Showing posts with label Cheryl Harness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cheryl Harness. Show all posts

Monday, June 16, 2014

A New Constellation

Despite George Washington's shivering Victory or Death brinksmanship in New Jersey at the beginning of the year, 1777 was wicked tough for the Americans' rebellion. Still, the gents at the embattled Continental Congress found time 237 years ago this week to take care of a particular bit of business. For one thing, they appointed John Paul Jones to captain the USS Ranger and use her eighteen guns to hassle the hell out of England. For another, the Congressmen, in a stripey and stellar bit of acting 'as if ye had faith,' came up with happily worded resolution. On Saturday, June 14, they "resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, which in a blue field, representing a new constellation."  

I bring this up for a couple of reasons, maybe more. 
                                                              As they occur to me. 
(1.) "A new constellation" is such a beautiful, artful phrase, written at such a God-almighty high stakes harrowing time. 

(2.)  My post is due in the morning. What could I write about? As it has more than once, the calendar came in handy. At his writing, Flag Day was yesterday. And Flag Day was a bit of a big deal in our house because it was on another Saturday, June 14, 1947, that my folks met, on a blind date. (Got married two months later.) And did you know that it was on June 16, 1858 that Abraham Lincoln gave his House Divided speech? And the 17th will be another anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the 18th will mark ten years since my one novel got accepted? Or that next September will make 200 years since Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the
 the Star-Spangled Banner? Well, there you go. The calendar is absolutely stiff with junk worth remembering. A veritable parade full of floats, history-wise.] 
And there's going to be a book of mine [about the history of flags, as a matter of fact].

(3.) Do I write about what's really on my mind? Don't think you want to hear about the diet I need to be on or any of my get-rich-slow schemes, including my half-written murder mystery. You don't need to know my thoughts on Amazon's megalomaniacal practices [except, well, if you've got a local bookstore, by God support it!] This isn't the place to discuss the sickening, scary situations in Iraq and Syria or the toxic, constipated condition of the present-day Congress or our country's plague of guns, and most of its treasure going to the wealthy, who've managed - guess what - to hijack our secular/sacred, hard-won system of government. The Game of Thrones? (Thank God for artful escapism. Never followed the series until here lately when I've seen almost every available episode.) The I've been picture book I'm trying to design? Speaking of which, you knew, right? That James and Dolley Madison gave Wednesday evening "Drawing Rooms" at the White House? All sorts of people showed up - Washington Irving, for instance. 
Dolley Madison

(4.) I could write about the end of this particular collective. That would be timely. It was at the U. of Central MO's annual children's literature festival where clever, stylish Jan Greenberg asked if I'd be willing to contribute to a group blog. Bless her and I was so pleased. Had I not said yes, you all would have missed some this and that. But what would I have lost? These chances to really think about what my various subjects. To get to know some of my fellow writers a little better. To have a better sense of who all's out there: Readers and toilers in the messy gardens of teaching and learning to the constant geek chorus yammer  beyond the garden walls, bless your sturdy hearts and minds. And so we bumble onward.

Long live books. 
Long live the republic.
May our constellation shine as long as the stars. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Bumbling On to the End of Another Fair Day in May

So, kindly allow me to point out that it was on this day in 1536 that 35-year-old Anne Boleyn, met her end. Her daughter Elizabeth was not quite three years old when Henry's 2nd wife exited the world's stage through the door marked May 19. Of course, several notable spring babies entered by way of the same passage. Nellie Melba, in 1861, of the battleship-bosom and silvery soprano pipes. Ho Chi Minh (1890), Vietnamese nationalist,  just 29 when he showed up in a rented suit at the post-WWI Peace Conference at Versailles, to plead for his countrymen's fair treatment by their French overlords. [Good luck on that.] Witty Nancy Astor (1879), that American-born Parliamentarian, who famously declared to Winston Churchill, her political adversary, that if he were her husband, she'd poison his coffee. "Madam," he replied, "if I were your husband, I'd drink it." Isn't history adorable? That is, when it doesn't make you sick and want to fill your pockets with rocks and head for the nearest river? 

If you're reading this, you may well be thinking that when I sat down here at the keyboard, I hadn't actually settled upon a topic and of course you would be correct. Certainly all manner of memories and topics are fluttering about in my belfry. Driving about Hannibal, MO a few days ago, climbing the 274 steps up to the "Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse.
 It stands atop Cardiff Hill, where red-headed Sammy Clemens used to play with his buddies. Finding my way through the raucous traffic in St. Louis on Saturday, to get to the fancy meeting of the MO Humanities Council. Manuscripts I've been trying to conjure into existence - these are what most occupy my mind these days, but what good do these batty notions do you, Dear Reader, in their half-baked condition? What would you like and/or need to know that I could tell you, that you don't know already?  That, story-wise, history is full of buried treasures, remarkable people, rollicking, ill-conceived, harrowing, bloody adventures, and one damned thing after another? That when it comes to historical knowledge and awareness – without which we humans are a bunch of heedless, uninformed dopes, careening for the brink – story is the sugar that helps the medicine go down? That when it comes to historical awareness, most people in this here vale of tears are too witless to know its worth. Shoot, if you're reading this, you know that.  So I'll close as ol' Winston Churchill did more than once: "We bumble onward."

