Friday, December 30, 2011

our open winter

a dusting of snow on our skylight
We're having an "open winter" in Boise. I first read this term in the journal of mountain man Richard "Beaver Dick" Leigh who lived in Eastern Idaho during the 1870s. He described the ease of hunting without having to tromp through snow. Rivers and streams were frozen but the ice was thin enough to break for fishing.

The other day we woke to a dusting of snow along our fence and on the pine trees. Our skylight was lacy white until the sun rose and everything melted. As I look out our kitchen window this morning, the thermometer says 51 degrees. Hooray! I like being able to walk the dogs without worrying about slipping.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

jigsaw puzzles & the fear of writing

Daisy supervising our puzzles
This past Christmas week, my family and I started what might be a new tradition: doing jigsaw puzzles. The main deterrent we learned however, is the dog. We noticed she was enjoying a good chew on what turned out to be one of the pieces, but by the time we scooped it from her mouth we couldn't tell its color or from where it had dropped. Now one of our puzzles would have a gaping hole.

This so reminded me of writing! We started with two boxes -- one with 550 pieces, the other 1,000 -- then dumped them onto the card table and cookie sheets to sort. The task of turning everything right-side up was a big mess. Should we start fitting together the sailboat or the borders? Maybe the wagon with its red wheels would be easier.

The mess of writing is like this, for me at least. A jillion thoughts and ideas are all upside down in my head, and the blank page onto which I must organized them, is terrifying. It seems impossible. The phrase in that sentence is awkward, but on this page it's a perfect fit. The process is painstaking. It's a puzzle of words turned this way and that, but finally a chapter emerges. What had scared me at the beginning now seems rather friendly. There's a story here. And if there's a gaping a hole, I'll just fix it.

Meanwhile, a confession -- I'm not proud of this and next year will try to do better: I ditched my puzzle buddies! They soldiered on without me, accompanied by their REAL friend [photo above].

Monday, December 26, 2011

Kringle: a Christmas tradition makes it into a novel

Almond frosted Kringle
We're eating Kringle this holiday, lots of it! This tradition started in my childhood when my Danish great-grandmother would send it from Racine, Wisconsin. It's a heavenly pastry probably meant to be eaten in dainty slivers with a polite cup of coffee, but we pretty much scarf it.

It's a curious thing how personal tidbits slip into the novels I write for young readers. It's not deliberate, but somehow my characters will go swimming in the ocean if the setting is a hot summer day. Figures, since I grew up on the beach and to this day I love to dive under the waves. Dogs--HAPPY dogs--often appear in my stories with characters who love them. And there's usually someone drinking "good strong coffee."

In my newest novel, STALKED, there's Kringle to go with that coffee. The story opens in Copenhagen in the winter of 1911. The main character, Rikke, was inspired by my great-grandmother Maren Kristine Sorensen who immigrated to America from Denmark. Rikke likes her coffee and Kringle -- and when the hot New York summer comes around, she dunks herself in the waves off Coney Island!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I'm trying something new!

 After nearly thirty children's books with traditional publishers, I'm trying something new -- publishing myself!

When I learned that my Danish great-grandfather spent much of his life in an insane asylum in Wisconsin, my mind raced. How did this young man hoping for a new beginning in America end up "criminally insane?" What was he like when he stepped off the ship from Copenhagen and how did he get by the strict medical examiners on Ellis Island?

After visits to this Island of Tears and several years of research and writing, my story is finished. This young adult novel didn't turn out as I had originally planned -- fellow writers, I know you understand this! -- but it was birthed by those questions of how and why. Coupled with family lore that my great-grandmother worked in the Danish royal palace, well, here we are! The setting is 1912, in the Lower East Side tenements of New York City.

I hope you like this new adventure of mine, which is starting out as an e-book on Kindle: $.99 through December 31st then $4.99. Cover art and interior illustrations are by my son, Cody Rutty. I'll close here with its summary and link to Amazon:
The New Book is Stalked

              When Rikke Svendsen, a 15-year old Danish servant arrives at Ellis Island, she realizes that a fellow passenger on her voyage across the Attlantic--whose advances she had spurned--is stalking her. In the chaos of immigration and trying to flee him, she gets stranded in New York instead of being able to meet family in Racine Wisconsin. Relieved to have eluded the man, she finds work in the tenements as a seamstress for a film company and struggles to earn money for a train ticket north. Meanwhile, through letters and telegrams, she learns that mysterious accidents are befalling her loved ones in Racine with deadly results. As Rikke pieces together clues, frantic for her sweetheart Viggo, she seeks to unravel what or who is behind the terror.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A young reader grows up to be a reviewer: Rebecca's Book Blog

