Wednesday, December 29, 2010

a Shoshone teenager teaches me about patience: The Legend of Jimmy Spoon [part two]

The Legend of Jimmy SpoonWhile researching The Legend of Jimmy Spoon, I volunteered as a tutor for the high school Indian Club. This was in Pocatello, Idaho, seven miles from the Shoshone-Bannock reservation. Basically I was a blond California girl who knew little about Native Americans, but wanted to learn. I was eager and cheerful. Also, I talked a lot.

Yackety-yack while helping students with English essays, blabbidybla while correcting math papers (which I knew even less about). One morning, a Shoshone boy named Kerwin Toane sat at the table across from me. He wore his hair in long braids and was quiet. I offered to help with his homework then chatted on and on about this-and-that. Finally I asked why he wasn't saying anything.

"I'm just waiting for you to finish," he answered.


Eagle Tip FeatherOver the next weeks, Kerwin and I developed a friendship. When I remembered to keep my mouth shut, he talked about his tribe and traditions. The more quiet I was, the more I learned. He recounted going into the mountains with his uncle, to capture a sacred eagle feather. I took detailed notes. He translated Shoshone vocabulary for me.

So in The Legend of Jimmy Spoon, Chapter 21 describes how Nampa and Ga-mu ride their horses into the foothills with Jimmy. They teach him how the Teton Sioux catch an eagle without harming the bird.

It's one of my favorite chapters.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

exploring the ghost town of Bodie, California for "Orphans Runaway"

Full Moon Rises over the Ghost Town of Bodie, California Artists Photographic Poster Print, 18x24
ghost town of Bodie, California

At nearly 8,400' elevation, the old mining town of Bodie, California takes your breath -- literally from the altitude, but also from its stark beauty. It's high in the Eastern Sierra Mountains on a wind-swept plateau.

Getting there is tricky: 10 miles off Hwy 395 up a winding canyon, then another three miles of jaw-rattling washboard. There are no trees. When you finally arrive, you understand why this historical park is called a "real ghost town." The buildings are in a state of "arrested decay," meaning some day they'll just crumble into the sagebrush. The stores remain stocked with goods, just as they were when people up-and-left. A coat hangs from a hook in one of the homes, a hat nearby. A table is set for supper. It's eerie peeking in the windows. Visitors are instructed not to touch anything, but to leave every rusty can and fencepost in place for others to see.

In its boom years, Main Street was a mile long with 65 saloons. Shootouts, stabbings and stagecoach robberies added to Bodie's reputation as the most wicked mining camp in the West. There were brothels and gambling halls. Its Chinatown had opium dens. In 1879, a newspaper quoted a young girl who had learned her family was moving there: "Goodbye, God! We're going to Bodie!"

Orphan RunawaysI had visited many times, but not until we took our young sons did I imagine this rough place through their eyes. Greg and Cody wished they could have roamed the hills without parents, smoked cigars and stayed up all night. That sounded like fun to me!

So on a subsequent trip, Dave Marquart and Susan DesBaillets from the California State Park Service, escorted us through Bodie's deserted stores, schoolhouse, morgue, hotel, and the frightening stamp mill. My copious notes became a middle-grade novel, Orphans Runaway. It was a lot of fun writing about two young brothers who tumble through adventures in this wild camp of 1879.

Monday, November 29, 2010

when a Mormon boy ran away to live with the Indians: The Legend of Jimmy Spoon [part one]

Chief Washakie Shoshones, Art Poster by National Archive
Shoshone Chief Washakie
When I read the memoir Among the Shoshones by Elijah Nicholas Wilson, I thought perfect -- an adventure for boys set in the 1850s! I contacted Nick's son, Charlie, an elderly gentleman living in the Wyoming town named for his father -- Wilson -- at the base of the Tetons. When I asked permission to write a biography, he was gung-ho. He mailed me his family's genealogy and recounted details of his dad's life with the Indians and as a Pony Express rider. I was thrilled.

