Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

The Bluest Eye


It’s been years since I could keep up with my kids read­ing. When they first began read­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, I’d often read (or at least skim) the books they were work­ing on so I could ask ques­tions and talk about it with them. Then for sev­er­al more years, they would sim­ply tell me about what­ev­er they were read­ing — often in great detail. Some­times I’d read it, some­times not, but we could con­verse about it giv­en the amount of detail they shared. But even­tu­al­ly they read at a pace much faster than me, and they read more wide­ly, too. Both read way more fan­ta­sy than I do. #1 Son reads a lot of his­to­ry, and Dar­ling Daugh­ter a lot more YA than I man­age. These days, it’s often me ask­ing them for books to read.

As they each entered high school I decid­ed to try and read with them on the books they were read­ing in Eng­lish class. This is large­ly a re-read­ing of the clas­sics for me — I was an Eng­lish major, after all. And a few more con­tem­po­rary books, too. I haven’t man­aged to read every one, but many I have, and been glad I did. None more so than this spring’s Hon­ors Eng­lish 9 selec­tion: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Min­neapo­lis’ Guthrie The­ater is putting on The Bluest Eye this spring, and we had tick­ets in our sea­son pack­age. Last fall when they came I thought, “Oh, we should read that before we go…..” But I’d lost it in the dai­ly shuf­fle. I was thrilled when Dar­ling Daugh­ter told me The Bluest Eye was next on the syl­labus.

Toni Mor­ri­son!” I said. “I haven’t read The Bluest Eye in ages! I’ll dust my copy off and have a read with you.”

Mr. W. says it’s pretty…intense,” Dar­ling Daugh­ter said.

Indeed,” I said, as I scanned the book­shelves. “And beau­ti­ful. That’s how Mor­ri­son writes.” But The Bluest Eye was not in the M sec­tion on my shelf. Nor was it “mis­filed” some­where else — I looked every­where for it the next few days and final­ly gave up and bought a copy.

Twen­ty pages in I real­ized that I’d prob­a­bly nev­er read it. I had it all con­fused with Beloved, I think. It is quite a read. Intense seems like too sim­ple a word to describe it. So heart­break­ing. Appalling in too many ways. But such gor­geous writ­ing! And…important. It feels impor­tant to read this book. I’m grate­ful my kid has an Eng­lish teacher will­ing to take it on.

Our Guthrie tick­et night came and we went and watched the intense, heart­break­ing sto­ry on stage. I could hard­ly breathe through much of it. The hard scenes of rape and racism and hor­ror were beau­ti­ful­ly han­dled and I was so grate­ful to be sit­ting next to my four­teen year old as we watched. I was plumb full of grat­i­tude, in fact. Grate­ful for Morrison’s work; grate­ful for the work of the play­wright, Lydia R. Dia­mond; grate­ful for the actors who pre­sent­ed it to us with such exquis­ite artistry.

None of us will for­get this book and its play. I’m very glad to have final­ly read The Bluest Eye, and I’m thrilled to have read and seen it with my kid­do.


Squashed Fly Cookies

Choco­late Crois­sant Bread Pud­ding
Yields 9
Eat dessert first! Inspired by Rube Gold­berg’s love of Cool Whip (and Sarah’s love of writ­ing what makes her hap­py!)
Write a review
Prep Time
20 min
Cook Time
45 min
Total Time
1 hr 5 min
Prep Time
20 min
Cook Time
45 min
Total Time
1 hr 5 min
  1. 2 eggs plus 4 egg yolks
  2. 2 cups whole milk
  3. 12 cup unsweet­ened cocoa pow­der
  4. 1−1÷2 cups heavy cream
  5. 1−1÷2 tsp cin­na­mon
  6. 1 tsp salt
  7. 8 oz bit­ter­sweet choco­late
  8. 1−1÷2 cup sug­ar
  9. 1 tsp vanil­la
  10. 6 to 8 crois­sants
  11. Cool Whip!
  1. Pre­heat oven to 325 deg F.
  2. Whisk 2 eggs plus 4 egg yolks togeth­er. Set aside.
  3. Over a low flame, com­bine 2 cups whole milk, 12 cup unsweet­ened cocoa pow­der, 1 12 cups heavy cream, 1 12 tsp cin­na­mon, and 1 tsp salt in a sauce pan until smooth.
  4. Add 8 oz bit­ter­sweet choco­late, 1 12 cup sug­ar, and 1 tsp vanil­la .
  5. Stir.
  6. Slow­ly add milk-and-choco­late mix­ture to the eggs. Don’t be aggres­sive! (If you do, you
  7. will get scram­bled eggs.)
  8. But­ter an 8″ x 8″ bak­ing dish.
  9. Cut 6 – 8 crois­sants into cubes and place in dish.
  10. Pour choco­late mix­ture over crois­sants. Let them sit to soak up all the choco­latey good­ness. Be patient!
  11. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 – 50 min­utes.
  12. Scoop on some Cool Whip and eat!
Bookol­o­gy Mag­a­zine

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jack­son

We are hon­ored to inter­view the high­ly respect­ed Richard Jack­son, who is on to his next career as a writer. His most recent­ly pub­lished book is all ears, all eyes, a lush and irre­sistible read-aloud book, illus­trat­ed by Kather­ine Tillit­son (Simon & Schus­ter). We thought we’d take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with him about the pro­gres­sion from his edi­to­r­i­al career to his writ­ing career and the four books he has writ­ten.

Edi­to­r­i­al Career

Will you please tell us a bit about your edi­to­r­i­al expe­ri­ence?

After Army ser­vice, I grad­u­at­ed from NYC in 1962 with a Master’s degree in edu­ca­tion. I worked first at Dou­ble­day, not with children’s books, then at Macmil­lan and David White.

In 1968, you co-found­ed Brad­bury Press. You moved to Orchard Books in 1986 and then began the non­fic­tion pub­lish­ing imprint DK Ink in 1996. Three years lat­er, in 1999, you had your own imprint at Simon & Schus­ter with the ven­er­at­ed Atheneum Books. Has this jour­ney tak­en you around unex­pect­ed bends in the road?

I’ve nev­er been sub­ject­ed to a job inter­view.

As you were gain­ing expe­ri­ence, which edi­tors do you feel taught you the most?

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmil­lan.

Do you think most pic­ture book edi­tors are equal parts visu­al and ver­bal?

Most like­ly. For me, as writer, as edi­tor, the words are of first impor­tance.

What did your authors teach you?


While you were an edi­tor, did you always have a yen to write your own books?

No. But retire­ment — in so much as I am retired; I still work on a few books annu­al­ly by old pub­lish­ing friends — sud­den­ly stretched rather bland­ly before me. I began tin­ker­ing with words, with play, with word­play…

You’re work­ing with an edi­tor now, a col­league. What do you look for from your edi­tor?

Effi­cien­cy. A sense of humor. Taste. Can­dor — i.e., a will­ing­ness to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties of some­thing not yet final.

Con­sid­er­ing the Books You’ve Writ­ten

Have a Look, Says Book

inte­ri­or spread for Have a Look, Says Book by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kevin Hawkes

Have a Look, Says Book

Have a Look, Says Book
illus­trat­ed by Kevin Hawkes
Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schus­ter, 2016

Kevin Hawkes illus­trat­ed this book that is play­ful­ly focused on adjec­tives. The text rhymes but not in a way that feels read-aloud con­fin­ing. How do you work on the poet­ry in a pic­ture book?

In my head, often while dri­ving.

Sto­ry­time librar­i­ans are focus­ing more than ever on teach­ing. This book offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about the plea­sure of books, the love of words. Have you always been fond of words?

A ver­bal child was I. As opposed to ath­let­ic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

The sim­ple but enor­mous word “touch” has at least two mean­ings… There are many see, hear books, a few smell and taste books — hard­ly any about touch. Watch­ing chil­dren and grand­chil­dren touch the pages and pic­tures of a book, I thought…let’s see if I can hon­or that young-kid impulse: to point out, to make con­tact with a fin­ger, to search a book for a tac­tile dimen­sion equal to see­ing and hear­ing.

In Plain Sight

inte­ri­or spread for In Plain Sight, by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Jer­ry Pinkney

In Plain SightIn Plain Sight
illus­trat­ed by Jer­ry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books
Roar­ing Brook Press, 2016

The sto­ry in this book is uni­ver­sal, a grand­fa­ther and grand­daugh­ter who enjoy each other’s com­pa­ny. Grand­pa, who lives in a bed­room in Sophie’s house, always has some­thing for them to do togeth­er, to find some­thing he’s hid­den In Plain Sight.

What inspired this uni­ver­sal sto­ry of love?

