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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

The Awards


In the children’s literature world, awards happened this week. They don’t receive quite the press or airtime (which is unfortunate) as The Tonys and Oscars, but they’re important and exciting all the same. Darling Daughter and I have just discussed them at some length over supper.

I love the awards. I love feeling like I predicted a few of them. I love that there are always a couple of surprises to put on my reading list. I even love that I can disagree with the selections, at times—I mean, really, that’s kind of fun. Most of all, I love that some of those that win feel extra special, whether it’s because I know the author, or because the award recognizes a deep specialness that really needs to be recognized in a book or an artist’s work over time.

I once heard a well-known Newbery author say that you can only receive something like the Newbery award as a gift. You can’t pretend for a second, this author said, that you earned it somehow. The reason? It sits on the shelf with so many other truly awesome books. The author/illustrator has certainly done something astounding—written/illustrated a spectacular book—and to have that recognized, well…that’s about as wonderful as it gets. But it’s grace. It’s gravy. It’s gift. I like that—it strikes me as being True.

One of the other things I love about the awards is the amazing work teachers and librarians do with kids to get them ready and drum up some excitement—the Mock-Newberys, Sibert Smack-downs, The Beardecotts etc. These lucky students learn how to appreciate illustrations critically, learning about and sometimes trying various art techniques. They read multiple novels and study multiple subjects in the weeks and months leading up to the awards. They learn about the process of bookmaking. They make nominations, they argue, they vote, they declare their undying love for certain authors and illustrators….. I learned none of this as a child—I’m so grateful kids do now. What an education! And what fun!

So, congratulations to all the award winners. Huzzah! to teachers and librarians everywhere. Hurray for the readers! And thank you to all of the authors and illustrators, editors and designers, agents and publishers, some of whom are never recognized with a special award. But we are grateful—so very grateful!—for your work. Our bookshelves groan in appreciation. Our minds are opened, our hearts touched. Thank you for all you do.


Merna Ann Hecht and Our Table of Memories

Merna Ann Hecht

Merna Ann Hecht

When one poet, Merna Ann Hecht, and one educator, Carrie Stradley, observed their community, their schools, their students, and realized that a plethora of life experiences surrounded them, they put their teaching and their hearts together to create The Stories of Arrival: Refugee and Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project at Foster High School, in Tukwila, Washington.

These weren’t typical high school stories. Instead, these students have experiences of leaving their homes, their friends, their schools, their countries … to emigrate to America, where life is often astoundingly different.

Encouraging these English Language Learning students, more than 240 of them over the past six years from 30 countries, to communicate their stories through poetry helps to empower them to find their voices and move confidently into their chosen futures (a paraphrase of the project’s mission).

Stories of Our Arrival

Combine this project with another, Project Feast, and you have not only a cookbook of worldwide appeal but a book of poetry that is often eye-opening, compassionate, and heartrending. A recipe for understanding. A taste of the memories, travels, and longing behind the poets’ words.

Together with their partners The Institute for Poetic Medicine (Palo Alto, CA), the Jack Straw Cultural Center (Seattle, WA), and Chatwin Books (Seattle, WA), these two women and their projects have created Our Table of Memories: Food & Poetry of Spirit, Homeland & Tradition. It’s a beautiful book, part poetry by high school students, part recipes from the traditional cooks from their countries, and part art with illustrations by Morgan Wright, a recent college graduate, newly enrolled in New York City’s Bank Street College to pursue her Master of Arts in teaching.

By publishing this interview with Merna Hecht, it is the hope of Bookology‘s editors that you will be inspired to consider a program like this in your own community. Feel free to contact Merna with your questions.

  Can you tell us a bit about your life, in particular what pulled you toward poetry?

 There is not a moment I can recall when I wasn’t pulled toward poetry. I first heard the incantatory rhythms of poems from my grandfather who gave beautiful, memorized recitations of Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. I think it was second grade when I began writing rhymed poems. Those childhood poems were shaped by what then seemed the magic of the natural world. Noticing details of bugs, petals, leaves, cracks in the sidewalks on my way to and from school often made me late. At the time it seemed like a secret world. Now I think that early impulse for close observation and a deeply private inner world have shaped the poet I’ve become. I have always turned toward poetry to nourish my spirit. As a young woman, I began to read many different poets who spoke to me, challenged me, provoked me and opened my eyes and heart to the beauty and suffering of the world; I’ve not stopped turning these pages. Poetry is the place where I find a wellspring for expression of what seems most tender, most true and most unsayable. 

