The Mad Artist in Me

Mad Artist

I am still working on launching THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX. It is off to a good start, but a publisher alone can’t get the word out. Getting the word out depends on the goodwill of friends, new fans, and hard work.  I’m adjusting to the idea of fans. I tend to see them as fans of Grace Willis and Mr. Nichols and the outlaws you love to hate, Junior and Ruby.

I’ve had a lot of fun meeting with kids, reading to them, and talking about the book. This spring I visited was The National Trails Museum Independence, Missouri and left a copy of the book for their library. What a fine research collection they are building along with an interesting museum, well worth the trip to Independence.

I was in Kansas City for a visit to Briarcliff Elementary School where my fifth grade friend, Jamison Sherman and his class hosted an author visit. It was a lot of fun reading from the book and talking with kids who had some really great questions about writing process and character development. There were some personal questions, too: “How old are you?” I think that with all my white hair there was the serious thought that I might have set out on the Santa Fe Trail with Grace Willis in the late 1800s.

Some days I feel like that! The past week I’ve been playing what my daughter calls “the mad artist.”  That’s me in the picture above: the mad artist working at the dining room table. Not mad as in angry; I’m thinking of mad as an adverb as in “totally mad, extremely cool.” (We all have our fantasies.)

So while I’m launching Book one, I’m madly working on illustrations for Book two. The thing about historical fiction, even fantasy that situates itself within an historical era, is that it is easy to miss important details. Illustrating the chapters, as I did in Book one, often reveals some new bit of history that I’ve overlooked.  Take Big Red, for example.

Big Red is the White-Faced Hereford calf that James Matthias’ gets ready for exhibit at the county fair. Finding images to create a sketch that is satisfying to me was not such a struggle. Getting him right was a challenge. BUT later in the book, Big Red is kidnapped–I suppose one could say rustled. He’s hauled away to the Oklahoma National Stockyards to be sold for World War I Bonds. This sends me double-checking my facts: when was the Oklahoma National Stockyards opened (1910, whew, that works)  Finding a satisfying image of a 1917 truck was a search in itself. But an image of the backside of a prize-winning Hereford Bull riding in the back of a 1917 truck?) I finally managed to make a sketch that feels right. Big Red the Calf and Big Red in the truck are below. (I still need to do something about that right rear wheel–it’s too dark.)

Then one sketch of the stockyard later, I ask myself, “When did the stockyards get that fancy entrance?” and I discover the completed sketch won’t work because the entrance was there, but it first read “Oklahoma National Stockyard Co.”–start over with a new sketch. All part of trying to keep the history as right as I can and part of the mad artist’s life!

About getting the word out: Thanks to so many who have written wonderful reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Goodreads.  Keep spreading the good word and put THE RED ABALONE SHELL, Book two on your Goodreads “Want to Read” list.

Chapter Discussion Questions for THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX

Teachers who are using The Black Alabaster Box with reading groups, book clubs, or as part of a study of the Great Westward Migration may find these questions useful. You could have students write their take on a question in a journal after reading the chapter, too. I don’t think it would be appropriate to have students answer all of the questions on paper–they are better discussed. The questions may also be found on my website under the Teachers and Parents section where they will be easily accessible once the blog post gets cold.

You will notice that questions allow students to respond on a number of cognitive levels.  They may be answered literally or invite children to dig beneath the surface in much more imaginative ways. Have fun. If you have other thoughts, please post them in the comments section.

Chapter 1:

What were some of the reasons that pioneers decided to go West?

Why did Grace’s family want to go West?

Grandma Rhoads gives Grace a handkerchief. We read that Grace thought of other things she’d rather take with her. What did the handkerchief symbolize for Grandma? for Grace?

Thinking of all the stuff you have, what would you choose to take with you if your family were going West and you could only take four things besides your clothes?

Chapter 2:

How would you describe Junior and Ruby Swathmore?

What role do you think they will play in the book?

On p 12 there is a clue about why Junior and Ruby act as they do. What do you think it is and why might it be a clue?