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ten Things I'd Have Done Differently

"With the benefit of hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all." 
Queen Elizabeth II 

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, b. 88 years ago today,
April 21, 1926, exactly, by the way, 90 years after Sam Houston,
that tough old buster, led forces of theRepublic of Texas, 
(yelling 'Remember the Alamo!') in their defeat of those led by
 General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, another tough old buster, at the decisive Battle of San Jacinto
What better time than a round-numbered anniversary (30 years ago this coming summer since I started my climb into the world of books for young readers), to ponder all those roads not taken? 

1. Don't we all have a drawer of file full of nonfiction book ideas, each of which at first seemed glorious? But we set them aside, figuring no editor with two market-savvy brain cells to rub together would ever buy the projects? Andrew Jackson? Too obscure!'  'Victoria, Teenaged Queen? Whose overdressed, over-privileged, eccentric grandchildren populated the thrones of Europe - and ended up blowing it up. Or, in the case of Russia's weird, shy last czarina, shot in a basement? Who cares?' 'Savvy, bosomy politician Dolley Madison? How many times do kids want to read about her saving GW's portrait?' In hindsight, I figure we humans are a story-loving species and there's always an appetite for a good story well told - and illustrated. Maybe I wish I'd followed through.  

2. Speaking of which, I should have followed through with all the wisdom offered by inspiring, INK colleague, author/teacher/blogger, Vicki Cobb and learned to do video conferencing/presentations and availing myself of the MANY technological means and opportunities to make my presence known in the world in this here 21st century. ['21st century? Bah! I could pick a better century out of a hat!' I paraphrase: a quote from the good version of Sabrina, i.e. the one with Humphrey Bogart in it, the one where he says, 'I wish I were dead with my back broken.' Jeez, I can't be the only one who gets movie lines stuck in her head, can I?]  You know who else has lots of good ideas on teaching/self-promotion? Katie Davis.  They all make me tired. I mean, when it comes to self-promotion, doing all there is to be done, it's like what Erma Bombeck said: "Housework, if you do it right, will kill you." So, I figure, pick a few things and do them well, huh? And stick with them.

3. In further hindsight, I wish I hadn't been born into a family with such a wide streak of melancholy, backward-looking nostalgia and everybody so danged sensitive. Speaking of which, do check out this LINK. It'll take you to a story about what wonderful author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock is doing up in Vermont, encouraging young Vermonters to learn and record their families' stories, thus learning the stories of their neighborhood, their Green Mountainous state, and their nation. Did I ever tell you that my great-aunt Rebecca Amelia Brown volunteered her time to work with her eastern Pennsylvania neighbors on the Underground Railroad? Or that ancestors of mine, in the mid-1700s, made it their business to skedaddle for shelter from furious Native American raiders, in a forest stockade known as Fort Harness? Well, they did.

4. I'd have overcome my shyness and solitary nature and made myself network with other authors and illustrators in the SCBWI. So. I've re-upped my membership and we'll see.

5. I'd have updated my website more often, like, once in a while even. Offered a really snappy school visit packet, for instance and taken the time to check out other authors' sites. What works? What doesn't, so much? I'd be thinking about getting it properly, professionally redesigned if it hasn't been done since, say, Bill Clinton was in office. By golly, this - or some of this – I'm moving to the top of my TBD list.

6. Had I had the sense God gave a cuckoo clock and the discipline of HE/SHE gave a Canada Goose (quite a lot, actually, flying all that way here and there), I'd have saved ALL of the addresses of the wonderful people I've met over the years.

7. I'd have educated myself more deeply, made myself more aware of the glorious art that is being done in our world of books for young readers, really, the last great showcase for the art and craft of illustration. Should you have time and wish to treat yourself to a journey, do pay a visit to the Mazza Collection, on the campus of the University of Findlay [OH].  It is, I believe, America's largest repository of original art done for children's books. 
  And another thing, I'd have put more pieces on my portfolio, worked harder and more sensibly to make those with choosing power SEE it. 

8. Had I to do all of this over again, I'd have begun earlier. Too soon old. Too late smart. 

9. Okay, seriously, I'd have spent less time at this computer and exercised more. Spent more time outside with my dog(s), as Queen Elizabeth does.
My dog, Mimi.
Spent time with people in person. As Marvin Gaye (I think), once said, 'As long as you're alive, you might as well live.'

10. Definitely, I'd have read more books, but unless I get pasted by a bus or run off the road on my way to school visits down in Pittsburg, KS, later this week, by some lovelorn, world-weary white-tailed deer, I figure I have time. 

