BSP: Forgive the Interruption

BSP is an anacronym used by Sisters in Crime  to stand for Blatant Self Promotion. So forgive the interruption. I promised the next post on character development in The Last Crystal Trilogy. But I want to share this review from Kirkus Reviews. Follow the link to find it or read on:

A young girl’s pioneering trek to the American West is interrupted by danger, tragedy, and a magical quest in the first book in Schoonmaker’s Last Crystal trilogy for middle schoolers.

In mid-19th-century Missouri, the white Willis family is about to follow the Santa Fe Trail to the new state of California. Miserable over leaving home, preteen Grace Willis is distracted by the sudden arrival of Old Shep, a dog from her early childhood. Absent for 10 years, Old Shep looks remarkably fit for a canine of more than 100 dog years. It’s a mystery—or is it magic? Old Shep’s role in Grace’s life is woven into a surprise-filled, absorbing narrative, the first novel in a series that begins with this vivid depiction of life for a pioneer family heading west.

The author is a former professor and elementary school teacher, but this is no textbook adventure. Nor is it Little House on the Prairie redux. The fact that wagon train scout Jim Payne, a free black man, teaches Grace tracking and track-covering skills hints that the girl will need them, and she does. Grace is kidnapped and suffers a horrific loss. Her ordeal with the brutal kidnapper and his family is genuinely unsettling; her grueling escape is downright chilling. Fleeing pursuit, aided by Old Shep, Grace is rescued by mysterious Mr. Nichols. And here the narrative slides smoothly and enjoyably into a full-fledged fantasy involving Mr. Nichols’ identity and an object hidden within an alabaster cavern. Locked away, the object has the power to heal humankind’s woes, but it is guarded by a lethal spell. If Grace can find the strength, she must retrieve and guard the object until the spell can be lifted. The eventful passage of time that follows—featuring, in part, two vicious outlaws from Grace’s past, the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of Mr. Nichols and Old Shep, and a new home for the bespelled object—will have readers eager for the next book in this series.

A well-crafted mix of fact and fantasy filled with surprises and grounded in history and real-world dilemmas.

Circumstance and Plot

I can’t remember how my fascination with trains began. My brothers and I used to watch for smoke from the steam engine that pulled train cars along tracks that made their way just beyond the hills to the southeast of our farm. On a clear day, you could hear the train chugging its way between Custer City and Clinton, Oklahoma. And, if you climbed to the tallest hill on the farm, there was an outside chance that you might see the train—sometimes we did. 

I was a member of the Speech and Debate Club at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington. In the spring, we took the train from Portland, Oregon to Weber College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah for the Phi Rho Pi National Junior College Speech and Debate Tournament. We were routed through Green River, Wyoming and down to Ogden. I found myself staring out the window, awestruck by the stark beauty of the country we passed. I’d traveled it by car, but seeing it from a train window was an altogether different experience.

In the photo, my granddaughter and I are at the Railway Museum, Sacramento, standing by the Santa Fe Chief.

This interest in trains was bound to find its way into my writing. Given my fascination with trains, it’s no wonder that the idea of Uncle Frank and his brother on a train trip kept surfacing.  “What would unsupervised kids get up to on a train?”The route they would have taken, either on the California Limited or on The Santa Fe Chief would have been through rugged mountains and wide expanses of wilderness. I’d traveled the route by car many times over. I’d also made many trips between the farm in Oklahoma where I was reared and Washington State, where my parents taught school when I was a teen.

On our many car trips, I invariably wondered what would happen if the car broke down or by some stroke of bad luck we were stranded in a remote area. It was new food for thought: what would happen if a couple of boys got off the train and were stranded in the desert between Kansas City and L.A./Sacramento? Coincidently, about the same time, I read an article about luxury train cars. (You can find out more about private railroad cars at the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners website.) Who knew you could rent or buy your own train car? I clipped the article and put it in the little black marble notebook where I kept ideas. (Yes, for those of you who have read it, it is probably why Robert has a black marble notebook in The Last Crystal.) So what might happen if Uncle Frank and little Clyde stumbled into a private railroad car. Who would they find there?  

Life intervenes. I’d been busy enough as a mother and elementary school teacher. But the idea had to go on hold when I was admitted to a doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) in the late 1980s. After the doctoral program came the Assistant Professorship and the drive for tenure. I was teaching, indulging my bent for historical research, and writing—not about train rides and quests for something for some unknown reason.

Years later, after retiring from TC, I picked up the idea again. The black marble notebook in which I’d kept careful notes and clippings before graduate school days, had disappeared. But the idea hadn’t. My granddaughter was approaching eight-years-old and we shared stories together. I knew she’d be a willing accomplice. But it had to be ready for her. I wondered about who might be in that private car and what would be a motive powerful enough to drive a quest.

As chance often dictates, an unrelated set of circumstances gave me the motive I’d been looking for. I accepted an assignment to serve as a Senior Curriculum Specialist for the USAID Teacher Education Project in Pakistan, a collaborative venture between The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, and USAID, with Michigan State University (MSU) as a partner. I began working with MSU. Later, TC became a partner. I stayed on, making trips to Pakistan, usually for three or four weeks every other month or so.  

