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?






London Residence is Ben Franklin’s Only Surviving Home



36 Craven Street, London–Photos by Bruce & Deb Watley

Earlier this fall my husband and I traveled to London for vacation. One of my sightseeing must-do’s in London was to tour 36 Craven Street, the only surviving residence of Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ Founding Fathers.

Part of the reason I wanted to see this home was because I’m teaching a high school literature class this fall, and we were reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography the same month I was in London.

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706 and moved to Philadelphia when still a kid. Although, he lived in Philadelphia most of the rest of his life, he lived in London for a short time as a young man learning more about the printing trade; in London from 1757-75 as the representative of several of the American colonies’ to the British government in London; and then later during the American Revolution when he represented the Americans’ interests to the French in Paris.

When Franklin arrived in Britain in 1757, he thought he’d be there for less than a year. However, he stayed until 1775 trying to broker some sort of peace between the American colonies and Britain.

Although he wasn’t successful in bringing peace, he did make lots of friends, conducted scientific experiments, and wrote many letters and articles.

During most of his pre-Revolution time in London, he rented his lodging from Margaret Stevenson 36 Craven Street, and this home became the unofficial first American embassy in Britain.


This is the historical plaque on the outside of 36 Craven Street.



This is the central hallway of the home, running from the front door to the back of the house.

After Franklin went back to Philadelphia, the house continued as a boarding house, and later a hotel and office space. By the time The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House obtained the house about twenty years or so ago, it had even been lived in by squatters. This cloud had a silver lining because the squatters didn’t destroy the house, nor did they do any remodeling, so many of the house’s architectural features of Franklin’s time were still there.

The house was originally built in about 1730, and it’s located between the Thames River and Trafalgar Square.

Now visitors can tour the house, noting its architecture, or they can participate in a multi-media historical experience that focuses on Franklin’s time in London and connections with the house.


The historical experience included “Polly Hewson.” Polly was the daughter of Franklin’s landlady.

An interesting story is that when the home was obtained by the preservationists, human bones were found in what would have been the back garden while Franklin lived there. Archaeologists were brought in, and they determined that these remains were from the private anatomy school run by Mrs. Stevenson’s son-in-law.

I enjoyed the tour! It was interesting to walk in the same rooms Franklin did, and intriguing to think this small home housed him, Mrs. Stevenson and her extended family, as well as servants. It’s a simple home, yet Franklin was such a multi-faceted person. He was interested in science, business, music, literature, politics, and medicine.

For more information, see Benjamin Franklin House.

What was the latest place you visited that had a historical connection? What do historic homes reveal about the personalities of historic people? Have you ever been to 36 Craven Street? What do you know about Benjamin Franklin?

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?

Autumn Blog Break


Happy beginning of autumn!

May you all have a wonderful autumn full of apples, pumpkin bread, crisp mornings, sweaters, gorgeous leaves, s’mores over a crackling fire, and books–lots and lots of books.

I’ll return next month.

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)?