How did you find your way to teaching?

By a somewhat gnarled and twisted path and I’m so glad I got there! I was a registered nurse by the age of 21 and worked for five years as a pediatric nurse. I usually carried finger puppets in my pockets and offered impromptu storied puppet shows at children’s bedsides. Then came a realization that I much preferred the storytelling and puppets to the nursing! “The rest is history,” from working with midwives on the Navaho reservation, to jaunting about as a puppeteer and poet in the schools in rural Idaho, to earning a Masters Degree as a children’s librarian. Under the tutelage of master storyteller, Professor Spencer Shaw at the University of WA, I fell in love with the art and craft of tale-spinning. Fast forward to working as a children’s librarian for Seattle Public Library to my first formal teaching job in a progressive teacher certification program and onward to becoming a teaching artist and a university lecturer.

You’re nationally known as a storyteller. In 2008, the National Storytelling Network presented you with their Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling, with which you created a pilot program as a poet and storyteller at Bridges: A Center for Grieving Children in Tacoma. Can you tell us about applied storytelling? What does that mean and how do your stories work toward that specific application?

These days, storytellers show up in many places: detention centers, hospitals, war torn countries at centers for young people in trauma and drug rehab facilities for teens. These raconteurs bring the age old pleasure of listening to a tale well told. This allows young people (and all of us) to temporarily walk in someone else’s shoes; it sparks the imagination to life. Through ancient patterns of myth and folktales stories can allow a trust in possibilities to take hold. To apply storytelling in settings for young people and adults who have experienced loss or trauma helps create safe space and gathering places where deep listening can occur. There are universal truths in stories from all cultures. Many stories reflect the inevitability of loss in human life and they speak to our interconnectedness to each other, to animals, trees, the moon, the stars and to mysteries beyond us. In this way stories can ease a sense of isolation and loneliness. Finding the right story for a situation, a group, or an individual is part of applying storytelling to special settings and using stories to help others trust that they can overcome obstacles and find their inner strength and courage.

What drew you toward working with refugee and immigrant children?

The short answer is that these young people are my teachers! Their determination to succeed in high school, continue on to college and contribute to this country and/or to return to their homeland to help others inspires me and gives me hope. They dream of becoming doctors, nurses, peace-makers, environmentalists, actors, pilots and they do not bemoan the difficulties they have experienced at such a young age. Loss of family members, life in refugee camps, forced migrations, lack of enough food, health care, education and still they are model citizens. They are young people who are hopeful, curious, and deeply kind who wish to help create a more peaceful, humane world.

Stories of Our Arrival poets

The Stories of Our Arrival poets. Educators Carrie Stradley (front row, left) and Merna Hecht (front row, second from right) feel privileged to have worked with more than 240 students over the past six years from 30 countries.

You’re an organic gardener with respect for food traditions. How did this inspire you for Project Feast and how did the idea of the cookbook, Our Table of Memories, with poetry and illustrations come into being?

Our Table of MemoriesWhen I heard about Project Feast and found that it was located within a mile of the school my idea for a collaboration sprang in part from years of “hands on” intensive gardening and cooking and from a passion for exploring different ways people across the globe prepare and share food. This love of cross cultural food is something Carrie and I share. When she heard the idea for collaborating with Project Feast her eyes lit up with a “yes!” We both recognize that when people leave their homelands, a deep sense of home remains with them, in part, with eating and growing the foods of their cultures. We felt that a food-themed project would generate a rich outpouring of poems. Given that food and poetry both speak languages of flavor, scent, spice, texture, and color we wanted to include illustrations that would reflect the sensory feel of the poems—to create a presentation much like a memorable meal which the eye feasts upon before the palette! We also wanted to celebrate our students and the refugee women of Project Feast by including beloved recipes from their memories, their families and their homelands.

 Can you share a particular story from this Project that gave everyone hope?