After months of research & writing, my manuscript Nick, the White Indian Boy was accepted by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. As a final detail, HBJ wanted Charlie to sign a release. "No problem," I said. But his letter chilled me. I never gave you permission, he responded. You may not write about my father. I felt sick. Literally, I was shaking inside. When I calmed down, I phoned him. A caretaker explained that Charlie had just had surgery and "wasn't well." Translation: all our correspondence was null and void.
The Legend of Jimmy Spoon
One of my favorite covers

Now it was HBJ's turn to say "No problem." They advised that I just rewrite it and change the names. Rewrite a novel? It was like pulling a thread in a patchwork quilt that made the whole thing unravel. One change led to another ... you get the idea. It was a ton of work, but the process actually freed me. I no longer had to be 100% accurate, as biographies should be. I could make stuff up!

What fun it was to find The Legend of Jimmy Spoonin my head. In a future "Notes From the Sunroom," I'll tell about doing research with teenagers from the Shoshone-Bannock tribe.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

waterhemlock poisoning on the Oregon Trail

Common Hemlock Plant Weed C1880 Colour Botanical Print
Western Waterhemlock

The headline in our small town newspaper gave me chills: "Toxic taste of waterhemlock sends ditch crew to hospital: Youths mistook poisonous roots for wild carrots." We were living in Cortez, an exquisitely beautiful corner of Colorado. This news freaked me out as it did other parents whose kids love playing in the canyons and fields.

The article detailed how four males--ages 7, 15,18 and 20--were cleaning an irrigation ditch and decided to sample the plants. Though they took just small bites, they quickly became ill. By the time they reached the hospital, two had suffered seizures and were unconscious, and were put on respirators "as the poison paralyzes the vital functions." All four had their stomachs "flooded with a mixture of charcoal" to neutralize the toxin, then pumped. I interviewed one of the ER physicians. When she described how it took several people to hold down the boys in violent seizure, I thought, wow this stuff is dangerous.

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell (Dear America)At the time, I was researching Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, 1847 [Dear America]. One source told of cattle dying along the route after eating "wild parsnips." Hm. It figured that humans could have made the same mistake and more probably kids, as had the boys in my town. So in Hattie's story, I created the scene where the children pick 'carrots' for soup, but with disastrous results. Some of the women crush charcoal from the campfire into a powder, trying to force it between the jaws of the convulsing victims.

Young readers often ask me why some characters have to die. They say that since I'm the author, I can make everyone live happily ever after, right? But I kept the tragedy to make a point. Pa lecturing the children and Hattie's tears express my motherly worry, also my hope that even one life might be saved from this story.

In French Canada waterhemlock is called la carotte à moreau, or carrot of death. It's common in the Western United States, thriving in meadows and swamps, and along streams and irrigation ditches. 

Last I heard about the four youths in Cortez, was that they recovered, sore and tired, but apparently just fine. So there's a happy ending!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

searching for Valdemar

Wind Point Lighthouse, Racine, Wisconsin Art Poster Print, 18x13
Wind Point Lighthouse, Racine  
 My dad's story was wild, but I wanted to believe it: In the late 1800s his grandmother, Christine, had been a servant in Denmark's royal palace. When she got pregnant by one of the princes, probably Valdemar, she was whisked away to America to work in a logging camp. Her baby grew up near the Wind Point Lighthouse in the Danish community of Racine, Wisconsin.

I'd always wanted to write this tale so last month I introduced myself -- via email -- to relatives in the Midwest, asking about our royal blood. Ha! They hadn't heard that one, but they mentioned a "family secret" that several had taken to their graves, and that records for Christine's firstborn were sketchy. His name? Valdemar. I knew it! She had so loved the prince, she named her baby after him. Coincidentally one of my cousins, Kris Olson Elbert, had already begun researching our Danish ancestry so our emails flew. We wanted to meet each other and visit our cousin, Bill Johnson, who had grown up knowing Christine. Bill lived near the Wind Point Lighthouse and was as curious as we were.

