!

I really like Ramona! She reminds me what it’s like to be a child, and how a child thinks–understanding more than adults realize, but often getting things mixed up.

During the past few weeks, in honor of Cleary’s birthday, I’ve been revisiting the Ramona series. Except this time I’m listening to the audio version, narrated by Stockard Channing. The stories often make me smile!

Have you read any of Cleary’s books? How did her stories affect you?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse


Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for my personal Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1998 award-winner, the middle-grade verse novel, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. This novel also won the 1998 Newbery Medal!

Before I began my challenge to read and learn from each of the Scott O’Dell Award books, I thought I had read a lot of historical fiction. Yet, I realized I’d read only four of the award books. Out of the Dust was one of the few I had read previously.

I’m glad I re-read it, though. I had forgotten much.


In this novel, 14-year-old Billie Jo and her family live on a farm in Oklahoma during the mid-1930s–The Dust Bowl.

Billie Jo loves to play “fierce piano” and earns dimes by performing with local musicians. Meanwhile, her parents try to keep their wheat and their two apple trees alive amidst drought and dust storms. But, when an accident injures Billie Jo’s hands and leads to the death of her mother and baby brother, Billie Jo and her father struggle to survive their grief and heal their own relationship.

History Lesson:

Dust Bowl dinosaurs–I have read a lot about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but Hesse’s story mentioned one detail that was new to me, yet one that has special appeal in my family.

In 1931, the fossils of a dinosaur–an apatosaurus–were discovered very close to the setting of the novel. From 1935-1942, the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program funded the excavation of thousands of fossils from the Black Mesa area. The program provided jobs for area men, but because of the lack of funding and the involvement of paleontologists, most of the fossils ended up in storage until the mid-1980s.

Writing Lesson:

Verse novels–This was the first, and so far, the only verse novel selected as a Scott O’Dell Award-winner. I believe it was also the first verse novel I ever read. Since then I’ve read other verse novels–some contemporary, but many historical fiction.

A verse novel is a complete story comprised of a poem, or collection of poems. The poetry may take various forms, such as concrete poems, sonnets, haiku, free verse, etc.

Verse novels are often spare in description, and heavy in white space. This gives a fast pace to the novels that appeals to many readers, especially to readers who are intimidated by reading–whether through struggling with reading or learning a new language–but also readers who are put off by long chunks of text.


The ratio of text to white space is inviting to readers.

Verse novels are a wonderful vehicle for historical fiction. As a generalization, historical fiction introduces readers to a past time period, unknown events, unfamiliar lifestyles, and different ways of thinking. Therefore, historical fiction tends include lots of description so readers can immerse themselves in the worlds of those novels.

But with verse novels’ emphases on the central story and imagery/poetic language, the story draws the readers in without them realizing it.

For example, Hesse drops lots of details about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but she gives few explanations. She focuses on how it affects Billie Jo thinks or feels about it, and gives just enough info for the reader to understand what Billie Jo is saying. These little hints may also pique the readers’ curiosity, causing the readers to research on their own.

Also, much of the imagery of Billie Jo’s story is centered on dust, so readers don’t really need a lot of description of the dust. They “see” the dust through Billie Jo’s point of view and poetic voice.

I don’t think like a poet. Poetry intimidates me. But, I enjoy reading verse novels. It’s the stories and imagery that grab me, and later I marvel over the poetry.

For more info:

Karen Hesse

Secrets of the Dust Bowl Digs by Holly Wall

What is a Verse Novel? by Gabriela Pereira

Why Verse? Poetic Novels for Historical Fiction, Displacement Stories, and Struggling Readers by Terry Farish

Field Notes: “This is Too Much!” Why Verse Novels Work for Reluctant Readers by Dorie Rebuke

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

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE STORM IN THE BARN by Matt Phelan–The 2010 Scott O’Dell Award book also set during the Dust Bowl.

Join me April 26 for my next challenge book, the 2000 winner, Two Suns in the Sky by Miriam Bat-Ami.

What kids’ stories of the Depression have you read? How about historical verse novels?

5 More Kids’ Books About WWI

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

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

The most recent additions to the list are in bold type and annotated.