Interview with Kristiana Gregory, author of Dear America: Cannons at Dawn

I am very happy to post this interview with Kristiana Gregory, who for years has been one of my favorite authors from the Dear America series. Her newest book, Cannons at Dawn (which I reviewed here) is the sequel to The Winter of Red Snow, which was originally published in 1996 as one of the first books in the Dear America series and recently rereleased by Scholastic in September 2010. Kristiana has also written several other books in the Dear America and Royal diaries series as well as many other historical novels for middle grade and young adult readers.

Why did you decide to become a writer of historical fiction? Have you always loved history?

When I was a newspaper reporter, I loved digging for facts then writing a story. One day, my editor at the Telegram-Tribune in San Luis Obispo yelled across the newsroom that I needed to start writing fiction because my leads were too flowery! My excuse was that it was painful listening to a city council meeting then having to report the boring details. I wanted a little pzazz, a little something extra that would be FUN. Historical fiction was the next step: I loved history and I loved making things up.

What is your research like for your historical novels? Do you usually visit the places featured in your books?

The only places I was not able to visit were Russia and Egypt [for Catherine the Great and Cleopatra]. Otherwise, I went to France three times for Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine [poor me], and made several visits to Valley Forge, Philadelphia and Morristown for the Dear Americas set during the Revolutionary War. I went to Kansas for the Prairie River series; all my books set in California, Utah, Colorado and Idaho are based on research from when I lived in those states.

If you could go back in time for a day (with guaranteed safety!) where would you visit? Would you choose the setting from one of your books, or somewhere else?

The Holy Land, to hang out with Jesus for the day. I haven't yet written about that era.

How did you decide to write a sequel to The Winter of Red Snow after all these years?

I had always wanted to continue Abigail's story, so when Scholastic invited me to do the sequel I was thrilled.

What are some of your own favorite books and authors?

Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Theodore Taylor. Favorite book growing up was Island of the Blue Dolphins, because I lived on the beach looking out toward the Channel Islands. I could picture where the real Karana had lived in solitude for 18 years.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

For years teachers, parents and young readers have asked where ideas come from and what it's like to be a writer so I've started a blog said...
Very good! It's so nice to read an interview that actually explores the author's skill. I, also, love Gregory's books!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

controversial topics #2: writing about mormon history

A 12-year-old girl from Utah sent me a thoughtful letter about ACROSS THE WIDE AND LONESOME PRAIRIE. She explained that as a Mormon she was hurt by my portrayal of Brigham Young and the early Latter Day Saints, saying he came across as "lazy, demanding, and dumb" and his pioneers as "quite negative."

I immediately re-read Hattie's diary, hoping to see it through her eyes because I remember taking extreme care with the research and writing. I have great respect for Brigham Young as a leader and visionary, a city planner. When I lived in Salt Lake, it was the only place I've ever been able to navigate without a map! The grid is so practical I never got lost, and the same is true of other Mormon towns here in the West. I have many LDS friends -- dear and wonderful people -- and would never want to hurt them.

So line-by-line I analyzed the story then wrote to her:
     'You're right, there is criticism of the Mormons, but I had made sure those remarks were quotes from characters -- not Hattie's narrative -- and that these quotes reflected attitudes of the time. I was hoping my readers would also notice how often Pa defends the Mormons and Brigham Young: he tells the others to stop judging them, that there's nothing wrong with resting on the Sabbath; he praises them for inventing the "road-o-meter" that measures miles traveled and for inventing a 'barometer' to measure the altitude; and for building two ferries to earn money. He calls them "enterprising" and sympathizes with them by saying "Brigham Young's people are trying to start a new life, just like us."
     In the end Hattie decides that Indians and white folks are alike: "some are honest and kind and others are liars and thieves." She never once criticizes Mormons, but instead shows curiosity and wishes she could meet the two children traveling with Brigham Young. For details on his group, I used a journal written by one of the apostles who was on the 1847 trek, lent to me by an LDS friend.'

This gracious young reader responded by thanking me and saying "I think I understand the history there." Her sign-off made my day: "Your devoted fan."

