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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Secret Destination

Secret DestinationIf I hadn’t made the trip myself, I don’t think I would believe how quickly you can travel from the curious world of the Las Vegas Strip to what seems to be its diametrical opposite: the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Red Rock is composed of desert and rock formations, the kind of place that inspired one website to urge visitors to leave news of their intended destination with a “responsible party” before they journey into its mysteries.

The Vegas Strip is composed of showgirls and casinos. In other words, it’s the kind of place where visitors should leave news of their intended destination with a “responsible party” before they journey into its mysteries.

It’s almost as if Las Vegas keeps a giant secret wilderness tucked away in its backyard—a secret unknown to many Vegas visitors who don’t venture beyond the familiar flashing lights. And yet, now that I know that secret is there, a whole new dimension has been added to my understanding of the Las Vegas experience.

Discovering a secret can be illuminating when you’re on a writing road trip, too. Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given about characterization came from mystery writer Ellen Hart. She urged me to give every one of my characters—even those who play small roles in my stories—a secret.

She was right. These secrets have added a wonderful dimension to my understanding of my stories. Now that all of my characters have something tucked secretly into the backyards of their lives, my stories are more infused with potential and humanity.

Every young writer knows the refrain “I’ve got a secret.” Remind your students of it; urge them to study their own characters, to find out what kind of wilderness each one has kept hidden from the world.


Melissa Sweet

In this interview with Melissa Sweet, illustrator of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked six questions and Melissa kindly took time from her busy days of visiting schools and creating art.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?

My first introduction to William Carlos Williams was when I was seven years old and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw a  painting by Williams’s  friend Charles Demuth, based on Williams’s poem “The Great Figure.” I loved both the painting and the poem.

The Great Figure

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

My short list is Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and, yes, William Carlos Williams is now on that list.

When you begin to illustrate a book like this, what is your very first step? And what do you do next?

William Carlos Williams prescription padFirst I decide how and where to research. I’m looking for clues as to what to draw to inspire the illustrations. For this book I read biographies about Williams, his poetry, and newspaper articles about him. It was important to travel to Rutherford and Patterson, NJ, to see where he lived and worked. At the Rutherford Public Library, I saw his bowler hat, his manual typewriter,  and the prescription pads he used as a doctor. All those things became inspiration for the art. Then, back in the studio, I make a dummy placing the words on the page and begin to sketch to out the paintings or collages. Lastly, I make the final art.

A River of WordsIn the book, we see handwritten bits of poetry in several different styles of handwriting and we also see typeset scraps of paper as well as intriguing bits of type. Do you create these by hand? By computer? With friendly help?

All my art is created by hand—I don’t use the computer to make the illustrations. I cut up old books and use lettering from wherever I can find it. Incorporating calligraphy and hand–lettering into the art makes the piece more fun and lively. A typeset font would look very different, maybe somewhat static. In A River of Words I recreated Williams’s handwriting in places, and hand–lettered his poems within the art. The content of the poems became the inspiration for what to draw.

A River of WordsAre there entire spreads you prepare that don’t make the final cut of the book? When you send the illustration in for review by the editor or art director, do you leave things unglued so they can be moved if requested? And what do you use to affix the parts of your collage? 

Sometimes spreads need to be redone, but rarely. The editor and art director see the dummy, but typically they don’t see the art in progress, just the final art. It’s difficult to plan or sketch a collage–it happens as you go along adding and subtracting elements to make it work visually. (Even I don’t know exactly how the art will look in the end!) I use stick glue, white glue, and depending on the materials, I might need something strong like epoxy. Kids often ask how my arts gets “in” the book. My work is generally photographed since there is too much dimension in the pieces to scan them. Those photos are downloaded to the designer and the text is added digitally.

If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?

I have two questions: Where was the red wheelbarrow? What did you think when you first saw it?

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet


The Quest

ruby slippersMy one visit to Hawaii might best be defined by an afternoon quest.

I was there to say goodbye to my cousin, who was coming to the end of her battle with cancer. I discovered she had developed a singular ambition: to find a pair of size 11 ruby slippers. She took great pleasure in the thought of giving them as a gag gift to a male colleague originally from Kansas. But she was too ill to shop herself, and I sensed
she might never have the chance to deliver the punch line to her grand joke.

But—hadn’t I journeyed thousands of miles for just such a purpose? It became my personal mission: if necessary, I would walk across lava fields to get my hands on the Rainbow State’s last pair of appropriately hued, and enormously sized, footwear.

I was fortunate in Hawaii’s geographic realities. I drove along, making sure to keep the ocean to my left, rationalizing that eventually I would either stumble across enough shoe stores, or I’d circle the island back to where I began. Many hours and much adventure later, I returned triumphant to my cousin’s home, ruby red trophies in hand.

If young writers are struggling to develop their story’s plot, the model of a character on a quest can be a great help. Ask them this: What is their character seeking to find? Is it a treasure or a person? An undiscovered land or the answer to a mystery? Their own destiny? Or are they searching for something they have lost, or something they have yet to find?

A quest offers writers the opportunity to explore mission and misdirection, trepidation and triumph. And when well told, it allows readers the chance to go along for the ride as well: even, perhaps, to a place that is somewhere over the rainbow.


Spring, Where Are You?

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in SpringPhyllis: Each year, as soon as the snow melts, I’m eager to go search for native wildflowers. Two of the earliest flowers bloom in two different protected places a car ride away. And every year, I go too early—either the ephemeral snow trilliums aren’t even up yet or the pasque flowers are still such tiny, tight, furry brown buds that they’re hard to spot in the dried grass on the hillside where they grow. When I do finally find snow trilliums and pasque flowers in bloom, I know spring really has arrived.