Photos by Deb Watley

Picture Books

The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I by Mark Greenwood, illustrated by Frané Lessac (2008, Candlewick Press)–non-fiction–Jack Simpson, a young British man, joined the Australian Army Medical Corps after WWI broke out. At the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey, Jack finds a lost donkey who helps him bring wounded men to safety.

The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh, paintings by Layne Johnson (2012, Calkins Creek)–non-fiction–When the U.S. joined the Great War, Moina wanted to help the soldiers. She knitted socks, rolled bandages, delivered books, and hosted a gathering room for soldiers. But, she also wanted to keep their memory alive by wearing a poppy and encouraging others to do the same.

Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Henri Sørensen (2006, Peachtree)–fiction–Enemy British and German soldiers celebrate Christmas together in December 1914, the first Christmas of WWI.

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

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

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

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–A Canadian veterinarian on his way to the Great War rescues a bear cub before he leaves Canada and takes care of it in England–until he must leave for the battles in France.


Middle Grade

Epidemic! The 1918 Influenza Pandemic by Stephanie True Peters (2005, Benchmark Books)–non-fiction–This book tells about the influenza pandemic that killed millions of people, how the pandemic was both spread and overshadowed by the Great War, and how scientists were able to study the influenza virus in the last part of the 20th Century.

Eyewitness: World War I by Simon Adams, photographs by Andy Crawford (2014, DK Publishing)–non-fiction–This book give an overview of the war by using lots of photographs from the war, as well as photographs of people and equipment from the war.

The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers and Bill Miles (2006, Amistad Publishing/HarperCollins)–non-fiction–The authors briefly recount the history of African Americans in the American military from the time of the French and Indian War through World War I. But, Myers and Miles focus on the formation of the 369th Infantry Regiment about the time the U.S. entered WWI, as well as the 369th’s bravery in combat in France.

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

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (2010, Delacorte Press)–-fiction–In 1936, 12-year-old Abilene is sent to Manifest, Kansas, where she learns what happened to the people of Manifest during WWI.

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

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

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

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

The Usborne Introduction to the First World War by Ruth Brocklehurst & Henry Brook–non-fiction–(2007, Usborne Publishing)–This book gives an in-depth look at various aspects of the war, as well as internet links for more information.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (1982, Kaye & Ward)–-fiction–Joey, a British horse, is sold away from his beloved Albert and sent to the battlefields of WWI.

Young Adult

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost (2009, Frances Foster Books)–-verse novel–During WWI, four teens deal with women’s rights, dissent, the home front, the influenza epidemic, and the faraway battles.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (2006, Delacorte Press)–-fiction–In 1917, 16-year-old Hattie moves from Iowa to the Montana homestead she inherited from her uncle. But the faraway war brings trouble even to rural Montana.

Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1921, McClelland & Stewart)-–fiction–Anne (of Green Gables-fame) is grown up, and her children come of age during The Great War. Two of her sons join the Canadian military, but Anne’s youngest child, Rilla, contributes on the homefront, including taking care of an orphaned infant.

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

Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics (Women of Action) by Kathryn J. Atwood (2014, Chicago Review Press)–non-fiction–This book features biographies of 16 women who risked their lives–and some died–doing what they could to save lives, fight (literally) for their allies, and inform the public.

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

Daffodils: History, Literary, and Dementia Connections


Last year’s grocery story daffodils (photo by Deb Watley)

It’s that time of year in South Dakota when we’re seeing signs of the end of winter, but spring and its flowers are still a ways off. I’ve heard birds chirping again. I think I’ve seen robins. I hunger for colors other than white (snow) or brown (dirty snow or dormant grass).

It’s that time of the year when I want to buy spring flowers, especially the sunny, bright daffodils.

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

Treating Alzheimer’s Disease With Daffodils

Wordsworth Trust

The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project

What other literary-daffodil connections are there? Especially with stories for children? What is your experience reciting poetry with children? Elderly? Dementia patients?

Interview: Alison DeCamp, Author of MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% TRUE!)

front cover

We are joined today by Alison DeCamp, author of My Near-Death Adventures (99% True), a middle-grade historical fiction published in 2015 by Crown Books for Young Readers.

Welcome, Alison! Please tell me a little about your book.