One of Carrie’s ELL classes had fourteen boys and only two girls. Hope certainly flourishes when a group of adolescent boys, all refugees from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, openly support and applaud each other for writing poems that are vulnerable and emotionally expressive. Hope flourishes when they tell us that they’ve found their voices and a way to tell their stories through poetry. At the project’s conclusion those who wished to apply for a scholarship were asked to reflect on what they learned from poetry. Their replies filled us with hope and in truth, with tears, here are a few short excerpts:

Khai, from Burma

I can speak the truth in the poem I wrote… Poems will make other people understand us (immigrants). As an immigrant and a lot of others who are just like me, we have a vastly hard life… One of the ways that we can explain our painful past is only by a POEM, it is the only way to make a connection with everyone; poems make us two in one. Poems are vastly crucial to all of us because poems are ALIVE! There is peace, love, friends, family, and much more in a poem. This is why poems are extremely important to us (immigrants) and to everyone who has a heart.

Abdi A.

Abdi A.

Abdi A., from Somalia

I was born in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, and lived there most of my life. Writing poems helped me remember and appreciate what I have now and also helped non-immigrants to have a better understanding of what is it really like to be a young boy with a hopeless dream of becoming a doctor. I remember a white man who worked with the IOM asking me what my dream was and I told him I wanted to be a doctor and laughed at myself because I thought it was ridiculous and ‘’too big’’ for someone like me. But here I am today living a happy life and working towards my dream… Poetry doesn’t just show us how much we share, it helps us see the world in an entirely different way. When I heard Kang Pu’s poem about how his mom died and the struggle that his family had and how the government didn’t even help, I understood him better… Poetry is universal. ELLs can learn about or read poetry in their primary language, helping them bridge their worlds… I plan on going to a four-year college and I still have that dream of becoming a doctor, so I can go back home one day and help the sick and the needy.

Has there been an effort made to replicate this project in other high schools around the country?

This is a next step that project co-director and ELL teacher extraordinaire, Carrie and I have wanted and intend to accomplish. Along with the wonderful engagement and sage advice of John Fox, founder/director of the Institute for Poetic Medicine, (we are proudly an IPM Poetry Partner Project) we intend to take the next step and publish a template of poetry prompts and activities along with a collection of resource material for replicating this poetry project.


The poems in this book are luscious but, to tempt you further, the recipes includes Doro wet: an Ethiopian Chicken Stew (pgs. 120-121), Arroz con Leche, (pgs. 130-131), Zawngtah: Burmese Tree Beans with Tilapia (pgs. 136-137), Orange Iraqi Teatime Cake (pgs. 154-155) and many more. Is  your mouth watering yet? Everything about this book is inviting … you will embrace it!

Publisher, Chatwin Books

Your Local Bookseller


Kang Pu

Kang Pu

Here’s a sample of one of the heart-touching poems in Our Table of Memories:

Kang Pu, from Burma

When my mom cooked it smelled of sweet wintertime cherries,
of a solitary forest with rain falling
and it smelled like the murmur of a lonely bird, singing,
I picture the spherical smoke rising from her kitchen
it was like the sound of sleep at night,
it was like arriving home safe and sound
the sounds of her kitchen were peaceful. 

I still long for the laughter of those family meals
we all waited for that table, my mom’s table,
how she prepared every family meal,
this is what I still long for,
so often I remember my mother
nothing can take her memory away from me,
it is truly difficult that I have departed
from my motherland,
and from my mother’s kitchen.

The reason I wrote this poem is for memories of my mom and her kitchen. It was difficult for me to write this poem because I still long for my mother’s kitchen. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to study. Yet, no matter how far away from my parents, I am still holding their lessons and still using what they taught me. Without lessons from parents it’s hard to be in community with others and hard to stand on your own.

Nathaly Rosas

Nathaly Rosas

And another sample:

Nathaly Rosas, from Mexico

I am from a place where
The food is an art and every bite
Is a spicy piece of our culture.
Where the smells call you to enjoy
And the flavors take you to your memories.

Read more poems like these on Merna Hecht’s website.


“Stories of Immigration and Culture” poetry podcasts are available here, hosted by the Jack Straw Cultural Center.

Institute for Poetic Medicine, founded by John Fox, where Merna and Stories of Arrival are Poetry Partners.

Jack Straw Cultural Center

Stories of Arrival: Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project


(E)motion Sickness

Wrong Way signMost of my many school visits have been amazing, positive adventures (see my post titled “Traveling Like a Rock Star”). A few of my visits have featured minor bumps in the road. And one school visit—thank goodness, one only!—might be better described as a major traffic incident.

