Happy National Poetry Month: Thoughts on the Joy of Learning Poetry

I suspect that my love of poetry is from my Grandpa Shannon. Grandpa loved poetry. I don’t know how many poems he knew by heart. I remember seeing him close his eyes, lean back in his rocking chair and begin Snow-Bound, by John Greenleaf Whittier: “The sun that brief December day  Rose cheerless over hills of gray,  And, darkly circled, gave at noon  A sadder light than waning moon.”

Grandpa knew all 345 lines of James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfaland long passages from both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. I have no idea how many poems he could recite by heart.

From the start of my teaching career, poetry was part of my classroom whether I taught first grade or fifth. We read poems, recited them, and wrote poetry. I never told children to memorize, I’d simply invite them to join me in saying a poem. I gave them a written copy of a poem after they knew it by heart. 

I remember a great moment on the way home from a field trip with first graders. A parent started, “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” Everybody joined in. When it ended, Cindy piped up immediately, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evenng, by Robert Frost.” We said it with her. Then somebody called, Beautiful Soup, by Lewis Carroll, and then, Sing Hey! For the Bath at the Close of Day, by J.R.R. Tolkien,” and Someone, by Walter de la Mare.” (I don’t actually remember the order; I just remember Cindy’s voice calling out, and what followed.) By the time we pulled up to the school, forty minutes later, we had been through our whole reperitoire.  As I was getting off of the bus, the driver said, “Lady, I don’t know what you’ve done with these children, but I’ve never seen anything like it. They can ride my bus any time!”  

Camp songs and rhymes like “Who Stole the Cookies,” are lots of fun, but children can enjoy so much more. These children did. I hope that poetry is still a part of them, as it is a part of me, and was a part of my Grandpa. Read a poem aloud until you know it by heart to celebrate National Poetry Month!

Girl Protagonists?


With a field near the Santa Fe Trail in the background, Grace Willis, protagonist, tips her hat. She is dressed as a boy in a white shirt with braces, typical of the late 1850s.
Grace Willis, girl protagonist in THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX doesn’t want to go West on the Santa Fe Trail. She’d much prefer her safe, comfortable life at home. She is no invincible super-girl. But when faced with a crisis, Grace does what needs to be done. Like most of us–girls and boys incuded–Grace doesn’t always get it right. She’s what I call an everyday hero.

Women’s History Month is coming to an end. It has prompted me to think about how girls are treated in stories for children and young people. I came across this in an interesting essay about gender bias. “The current choices seem to be either being invincible or not existing at all. While one might wish for the arts to lead the way to a more egalitarian future, that mission has not yet been accomplished for children’s literature. While it’s great that adventure books are now routinely featuring smart, strong, dynamic girls, we’ll know girls have truly achieved parity with boys when they can be not only as strong but as wounded and vulnerable — and more to the point, when they are as numerous, when they abundantly populate books both as leaders and regular kids.” Judy Sobeloff “The Golden Ratio of Sexism in Children’s Literature”

Edible Plants and the Character Mr. Payne

Esther Kang Suh

Esther Suh’s guest blog reminds us that there are edible flowers that we can enjoy, provided that we learn about them and make knowledgeable choices.  She points out that as Mr. Payne mentors protagonist, Grace Willis, in The Black Alabaster Box he teaches her to identify edible wild plants. 

I like Mr. Payne a lot. When he first came into the story to help Grace along the way, there was something about him that I knew I wasn’t capturing. I kept asking myself, “Who is he?”  Grace, thinks he is a kind man, “never too busy to say hello, even to a young girl,” (p.18).  I knew he had been an army scout. Initially, I thought he was Wagon Captain. But one of the things I have learned–from my daughter’s background in theater–is that if you are going to deal with a character, you need to know/create their backstory. It may never enter into the script/story, but if it isn’t there, characterization will be shallow.

