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!