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.