A little boy named King Shabazz also goes looking for spring in Lucille Clifton’s The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, illustrated by Brinton Turkle. His search takes him down city streets rather than up windy hillsides, but the impetus is the same.

When King Shabazz’s teacher talks about spring, he whispers, “No such thing.” When his mother talks about spring, he demands, “Where is it at?”

One day after his teacher has talked about blue birds and his Mama had talked about crops coming up, King Shabazz has had enough.

“Look here, man,” he tells his friend Tony Polito, “I’m going to get me some of this spring.” They set off through their urban neighborhood, searching for spring. They look around the corner, by the school and playground, by the Church of the Solid Rock, past a restaurant and apartment buildings until they come to a vacant lot walled in by tall buildings with an abandoned car sitting in the middle.

 When the boys go to investigate a sound coming from the car, Tony Polito trips on a patch of little yellow pointy flowers. “Man, the crops are coming up!” King Shabazz shouts. The sound turns out to be birds who fly out of the car, where the boys discover a nest with four light blue eggs.

 “Man, it’s spring!” says King Shabazz.

As do picture books by Vera B. Williams, Ezra Jack Keats, and Matt de la Peña, Clifton’s book celebrates the city where so many of us live and where spring arrives, as well, even if you don’t yet believe in it.

Lucille CliftonJackie: I loved this book so much that I had to do a little research on Lucille Clifton, who wrote more than twenty books for children. You mentioned celebration, Phyllis. Here’s what New Yorker magazine writer Elizabeth Alexander said of Clifton after her death in 2010:

Clifton invites the reader to celebrate survival: a poet’s survival against the struggles and sorrows of disease, poverty, and attempts at erasure of those who are poor, who are women, who are vulnerable, who challenge conquistador narratives. There is luminous joy in these poems, as they speak against silence and hatred.

There is luminous joy in this book—joy in the characters who are best friends and wait at the stoplight, which they have never gone past before, to see what the other will do; joy in the discovery of a bird’s nest on the front seat of a beat-up car. This is a story of survival, too. The boys do cross the street, even though Junior Williams has said he will beat them up if he sees them. They will survive. They have courage, each other, and appreciation for spring.

and then it's springPhyllis: Julie Fogliano’s book and then it’s spring is another story of waiting, this time in a more rural setting, told in second person in one long extended sentence whose syntax captures the feeling of waiting and waiting and waiting.

“First you have brown,
all around you have brown,

the book begins, and proceeds to seeds, a wish for rain, rain, a “hopeful, very possible sort of brown” but still brown. As time passes (and the single sentence continues) the child gardener worries that the birds might have eaten the seeds or bears tromped on them, until finally the brown

“still brown,
has a greenish hum
that you can only hear
if you put your ear to the ground
and close your eyes…”
until finally, on a sunny day,
“…now you have green,
all around you have green.”

Jackie: I love Julie Fogliano’s language: “…a hopeful, very possible sort of brown.” And the brown with the greenish hum just makes me smile. I know this is a blog about writing but I have to mention Erin Stead’s illustrations. Her possible-birds-eating-seeds painting is full of jokes—there’s a bird wearing a bib, a bird flat on its back, birds billing (as in billing and cooing) a bird trilling. It would be worth giving up a few seeds to see these lively birds in one’s yard.

Phyllis: And the sign to keep bears away (which the bear is using to scratch under his arm) made me laugh out loud: “Please do not stomp here. There are seeds and they are trying.”

Iridescence of birdsThe Iridescence of Birds, A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan also uses the syntax of an elongated sentence to heighten a sense of yearning and show how Matisse’s love of color and light might have bloomed from his childhood “in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray and the days were cold” and his mother brightened their home with painted plates and flowers and red rugs on the dirt floor, and his father raised pigeons “with colors that changed with the light as they moved.” The single long interrogative sentence is answered by another, shorter question:

“Would it be a surprise that you became
A fine painter who painted
And the iridescence of birds?”

Jackie: This book does for me what all good picture books do, it makes me want to know more about Henri Matisse—and his remarkable mother. She knew that a red rug trumps a dirt floor any day—and she must have had a lode of artistic ability herself. And this book makes me want to try to write a story in one sentence.

Waiting-for-Spring StoriesPhyllis: Waiting-for-Spring Stories by Bethany Robert was a baby gift to my first daughter, and it continues to enchant. Papa Rabbit, “like Grandpa Rabbit before him and Great-Grandpa Rabbit before that,” helps to pass the time with his little rabbits until Spring arrives by telling stories, seven in all. And true to a child’s sensibility of the world, wind talks, a star yearns to sing, the little rabbit’s too big feet complain about the ways he tries to shrink them, a worm reassures a rabbit, and, in my favorite, “The Garden,” vegetables rebel against a farmer who plans to eat them for supper.

“’Get him, boys,’ called the onion.” And they do. The onion makes him cry, potato trips him, the carrot whacks him on the head, and they escape by rolling out the door.

“After that, the farmer rabbit always ate pancakes for his dinner.”

Jackie: Those vegetables could be in a horror picture book, for sure. But maybe they are too funny for a horror picture book.

Phyllis: The book and the storytelling end with sunlight pouring in the window and the snow beginning to melt from the windowpanes.

“Spring is here at last!”