Here I am meeting with two long-term friends in Pakistan. We’re at one of the many workshops we had with Pakistani University faculty colleagues. An article in the TC News tells of how Hareem (left), who was my student at TC, and I met again in Islamabad. Rana Hussain, gifted curriculum specialist and another Senior Curriculum Specialist, is at the right. Rana is from Karachi and retired from the Institute of Educational Development, Aga Khan University, Karachi.

Early on, a colleague introduced me to a lovely jewelry and curio shop in the Super Market Shopping Center in Islamabad, Sector F6. The Punjab Museum carries artifacts and exquisite jewelry made by local artisans. Over the three years I worked on the project, I bought several gifts at The Punjab Museum. I loved chatting with the young man who ran the store on those rare occasions when the shop happened to be empty. One day he invited me to see something he had just acquired. “What do you think about this?” It was a beautiful egg-shaped stone that had been polished smooth. Inside a bubble of water was trapped in the middle—you could see through the translucent part of the stone. We speculated about the unusual formation and how old the water was—maybe as old as time.  

Water as old as time—when the earth was new. Such water would surely have magical healing powers. The lure of the Fountain of Youth, the quest for eternal life—such is the stuff of quest stories. What might such water do? And what might one give to possess it?  All the disconnected pieces began to come together: a train ride, a private car, a quest.

Next time, I’ll talk about how the setting and characters developed.  

THE LAST CRYSTAL: Behind the Scenes

The Last Crystal Trilogy is complete at last. In the next few posts, I will be reflecting on the process of writing the Trilogy, beginning with The Last Crystal because I wrote it first. I had no idea I was going to write a trilogy. 

It started with an idea that swam around in my head for years before I was ready to do anything about it. Then, a series of unrelated events came together almost forty years later. The first version of The Last Crystal was the result. While this might sound discouraging to anyone wanting to be a writer, bear in mind that I wasn’t sitting around making daisy chains. I was busy being a schoolteacher, mother, graduate student and, finally a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, whose advancement depended on research and writing. So perhaps the saga of my writing the Trilogy is as much about letting an idea ripen as it is about how the book was actually written.

But before I continue, this bit of good news: The Last Crystal (Book 3, The Last Crystal Trilogy) has been nominated for an Agatha. Named for Agatha Christie, the Agatha is awarded by Malice Domestic, an annual fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery.

Back to the main point. In the early seventies, my family made a cross-country trip from Baltimore to Sacramento. My daughter was four-years-old then. I was an elementary school teacher who incorporated children’s literature in teaching both language arts and social studies. I was always on the altert for good books for kids and ideas for teaching that connected them. I picked up interesting rocks, gathered samples of trees, and collected pinecones—actually, anything interesting to take back to my classroom.

On this trip, we stayed with my husband’s uncle and aunt in Sacramento. It was there, around the kitchen table, that I heard about Uncle Frank’s summer adventures as a boy. Uncle Frank’s dad worked for the railroad. He was based in the family’s home state of Missouri. But, grandparents had long-since migrated to far-away California. When school was out for the summer, Frank and his little brother, Clyde, were put on the train to California—by themselves. They had a grand trip of it, sleeping in their coach seats, exploring the train, eating their packed meals. 

“O-oh!”I thought. “Here is a situation ripe for mischief. Something mysterious could happen to two unsupervised little boys on a train.”

In my next post I’ll talk about how the idea began to develop and the chance circumstances that helped me build the story line.

Writing as Conversation

I have been really fortunate to have some wonderful experiences with people who are interested in The Last Crystal Trilogy. Meeting people is rewarding–especially the kids. People who’ve read my books have been encouraging. I’ve had some great reviews, too–not all of them from family, either!

At the same time, I am keenly aware that The Last Crystal Trilogy is not on everyone’s Christmas list. Ilka Tampke, who has just won the “Most Underrated Book Award” for 2019, given by the SPN (Small Press Network) Independent Publisher’s Conference of Australia, points out that “The saddest thing about a book failing to reach an audience is not the wound to the ego, but the ending of a conversation.” As Tampke notes, it isn’t the desire for recognition, so much as the communication of an idea that drives us.

The idea of a conversation resonates with me. When somebody says, “I liked your book,” or when I get a letter from a kid with a picture of one of the characters, I feel like there is a conversation going on. I’ve been heard! An idea that has consumed me for days, weeks, months—years, even—has been heard. Now I have the opportunity to listen and try to understand what they make of the idea.

Every reader has a unique reaction to what they encounter in a book. It is  exciting to hear reactions, even when they seem unrelated to what I had in mind. If there is an opportunity, I love to find out where the “unrelated” ideas are coming from. Usually, there is a connection that isn’t necessarily apparent without some probing, one that is almost always something I hadn’t considered. What a great way to learn! That’s what a conversation is—people expressing ideas, considering, agreeing, disagreeing,  learning.  As Tampke put it, the conversation is what keeps a writer going. 

The Making of an Egyptologist?

My granddaughter wants to be an Egyptologist. At fourteen, she has been teaching herself to read hieroglyphics, using the classic, Hieroglyphics for Beginners, by E. A. Wallis Budge.