It happened when I was still a “newbie” to school visits. I was visiting this particular school for a week. On Day 1, a student came up front to read his story, got overexcited, and threw up all over my shoes. Unfortunately I didn’t heed that case of carsickness for the foreshadowing that it was.

It turns out that having my shoes soiled paled in comparison to what happened next: I found out that one of the teachers I was working with thought that my approach to teaching writing was completely wrong. At first I assumed this was a “fixable” difference. The teacher and I talked at length several times over the remainder of the week. I modified my approach in many ways.

But I never managed to get it “right.” I left the school feeling like a failure. It remains the most emotionally difficult experience of the twelve or so years I’ve worked as a writing instructor.

In some ways, it’s too bad that this experience happened during my early years of classroom visits. If it happened now, I’d be better able to navigate the unsettled waters and come up with a way to salvage the week for everybody involved.

But it might also be seen as one of the most important things I’ve ever learned: I now know what it feels like to be told by a teacher that I’m bad at something writing-related. As Overachiever Kid, that was never part of my own school experience. But because of that week, I gained a new level of understanding for those students who struggle—and continue to fail—at writing. It was (e)motion sickness inducing for me, but from that day forward I’ve made it a practice to find something positive to say about every student’s writing, to soften whatever less-than-happy news has to follow.

Those of you who have more training as educators than I do probably know other tactics to help motivate the kids who “just can’t seem to get writing right.” Maybe some of you will share your ideas as comments below?


Skinny Dip with Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park

We interviewed Linda Sue Park, veteran author and Newbery medalist, whose books have inspired children in many ways, appealing to a wide range of readers with books like A Single Shard, The Mulberry Project, Keeping Score, Yaks Yak, and A Long Walk to Water.

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

My paternal grandmother, whom I never got to meet. However, I suspect she wouldn’t invite me to a coffee shop; she’d invite me for naeng-myun instead (Korean cold noodle soup. Delicious.). And I realize that she is not a celebrity in the conventional sense, but I believe that all brave women should be.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

Currently: All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Brendan Kiely, Linda Sue Park, Jason Reynolds

Brendan Kiely, Linda Sue Park, Jason Reynolds

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

Really good guac with really fresh chips. I will eat mediocre chips if they’re all that’s available. The guac is what matters.

Favorite city to visit?

New York!

Most cherished childhood memory?

Saturday mornings at the public library.

First date?

Roller-skating and ice cream, 6th grade, with a boy named Curtis. Where is he now?

Xander's Panda Party and Yaks YakIllustrator’s work you most admire?

UNFAIR question. Registering protest by not answering.

No, strike that: I’ll name the illustrators of my two most recent picture books: Matt Phelan (Xander’s Panda Party) and Jennifer Black Reinhardt (Yaks Yak). ‘Admire’ is too staid. Their work for my texts THRILLED me.

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

Tea in the morning, espresso once or twice a day, swee’ tea when I’m in the South. My go-to is water.

What’s your dream vacation?

Snorkeling, reading on a beach, and eating fabulous food, both street and fine dining, with family and/or friends, somewhere that has lively outdoor markets.

WormsWhat gives you shivers?


Morning person? Night person?

NIGHT. Morning is a recurring insult to the psyche.

What’s your hidden talent?

It has faded with time, but I used to be able to identify red M&Ms blindfolded.

Your favorite candy as a kid …

As a kid? Why not now? As a kid: Bit O’Honey. As an adult: pecan rolls.

Is Pluto a planet?

Of course not. He’s Popeye’s nemesis—that big guy, with the arms. 😉

What’s the strangest tourist attraction you’ve visited?

The DMZ, border between North and South Korea.

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

One of each. I’m the oldest. I don’t think my life has a shape. Or maybe it’s constantly changing.

The Park family

Best tip for living a contented life?

1) Find a way to do work that you love. 2) When you’ve got the blues, do something for someone else.

Your hope for the world?

Every child a reader.

Cavern of SecretsLinda Sue, thanks for these candid answers for our Bookology readers. If they haven’t read all of your previously published books, we encourage them to have a Linda Sue Park read-a-thon. Could you share with us which books comes out next?

I hope you’ll enjoy the second book in the Claw & Wing series, Cavern of Secrets. It follows Book #1, Forest of Wonders. You’ll find the book in bookstores on March 7, 2017. Raffa sets off on a treacherous journey across Obsidia to save his friends and family … and the world!


