Can’t I Just Write?

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This past weekend my daughter, granddaughter and I made what has become an annual fall visit to Weber Cider Mill Farm to buy pumpkins and to enjoy some of the activities. Amelia and I did the maze together. Looking at it now, the picture feels like a metaphor for life as a writer!  I wish I could just write–I love the exploration of ideas, the research, following the characters imaginatively, sharing with Amelia and talking through points where I get stuck.  What I don’t love so much is all the other stuff that has to do with getting some traction for the books.  It is really uncharted territory for me. And it has kept me so busy that I feel like I am–to borrow an expression from my mother–honking at my own tail lights!

One thing I’ve been doing is getting Book Stop  pages ready for the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual  event that displays work of members. I have pages for The Black Alabaster Box and for The Red Abalone Shell. If you have time to visit, please sign the guest book. Small things can mean a lot.

Most of my time has been spent planning for the upcoming event celebrating The Black Alabaster Box and raising funds for the Page Turners, an after school program for kids in Clinton South (Hell’s Kitchen):

save the date

If you are in the New York area I’d love to see you there. It will be good fun for a good cause.

When I met with Kathy Conry and Laura Bergquist in New York a couple of weekends ago, I began to get really excited about the program. On the one hand, we learned that Alan H. Green has returned to his role in The School of Rock–The Musical, So he can’t be with us–bummer! But Kathy is a pro. Undaunted, she  already had a back-up plan knowing that people in theater have to make work their top priority.

In one productive meeting we agreed on a plan for the evening, excerpts from The Black Alabaster Box to use for the Readers Theatre and possible music.  I spent the next day working on the script and left it in their good hands. Laura is working on the music and Kathy has already put together a cast to read the script I provided. My job, having provided the script is to stay out of the way! (Now that is a job I can take to.) They are on a roll. Last I heard somebody is working on a campfire setting and they are planning to have little cups of chili and possibly mini-corn muffins.

Back to the maze. Amelia is so tall this year that I could see her had bobbing up above the bales of hay as she worked her way through. I think there is a metaphor in that, too. There was so much joy in it seeing how much she has grown–the joy is what I connect to when everything seems too much. Joy in the work, the sharing, and the joy that comes when a kid says, “So when are you going to have Book 3 ready?”

 

 

 

 

 

The Red Abalone Shell and WWI: The Backstory

RAS finalcoverThe Red Abalone Shell is scheduled for release the first week in September. Here’s what you have to look forward to:

James finds himself on the steps of a church with no idea who he is or how he got there. His only clues are a map, a red abalone shell, and a dog, Old Shep. Adopted by a German-American pacifist family, James and Old Shep take to life on a farm. Patriotism is running high in Western Oklahoma as the United States considers entering World War I. James and his family are proud to be Americans, but not everybody sees it that way, especially Claude Higgins who bullies James in and out of school. As James tries to stand up to Claude and struggles to regain lost memories, he discovers that his identity is linked to mysterious, magical events that define both his past and his future.

The World I context is essential to the story. As I set out to write the second book in The Last Crystal Trilogy, I deliberately situated it on the cusp on World War I. In doing so, I had to alter the time line somewhat, moving it forward a bit. I explain this in the preface.

I remember my mother talking about World War I. She was a girl of about seven- or eight-years old during the war. Among her many memories was one of her father, my Grandpa Shannon, standing up for a German-American neighbor. Patriotic feelings were fanned by newspaper articles accusing German-Americans of aiding the enemy and public speeches by politicians from President Wilson to local officials. The work of organizations such as The American Protective League and the National Security League may have had the most influence on immigrants–both of these organizations come into play in the book.

defaultMap from Library of Congress files: https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593059/

The ugly history behind events in the book is not as well known as I had expected–but given my ignorance, maybe that shouldn’t have been surprising. In 1910 over nine percent of the population in the US were German-Americans. In fact, immigrants from Germany were the largest immigrant community in the country. German language and culture were thriving and German-Americans were respected members of communities across the country. Everything changed when the US entered World War I. Those who were German-born were suddenly enemy aliens and second- and third-generation immigrants were suspected of collusion with the enemy (Manning 2014; Wasserman, 2016, ). While there were undoWar Bondscroppedubtedly Kaiser Wilhelm II sympathizers among the German-Americans in the US, these were far and away the exception. Most, like my Grandpa Shannon’s harassed neighbor, were good people who were proud to be American and were unjustly shunned, ridiculed, shamed, persecuted, tarred and feathered, beaten, or taken to court

German-born immigrants were rounded up and placed in internment camps, setting a precedent and providing a model that was to be followed in World War II. A nation of immigrants now turned on the newcomer and outsider, defining them as “other” and “foreign.” Theodore Roosevelt said it a 1915 speech, “there is not room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance (cited in Manning, 2014, p.16).” His attitude was one adopted by the public as the war loomed nearer.