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) is the story of 11 y.o. Stan who is dying to become a manly man. I also mainly see it as a story about finding family in perhaps the most unlikely places and when you least expect it. Stan is clueless and impetuous and gullible, but he’s also surrounded by (mostly) lovely people who want what’s best for him. He also is cursed with a very ornery Granny and a bossy (and smarter) older female cousin who seem determined to make his life miserable.

How did Stan, Geri, Granny, and Stinky Pete come to you? Why did you choose 1895 for the setting?

I have a picture of my great-grandmother, Cora. She looks like the orneriest person I can imagine (and even more so when I was a kid looking at the picture). My mother loved her, but she also regaled us with stories of how Cora made my grandmother, Alice, get married at 15. Alice had my Uncle Stan when she was 16 and brought him to lumber camps with her because his father was out of the picture and they needed money. Cora didn’t talk to my mother’s dad (Alice’s second husband) or say a nice word about him for 8 years until my mother was born. She just seemed mean.

Geri is based on my mother’s cousin who was a spitfire. And Stinky Pete is based on my grandfather, Ray McLachlan.

But aside from names, most of this is made up. My family wasn’t in the lumber camps in 1895, but I think I chose that time period because historically lumbering was still prevalent in Michigan at this time, I wanted transportation to be more difficult so they were all basically trapped for the winter, and I wanted the river drive to be important—later on in lumbering it was easier to transport logs in the winter.

What is your research/writing process?

For this book I had the seed of an idea (a boy spending the winter with all these rough-and-tumble lumberjacks), but I had no idea what it would be like to actually live in 1895 let alone in a lumber camp.  I actually liked researching pictures and history of the late 1800s when I was procrastinating or when I was stuck for an idea. Basically, the writing and researching began to run together.

What is one thing you discovered in your research that surprised you?

I was interested to learn that originally lumberjacks preferred to be called “shanty boys.” A “jack” (like a “crackerjack,” for example) was considered someone who wasn’t a professional and they considered themselves very professional.

I love Stan, especially his habit of thinking out-loud. How did you start with an actual historical person and relative and develop him into a well-rounded fictional character?

First of all, I’m glad you like that habit! I thought it might be funny, but it’s interesting how many people get confused by this personality quirk. I really didn’t know my Uncle Stan all that well (he was twenty years older than my mother), but I do have a 17 year-old son and taught middle school for eight years. I think boys are inherently funny and I think I just absorbed their personalities somehow.

Historical fiction tends to be set during times of major conflicts and tragedies, so the stories can often be very serious. However, you brought a wonderful mix of suffering, tenderness, and humor to Stan’s life. How did you balance those qualities?

Thank you so much for saying this! I think life is hard. I think it’s hard no matter what age you are or what life has handed you, and as a person who tends to worry, I find that any time I can find humor in a situation, it makes things so much better.

I hoped to show that in Stan’s situation as well—here he is, craving a father with a mother who loves him but is dealing with her own sadness, and he just keeps carrying on. He also ends up realizing, perhaps a little bit, that he might not have a “father,” but he certainly has people in his life who care about him very much, even when they technically don’t have to.

I Almost Died. Again. Cover

What’s next for you?

My Near-Death Adventures: I Almost Died. Again. comes out on July 5th. It’s a sequel, obviously, set in the small town of St. Ignace, Michigan (where I grew up) and picks up where the first book left off. There are some new characters (Cuddy Carlisle, III, a 7 y.o. version of Stan; as well as Mad Madge, Stan’s personal bully) and Stan’s father does make an appearance.

I also am part of an anthology called Funny Girl, a collected edited by Betsy Bird. It should be out in 2017 and is filled with comics and writings from some incredible women writers. And I have a third book which will be announced eventually.

How did your research/writing process differ for two books?

I was entrenched in the same time period but different places—obviously a lumber camp will differ from a town. I read a lot about what St. Ignace (and the world) was like in the late 19th century. Many of the places and people mentioned in book two were real. I also researched timber pirates, the most famous of whom (Roaring Dan Seavey) is the basis for Stan’s father.

high res headshot

Like Stan, Alison DeCamp grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Her family history consists of stories of life in lumber camps and old scrapbooks. A graduate of Michigan State University, Alison is a former middle and high school language arts teacher. She now works at Between the Covers, a bookstore in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and spends the rest of her time with her husband and teenage children. You can find her online at

Thank you, Alison!

