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 read the full review:

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.

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.

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.

The picture is of my granddaughter and me at the Railway Museum in Sacramento. As we climbed on board the Santa Fe Chief at the Museum, I couldn’t help thinking about my Uncle Frank and his little brother making the trip from Kansas City to Sacramento every summer. 
 
 

I’d traveled the route by car many times over. 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!

“You Can’t Do That!” More about Death of Characters

The Beautiful Hills, Chapter 27 of The Black Alabaster Box is a chapter my granddaughter insisted on.

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.

When Favorite Characters Die

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.

A Purple Iris for Teachers

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.

In Victorian times, the purple iris was associated with wisdom and compliments. How appropriate for it to be the symbol of our thanks 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!

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”