Jackie: These stories remind me of Arnold Lobel’s work in their sure portrayal of characters I care about in just a few words. And I so love the talking grass and the talking feet and the feisty onion, carrot, and potato. I don’t know why but I found myself wanting to hear something from the little rabbits between the stories, something about the waiting or the upcoming spring. But that’s another book. These stories are cozy and charming and just right to read while we wait.

pasque flowers trilliumPhyllis: Last week I saw pasque flowers and snow trilliums. This week I found green leaves growing in my garden. This year’s time of yearning is over. It’s time to go outside and glory in springtime, here at last.


Middle Kingdom: Kapolei, Hawaii

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard regularly visits the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This journey takes us to Kapolei Middle School in Kapolei, Hawaii, where Lisa talks with Library Media Specialist Carolyn H. Kirio.

Carolyn H. Kirio, Kapolei Middle SchoolLisa: What are three to five things our blog readers should know about your community, school, or library/media center?

Carolyn: Aloha! Greetings from our 50th State! Located in the Pacific Ocean, our state is made up of eight major islands and 124 islets, stretching in a 1,500-mile crescent from Kure Island in the west to the island of Hawaii in the east. Most of the state’s residents live on Oahu, and nearly ¾ of them reside in Honolulu, the state’s capital. Kapolei Middle School is located in Kapolei, a newly developed suburb on the west side of the island of Oahu. Our school services 1,450 sixth to eighth graders and is a year-round multitrack school.

Lisa: What recent changes or new elements are affecting the work you do with students?

Carolyn: Although it is not a recent change, our school is on a multitrack year-round schedule.  To accommodate our large school population, our students are divided into four tracks. This means that at any one time, three of the four tracks are attending school while the fourth is on intersession (vacation). Furthermore, our instructional cycle is a year-round education (YRE) pattern which offers us an alternative way to construct the school calendar. The rotation sequence follows a year-round 45/15 calendar where one track returns from vacation and one track leaves every 15 days. Our teachers do not have a classroom to call their own because they constantly rotate into the room vacated by the teacher leaving on intersession. The transition is completed in a single afternoon with the exchange of file cabinets, instructional supplies, and desks. After the dust settles, our school updates the room and phone lists to reflect the track change.

Kapolei Middle School, Carolyn H. Kirio

Besides being very confusing and chaotic, you might be wondering how this affects the library. Many times I attempt to do school-wide instruction or initiatives. What would normally take a week to complete teaching all classes stretches out to two or more based upon the number of students who need to cycle through, as well as the intersession that occurs for the track. Because timing is everything, I have enlisted technology to assist me in teaching. Using the strategy of flipped classroom instruction, I create many lessons in mp4 format and have them available on demand through our closed circuit and intranet system. The library has several dedicated stations that teachers can call up on demand. As time allows in their busy schedules, they can fit my lessons in throughout the day when it best fits within their course instruction. Some of the most-viewed segments include my lessons on bibliography instruction, recognizing and avoiding plagiarism, and book infomercials I create to get students excited about different titles in the collection.

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often by your middle school students?

Carolyn: This year has been a roller coaster as far as tracking which books are trending and which are not. Book-inspired movies and television shows have influenced book borrowing throughout the year. However, once the popularity of the show wanes, students quickly transition back to the writers who reliably create great reads. Narrowing it down, the five authors and their series that remain consistently popular include Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus), Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Rachel Renee Russell (Dork Diaries), R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), and Darren Shan (The Saga of Darren Shan/Cirque du Freak).


Lisa: What book(s) do you personally love to place into middle school students’ hands?

Cacy & Kiari and the Curse of the Ki'iCarolyn: On a daily basis I work as a literature matchmaker to pair students with potential books that they will connect with and enjoy. Engaging students in conversation, my goal is to discover what their personal interests are and what topics they are passionate about. Oftentimes I love to introduce students to Hawaiian historical fiction such as titles written by Graham Salisbury, who focuses on story lines and communities set in different parts of our state. Because characters and settings are familiar, students can easily understand and relate to his books. An exciting new book has recently been on my recommendation list: Cacy & Kiara and the Curse of the Ki`i (Hawaiian statue or idol) by Roy Chang. Roy is the author and illustrator and has skillfully crafted an adventure set in a world where our main characters interact with Hawaiian myths and legends. An intermediate school fine arts teacher, Roy knows what interests middle school kids and created a hybrid manga and chapter book that is an instant draw. I hope that his sequel will be out soon because students can’t wait to revisit Cacy and Kiara and embark on another journey filled with Hawaiian culture and mythology!

Lisa: If you had a new staffer starting tomorrow, what piece of advice would you be sure to give them?

Carolyn: Gee, where do I begin? Get ready for a bumpy ride! Some words of wisdom that would be shared would include:

  • Always keep students busy and engaged
  • Network with your surrounding school librarians and get peer support
  • Organize yourself and make a plan (immediate and short-term goals)
  • Get to know all the teachers and staff in your school
  • Model desired attitudes and behavior
  • Enlist the help of a teacher to collaborate with
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Everyday is a learning experience, just do your best
  • Find the time to laugh and have fun!

Lisa: What do you like most about working with middle schoolers?

Carolyn: No two days are ever the same! Students are filled with never-ending energy and questions. They keep you constantly on your toes and thinking outside of the box. Given the opportunity to grow and challenge themselves, they exceed expectations and surprise you with what they can produce.  

I laugh every day! It is such a weird stage in life for these kids, that if you can’t laugh with them, you will go insane. Middle schoolers have the ability to really push themselves, be independent learners, and tap into their creativity and curiosity. They are constantly questioning who they are, discovering what they can do, and testing where their boundaries lie. As a teacher it can be exciting and frustrating at the same time. They are what they are, which is, in short, growing up.  Still children at heart, they can’t help but want to learn and play, so why fight them? Join them!

