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. .

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?