Going Batty: On Illustrating

Mexican_free-tailed_bats_(9413220937)Mexican Free-Tailed Bats By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Mexican free-tailed batsUploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I made the decision to illustrate my trilogy for very selfish reasons. As a child, I hated it when there were pictures of the people in fiction. The illustrator almost always messed with my ideas of what characters should look like. My mother was an artist, though she would add a disclaimer, were she here to do so. (It is she who taught me to appreciate the way the light falls on leaves, the subtle colors in cloud formations, or the importance of a single red lady-bug in the garden.) I took some art classes in college and, as a gift from me to me, I took drawing at Teachers College, Columbia University while I was on the faculty in Curriculum and Teaching. So I figured it would be fun to do the icons for each chapter opening.

It has been. But there have been moments of frustration besides getting Big Red into a truck (see the June 24 post). The bats nearly drove me batty.

I should explain. In The Black Alabaster Box, Grace Willis visits The Alabaster Caverns, but we don’t hear about bats. In Book 2, The Red Abalone Shell, Ruby and Junior do encounter bats. Every spring, Mexican free-tailed bats migrate from Mexico to the Alabaster Caverns, near Freedom, Oklahoma to rear their young. The Mexican free-tail is one of several species of bats to inhabit the caves. They’ve probably been visiting the Caverns long before Ruby and Junior Swathmore got there. Ruby’s attitude toward bats isn’t too different from that of many people today.  We think, “Yikes!” or “Vampire bat!”or “Flying rodent!”or “They’ll get in my hair and it will fall out!”

When I did the research to illustrate the Chapter 6, in which bats appear, I learned a lot about bats.

I tended to see them as valuable insect gobblers. And they are. For example, every evening the bats fly out of The Alabaster Caverns to feed, each bat consuming anywhere from 600 to 1,000 insects in an hour. But I had no idea that they also pollinate some plants and distribute seeds. According to Bat Conservation International, the “African Tree of Life,”or the great baobab tree of East Africa depends on bats for pollination. (I fell in love with the baobab tree when we were in Zambia one summer when my daughter was a child. I can’t imagine an Africa without baobab trees–an unfortunate possibility as baobab trees are at risk–but another story.) Bananas, mangoes, peaches and guavas are pollinated by bats, too. Who knew? Not me. And I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that bats are the only flying mammal left. (Flying squirrels and lemurs actually glide, they don’t flap their wings as do bats.)

Sometimes bats get rabies. That’s pretty scary, but only a very small percentage. Children and their adults need to exercise caution if they find a dead bat just as they would when finding any dead animal. There are other diseases associated with bats that are identified by the Center for Diseases Control, with appropriate cautions.  Bats, in turn, probably have more to fear from us. They are endangered by loss of habitat, pesticides, misinformation, and diseases (the most deadly of these is apparently white nosed syndrome a wildlife disease that affects hibernating bats).

But back to the point: Illustrating.  My first attempt to depict the ribbons of bats that flyRAsCh6Batsa out from the Caverns every summer evening seemed heavy. I wasn’t satisfied.

Then I tried showing the bats more closely. But the chapter isn’t about bats and this attempt didn’t seem to be working either. I liked that little guy at the front, but I didn’t finish the sketch because I thought he was making a promise the chapter didn’t fulfill.

RASChBats

Finally, I cameup with the last sketch that was a bit more satisfying.  What I like about it is the suggestion of bats–a ribbon of bats just beginning their exit from the caverns before sunset.  RASChBatsFinal

 

If you want to know more about bats, there are some great resources. Most of them can be read by children, certainly with children. And the Bat Conservation International website has directions for building a bat house.  Here are a few resources:

Watching Bats The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Wildlife Diversity Program offers the public the chance to watch bats on site near The Alabaster Caverns State Park every summer.  https://wildlifedepartment.com/wildlife/wildlife-diversity/selman-bat-watch

Bat Facts for Kidshttp://www.sciencekids.co.nz/sciencefacts/animals/bat.html

For a bit about the history of bats at The Alabaster Caverns, see: http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=AL002

Common misconceptionsabout bats, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/common-misconceptions-about-bats

All Kinds of Cool Stuff About Bats can be found at Bat Conservation International’s website, http://www.batcon.org

Building a Bat House  http://www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses/build

More About Bats can be found at The World Wildlife Organization, including more information about building a bat house. https://www.nwf.org/sitecore/content/Home/Garden-for-Wildlife/Cover/Build-a-Bat-House

Detailed Information About White Nose Syndrome and what you can do to help may be found at the White-Nose Syndrome website link above.

