Archive for the ‘Delighting’ Category

The Thing about History

February 15, 2016

About ten years ago I had the opportunity to visit Athens (Greece, not Georgia).  That’s a story in itself, but for now I want to focus on just one impression: Athens is one vast archaeological site.  Even the subways are museums—hurrying from one stop to another you pass glass cases full of artefacts found while digging out the Metro system.  The friend I was staying with told me that digging is a major issue; even scraping up soil for a parking lot is bound to turn up loads of pottery shards and ancient tools and blackened silver.  If they’re in a hurry they don’t even take time to label it all—just plow it in deeper and pave over it.

History is like that: wherever you poke your spade, you’re bound to turn up something interesting.

It was always my favorite subject in school and my favorite fiction genre, and the reason for that was probably—at least partly—my sister Melissa.  While we were growing up, she was always going through some favorite history phase, and since she’s four years older than me (and didn’t consider me a pest or a pinhead) her influence was powerful.  It’s one reason why four of my six published novels are historical.

One of her retirement jobs (are you old enough to know what that means?) is program director at a relatively new historical site in central Texas.  Channel 5 New in Fort Worth did a TV spot on it, and I tried to embed the video, but the embed code wasn’t working for me.  So I’ll have to provide the link instead.



See what I mean about archaeology sites?  There are some good stories in that Robertson County soil, and I may even dig one out some day.

My writer/illustrator friend Cheryl Harness is one of the best history practitioners around: she showers her Facebook friends with famous-people birthdays, tasty tidbits, and fascinating relics every day.  One of Cheryl’s “likes” on my news feed led me to the story of the coat—a 19th-centry frock coat hanging in the display case at a Maine High School.  It was moldering away until a couple of sixth-grade students and their mother did some research and made a plan.

The coat belonged to Albert Bacheler, who served as a Union Soldier in the 12th New Hampshire Bacheler coatRegiment.  During the last year of the Civil War he was captured and sent to the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond.  He was lucky enough to escape with only the clothes on his back, which happened to be a blue uniform. But several slaves helped him find his way to safety, including one family who gave him a civilian coat to cover his sitting-duck outfit.

After the war Bacheler moved to Gloucester, Maine, where he taught at, and eventually became principal of, the high school.  The man is long gone but the school remains—and the coat that may have saved his bacon back in 1864, moldering quietly like John Brown’s Body.  But the King boys and their mom are crowd-funding a project to restore the coat and provide a better home for it.  The boys think it’s cool.

It is cool, to put your spade in the past and see what you dig up.  Most of it—the vast bulk of it—is gone forever.  We’ll never think, feel, or experience like our ancestors did decades, centuries, or millennia ago.  But perhaps we can be a little more considerate about judging them. And we can run our hands lovingly over some of the artefacts.  And we might not be so hasty to slab over their burial ground with the concrete of our premixed assumptions.


My Library Valentine

February 12, 2016

When Lois Lowry spoke at our local library event last Spring, she told one little story that didn’t end up in my reportage (and one little story that did—you really MUST read it! It’s amazing!  I’ll wait here until you get back).

The speech was a kickoff to the library’s One Book One Read event, and the One Read, of course, was The Giver.  I first read The Giver when I checked it out from the local library—the same way I “first read” almost all the books I read.  And always have.  When I was a kid I visited the local branch library every Saturday, unless that was one of the Saturdays I took the bus downtown, and in that case I visited the BIG multi-story central operation.  I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like without the public library, and no telling what my adulthood would be like without it either.

So here’s Ms. Lowry’s little story: not long ago, some young friends visited from Europe—France, I think.  A country we would consider “developed” and not blighted by years of Soviet servitude.  While entertaining these girls she took them to the local library, where they browsed the stacks and chose some books to check out on her card.  Back in the car and on their way to somewhere else, one of the girls asked, “What do you have to pay to belong to the library?”

Ms. Lowry was a bit startled by the question, and so I am.  Why, nothing.  That’s what we pay.

Of course it’s not technically true; you just don’t see the library line-item on your county tax statement.  But still, the public library you see in almost every community in America is one of America’s better ideas.  And a surprising number of Americans still think so.

Here’s the good news, from the ALA’s Quotable Facts brochure, printed in 2013:

  • 58% of American adults possess a library card.
  • Americans to libraries (public, school, and academic) over three times more often than they go to the movies.
  • Reference librarians answer nearly 6.6 million questions every week.
  • There are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s restaurants.  (You just have to look harder for them—maybe libraries should have the equivalent of golden arches on a fifty-foot pole.)
  • Americans check out an average of eight books/year.  (Since about 24% of adults have not even read a book in the past year, somebody is doing a whole lot of checking.)
  • The highest achieving schools have well-staffed and well-funded libraries–but you already know that!