What does Sid’s way of dealing with Cora and Jimmy tell you about him?

What do you think it is about Sid that makes him somebody you wouldn’t want to fight with?

Chapter 3:

What does this chapter tell us about how a Wagon Train was organized?

Mr. Payne was probably the most qualified person to be Wagon Captain. Why do you think he wasn’t elected?  What do you make of Daddy’s answer when Grace questions him about the election?

What does Mr. Stokes say about risks to pioneers going West? How does this match your image of going West?

Chapter 4:

Why do you think the chapter title is “Hard Words”?

Compare and contrast Mr. Payne and Mr. Swathmore.

Why do you think Grace liked Mr. Payne?

Why do you think she was afraid of Mr. Swathmore?

Chapter 5:

What do you think the possibilities for Grace are now?

Why do you think Mr. Payne wanted to stay behind to help the Willis family?

Mr. Payne involves Grace in helping to cook and make their meals. Why do you think he takes the time to do that?

Chapter 6:

What did you learn about scouting that you didn’t know?

Based on the story, what would you say is the most important thing a scout can do?

Has your idea of Old Shep’s role changed since chapter 1? Why?

Chapter 7:

What does Mr. Payne’s reaction to seeing the Swathmore wagon tell you about his character?

What do you make of Daddy’s caution to Mr. Payne?

What do you think will happen to Grace?

Chapter 8:

How has Grace’s feeling changed about the handkerchief Grandma Rhoads gave her?

What does it symbolize for her?

What do you think the main characters in this chapter want most? Grace, Mr. Swathmore, Mrs. Swathmore, Ruby, and Junior?

Grace reaches a critical moment. What is it and how does it change her outlook?

Chapter 9:

Why doesn’t Grace run away when Swathmores go to the trading post?

How might Jim Payne’s lessons on scouting be influencing her decision?

Chapter 10:

Was Grace right in telling a lie about when the Swathmores were expected back?

Were the Swathmores right to leave her in such all alone on the homestead?

What role does Old Shep play in this chapter?

Chapter 11:

The author leaves us with the impression that Grace has taken more than one beating from Mr. Swathmore in the past. Why did she run away this time?

What do you think will happen to her now?

What are her chances of staying alive in the wildnerness?

Chapter 12:

What does Grace thinks she needs besides magic to survive?

Why did Mr. Swathmore come after her?

Knowing what you know about Grace and where she is, what would you do next if you were her?

Chapter 13:

Did Grace make a good choice in stopping at the homestead instead of going on? Give reasons for your opinion.

At what point in the chapter are you most anxious for Grace?

Chapter 14:

Could Grace have made it this far without Old Shep?

Why do you think Grace trusts Mr. Nichols when he appears when she didn’t trust Leon and Dillon when they appeared?

Why do you think that Grace couldn’t cry when she learned about her parents?

What do you make of Mr. Nichols? What questions would you want to ask him?

What does Mr. Nichols tell you about the role of magic in the story? How is this like/different from Mr. Payne’s idea about magic?

Chapter 15:

Why was Grace worried about losing the handkerchief? What has made it important to her when she didn’t think much of it in Chapter 1?

What do you make of the character Celeste? What role do you think she will play? Use the text to support your opinion.

If you were faced with Grace’s choices, would you choose to go on to St. Louis, stay in Kansas City, or go with Mr. Nichols? Why?

Chapter 16:

What different emotions did you have as you read the chapter? What made you feel them?

How did you react when magic became very important to the story?

How does Grace seem to feel when she discovers there is such a thing as magic?

What do you think is going to happen now?

Chapter 17:

Why do you think Grace volunteered to open The Black Alabaster Box?

What did Mr. Nichols do to prepare her for opening it?

Why do you think he was so particular about directions?

Should Grace be afraid?

Chapter 18:

What part of the chapter did you like best?

What surprised you?

Chapter 19:

Do you think Grace will ever see Mr. Nichols again? Why/why not?

Why do you think she forgot about the carpetbag and its contents?

Chapter 20:

Why do you think that C’lestin (Mr. Nichols) went to the masked ball?