As long as I do, I reckon I'll pull up my socks, make a list, and get down to work on all that remains to be done, taking care of that which I can control, saying 'never mind' to that which I cannot, and cultivating the wisdom to know the difference. I wish you all the same, Dear Readers.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Presidents' Day: Facts & Fantasy

Oh, I know how it is -  so soon after Valentine's Day, but here it is: Happy Presidents Day, INKsters! Insofar as it celebrates our nation's history as represented by our unbroken chain of elected executives, this holiday is second only to Independence Day in its importance to our democratic republic. 

An esteemed gaggle of early presidents
by way of Currier & Ives
Whether or not you'll be playing and marching in a band or doing last minute touches on your float or costume, enjoy your community's parades today and the fireworks tonight! Before this special day comes to an end, it's likely that you'll be gathered with your dear ones, sharing the usual Presidents' Day delicacies, such as hot dogs, like the ones FDR offered to Great Britain's royal couple in the summer of 1939, but if I were you, I'd skip the cottage cheese-and-ketchup, a favorite of Richard Nixon. For dessert? Maybe Ronald Reagan's jelly beans, but there's got to ice cream and of course,  cherry pie, which has come to represent our presidential pathfinder, George Washington 

But mind your portions - else you'll wind up like President Taft!   And if you're inclined and of age, do be having a celebratory sip of hard cider. As John Adams wrote in 1765, "I drank this morning and yesterday morning about a gill* of cider; it seems to do me good."   Harry Truman felt the same way about his breakfast shot of bourbon and FDR about his late afternoon martini. But I digress
      *about 1/4 of a pint 
"Big Bill" Taft - more to him than a big belly! 

It's become customary for Americans to have their P. Day dinner while watching the annual White House Concert. As usual it will feature live broadcasts from some of the nation's many lighthearted and colorful Presidential/First Family Look-Alike contests, as well as the much-awaited announcement of this year's winner of the Presidential Essay Competition. Who will be covered with glory, patriotic and intellectual honors, the $5,000 cash prize, AND the invitation to the White House?  

Knowing that you share my love of American history – and if you're reading this, I'd bet money that you do – you may well have long since written and contributed your own entry,
dated, but still a popular primer
on the presidents, their
House, and the presidency itself.
your own considered take on this year's topic:
The President We Most Need Today. If I'd written one - if there was any such event - I reckon I'd lean toward presidents who championed public education. Ike, for instance, the steely ex-general with the sunny smile.

For further thoughts on this issue, here's a good start. 

Because it's a worthy topic in this, our real, anxious, too-cool-for-school world, that has no such festive Presidents Day and never shall. Maybe just as well, given how money-corrupted the whole elective and legislative process has become, how it has so tarnished the Founders' Dream. Doesn't mean it's to be discarded, not celebrated. It only means it's to be clung to and fought for all the harder. The topic's been a hot one even before there was a republic for which we stand and throughout the days and years of our ever-contentious nation  What should be the role of our central government in our lives, in our classrooms?  
What are we prepared to do in order to be what we intend to be, as
individuals and as a nation? For one thing, read. Know what and who we've been, those whom we've championed to hold the standard.

Meanwhile, I need to go make sure to display my American Flag (the subject of my next book - did I tell you that? Did you know that 2014 makes 200 years since F.S.K. wrote his ode to the S.S'd. B.?), out by my front door because it's Presidents Day. 

And long live the Republic. Read on.

Monday, January 20, 2014

We Bumble Onward

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." 

Certainly it is a day upon which I should make mention of such splendid books as Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  
written by Doreen Rappaport
illustrated by Bryan Collier
And David A. Adler's A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. 
written by David A. Adler
illustrated by Robert Casilla 
And I Have a Dream, featuring the great man's words, along with Kadir Nelson's handsome illustrations. 
It is a noble day to remember that all for which the great man is known was once in the 
unimaginable future of a 
bright little boy in Atlanta, Georgia, in a very different America. And, on this here anniversary of Inauguration Day, please note that young Martin had just turned 8 at the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second Inaugural, in 1937.
A freezing, rainy day for an Inauguration, January 20, 1937.
Never before had a U.S. president taken his Oath of Office on the 20th of January. (If you're reading this, it's likely that you know the big day used to be in March and had been since 1789.) On that raw winter day in Washington, DC, 1937. FDR
quoted a long-gone Victorian poet, Arthur Wm. Edgar O'Shaughnessy,  when he said "each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth." It was a day to "reconsecrate our country to long-cherished ideals." 
And so it is with this very Monday, this holiday commemorating the words and deeds of an idealistic leader, this anniversary of commencements. It's a far out day for rededication, to our works, our books, our readers, our dear ones, our purposes, various and precious. Though this blog is coming to an end, I'd be willing to bet that I'm not the only author who could cheerfully quote Franklin Roosevelt's buddy, Winston Churchill: "We bumble onward." 