So I did what we've told our kids NEVER to do: met someone online, hopped a plane to Chicago, hugged hello in a hotel lobby, then drove to a new city to spend time with strangers. I didn't even have a Plan B.

Meanwhile Kris had scoured census records and with Bill's help found Christine's real name -- Maren Kristine Sorensen. This led to the discovery of a ship's manifest from the S.S. Island of the Thingvalla Line which arrived in New York on August 17, 1893. Captain Skjodt recorded that she was an unmarried servant from Copenhagen, age 26, traveling with one piece of baggage. I could picture that hot summer day on Ellis Island and Christine hiding her pregnancy from immigration officials.

Well, someone has to be level-headed in these matters. Kris did the math then broke the news: no prince. We're just regular Americans. Turns out Christine married a fellow Dane, Christian Nielsen, and their son Valdemar was born in 1895. But what happened to this boy, also called Walter? Did he run away from home because his dad was crazy? Maybe he died from hypothermia after rescuing a friend in a river, as one story went. We couldn't find any record beyond his birth until we looked through a dusty ledger at the Bethania Lutheran Church. The beautiful handwriting was in Danish but finally Kris spotted Valdemar Nielsen, son of Christian and Christine, who died in the spring of 1910. We were thrilled to see his name, but also felt sad. What happened? He was only 15. The cemetery didn't have any burial record.

For two days we hung out in Racine with wonderful family, all new to me. I learned that Christine's favorite flowers were violets gathered in the spring by her children. Bill drove us by her boarding house where she had had chickens and a garden, and cooked for eleven Danish men fresh off the boat. She listed herself as a widow when, in fact, Christian was in an asylum for 25 years. In Bill's kitchen -- which overlooked a beautiful and stormy Lake Michigan -- we scoured family letters, documents and photos, shared stories, laughed, and grieved a little. At the library Kris and I searched old newspapers on microfilm. Those things are hard to read, but we finally saw where an "undersheriff" took our gr.grandfather Christian to the State Insane Asylum. Then at last we discovered the obit for Walter. He died in St. Luke's hospital from "a lingering illness." Bill returned to the cemetery with these details and found Walter's grave and cause of death: pneumonia.
We still have many questions, such as, why was Christian "adjudged insane" on his daughter's 3rd birthday? But we're happy to have found Valdemar's resting place. One photo shows an earnest young man who would bring his mother wildflowers. He had three younger siblings and may well have braved an icy river to rescue one of them. Hypothermia untreated could have led to pneumonia.  Bill is going to straighten the crooked head stone and we'd like to have a family reunion. I'd love to gather some violets for Christine, to put on her son's grave.

Her daughter Gertrude -- my grandmother -- wrote that Christine was "noble and kind" with the "God-given strength of a Viking Pioneer in Amerika." I'll say.

"Son of C & C Nielsen" 1895-1910

Saturday, October 16, 2010

controversial book covers #1: no boys with knives!

True story!
In 1818 pirates attacked the Spanish owned village of Monterey, California then continued down the coast blasting cannons at various missions. One of the two ships was a 42-gun frigate captained by the cruel Argentinian privateer, Hippolyte de Bouchard. The other captain was Peter Corney a British officer who, lucky for me, turned out to have a way with words.

I say lucky, because he wrote of these dastardly deeds in the primly titled Early Northern Pacific Voyages, published in 1896. He made it sound like a travel article for Sunset Magazine, but nooo, these were bad guys. When I discovered his thesis I thought, perfect! I'd always wanted to know about pirates from my native state, especially because we now had two little boys. They hated reading so I hoped that if I could just tell a story with cannons and sharks and dead bodies, maybe just maybe they'd be enticed to read a few chapters.

The Stowaway: A Tale Of California PiratesSo I wrote The Stowaway: A Tale of California Pirates under the guidance of my pirate-y editor Regina Griffin. Main character is 11-year-old Carlito, a Spaniard who sneaks aboard the frigate. The original cover is lovely [PHOTO, top left], but I was hoping for something gritty and dreadful. I didn't complain because, gosh, it's such a thrill to have a book published. But when Scholastic told me they'd be reprinting the paperback with a new cover I said, "Oh! Oh! Please make Carlito dirty and scared."