Do you think that Celeste could ever change?

What caused C’lestin to have tears in his eyes when he left the ball?

Chapter 21:

What happens in the chapter that is like the opening scene in Chapter One?

Why do you think Grace puts off returning to St. Louis?

Should Grace feel guilty? Why/why not?

Chapter 22:

Did Junior and Ruby turn out the way you expected them to?

What did you like most in the chapter and why?

What do you think is going to happen now?

Chapter 23:

How does the magic Celeste placed on The Black Alabaster Box backfire on her?

Do you think that Junior and Ruby will be able to find Grace and her family? Why/why not?

Chapter 24:

What evidence do you find in the chapter to suggest that Celeste learned a lesson about paying attention to children?

There are three different scenes in the chapter. What are they and how did each make you feel?

Chapter 25:

Why did James blame himself for what happened?

How did Mr. Nichols reassure him?

What role does the handkerchief that Grandma Rhoads gave Grace in Chapter Two play now?

What did Ruby find that made the hunt for Celeste’s box personal?

Chapter 26:

How does the author create a feeling of uneasiness in the chapter?

What did you think when Ruby and Junior appeared at the back door?

What role is James playing by the end of the chapter?

Chapter 27:

What do you make of this chapter?

What surprised you?

Chapter 28:

Do Junior and Ruby get what they deserved? Explain your thinking.

What did you expect for Celeste to find in the tin box?

Chapter 29:

How does Mr. Nichols try to help James make sense of what has happened?

Why do you think Mr. Nichols doesn’t blame Grace for all the bad things that happened after she forgot about the crystal?

What are some ways Mr. Nichols identifies to heal and repair the world besides using water from The Last Crystal?

James remembers something that his mother told him that gives him the courage to go on. What is it?

General Questions:

If you could ask a question of one of the characters, which character would it be and what would you ask?

What part of the book did you like best and why?

What didn’t work for you and why?

If you could change one thing in the book, what would it be and why?

Mr. Nichols said that there are some things only a child can do. What do you think he meant?

 

Thank You Teachers!

This is National Appreciation Week. May 8, 2018 is National Teacher Day. A day doesn’t quite do it. Nor can a week. We owe teachers so much more, not only for what they have done for us, but for what they do for our children every day. Days in school are only a piece of what they do for students. Teachers spends countless hours outside the classroom collecting information and artifacts, thinking through ideas, wondering “What if…” They dig in their pockets to buy supplies that fill in the gaps when resources get low, often when their own resources are running low!

I have had the privilege of working with teachers in several countries in the world. How remarkably alike they are. They may dress differently. Classrooms are more or less well equipped than those in the US. But how alike they are in their desire to share a subject they have fallen in love with, help young people along in the world, and make the world a better place.

Like the rest of us, teachers have their days. Not every teacher and every child are a good match. Sometimes the chemistry just doesn’t work. Teachers can get burned out. The day to day grind can wear them down. And seriously, you don’t know what tired is until you’ve spent a day in the classroom with six-year-olds or eleven-year-olds, or sixteen-year-olds.

A teacher’s best moments usually go unrecognized and often, unappreciated. They take the brunt of displaced anger that parents and community members feel when the political system doesn’t seem to be working for them—it isn’t so easy tell off the governor, but one can march over to the school.

Everybody is an expert on teaching. I remember going for a haircut once and the stylist spent the entire time telling me the best way to teach reading. He’d been to school. Gosh. He isn’t the only one telling teachers what to do. The profession is becoming so over-regulated that I wonder how imaginative, dedicated, and talented teachers can stick to the job.

The number of teachers who are ill suited to teaching is so infinitesimally small that we should never be guilty of painting all teachers with their brush. If we are going to paint, let’s paint with another brush. Let’s paint on the sky in rainbow colors: THANK YOU TEACHERS. May our gratitude be lived out in our interactions with you as you guide our youth, in the policies that we enact to undergird your work, and in the budgets we pass to provide resources for you to keep on keeping on.

Written by Somebody’s Grandmother?