Monday, November 18, 2013

But I Digress

So, who were the Luddites anyway? I ask myself thus all of you, having called myself one of them after my third and, as you can see, successful attempt to give Google the code it required (so I could get into Blogger so I could write this post, which I should have done yesterday.) to ascertain that I am, indeed, myself, the sleepy woman glowering over her 
General Ned Ludd of Sherwood Forest

mobile phone, a dumb one, needless to say. According to Merriam-Webster a Luddite is "one who is opposed to especially technological change," but that's not me ('I' is correct, but how dumb and stilted would that sound? she asks, having chosen the colloquial over the correct) I swear! 

Who was Ned Ludd? Richard Conniff, in his Smithsonian article, wrote that Ned was an apocryphal apprentice from Nottinghamshire, sort of a Kilroy around whom the "Luddites" engineered serious protests. "But they were also making fun, dispatching officious-sounding letters that began, 'Whereas by the Charter' and ended 'Ned Lud's Office, Sherwood Forest.'  Invoking the sly banditry of Nottinghamshire's own Robin Hood suited their sense of social justice. The taunting, world-turned-upside-down character of their protests also led them to march in women's clothes as 'General Ludd's wives.'"  Whoa!  It's like Jean Fritz said: "History isn't boring once you know the people." And get a load of what all they did, I might add, and how they did it.  Of course I am no textile worker residing in Jane Austen's England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Nor will I getting together tonight with hundreds of cross-dressing buddies to go bust up the knitting machines at the local mill. Envision us all tramping along singing:

"And night by night when all is still, / And the moon is hid behind the hill, / We forward march to do our will / With hatchet, pike, and gun!"  (This from a Luddite song, quoted in another swell article I found.) Still, like them, we are living in uncertain times, in a difficult economy, rampant with technological advances, and we do desire respect and steady work with decent wages and better wages, don't we? But I digress. In fact, this entire post is a digression, a straying from the path, that being my intended subject, whatever that was.  So let it be. Here's the subject: Going off the rails, those unexpected investigations we nonfiction writers launch ourselves upon when our research leads us to a subject we'd never intended, one we'd never have known had we not been going along and got distracted.  'Let's see where this road goes!'  You start out reading about Abigail Adams and find yourself introduced to her friend, Mercy Warren.  You might well be watching one of the many documentaries this week about John F. Kennedy,
about his murder 50 - FIFTY? 50 years as in half a century ago? Even a cursory look into his short life and harrowing times will lead you to further reading about ballistics, JFK's desk with its splendid cubby and how the desk is linked to Queen Victoria and a doomed sailing vessel. Other presidents and the sad rogues who shot them,  Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance, that 'weak-chinned character' (so said Eric Sevareid), the White House's fascinating history, Richard Nixon's Cocker Spaniel, Checkers, LBJ's Beagles (especially the one with the sore ears, poor thing), t and  the Cold War, French couture/early 60s,  and Macaroni the Pony.
Should your curiosity be sparked and you dip into JFK's (and, to an extent, Ted Sorensen's) Profiles in Courage,  you'll learn more about Abigail's son, John Quincy Adams and you might be introduced to a stout-hearted Mississippian with a gloriously name and a most unfortunate beard. 

Sen. Lucius Quintus
Cincinnatus Lamar II

So it was when I was researching Clement Clarke Moore for a picture book [out of print now, the world being rotten] I was doing and I came across the fact that 'twas Washington Irving, who had originally come up with the notion of a stout, jolly St. Nick, who rode 'over the tops of the tress, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.'  It wasn't long before I found myself doing another book. And now a couple of more, having to do with a couple of big fat anniversaries coming up next year, 2014. 
But I digress. I invite you to do the same! Oh the places you'll go, the people you'll meet, so somebody said or something like it. 


Monday, October 21, 2013

What Others Have Said Re: Geo. C. + the CCSS Goes For Me 2

"Someone is always taking the joy out of life. For 20 years I proceed blissfully writing stories to keep the wolf from my door and to cause other people to forget for an hour or two the wolves at their doors and up pops [an] editor... and asks me for an article on the Tarzan theme."    
                      Edgar Rice Burroughs

 It's nearly 10 o'clock on the night before the morning upon which (I just realized) my October post is due to appear. A bit frayed and shopworn I am, having spent the last ten hours fussing with a perfectly speculative, i.e. crapshoot [May I say that?] nonfiction manuscript about a completely compelling (to me) subject, time, and place, none of which I shall divulge for fear of the Jinx. And, as I switch gears, wind up for the pitch, and otherwise warm to the subject at hand I confess that, though I was heartened by Deborah Heiligman's thoughtful and diverting consideration of George Clooney, I chew the lower lip a bit [Can one do that whilst biting the proverbial bullet?] at having had to set aside my obsession du jour to write about the Common Core. 