Lisa: How have books or other things changed for Middle Kingdom readers during your time as a librarian?

Carolyn: I have been a librarian for 23 years. During this time I have seen the phasing out of the card catalog, floppy disks, and microfiche. I have seen computer storage increase from megabytes to terabytes, to archiving in the cloud. The Internet has made the world a smaller place, offering access to information, resources, and experts from around the globe, and with a click, universally translated into a familiar language that can be understood and comprehended by everyone. Recently technology has progressed and desktops have been replaced by the adoption of apps, mobile technology, and eBooks. Middle Kingdom readers have increased access to information, and libraries are now open virtually 24/7. With so much knowledge at their fingertips, it will be truly amazing to see what they discover and how their curiosity inspires this next generation of learners.


Skinny Dip with Bobbi Miller

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

My definition of celebrity is someone whom I admire, who I think has contributed to society in his actions or words. To me, celebrity is more than a pretty face. He does more than recite words that someone else wrote, acting out a story that someone else has planned out and directs.

Eric Kimmel is my favorite celebrity. I always love talking to him. Another celebrity I can’t wait to meet is Monica Kulling.  Of course, I’d love to talk to Mark Twain, too, about his adventures riding the stagecoach west and his time in San Francisco. And Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, about the times she lived in.

But let’s be real: my friends are the celebrities in my life.

Eric A. Kimmel, Monica Kulling, Mark Twain, Abigail Adams

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

John Adams by David McCullousI am currently reading—for the second time—John Adams by David McCullough. I love McCullough’s blending of narrative and research, creating such a powerful story. Of course, we know all of history is a story. He does it so well. I just finished Einstein, by Walter Isaacson. For a long time I always thought I’d love to meet Einstein, speaking of celebrity. It turns out, while he didn’t like the label “celebrity,” he certainly lived the life. Einstein was such a hound dog. For all his lofty thought experiments about space and time, he really didn’t have a clue about life on this planet. He had an interesting, complex life, and saw a lot of history. It would be more interesting to speak to one of his friends, wives, or girlfriends, to see their reaction to navigating such a complex personality. One of my favorite movies is IQ, in which Walter Matthau plays Einstein as an old man. I like that Einstein.

Even more interesting, I bet it would be cool to listen to a conversation between Einstein and Stephen Hawking!!

Another book I just read was Happy Birthday, Alice Babette, written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by Qin Leng. This books tells a gentle story about a birthday party between two friends, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Of course, we know the history of those two celebrity writers, which makes this book all the more impressive.

Favorite city to visit?

Big River's Daughter Girls of GettysburgI’ve visited many historical cities and towns as I researched my stories. I visited Gettysburg, PA several times, walking the battlefields, as I researched my Girls of Gettysburg. I’ve driven along the Mississippi River for a ways, as I researched life along the river for my Big River’s Daughter. I’ve been to Boston and the surrounding area, which is intently interesting as it relates to John Adams. I’ve been to Washington, DC, of course, and just love that history. I’d like to go again and check it out more, especially Arlington National Cemetery.  And I’d love to go to Philadelphia, for all the history.

Tea? Coffee? Milk? Soda? What’s your favorite go-to drink?

Diet Coke, most definitely. Although I’ve cut down quite a bit since my young years and now drink more water. I recently had my first cup of coffee, made very weak and included sugar free hazelnut creamer. Very tasty! And it did the trick: I was up at 4, and I had a long day of traveling ahead of me. I was able to make it through without nodding off.

gr_plutoIs Pluto a planet?

What a tricky good question!

Pluto is a hound dog, and he’s every bit as loyal a friend as Lassie and Old Yeller. Just like Mickey Mouse!


Jen Bryant

In this interview with Jen Bryant, author of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this month.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?

I was in high school—and it was part of an anthology reading that we did for English class. I had disliked/not understood/ been unmoved by all of the other poems in this assigned reading (I recall that the language in those poems was archaic and flowery, and the forms very, VERY traditional)—and then—whooosh—like a breath of fresh air, here were a few selected W. C. Williams poems, which used little punctuation, were freeform in structure, and focused on everyday scenes and real life. They were the first poems I enjoyed and felt “welcomed” into.

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

He’s definitely on the list—and there are too many others to name here, so I’ll just start by listing a few of them: Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wendell Berry, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Marge Piercy, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Phillip Levine, Marilyn Nelson, Gary Soto, Galway Kinell, Eamon Grennan, Jane Kenyon … (see? way too many!)

When you turned your manuscript in to your editor, did you envision how the book might be illustrated? What do you think when you first saw Melissa Sweet’s ideas for illustrating Williams’ life?

Melissa and I did not know each other before Eerdmans paired us for this book. Gayle Brown, the art director at EBYR, chose Melissa as the illustrator—and I believe that this single act has influenced my writing life ever since! I’d already written three picture book biographies on creative people (O’Keeffe, Messiaen, and Moore) and I had never met ANY of those illustrators. All of their styles were very distinct, very different from one another’s—so, no, I had no clue what an illustrator would do with this text. You can just imagine my reaction when I saw Melissa’s art for this book … I wept with happiness. She’s truly amazing.

A River of Words

How did you find information about this poet’s younger years?

I had to piece scenes together from many different sources: forewords and prefaces to poetry collections, a few audio recordings, an old film, some archival records, etc. The key, though, was to keep the river as the central image around which the rest of the story could spin. Once I had made that decision, the rest became a bit easier.

A River of WordsDid you have to cut much material from your original concept of the book? Did you go through a few revisions with the editor or many revisions with the editor?