America even designates Library Week in April.  This isn’t April, but it is close to Valentine’s Day, so this is my whacked-out, bedraggled-lace, hastily-constructed Valentine to America’s libraries.  We’ve been together through good times and bad, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.


Bits, Pieces, and Memories–What Stories Are Made of

April 8, 2015

The three questions children’s authors get from kids:

  • What made you want to be a writer?
  • Which of your books do you like best?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

When asked in a school setting, authors attempt to answer either seriously or cleverly, but in conversation with peers they roll their eyes and share some of the clever answers.  When you think about it, though, these are profound questions and the answers are deeply mysterious. When someone asks, What made you want to be a writer? They are really asking

What compelled you to sit for hours at a desk, all alone, struggling with self-doubt and fear and blank page phobia (surely there’s medical designation for that), all for the sake of the occasional blaze of satisfaction when you know you’ve expressed a cogent thought in a totally appropriate way, when there may be no lasting spiritual satisfaction from it, much less financial?

The answer: I have to.

Which of your books do you like best? is actually

Which story that you labored to give birth to–suffering discomfort and random interior kicking and fond fuzzy dreams, and that now, in the glare of day, is subject to unfeeling reviews and mass indifference, if not rejection (and that’s provided it got published in the first place; the questioner doesn’t even know about the miscarriages)—do you prefer?

The answer: What do you mean, ‘my books’?  They haven’t been mine since the public got hold of them.

Where do you get your ideas? might seem like the easiest to answer because it’s looking for specifics, not tortured analysis.  But even then, specifics may be elusive, especially when it comes to the grand overarching idea of a book like (just for instance) The Giver.  The relationship between the elements of fiction—or any work of art—isn’t easy to distinguish.  As Dorothy Sayers speculates in The Mind of the Maker, the Idea (or inspiration) is so embedded in the Energy (the execution, or work itself) which both are so impacted by the Power (responses to the work), that separate strands are impossible to tease out. A story begins with an Idea that somehow muscles its way to the front of the author’s mind, but it comes already trailing bits of plot and character and pieces of aha! response.  I attempt a definition:lowry

A story is an artificial bird made of scraps and strands that acquires a life of its own during its making and, when complete, flies away.

Speaking of The Giver (and finally getting around to what this post is about), last week I attended “An Evening with Lois Lowry,” sponsored by our local library as the kickoff event of this month’s One Read program.  The event organizers booked a large auditorium but not large enough.  Those who were late (i.e., 25 minutes early rather than 35), were turned away like foolish virgins (not an insult; see Matthew 25:1-13).  I managed to be 35 minutes early, no credit to me.

Anyone who’s interested in children’s literature, or anyone who is a child who likes to read, is familiar with The Giver, so I wasn’t surprised at the turnout. But Lois Lowry surprised me in the best way.  Her talk did not appear to have any structure—it was sort of like life, where the years go one way and the memories go another and things you study you don’t learn while the unexpected lessons end up making you what you are.   Family began her story, as it should: father, a career navy medical officer; mother, an avid reader; older sister and first reading teacher; little brother who came along late.  Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and spent her first two years on the beach under the shadow of the US naval fleet.  They moved back to the states before that Day that Shall Live in Infamy.  She remembers her mother being lonely during the long war years when her father was deployed to the Pacific, but when peace returned he was allowed to take the whole family to Japan.  Lois, then 11, expected exotic locations, but the family moved into the brand-new all-planned-out neighborhood for military families, which looked just like Main Street USA.  The real Japan was elsewhere, beyond the straight streets and tall fences of her cozy community.

The years fly: back to the States, more moving, high school, college cut short for marriage, four children.  Her parents lived long, but the years did cruel things to their memories: her mother recalled sorrowful events with all the pain as if they’d just happened.  Her father kept forgetting why his oldest daughter wasn’t around anymore (an early death from cancer).  Lois started thinking about memory.  What if memories could be manipulated, or dismissed, or brought back?giver

She inherited an interest in photography, as well as her first camera, from her dad.  It turned out to be more than an interest; for a while it was a profession.  In fact, the iconic figure on the cover of her most famous book has a name: Carl Gustav Nelsen, a Norwegian neighbor.  Lowry herself took that picture.