As Tanya Lee Stone pointed out, "standards committees can suck the creativity out of learning." And that great teachers and librarians have been clever prospectors for years, mining the treasures to be found in nonfiction literature. Me, I was reminded of a weary young teacher I met at conference in Texas years ago, at which the subject was testing: "Must they suck every last drop of joy out of the classroom?" Having crashed and burned into shamefaced cinders as a student teacher some four decades ago, my wholehearted admiration is for the creative Classroom Captains. Had I a hat on, I would reverently take it off to them.  I eventually found my way to writing and illustrating historical subjects: a joyous business. But I never gave one thought to curricular standards. As Jim Murphy quoted that which Steve Sheinkin noted re: Barbara Kerley's excellent and clarifying post, "I still hate the idea of thinking about standards."   But now it'so.m.g. nearly 11 o'clock. How did that old quill-scratcher, William Shakespeare put it? By way of Macbeth, Act I Scene 7? Ah: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly."  Amen to THAT.

As nearly all of my fellow Inksters/bloggers have pointed out, far better than I, we read, write, research, rewrite, and read still more about stories, events, individuals that command our wonderings, our curious attentions. That tempt us to go gallivanting to a museum or some distant library where more answers may await us. So launch an obsession that we find ourselves hunched over a keyboard all day, fussing with just the right way to tell about it all, so the words sing, so the facts are solid and the story rings true. Frustrated if you have to set it aside even for an hour, just because there's a blogpost to write or some four-legger needs to go outside.  
"Yes, I know you're busy doing what-
ever it is you do, and it's the middle
of the night, but how 'bout a walk?" 
Busting to tell about it in such a way that editors will pay us some money, That young readers we may never meet will get why it was/is so cool or such a big deal. Or how it all lead to the way things are now. How it works. Or how it looked and felt at that particular time, at that particular place, with that set of individuals. What was it like. Why it happened in just that way. If you do all of that as you've learned to do, as your imagination and education has directed, as you pray you can still do, as your subject merits and your readers deserve, then your words cannot help but satisfy a worthy roster of curriculum standards. They'll be worth the precious time of some hardworking teacher, who can wrap his or her head around the eye-crossing language of committee-driven directives while juggling the endless needs of his or her paperwork-generating principal, school board, conflicted, tax-strapped, seed-corn-eating government; as well as his or her delightful/tender/cruel/bored/precious students and their parents plus all of their bumptious universe of challenges at their separate-but-manifestly-unequal homes..  

And so we beat on, ignoring the Sirens on the Rocks, whispering about books we'd like to read. The new autumn movies in the theaters. Or those most seductive things: projects one should not be doing. Planting bulbs. Plotting a murder mystery (mine usually involves a dead art director, but I digress) for Nanowrimo coming up. Listing what you'll pack in the camper of one's pickup truck, a la John Steinbeck before heading out to see.... But no: We nonfiction types, we creative cogs in the great literary-education complex have a lot of explaining to do. The standards are high, but the yoke is easy and the burden is light.

Depending on what day you ask, anyway.

Monday, September 23, 2013


This month's theme, I'm told, is Life-changing Nonfiction. My first thought being that ever-changing, all-too-real Life itself would certainly qualify. That which one avoids and/or tries to understand in order to survive and/or thrive until one is no longer alive.  But how? With books, of course. 

Being sort of an escape artist from way back, who grew up in a large, unharmonious, restless  – we're moving again? – family, when I went digging through our crowded bookshelves, I was looking for something that would take me AWAY. For me, generally, that meant fiction. Specifically, any and all books by Maud Hart Lovelace, to whom I was introduced by my cousin Myrna. AND the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, to whom I was introduced by my third grade teacher, Mrs. Nichols.  But as Susan E. Goodman so wisely pointed out, Mrs. Wilder was good at explaining how things were done in the mid-19th century. Both  L.I.W. and M.H.L. were very good at explaining how ladies - the kind of long-gowned and petticoated ladies I liked to draw, on spare bits of paper and discarded Blue Bonnet margarine boxes – got dressed.  Then a couple of things happened. 

In second or third grade, I woke up to the splendid set of ENCYCLOPEDIA my folks had purchased once upon a time: The New Wonder World in 11 volumes. Pub'd in 1952 by Chicago's Geo. L. Shuman & Co.   Loaded with photographs, classic illustrations (I discovered the work of Walter Crane. genius pen-and-inkster), poems, folktales, and – oh baybee! – Articles such as "Child Life in Many Lands." Illustrated timelines: "Great Moments in the Story of Modern Europe." (teeny little Martin Luther, angry little people @ 1789, carrying heads-on-sticks, teeny little Hitler annexing Austria) Biographies. Histories.  Explorations. Glorious MAPS. All in all, an intoxicating dose of reality. 

I reveled in them. I took Vol. 7, The History Book, to school so other kids could revel in it, too. Mom made sure I wrote my name on the endpapers so the book would make it back home again.

And it was right around then, that grocery stores hereabouts began offering sets of encyclopedia. Mom would bring them home from the store, one volume at a time.  
One of the books that survived a great deal of hard usage.
First, came a set pub'd by Golden Book.   Then a shelf-ful of green and black Funk and Wagnalls.  Walter Cronkite made mention of Korea or Berlin or Sir Edmund Hilary? Look 'em up! Where are they? What happened? When was that? Why? What was the rest of the story? When did so-and-so kick the bucket? What in the heck led up to THAT, for crying out loud? 