Who’d want to read a book about some random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother?”

Last year when Katie Schmidt talked with her class about the prospect of piloting The Black Alabaster Box, this was a question one of the children asked. I had to laugh when my granddaughter, a member of the class, told me. “What did he think grandmothers should be doing?” I asked.

I’d like to think that children of today are growing up with positive attitudes about issues that have troubled us in the past, issues such as race, gender, age, conceptions of beauty. But we aren’t there yet as a society. We aren’t helping our children as much as we could were we to provide better role models. (And maybe better stories?)

As the grandmother in question, I do think about aging. Age isn’t always kind. I don’t ever want to be guilty of assuming that people who start to shut down when they reach retirement age  choose to do so. People have health issues that place severe limitations on what they can do physically and mentally. But there is choice, too. I’ve seen friends who just seem to quit. They don’t like what age is doing to them. They can’t fight it. They can’t fix it. They want to be young. They aren’t. They give up.

There are reasons we give up. Aside from the crushing experiences that life can deal out, we are surrounded by a culture that values youth and beauty. Our culture tells us at every turn that when youth leaves off, so does beauty. Maybe that is what drew me to Celeste, the character in The Black Alabaster Box who traded her immortality to be the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Her goal in life is to stay young and beautiful—she has, for centuries. Not a wrinkle mars her perfect face nor does anything bulge in the wrong place. Isn’t that the message that we bump into everywhere we turn? Keep Young and Beautiful if you want to be admired, if you want to be loved.

After reading the draft of my book, one of my friends challenged Celeste. Why her? We already have Snow White’s stepmother and a host of her type. Why perpetuate a negative stereotype?   4rua60jaa87nxnI gave her comment a lot of thought. But Celeste would not be set aside. She demanded to be in the book, living out the message that says you don’t matter if you aren’t beautiful. If Mother Nature didn’t reward you with that advantage, you’d better do something about it. You have to be young to be beautiful, too. When the wrinkles appear, do something about it. “Beauty is your duty,” according to an old advertisement for the Success School.

I was thinking along these lines when I saw a short bit on the Teachers College website about Jacqui Getz, a student in my early years at the College. She was beautiful then. Now in her fifties and proud of it, she is still beautiful. Does she look like she did then? No. She looks as she is now, confident, purposeful, seasoned, full of life, and smashingly, gorgeously, beautiful. “Go Jacqui!” The blog about Jacqui is a message that challenges our dysfunctional view of beauty and of age.

Maybe that is why Celeste wouldn’t go away. She lurks in our deep places, telling us that retirement is an ending, not a beginning. She whispers that every gray hair and wrinkle is a blight, undermining our self-worth. We see her in the book and reject her, laugh at her. But she isn’t always so easy to laugh at when we look in the mirror.

So who does want to read a book about a random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother? You, I hope. And this grandmother plans to keep writing. After all, grandmothers should be writing, and traveling, and gardening, reading, having adventures, doing what they love to do for as long as they are able, and looking in the mirror and giving Celeste the raspberry!

“Every Young Wife Must Make This Decision” from https://repository.duke.edu/dc/eaa/P0151

Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?

Gingerbread.jpg

Thursday was the book launch for The Black Alabaster Box. I read the SCBWI website  for children’s book authors and illustrators. I talked to authors. I hadn’t done a launch before.  When my academic books were published, I put the title on my vita, and the publisher did the rest. So all this launch and publicity, and marketing business is new territory.

One of the best bits of advice I had was: have fun. It turned out to be more fun than I expected! I suppose I was worried that the program wouldn’t work or I’d stumble over myself when I read from the first two chapters, or people wouldn’t like the gingerbread cookies after I spent a day making them. But once all the balloons were up and it got under way, it was all fun. Sarah VanTiem was a brilliant emcee. She led an interesting conversation with Katie Schmidt, whose class at Rodgers Forge Elementary School piloted the book last year. I didn’t trip over my own tongue and Jack VandenHengel’s “On the Santa Fe Trail,” and “Tumbling’ Tumble Weeds” (with guitar) had everybody so into it that by the time he got to “Red River Valley” people were singing along. It was really fun. And people ate gingerbread cookies much more delicately than either Ruby or Junior in the book–you’ll have to read chapter two for that story.

