Parent, Grandparent, Teacher, Professor and Author, Frances Schoonmaker, blogs about writing, her books, and the wonderful world of fact and fantasy.
Author: Four Leaves and Tales
I like a good story. For a dozen years I taught elementary school. Story was always an important part of our school day whether I was teaching kindergarten or fifth grade. Later, I became a university professor and taught people who wanted to be teachers. Now I am retired and busy reading and writing stories. There's more about me in the About section of the blog.
She’d been my junior editor all along, listening to various iterations and offering suggestions. Sometimes I followed her suggestions faithfully. Other times I had to follow my own light. This was especially true when it came to death of characters in the book.
I was reading from Chapter 26, “We must fly, Song of the Wind!” said Mr. Nichols. “Everything depends on speed! Don’t look back, lad, and don’t let Gracie look.” As they sped along the dirt road from the house, the sound of a terrible explosion came from behind. It shook the very ground around them. . .”
“You can’t do that, Grammy! You just can’t do that.”
“But people did die. Sometimes life was really hard for them,” I reasoned. “I didn’t want them to die, but it happened.”
She was insistent. “Okay,” I said. “Tell you what. I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t make any promises.” The result was “The Beautiful Hills.”
In writing it, I drew on my experience leading a doctoral seminar on spirituality and children’s literature at Teachers College, Columbia University. Children from all faith and non-faith perspectives seem to find conceptions of an after-life surrounded by light, love, and family to be emotionally satisfying. When I read my draft of the chapter to her, my granddaughter was satisfied. Interestingly enough, many children tell me it is a favorite chapter.
After one of my friends finished reading The Black Alabaster Box, she e-mailed me.“I loved it. . . I must say that you are very brave, because I couldn’t kill off some of my favorite characters.”
It’s true. Some of my favorite characters experience the harsh reality of life on the Santa Fe Trail. Two die of small pox and four are murdered. (I won’t say which ones–you’ll have to read the book to find out!) I was terribly sorry to see them go. But I was determined to be true to a history in which few people traveled the trails without being witness to or experiencing its grim realities. And, while an author is in control of what happens, sometimes it feels as if the characters and context are calling the moves.
I don’t recommend the Trilogy to youngsters under about ten-years-old. It can be a great read-aloud for a nine-year-old, within the safety of family or schoolroom.
Disease was arguably the greatest killer on the trails, although many people were shot by accident. People drowned in dangerous river crossings as well. Traveling west was not a six week-long camping holiday. And the greatest threat to wagon trains was not American Indians, though there were instances of violent clashes between wagon trains and native tribes.
Youngsters are exposed to an enormous amount of violence on their devices, in movies and on television. But it is one thing to see Batman and Robin going “Bif!” “Pow!” “Shezam!” as they kill off the bad guys and quite another to think about what you’d do if someone in your own family died.
A good story can raise important and difficult issues in ways that can be discussed thoughtfully and with sensitivity at school or at home. It can become a cataylist for “What would you do if…?”
A wise teacher will suggest that if her students have not talked through the “What would you do if? question with their parents, they should do so. It is psychologically important for children and young people to know that should the worst happen, their parents or caretakers have made a plan for how to deal with it. Of course, disaster is not predictable. Plans can be disrupted. It isn’t possible to forsee the future. Hence, discussions are all the more important. Children should know “go-to” people they can rely on, how reach them, and if circumstances prevent them from reaching their “go-to” people, safe contacts.
It is hard for author and readers to accept death of favorite characters in a story. It is even harder to face the certainties of death in the midst of life. But we do it as part of living and learning how to go on. A good story can help us along the way–especially if a caring adult is there to share the experience when favorite characters die.
When I finished my Master of Arts in Early Childhood Education at George Peabody College for Teachers, now part of Vanderbilt University, I was given an iris along with my diploma. Campus had been a riot of iris blooms the weeks before graduation. As we gathered on campus in our caps and gowns, we stood by iris beds, freshly dug up. Hundreds of bare roots with a bit of green leaf were separated, waiting for us to take one. It is a beautiful tradition and the iris is an appropriate symbol for teachers.
I can think of so many teachers who have made a difference in my life. It wasn’t always easy for me–and probably not for them. For example, there was that time in first grade when I couldn’t remember whether Frances was spelled F-R- A- N- C- E- S or F-A-R-N-C-E-S. Mrs. Mars was not pleased. She had a way of pulling your hair at the base of your neck when she was displeased. But she was the one who taught me how to make the numbers 1-10 walking over a rainbow bridge. How could I not forgive her?
Mrs. Mars was the first of many teachers in my school experience. There were also teachers in Sunday School, in my family, and in the community–the caring adults who helped me along the way. Perhaps that is why Lawrence Cremin talked about the ecology of schools as institutions that educate. Wherever they are–in or out of school–THANK YOU TEACHERS! A purple iris to you!
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.”
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!
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”
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).
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
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.