The artist, Craig Nelson, did better than that. Not only was Carlito's shirt torn, ragged and dirty he looked terrified and was holding a knife. I loved it. Drama. Surely it would tempt boys to pick up the book. Well ... [big sigh here] ... we were informed that certain principals in certain school districts would never allow a book into their curriculum with a cover that depicted violence such as this. The pub date was near so instead of redoing everything, the knife was painted out [PHOTO, lower left]. At least we didn't have to give Carlito a clean shirt!

An encouraging note: Despite the cover Parents Magazine named The Stowaway a "riveting drama" and A Best Pick for 1995.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

life's small pleasures & My Darlin' Clementine

My husband and I have a saying when we're feeling discouraged by world headlines, or I'm bummed by another rejection, or we're missing our sons: "Okay, let's find an LSP!" -- Life's Small Pleasure. We're not as flowery as Anne Shirley of Green Gables, but seriously sometimes all it takes to feel better about life is to get outside and hear birds singing--or take a picnic to a soccer match and watch a friend's son play his heart out.

It was 91 degrees yesterday in Boise, Idaho. Parents were cheering from the sidelines, the boys ran the field in the happy clustering I remember from our sons' games. One of the kids wore bright yellow shoes--which I thought showed guts and creativity--and Nathan scored a goal. The LSPs were adding up.

But what a surprise when my friend's daughter, Katie, showed me a copy of  My Darlin' Clementine. She explained she was reading it for her 5th Grade class in Bellevue, and even had some questions for the author. I'm stoked this book about Idaho history is being used in schools. LSP times ten!

So it was a beautiful Saturday. We went home to our goldens who shook themselves from their nap to greet us. While my husband was cooking dinner, we enjoyed the best LSP: a phone call from Seattle where our sons and their sweethearts were about to watch the sunset. Sunset as in sunshine, a bonus for that rainy city. We smiled about their afternoon together, especially when one of them posted a terrific photo on Facebook.

My Darlin' Clementine

PHOTO above: on the soccer field with Jessie [L] and Katie, holding Clementine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

pets as characters: how Cleopatra got her leopard

with my leopards Poppy & Daisy
The Royal Diaries Cleopatra VII Daughter of the NileKids often write me about their pets, listing their names and mischief, and they ask about mine. I didn't realize how much animals mean to some children until these words from an 11-year-old reader: He described his dog as his "very best friend in the whole world" and how every night they slept in the same bed. At the end of his letter the boy wrote that his mother used to be his best friend, but a few months earlier she had died of cancer.

My heart was wrenched. Ever since, I've made a point of having a dog or two, and often a cat, in my stories. So no matter what might happen to a character, good or bad, a devoted pet will be there to comfort the reader. Unless writing of a historical event, I won't let any animals die. All dogs and kitties live happily ever after, birds too!

When I was researching Cleopatra I thought, hmm, what kid wouldn't love to have a big cuddly purring leopard for a friend. So I gave her one! You can see Arrow with its jeweled collar on the cover [ABOVE left] of The Royal Diaries - Cleopatra VII, Daughter of the Nile, Egypt, 57 B.C. I love how artist Tim O'Brien painted a golden-retriever size cat standing beside the Egyptian princess, both so regal. He nailed it.

My goldies, Poppy and Daisy, are as tall as Arrow when they're dragging me to the park but most of the time they just lie around [PHOTO ABOVE right]. They are our family's loyal and cherished best friends.

Monday, September 6, 2010

little boys playing in a lake & the idea for "Jenny of the Tetons"

Tetons and Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA Artists Photographic Poster Print by G Richardson, 24x32
Jenny Lake, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park was supposed to be a three-hour drive from our home in Pocatello, Idaho, but with two toddlers in the backseat it took twice that long ... diaper-changes, someone was thirsty, a moose was spotted. Finally, before too many squabbles, we reached a beautiful picnic beach at Jenny Lake [PHOTO, left]. I marveled that such a pristine spot was named after a woman and asked at the visitor's center about her identity.