Friday, August 12, 2011

in praise of teachers, our most valuable resource

This week we've been enjoying three of our nephews, 10 year-old twins and an 8-year old. Their father--my brother--is a 4th grade teacher and is leading his boys and their Taiwanese mother through the mountain west on a camping tour of history. On their way to Idaho, they took a side-trip to an old stagecoach station in Oregon to see the grave of Sacajawea's son, Pomp Charbonneau -- Pomp, of course, was the baby in her cradleboard during Lewis & Clark's journey to the Pacific.

With my brother at dinner, stories abound. He's so excited to describe finding part of the early railroad near Donner Pass that he delays eating the burger and salad before him. While this story evolves into one about Chinese laborers in the 1860s, I watch his boys help with the dishes. This means holding their plates below the table where Poppy and Daisy have been waiting for just such an opportunity. Dogs understand little boys and visa-versa.       

my favorite teacher & his boys
I'm mesmerized by my brother, a tender father and a gifted teacher. As his older sister I can testify that he is a BORN teacher. All his life he has looked up in wonder at the clouds and birds, wondering about flight. He taught my sons how to make paper airplanes ... oh, that's another thing that happens at dinner, things fly, I mean little origami-looking UFOs that soar over the table to the couch. If his boys or mine ask what it would feel like to be eaten by a shark, he'll pause with his hamburger mid-air then begin a graphic but delightful response.

Summer vacation for my brother--as it is for so many teachers--involves more learning and discovery, more excitement for what he'll be able to share with his students in the fall. Yesterday he took his boys fishing in the Tetons, explaining that Colter Bay was named after Private John Colter of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the first white man to 'discover' Yellowstone. My brother showed my nephews the geysers then drove up to where the battle of Little Big Horn took place. Early this morning he messaged me from his i-pad with a four-word assessment: "Custer had it coming."

I can't wait until they drive back through Boise on their way home, to hear what else they've learned. I'm proud of my brother and all the devoted educators out there.

Teachers: our country's most valuable resource.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

controversial topics #1: Iroquois slaughter ordered by George Washington, 1779

George Washington was one of my childhood heroes. As kids, we loved hearing how he chopped down his father's prized cherry tree when he was six-years-old. Whether fact or myth, the story set a good example about telling the truth. Personally, I was relieved he didn't get spanked because maybe my parents would follow his parents' example.
Dear America: Cannons at DawnSo as a grown up I was thrilled to write about the Father of Our County for Scholastic's Dear America series, first with The Winter of Red Snow then its sequel, Cannons At Dawn.

Research is one of my most favorite things in the world, but sometimes I hate what I discover. Details about war, for instance, and ugly truths about heroes.

Confession: When I learned how cruelly General Washington treated the Iroquois, there was a flicker in my brain that said, 'ooh, my characters don't need to mention this.' It was 1779. The Indians were aiding our enemies, the British, but Washington said that before there would be any peace talks with the tribes, he was going to teach them a lesson: He ordered his Generals Sullivan and Clinton, to destroy the Iroquois settlements in western New York. The campaign was a victory for the American army, but devastating for our Native Americans.

In Cannons At Dawn Abigail writes in her diary:  "Thousands of our soldiers burned the grain and vegetable crops, the cornfields, and fruit orchards. They set torches to the longhouses. Forty villages went up in flames. Now there will be no fall harvest and nothing for the Indians to plant in the spring. Many warriors died defending their homes, many were captured, then marched to a prison camp."
          Abby and her mother are further distressed knowing winter is coming and these Indian families will have nowhere to live. In fact, many who fled north to Fort Niagara starved and froze to death. Abby says, "When I imagine their suffering, my heart hurts."

My flicker of denial passed and I got mad. Why hadn't I learned this as a kid? Was this blight of history ignored in the California schools because the Revolution was "back East"?  Whatever the answer, I decided my characters should report all sides. It's a chance for today's children to glimpse a tragic but important truth:

War is hell. Heroes can disappoint. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 4th 1866, firecrackers & My Darlin' Clementine

My Darlin' ClementineNuLine AVL/CS-20 44 Lbs. Cast Steel Nuline AnvilSeveral years ago in a small Colorado town, we were awakened at dawn by the thunderous boom of a cannon. Turns out it was July 4th and one of the traditions in this burg was to blast everyone out of bed before sunup to begin celebrating, like it or not.