And then, in the summer I turned ten, my mom and dad piled us (myself and three unrequested little brothers) into the old station and we went on a drive to Mansfield, Missouri. To the house where Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, a.k.a. Farmer Boy, REALLY LIVED. I saw the desk where Mrs. Wilder wrote her books. I met a woman there, who'd known her. For the first time, I saw photographs of  the Ingalls family. Found out what they really looked like, at least in that frozen moment. Both wonderful and devastating it can be, to discover an image to go with the stories, the facts, and the associations. I cannot be the only baby boomer who, having seen the  Doris Day musical, was startled to see a grainy photo of the genuine Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary, having looked her up in the encyclopedia. Then read what there is of the real story of her hard old life that's come down to us - an ever so much better, more adventurous story, however grievous.  
L>R: Ma, Carrie, Laura, Pa, Grace, Mary
Truly life-changing it all was: finding out how to find out. Which only makes you want to find out more. Checking out Westward Movement in the encyclopedia, for one thing, and the history of costume and ladies' fashion, for another. Looking up maps to see where the Ingalls and Wilders lived.  What was the world like in the mid- to late 1800s?  Who was percolating in that world?  Adventuring? Ruling?  What painters were at work? What music, what books were being written? By other 19th century women, for instance? My eyes were opened to the works of Lucy Maud Montgomery (then to the M book), to Louisa May Alcott and to Cornelia Meigs'  Invincible Louisa.   

In any case, all of this leads me to the dog-eared book that's always right smack close to my worktable, along with my shelf of World Books. Oh sure, I Google plenty, but I just wouldn't be ME, such as I am, without a heavy, proper paper encyclopedia close by. And my tattered old Timetables of HISTORY: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events  
Does anyone need to know that, in the year that Laura Ingalls came into the world, Arturo Toscanini and Marie Curie did too?  That North America's transcontinental railroad was nearing completion? That Johann Strauss II wrote The Blue Danube and Karl Marx pub'd  Das Kapital? That French troops were pulling out of Mexico and Russia sold us Alaska?  That Theo. Roosevelt was a precocious 9-yr-old and the Lakota Sioux still rode the prairies, rumbling beneath herds of bison. No, probably not.  But what might first appear to be an encyclopedic collection of factoids, trivial tidbits, and brief introductions is nothing less than a testament of the rich, unimaginably complex context that surrounds, colors, and shapes every individual. A bit of a life-changer, recognizing the juicy, harrowing hugeness of the world in which we humans live, have lived. In this here cockeyed caravan. 

And what small-minded soul ever chose to classify all of this human richness by what it is NOT? Non-fiction indeed! 

Monday, June 17, 2013

On a Day Like Today

So, at the time of this writing, it is the 236th anniversary of that June day in 1777 (and the 66th anniversary of Flag Day, 1947: my folks met on a blind date - and should have kept on walking? I don't know, but sometimes I wonder...),when the gents at the Congress, in their smelly duds made of natural fibers, agreed – felicitous notion! – upon a new design for a flag. Yes, they'd keep the 13 stripes. But by now, it clearly did not do to have the standards of England and Scotland crisscrossing that blue field up in the corner. No, there must be 13 stars as well, a "new Constellation."   After all: thirteen States = one independent nation. That was the theory, and one that was in serious jeopardy. Even then, a flashy British general and sometime playwright, John Burgoyne, was up in Canada, fixing to raise the curtain on a pretty substantial invasion. And Ben Franklin was in Paris, in the last glittering and glorious, fetid, filthy, unjust decades of l'Ancien RĂ©gime, trying to wangle help from the French for the Americans' desperate enterprise. Which they, the people, got after word spread that General Burgoyne's play had flopped in the fall of '77 at Saratoga, NY. 
"Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne

But if you're reading this, dear Lover of Factual Information, you probably already know this and plenty more bits of so-called "trivia."  How easy it is to dismiss a brief record of a time/space intersection as a mere "factoid." Each of which representing critical, complex moments in our all-too-human saga. It was on a mid-June day, maybe like today, when Sir Francis Drake [probably every bit as grubby as his crew]  sailed along the coast of northern California in 1579. When the ballsy [can I say that? probably not]  privateer claimed the land thereabouts for England and "Good [Spiteful, Determined] Queen Bess" and called it [never mind the resourceful hunters who already lived there] New Albion.  

It was June 17, 1882 when Igor Stravinsky came into the world. ('Twas May 26, 1913, by the by, when Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky rocked and shocked Paris with the premiere of  Le Sacre du Printemps, the Rite of Spring?) And today marks 74 years since the last time French officials held a public execution by guillotine. Ever so much more humane than an axe, non?  (Thereafter these ultimate pains-in-the-neck were private.) Who was the man of the hour on that almost-summer day in Paris of 1939? Who took Parisians' minds off their war-worries?  A 31-year-old career criminal, Eugen Weidmann.  
The Battle of Bunker [Breed's] Hill, imagined by the great Howard Pyle

Just 106 years after Weidmann got it in the neck – two centuries + 38 years ago today – some 1,500 exhausted, filthy, cranky-but-determined colonial soldiers did battle north of Boston. All the day before and late into the night they'd been marching then digging,  piling up rocks and dirt, and building fortifications on Breed's hill (where most of the hot fighting would happen). Now,off to the south, a not-quite-8-year-old  held his mother's hand as they watched the flames, after the British put torches to Charlestown. 71 years later, old John Quince Adams remembered how he "saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia's thunders in the Battle of Bunker's hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled them with my own..."