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Mexican free-tailed batsUploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Somebody’s Grandmother?

Who’d want to read a book about some random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother?”

Last year when Katie Schmidt talked with her class about the prospect of piloting The Black Alabaster Box, this was a question one of the children asked. I had to laugh when my granddaughter, a member of the class, told me. “What did he think grandmothers should be doing?” I asked.

I’d like to think that children of today are growing up with positive attitudes about issues that have troubled us in the past, issues such as race, gender, age, conceptions of beauty. But we aren’t there yet as a society. We aren’t helping our children as much as we could were we to provide better role models. (And maybe better stories?)

As the grandmother in question, I do think about aging. Age isn’t always kind. I don’t ever want to be guilty of assuming that people who start to shut down when they reach retirement age  choose to do so. People have health issues that place severe limitations on what they can do physically and mentally. But there is choice, too. I’ve seen friends who just seem to quit. They don’t like what age is doing to them. They can’t fight it. They can’t fix it. They want to be young. They aren’t. They give up.

There are reasons we give up. Aside from the crushing experiences that life can deal out, we are surrounded by a culture that values youth and beauty. Our culture tells us at every turn that when youth leaves off, so does beauty. Maybe that is what drew me to Celeste, the character in The Black Alabaster Box who traded her immortality to be the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Her goal in life is to stay young and beautiful—she has, for centuries. Not a wrinkle mars her perfect face nor does anything bulge in the wrong place. Isn’t that the message that we bump into everywhere we turn? Keep Young and Beautiful if you want to be admired, if you want to be loved.

After reading the draft of my book, one of my friends challenged Celeste. Why her? We already have Snow White’s stepmother and a host of her type. Why perpetuate a negative stereotype?   4rua60jaa87nxnI gave her comment a lot of thought. But Celeste would not be set aside. She demanded to be in the book, living out the message that says you don’t matter if you aren’t beautiful. If Mother Nature didn’t reward you with that advantage, you’d better do something about it. You have to be young to be beautiful, too. When the wrinkles appear, do something about it. “Beauty is your duty,” according to an old advertisement for the Success School.

I was thinking along these lines when I saw a short bit on the Teachers College website about Jacqui Getz, a student in my early years at the College. She was beautiful then. Now in her fifties and proud of it, she is still beautiful. Does she look like she did then? No. She looks as she is now, confident, purposeful, seasoned, full of life, and smashingly, gorgeously, beautiful. “Go Jacqui!” The blog about Jacqui is a message that challenges our dysfunctional view of beauty and of age.

Maybe that is why Celeste wouldn’t go away. She lurks in our deep places, telling us that retirement is an ending, not a beginning. She whispers that every gray hair and wrinkle is a blight, undermining our self-worth. We see her in the book and reject her, laugh at her. But she isn’t always so easy to laugh at when we look in the mirror.

So who does want to read a book about a random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother? You, I hope. And this grandmother plans to keep writing. After all, grandmothers should be writing, and traveling, and gardening, reading, having adventures, doing what they love to do for as long as they are able, and looking in the mirror and giving Celeste the raspberry!

“Every Young Wife Must Make This Decision” from https://repository.duke.edu/dc/eaa/P0151

Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?

Gingerbread.jpg

Thursday was the book launch for The Black Alabaster Box. I read the SCBWI website  for children’s book authors and illustrators. I talked to authors. I hadn’t done a launch before.  When my academic books were published, I put the title on my vita, and the publisher did the rest. So all this launch and publicity, and marketing business is new territory.

One of the best bits of advice I had was: have fun. It turned out to be more fun than I expected! I suppose I was worried that the program wouldn’t work or I’d stumble over myself when I read from the first two chapters, or people wouldn’t like the gingerbread cookies after I spent a day making them. But once all the balloons were up and it got under way, it was all fun. Sarah VanTiem was a brilliant emcee. She led an interesting conversation with Katie Schmidt, whose class at Rodgers Forge Elementary School piloted the book last year. I didn’t trip over my own tongue and Jack VandenHengel’s “On the Santa Fe Trail,” and “Tumbling’ Tumble Weeds” (with guitar) had everybody so into it that by the time he got to “Red River Valley” people were singing along. It was really fun. And people ate gingerbread cookies much more delicately than either Ruby or Junior in the book–you’ll have to read chapter two for that story.

“Can you have a launch without gingerbread cookies?” Silly question isn’t it? So many people commented on them, though, that I thought I’d share the recipe. They were an important part of my launch! Here it is, my version of an old recipe.

