Things That Go BOO! in the Night

‘Tis the season for . . .? Photo was taken earlier today 10/25/12. Tacky inflatables on top of a big box store.

It’s that alter-ego time of year when we get to flaunt a part of our personality that is often hidden—or a part we’d like to grow into. My favorite costumes are the ones people make or pull together themselves. They express an individual’s hidden parts, dreams or sense of humor. (I wish I could find the picture of my adult dread-headed son as a watermelon, his nickname.) Prepackaged costumes seem so boring, but I guess they do give an indication of how the collective unconscious is going. Now that’s a scary thought.

The Original Duct Tape Halloween Book, written by Jim Berg and Tim Nyberg and published by Workman Publishing Co in 2003. This book features homemade costumes made with duct tape for YA to adult. Some of the costumes are suitable for preparation in the last fifteen minutes before you go to a party. The book comes with a frightening warning that some of the ideas are “incredibly stupid.” The authors and publisher therefore take no responsibility for pain or hair loss when removing the costume. The book never fails to make me laugh. Some of the ideas are really clever (which can be simultaneously stupid—so exercise common sense).

The rest of the books in today’s post are picture books, but, trust me, you don’t have to be young to enjoy them.

The Olivia books by Ian Falconer are a good source for costume ideas. My new favorite is Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, published by Athenum Books for Young People in 2012. Olivia, who likes to stand out, wails, “Why do they all want to be pink?” Hear, hear, Olivia! (Or is it “Here, here, Olivia?”) While not specifically a Halloween book, Olivia comes up with a bunch of variations on the princess theme. I love her character and Falconer’s illustrations.

Speaking of character, if you have a favorite character from a series, you will probably be able to find a related Halloween story—Fancy Nancy, Nate the Great, the Magic Treehouse kids, and so on.

Most of the books on the Halloween display table that stand out story-wise aren’t actually about Halloween. One current Halloween story I would read multiple times is Scaredy-cat, Splat!, written and illustrated by Rob Scotton and published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in 2010. If you are familiar with the Splat books, you’ll recognize the humorous drawings and clever twists.  Splat knows he wants to be scary, but doesn’t know what to be for Halloween. The solution to this problem will make you laugh. But wait! There’s more—a solution to one issue doesn’t mean all goes according to plan.

There are older books that, for me, have held up over the years. Maria Molina and the Days of the Dead, written by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez, and published by Macmillen in 1994. While celebrating the Days of the Dead in Mexico and thinking of her relatives who have died, Maria thinks of what she would be doing if she were celebrating Halloween in the United States.

When I read this book years ago, I felt I finally understood the Days of the Dead and how they help grieving. The year after the death of my friend Betty on Halloween, two friends joined me in our church’s columbarium to remember Betty. We came with marigolds, candles, and a skeleton. When Betty was off work for a time, she passed the time by making about 50 gathered skirts. Rubber stamping was one of her later hobbies, and she was legendary for her collection. So I dressed the skeleton in a gathered skirt and with a tiny rubber stamp attached to it’s hand. It helped me to have her remembered.

Rattlebone Rock, written by Sylvia Andrews, illustrated by Jennifer Piecas, and published by Harper Trophy in 1997. Rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia combine into a rollicking book that was a must-read with my first graders. If you read this to a group, pretty soon everyone will be joining in. Swisha! Swisha!

Happy Halloween!

 Don’t forget the contest!

 Please tell me which of the posts so far is the most helpful. That will get your name thrown into my gardening hat. If you tell me what makes that post your favorite, I’ll throw your name in a second time. The contest will close at midnight on 11/8/12, when a name will be drawn. I’m trying to see what appeals to those of you who are reading this blog. I’m very grateful for your time and interest.

The prize? Unless you tell me you already have The Pig and the Dragon,  I’ll send you a copy. If you do have it, let me know if you’d like a picture book, an early reader, a middle grade, or a young adult, and I’ll send you something from my stash. I’ll e-mail the winner to get your mailing address and will let you all know what I learned.