“Can you have a launch without gingerbread cookies?” Silly question isn’t it? So many people commented on them, though, that I thought I’d share the recipe. They were an important part of my launch! Here it is, my version of an old recipe.

Gingerbread Cookies

1/3 cup shortening (part butter)                    ½ tsp. salt                                                                   1 cup dark brown sugar (packed)                   ½ tsp. allspice                                                        12 oz. jar of dark molasses                              1 tsp. ginger                                                           1/3 cup cold water                                               ¾ tsp. cloves                                                          6 cups sifted flour                                              1 tsp. cinnamon                                                      2 tsp. soda

Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add molasses and mix thoroughly. Stir in water. Sift together dry ingredients and stir in 1 cup at a time. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick. Chill dough at least 1 hour or overnight. Lightly grease cookie sheets. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut with cookie cutters and space about 1 inch apart. Decorate with sprinkles before baking (if you want to use sprinkles). Or, after baking, roll in powdered sugar while they are still hot or frost with powdered sugar icing when they are cool.

Bake 12-15 min. or until cookies are starting to brown on the edges.

GBCscutoutsStacks of GBCs

Mmmmm! Enjoy.

 

 

Continue reading “Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?”

What do cats have to do with it?

This is Butterfly. She is looking at me resentfully. I am spending too much time getting ready for launching THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX and not enough time with her. When she thinks that I have been working too long, she comes and sits, looking at me with this look. If I ignore her, she comes up to me, wraps her legs around my leg as if she is wants to make sure I don’t escape from her commanding presence, and meows. It is a kind of chirp meow–I don’t have words for it. It’s persuasive, though.

There is another possibility for the look today. Maybe she resents Old Shep. Maybe she is saying, “Seriously, a DOG?”
DSC_0050.jpeg

What’s in a Launch?

thumbnailWhat’s in a book launch? I’m getting ready for THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX Book Launch on April 5th so I’m thinking about it a lot. I think about launching a rocket—will it fly? I think about launching a boat—do we break a bottle of champagne over the book or over me? Children are invited, maybe no breaking of bottles!

I’ve read about other people’s book launches. A launch is about getting the word out. It is about selling books, marketing. But it is more than that for me. It is a celebration of girls and boys getting their hands on the book and liking it. It is a celebration of the many, many adults who have contacted me to say how much they like it. (That is a bonus. I’m glad for adults to enjoy it too.)

As an elementary school teacher, I always read children’s books along with my class. A good children’s book is a good book for anyone. Some of my best book recommendations have come from kids. For example, I remember when Jimmy put THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster on my desk.“Mrs. B. You have to read this!” (That’s not a type-o, Bolin was my married name.) A few minutes later he came over to where I was working with some other kids. “No, I mean you HAVE to read this.” I made it my business to begin reading it that night. Jimmy was right. What a great read.

When I was teaching elementary school, children loaned me books, gave me books, told me about books. I was always looking for children’s books to share with them, too. I’m still reading children’s books. I know how important books can be for children. So it was pretty thrilling when Isaiah, the first child outside the family to read a draft of THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX for me, said, “I really like your book!”

It was pretty thrilling when feedback came from the pilot classes, too. Students in Katie Schmidt’s public school class in Baltimore and Jon Dunlap’s independent school class in Arlington wrote to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Those were great moments. Now, as I prepare for a launch, I’m celebrating them. I’m celebrating the book being out at last, thanks to my publisher Dr. Shrikrishna “Krish” Singh at Auctus Publishing. I’m celebrating Liesl Bolin’s tireless effort in taking photographs, designing the cover, getting the word out. I’m celebrating all the people who have kindly posted on my Facebook page, shared the book on their Facebook pages, written reviews on line, or Tweeted about it to friends.

It takes a team to launch a rocket, or a ship, or a book.