I always prefer to give the editors more than they need—then let them give me feedback on which scenes/stanzas are more compelling and which are redundant or less compelling (and thus can be cut.) Yes, there were on-going revisions with this manuscript—but if I recall correctly, the originally-submitted version was the one that was sent to Melissa and she got started from that text. We didn’t make HUGE changes to this story, but we tweaked wording here and there—and then the back matter was added later on.

If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?

“If you had been able to quit your day-job (as a physician) and could support your family full-time by writing, would you have done that? OR, did your daily rounds—with all kinds of patients and in many different settings—feed your art so much that you needed to do both in order to write well?”


Jen, thank you for sharing your answers with our readers. Your style of writing biographies is so unique, and so well researched, that it’s valuable for us to know more about the process of this book’s creation.

For use with your students, Jen’s website includes a discussion guide that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet


Making a Deep Map

I like to think of landscape not as a fixed place but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet. ~ Gretel Ehrlich

Book projects get set aside, even those with fast beating hearts that you can’t bear to be away from for a second. Sickness, holidays, other stuff pushes it away. The book’s heartbeat slows and goes quiet. You pray it’s merely hibernating.

Come spring, longing for that project rises like sap. You’ve missed it so much! You open files, re-read scenes that were so hope-filled last fall. Remember how you chatted up the project to editors? “Best thing I’ve ever done,” you crowed.

Maybe not.

At the computer, you rearrange sentences, pretend you’re revising. When you reach the point where you quit, that cliff of white space, no words fall into place. You can’t fool the book into stepping over that chasm, continuing down the path as if nothing happened.

You must start the journey over, but not by calling back characters who have gone shy. Return to the very beginning. Before the beginning, even.

Gather photos, magazines, field guides. Collect supplies like scissors, glue, crayons, colored pencils, nothing intimidating. Clear off the dining room table. You need different surfaces, different light, an unfamiliar chair.

You’ll map the landscape of your novel in all its particulars. As William Least Heat-Moon did in PrairyErth, his deep map of Chase County, Kansas, you will drill below the dirt, pop up again in a field, lay back to gaze at stars only your characters can spy. You could buy a new spiral-bound blank book for this project, but you find a vintage ledger. The cover’s linen-like texture reminds you that you’ll be using your hands, not the keyboard. No glass will come between you and this map of your novel.


Where do your characters live, really live? Begin with the most basic element, the ground. Study the dirt and rocks. Find out why they are important. Move on to the landscape, the hills, the creek, the neighbor’s cows. Don’t leave out a thing. It may matter. It may not. Don’t decide now.

What’s in the sky? What are the seasons? What animals and birds live there? Bugs? Remember, you are never alone and neither are your characters. Does your character love one season over another? Does she trip because she’s watching a hawk scribe lazy circles? Put them all in, the animals and birds and bugs. Cut out pictures. If you can’t find a picture, draw. Take notes. If not your character’s, then your voice.


Draw a diagram of the place. Sketch its legends and scandals, its history and folklore. Even the new Starbucks has a history. What used to be in that building? What happened on that spot fifty years ago? A hundred? If you don’t know, look it up or make it up. Keep moving.


What about the house? Draw the floor plan. Did your character sign her name on the inside of her father’s desk drawer? What does she like to eat? Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pizza? Anything curry?


Don’t worry about making pretty pages—they won’t be hanging in the Louvre. If you run out of room, create lift-up flaps and journal underneath. While your hands stay busy snipping and pasting, your mind will clear space for the novel to ease back.

How will you know when to stop mapping and take up the story again? Your character will claim the landscape and demand to be turned loose in it. Close your deep map and hold it against your chest. Feel that second heartbeat? Now all you have to do is follow your character through her world.


Pork Roll Sandwich

Pork Roll Sandwich
Serves 4
One of New Jersey's most famous foods, the Pork Roll sandwich is made from John Taylor's Pork Roll, first made in 1856. It's a lot like SPAM, but different, but to make this recipe, if you can't find Taylor Pork Roll, you can cut SPAM very thinly and use it instead.
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Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
10 min
Total Time
20 min
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
10 min
Total Time
20 min
  1. 4 slices Pork Roll (about 6 ounces)
  2. 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  3. 4 Kaiser rolls, split in half and toasted
  4. 4 large eggs
  5. Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  6. 4 slices American cheese
  7. Ketchup, if you like
  1. Score the edges of the pork roll slices in 3 or 4 places. This will keep the slices flat and prevent them from buckling as they cook.
  2. Heat the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork slices in one layer and brown well on both sides, about 6 minutes. Remove the slices and place one on top of each toasted roll bottom.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and crack the eggs into the skillet. Break each yolk with the corner of your spatula. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. After about 2 minutes, flip the eggs and continue cooking on the other side. Immediately place a slice of American cheese on top of each egg. Cover with a lid to melt the cheese, about 30 seconds.
  4. Place each egg and cheese quadrant on top of a browned pork roll slice. At this point you can squeeze ketchup on top if desired. Top with the other half of the roll.
  1. We think perhaps poet and Dr. William Carlos Williams would have eaten this sandwich at least once, being from New Jersey. You might find this article interesting because it gives the history of the sandwich as well as places where you might enjoy the sandwich when you visit New Jersey.
Adapted from from The Cooking Channel
Bookology Magazine

Treasure Hunt

gemsOne of my favorite road-trip memories is “mud-puddling” in western North Carolina. We had followed signs that lured us in with the promise of gemstones practically free for the taking. The space we wandered into looked like a roadside picnic area, and seemed ideal for the kind of lazy afternoon we had in mind. We each purchased buckets of dirt-covered rocks for a small fee, and then claimed our places along
a bench in front of a trough of running water.