Qu . . .Qui . . . Quil . . . Quilt . . .QUILTS . . .and Contests

Before you read on, what is your reaction to this fabric?

My sister and I are quiltaholics. We go to shows and fabric stores when we can, which is not as easy as it sounds since we live at different ends of California—the long way. On our last shopping trip, we found the fabric above. For some unfathomable reason we decided to have a contest to see who could make the prettiest quilt out of this fabric. (Did I mention we both think it’s ugly.)

Pieced quilts are an American art. Many of the oldest quilts were made with scraps of fabric—leftover bits or pieces taken from worn out clothes.

The oldest quilt that I made for myself is constructed with one extra block from each of the Log Cabin quilts I made for friends and family, and one of the fabrics is a scrap from the first dress I made after my clothes were stolen from a laundromat (one of the downsides of multitasking).

Many quilts hold similar kinds of memories. But quilts can also be works of great beauty and were the canvas for many women artists with no other artistic avenues. Those other avenues are now open, and the quilting route now also calls to men.

One of the first picture books of the year I read with my first graders was Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt, written and illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst and published in 1983 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. Sam Johnson tries his hand at quilting, but is rebuffed by the Rosedale Women’s Quilting Club so he organizes the Rosedale Men’s Quilting Club, and the competition is on. The story pokes fun at narrow gender roles and ultimately demonstrates the richness found in cooperation. Every page has a traditional quilt pattern in the border.

We read the story together in class and made a paper friendship quilt that hung on the wall for the school year. At the end of the year, every child took their block home.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, picture book written by Deborah Hopkinson, paintings by James Ransome, and published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1993. Another book I have used frequently with groups of children. (Depending on the age and attention span of the children you’re reading with, you may have to shorten the story a bit.) This is a story of a slave girl who becomes a seamstress. She gathers scraps of cloth and information to make a quilt that’s a map to freedom. This story is inspiring, powerful, and rooted in history.

There are many other wonderful picture books that feature quilts and quilting, but for now we’ll jump to quilt fiction for older readers.

The Quilt, written by Gary Paulsen and published by Random House in 2004. This short middle grade book is about Paulsen’s relationship with his grandmother, who mothered him. The story is told in the third person from the boy’s point of view as the women in the family come together to help his cousin through her labor and delivery. Most of the men in the story have died or are fighting in WWII, and the boy observes the farming women carrying on. He hears the story of family members as the waiting women work on a quilt.

There are many things the boy, who isn’t named in the book, can’t understand, and Paulsen remembers what it’s like to be a child hearing concerns of adults. What he doesn’t understand, he tries to address in six-year old ways—helping when he can and trying to be like Roy Rodgers.

This book is a tender tribute, and strikes me as quite different than the other Paulsen books I’ve read. There are two other books about his grandmother, which I will search out. I also want to read and reread some of his other, more well-known titles.

Leaving Gee’s Bend, written by Irene Latham and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 2010. This novel is set in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, which is an actual settlement associated with an old plantation. Google “quilts of Gee’s Bend” and you’ll find several sites to view some of the quilts made by the residents.

This novel is middle grade to young adult.  The beginning of a quilt that Ludelphia carries in her pocket serves as her touchstone as she tries to help her ill mother by leaving the boundaries of her small community. Her mother’s teachings about quilting become Ludelphia’s metaphor for the ways she must find to grow to protect her community and family. While I always knew people worked with what they had, the book shows how precious each bit of fabric, each length of thread could be.

I promised you a contest a few weeks ago. And you don’t have to sew! Please tell me which of the posts so far is your favorite. That will get your name thrown into my hat. If you tell me what makes it your favorite, I’ll throw your name in a second time. The contest will close at midnight on 11/8/12, when a name will be drawn. I’m trying to see what appeals to those of you who are reading this blog. I’m very grateful for your time and interest.