This all began in third grade when a teacher introduced her to myths from various cultures. She was intrigued by Egyptian mythology.

Intrigue turned to the desire to know more, when her mother picked up on the interest a couple of years later and we began reading Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank as a family story. She was hooked on the series and on what Egyptologist, Barbara Mertz who wrote under the pseudonym, Elizabeth Peters, was teaching her about ancient Egypt.

I gave her a stamp set with Egyptian hieroglyphics from The Metropolitan Museum in New York, but it was soon clear that it was not enough. That’s when her mother introduced her to Wallis Budge, the famous Egyptologist who worked for the British Museum in the Golden Age of Egyptology during which Elizabeth Peters’ heroine, Amelia Peabody, plumbed the treasures of ancient Egypt and solved mysteries on the side. Now the book is well worn and indexed with post-its from beginning to end.

On a visit to the Egyptian collection at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, she was able to explain a great deal to us about what various artifacts said and take us deeper into the exhibits we were seeing. Her mother made her close her eyes before we entered The Temple of Dendur. I wish you could have seen her face when she saw it for the first time. It was a joy to watch her guide a good friend from the UK through the exhibit a year later (see the picture above).

Her growing interest in archeology was heightened by watching back episodes of The Time Team. For the uninitiated, The Time Team was a British television production that lasted from 1994 until 2017. Every episode covered an archeological dig, limited to three days. Excavations were led by first-rate archeologists, usually in England, and covered the range of human history. The actor, Tony Robinson, explained things in terms we could all understand, interviewing the professionals about the decisions they were making.

So now, my granddaughter wants to be an archeologist, focusing on ancient Egypt. As a former teacher and teacher-educator, I find satisfaction in knowing than an elementary school teacher ignited the spark. As a writer, I’m delighted at how a mystery series sharpened her interest and supplied her with a great deal of accurate information along with the good fun and imaginative adventure.

Will she follow through and become an Egyptologist? All I can say is, “Go girl! Follow the dream.” If the dream changes on the way, she will have had the joy of learning new things that will enrich whatever comes next. If she ends up excavating tombs in Egypt, I’m in for an Egyptian holiday!

Mist, Children, Poetry and Times Past

Mist marches across the valley.
Down a long slope the mist marches.
And then up a long slope the mist marches.
from Carl Sandburg, Mist Marches Across the Valley

Last week I was in a beautiful old farmhouse on the Choptank River where I focused entirely on writing. The first few days were rainy. The river ran high. I loved the wet mornings, watching the mist rise from the river. 

Carl Sandburg talks about how mist moving across the valley carries everything with it, armies, kingdoms, guns. The rhythms of nature, like mist, are timeless, indifferent to our triumphs and failures.

When I taught in elementary school, I always looked forward to the first really misty, foggy morning. It was the perfect time to introduce Carl Sandburg’s little haiku (as he referred to it) to the children:

The fog comes on little cat feet, It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches And then moves on.  

I never asked children to memorize a poem. I invited them to join me in saying a line that stood out for them. They knew “Fog”almost immediately after I introduced it. By the end of the year, whether I was with kindergartners or fifth grade, we had a reperitorie of a couple of dozen favorites that we knew by heart and we enjoyed together. 

Fall was a great time to invite children into the Walter de la Mare’s Someone, too.  It is a perfect poem for this season. There is such a mysterious, haunting quality to it, inviting imagination. “I’m sure, sure, sure,”and “At all, at all, at all.”Were great places to join in at first. 

Some One

Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door;
Someone came knocking;
I’m sure-sure-sure;
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a stirring
In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
The screech-owl’s call,
Only the cricket whistling
While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

We used to speculate about who came knocking and whether or not they knocked at a fairy door.  Could have been, if you have imagination.

I talk more about how I taught poetry in the classroom and the connection between peotry and children’s spirituality in an essay I wrote for the Teachers College Record a few years ago: 

Only Those Who See Take Off Their Shoes: Seeing the Classroom as a Spiritual Space,  Teachers College Record Volume 111, Number 12, December 2009, pp. 2713–2731 

The writing retreat was productive. Wet October mornings brought back memories of mist, children, poetry and times past.  

Every Fall

First Day of School a few years ago when my granddaughter and family friends set out for school. Everybody’s taller now!

It’s that unmistakable time of year when school has started. After a miserably hot, humid summer in Baltimore, we suddenly had a few crisp days in late August. Now that September is over, leaves are turning. Mornings have that cool, approaching autumn feel to them. I love this time of year.

I remember my Grandma saying, “There is never an autumn that I don’t feel like I should be going back to school.”It’s like that for me, too. I had a larger dose of school than she did, though I doubt I’m any better educated. I have spent most of my life in school as a student as a teacher, and as a professor working to prepare teachers. It is a great place to spend your life.

Every fall begins a new cycle. Now as I see my granddaughter off to school, I wonder what the day holds for her. I think of so many children like her who shared a school year with me when I taught in elementary school. I wonder about them, where they are, if life has been kind to them. I wonder if they, too, feel the call of school when the leaves begin to turn.  I wonder if any of them are spending their lives as teachers.