I was reminded of this when researching My Darlin' Clementinefor Holiday House. The story is set in an Idaho mining camp, in 1866, where there was constant clamor from the stamp mills, from brawling, gambling, gunshots and rough language. And on July 4th there was extra special noise: Black powder explosions started at dawn along with Chinese firecrackers, which continued throughout the day. The afternoon entertainment really grabbed my attention: anvil firing. What the heck was that? Might as well weave it into the novel!
So Clementine described how two blacksmiths each carried a heavy iron anvil in their arms, from their livery stable down Main Street [PHOTO, above].   "When they reached the meadow, one of the smithies set his out in the open. Dog Face Sam was waiting there with a sack of black powder, which he poured onto the anvil's flat surface. Next he laid out a long white fuse that dropped to the grass. The second smithy brought over his anvil and set it upside down on the first one, so the two flat sides were together.
       A sandwich is what came to mind, a dynamite sandwich.
       Before you could count to ten, Dog Face Sam had struck a match against a stone, lit the fuse, and was yelling, 'Run for your lives!'"
       I was on the schoolhouse step watching the spectacle of folks running into the woods as fast as they could, men holding onto their hats and ladies shrieking, children scattering every which way. 
      A boom shook the ground like cannon fire. Black smoke rose up with the explosive clank of iron upon iron. No one got killed that I could tell, but a small boy knocked himself out from running into a tree."

Now that's a party! Happy Independence Day everyone ... I hope you're safe and not awakened by cannons!

Monday, June 6, 2011

banning a kid's book from the children's section: the power of one self-righteous parent

This weekend I read with interest a Wall Street Journal article about edgy children's literature. In Darkness Too Visible, Meghan Cox Gurdon took many of my colleagues to task for writing explicit or violent novels for teens. I admire these Young Adult authors. It takes guts to tell stories that aren't going to end up as a Hallmark movie.

The Winter Of Red Snow (Dear America)I thought, well at least my books won't be ripped to shreds by Ms. Gurdon. Most are for younger kids anyway and are fairly pleasant. No dogs die and there's usually a happy ending. HOWEVER, I love researching history and learning stuff they didn't teach in school -- which is a lot. I've been privileged to have publishers who trust me to tell-it-like-it-was and weave truths into stories that hopefully will inspire kids to read and learn. And hopefully inspire them to care about the future, seeing to it that our country doesn't repeat mistakes of history.

Silly me! Yesterday, I received an email from a mother who disapproves of The Winter of Red Snow, a Dear America story set at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. Her letter:

[no salutation] "My 9 yr old daughter, who is a gifted and talented student, has loved reading the Dear America Series (approximately 14 of them). Here are her comments about your book that I felt I had to pass them on to you:
     'I think it's inappropriate for someone my age, especially the part with the human hands and feet in a trough. I understand it you're trying to make it as detailed as possible but I think it's too much. Also it makes me afraid to read other Dear America books because I don't want to have to read something that makes me cry.'
     Just for your information, Ms Gregory, we have reported the gore of your book to our local library and they pulled it off the shelf of the juvenile section...I think maybe they're reshelving it for Young Adults in another location.
Thank you, 'Jane Doe'"

Hm. We've handed our kids a messed up world -- political chaos, wars in the Middle East, economic disaster, bullying and shootings in their schools, a nuclear meltdown, an epidemic of teen and young adult suicide -- and this mother is so worried that her daughter might cry at a shred of historic realism that she marches down to her local library and succeeds in having the book taken off the shelf so that other children and families won't be able to access it in the juvenile section? Are you kidding me!

What about the "gifted and talented student" destined to be our future president of the United States? I hope she will have been allowed to read and to cry and to be horrified by the affects of war, and that she -- okay, or he -- will be appalled by overprotective parents trying to ban books because the topics are icky.

I'm appalled. And I'm furious. I edited out my earlier rough language here, even though it would have bumped me up to the Young Adult section and put me in good company.

Readers, what do you think?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

answering children's letters Part 1

Holiday Evergreen FOREVER Stamps, Strip of 20
This afternoon I'm taking a break from a Fun Writing Project to answer some children's letters, a different sort of fun.

My post office box was stuffed with mail from all over -- Wyoming, Iowa and Michigan, northern Sweden, and from a Mennonite boy in Pennsylvania. What delighted me the most was that many of these children had tucked in return postage to encourage my response. Or as one third-grader wrote in her pretty handwriting: "P.S. I've included a stamp and when you get a chance to write me back to my school that would be awesome."