  Around 2,500 British soldiers, sweltering in their red wool coats, confronted some 1,500 'patriots.'  After all of the drumming, shooting, cannon thunder, shouts and screams, the 'redcoats' could claim a victory, but more than a thousand were hurt or killed. On a day like today, but decidedly not.

   Now I'd be remiss and will have been a twit if I did not mention a book or two. Or more.
   George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen from Both Sides, written AND illustrated by brilliant Rosalyn Schanzer. 
  George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War, by clever Thomas B. Allen. 
   King George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution, by that smartypants Steve Sheinkin (illus. by Tim Robinson).
  Fight For Freedom: The American Revolutionary War, by Benson Bobrick
  The Revolutionary John Adams, George Washington, that I wrote and illustrated. Young John Quincy, too, but it's out of print, the world being rotten and unjust. 
  Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, vols. I & II, M.T. Anderson
  George Washington's Army and Me, written and illus. by Michael Dooling.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Telling Stories

So, for one thing, Ann Bausum's splendid post this past Friday, inspires me to show you all my 5th grade picture. It's inspired giggles from many an audience of tactless schoolchildren, bless their hearts. 

For another, I'm compelled to inform you that on this day in A.D. 526, a big whacking earthquake in Syria ended the lives of some 300,000 people, about 230K more than have died in the current troubles, since the Arab Spring arrived in that ancient land. Over how many borders the troubles will spill, how many more will suffer, have their lives extinguished, taciturn Heaven only knows. And on May 20, 1768, savvy, rosy Dolley Madison (far the better politician than her brilliant hubby), was born. Exactly 94 years later, President Lincoln found time away from the abysmal war that was consuming his administration in 1862, to sign the far-reaching Homestead Act into law. May 20, 1927? Charles Lindbergh took off from Long Island, bound for Paris. Now imagine the lives, the thoughts, the contexts, the actions, the rippling after-effects, the stories represented by each of those little factoids! Doesn't that just knock you out? 
The glorious lake formed by many a long-ago eruption
of the Taal Volcano on the island of Luzon. 
And in the center of the lake? Vulcan Point, yet another island.

For yet another thing, in my post last month, I confessed my dire misgivings and oogly-booglies about traveling to Manila. So I did and did not, after all, wind up lost and alone, thousands of miles away from what little savoire faire I possess. I lived to tell the tale of my adventure in the Philippines - but not here. This ain't no travelogue, after all.  I'll confine myself to saying that what I saw was glorious (troubling too, of course, being that the divide there between those who have and those who don't is ever so much wider and deeper there than our American chasm between rich and poor) and being with the students at Brent Internat'l School was a tremendous joy. Unlike Ann B. and ever so many others, whose love of their children brought them to writing books for young readers, that bespectacled, introverted 5th grader you see above drew pictures and devoured children's books partly as a means of avoiding my parents' offsprings, i.e. my little brothers. As a grown up greeting card illustrator, I came to children's books because they were the ones that had the pictures!  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a big part of the business of children's books was visiting schools, universally infested (in the sense that P.G. Wodehouse used the term - if you guys only knew how many hours I've drawn and painted whilst listening to Right Ho, Jeeves, about hapless Bertie Wooster and his butler) with little people! Further imagine my surprise when I found out how much FUN it was, visiting with kids - what a big fat, life-affirming, profession-affirming bonus! What it would have meant to my dorky ten-year-old self if a living, breathing writer of books had come to Mrs. Fadler's classroom at Bryant Elementary School!
Can you find me, roosting in the midst of a bunch
of swell kids at Effingham, Kansas the other day?

  Of course it's a blast, answering their many questions. Drawing pictures for them. Assuring them that their teachers weren't merely persecuting them when they insisted that revision actually is a key part of the writing process. Repeat after me, I tell 'em, 'All REAL writers/ if they have any self-respect whatsoever/ work on their writing some more. / Oh, baby!'  But beyond all of the theatrics (after all any REAL writer is an entertainer, too, and especially if you wish to get and keep the attention of a bunch of lively young squirts), what a large load of joy it has been all these years, talking with young Americans about the vivid, complex life behind each and every one of the famous names they're asked to remember, behind the multitudes whose names we'll never know. Asking them, wouldn't you guys be treated with more respect, be cut some slack if others understood what all you've done and experienced? Your history? Isn't it the same for a nation? A people? Would you not better understand why nations behave as they do, the more you understood those nations' history? Nations are more than borders and banners. A nation is a combination of all of the stories of all of the people who've lived in the land all through the years of the living past!  We are, by golly, a story-loving species and never have I been more grateful to have accidentally found myself among those who write them, than when I'm talking about books, these precious story-delivery devices, with a bunch of young readers. And grateful I am and still occasionally surprised that a crabby, shy, paintbrush-pusher like myself should be among these noble nonfiction-meisters, my fellow INKsters, who show and tell what we humans have been about, what we have come to understand about our world, infested with our bumptious species. 