Well, I was the Grand­pa, I think. Sophie, a sis­ter who died at four. She always announced her pres­ence with “Here I ahm.” In my imag­i­na­tion, the game ele­ment was as impor­tant as any­thing, so it was based upon a game my father played on us, his chil­dren, on Christ­mas night — find objects hid­den in unlike­ly places, such as a dol­lar bill wrapped around a book’s spine in a book­case — very tricky!

It’s so impor­tant for chil­dren who have old­er gen­er­a­tions liv­ing with them to see them­selves in books, to under­stand that fam­i­lies extend them­selves when need­ed.

Was it your idea to have Grand­pa sup­port­ed by a wheel­chair?

Jerry’s, I think. As was Grandpa’s ath­let­ic and mil­i­tary past, as was the cat.

This man­u­script was inter­pret­ed by the much-admired author and illus­tra­tor, Jer­ry Pinkney. How was he brought into this project?

Neal Porter’s idea, at Roar­ing Brook. They had not worked togeth­er before. I asked Neal, quite casu­al­ly, I remem­ber, if this fam­i­ly might be black (they weren’t while I was fol­low­ing the con­ver­sa­tion which accounts for the sto­ry here). Jer­ry widened and deep­ened every image; note Sophie’s school clothes, for instance. Or the illus­tra­tion on the bind­ing of the book — not a repeat of the jack­et, but some­thing new and on its own; that’s Grandpa’s nature, don’t you think; there’s always a lit­tle more to give.

all ears, all eyes

inte­ri­or spread, all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

all ears, all eyesall ears, all eyes
illus­trat­ed by Kather­ine Tillot­son
Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schus­ter, 2017

Your text for this book is so evoca­tive of being out­doors at night, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a forest­ed or wild area. Why did you want to share that expe­ri­ence with read­ers and lis­ten­ers?

The set­ting is a bit of woods, across a brook near our house in the coun­try north of New York City. Real coun­try, if you can believe. One night a yodel­ing fox awoke me and my wife. Moon and most­ly dark­ness. Still­ness, except for Mr. Fox. Mag­i­cal. We got the chil­dren up (they are part of my ded­i­ca­tion for this book) and, bare­foot, we went out­side, across the grass, up to the brook’s bank. We lis­tened and with­out enter­ing the woods, let the woods enter us. I hoped to write a poem to that night, that fox, that fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence.

When you wrote the text for all ears, all eyes, did you have an illus­tra­tor in mind? Why?

Yes indeed, the text was for Kather­ine Tillot­son always, once the open­ing words sprang from my mem­o­ry. She sug­gest­ed the project some­how, and inspired it all along, from a very ear­ly ren­di­tion of a lurk­ing owl. Next came Cait­lyn Dlouhy and Ann Bob­co (Atheneum’s bril­liant art direc­tor), and the four of us played for months and months. Until quite close to the “end,” I was fuss­ing with rhymes and line breaks. Such fun.

Many peo­ple who want to write books for chil­dren have been told that they’ll nev­er work direct­ly with their illus­tra­tor. Did you include instruc­tions for how the text might be illus­trat­ed? As an edi­tor, does your mind work that way?

I give a lit­tle guid­ance when the artist will need it — the main boy wears glass­es, for exam­ple. And I break the text into page and page turn units. In my head I’m imag­ing a movie. But the illus­tra­tor is the cam­era­man (or woman), and often comes up with total­ly sur­pris­ing and often just-right new views.

Don’t miss read­ing our inter­view with Kather­ine Tillot­son about this book.

inte­ri­or spread from This Beau­ti­ful Day, by Richard Jack­son, illus­tra­tion copy­right Suzy Lee

This Beautiful DayThis Beau­ti­ful Day
illus­trat­ed by Suzy Lee
Cait­lyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schus­ter, 2017

In August of this year, we’ll be treat­ed to anoth­er book you wrote, this one filled with humor and whim­sy. It begins with a bor­ing, rainy day, but the atti­tude of the three chil­dren and their moth­er brings out the sun.

With your con­sid­er­able expe­ri­ence as an edi­tor, do you reflex­ive­ly envi­sion your text on the page?

Reflex­ive­ly? I think not. I do imag­ine page turns — and often, as sug­gest­ed above, an illus­tra­tor will have a bet­ter idea and I’ll be tick­led.

When you were an edi­tor, did you look for­ward to the sur­prise of the illustrator’s rough sketch­es, their inter­pre­ta­tion of the author’s sto­ry?

Father Time and the Day BoxesYou bet! I once pub­lished a pic­ture book, George Ella Lyon’s and Robert Parker’s Father Time and the Day Box­es (o.p), using the sketch­es, which were per­fect as they were. Had I imag­ined them as Bob pre­sent­ed them? No way. It’s ide­al to be sur­pris­ing and just right from the get-go.

Now that it’s your man­u­script being inter­pret­ed, how does that expe­ri­ence dif­fer?

Not much dif­fer­ent. I hadn’t imag­ined a rainy begin­ning to this day, so was tak­en aback at first; even­tu­al­ly, I have come to see the wis­dom of giv­ing the nar­ra­tive this “hinge” in mood. What you sug­gest (that sun is atti­tude induced) is irre­sistible — and com­plete­ly Suzy’s idea.


Thank you for shar­ing your thoughts with us, Richard Jack­son!

I’ve admired the books he’s edit­ed, some of the finest in the chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture canon, so it’s a plea­sure to hear from him as he walks his next path as a writer. 


Just Another Roadside Abstraction

For this week’s writ­ing road trip, I offer you tex­ture.

I aim for an abstract ele­ment of a real­is­tic sub­ject and use tex­ture to add inter­est and sug­gest depth.

—a quote that to the best of my research abil­i­ties I find attrib­ut­able to artist Mar­garet Rose­man.

I liked the way the above quote spoke to how tex­ture can be used in visu­al art. But what role does tex­ture play in writ­ing? How can your stu­dents use tex­ture to add inter­est and sug­gest depth in their writ­ten work?

As writ­ers we talk about mul­ti­ple lay­ers of mean­ing. That’s a kind of tex­ture. Ask your stu­dents, “How many dif­fer­ent ways do you hope your piece speaks to an audi­ence? How many lay­ers deep have you gone down into mul­ti­ple mean­ings?”

Words them­selves have tex­ture for me, espe­cial­ly when read out loud. Remind your stu­dents not to over­look the sim­ple trick of speak­ing out their writ­ing. For instance, does describ­ing a character’s voice as “grav­el­ly” rather than “harsh” add more tex­ture when you say them both out loud? Or is it just a dif­fer­ent kind of tex­ture? What does your ear hear?

Words of var­i­ous lengths, sen­tences of var­i­ous lengths, all the way up through para­graphs or stan­zas of vary­ing lengths — when effec­tive­ly piec­ing togeth­er the threads at hand, a writer becomes a fab­ric artist, weav­ing togeth­er strands that have differ­ent heft and weight to cre­ate a unique tex­ture that is suit­ed to the piece, to the writer, and to the read­er. Encour­age your stu­dents to play with syn­onyms, to differ their sen­tence length to see how doing so cre­ates dif­fer­ent effects for their read­ers.

Remem­ber, we often expe­ri­ence tex­ture through our finger­tips — the same part of our anato­my that pounds out words on a key­board.

For today, that’s my take on “just anoth­er road­side abstrac­tion.”


A Paralyzing Lethargy

Lynne Jonell Page Break


No Trout Tomato Soup for Two

No Trout Tomato Soup for Two

After a day tromp­ing through the restored prairie, enjoy this deli­cious soup!
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time5 mins
Total Time15 mins
Serv­ings: 1
Author: Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin


  • 2 fresh toma­toes at least one cup of diced toma­toes
  • Salt and pep­per to taste
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 Tbsp flour


  • Cut up one or two good-sized fresh toma­toes — at least one cup of cut toma­to.
  • Put it in a pot and cook slow­ly for twen­ty min­utes.
  • Add salt and pep­per to taste.
  • Put the cooked toma­to through a food mill
  • or get some­one to help you put it in a food proces­sor.
  • Stir in one cup of milk blend­ed with one Table­spoon of flour.
  • Sim­mer for 5 min­utes, or until soup has thick­ened. Pour into 2 cups — one for you, one for a friend. Enjoy.

Some Writer!

I had the won­der­ful good for­tune of hear­ing Melis­sa Sweet talk about her work last week. It was a fas­ci­nat­ing pre­sen­ta­tion about her process, her research, her art. I left inspired, and with a han­ker­ing to find scis­sors and a glue stick and do some col­lage myself. (Let’s be clear, things would not turn out at all like Sweet’s gor­geous works of art….)

I’ve been car­ry­ing around her book, Some Writer! The Sto­ry of E. B. White, in my purse ever since. It’s signed now, which gives me an extra “zing” of joy every time I pull it out. I’ve read it sev­er­al times. I’m to the point now, as I’ve been with Charlotte’s Web since I was a child, that I just open it wher­ev­er and start read­ing.