Oh yeah, the prize. Unless you tell me you already have a copy of The Pig and the Dragon, that’s what I’ll send you. If you do have it, let me know if you’d like a picture book, an early reader, a middle grade, or a young adult, and I’ll send you something from my stash. I’ll e-mail the winner to get your mailing address and will let you all know what I learned.

Also, tune back in for episodic (probably infrequent) updates on the contest with my sister. I’m awaiting inspiration. Any suggestions?

Bottom of the Ninth

This is the time of year my husband starts saying things like, “Our long national nightmare is about to begin.” And he’s not referring to any upcoming elections. He’s anticipating the loss of baseball for long four months as he counts down to spring training.

So in honor of the playoffs, the World Series, and the sacrifice baseball lovers will be making as they try to feel happy for their football-loving friends, here are a few children’s baseball stories that can help carry baseball lovers of any age through the cruelly named “holiday season.”

Play Ball, Amelia Bedelia (written by Peggy Parish in 1972, illustrated by Wallace Tripp , and published by Harper Trophy as an I Can Read chapter book). Amelia Bedelia stories are great for the child who loves word play, is ready to learn about homonyms and to laugh. Amelia Bedelia offers to play on a team in place of a boy with measles, and the team is going to teach her how. Now imagine what Amelia is likely to do when she finds she needs a bat. A good choice for the youngest baseball fans (or for those who will always love puns).

Baseball Saved Us (written by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee, and published by Lee and Low Books, Inc. in 1993, when it won awards including a Parents’ Choice Award). This illustrated story is rated at a third grade reading level with interest for students from first to sixth grades. The setting is a major part of the story and provides the conflict and significance of playing baseball in an internment center where Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens were imprisoned during WWII.

Baseball provided more than a pastime for the internees. It gave purpose and was part of the narrator’s return to a still unfriendly society after the end of the war. The book is a reminder of how fear drives people to treat others with injustice. And if you subscribe to the idea that if we forget our history, we are doomed to repeat it, this is an important book, told appropriately for a child. It is honest about the wrongs, but still holds out hope.

Mudball (written and illustrated by Matt Tavares and published by Candlewick Press in 2005). This is a story for those of us who will never even get to strike out in a professional baseball game. It’s the story of the shortest player in the league (at least in 1903) who hit the shortest home run (a few feet in front of home plate). The story springs from baseball folklore and legend. It may not be true . . . but it just might have taken place. This is a very fun read.

When I was a kid, my dad, also a baseball lover, told me stories of Satchel Paige, one of the amazing African-American players of the Negro League who moved America along it’s slow road to inclusion. As a girl who loved baseball in the 50’s (Little League for boys, but no Bobby Sox yet for girls), I identified with his frustration over exclusion from the major leagues when I was the only girl playing ball at lunch recess and the boys made a rule that girls couldn’t have ups. Sadly, I took the hint and went to play something else. But Sachel Paige just showed ‘em with great self-confidence and great pitching. He has always been one of my heroes. And more importantly, he helped open the doors for Jackie Robinson’s entry to the previously whites-only professional teams.

There are wonderful books about Jackie Robinson, who was a great player and a great example of dignity in the face of prejudice.

Dad, Jackie, and Me (written by Myron Uhlberg, illustrated by Colin Bootman, published by Peachtree in 2005, and winner of awards including Teacher’s Choices). This fictionalized story, told by a son, is rooted in the respect a deaf father holds for Jackie Robinson and the dignity the player demonstrated as he showed the world skin color doesn’t reveal a person’s skill or character. This book and the next one are both stories full of heart. And don’t miss the end pages.