Speaking of which, just for you to know, according to a story in Sunday's edition of the Kansas City Star, the Kansas legislature has banned the "spending of any money to implement the national Common Core standards for math and reading" lest the federal government further intrude its control into the workings of the state. (Nor has the KS Board of Ed. seen fit to implement the Next Generation Science Standards.) On the other hand, there's this story, in which some fine points are made concerning this thorny discussion.. In any event, certainly anyone with even a knucklehead's understanding of America's history knows our time-honored push-pull between states' rights/individual rights and federalism, but not since President Lincoln's time has the partisan chasm between Americans been so deep and dangerous. Where this will lead - well, I guess Heaven knows that, too. For now, we can only imagine. And tell the stories.

Read more here:

Monday, April 15, 2013

Confessions of a Sissypants

"Adventure is just bad planning." Roald Amundsen

"Adventure is worthwhile in itself."  Amelia Earhart

So, okay, I've written about many an adventurer. 

Seafaring pioneers, living in close, seriously smelly damp quarters, offering up prayers and rationing their limited quantities of foul food and beverage down below the decks of the pitching, tossing Mayflower.  

John Adams setting off on horseback [me, I sat astride a horse exactly once, when I was about 9 years old, feeling as if I'd been plunked atop a the broad, warm ridgepole of a living house] to Philadelphia, not quite 400 miles from his Braintree, Massachusetts farm. Picture this earnest, talkative lawyer and his 11-year-old son daring their voyage to France in the winter of 1778. Crossing the Atlantic, whose waves were thick with the ships of His Britannic Majesty, who had less than little use for John Adams or any of the rest of his treasonous buddies at their upstart Congress. 

Teenaged Ben Franklin on his own, a runaway apprentice, hiking across NJ to PA.  Or stranded in London.

Sister Sojourner, long in years (47 or so), poor in pocket, rich in conviction, setting out on foot to speak the Truth.

Teenaged express riders, each alone but for his pony and mochila full of mail, pounding away through the wilderness. 
Dan'l Boone, Adventurer
Daniel Boone. Need I say more? No, I think not. 
Teddy Roosevelt.  Ditto.

True, setting out to write about someone, some long-gone event is a voyage of discovery. There are suppositions to be challenged. Facts to be discovered and verified.  True, one must travel to walk about where others have walked before. Photographing. Sketching. Envisioning the vanished past. Thanks be to all that is holy for historic sites and practitioners of living history at such places as Plimoth Plantation and Williamsburg

 Grateful as all get out am I that I got to do it but it occurs to me that I've not been entirely worthy of writing and illustrating stories about these valiant souls.   I'm afraid that my feelings regarding adventures are more aligned with those of Bilbo Baggins:  "We don't want any adventures here, thank you!..."nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!"   That being said, I'm awash with pre-travel oogly-booglies because way too early tomorrow morning I'm off on one those beastly things. By the time any of you read this post, what I hope won't be part of any posthumous noting of my final efforts, I will have well and truly had an adventure to the Brent International School in Manila.  About which I'll write and have pictures for next month's post, God willing. 

I'll have had moral support from fellow INK-sters Deborah Heiligman and Susan Kuklin, bless 'em, regarding changing planes in Tokyo.  They could have advised me to put on my big girl panties and deal with it, for crying out loud, but they knew to be kind to a rattled soul standing, bags packed, upon a ledge and/or brink.  More to the point of this blog, for these 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders on the far side of the world, I shall be conducting writing workshops. Certainly I have done these before and have been charmed, sometimes chagrined, and knocked out more than once by the work of young writers. But because my presentations have generally consisted of 1. my being entertaining and instructive – about history, about writing about history, about finding the facts because making the past come alive but not in some horrid zombie way– before the convened, silent but for their laughter. And 2. a boatload of jolly Q & A.  Working with young writers is a comparatively foreign country. An adventure.

 In preparation, I'm finding a wealth of information gathered by those who manage classrooms every single day – wait. I must go put on a hat so I may take it off to those who daily convey the nuts and bolts of commas, indenting one's paragraphs, and constructing clear narrative to newbies in acceptable forms of written communication. It occurs to me once more that writing is one skill set, acquired by years of writing and reading; teaching writing, quantifying traits, all six, is entirely another.  And nothing is more instructive than preparing to instruct. I'm so eager to meet these young writers, who've been reading my take on the Pilgrims, the Pony Express, Daniel Boone, etc.  Oh to BE there, listening, sharing, guiding, and applauding their efforts. If only I didn't need to GO there.

to be continued....