Which is what I did in one of the drea­ri­est wait­ing rooms known to human­i­ty a few days ago. Before I’d fin­ished read­ing the quote that begins chap­ter five, the whin­ing child across from me stopped pes­ter­ing his moth­er for two sec­onds and called out to me.

Hey! Is that a kid book or an adult book?” His tone was chal­leng­ing. 

Well, tech­ni­cal­ly, it’s a biog­ra­phy writ­ten for kids — ” I said, and before I could add that any­one could read and enjoy it he inter­rupt­ed.

Then why are you read­ing it?”

It’s a real­ly good book,” I said.

Do you read oth­er kids’ books?” he demand­ed. His moth­er tried to hush him.

Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”


They often tell the best sto­ries,” I said as his moth­er tried to shush him again.

And then I took a chance.… “Would you like to look at it with me?” I asked.

Naw, I don’t like books,” he said, and he sat back in his chair in a huff.

Oh,” I said. “I’m sor­ry about that.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t going to bur­den this grumpy wait­ing child with any didac­ti­cisms about how impor­tant and joy­ful read­ing is, and how per­haps he might not have found the right book yet etc. So I went back to read­ing.

But the ques­tions con­tin­ued.

Is that a man or a teenag­er pet­ting that pig?” he asked squint­ing at the cov­er from where his Mom held him to his chair. So I told him it was E.B. White — point­ing to White’s name — as a young man, and before I could tell him who E.B. White was he said, “That’s not a name — E.B.! Those are just…letters. What’s his real name?”

Elwyn,” I said.

He laughed uproar­i­ous­ly. I went back to read­ing. But it wasn’t long before he man­aged to cross the wait­ing room aisle and sit beside me, all non­cha­lant-like. I opened the book wider, rest­ed it on my right leg, clos­er to him, and start­ed a game of I‑Spy.

I spy a ruler,” I said. He found it imme­di­ate­ly. He also found the birch­bark canoe and the small box of paper­clips. Sweet’s col­laged illus­tra­tions are packed with var­i­ous and sundry things.

He spied a mouse. I told him about Stu­art Lit­tle. We turned the page. I read him the let­ter White wrote to his edi­tor Ursu­la Nord­strom. He com­ment­ed that “E.B.’s” writ­ing wasn’t very neat and con­fessed his wasn’t either. We laughed about eat­ing 100,000 stalks of cel­ery and 100,000 olives, which is what White sug­gest­ed as a cel­e­bra­tion for the 100,000 copies of Stu­art Lit­tle that had sold — and which my young friend declared “nasty.” So we thought of bet­ter things to eat in cel­e­bra­tion and agreed that 100,000 of most any­thing was too much.

We con­tin­ued look­ing through the book. I didn’t read it to him so much as we enjoyed the illus­tra­tions togeth­er. He loved the rough sketch­es of Char­lotte done by Garth Williams. I told him a lit­tle about Melis­sa Sweet and her art stu­dio. He declared this infor­ma­tion “cool,” so I was glad I had it.

Even­tu­al­ly, the boy and his moth­er were called in, and then I was, too. When I came back out, the wait­ing room was emp­ty.

I think there’s a decent chance my young friend will check into Stu­art Lit­tle if he remem­bers the title. I’m sure he’ll remem­ber that the author’s first name was “E.B.”, and any librar­i­an or book­seller worth her or his salt should be able to help him out.

I do hope so.


Spring Break 2017

I’m still rel­ish­ing the mem­o­ry of spring break. Sur­round­ed by moun­tains and plen­ty of sun­shine, I stum­bled upon a lit­er­a­cy oasis that up until then, I had only vis­it­ed in my dreams. Almost a month lat­er, I am still intrigued and inspired by what I expe­ri­enced. I knew instant­ly that this mag­i­cal place would be the top­ic of my next Bookol­o­gy con­tri­bu­tion. In fact, I believe I have enough mate­r­i­al for a year’s worth of arti­cles about this very spe­cial sanc­tu­ary of learn­ing. I invite my read­ers to relive the day with me, now and in the com­ing months, as I share my take-aways from Zaharis Ele­men­tary School, a place where peo­ple “clam­or to bring their chil­dren… because of [a] unique approach to teach­ing and learn­ing.”  

Donalyn Miller and Maurna Rome

Don­a­lyn Miller and Mau­r­na Rome

Thanks to the won­der­ful world of Face­book, I seized an oppor­tu­ni­ty that I knew I couldn’t pass up. A few days before I was sched­uled to kick off spring break by board­ing a flight to Ari­zona, Don­a­lyn Miller post­ed that she was also head­ing to the desert to present at the Zaharis Lit­er­a­cy Con­fer­ence, Echoes of Learn­ing, in Mesa, Ari­zona. Those of us who have read The Book Whis­per­er or Read­ing in the Wild or are Nerdy Book Club mem­bers knew that this would be worth inves­ti­gat­ing! I looked up the school’s web­site and quick­ly dis­cov­ered that for just $50 I could attend the one-day con­fer­ence that fea­tured Don­a­lyn along with keynote address­es from Pam Muñoz Ryan and Dr. Frank Ser­afi­ni. I’ve had the priv­i­lege of see­ing all three of these high­ly respect­ed lit­er­a­cy gurus in the past and knew that I couldn’t go wrong. Spring break or not, I would be going back to school on my first day of vaca­tion. If the con­fer­ence had con­sist­ed of just these three excep­tion­al peo­ple it would have been enough. I had no idea that so much more await­ed me.

From the moment I strolled through the front doors and scanned the hall­ways, I could tell that Zaharis Ele­men­tary was not your aver­age, run-of-the-mill kind of school. Through­out the day, lit­er­a­cy con­fer­ence atten­dees were encour­aged to take tours, vis­it class­rooms, and mean­der through the hall­ways to get a clos­er look at the school and how it oper­ates.

The very first thing I noticed was a beau­ti­ful mur­al of two kids read­ing while sit­ting on a pile of books. A pletho­ra of author’s auto­graphs filled the spines and cov­ers of the paint­ed books; Jack Gan­tos, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Patri­cia Polac­co, Grace Lin, Mary Ama­to, Michael Buck­ley, and more than a dozen oth­ers. Clear­ly, I had dis­cov­ered a place where lit­er­a­cy was alive and well.

I round­ed the cor­ner and spot­ted a huge wall filled with framed 8 X 10 pho­tos of Zaharis staff mem­bers. Maybe not such an unusu­al dis­play, until you con­sid­er the large head­ing paint­ed above the frames: Our Lega­cy – A Love for Lit­er­a­ture. Every staff mem­ber was hold­ing their very favorite book in their school pic­ture. “Huh!” I thought to myself, “What a sim­ple and inex­pen­sive way to pro­mote a love of read­ing.” There is a rea­son Scholas­tic Par­ent and Child Mag­a­zine select­ed this school as one of the “25 Coolest Schools in Amer­i­ca.” 

Our Legacy Zaharis Elementary School

Once I signed in for the day and met Nan­cy, one of the friend­liest sec­re­taries ever (she hails from the Mid­west, hav­ing lived in Wis­con­sin and Min­neso­ta), I wan­dered from room to room and vis­it­ed with sev­er­al extra­or­di­nary teach­ers. I learned quite a bit about this amaz­ing school and real­ized that my first impres­sion was accu­rate… this was tru­ly a place where pro­mot­ing a love of lit­er­a­cy gets top billing. I have to admit, it didn’t take long for me to think about pol­ish­ing up my résumé and mov­ing south!

Anoth­er notable dis­play worth men­tion­ing was a wall filled with framed book cov­ers. Cap­tioned Our Men­tors, this siz­able col­lec­tion of pro­fes­sion­al learn­ing titles show­cas­es the com­mit­ment Zaharis staff makes to hon­ing their craft as teach­ers and learn­ers. Since open­ing their class­room doors for busi­ness in 2002, teach­ers at Zaharis have engaged in book stud­ies with near­ly three dozen men­tor texts. Includ­ed are such gems as On Sol­id Ground by Sharon Taber­s­ki, In the Mid­dle by Nan­cy Atwell, Going Pub­lic by Shel­ley Har­wayne, Teach­ing with Inten­tion by Deb­bie Miller, About the Authors: Writ­ing Work­shop with Our Youngest Writ­ers by Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleave­land, and of course, Read­ing in the Wild by Don­a­lyn Miller.