I'm hurrying because most of the return addresses are to the schools and I worry summer vacation has already started. If teachers would PLEASE tell their students to include a home address, there's a greater chance my letter will reach them. Or if such personal detail is a 'safety' issue, have the students write in the early spring with the date so I'll know in which order to answer.

Mail from young readers is always a thrill. One fifth-grade boy from Northampton thanked me for my books then went on to more substance: his love of playing football. "I was the nose guard. I'm that guy in front of the ball snapper. We won 4 and lost 4. Let's get off of football. My favorite color is orange and my favorite food is general tos chicken. It is chinese."

I love kids! They're so refreshing.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

writing for children & quirky inspiration from Roald Dahl

Last week a writer friend sent me a present: Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald DahlStoryteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock (Simon & Schuster). It landed on our porch with a loud ker-thunk because, I'm not kidding, it's as hefty as a door-stop.

Roald Dahl of course is famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and for being outrageously quirky. On page 547 of his bio, he explains what makes a good children's writer. I love how he puts it and shall end this post with his words:

     [The writer]  must be a jokey sort of fellow ...  unconventional and inventive ... He must know what enthral[l]s children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort. Many of them are sensitive to good writing and can spot a clumsy sentence. They like stories that contain a threat. "D'you know what I feel like?" said the big crocodile to the smaller one. "I feel like having myself a nice plump juicy child for my lunch." They love that sort of thing. What else do they love? New inventions. Unorthodox methods. Eccentricity. Secret information. The list is long. But above all, when you write a story for them, bear in mind that they do not possess the same power of concentration as an adult, and they become very easily bored or diverted. Your story, therefore, must tantalize and titillate them on every page and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself, "Is this too slow? Is it too dull? Will they stop reading?" To those questions, you must answer yes more often than you answer no. [If not] you must cross it out and start again.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

controversial book covers #2: American Indians through the eyes of mainstream publishers

1989 cover
When my first novel, Jenny of the Tetons, was about to be published the bound galley arrived with a beautiful wrap-around cover. I was thrilled. At first.

Then I looked closely at the painting. The mountains weren't the Tetons and Jenny, a Shoshone Indian, resembled a white pioneer. Her face was pale, her hair short, and she wore a gingham dress. I protested vigorously to my editor. Not only was the cover inaccurate, it showed nothing of Jenny's proud heritage. I pleaded for a do-over: for Jenny to be in her native clothing, which was described in the novel, and for the Tetons to be authenticated. This is one of the most distinctive ranges in the West! That they and Jenny were generic, was a disgrace.

The painting was tweaked: Jenny's skin was darkened and she was given braids [PHOTO, above]. Dress was the same, ditto the mountains. When I asked why more wasn't done, my publisher answered, "Artistic license."

Jenny of the Tetons (Great Episodes)
2002 paperback reprint
The paperback reprint is worse. A white girl is featured on the cover [PHOTO, right]. In the background is a fuzzy photo of an Indian woman on horseback, pulling a travois with two children in what looks like a reed cage. She is holding a baby in a cradle-board. This Jenny looks haggard and bummed out. It's a sad example of a publisher relegating a Native American to the background. Is it because of marketing in this case, that a fair-haired girl will sell more covers than a tired Indian? I hope this stereotype is just a mistake and that publishers will start doing more to honor our indigenous friends.

Jenny Leigh was a real person. She was married to an English fur trapper and they had six children. She was so respected and admired, Jenny Lake in the Tetons was named for her.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

writer's block & Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island ~ The Master Edition (Kindle Master Editions)One of my happiest memories of our boys' childhood was reading aloud to them before bedtime. The heart-thumping adventures in Treasure Island were cause for a late night and "just one more chapter." They could recite pirate Pew's last words as several horses thundered toward him:
         "Johnny, Black Dog, Dirk ... you won't leave old Pew, mates--not old Pew!" Then we'd re-read his gruesome end: "Down went Pew with a cry that rang high into the night; and the four hoofs trampled and spurned him and passed by. He fell on his side, then gently collapsed upon his face, and moved no more."

I'm enjoying this classic once again, especially remembering it through the eyes of our young sons who are now grown-ups. And after all these years, my admiration for the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, remains high. "How'd he do that?" I wonder, savoring a scene or a stretch of pirate dialogue. He makes it seem easy.