Gingerbread Cookies

1/3 cup shortening (part butter)                    ½ tsp. salt                                                                   1 cup dark brown sugar (packed)                   ½ tsp. allspice                                                        12 oz. jar of dark molasses                              1 tsp. ginger                                                           1/3 cup cold water                                               ¾ tsp. cloves                                                          6 cups sifted flour                                              1 tsp. cinnamon                                                      2 tsp. soda

Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add molasses and mix thoroughly. Stir in water. Sift together dry ingredients and stir in 1 cup at a time. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick. Chill dough at least 1 hour or overnight. Lightly grease cookie sheets. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut with cookie cutters and space about 1 inch apart. Decorate with sprinkles before baking (if you want to use sprinkles). Or, after baking, roll in powdered sugar while they are still hot or frost with powdered sugar icing when they are cool.

Bake 12-15 min. or until cookies are starting to brown on the edges.

GBCscutoutsStacks of GBCs

Mmmmm! Enjoy.

 

 

Continue reading “Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?”

The Black Alabaster Box is Ready!

Cover photoGood news! The Black Alabaster Box is now available in paperback, hard cover, and e-book. You can find it at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I-Book, through Apple.

Here is the cover. The photograph and design is by Liesl Bolin. You can find out more about it on my web page. Like me on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter @fgschoonmaker

Life on the Oregon Trail?

When I taught fourth grade in Portland Oregon–that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth–we had a unit on Westward Expansion. A lot of schools teach about pioneers settling the West in fourth, fifth or sixth grade. We used Mary Jane Carr’s Children of the Covered Wagon as a read-aloud. It was a good match for the unit. (If you haven’t read it, you can still find it in some libraries. I recently tracked down an old copy on line.)

Our understanding of the perspective of Native American People has changed since the book was written. But Carr is remarkably free of some of the errors to be found in social studies and history books of a few decades ago.

I thought it would be fun to form an imaginary wagon train going West. We could mark our progress on the Oregon Trail as we read the book. And we could tie our study in with English and language arts by keeping journals where we made up events that happened to us along the way. Everybody had to make up an identity and stick with it for the trip West.

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A Thousand Wagon Trains Head West

We had a whole wagon train full of single people. No way anybody was going to admit they’d want to be married, especially with somebody else in the class! Being married and having a family was too great a stretch of the imagination.

A lot of the girls were going West to be school teachers or doctors. Some were adventurers. Boys were going to be doctors, farmers, cowboys, or set up a business.

The journals were hardest. A typical journal entry was, “Not much happened today. Just more grass and hills to look at,” or heroic descriptions of battles with Native Tribes. We had to put a limit to attacks by Native People—especially since huge stretches passed through country that was not well populated.  Even then, we knew that attacks were few and far between. And we had to decide what rivers we were going to cross and when or how many times you could step on a rattlesnake and still live.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have some of the wonderful websites available today to help us understand life on the trail.

It was a lot of fun in spite of all our difficulties. We learned a lot about writing, imagination, plausibility and some of the grimmer realities of life on the trail. As hard as it was making up interesting things to happen along the way, I think we all agreed we got off easy. We didn’t have nearly as much to deal with as those who followed wagon trails to Oregon, Washington, and California!

All this is to say that I was really delighted when Jon Dunlap, fourth-fifth grade teacher at Rivendell School, Arlington, Virginia wanted to read The Alabaster Box to his class this spring. I’ll have more to say about that next post.

What Do Writers Do?

Writers write. Right? Wrong. Maybe wrong is too strong.

Writers do write. But that isn’t all they do. They also work on their craft. They meet with other writers and talk about their work. They share ideas about writing. They take workshops and go to conferences to help them learn more about writing.

When you study writing at school, you write. But you probably spend some time conferring with a writing partner or a small group. That way you get feedback on your ideas and on your first draft. Then you revise. Maybe you get a new idea and add it. Experienced writers do these things too.

They also work on getting their work published. At school, publishing is often creation of a magazine or your own collection of stories. Maybe your teacher has stories all put together and bound into a book for parents. You celebrate what you have done.

Experienced writers want to publish, too. They’d like their books to be in the bookstore or on-line. Working to get your work published is also part of your craft as a writer.

Sometimes writers know how to write, but they don’t know what to do about getting their work published and on the shelves of bookstores. They aren’t always sure about how to let people know that they have a great book that they want to share.