Our Mentors - Zaharis Elementary School

In between break­out ses­sions that were led by class­room teach­ers, I took part in a guid­ed tour of Zaharis led by school prin­ci­pal, Mike Oliv­er.  Mr. Oliver’s unpar­al­leled pas­sion and exper­tise eas­i­ly qual­i­fy him as one of the most sol­id lit­er­a­cy lead­ers I’ve ever encoun­tered. His refresh­ing approach to teach­ing and lit­er­a­cy learn­ing tugged at my heart­strings as I wish every edu­ca­tor and every child could ben­e­fit from this type of mind­set. His words res­onat­ed so strong­ly with my per­son­al beliefs:

What is a read­er? What does it mean to be a read­er? That’s a ques­tion that we ask all the time. The rea­son that ques­tion is so impor­tant and our response to it, is it large­ly deter­mines who our chil­dren become as read­ers, whether or not they pick up a book of their own choos­ing and how suc­cess­ful they are, real­ly resides in our response to ‘What does it mean to be a read­er?’ You look at schools across the coun­try and in so many of them, they drown in a sea of work­sheets… 5 – 6 per day is over 1,000 work­sheets a year. Yet there’s no research that shows that there’s a cor­re­la­tion between how many work­sheets kids do and how suc­cess­ful they are as read­ers.” 

I was also quite enthused about Mr. Oliver’s phi­los­o­phy of how to recruit and hire top-notch teach­ing tal­ent. As we paused in front of the Our Men­tors wall dis­play, he explained that the first sev­er­al inter­view ques­tions always cen­ter on read­ing. Can­di­dates are asked to share what they are read­ing for per­son­al plea­sure and for pro­fes­sion­al growth. If unable to respond eas­i­ly and ful­ly, the inter­view is, quite frankly, over (though the remain­ing ques­tions are still shared out of respect). As Mr. Oliv­er point­ed out, how can we expect some­one who doesn’t appear to val­ue read­ing to be respon­si­ble for instill­ing a love of lit­er­a­cy in chil­dren?

Mr. Oliver's Office

Mr. Oliv­er’s Office

Over­sized class­rooms that look more like fur­ni­ture show­rooms, com­plete with sec­tion­al sofas, cozy read­ing nooks and floor to ceil­ing book dis­plays would make any kid or teacher swoon. As much as I love the idea of relaxed, homey learn­ing envi­ron­ments like those at Zaharis, it might be a tall order to trans­form most tra­di­tion­al class­rooms into such well-appoint­ed spaces.

Primary Classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

Pri­ma­ry Class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School

First grade classroom, Zaharis Elementary School

First grade class­room, Zaharis Ele­men­tary School

How­ev­er, the real heart of the learn­ing that hap­pens in this lit­er­a­cy oasis locat­ed in the Ari­zona desert, comes from the care­ful inte­gra­tion of kids and books, skill­ful­ly woven togeth­er by the teach­ers, not from a script­ed pro­gram or pre-select­ed cur­ricu­lum. Please check back next month for the next install­ment on Zaharis Ele­men­tary, a fea­ture on using pic­ture books with first graders to teach a civ­il rights time­line and an inno­v­a­tive approach called “Mys­tery Read­ers” to help 2nd through 5th graders learn how to ana­lyze oral read­ing.

I’ll close with the words that com­prise the Zaharis mis­sion and val­ues, every bit as elo­quent and uplift­ing as it is child- and learn­ing-cen­tered! 

 Our Mis­sion

Learn­ing, car­ing, rejoic­ing and work­ing togeth­er to cre­ate a more just, com­pas­sion­ate, insight­ful world.

At Zaharis…

Our school is a fam­i­ly. We care for one anoth­er and val­ue each other’s voice.

We are all learn­ers and our pas­sions are con­ta­gious. We unite as we cel­e­brate each other’s growth, achieve­ments and suc­cess­es.

It is impor­tant to share our sto­ries. This is one way we merge heart and intel­lect.

We val­ue children’s bril­liance. Their feel­ings, ideas, gifts and tal­ents are respect­ed and shared.

Smiles and laugh­ter make every­thing eas­i­er. Love serves as a moti­va­tor until desire to learn is cul­ti­vat­ed.

 We under­stand that when learn­ing trav­els through the heart, it inspires greater mean­ing and pur­pose.

Learn­ing is a social expe­ri­ence. We make mean­ing togeth­er through col­lab­o­ra­tive dia­logue.

We learn through inquiry. The learn­ing in our class­rooms mir­rors the work that read­ers, writ­ers, math­e­mati­cians, sci­en­tists and social sci­en­tists do.

Stu­dents and teach­ers have time – time to think, time to won­der, time to explore, and time to share their find­ings — togeth­er.


Chef Roy Choi’s Story

Chef Roy ChoiEvery time I re-read this book, it makes me hap­pi­er. I’ve grown quite fond of the books being pub­lished by Read­ers to Eaters and I eager­ly antic­i­pate each new book.

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix is anoth­er food arti­san biog­ra­phy from Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin, this time co-writ­ten with June Jo Lee. Jack­ie writes the fla­vor­ful essence of the artist in an irre­sistible recipe of words. June Jo is a food ethno­g­ra­ph­er, “study­ing how Amer­i­ca eats,” and the co-founder of Read­ers to Eaters. As a kid-at-heart, I want a biog­ra­phy writ­ten about her next. Study­ing food?

But this book is about a boy born in South Korea who trav­els to Amer­i­ca at age two with his fam­i­ly and attends school in Cal­i­for­nia. His moth­er is a tal­ent­ed cook, spe­cial­iz­ing in kim­chee, a Kore­an food sta­ple. Her cook­ing is so good that she and her hus­band open a restau­rant. And Roy is fas­ci­nat­ed by what hap­pens there.

He becomes a chef. The authors relate his jour­ney in a way that every kid will under­stand. Even­tu­al­ly, Chef Roy Choi launch­es the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck with a mix­ture of Kore­an and Mex­i­can food. He pre­pares ingre­di­ents by hand, with love, to share with his com­mu­ni­ty. Healthy fast food is a rare thing in his neigh­bor­hood and Kogi is a hit.

One of the main ingre­di­ents for this LA-con­nect­ed book is street art turned into book art by Man One. Don’t miss the authors’ and illustrator’s notes in this book. They will have your stu­dents want­i­ng to know more about these tal­ent­ed book cre­ators. The art in this book (I’m para­phras­ing from his Note) start­ed with spray-paint­ing the back­grounds on large can­vas­es, pho­tograph­ing them, and then work­ing with them dig­i­tal­ly, adding pen­cil and Sharpie to cre­ate tru­ly unique pic­ture book art. He includes many scenes from his com­mu­ni­ty — you can sense the love imbu­ing these pages. His palette, the tex­tures … they’re yum­my.

This is a book filled with so much respect for read­ers, eaters, and kids with aspi­ra­tions … it’s com­plete­ly sat­is­fy­ing.

Don’t miss this for your inspi­ra­tional school and class­room library!

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix
writ­ten by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and June Jo Lee
illus­trat­ed by Man One
Read­ers to Eaters, 2017.


Skinny Dip with Gary Mlodzik

This time around, we’re Skin­ny Dip­pin’ with Gary Mlodzik, founder of the Grow Your Library ini­tia­tive with­in the nation­al lit­er­a­cy foun­da­tion Kids Need to Read.

Gary and Tina Mlodzik in Argentina

Gary Mlodzik and his daugh­ter Kody in Puer­to Madryn, Argenti­na

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

Lee Child. I love his writ­ing! I have read every one of the Jack Reach­er books and love his sto­ry­telling style. Lee let’s your imag­i­na­tion fill in the blanks. A Joe Fri­day approach to writ­ing, “Just the facts, ma’am.” No more than need­ed to cap­ture the essence of the sto­ry, no less than required for a thrilling adven­ture. I have heard him speak at a book sign­ing and he has a great sense of humor and he’s very engag­ing.

Favorite city to vis­it?

San Diego. When you live in the Ari­zona desert, the ocean is a wel­come reprieve from the sum­mer­time heat. San Diego is a six-hour dri­ve and brings a wel­come change of scenery. Great food, fun attrac­tions, recre­ation­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to relax by the gen­tle waves make for a great get­away.

What’s your dream vaca­tion?

Ice­land! God’s beau­ty in so many forms, all in one coun­try! The Auro­ra Bore­alis, beau­ti­ful coasts, wildlife, caves, glac­i­ers, water­falls and hot springs are wait­ing to explore and enjoy.

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

Def­i­nite­ly a morn­ing per­son! Get up and get ‘er done! I have a list ready and hit it hard. Once evening comes, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty declines rapid­ly.

Best tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

Dis­cov­er who you are as a per­son, accept who you are, build your life into the best you that you can be.

Kids Need to ReadGary shares his pas­sion for lit­er­a­cy by vol­un­teer­ing!