I kept searching for Jim Payne’s backstory. Then it came to me. He couldn’t have been Wagon Captain. “Before the wagon train set out from Kansas City, the men elected a Wagon Captain. Daddy thought Jim Payne would be good. But some of the men didn’t feel right voting for a Free Negro.” (p.18) Grace doesn’t understand. She asks her father why the men didn’t feel right about Mr. Payne when she likes and trusts him. “Daddy said some things were hard to understand, even for grown-ups, and he hoped it would be different in California” (p.18).  

Black Seminole Army Scouts, image in the public domain

Was Jim Payne’s backstory plausible? I knew it was pretty unlikely for a group of people from different parts of the Eastern U.S. going to California in 1856 to elect a black man their Wagon Captain. But might he have been an army scout?

There were black scouts who served the army with distinction. For example, a little later than Mr. Payne, in the 1870s, four Black Seminoles were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Black Seminoles were descendents/children of slaves who escaped to Florida and married Seminole Indians. The U.S. proposed to relocate the Seminoles to Indian Territory in the mid-1800s. Passage of the Fugative Slave Law of 1850 made life dangerous for escaped slaves and their children, even in Indian Territory. If an enslaved mother escaped to a free state, she and any children she bore were considered slaves. They could be captured and returned to their “owners.” Many Black Seminoles moved on to Mexico to escape the possibility of being returned to slavery.  Read more about them at these two websites:  https://www.nps.gov/amis/learn/historyculture/seminole.htm https://www.blackpast.org/tree/U.S./Indian+Wars

            There were also the famous Buffalo Soldiers following the Civil War. An all black cavalry and infantry units, they made a name for themselves in the American West. Their role is surrounded by myth and legend. If you’re into unpacking myth and legend, you’ll find this article by military historian Frank N. Schubert a fascinating read: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/myth-buffalo-soldiers/. Another resource is https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/buffalo-soldiers#section_1

            I was satisfied that Jim Payne was settled in his place in the story. Without his help, Grace Willis would never have survived in her break for freedom after she was kidnapped. I hope you’ll read the book. It isn’t just for kids! And I’d love to hear from you if you do.

Follow me on Instagram: @fgschoonmaker


Spice Up Your Diet With Edible Flowers: Guest Blog by Esther Suh

Reading The Black Alabaster Box by Frances Schoonmaker sparked a greater interest in me to learn more specific information about wildflowers. Her book makes specific references to wildflowers, like white anemone, purple phlox, and yellow primroses, blooming untamed along the Santa Fe Trail. Some wildflowers served to supplement the diet of travelers moving west in covered wagons. She ties it in beautifully by using Mr. Payne’s character, a retired Army scout, to teach the main character Grace Willis how to find, identify, and eat edible flowers. He tells her, “Mother nature can take good care of you, if you know what to look for” (p. 47). 


Personally, wildflowers top my list of favorite things next to chocolate and coffee. My first experience appreciating wildflowers started in middle school when I found a single bloom stretching out of a tiny crack in the walkway. Out of nowhere did it appear and flourish in that unlikely circumstance.

I’ve also come to admire wildflowers, in particular edible flowers, for the kinds of healthy and flavorful dishes you can make with them. Growing up in a traditional Korean home, eating edible flowers was the norm; I thought everyone ate like this too. Our diet mainly consisted of rice served with side dishes comprised of different kinds of roots, vegetables, and leaves: pickled mustard leaves, marinated Perilla leaves, marinated Bellflower roots, steamed squash leaves, blanched Fernbrakes (although there’s debate about its toxicity levels), and Chrysanthemums, etc. Others like ginseng, which boasts a plethora of health benefits, are rare and expensive. 

My parent’s harvest of Bellflower root in summer of 2018
The roots are marinated with garlic, chili pepper, scallions, and fish sauce.

Above is Fernbrake that is soaked in water, blanched, and/or sauteed to eat with rice.