I went to an all-day meeting for writers on Saturday, the Kansas City Writer’s Conference. I chose this conference for three reasons. 1) The conference description sounded like it would give me some good information about getting my work published, 2) The Alabaster Box starts out in Kansas City, Missouri* I like to stay in touch with the Kansas City area*. 3) My brother lives in Lawrence, Kansas, less than an hour away. I wanted to  visit him for a few days and attend the one-day conference.

In fact, my brother drove me into Kansas City yesterday. We left early. It was a cold, foggy morning. I was glad to have him do the driving. I looked out over soggy fields and bright green pasture lands where cows were grazing. I remembered that long ago all the countryside was unfenced prairie. If I had been traveling to Kansas City then, I might have followed the Sante Fe Trail. I would have been on horseback or in a wagon. That is what the land looked like when Grace Willis went west with her family.

I spent the whole day learning new things and telling people about my book. The guest teacher was Marisa A. Corvisiero. She is a literary agent who founded the Corvisiero Literary Agency. She told us about things that good writers do, how to work with an agent, and many things a writer needs to know in order to get published. Her talks were interesting and lively.

Good writers write. Right. And they work on their craft.

*If you follow the Kansas City area link you can find out some fun facts about Kansas. There is even a link that lets you hear cattle sounds. If you follow the Missouri link you will find fun facts about the state of Missouri. There are some interesting things about Kansas City, Missouri, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Reviews that count

When I began work on The Alabaster Box my granddaughter, Amelia, was of enormous help. I tried chapters out on her and we talked through issues. It was like having a junior editor. I asked friends, Isaiah and his mother, Sarah VanTiem, if they would kindly read it once I had a good draft. Isaiah is a fourth grade student and I figured that if anybody could give me objective feedback, he could. Sarah is a poet and has a critical eye–just what I needed. When Isaiah said, “I really like your book,” when I saw him a week or two later, I was really pleased.

The next big trial came when Katie Schmidt read it to her fifth grade class at a public school. It was interesting to get feedback via Amelia as they progressed through it. They had good ideas, but best of all, they LIKED it–really LIKED it! It doesn’t get any better than that.

All this time while I am searching for an agent and not getting any enthusiasm, the kids are liking the book and wanting more. It was just the encouragement I needed. Somewhere out there is the sensible agent and publisher who will jump at the chance to support the book, because the kids already do. I got some wonderful thank you letters after I visited the class.  The boys and girls in Mrs. Schmidt’s class are the ones who should be getting the thank you. Below are some of their letters:   Letters for Blog2Okay, so you can’t see them that well. Zach says thanks for “letting us borrow your awesome book, ‘The Alabaster Box.’ Now I want to read the whole trilogy!”–even if I haven’t found a publisher by the time you finish The Red Abalone Shell, Zach, I’ll be sure you get the final book. It takes a long time to get a book into print. You shouldn’t have to wait that long.

Owen and Fisher say they hope the books get published–me too! Owen wrote, “Your first book was great and [I’ll] bet the second book and the third are even better.” Colin M. says, “your book held great things like the suspense, the adventure, and the excitement.” Sam says that the book, “got me more inspired to read more books this year.” That’s good, Sam. The world is full of wonderful books just waiting to be read.

Abby and Maddy both say they can’t wait to read my next books. Yea Abby and Maddy. That makes me feel great. Mary, who wasn’t one of the four who drew the chance to read one of the four manuscripts of The Red Abalone Shell that I left with the class, says that she can’t read it yet, “but I’m very excited to because I LOVED the first book.” So I hope you’ll like the second, Mary.

Colin K thought it was interesting and funny. Malena said that since a lot of students really liked The Alabaster Box it was nice for me to leave copies of the next book. I hope you like it Malena when you get to read it. Natasha says, “I really enjoyed your book and I thought it was AMAZING, I will definitely try to start reading the next one!”  I hope your turn comes soon, Natasha.

Caroline, who was one of the four who drew first chance to read The Red Abalone Shell says, “I love the second book so far it is really good!” Eve says, “I am so EXCITED to read the new book!! I can’t wait to figure out what is going to happen to James and Little Grace…I LOVED the first book a whole lot so you can imagine how exited I am to get to read one of the books.” [One of the four copies I left.]  Elise, who was also one of the four, says, “So far, The Red Abalone Shell is awesome! I also like The Alabaster Box! Caroline, Eve, and Elise, I’ll be very interested to hear your ideas as you finish the book.

From these excerpts, maybe you can see why I call this post “Reviews that count.” I treasure the excitement these girls and boys shared with me. But I also treasured their feedback. I took what they had to say very seriously.