HeidiSo it was a surprise to learn that he had writer's block with this novel, which he began in 1881 on a rainy Scottish morning. He drafted the first fifteen chapters, but then set his pen down. He couldn't concentrate. Ill with tuberculosis, he traveled to Switzerland. Like Clara in the novel Heidi by Johanna Spyri, he breathed in the fresh alpine air and was soon revived. He sped through another nineteen chapters to great success. Treasure Island was serialized in the magazine, Young Folks, then published as a book in 1883. It has never been out of print.

This morning I am squirming with writer's block. A trip to the Swiss Alps would cure this! I'd be so enchanted by the beauty and cow bells, I'd get to work -- wait -- first I'd go hiking then find a café for pastry. A day would pass, then a week. Finally it would settle in that I wouldn't be able to concentrate until returning home to this plump green chair where I now sit, untroubled by tuberculosis or travel fatigue.

I'm inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson and all the other authors tormented by doubts, but who keep on picking up the pen, so to speak. So onward I trudge, trying to follow in footsteps of the great.

Monday, April 4, 2011

when the sun is hot, my characters go swimming! -- Bronte's Book Club, etc.

Bronte's Book ClubEvery author needs at least one reader who adores her personally as well as her stories. I'm fortunate to be well-acquainted with my special reader. She and I email daily and we've had many adventures traveling, swimming, and hanging out together: my mother!

Recently we braved Alturas Lake in the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains. The water was freezing, but so clear we could see sunken logs deep, deep below. While we dried off in the sun and ate our picnic, she asked about my writing. As usual, I started digging for compliments. 

Quick to oblige, Mom said, "Honey, I just love that so many of your characters go swimming!"

Hm. I thought a minute. She was right! We started ticking off the books: When Cleopatra VII sails from Alexandria to Rome and the ship anchors at the island of Malta, well, it's HOT! The cool, blue Mediterranean beckons. Waiting for her Dinka guards to give her some space, she wades in with her maid, their "chitons float[ing] up like sails." In The Legend of Jimmy Spoon, Jimmy wants to show off his swimming skills for Nahanee so he dives in the river, but unfortunately lands a spectacular belly flop -- my little brother did that once.

after a swim 2nd from left, 1964
Then there's Bronte's Book Club. The setting is based on the small beach town of my childhood in Southern California. Bronte swims in the harbor, goes boogie-boarding and walks on the beach with her friends. When an incoming wave splashes against their knees, the friends scatter up to dry ground like sandpipers. But not Bronte. She throws up her arms and lets herself fall into the surf. She lies in the water, letting the foam wash over her, savoring the tingle of salt on her skin. I am that girl. 

My newest book, Cannons At Dawn, will be published May 1st. Abigail finds herself on a dusty trail following Washington's soldiers. It's a hot summer day, VERY hot. What a surprise ... a creek is right there and ... well I won't spoil it for you ha ha!

Monday, March 21, 2011

kids fighting in the back seat & research: The Great Railroad Race

2009 Topps American Heritage #113 Completion First Transcontinental Railroad - Great American Event (5/10/1869 - Promontory Point UT)(Baseball Cards) The August heat shimmered up from the desert in watery waves as we drove through Utah. Our mini-van had A/C yet still our windows were warm to the touch. It was close to 100 degrees out, we were low on snacks, and our boys were fighting in the back seat.

The Great Railroad Race: the Diary of Libby West, Utah Territory 1868 (Dear America Series)"You'll appreciate this some day," I told them as we pulled up to the visitor's center at Promontory Summit. This was a research trip for Scholastic's The Great Railroad Race. I couldn't wait to show our sons the historic spot where Union Pacific and Central Pacific locomotives met nose-to-nose in 1869, finally joining America by rail.

We piled out of the van just in time to hear the shrill, but exhilarating whistle of a train chugging along the tracks. It was coming from the east with great plumes of smoke rising from its engine, reenacting that last stretch of sagebrush, the grand Wasatch Mountains in the background. What a beautiful sight! I felt so shivery and excited, I grabbed my husband's arm.

"Where are the boys?" we asked each other. 

The gift shop had a vending machine. We found our darlings wrestling for what turned out to be the one and only soda. I was sad they didn't seem to enjoy the history around them, but over the years they've told me -- many times -- how much they loved our family excursions and loved reading the stories I wrote afterward. That makes me feel good.