Her remembered life, non-linear and self-sorting, took its own wavering shape as she talked to us.  She pulled strands of family, memory, photography, and place and wove them back into her stories.  When she first pictured “the Community” of The Giver, where everyone served a preassigned purpose and abhorred the unexpected, it was the all-American navy base in Japan she had in mind.  Likewise, the “elsewhere” outside the community gates modeled the expansive territory her hero Jonas escaped to.  The Community can control its citizens only because collective memory has been manipulated (i.e., eradicated).  Preserving and passing on mankind’s memory, just in case it’s needed, is the Giver’s function. Thus the bird was furnished, and with character and conflict, it came to life.

Of course, she had to talk about the movie.  Two things she liked: the expansion of the Director’s role (obviously Meryl Streep couldn’t play a bit part!) added depth to that character that even the author had not appreciated.  And Lowry thought the way memories were transmitted in the movie was much better than having Jonas lie on a table while his mentor pressed memories through his bare back (slides of some disturbing covers from foreign translations made that point).  Another thing she liked: the 22,000 books that filled the shelves of the Giver’s quarters were purchased new and later donated to schools in South Africa, where most of the movie was filmed.

Outside in the lobby stacks of books were waiting to be signed, so she didn’t have much time for questions.  The reliable Big Three showed up, even though I think she already answered them.

One more thing: an amazing story I’d never heard.  She lived in Japan from the ages of 11 through 13, those classic transitional years so rich for authors who write middle-grade novels.  She wasn’t confined to “the Community”—shortly after moving to Japan, her parents bought her a green bicycle and allowed her to explore “Elsewhere” to her heart’s content.  Tokyo was rebuilding rapidly after the war and prospects were looking up.  Still, she found the Japanese characteristically reserved, and she was not the most outgoing person herself.  But there was one boy who looked to be about her age, whom she saw so often they became acquaintances of a sort.  They never spoke, but always looked, and sometimes nodded to each other.  For some reason, she never forgot him.

Fast-forward 45 years.  The Giver wins the 1994 Newbery Gold Medal for excellence in children’s fiction. That same year, a book called Grandfather’s Journey wins top honors for illustration.  At the awards event that summer, Lowry meets the illustrator Allen Say and shares some of her life story.  On learning that her father was stationed in Tokyo, he says, “Really?  I grew up in Tokyo.”  Obviously his heritage was Japanese.  That’s what Grandfather’s Journey is about—heritage, family, growth and change.  “What year? Where did you live?”  More and more recollections spill out between them, faster and faster, until he asks, “Were you the girl on the green bicycle?”

And some say there is no God.  Story itself, an unpredictable fusion of spirit and flesh, gives the lie to that one.

Teacher’s Lounge: The Search for Delicious

April 3, 2015

In 1969, Natalie Babbitt published The Search for Delicious, in which a king’s quest to discover what food should be the definition of “delicious” in the royal dictionary almost touches off a war between kingdoms.  (Babbitt is best known for Tuck Everlasting–now 40 years old–but Delicious deserves to be reread to a classroom of, say, fourth-graders.)  The title presented itself to me when I was putting together a series of workbooks on creative writing.  Rather it (the title) slipped in through the back door as I was writing a lesson on adjectives.  How many words do we have to describe food?  They say Inuit languages have umpteen words for ice, because ice is so important to them.  That might just be arctic legend, but I know for sure that Americans can lay tongue to dozens of adjectives that can be applied to food, because we have lots, and eat lots.   Food, in its voluminous variety and abundance, makes an excellent motif for teaching about adjectives.


And I don’t mean qualitative adjectives, like scrumptious, yummy, or toothsome.  We throw these around all day–well, except for toothsome–but they don’t actually describe anything except our feelings.  You might have a great day at the beach while your cousin has a great day at the library.  You would get bored at the library; she would get sunburned at the beach, so you would have conflicting definitions of what makes for a great day.  Same with food: what’s delicious in a potato chip is is not so much in a chocolate chip.

Stretch your students’ descriptive vocabulary by teasing their palates.  Bring in 6-8 foods with varying tastes and textures and serve small amounts of each for snack time.  These could be pretzels, grapes, apple slices, tortilla chips, marshmallows, raisins.  Ask the students to think about what makes each one “delicious” and write two or three descriptive adjectives for each.  Some interesting distinctions to make: what’s the difference between tangy and sour?  Crunchy and crispy?  Gummy and chewy?  Spicy and fiery?  And what about words that mean roughly the same thing, but one is positive while the other is negative–like moist/stale, firm/hard, crunchy/dry, tart/sour?