While sunshine dappled the green of the surrounding hills, my best friend and I reverted back to one of the great delights of childhood: mucking about. We played in the muddy water, washing off our piles of rocks, convinced each time that the natural beauty of a stone was revealed that we had discovered a fabulous treasure. Could this be a ruby? An emerald? A sapphire?

We left a few hours later with nothing more than a pile of pretty rocks. But we had found something much more valuable in our treasure hunt than a gemstone: one perfect afternoon, reclaimed briefly from a childhood we’d both left behind long before.

Words are the treasures I’ve carried forward with me from that childhood; I’ve been collecting my favorites for most of my life: Collywobbles. Lugubrious. Gobbledygook. Insouciance.

Why not spend a few moments on a perfect afternoon taking your students on a linguistic treasure hunt? Ask them to them crack open the dictionary and write down one or more new word “gems” and their meanings. Have them use these new-found words to inspire their own poems, or create a collective class poem by swirling all the words together.

I’ve made a career out of proving that there are lots of treasures to be found when you go mucking about amidst


Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Beverly Cleary, 1971

For the last month I have been reading articles, toasts, essays, and interviews with one of my favorite authors of all time: Beverly Cleary. She turned 100 years old this week. Everything I read about her makes me misty-eyed—the birthday plans in her home state of Oregon … her memories of being in the lowest reading group, the Blackbirds, in elementary school … that she writes while baking bread … how she named her characters … that she was a “well-behaved girl” but she often thought like Ramona (me, too!!!) … the fan mail she still receives in a steady stream … SIGH.

My second grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read us Ramona the Brave. It was a new book that year—she used it to show us how to open a brand-new book and “break in” the binding so that the pages would turn easily. She told us that it was part of a series and I remember being out of sorts that she would start mid-series, but then I was so engrossed in the story that I dropped my grudge.

Reading Is FundamentalMy elementary school was a RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) school. RIF day was easily my favorite day of the year. I understood that RIF existed to put books in the hands of kids who would not otherwise own books. I had books at home, though many of my classmates did not, and I was always a little nervous that somehow I would be excluded—what if someone reported my little bookshelf, or the fact that I received a book every birthday? What if I was pulled aside—not allowed to go pick a book?! But it never happened. No questions asked—just encouragement to pick a book of my very own. RIF Bliss!

Ramona the PestThat second-grade-year, when my class went down to the entrance lobby of the school to visit the tables and tables piled with books (this remains my image of abundance), the very first book I saw was Ramona the Pest. I knew it had to be related to Ramona the Brave, and was proud to have the presence of mind—my heart beat hard in the excitement of my discovery!—to confirm that the author’s name, Beverly Cleary, was listed under the title. Mrs. Cleary lived in Oregon, Mrs. Perkins said. It was a place so far away from central Illinois that I was surprised one of her books could have made its way to our RIF tables. I scooped it up and carried it around with me as I perused all of the other books. We were allowed to choose only one book, but none of the others even came close to tempting me to put down Ramona the Pest.

illustration by Louis Darling

illustration by Louis Darling

I’m astounded when I look at lists of Beverly Cleary’s books and their publication dates. She started the Ramona series in 1955. My mother was nine years old! The last in the series, Ramona’s World, was written when my son was two, in 1999. And that’s just the Ramona books! What a career! At least three generations have read and loved Cleary’s books.

I still have that little trade-paperback book. It’s well worn—I read it many times as a kid. And I read it to my kids, too, of course. It’s the only Ramona book I own—through all of the cover changes and box sets, I’ve just stuck with my one little RIF book.

I might change that this week, though. I think perhaps I’ll buy myself a boxed set of Ramona and make a donation to RIF in Beverly Cleary’s honor.

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary!


Unexpected Visitors

Mary Casanova horses

The Casanova horses (l to r): Midnight, Sable, and Ginger

As writers, we learn to expect the unexpected and be ready to capture experiences in words. One such moment stands out from this past winter for me.

My husband and I were sleeping in our cabin loft, on 60 acres where we keep our horses. I woke at 3 am to crunching snow below our window. I sat upright, wondering what sort of late night intruder it could be. An escaped convict heading north to Canada? Our three horses? Had they escaped from their pasture? No. We had tucked them in the barn in warm stalls due to 30 below temps outside that night. That left a moose. Or two. The crunching of snow continued. I crept to my window and gazed down at the entry steps.

Three dark rumps of … horses! But they couldn’t be ours. I woke my husband. We threw on boots, jackets, hats and gloves. The moment we stepped outside, we caught the sight of not three, but seven horses as they trotted off through the woods under a star-sprinkled sky. The air, deep cold, turned the sound of hoofbeats into drumbeats as the herd trotted off down the county road.

Now what? We couldn’t let horses disappear into the night without trying to rescue them. We’d woken more than once to the blood-chilling howls of a wolf pack. Other times the shrieking cries of coyotes. Riskier still was for the horses to continue down the county road, which joined up eventually with a busier highway. The horses, we started piecing together, must have escaped from our friends’ ranch in the other direction.

From our barn we hastily gathered halters, lead ropes, and a bucket of sweet-feed: a mixture of oats, corn, and molasses. In our Ram pickup, we set off. A mile and a half later, our headlights caught the startled eyes of horses to either side of the road. Charlie slowed to a stop.