My mother taught me that certain edible flowers, roots, stems, and leaves can also be useful to heal various ailments: stomach pains, skin irritations, bladder issues, muscular pain, coughs, or any other complaints. It is prepared several ways depending on its purpose: dried, steamed, boiled, or mashed into paste. She tried teaching me when I was a teenager, but as a cranky teenager, I usually rolled my eyes and wished that we didn’t have to cook up a remedy (no pun intended); couldn’t we just go to the medicine aisle at the store and pick something up instead? It seemed very old fashioned and embarrassing. However, as I matured over the years, I began to cultivate an appreciation for what I gleaned from watching and listening to her.

I’m familiar with the edible flowers I grew up eating, but it’s hard to fathom that some common flowers growing outside can be safely consumed for taste and/or nutritional benefits. Everyday flowers like roses, dandelions, and lavender can be eaten or used to enhance flavors. 

These are times I wish I could consult an expert about edible flowers: instead of guessing, this person could advise on how to locate, identify, learn its background and characteristics, and safely taste. I’m dreaming; those kinds of experiences and meeting an expert like that are far and few in between. 

I scoured the internet for answers and information. The search results, as expected, were substantial. Pictures usually accompanied the vast amount of information about these flowers, but to the unaccustomed eye, some are difficult to distinguish from similar looking ones. This makes me a little paranoid thinking that maybe I’ll eat something I’m not supposed to. But I realize that learning more about it and comparing what I see with pictures on websites and books nurtures confidence.   

The next step in my adventure is to venture out, learn more, and see what kinds of foods I can prepare using edible flowers. Once again, I’m amazed at nature’s bounty: it provides so much beauty to see and experience, as well as opening up new ways to cook and eat with flowers.      

You can find Esther’s blog at https://singlikewildflowers.com

Check out these informative websites about edible flowers: 

  • www.whatscookingAmerica.com
  • known as “America’s most trusted culinary resources since 1997” 
  • The website lists 36 kinds of edible flowers broken down into three categories: fruit flowers (4); herb flowers (24); vegetable flowers (11).
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/edible-flowers
  • 11 Edible Flowers With Potential Health Benefits
  • I found this website to be straightforward and easy to read for beginners. It provides a picture, a brief description about it, and a short summary of how to eat it. 

One last thing: Be sure to check that the flower is free of pesticides and you know the specific flower is indeed edible. Esther Suh

When you’re having fun…

The expression is, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” It is one I’ve heard all my life. But where did it come from? That isn’t at all clear.

Its all a part of the The Game of Life–played at our house over the holidays.

For example, I found this at https://www.dictionary.com/browse/time-flies: Time passes quickly, as in It’s midnight already? Time flies when you’re having fun, or I guess it’s ten years since I last saw you—how time flies.  This idiom was first recorded about 1800 but Shakespeare used a similar phrase, “the swiftest hours, as they flew,” as did AlexanderPope, “swift fly the years.”

Others sources trace the expression to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) and fugit irreparabile tempus. “Time irretrievably is flying. Another version is, ‘We cannot stop time in its tracks.’ The shorter Tempus fugit is taken from the longer Fugit irreparabile tempus itself a slightly shortened form of a line from Virgil’s Georgics.” See https://wordinfo.info/unit/4031/page:1

All that is to say that time has been flying past and lots of things happening. Most of them good, some of them challenging, not so great, and others sad. But time keeps moving forward. It was October when I last blogged.

In addition to completing the manuscript for Book 3 of The Last Crystal Trilogy I’ve been promoting The Black Alabaster Box. I’ve asked Esther Suh blogger, Mother, photographer, parent of a “heart child” and educator to write a guest blog about edible plants.

If you’ve read The Black Alabaster box, you know that edible wild plants play an important role in Grace’s survival. Esther’s photographs and knowledge of flowers are one of many features that have made hers a popular blog. Edible wild plants become important in Book 3 as well. I look forward to hearing from Esther soon–you’ll see why she is uniquely prepared to be a guest. .