Make a list of “delicious” adjectives ahead of time and write them on the board.  Your students will be amazed!  And so will you.


101 Ways to Say “I Love You”

February 6, 2015
  1. Just say it: “I. Love. You.”love-you
  2. Say it with flowers, chocolates, or Hallmark.
  3. Say it with poetry.

(#4 – #101: all the different ways you can say it with poetry–guess what this post is about!)

Poetry has been around as long as language has–in fact, it’s the world’s oldest literary form.  Of all the poetry that’s ever been written, a significant percentage is love poems.  Of all the poetry written by amateurs and song writers, a significant majority is love poems.

Love is a great thing–some people even think it makes the world go ’round.  But love is also a mighty big word, referring to feelings expressed by and for God, parents, husbands and wives, teenage crushes, a boy to his dog, a girl to her horse, a patriot to his country,  Expressions of love can be grand and glorious, so much so that they lose focus.  A very famous example is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tribute to her husband Robert (himself a poet of renown):

How to I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breath and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace . . .

Here’s a more recent example–one of Petulah Clark’s greatest hits (trust me, she was very big in the sixties):

 My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine

            Softer than a sigh;

My love is deeper than the deepest ocean,

            Wider than the sky.

 And so on.  The problem with these grand expressions is that sometimes they can sound like “just words.”  Love is a great thing, but usually expressed in little ways.  If my love never gets the chance to sacrifice his life for me, will he at least take out the trash twice a week?

The key to writing effective love poems is the same key to writing effective anything: BE SPECIFIC!  Every love relationship shares some common characteristic: affection for the other person, wanting the best for him or her, sharing problems and joys.  But since everybody is different, every relationship has its own personality, private jokes, small irritations, individual quirks.

So here’s the deal: Valentine’s Day is coming, and the retail community is trying to make you feel guilty.  Unless you buy flowers, candy or cards–at the very least–or a spa vacation or cruise at the most, how will your beloved know what’s really in your heart?  It’s an obvious attempt to calculate affection by how much money you spend, but you don’t have to fall for it!  Just write a poem.  It’s personal, heartfelt, unique, and doesn’t cost a thing.  (Even though it wouldn’t hurt to pony up for chocolate.)

That is, doesn’t cost a thing but agony as you start sweating out what to say and how to say it.  But there’s no need to sweat.  Here’s your problem: love is such a huge subject it’s hard to get a grip on it.  The solution is, you start with small things and everyday details.  Here are three ways you might do it, with “poem starters” included.  (Thanks to Jack Prelutsky, whose book Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme furnished the idea of poem starters.)

  1. Focus on the object of your love, using details.

Don’t think of qualities, like loyalty or punctuality (often the qualities that draw us to our spouse is the very thing that irritates us later!).  Think little things, small kindnesses, helpful words.  Here’s a simple poem start for kids, called “Because.”

Because you stay up with me when I’m sick;

Because you set limits and make them stick;

Because you make little sacrifices, day by day

   to provide what I need and teach me God’s way . . .

Or, in a more romantic vein for grownups:

Because of the way you comb your hair,

Because of that sway when you walk down stairs . . .

End the poem with a short couplet (two rhyming lines) that sum it up, such as

Because you’re you

I’m stuck like glue!

(Couplets, incidentally, are the easiest rhyme scheme for beginning poets.)

  1. Focus on how your love affects you.

Here’s one for those people who don’t like to go all mushy.  Imagine the object of your poem as an inanimate object (several objects, actually), and then say what you would do in response.  For instance:

If you were a basketball I’d dribble you;

If you were a cookie, I’d nibble you.

If you were a pizza, I’d savor you;

If you were a sore foot, I’d favor you . . .

And so on, for as long as your imagination holds out.  End with a summing-up couplet beginning

Since you’re none of those things, then here’s what I’ll do:


(And surely you can think of a final line, maybe with “you” at the end?  Or blue, few, dew, grew, new, slew, too, true, view, or hullabaloo?)

  1. Say it with flowers.

Just not the kind you order from FTD.  Write a poem titled “My Bouquet,” or something a little less sappy, in which every line is built on a flower.  The two previous poems depended on rhyme for their effect, but this one uses alliteration–that is, using the same first letter or sound for significant words in the poem.  For example:

Here’s a daisy for that day

   you dropped everything to help with my budget report.