Meanwhile, I wonder about the tiny photo above. It shows an exuberant crowd on May 10, 1869, after the last spike was driven into the rails. The guy at the top appears to be hoisting a bottle of champagne. One bottle. I wouldn't be surprised if some of his buddies had tried to wrestle him for it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

funny little dogs & Catherine the Great

Catherine: The Great Journey, Russia, 1743 (The Royal Diaries) (Royal Diaries, The)A fragile book on my shelf is a first edition published in 1859: Memoirs of the Empress Catherine II, Written by Herself. Translated from the French, it's full of great details that added to the fun of writing about her.  Catherine: The Great Journey, Russia, 1743 was the final book in Scholastic's Royal Diaries series and focused on her life as a young German princess and her journey to St. Petersburg.

She described meeting her future husband, Peter, when she was ten years old and he eleven. Already he was fond of alcohol, "his attendants finding it difficult to prevent him from getting intoxicated at table." Poor kid. He was a Swedish Duke and the nephew of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, yet doomed to a life of troubles.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Dog - 6 Charms Keychain - Gift for Dog LoverOne of Catherine's most comical memories was about her little spaniel named Ivan Ivanovich. She and her maids dressed him in costumes and brought him to dinner. "He sat at table with us, had a napkin put round him, and [ate] out of his place with great propriety." Sometimes he jumped up to inspect the dishes, helping himself to "a little pâté, a biscuit, or the like, which made the company laugh."

Catherine doesn't say if any grownups were seated with them, but I suspect there were. The kid in me laughs to picture this frivolity in the royal palace. Actually, the adult-me thinks it's pretty funny, too. I couldn't resist writing it into the story.

When my editor asked for input on the cover illustration, I said, "Oh! The dog, please show the dog!" The artist was Tim O'Brien who did the other Royal Diaries. I love how he painted Catherine holding Ivan Ivanovich in front of the snowy palace. It's one of my favorite covers.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Washington's birthday, 1778 -- The Winter of Red Snow

On February 22, 1778 a farmer in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania noted in his journal that it had been windy and dark all day. It was during the Revolutionary War and the Continental Army was encamped in this frozen valley. The farmer probably didn't know or care that this stormy Sunday also happened to be General George Washington's 46th birthday.

The Winter Of Red Snow (Dear America)But Martha Washington cared.

When researching The Winter of Red Snow  for Scholastic's Dear America series, I was delighted to read that she had planned a surprise for her husband. Knowing that he loved music and loved to dance, she arranged for the army's artillery band to serenade him at Headquarters, a lovely stone mansion by the Schuylkill River. After supper that evening of the 22nd, the sound of fifes and drums drew the general away from his warm hearth.

Apparently Mrs. Washington stepped outside to thank the musicians. She took fifteen shillings from a tiny silk purse tied to her waist, paid the bandleader then invited them all inside. Young Abigail writes in her diary: Through the window I saw the General with his hands on his hips and his pigtail bouncing -- he was doing a jig!

This festive evening may have been the first public celebration of his birthday. As an author, it was great fun to image this party with dancing and a scrumptious dessert. In the back of the book, there's a recipe for "Martha Washington's Great Cake" thanks to The Women's Committee of the Valley Forge Historical Society. It must've been a doozie with its 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, etc., and "fresh brandy."

Happy President's Day, everyone!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

brownies for breakfast & other research: Bronte's Book Club

Bronte's Book ClubToday I'm meeting one of my research partners for lunch. She's the friend who suggested I include a brownie recipe in Bronte's Book Club. Pourquoi? It would encourage kids to read!

Hm. The logic sounded wobbly until she explained: As a girl she fell in love with books after finding a fudge recipe in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming. Inspired by the novel and energized by the fudge, she became a voracious reader. Made perfect sense.

So I agreed. My friend offered to help "research" the situation. We wanted something simple, that kids could whip up without ruining the kitchen. Something they might like to serve to friends if they were hosting their own book club. I forget how many boxes of brownies we tried. We experimented with marshmallows, nuts, applesauce, chocolate and butterscotch chips. Some batches were gross, others launched us into a sugar orbit. We begged neighbor kids and family to be taste-testers. Thankfully no one keeled over, in fact, after a few days they finally gave two-thumbs up.

In the story Bronte bakes brownies for her friends. At first no one shows up at her book club, so she freezes the treats for the next time. Eventually however, she eats them straight out of the freezer and needs to bake more. Personal research was helpful here.

Anyway, the recipe is printed in the back of the novel along with hints for getting friends together. Suggestion #9 is my favorite: In the author's experience, dogs are a welcome addition to book clubs. They're good listeners, they clean up spilled snacks, and they don't use cell phones.