Thank You, Jackie Robinson (written by Barbara Cohen and published by Scholastic in 1974). Sam, a fatherless boy who is a walking recording of every game the Brooklyn Dodgers have played, becomes friends with the African-American cook who works in Sam’s mother’s inn. Davy is also a Dodger fan. He takes Sam on his first-ever visit to the ball park to see a game. Together they follow the career of Jackie Robinson and dream of catching a ball at a game. As Sam tells the story he notes subtle behaviors that clue the reader to adult concerns in the late 40‘s culture without Sam himself realizing all the implications. This story of bravery, friendship, and love makes me cry.

I thought baseball would be one post, but I’m only partly through the stack. What’s your favorite baseball story and who’s your favorite baseball fan? Soon mine will have to . . .

My New Favorite Piece of Writing Advice

Karen Cushman (author of many books including, The Midwife’s Apprentice, Catherine, Called Birdy, and Will Sparrow’s Road) spoke at the SCBWI conference. She said we should look into our own writing to find solutions when our story stumps us. We write more than we know and should go back to find the clues and the implications we’ve already dropped like bread crumbs.

Some recent bread crumbs are convincing me she’s right.

Bread crumb #1Rita Mailheau, a friend, had about a month to write a complete novel for a contest. She had a very exciting scene at the end of the first chapter. It grabbed the reader and moved the plot, but had little connection to the overall conflict. Several chapters later, the protagonist was dealing with a family member whose actions were hurting the whole family, and it was unclear where the story should go.

What the hero had to do to survive in the first chapter became the metaphor for what he has to learn to do in other areas of his life. Connecting the two issues helped clarify one of the hero’s problems and to suggest solutions. And the best part was she had already put it in her story without realizing it.

Rita is a writer who loves her characters and laughs as she writes about them. She is able to immerse her characters in different historical times. If you’d like to meet Rita, you can find her on Facebook or Pinterest

Bread crumb # 2:  I got to meet Miranda Marks through another artist/author friend who suggested Miranda and I talk about a picture book she was writing and illustrating. The problem seemed to be that Miranda started her book as a fantasy and then switched into science. We talked about different ways to go one way or the other. But when I asked her what point she was trying to make, she spoke of the wonder a child feels when the world seems magical, and that she personally found that same sense of wonder in learning scientific reasons for natural phenomena. She wants children to see the wonder in learning about nature. She really had already put in what she wanted to say, she just needed to organize and connect it a little differently.

Lucky me! Miranda and I are now working on a book together. (I’ll tell you a little about it in a minute.) Her art work is beautiful. When she showed me her sample painting, I almost cried. You can find other examples of her work on her web site:

Miranda’s painting

Bread crumb #3The Grizzly _____’s Christmas is the book we’re working on together. It is a children’s story written by my college anthropology teacher, Malcolm Farmer. Shortly before his death, he asked me to help rewrite the story. One of Malcolm’s strong interests was the place/role of bears in various cultures’ rituals and belief systems so his story is about a bear. He had included, but didn’t explain, some of those beliefs.

For example, part of his story is about what this bear should be called. Various names, such as George, Smokey, or Louis are suggested and rejected. And he makes a reference to a taboo. Hmm? Rewriting this story was going to take research and I no longer could ask Malcolm directly so I’ve had to go to other academic sources.  The research has led to finding the other rich deposits of meaning that Malcolm hid in his story, leaving them for us to uncover and polish. I am so excited to be working on this project with Miranda. Will be keeping you posted periodically

Bread crumb #4:  One of the most satisfying experiences in my life was writing The Pig and the Dragon. Many times I felt I was being given a gift

rather than being an author. There were times as I wrote that something that had previously “appeared” suddenly resurfaced in a way that made me say, “That’s why that (the old line) is there. Here’s where it connects.”

Now, finally, I’m learning to consciously look for those bread crumbs. I had an ending to a story that felt right and good, but not quite perfect. I found a bread crumb, part of a sentence to add to the end, moved two sentences and added three lines—there was the ending that felt complete.


Which brings me to fairy tales. Bread crumbs aren’t just bread crumbs. They point the way home. What crumbs have  you found in your writing?