Jenny of the Tetons (Great Episodes)
A ranger explained Jenny had been a Shoshone Indian married to an English fur trapper named Beaver Dick Leigh during the 1870s. Not only is the neighboring Leigh Lake named after him, he kept a journal of their life together with their children. My imagination went wild. What was it like hiking with five kids in the wilderness while being pregnant? Living in a tipi during blizzards? While our boys threw stones in the lake and splashed each other, I wondered if Jenny was another mother lost to history or was there a story to be told?

I'd been a newspaper reporter and book reviewer, but had never written a novel. Didn't know how or where to start! In the gift shop I bought maps, nature guides, and historical accounts about the tribes, then hauled everything to the car with the usual plunder of candy and T-shirts. On the long drive back to Pocatello, ideas percolated. By the time the boys were down for "naps" [ha! that's a joke] I was on the phone with the archivist at the University of Wyoming. I asked how I might read Beaver Dick's diaries and said I was writing a book called Jenny of the Tetons, a title that just that instant popped into my head.

A few days later, the mailman delivered a hefty package. Inside were xeroxes of Dick's letters and journals with a note from the archivist: "$10.40 please." Wow! I spread out the maps on the kitchen table and began tracing every canyon, creek and river mentioned in the diaries. Soon I had a picture of Jenny's life with her mountain man and began to write, opening each chapter with his words. His spelling was atrocious which I kept intact to show kids that you don't have to be perfect to tell a story.

Jenny of the Tetons (Great Episodes)took nine months to write and research. I visited the Shoshone-Bannock reservation where elder Emma Dann demonstrated how to raise a tipi and what Jenny would have used as diapers: the soft pulpy bark from sagebrush! I interviewed Maude Miner, one of the first white babies born in Idaho Territory, and who had met Beaver Dick as a child. When I asked what he was like, she said that during his visits her mother would have to open all the windows: "Sometimes he was clean, sometimes he wa'rnt," she explained.

After a discouraging string of rejections, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published Jenny in 1989. Then to my utter amazement The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators [SCBWI] gave it the Golden Kite Award for fiction. It was a grand beginning!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

orthodontist's waiting room & the story behind "Earthquake at Dawn"

Having braces at age 40 was a bummer, but Dr. Neufeld's waiting room made all those months worthwhile: he had great magazines! People, US Weekly, and home improvement stuff. One morning before my appointment, I became engrossed in a National Geographic article about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. One of the black-and-white photos mesmerized me.

It showed a team of beautiful horses that had been killed by falling bricks, their wagon covered in debris. I'd grown up in California, but earthquake reports had always been sanitized, meaning children and animals didn't die. Certainly not pretty horses delivering milk for breakfast. Another photo was of 22-year old Edith Irvine, whose camera captured this and other powerful images from that terrible morning of April 18th.

The magazine also printed --for the first time -- excerpts from a 33-page letter written by another young woman who survived the earthquake, Mary Exa Campbell. She described looters being shot, the fires, and babies being born in the park, including triplets. By the time I was reclined in the dental chair, a story was whizzing through my brain. At home, I called National Geographic. They gave me phone numbers of Edith's nephew, Jim Irvine, and Mary Exa's relatives who graciously sent me her letter and a 1st person account by Jack London.

I was delirious with story-itis -- can that be a word? -- and couldn't wait to call my editor at Harcourt, Karen Grove. A tale to tell is the most exciting moment for a writer, especially with true-life characters and original source documents; yikes, it was fun. Jim Irvine drove to my house in Redlands, with old photos and letters -- in the 1800s his family had owned the great sheep ranch which eventually became one of the largest cities in California: Irvine.
Earthquake at Dawn (Great Episodes)
The original cover of Earthquake at Dawn (Great Episodes)shows Edith Irvine with the horses in the background [ABOVE], and several of her photos are inside the book. I was thrilled when the Commonwealth Club of California honored it with the Silver Award for Juvenile Fiction in 1992.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