Wasserman argues that “despite its lack of scholarship and popular knowledge, German internment left a lasting legacy” (p.4, 2016). World War I left a prototype for how to deal with enemy aliens, one that was to be refined in World War II when German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps (nearly twice as many Japanese-Americans, it should be noted).

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Citizens groups sprang up all across the country, many of them like the vigilantes of the West. They looked for evidence of alien subterfuge. Michael Inman (2014), Curator of the Rare Books Division of the New York City Public Library writes: “By far the largest of these hyper-patriotic organizations was the American Protective League, or A.P.L., which maintained a network of branches in more than 600 cities. . . . the A.P.L. worked to enforce patriotism and stifle dissent.  Unlike these other bodies, however, the A.P.L.’s actions were carried out with the approval of the U.S. government.” The 200,000 untrained volunteers of A.P.L were authorized to ferret out aliens whose loyalties were tested by pledging allegiance to the flag, buying war bonds (sometimes groups assigned an amount, often beyond the means of those expected to pay up), or to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (Manning, 2014).

The National Security League called for military preparedness in the period leading up to World War I. It was the largest preparedness group and probably the most influential (Ward, 1960). The map above detailing the Kaiser’s plans is one of the hundreds of items distributed in the US to garner support for the war effort. Initially the League had the participation of progressive elements in the US, but its work deteriorated into what amounted to witch hunts and vigilantism. Book banning, banning use of German language, teaching German in schools, religious services in German, German names, German food—all things German. Its work deteriorated into “confiscations, lootings, and beatings. . .culminating in the widely publicized lynching of Illinois miner Robert Prager, hanged draped in an American flag (Wasserman, 2016).  You can read more about the Prager case athttp://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/landings/Ambot/Archives/vignettes/government/Prager.

While I think back on my grandfather’s stand with pride, digging into the history was a somber experience. There was too much in it that felt current. As Kimberly Younce Schooley notes in her review of The Red Abalone Shell, “we watch World War I unfold and witness how individual liberties can be so easily and tragically curtailed in the name of narrow-minded nationalism masquerading as patriotism. An important message for today perhaps.” (You can read her full review in “About the Book” when the book is available).

Some of the other resources I drew on in preparation for the book make interesting reading. Most are available on line:

Michael Inman, “Spies Among Us: World War I and The American Protective League,” October 14, 2014, retrieved from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/10/07/spies-among-us-wwi-apl)

Mary J. Manning, “Being German, Being American” Prologue, (Summer 2014), pp.15-22.

Robert D. Ward, “The Origin and Activities of the National Security League, 1914-1919,”The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jun., 1960), pp. 51-65.

Wasserman, Jacob L., “Internal Affairs: Untold Case Studies of World War I German Internment” (2016). MSSA Kaplan Prize for Use of MSSA Collections. 8.
https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/mssa_collections/8

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

What’s in a Launch?

thumbnailWhat’s in a book launch? I’m getting ready for THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX Book Launch on April 5th so I’m thinking about it a lot. I think about launching a rocket—will it fly? I think about launching a boat—do we break a bottle of champagne over the book or over me? Children are invited, maybe no breaking of bottles!

I’ve read about other people’s book launches. A launch is about getting the word out. It is about selling books, marketing. But it is more than that for me. It is a celebration of girls and boys getting their hands on the book and liking it. It is a celebration of the many, many adults who have contacted me to say how much they like it. (That is a bonus. I’m glad for adults to enjoy it too.)

As an elementary school teacher, I always read children’s books along with my class. A good children’s book is a good book for anyone. Some of my best book recommendations have come from kids. For example, I remember when Jimmy put THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster on my desk.“Mrs. B. You have to read this!” (That’s not a type-o, Bolin was my married name.) A few minutes later he came over to where I was working with some other kids. “No, I mean you HAVE to read this.” I made it my business to begin reading it that night. Jimmy was right. What a great read.

When I was teaching elementary school, children loaned me books, gave me books, told me about books. I was always looking for children’s books to share with them, too. I’m still reading children’s books. I know how important books can be for children. So it was pretty thrilling when Isaiah, the first child outside the family to read a draft of THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX for me, said, “I really like your book!”

It was pretty thrilling when feedback came from the pilot classes, too. Students in Katie Schmidt’s public school class in Baltimore and Jon Dunlap’s independent school class in Arlington wrote to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Those were great moments. Now, as I prepare for a launch, I’m celebrating them. I’m celebrating the book being out at last, thanks to my publisher Dr. Shrikrishna “Krish” Singh at Auctus Publishing. I’m celebrating Liesl Bolin’s tireless effort in taking photographs, designing the cover, getting the word out. I’m celebrating all the people who have kindly posted on my Facebook page, shared the book on their Facebook pages, written reviews on line, or Tweeted about it to friends.

It takes a team to launch a rocket, or a ship, or a book.

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