Here’s an iris for the eyes

   that smile when they see me all dressed up.

Here’s wisteria for the way


 Here’s a pansy for the praise


Here’s ______________ for the ___________


You get the idea.  In case you’re not up on botany, here are some other flowers that might provide alliterative inspiration: violet, dahlia, lily, rose, hibiscus, geranium, hollyhock, clematis, sweet pea, honeysuckle, snapdragon, gladiola, black-eyed susan, peony, primrose, columbine, orchid, and phlox.  Just kidding about the last one–if ever a name does NOT belong in poem, “phlox” is it.  You may “tie up” the bouquet with a rhyming couplet, or a line about how these flowers will never fade.  And chances are they won’t.  Your poem may never make it to a poetry anthology, but it’s very unlikely that the recipient will throw it away.

That doesn’t look so hard, does it?  Now, go make someone happy.

Bright Wings

June 4, 2010

There’s a cardinal perched on the locust tree outside my window.  Yes I know, it’s a common sight, but these birds have a built-in surprise quotient, whether seen against the snow (classic Christmas card!) or in deep summer green.  They’re a splash of the tropics in the midwestern bland, a little gasp of surprise flitting along the landscape.   Along with bluebirds (which I don’t see enough of) and goldfinches (which I haven’t seen at all this season) they flash back to Gerald Manley Hopkins:

And though the last light off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast andwith ah! bright wings.


Ladybug Invasion

October 30, 2009

This happens every year: they ball themselves up and work their way inside: little hard-shell tanks squeezing in through slits and cracks. Something draws them, some mysterious bait, like a smell, a color, a texture too small or esoteric for humans to comprehend. It’s a ladybug thing. Once inside they are at a loss–their little instincts have played them false. There are no rose bushes here, no grass blades, no aphids or cutworms to molest. They fritter away their remaining hours crawling from here to there, or buzzing–when they land they stuff their gauzy gray wings quickly undercover like a torn slip. I never see them in flight, only landing. It’s a clumsy business with the wings spinning like helicopter blades, hauling a bulky cargo. On their tiny pinstroke legs they’re neat and spiffy, reconnoitering for the home they’ll never make.

The Science of Light, and the Light of Science

September 10, 2009

Some years ago it occurred to me that the first three verses of Genesis were very strange.  “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.”  What other creation account begins this way?  Most them begin with struggle, a molten mass of matter that somehow produces gods who destroy themselves while producing other gods.  Or else there’s some kind of malleable dough already in existence for the gods to work on.

But in Genesis, creation begins with light.  Light, even before sun.  The writers surely understood light to come from the sun, so why would they say light comes first, and record the creation of the sun four whole creation-days later? 

I like physics, in a very unscientific, artsy way–meaning that I don’t really understand it, but I get off on the poetic and spiritual implications.  Years ago, while struggling to learn something about relativity theory, I learned that the history of physics is largely about identifying forces.  Over time these forces reveal their relationship to each other, and come together as one.  (When I first started reading about this, science had identified four major forces.  Now there are only three, and the gold ring of physics is to find a way to unify them all in a single, “elegant” theory.)  Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Michael Faraday proved the relationship between electricity and magnetism by showing that a changing magnetic field produces electricity.  Then James Clerk Maxwell suspected that a changing electric field might also produce magnetism–leading to the discovery of electromagnetic waves.  Maxwell calculated the speed of these waves (don’t ask me how!) and the result turned out to be the known speed of light.

So what’s light?  Electromagnetic energy.  And if E=mc2, then matter and energy are interchangeable.  Therefore, couldn’t “Let there be light!” be, in its way, a scientifically accurate account for the beginning of the universe?

Or is that just me stumbling around in near-total ignorance?  Maybe not.  I just heard about a new book, available in October, that sounds like a must-read: The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate.  With a title like that, the author must be a fulminating fundie!  But no–Andrew Parker is (according to “a Royal Society University Research Fellow at Oxford University, and one of the eight ‘Scientists for a New Century’ selected by the Royal Institution (London).”  His thesis is that the order of creation as recorded in Genesis 1 has striking parallels with the most recent scientific discoveries.  “But,” (reads the book description) “the Genesis account has no right to be correct. The author or authors could not have known these things happened in this order, and with the highlights science has come to recognize.”

The basic questions were supposed to have been answered by now.  But as time goes on, the structure of the universe gets more mysterious, not less.  Personally, I like it that way. It gives new (or rather the old) meaning to the expression, “Awesome!”