The Delight of Reading Older Books

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

One of my favorite types of reading is to go back and read books I’ve missed from years ago. I once spent an entire summer reading books that were published in the 1950s. I had such a strong feeling of the decade after reading those books that I felt more connected to people who lived then. That feeling of connection is very satisfying to me.

Do you do a similar kind of reading?

This last holiday season, I did another dive into books published in decades past. There’s something very comforting about reading these books. I frequently scout out articles where people talk about the books they’ve loved from their childhood. If I haven’t read them, they go on a list and I seek them out. Sometimes I have to scout used book stores but the books are all easily obtainable.

My most recent delight was Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? by Avi. It was first published in 1981. I hadn’t read it before. It holds up well today. In fact, I would readily put this book in the hands of any child, aged 7 and older, who enjoys a mystery. Set in a small town, twin siblings Becky and Toby set out to solve a crime that’s presented on page one and is wrapped up neatly 115 pages later.

The crime takes place in a library and so does much of the action. Becky and Toby solve the crime on their own, without help from grown-ups. They question adults. They apply their brains. They discuss (and bicker) and ultimately end up on a stake-out.

To arrive at the solution, they read five classic books: Through the Looking Glass, The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Treasure Island. By the time they’re done discussing what they’ve read, I knew I’d have to re-read each of those books myself! (I’ve never read Winnie-the-Pooh. I know. Gasp!)

What do each of those books have in common? That’s the delicious part of the story so I won’t spoil it for you. Read this book!

We focus on new books because people love to guess which books will win awards.  We forget that there are thousands (millions?) of kids who are reading these books for the first time. Drawing books off the shelf from the rich canon of children’s literature is a gift we can keep giving again and again.

Stay tuned. I’ll share more of my reading-of-books-past in upcoming columns.

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?
Alfred A. Knopf, 1981
(I read a Yearling paperback.)
ISBN 978-0394849928, $6.99



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The Velveteen Rabbit

Meryl Streep is in the news this week for her speech at the Golden Globes. It’s a powerful piece—though, truth be told, I think she could read out a phone directory and it would be powerful. She began by apologizing because she’d lost her voice. It was loud enough to hear, but certainly rough. I was overcome by an urge to make tea with honey while watching.

Listening to her made me think of the cassette tape we had of her reading of The Velveteen Rabbit when our kids were small. I think we received it as a gift the Christmas I was pregnant with #1 Son. I might’ve even listened to it during labor, now that I think about it. In the early stages anyway.

It is soothing in the extreme. A beautiful story…accompanied by George Winston’s December album…stellar narration; it is an astounding package. And our sweet baby listened to it every night at bedtime for the first several years of his life. I’m tempted to credit this cassette tape and Winnie-the-Pooh, which he listened to at naptime, with the reason he’s such a gentle giant of a young man.

We travelled with The Velveteen Rabbit and a small boombox with that kid—he needed it to go to sleep at night. We used it like a drug on car trips. It seldom failed us. We listened to it so often that the recording became hard to hear, which had the effect of making you listen all the harder. Truly, by the time the boy could talk, we probably could have recited the story, though not with the lovely inflection Meryl Streep conveys, of course.

We tried using it with Child #2, as well, but the recording had been loved much, and had not become real, as the Velveteen Rabbit and Skin Horse had, so much as unintelligible. You could still hear Winston’s piano, but the story didn’t quite come through. By age three, Darling Daughter often said it made her feel too sleepy and asked that it be turned off. (She has never slept as soundly or as long as her brother….)

I have several copies of this sweet story in book form—various artists have illustrated it and I have large format books and smaller, too. I don’t recall reading it to either child, however. I love to read aloud, and this is a favorite story of mine…but who can compare to Meryl Streep? Plus, seldom do I have someone in my living room at the piano to accompany my narration….

But I’m so glad our kids had this story in their life in the way they had it. Meryl Streep and George Winston spinning Margery Williams’ magical tale of love and childhood…well, I can’t think it gets much better than that.



Focus Your Trip

ButterheadEvery year my mom and I took my nephews and niece to the Minnesota State Fair. We have certain faithful family rituals that we always repeat: mini-donuts as soon as we’re through the front gates. The big slide. Vigilant avoidance of the giant walking French fry man because he terrifies my niece. The butter head renditions of the dairy princesses.