Can’t I Just Write?

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This past weekend my daughter, granddaughter and I made what has become an annual fall visit to Weber Cider Mill Farm to buy pumpkins and to enjoy some of the activities. Amelia and I did the maze together. Looking at it now, the picture feels like a metaphor for life as a writer!  I wish I could just write–I love the exploration of ideas, the research, following the characters imaginatively, sharing with Amelia and talking through points where I get stuck.  What I don’t love so much is all the other stuff that has to do with getting some traction for the books.  It is really uncharted territory for me. And it has kept me so busy that I feel like I am–to borrow an expression from my mother–honking at my own tail lights!

One thing I’ve been doing is getting Book Stop  pages ready for the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual  event that displays work of members. I have pages for The Black Alabaster Box and for The Red Abalone Shell. If you have time to visit, please sign the guest book. Small things can mean a lot.

Most of my time has been spent planning for the upcoming event celebrating The Black Alabaster Box and raising funds for the Page Turners, an after school program for kids in Clinton South (Hell’s Kitchen):

save the date

If you are in the New York area I’d love to see you there. It will be good fun for a good cause.

When I met with Kathy Conry and Laura Bergquist in New York a couple of weekends ago, I began to get really excited about the program. On the one hand, we learned that Alan H. Green has returned to his role in The School of Rock–The Musical, So he can’t be with us–bummer! But Kathy is a pro. Undaunted, she  already had a back-up plan knowing that people in theater have to make work their top priority.

In one productive meeting we agreed on a plan for the evening, excerpts from The Black Alabaster Box to use for the Readers Theatre and possible music.  I spent the next day working on the script and left it in their good hands. Laura is working on the music and Kathy has already put together a cast to read the script I provided. My job, having provided the script is to stay out of the way! (Now that is a job I can take to.) They are on a roll. Last I heard somebody is working on a campfire setting and they are planning to have little cups of chili and possibly mini-corn muffins.

Back to the maze. Amelia is so tall this year that I could see her had bobbing up above the bales of hay as she worked her way through. I think there is a metaphor in that, too. There was so much joy in it seeing how much she has grown–the joy is what I connect to when everything seems too much. Joy in the work, the sharing, and the joy that comes when a kid says, “So when are you going to have Book 3 ready?”

 

 

 

 

 

The Red Abalone Shell and WWI: The Backstory

RAS finalcoverThe Red Abalone Shell is scheduled for release the first week in September. Here’s what you have to look forward to:

James finds himself on the steps of a church with no idea who he is or how he got there. His only clues are a map, a red abalone shell, and a dog, Old Shep. Adopted by a German-American pacifist family, James and Old Shep take to life on a farm. Patriotism is running high in Western Oklahoma as the United States considers entering World War I. James and his family are proud to be Americans, but not everybody sees it that way, especially Claude Higgins who bullies James in and out of school. As James tries to stand up to Claude and struggles to regain lost memories, he discovers that his identity is linked to mysterious, magical events that define both his past and his future.

The World I context is essential to the story. As I set out to write the second book in The Last Crystal Trilogy, I deliberately situated it on the cusp on World War I. In doing so, I had to alter the time line somewhat, moving it forward a bit. I explain this in the preface.

I remember my mother talking about World War I. She was a girl of about seven- or eight-years old during the war. Among her many memories was one of her father, my Grandpa Shannon, standing up for a German-American neighbor. Patriotic feelings were fanned by newspaper articles accusing German-Americans of aiding the enemy and public speeches by politicians from President Wilson to local officials. The work of organizations such as The American Protective League and the National Security League may have had the most influence on immigrants–both of these organizations come into play in the book.

defaultMap from Library of Congress files: https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593059/