I vol­un­teer with the nation­al lit­er­a­cy foun­da­tion Kids Need to Read (KNTR). I am hon­ored to serve on their board of direc­tors. In 2015, I devel­oped the Grow Your Library pro­gram for KNTR. For this pro­gram, KNTR pro­vides 200 books to four care­ful­ly select­ed, eco­nom­i­cal­ly chal­lenged libraries through­out the USA per year. Along with the book dona­tion, my wife, Tina, and I vis­it the library, con­duct a sto­ry time and explain how the kids can “donate” more books to the library just by email­ing KNTR with a short note regard­ing what they like about read­ing or what they like to read. Then, Tina and I donate a book to the library with the child’s name on a book plate inside the cov­er! It’s the child’s gift to the library! Each child in atten­dance also gets a book to keep and a High­lights for Chil­dren mag­a­zine to take home. Some­times the kids are in awe that the book is real­ly theirs for life.

I have been blessed with sup­port and encour­age­ment from many sources. I am hum­bled by the num­ber of peo­ple who, like me, believe that pub­lic libraries need our sup­port to pro­vide ser­vices for future gen­er­a­tions. If read­ers would like to sup­port this endeav­or, please make a finan­cial dona­tion. Or if they have a favorite children’s book they would like us to include in our pro­gram, they can send the books right from their favorite book­seller direct­ly to:

Kids Need To Read, Grow Your Library
Attn: Gary Mlodzik
2450 W. Broad­way, Suite 110
Mesa, AZ 85202

Mul­ti­ples of four books per title are usu­al­ly best so we can send one to each library.


Racing to Catch a Plane

Photo By Nino Andonis

Pho­to By Nino Ando­nis

I was work­ing the last day of a book con­fer­ence in Chica­go when I came down with a hor­ri­ble case of what I lat­er learned was strep throat. My one clear mem­o­ry of that day is blink­ing alert long enough to rec­og­nize that I was seat­ed in the front seat of a cab that was being dri­ven down the shoul­der of a Chica­go high­way at 70 MPH so that we could make it to the air­port on time.

I’ve had oth­er work expe­ri­ences from the dark side, but that day ranks high on the list of “please, just let it be over” times.

We can expe­ri­ence an urgency around reach­ing the end­point when we’re on a trip that’s going bad­ly, or we can expe­ri­ence it when we’re writ­ing — even if the writ­ing is going well. It’s some­thing that I see over and over again, in fact, when I review stu­dent writ­ing. I’ll be read­ing along, feel­ing like the student’s sto­ry is well-paced and engag­ing, and then sud­den­ly the writ­ing changes. It begins rac­ing towards the finish line, as if the writer has sud­den­ly remem­bered that they have a plane to catch. Some­times very young writ­ers I work with lit­er­al­ly stop the sto­ry mid-thought and write “The End.”

If you ask, they’ll prob­a­bly tell you that they’ve run out of ideas. But the truth is, they’ve prob­a­bly run out of cre­ative ener­gy. I find that my own writ­ing is very ener­gy-based; when the ener­gy is gone, the writ­ing stops cold. When this hap­pens, your best bet is to allow your stu­dents to take a short break. For a short­er class­room writ­ing set­ting, that might be as sim­ple as a jump­ing jacks inter­rup­tion. For a longer piece of writ­ing, I find I some­times need to put the project in a draw­er for a week or more, to allow new ener­gy to gen­er­ate.

When the break is over, I sit down with the stu­dent (or myself), and find the point in the sto­ry where it’s clear that the writer switched over to a men­tal­i­ty of “rac­ing to catch a plane.” I read the para­graph before that, and then I ask a sim­ple ques­tion: “What hap­pens next?”

More often than not, the break will have done the trick. Erasers get busy and rub out “The End.” The writer has dis­cov­ered that after all, “the sto­ry must go on.”


Bookstorm™: Creekfinding

Creekfinding Bookstorm

CreekfindingWe were very excit­ed to read Creek­find­ing: a True Sto­ry because it tells the sto­ry of restor­ing a long-ago creek in an Iowa prairie set­ting. Just imag­ine: bring­ing back the bur­bling waters, the fish, the insects, the grass­es … every­thing that makes up the health and char­ac­ter of the land. It took bull­doz­ers and deter­mi­na­tion, part­ners and imag­i­na­tion, but it was a project that brought eco­log­i­cal suc­cess!

Our Book­storm will take you into fur­ther explo­ration, study­ing ecosys­tems, water con­ser­va­tion, com­mu­ni­ty action, fish, and more.

We trust you will find inspi­ra­tion and resources aplen­ty with­in the Book­storm to accom­pa­ny your study of Creek­find­ing: a True Sto­ry. We know you’ll share our appre­ci­a­tion for Dr. Michael Oster­holm, who con­ceived of the project, Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin, the author, Clau­dia McGe­hee, the illus­tra­tor, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, which under­stood how much read­ers and inno­v­a­tive thinkers need this book.


Bookol­o­gy inter­viewed the author, Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin, and the illus­tra­tor, Clau­dia McGe­hee, about their work on this book.

You’ll find more infor­ma­tion about Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin on her web­site. And read about illus­tra­tor Clau­dia McGe­hee on her web­site.


  • Dr. Michael Oster­holm (who con­ceived of the Creek­find­ing project)
  • drift­less region
  • ecosys­tems
  • fic­tion
  • fish
  • prairies
  • pre­serv­ing and restor­ing our nat­ur­al world
  • think glob­al­ly, act local­ly
  • urban farm­ing, restor­ing green­ery and growth to the city
  • water

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


Creekfinding with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin

A stew­ard­ship for our one and only Earth are an abid­ing con­cern for many of our plan­et’s inhab­i­tants. When an author finds an oppor­tu­ni­ty to share with the world of read­ers her own pas­sion for con­serv­ing our ecosys­tems, the book Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry is cre­at­ed. We hope you’ll find inspi­ra­tion for your own explo­ration and con­ser­va­tion in this inter­view with Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin. Don’t miss read­ing the book … it’s a trea­sure.

Do you remem­ber when you first had the idea to write this sto­ry?

I had been want­i­ng to col­lab­o­rate on a sto­ry with Clau­dia because I love her art so much. So, I was noodling about what we might do. On Novem­ber 30, 2011, the Cedar Rapids Gazette pub­lished a sto­ry on Mike Osterholm’s creek restora­tion project. As soon as I read it I knew that was the sto­ry I want­ed to tell and I hoped Clau­dia would want to do the illus­tra­tions.

Have you met Dr. Michael Oster­holm? How did that meet­ing add to your sto­ry?

Short­ly after read­ing the arti­cle I con­tact­ed the reporter, Orlan Love. He said I should talk with Mike and gave me his email address. I emailed him. With­in a half hour I received an answer, “Call me. Mike.” That was the first of many con­ver­sa­tions. About a month after that con­ver­sa­tion my hus­band and I drove to North­field, Min­neso­ta to St. Olaf Col­lege where Mike was giv­ing a talk on creek restora­tion.

The Creekfinding team

Dr. Michael Oster­holm, Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin,
and Clau­dia McGe­hee, the Creek­find­ing team

Have you vis­it­ed Brook Creek?

I have now vis­it­ed Brook Creek. When I was writ­ing the sto­ry, I read many arti­cles about Mike’s restora­tion project and watched sev­er­al videos. I vis­it­ed Brook Creek in my imag­i­na­tion.

Your word choic­es are often evoca­tive in a way anoth­er word would not be.

Years lat­er, a man named Mike
bought that field and the hill­side.
Mike want­ed to grow a prairie in
the old corn­field,
to part­ner with the sun and soil,
grow tall grass­es and flow­ers.

The word “part­ner” evokes a sense of work­ing with the land, as though the land were a con­scious enti­ty. Do words like this come nat­u­ral­ly from your mind or do you find your­self hunt­ing for them? 

Author Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin get­ting to know Brook Creek

Mike had told me a sto­ry about the oak savan­nah that he also restored: once they cleaned out the weed trees so sun­light could get down to the for­est floor, seeds ger­mi­nat­ed that had been wait­ing for a hun­dred years. It just seemed like he was part­ner­ing with the earth. And that word came to me as I was think­ing about his work on the prairie.

There are rib­bons of text woven into the illus­tra­tions, often high­light­ing a fac­tu­al state­ment. Were these state­ments an orig­i­nal part of your man­u­script?

The state­ments were orig­i­nal­ly just side­bars. It was Claudia’s deci­sion to include them on a blade of grass or a rip­ple in the trout stream and I love the way the infor­ma­tion looks and works. It’s there if read­ers want to find it, but it’s unob­tru­sive if they just want to read the text.

illus­tra­tion from Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry
by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin, illus­trat­ed by and copy­right Clau­dia McGe­hee

Did you dis­cuss the illus­tra­tions for the book with Clau­dia McGe­hee, the illus­tra­tor?

Clau­dia lives only 19 miles from me so we talked togeth­er with an Iowa geol­o­gist about the Drift­less. Clau­dia showed me her ear­ly sketch­es (and I loved them). And I went to her house to see her lat­er sketch­es arranged on her din­ing room table. Once I saw them I real­ized I need­ed to do some edit­ing — so that was a great part about work­ing so close­ly. We even removed a side­bar or two that were just get­ting in the way of the sto­ry.