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE HIRED GIRL by Laura Amy Schlitz

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is this year’s (2016) winner, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick Press, 2015).

In this young adult historical fiction, set in 1911, 14-year-old Joan is willing to give up school and put up with cooking and cleaning for her father and four brothers, if she could have a little spending money. She goes on strike.

But when her father retaliates by burning her three precious books, Joan flees to the big city of Baltimore, where she is hired as a servant by a Jewish family. In her quest to better herself and help the family who has been kind to her, she often unknowingly brings trouble on herself and hurts the people she’s learning to love.

History lessons:

Jewish family–I believe this is the first Scott O’Dell Award book that features a Jewish family–at least of the ones I’ve read so far (about two-thirds of the winners). I appreciated getting a look at a Jewish family in a time other than Biblical or Holocaust-era.   It’s good to be reminded that Jewish lives were not limited to those two time periods.

Housework in 1911–This book is also the first Scott O’Dell Award book set in the early between 1900-1920, so it was interesting to read about the early 20th Century.

I’ve read lots of books set in the 19th Century or before, where women spent all day growing their food, cooking and cleaning, and making and mending their clothes. They had to use candles, make their own soap, keep fires going, fetch water from a well, heat water, empty chamber pots, etc.

In The Hired Girl, Joan leaves her farm home where she didn’t have any conveniences–except store-bought fabric–and she is hired by a family that has electricity in its home. The family has an electric toaster, two refrigerators, and two gas ranges. They have indoor plumbing and hot water. The family even has a manual carpet sweeper and later purchases an electric vacuum.

I enjoyed reading about the details of taking care of a family when electricity and other labor-saving devices were beginning to give women more time for other things, such as education and pleasure-reading. I’m also grateful for electricity and natural gas! Without those things, and the devices they power, I wouldn’t be able to spend hours each day reading and writing.

Writing lesson:

Epistolary novel–This books is comprised of Joan’s journal entries, which means Joan is telling the reader what happened. Modern authors are advised to show and not tell, because the showing will draw the reader into the story better.

As I was reading the book, I’d be aware at times of Joan’s narration, but soon her journal entries had me picturing the scenes. How did Schlitz accomplish that?

First, because the book is comprised of diary entries, we see everything through Joan’s senses. It’s in first person point of view. Through Joan’s words we quickly learn what her personality is like, and we identify with her wants and feelings. We also see that she’s mature, yet still a child; educated, yet ignorant in many ways; and has many good qualities, yet she is open about her faults.

Second, Joan has this original and fun voice. She has some education and refinement about her, yet she is also a practical farm girl, so her descriptions and metaphors are beautiful and earthy–and appropriate for her. Joan often “tells” how she is feeling, but she’ll also describe it in fresh, interesting ways.

Take this paragraph as an example:

“It’s past midnight and I can’t sleep. I can’t lie still. My face aches and I can’t stop hating Father. These past two hours, I’ve done nothing but toss and turn. I’ve been plumping and folding my pillow, trying to make it cradle my head, but it won’t. My hatred has crawled into the pillow slip and made a lump.”

I can picture Joan plumping, and pounding that pillow. And the metaphor about hatred crawling into her pillow slip is awesome!

For more info:“>The Hired Girl Book Trailer

School Library Journal interview with Schlitz

Jewish Book Council interview with Schlitz

Join me March 29 to discuss my next challenge book, the 1998 winner, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

What books with Jewish characters have you read that were set in other times besides Biblical or Holocaust-eras? What epistolary novels have you loved? What is your favorite labor-saving device or invention?

3 Children’s Books To Read In Honor of Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland sometime in February 1818. However, his mother was a slave, and he was also. At a very young age he learned that the ability to read would be a key to gaining his freedom. He risked punishment practicing reading and writing, but he did it anyway. And then he taught others.