I hopped out, sat on the metal tailgate, and shook the bucket of oats. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The horses ears pivoted toward the sound and they nickered. Though skittish in the truck’s white beam, the horses zeroed in on the bucket. “Go!” I called, knowing that one bucket and seven horses could turn dangerous.

Charlie turned the truck back toward our barn and paddock, all seven horses trotting along, jostling to get closer to the bucket. A tailgate in 30 below zero is dangerously cold without long underwear or snow pants. I’d dressed in a hurry. Now I worried my skin would freeze through my jeans to the metal. Orion and the Milky Way looked down as we turned into our driveway toward our barn.

I hopped off the tailgate, hurrying with the bucket toward the red metal gate and unlocked it. Gate wide, I scattered oats on the snow-covered ground and dashed out of the way. The horses squealed and whinnied, circled and kicked in competition for the grain. When the last horse entered, I shut the gate, then I threw them extra hay bales from the hay shed.

Horses with heavy winter coats do survive cold, as long as they have plenty of feed. Without a wind, the horses would be safe until morning. We left a message on the answering machine of our neighbors, who would wake up to an empty pasture and come retrieve their horses. Satisfied with our good deed, we returned to the warmth of our bed, feeling like true wranglers.

That night’s rescue still feels like an unexpected dream. Fortunately, when we awoke to runaway horses we were prepared with oats, equipment, and a place to contain them. To our relief, in this harsh northern landscape, it all ended well.

As writers, we need to be equally prepared to capture unexpected ideas. We need to lasso them with pen and notebook paper, napkin, or grocery bag—whatever’s on hand. Lure them in with a quick note on an iPhone. Sit down at a laptop or computer and start typing. We need to take swift action and capture unexpected ideas when they pass our way. Or risk losing them forever..


March Madness

March MadnessAsk any 3rd-8th-grade teacher about “March Madness” and there is a good chance you won’t hear much about basketball. You may, however, get an earful about a topic that is about as near and dear to our hearts as standing outside for 25 minutes of recess in bone-chilling, zero-degree weather. In Minnesota, the acronym is MCA. In Texas it’s STAAR. A whole slate of states call it PARCC (ten in all, including Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland New JerseyNew Mexico, New York and Rhode Island).

Teachers are deemed winners or losers because of it (some have even gone to prison). Kids get physically ill because of it. Parents don’t seem to understand it. Newspapers have a field day with it and perhaps most troubling of all, legislators who don’t seem to know much about education make all the rules about it.

Testing. March Madness followed by a month-long extension of what is about as funny as a lame April Fool’s prank. That’s how the topic of testing feels for many teachers like myself. “You have got to be kidding!” is a phrase that is often used in conjunction with the pressure most of us teachers feel to prep the kids and make sure they perform.

Growing up in the great state of Iowa, I am no stranger to #2 pencils and filling in bubbles. After all, the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) was the first standardized test to arrive on the scene way back in 1935. These days, however, we’re faced with hours, days, and weeks of eye-straining, posture-breaking, stuck-to-the-chair, online testing. Can we even be sure we’re measuring math and reading skills rather than a kid’s ability to use a mouse and scroll tab correctly?

Recently, someone asked me if I thought there was any merit to these tests. There was a hint that maybe my poor attitude about high stakes testing is directly related to the fact that my school’s proficiency rate on the reading test is an unimpressive 41.3% (more than 20% lower than our district average). Could I be a bit biased about the value of the tests because my students simply aren’t able to show what they know or that they know much? Am I just making excuses for my students because of their demographics (more than 70% free/reduced lunch, almost 50% non-native English speakers, about 90% students of color)?

I struggled to find the words to express my feelings and share the real  story. If only the general public and all those uninformed legislators could spend a day in Room 123! They would see how brilliant my kids are. I have the list of all those qualities that can’t be measured by a test committed to memory. I believe in the wisdom offered up by that list. Kindness, empathy, creativity, musical talent, perseverance, positivity, etc. My students live and breathe that stuff every single day.

In lieu of hosting all those folks in my classroom (limited space that already contains 32 little people), I decided to ask my kids to share their “completely honest, totally true, and very thoughtful thoughts and feelings about MCA testing.” I wasn’t prepared for their responses. Some made me smile, others brought tears, a few shocked me and all made me proud to teach such capable learners. The spreadsheet of test scores may not back me up, but their words will.  Then again, maybe I am biased. I’ll let you be the judge.

From kid #1:

I think sometimes I just can’t do some things. I think on MCAs sometimes I just press on things that I don’t even know. I think I will need a walk around the school. I think sometimes it’s so quiet and I think when it’s the MCAs I’m bored. I think I just want to go somewhere. I think I’m not even doing my best. I feel mad like I can’t do some things. I feel bad if I get bad grades. I feel hot in there [computer lab]. I feel like MCAs are not even good for you. I feel like I just want to sleep. I feel like MCAs are horet [horrid]. I feel not so happy. I feel like I just want to make things feil on the grow [fall on the ground].

From kid #2:

I feel weird doing the MCA because I’m so stressed out that I’m going to fail and I don’t want to fail. Sometimes I’m nervous because I have to think a lot and it hurts my stomach. I feel like I’m going to throw up but I don’t. When I feel nervous my head hurts and I most of the time wish I was somewhere else or someone else.

From kid #3:

Honestly I’m not really worried at all because I have been doing Read Theory a lot. I’m just happy for the MCAs and trying to stay positive that I’m gonna do great. Relax and try my best. And try to give evidence and reread and use what I know. I’m gonna try to do the MCA practice about 2 times a week to understand things and know how to do things when MCAs don’t have instructions.