CreekfindingThere are a num­ber of joy­ful words in this book, “laugh­ter” and “chuck­le.” Why did you choose these words?

The sound of water has always been joy­ous to me. When I was grow­ing up there was a sea­son­al “stream,” maybe a ditch, across the street from our house. I loved wait­ing next to that stream for the school­bus. Also, this is a joy­ful sto­ry of restora­tion. There is also a hint of anthro­po­mor­phiz­ing in the notion of “part­ner­ing” with the earth. I guess in my head it seemed as if the nat­ur­al world can be a part­ner maybe it can also have or express joy.

In recent years, you’ve been work­ing on books about peo­ple who are chang­ing our world. Will Allen, Alice Waters, Dr. Michael Oster­holm, and your newest book about Chef Roy Choi. Are these sto­ries you feel com­pelled to tell? 

I do. I love these sto­ries of peo­ple who act out of pas­sion (and that goes back to Wil­son Bent­ley), do what they must do to make our world whole — restore creeks, grow good food in school yards or urban lots, serve good food in food deserts. I think I do this for myself, to remind myself that, though we have many prob­lems in our world, many things to be wor­ried about, there are peo­ple who are work­ing out of love and con­vic­tion to make a bet­ter world for all.

As a writer, how do you see your role in cre­at­ing a bet­ter world?

I want to write books that chil­dren will car­ry with them for the rest of their lives. I will nev­er know if I suc­ceed. But if one of my sto­ries remained with chil­dren as part of “the fur­ni­ture of their minds” I would feel good. I hope chil­dren will mix that mem­o­ry with what­ev­er else they have stored up and do some­thing for this world that I can­not even imag­ine.

Don’t miss the com­pan­ion inter­view with illus­tra­tor Clau­dia McGe­hee or the Book­storm for Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry offer­ing com­pan­ion books and web­sites for fur­ther explo­ration or incor­po­ra­tion into les­son plans.

The restored Brook Creek


Creekfinding with illustrator Claudia McGehee

Claudia McGehee

Clau­dia McGe­hee (pho­to: Thomas Lang­don)

While tak­ing a clos­er look at Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry, it is impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate the nar­ra­tive and the illus­tra­tions because togeth­er they make the book whole. And yet two dif­fer­ent artists cre­at­ed the words and the illus­tra­tions that guide the read­er toward an under­stand­ing of the Brook Creek restora­tion project. Clau­dia McGe­hee notices the details, the encom­pass­ing emo­tions and the nuances of the land­scape that encour­age to walk along­side Team Brook Creek while they explore this restored ecosys­tem. Do add this book to your book­shelves. You’ll want to read it and soak in the art when­ev­er you need reas­sur­ance that we can be good stew­ards of this Earth..

When you begin work on a new book, what is the first thing that you do?

I find a qui­et place to read the man­u­script sev­er­al times, close my eyes, and imag­ine the “scenes” the words bring forth to me, keep­ing a sketch­book handy to get these “first blinks” of inspi­ra­tion. This goes for when I have authored the book as well; I don’t start illus­trat­ing until the man­u­script is com­plete.

Claudia McGehee at workIn the Illustrator’s Note, you state, “I made the rip­ply, stur­dy lines of earth, water, and sky in scratch­board and paint­ed the prairie greens, creek blues, and every­thing in between with water­col­ors and dyes.” Can you tell us a bit about the tools you use for scratch­board?

I use a sharp skin­ny X‑acto blade (a num­ber 16, with a beveled end) to carve into the scratch­board sur­face, reveal­ing the white chalky lay­er below. I scratch out what I want to be white or col­ored, and leave an out­line and detail in black. When all the line-work is com­plete, I scan the image into my Mac and print it onto water­col­or paper. From here I use water­col­or and dyes and paint tra­di­tion­al­ly at my board.

Claudia McGehee scratchboard artFor read­ers who would like to work with scratch­board, what type of paper do you use? What do you mean by dyes? How do you apply them to the paper? And why do you use them?

I use Ess­dee brand scratch­board. It is robust enough to be scratched, inked again if I want to make a cor­rec­tion and reworked. There is also a thin­ner grade of scratch­board (the com­pa­ny Melis­sa and Doug makes this kind) that younger peo­ple can scratch with wood­en sty­lus, much less sharp than an X‑acto blade.

Claudia McGehee applying the dyesThe dyes go by the brand name Dr. Ph. Mar­t­in’s. They’ve been around for­ev­er. They are essen­tial­ly water­col­or, known for their vivid, almost flu­o­res­cent qual­i­ty. I apply them just as I do water­col­ors, with a brush. They work very well for prairie and creek­side flow­ers and crit­ters.  I am very par­tial to the Doc Mar­tin char­treuse (frog green!). The dyes do tend to fade in the sun­light, so I keep my orig­i­nals in dark file draw­ers to pre­serve the col­or.

How do you pre­serve and store scratch­board art­work?

I have a large, old­er, flat file where a lot of work goes. I also archive in big plas­tic bins, sep­a­rat­ing the art­work by each indi­vid­ual book project.

Claudia McGehee painting with dyesAt what point in the mak­ing of the book do you cre­ate the end­pa­pers?

A high­light for me is to behold a pic­ture book’s end-sheets. Good ones will give an indi­ca­tion of the book’s over­all mes­sage or spir­it. Some­times they tell a sto­ry as well. I savor mak­ing my own end-sheets, usu­al­ly treat­ing myself to mak­ing them at the very last of a book project. The Creek­find­ing end-sheets are some­thing I’ve want­ed to try for a while, using them to sug­gest a pas­sage of time. The open­ing of the book is a sun­rise on the creek, com­plete with red-winged black bird, and the back sheet is a sun­set.

Claudia McGehee using crayonsYou vis­it­ed Prairie Song Farm, which is where the creek in this book was restored. As an artist, how do you look at a new loca­tion that you will make the focus of a new book?

I sim­ply try to observe and be in the moment when I vis­it a book setting’s loca­tion. I want the place to speak to me and I have to be qui­et to hear it. My work relies on small details that make the set­ting unique. Hope­ful­ly, my impres­sions will pass on suc­cess­ful­ly to my illus­tra­tions lat­er in the stu­dio.

You have a degree in archae­ol­o­gy. What does the knowl­edge you stud­ied bring to the work you do now?

In a prac­ti­cal sense, my archae­ol­o­gy back­ground helped me hone my research skills, as impor­tant to an illus­tra­tor as they are to a writer. There is also a lev­el of basic curios­i­ty in the archae­ol­o­gist, a love for the “what comes next?” that is sim­i­lar in the process of mak­ing a non­fic­tion-based pic­ture book.

Illus­tra­tions from Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry, copy­right Clau­dia McGe­hee

The humans, birds, fish, and insects in this book all look joy­ful. Was that a con­scious deci­sion on your part?

I may nev­er work for Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, but I believe that all ani­mals are capa­ble of “smil­ing” and show­ing hap­pi­ness like humans do and I nat­u­ral­ly want to show this. After all, I would be hap­py if I were a brook trout in Mike’s creek! I don’t want them to look too sweet or whim­si­cal how­ev­er, but I do hope my birds and fish et al express a sense of joy in liv­ing that all crea­tures feel.

CreekfindingThe art in this book is gor­geous, sump­tu­ous, an invi­ta­tion to rev­el in our nat­ur­al land­scapes. What do you feel while you’re work­ing on a book like this? And once it’s print­ed and in your hands?

Thank you! I real­ly am tak­en by our nat­ur­al world’s beau­ty. It sus­tains me. My per­son­al art mis­sion is for my work to entice read­ers out­doors after a good read to expe­ri­ence nature them­selves.

Actu­al­ly mak­ing book art is not as mag­i­cal a time as some imag­ine! It is hard phys­i­cal and men­tal work. Pub­lish­ing dead­lines are crit­i­cal to make, so at times I feel I am a marathon run­ner, pac­ing her­self through a long race. There are cer­tain­ly points of joy, like the com­ple­tion of thumb­nails or sketch­es. I will laugh out loud if I feel I have real­ly nailed a spread. But there are also frus­tra­tions when I just can’t get a page to come togeth­er.

The best part of mak­ing Creek­find­ing is that Jack­ie and I live quite close and are friends and we reg­u­lar­ly con­nect­ed to share the progress of the book. I looked at ear­ly ver­sions of her man­u­script and she looked at the art­work in progress.  It was nice to have this cama­raderie, and what we lat­er called “Team Brook Creek,” which includes Mike Oster­holm, the book’s sub­ject. It was tru­ly a unique project to be part of.

Thank you, Clau­dia for shar­ing with us an inside look at the incred­i­ble work you do.