a scary old house & the haunting of hillside school

The old house was just uphill from the ocean in Manhattan Beach. As kids, we'd pass it on our walks to Becker's Bakery where we loaded up on sugar cookies, two for a nickel, then would run out to the end of the pier and back. On our way home we'd stop in front of the house. The place was scary: weeds in the sidewalk, windows boarded up. We dared each other to peek through the cracks. Once we heard a frightful moan and saw a figure creeping around inside, or at least we thought we did, so we raced away screaming.
Haunting Of Hillside School (Cabin Creek Mysteries)
The idea of an old mansion where strange things happen stayed with me through the years and inspired The Haunting of Hillside School. It's #4 in the Cabin Creek series where the cousins try to solve the mysterious music and a face at the window. My editor Kristin Earhart picked the name Hillside School, and it turns out practically every town in America has one by that name. 

[PHOTO ABOVE]: In 1963 I convinced my friends Chris and Martha to pose by the broken door so I could take their picture. We were in 7th grade. The image is too small to see our little paper bags from Becker's Bakery.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

a real mystery in our living room & the secret of the junkyard shadow

The Secret Of The Junkyard Shadow (Cabin Creek Mysteries)One December night long ago, my little brother and I woke to a clunk and clanging. We lived at the beach and from our open bedroom window could hear the familiar sounds of the surf and foghorn, but this noise was new. Maybe Santa had come early! It was almost Christmas. Our parents were asleep, apparently not aware of the commotion. We crept out to the living room to investigate, leaving our sister safe in her crib.

Santa had been there! But instead of toys he had left behind a bunch of black boxes in various shapes. We opened the lids, astonished to find a shiny musical instrument in each box, nestled in blue velvet. There was a trumpet, a trombone, flute, clarinet, and a saxophone. We bumped into some brass cymbals, which finally roused the household.

I don't remember my parents' reaction except that they called the police. After all, a stranger had broken into our home!

This curious event from my childhood inspired The Secret of the Junkyard Shadow. In this Cabin Creek adventure, folks are perplexed about broken items showing up on their porches in good repair. It takes much sleuthing for the cousins to solve this mystery, but a lot of nice things happen along the way.

Back to our living room. It turned out that a musician from a beach club had volunteered to deliver all the instruments to a friend's home. It was late and dark and he was on the wrong street. So when he found the house with the porch light on and the front door unlocked, he figured he'd found the right place. 

p.s. I've been accused of stretching the truth to have fun with a story, but not here. Yesterday I verified this one with my mom while we were drinking coffee and playing Bananagrams. You can ask her :)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

our 1st indepence day, philadelphia 1776

Five Smooth Stones: Hope's Revolutionary War Diary (My America)(Book One)On a hot and humid July 4th, 1776, a horseman brought worrisome news to Philadelphia: ships carrying 10,000 British soldiers had landed in New York. Redcoats were now camped on Staten Island, just one day's ride by horseback. Meanwhile, a printer named John Dunlap worked through the night making copies of the Americans' letter to King George III, their declaration of independence from England.

In Five Smooth Stones: Hope's Revolutionary War Diary,  nine-year-old Hope and her mother sit in their garden, in the shade of their tall brick house. They read this letter to each other, which calls King George cruel and unfit to be the ruler of a free people. "Our country has a new name," Hope writes in her diary, "the United States of America. No longer will we call ourselves an English colony."

It took days for this news to reach every farm and village, but soon patriots were ringing bells from all the church steeples. They were reading the Declaration of Independence to one another, from courthouse steps and from the saddles of express riders stopping along dirt roads. With the exception of Loyalists, Americans were jubilant. They blasted cannons and tore down the royal flags of England, setting them on fire, and destroyed statues of King George. Blacksmiths carted away the chunks of iron to melt down for bullets to use against the enemy: This war for independence would continue until 1781.

Hope memorizes the words treasured by so many of us: "We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men are created equal. Their Creator gives them certain rights. Among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."      Happy Independence Day, everyone!!