From kid #4:

I think that the MCA test has a big impact on me because it’s like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my back all week. I am so so stressed out because of this test. It’s making my head spin around like a ride at the state fair!

From kid #5:

Try not to be fast. Take it slow. Think hard. Concentrate. Know what you’re doing. Reread it. Do what you can. Think what the teacher told you. Never give up. Read. Keep reading. Read more. Think what you’re doing. Answer questions. Learn new words.


Light vs Dark

The Dark is Rising

A recent paperback cover, I quite like this. It’s as elegant as the story itself.

Do you have a book that you re-read periodically? At least every few years? Sometimes more often?

For me, it’s The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. I have read thousands of books in my lifetime, but this book stands out as the one that captured my full heart, mind, and imagination. When I think of it, a hush falls over me. I respect this book on many levels.

Each time I read about Will Stanton, met with challenges that threaten his family, his village, not to mention his life, I am filled with wonder. How did the author write about such dire circumstances while keeping the reader assured that good would find a way to defeat evil?

That’s what I notice most about The Dark is Rising, even more than the other books in this series. Cooper writes about a sky laden with snow, the heaviness of it, the blanketing of feeling and sound. Surrounded by the menace of weather that shouldn’t be that way, the reader finds places of comfort. Family, the church, traditions, many of the villagers … these are people and parts of life that we can count on to support us, defend us, and surround us with love and security.

The Dark is Rising

This is the original hardcover dust jacket.

We’re living in a time where we’re aware of how much Dark there is in the world. This book is needed. Our movies and television shows and many books are filled with anti-heroes and problems that go unresolved because that is “real life.” We can change that.

I like to think there are really Old Ones out there, like Merriman Lyon and Miss Greythorne, who are looking out for world, leading the fight against the Dark. We can’t rely on Old Ones: we need to be reminded that it’s up to us to push the Dark back so the Light can shine brightly.

I enjoyed the romp of the first few Harry Potter books, but they are simply not as captivating and reassuring as The Dark is Rising. Susan Cooper writes with power, elegance, and a deep understanding of the human psyche. Each time I finish the book, I am convinced Ms. Cooper must be one of the Old Ones herself, fighting for the Light to prevail. We need her. Read this book yourself and give it to a young reader. Walk on the side of the Light.

(A side note: Do not be tempted to watch the movie The Seeker instead, which was purportedly based on The Dark is Rising. It is nothing like the book.)


Skinny Dip with Barbara O’Connor


Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

Missing MayMissing May by Cynthia Rylant. I read it at a time when I was struggling to find my writing voice. I was so struck by the strong sense of place in that book. It was obvious that West Virginia was Rylant’s heart’s home. So I decided to write stories that were set in my heart’s home—the South—and specifically the Smoky Mountains. I wrote her a letter to tell her the impact her book had on me and she sent me a lovely hand-written note back, signed “Take good care. Cyndi Rylant.” *swoon*

Favorite season of the year? Why?

SUMMER all the way!! I love the heat. The flowers. The long days. Love it all.

What gives you shivers?

Heights. OMG….. And one more thing: snakes. *shivers*

What’s your hidden talent?

Tap DanceI’m actually a pretty good tap dancer. I took tap lessons for years, from childhood all the way up until just a few years ago. I love to tap dance. It totally suits me much more than yoga.

Morning person? Night person?

Morning all the way. I turn into a pumpkin about 8 o’clock. My writing day never extends beyond about 3 o’clock … cause I’m heading toward Pumpkin Town. (Trivia for you: There is actually a town near my hometown of Greenville, SC, called Pumpkin Town.)


Bookstorm™: A River of Words


Bookmap for A River of Words

A River of WordsAuthor Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet have teamed up on a number of picture book biographies about creative artists. We’ve chosen to feature their very first collaboration during this month in which poetry takes the spotlight. By telling us the true story about poet William Carlos Williams’ childhood and growing up, with his clear poetry surrounding the pages, they awaken interest in young people who may think this no-longer-living, ancient (he was born in 1883 and died in 1963) poet is not within reach. They’ll be surprised by how his poetry will touch them. And he made a career for himself as a poet while he was being a country doctor! What an interesting fellow.

We trust you will find this month’s Bookstorm useful for teaching poetry, teaching writing, units on nature, talking about nonfiction and biography … and enjoying the quieter moments when reading poetry is one of life’s pleasures.

For more information and discussion guides, visit Jen Bryant’ website.

You can learn more about Melissa Sweet, the illustrator





Picture Book Biographies of Poets. From Shakespeare to Woody Guthrie, from Dave the Potter to Pablo Neruda, you’ll find top-notch biographies of poets with whom kids find connection. Several of these are excellent mentor texts as well.

Biographies of Poets for Older Readers. If you’d like to use A River of Words with older grades, we’ve included a few biographies that pair well. For instance, you’ll find Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (Monica Brown and Julie Paschkis) on the picture book side and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Dreamer, also about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for the more comfortable readers.

Revolving Around William Carlos Williams. We’ve recommended a biography written for adults, a collection of Mr. Williams’ poems for children, and a book that was inspired by his poem, “This is Just to Say.”

Kids and Nature. Nature-deficit disorder is on many educators’ minds. William Carlos Williams had a significant connection to nature. He wrote about it often. We’ve included books with terrific ideas for enthusing children about going outdoors, both unplugged and plugged-in.

Collage and Mixed-Media Illustrations. Do the types of illustration confuse you? We’ll have an interview with Melissa Sweet this month that we hope will make you feel more comfortable discussing the art in A River of Words. We’ve suggested a few books that also use a mixed media style.

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.