Don’t miss the com­pan­ion inter­view with author Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin or the Book­storm for Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry offer­ing com­pan­ion books and web­sites for fur­ther explo­ration or incor­po­ra­tion into les­son plans.


Behind the Poem, “What She Asked”

one of Vir­gini­a’s many pop­u­lar books for upper mid­dle grade and teen read­ers

Lis­ten to Vir­gini­a’s poem, “What She Asked,” on Poet­ry Mosa­ic, the April 7th entry, and then read her descrip­tion of the real-life event behind the poem.

In a rur­al Ore­gon high school where I taught Eng­lish more than 20 years ago, we had big teach­ing areas sep­a­rat­ed by screen-wall things, but they came nowhere near reach­ing the high ceil­ing, because a few years ear­li­er the design of the school had been to have a giant Resource Cen­ter and Library, and teach­ers and groups of stu­dents would ide­al­ly meet in sec­tions of the mas­sive room, and that would be school. Didn’t turn out that way (of course): Acoustics were the main prob­lem, but also the con­tin­u­ous human traf­fic through, com­ing and going in the Library sec­tion. So the dividers arrived, and we had some­what dis­crete class areas, but not real­ly. If the neigh­bor­ing class area was noisy, focus and con­cen­tra­tion were dif­fi­cult. In one or two peri­ods of the day, my area’s near­est neigh­bor was Human Health and Sex­u­al­i­ty, and we who were study­ing fic­tion heard “and the con­doms don’t always work,” etc.

What She Asked,” is includ­ing in this poet­ry anthol­o­gy, pub­lished by Pome­lo Books, 2016

There were the occa­sion­al paper air­planes. One or two per week, maybe. 

One after­noon, in the sleepy after-lunch peri­od, I whis­per­ing­ly asked my class (high school juniors, maybe some sopho­mores) to make paper air­planes and we would send them, on sig­nal, over the wall to Human Health and Sex­u­al­i­ty.

Can we make more than one?” “Sure! As many as you can fly all at once,” said I. I insist­ed that they under­stand that only at my sig­nal would the fleet of air­planes have the desired effect of simul­tane­ity. I, too, made one paper air­plane.

On my own per­son­al count of 3, it worked. I think we must have sent over 40+ air­planes into the next class. Great fun. The teacher had a fine sense of humor (her fields were Biol­o­gy and Ski Coach­ing) and she liked the dra­mat­ic moment of it. Of course Human Health and Sex­u­al­i­ty sent the planes back, but I sup­pose we won because we had done it first. And simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.


This Is Just To Say

April is Nation­al Poet­ry Month, which is as good an excuse as any to take some poet­ry books off the shelf and have a read. I’m quite method­i­cal in April — it’s the hint of spring in the air, I sup­pose. I clean my office and then I build a stack of won­der­ful poet­ry books — some Bil­ly Collins, a lit­tle Emi­ly Dick­in­son, a tome of Robert Frost, Shakespeare’s son­nets, Mary Oliv­er, nat­u­ral­ly…..

On top of this fine stack I put my col­lec­tion of Joyce Sid­man books. This means, to be hon­est, that I sel­dom make it down to the “grown-up” poets. Which is fine — I’m quite per­fect­ly hap­py wan­der­ing in Joyce’s books for the entire month. The oth­ers can be read…whenever. Joyce’s books have pic­tures. In the words and on the pages. I think all poets should be illus­trat­ed.

I say “Joyce,” all famil­iar like, because I know her. Which seems too fan­tas­tic to be true — I know none of those oth­er poets, except through their work. But Joyce I know — I saw her this past week­end, in fact. I hear her voice in her poems — even when it’s not her voice speak­ing. (I hear Bil­ly Collins in his poems, too, but Joyce’s voice is not so dead­pan.)

We’re sev­er­al days into April and I’ve yet to make it past the book that is pos­si­bly my favorite in my Joyce Sid­man col­lec­tion: This is Just To Say: Poems of Apol­o­gy and For­give­ness. It’s a slim vol­ume — paper­back. Some­times it gets shoved back on my book­case and I pan­ic when I look up and don’t see it right away. It’s illus­trat­ed by Pamela Zagaren­s­ki, an artist whose web­site I some­times vis­it just to browse and mut­ter her last name over and over again like its own poem. She has illus­trat­ed a few of Joyce’s books. They are an inspired pair, I think.

I bought this book as soon as I saw that the very first poem was, as I sus­pect­ed, William Car­los William’s “This Is Just To Say,” one of my most favorite poems. Anoth­er of his poems “The Red Wheel Bar­row” is one of the only poems I’ve man­aged to keep mem­o­rized since col­lege. I recite it when walk­ing some­times still.

Joyce uses William’s poem, “This is Just To Say,” as a mod­el when she teach­es, so says her web­site. And it is the mod­el for this bril­liant book of poet­ry: a sto­ry — or per­haps I should say sto­ries—told through poems of apol­o­gy and for­give­ness.

I’m embar­rassed to say that I did not real­ize this book told sto­ries until I read some of the poems aloud to a group of pre-school­ers. An astute 4‑year-old point­ed out to me that one poem went with anoth­er, which is when I real­ized the poems were in pairs. (We’ll just focus on the bril­liance of the 4‑year-old and not my slop­py read­ing.) Ever since, when I read this book, I read the apol­o­gy poem and then the “fol­low-up poem,” which is often a for­give­ness poem, but some­times just an expla­na­tion — and there­in lie the sto­ries. And these sto­ries — my heart! — they run the gamut of the lives of chil­dren. From dodge ball games to mean things said…from things break­ing to break­ing hearts…from secrets kept to con­fes­sions made….from crush­es to hon­est-to-good­ness love…from fright­ened kids to despair­ing par­ents.

It’s the best of poet­ry, tru­ly. Acces­si­ble, mean­ing­ful, rich. I’ll just spend this April here, thank you very much.


Skinny Dip with Loni Niles

Loni Niles

Loni Niles

We inter­viewed Loni Niles, K‑12 media spe­cial­ist in the Wade­na-Deer Creek pub­lic schools in west cen­tral Min­neso­ta. She shared her thoughts about books and life.

What is your favorite late-night snack?

I love pop­corn and can eat it any time dur­ing the day, even for break­fast!

Favorite city to vis­it?

Chica­go. Even though we moved from there when I was just a baby, I still take some pride that I was born there!  Now I love to vis­it there because my step­daugh­ter and her hus­band are such won­der­ful hosts — they show us all kinds of won­der­ful things the city has to offer.  Oh yeah, and there’s that grand­son there, too! He def­i­nite­ly is a draw for me to vis­it this won­der­ful city!

First date?

My hus­band and I do not real­ly agree on when our first date was. For­tu­nate­ly, we agree on some of the more impor­tant things in life!

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

I find myself pas­sion­ate­ly rec­om­mend­ing the nov­els The Lot­tery Rose by Irene Hunt and A Wrin­kle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Miss Steim­le, my fifth grade teacher, read both of these out loud to my class in the 1970s, but today’s kids love them, too!

The Lottery Rose, A Wrinkle in Time

This is NOT a Cat!Illus­tra­tor’s work you most admire?

Mike Wohnout­ka. My favorite book of his work is writ­ten by one of my favorite authors, David LaRochelle. It’s a final­ist for the Min­neso­ta Book Awards this year and called This is NOT a Cat! Check it out! 

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

Got­ta have my cof­fee in the morn­ing!

Favorite sea­son of the year?

Although I love them all, it’s win­ter! Min­neso­ta is the per­fect place for me!  We typ­i­cal­ly get a real win­ter here and we def­i­nite­ly get four sea­sons!  At age 48, I start­ed to down­hill ski.  But I love to watch high school hock­ey, go snow­mo­bil­ng and sled­ding, and when my sons were younger we used to love play­ing in the snow!

Marathon candy barFavorite can­dy as a kid?

Any­one remem­ber the Marathon can­dy bar?! A yum­my caramel braid cov­ered in choco­late.

Broth­ers and sis­ters or an only child? How did that shape your life?

I’m in the mid­dle of two broth­ers. I always told my two sons that I’m the best mom for them because I know what it’s like to have that big broth­er pound­ing on you and that lit­tle broth­er pick­ing at you!  I used to lament not hav­ing sis­ters, but I have been sur­round­ed by won­der­ful women (and girls, too — I have three grand­daugh­ters) in my life — so it’s not so much an issue any­more. 

Loni Niles and her brothers

Best tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

I do live a very con­tent­ed life, but I don’t real­ly have a tip on how to do it. See­ing the good in things and peo­ple comes pret­ty nat­u­ral­ly to me.  I try to remem­ber my mom’s advice to always assume the best. This is the same woman who once told me as a teenag­er com­plain­ing about my acne that I should just be hap­py I have a face. That still makes me chuck­le! 