The ugly history behind events in the book is not as well known as I had expected–but given my ignorance, maybe that shouldn’t have been surprising. In 1910 over nine percent of the population in the US were German-Americans. In fact, immigrants from Germany were the largest immigrant community in the country. German language and culture were thriving and German-Americans were respected members of communities across the country. Everything changed when the US entered World War I. Those who were German-born were suddenly enemy aliens and second- and third-generation immigrants were suspected of collusion with the enemy (Manning 2014; Wasserman, 2016, ). While there were undoWar Bondscroppedubtedly Kaiser Wilhelm II sympathizers among the German-Americans in the US, these were far and away the exception. Most, like my Grandpa Shannon’s harassed neighbor, were good people who were proud to be American and were unjustly shunned, ridiculed, shamed, persecuted, tarred and feathered, beaten, or taken to court

German-born immigrants were rounded up and placed in internment camps, setting a precedent and providing a model that was to be followed in World War II. A nation of immigrants now turned on the newcomer and outsider, defining them as “other” and “foreign.” Theodore Roosevelt said it a 1915 speech, “there is not room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance (cited in Manning, 2014, p.16).” His attitude was one adopted by the public as the war loomed nearer.

Wasserman argues that “despite its lack of scholarship and popular knowledge, German internment left a lasting legacy” (p.4, 2016). World War I left a prototype for how to deal with enemy aliens, one that was to be refined in World War II when German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps (nearly twice as many Japanese-Americans, it should be noted).

The Web_0

Citizens groups sprang up all across the country, many of them like the vigilantes of the West. They looked for evidence of alien subterfuge. Michael Inman (2014), Curator of the Rare Books Division of the New York City Public Library writes: “By far the largest of these hyper-patriotic organizations was the American Protective League, or A.P.L., which maintained a network of branches in more than 600 cities. . . . the A.P.L. worked to enforce patriotism and stifle dissent.  Unlike these other bodies, however, the A.P.L.’s actions were carried out with the approval of the U.S. government.” The 200,000 untrained volunteers of A.P.L were authorized to ferret out aliens whose loyalties were tested by pledging allegiance to the flag, buying war bonds (sometimes groups assigned an amount, often beyond the means of those expected to pay up), or to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (Manning, 2014).

The National Security League called for military preparedness in the period leading up to World War I. It was the largest preparedness group and probably the most influential (Ward, 1960). The map above detailing the Kaiser’s plans is one of the hundreds of items distributed in the US to garner support for the war effort. Initially the League had the participation of progressive elements in the US, but its work deteriorated into what amounted to witch hunts and vigilantism. Book banning, banning use of German language, teaching German in schools, religious services in German, German names, German food—all things German. Its work deteriorated into “confiscations, lootings, and beatings. . .culminating in the widely publicized lynching of Illinois miner Robert Prager, hanged draped in an American flag (Wasserman, 2016).  You can read more about the Prager case athttp://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/landings/Ambot/Archives/vignettes/government/Prager.

While I think back on my grandfather’s stand with pride, digging into the history was a somber experience. There was too much in it that felt current. As Kimberly Younce Schooley notes in her review of The Red Abalone Shell, “we watch World War I unfold and witness how individual liberties can be so easily and tragically curtailed in the name of narrow-minded nationalism masquerading as patriotism. An important message for today perhaps.” (You can read her full review in “About the Book” when the book is available).

Some of the other resources I drew on in preparation for the book make interesting reading. Most are available on line:

Michael Inman, “Spies Among Us: World War I and The American Protective League,” October 14, 2014, retrieved from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/10/07/spies-among-us-wwi-apl)

Mary J. Manning, “Being German, Being American” Prologue, (Summer 2014), pp.15-22.

Robert D. Ward, “The Origin and Activities of the National Security League, 1914-1919,”The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jun., 1960), pp. 51-65.

Wasserman, Jacob L., “Internal Affairs: Untold Case Studies of World War I German Internment” (2016). MSSA Kaplan Prize for Use of MSSA Collections. 8.
https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/mssa_collections/8