Douglass became a well-known author, newspaper editor, and speaker. He wrote three autobiographies: A Narrative on the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

Here are three children’s books featuring his life story:

  • Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by London Ladd (Disney-Jump at the Sun, 2015)–A picture book biography featuring quotes from Douglass’s writings and speeches.
  • Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2012)–A picture book biography focusing on Douglass’s early years and his quest to learn to read and write.
  • Frederick Douglass: A Noble Life by David A. Adler (Holiday House, 2010)–An in-depth middle grade/young adult biography, including not only Douglass’s childhood and escape to freedom, but also his lifelong fight against slavery and for black suffrage and equality.

What books about or by Douglass have you read?



Interview: Elizabeth Raum, Author of Cutting A Path: Daniel Boone and the Cumberland Gap


Elizabeth Raum, the author of Cutting a Path: Daniel Boone and the Cumberland Gap (Capstone Press, 2016, nonfiction), is joining us this week.

Welcome, Elizabeth. What is your book about?

Cutting a Path tells the story of the early settlement of Kentucky under the guidance of Daniel Boone. It includes biographical information on Boone, as well as details about the building of the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, and the role of the road in westward expansion.

What drew you to writing this book? How did you narrow the focus to The Cumberland Gap?

I consider Daniel Boone a fascinating American character. It’s stunning to realize that he was settling Kentucky at the same time that Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence. We tend to think of the American Revolution as the only thing happening during the 1770s, but settlers like Daniel Boone and his family had already begun to move westward, and they opened the way for others. The Wilderness Road made mass migration west possible. Between 1775 and 1800 nearly 300,000 settlers traveled west along the Wilderness Road.

I narrowed the topic to the Cumberland Gap because this became the primary route west used by explorers, hunters, and settlers in the mid-to-late 1700s.

What was your research/writing process?

I began my research by reading several acclaimed biographies of Daniel Boone: Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer by John Mac Faragher, Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan, and Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America by Meredith Mason Brown. I also found the 1784 “autobiography” of Daniel Boone, written by John Filson online at Project Gutenberg. I especially enjoy finding autobiographies, diaries, or letters when I do historical research.

Once I had enough basic information, I was able to start organizing and writing. When I needed more information, I contacted numerous other sources. National park rangers are incredibly helpful, so I spoke with park rangers at Fort Boonesborough and the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

I was surprised by several things in the book: the potential 14th colony, Transylvania; the fame awarded Boone because of one book; and the huge number of people who traveled on the Wilderness Road between 1775-1800. What was something you discovered in your research that surprised you?

I was surprised to discover how many people began the trek west and turned back because of severe hardships along the trail. Mud, river crossings, illness, and lack of adequate food and shelter forced many settlers to give up. Fear of Indian attack, as well as the constant presence of wild animals, made life unbearable for many pioneers in the late 1700s.

Another fun surprise came when I got my copy of the published book. The publisher, Capstone Press, often hires expert consultants to verify the information. I was delighted to find that the consultant for this book was Robert Morgan, professor of English at Cornell University. I had used his biography of Boone in my initial research.

Thank you, Elizabeth!


Elizabeth Raum has written dozens of books for young readers including biographies, history books, novels, and picture books. She taught English and social studies to students in grades 7-12 and worked as a librarian in both elementary schools and colleges. She particularly enjoys researching and writing about historical subjects. For more information, visit her website at:

What questions do you have for Elizabeth?

Picture Book Giveaway To Celebrate My 100th Post

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

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

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


Photo by Deb Watley

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

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

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

For more info:

Freddie the Frog®

Music-lovers, parents, teachers, authors, illustrators, etc. (US residents and non-relatives only), to enter the giveaway, please post a comment and tell me what kind of music you liked as a child. I’ll conduct a random drawing of the commenters on Tuesday, Feb. 9.

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

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

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

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

Historical lesson:

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

Writing lesson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more info:

Rita Williams-Garcia

Hutton killing shakes Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

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

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

Stretching My Reading Habits: Manga


Photos by Deb Watley–Emma by Kaoru Mori

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

I also found a book for me.

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

I was wrong.

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

Wrong again.

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

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

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

Emma is a YA historical fiction romance.

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


Manga stories are read from right to left, and all page turns come from the left.


A glimpse inside

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

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

For more info:

About manga and anime

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

Notable Bicentennials: Events from 1816


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

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

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

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

Notable Centennials: Events From 1916

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


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

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

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