Hope for the world?

My hope for the world is that we begin to rec­og­nize each oth­ers’ tal­ents (and our own!) and appre­ci­ate each oth­er — even our dif­fer­ences.


Our Hearts Will Hold Us Up

Jack­ie: It seems per­fect­ly appro­pri­ate that the Man­ag­er of Hol­i­day Place­ment  has placed Valentine’s Day, a day to cel­e­brate love and affec­tion, right in the mid­dle of cold, dark Feb­ru­ary. I want that cel­e­bra­tion to spread out for the whole month (why not the whole year?) the way the smell of bak­ing bread fills an entire house, not just the kitchen. Why can’t all of Feb­ru­ary be Heart Month? We are choos­ing books this month with that goal in mind. We want to cel­e­brate heart, love, ties of affec­tion. And we have cho­sen a new book, a cou­ple of medi­um new books and an old book to help us.

More, More, More Said the BabyA while back we did an entire col­umn on Vera B. Williams. But I am still miss­ing her. I need her polit­i­cal activism and her huge heart in my neigh­bor­hood. I turned to More, More, More Said the Baby. (Green­wil­low, 1990). 

This book is a huge cel­e­bra­tion of the love between dad­dies and kids:

Just look at you
With your per­fect bel­ly but­ton
Right in the mid­dle
Right in the mid­dle
Right in the mid­dle
Of your fat lit­tle bel­ly.
Then Lit­tle Guy’s dad­dy
Brings that baby
Right up close
And gives that lit­tle guy’s bel­ly
A kiss right I the mid­dle
Of the bel­ly but­ton.

Between grand­mas and kids:

Then Lit­tle Pumpkin’s grand­ma
Brings that baby right up close
And tastes each
Of Lit­tle Pumpkin’s toes.

And mamas and kids:

Just look at you
With your two closed eyes
Then Lit­tle Bird’s Mama…
Gives that lit­tle bird a kiss
Right on each of her lit­tle eyes.

I nev­er tire of read­ing about these chil­dren, diverse chil­dren, who are so loved and so val­ued. This book will be fresh as long as we laugh and kiss babies with bel­ly but­tons and ten lit­tle toes.

Phyl­lis:; I miss Vera B. Williams, too, and I love see­ing her spir­it still alive in her books and also in the hearts of peo­ple every­where who care about peo­ple every­where. Her lan­guage in More More More is so deli­cious – along with the rep­e­ti­tion we have live­ly verbs of inter­ac­tion between grown-ups and beloved chil­dren (swing, scoot, catch that baby up).  Lit­tle Guy, Lit­tle Pump­kin, and Lit­tle Bird have names that could be any child’s. I love, too, the exu­ber­ant art and hand let­tered mul­ti-col­ored text. Every­thing about this book cel­e­brates tak­ing joy in our chil­dren.

My Heart Will Not Sit DownJack­ie: In My Heart Will Not Sit Down, (Alfred Knopf, 2012) empa­thy and car­ing for oth­ers trav­el around the world. Rock­liff cre­ates a school child Kedi, who hears from her teacher about the hun­gry chil­dren in New York City and can­not stop think­ing about them. She asks her moth­er for a coin to send them. Her moth­er says they have no coins to spare. “Kedi knew Mama was right. Still, her heart would not sit down.” She asks an uncle, a sweep­ing moth­er with a baby on her back, a grand­moth­er pound­ing cas­sa­va, laugh­ing girls who car­ried pots of riv­er water, old men play­ing a game of stones, even the head­man. No one has coins… Until the next morn­ing when her mama gives her one coin. She takes the coin to school, think­ing that one coin can do lit­tle good for the hun­gry chil­dren. Then the vil­lagers show up — each bear­ing a coin. “We have heard about the hunger in our teacher’s vil­lage,” said the head­man. “Our hearts would not sit down until we helped.” 

Phyl­lis:  This is one of those books that called to me from the shelf in a book­store and cap­ti­vat­ed my heart once I opened it. Kedi’s heart stands up for the hun­gry chil­dren in New York, Amer­i­ca, as she calls it. When the vil­lagers bring their coins, which the author notes would be a small for­tune to the vil­lage even though $3.77 would not go far in Amer­i­ca even in the Depres­sion, her mama asks, “Now will your heart sit down in peace?” Kedi answers, “Yes, Mama, Yes!”  The author notes, too, that in Cameroon, where the event occurred on which the sto­ry is based, peo­ple shared with any­one in need, even strangers, because, as they said, “You may meet him [a stranger] again, and in his own place.” This sto­ry reminds me that the actions of one small per­son can touch many hearts and feed hun­gry chil­dren.

The Heart and the BottleJack­ie: Hearts can spur us to action. Hearts can break. And the last two books are gen­tle sto­ries of the heartache of loss. Oliv­er Jef­fers writes of a “lit­tle girl…whose head was filled with all the curiosi­ties of the world.” Jef­fers shows us this lit­tle girl talk­ing with her grand­pa who sits in a chair, lying under the stars with her grand­pa. He accom­pa­nies her on all her explores. And then one day the chair is emp­ty. She decides to put her heart in a bot­tle to keep it safe. After that she wasn’t curi­ous. She grows up and the bot­tled heart is heavy around her neck.  When she wish­es to retrieve her heart she can’t — until she meets anoth­er lit­tle girl.

This is a sto­ry about deal­ing with sad­ness — we want to pro­tect our hearts but we lose so much when we wall them up.

Phyl­lis:  Oliv­er Jef­fers both wrote and illus­trat­ed The Heart and the Bot­tle, and the illus­tra­tions help car­ry the events and the emo­tions of the sto­ry.  When the girl who has bot­tled her heart decides as a grown-up to take her heart out again, the art shows her try­ing to shake the heart out, grip it with pli­ers, break the bot­tle with a ham­mer, and final­ly, aban­don­ing her work bench cov­ered with a drill, a cross cut saw, a wood­en mal­let, screw­driv­er, and oth­er assort­ed tools includ­ing a vac­u­um clean­er lean­ing again the bench, she climbs a lad­der to the top of an enor­mous­ly tall brick wall and drops the bot­tle which still doesn’t break but just “bounced and rolled…right down to the sea” where a lit­tle girl eas­i­ly frees the heart from the bot­tle and returns it.  The book ends, “The heart was put back where it came from.  And the chair wasn’t emp­ty any­more. But the bot­tle was.” Here, too, the art reflects that the woman’s  world is once again filled with won­der.  We need our hearts with­in us.

Cry, Heart, But Never BreakJack­ie: Cry, Heart, But Nev­er Break comes to us from Den­mark. It was writ­ten by Glenn Ringtved, illus­trat­ed by Char­lotte Par­di and trans­lat­ed by Robert Moulthrop (Enchant­ed Lion Books, 2016).  This book also deals with loss. Four chil­dren live with their grand­moth­er — “A kind­ly woman, she had cared for them for many years.” Then Death knocks at the door. The chil­dren decide to fore­stall Death’s mis­sion with cof­fee. They will keep him drink­ing cof­fee all night so he can­not take their grand­moth­er, thus giv­ing her anoth­er day of life. Even­tu­al­ly he has had enough. And one of the chil­dren asks why grand­moth­er has to die. And then comes: “Some peo­ple say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beau­ti­ful sun­set and beats with a great love of life.” He tells them a sto­ry of Sor­row and Grief meet­ing and falling in love with Delight and Joy. “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it nev­er rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”

When Death goes to the Grandmother’s room, he says to the chil­dren, “Cry, Heart, but nev­er break. Let your tears of grief and sad­ness begin a new life.” Char­lotte Pardi’s illus­tra­tions are per­fect for this book, sim­ple and ten­der. We see what appears to be quick­ly-sketched fur­ni­ture in the night kitchen — we know this is a sto­ry. And yet we con­nect with the emo­tions on the children’s faces.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Cry, Heart, But Nev­er Break. Illus­tra­tion © Char­lotte Par­di.

Phyl­lis: I love that the chil­dren ply Death with cof­fee, which Death loves, strong and black, and that it’s the youngest child who looks right at Death and even­tu­al­ly puts her hand over his. But even cof­fee can’t stop Death; when he goes  upstairs the chil­dren hear the win­dow open and Death say, “Fly, soul, fly away.” Their hearts grieve and cry but do not break. Some (but not all) of the best books about Death come, inter­est­ing­ly, from oth­er coun­tries. But this book is not only about Death it is about the neces­si­ty of a life with both sor­row and grief and also joy and delight. This is a book that makes me cry and hope for all our hearts that they nev­er com­plete­ly break.

Jack­ie: We start­ed with con­nec­tion — the con­nec­tions of babies and fam­i­lies, and we have come round to loss of con­nec­tion, when what remains is love. Our hearts will hold us up.

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