Imagine my bemusement at the fact that there are MN State Fair visitors who never bother with the butter heads. But the butter head haters are actually following a sound principle: when you’re in the middle of an overwhelming experience, you’re often better off choosing to focus on only a few key things.

That explains why traveling to the fair with a grown-up friend one year felt like a completely different experience to me. We focused on entirely different things than I do when I’m herding the kids, and I actually got to spend some quality time in the Creative Arts building. I experienced the fair in a whole new way.

The same concept holds true for me when I set out to revise a piece of writing. If I try to see and do everything in one visit, the task quickly becomes overwhelming. But if I make several different revision trips, picking something different to focus on each time, then I can revise quite effectively. One time through, I might focus exclusively on my overall organization. Another trip, I might keep my attention riveted on strengthening my verbs. Still another trip, I might watch specifically for ways to add atmosphere.

Tell your students this: When they set out to revise, a whole lot of different things will all try to grab their attention at once. They’re probably going to get more out of the experience if they break down the revising task into several different trips. Encourage them to focus their attention on a few key things each time. They can always make the trip again to focus on something different; after all, the fairgrounds are open for twelve long days.


Coffee Will Be My Downfall

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Bookstorm™: Giant Squid

Giant Squid Bookstorm

Giant SquidGiant Squid provides an excellent opportunity to teach about one of the most mythical, unknown, and yet real creatures on earth, the Giant Squid. The incredible illustrations by Eric Rohmann help the reader’s perception of how large this deep sea creature is and how mysterious. Found so deep within the sea, there is very little light. How did Eric Rohmann create the sense of this water darkness and the release of ink, a defense mechanism? How did Candace Fleming write with spare text and yet tell us so many fascinating details about the Giant Squid?

Our Bookstorm will take you into further exploration, studying bioluminescence, other deep sea creatures, ocean ecology, oceanographers, and more.

There are excellent resources in the back matter of the book as well. We trust you will find inspiration and resources aplenty within the Bookstorm to accompany your study of Giant Squid. 


You’ll find more information about Candace Fleming on her website. And read about illustrator Eric Rohmann on his website.

There’s a Teaching Guide available for Giant Squid, written by naturalist Lee Ann Landstrom.


  • Bioluminescence
  • Deep Sea Creatures
  • Fiction
  • Giant Squid, in particular
  • Oceans
  • Relative Size
  • Scientific Exploration

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


Fantasy Gems

Lord of the RingsThe Christmas present that stands out most in my memory was given to me when I was 16. We opened our presents on Christmas Eve. At that age, I expected clothes and practical gifts. Somehow, my mother knew to give me the boxed set of The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read any fantasy before this. So I was curious. I slipped into my bedroom around nine o’clock and began reading. I read until the Nazgul’s pursuit of the Hobbits became too intense. I put the book down, dreamed about the book all night, picked up The Fellowship of the Ring the next morning, and never came up for air for the rest of the holiday. I had to finish those books.

The Lord of the Rings started me on a lifelong love of fantasy. My master’s thesis was on fantasy literature. I enjoyed reading Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Peake, Le Guin, Moorcock, McKillip, McKinley, Susan Cooper, Walton, Kurtz, Nesbit … I devoured them.

But at a certain point, fantasy literature felt repetitive to me, with stock characters, and predictable plots. I seldom read it anymore, which is a sad thing.

But last September I met the author of a series about Jinx. She talked about the book as though I should know it … and I was curious. So I began Jinx, then had to find Jinxs Magic the next day, and Jinxs Fire a couple of days later. These are good books with characters I hadn’t encountered before in a world of wizards and magicians and a deep connection to the forests. It’s funny and magical and features a lot of warm and captivating relationships. The main character, Jinx, is complex and likeable. There’s a good balance between dialogue, description, action, a fast pace, and time to breathe. The main character starts out at age 12 and grows to age 14 so this is the right book to place in the hands of readers ages 10 and up (through adult).

Jinx series

I was so enthralled by Jinx’s tale that I had to ask the author, Sage Blackwood, a few questions:

Did you construct the Urwald, Samara, and the surrounding countries before you began writing the first book, Jinx? Or did you invent the geography as you went along?

The Urwald came first— years before the story, in fact. Samara I think also came before the story; I remember drawing pictures of it. The surrounding countries weren’t really developed till I needed them.

Did you know the ending of Jinx’s Fire (Book 3) when you began Jinx (Book 1)?

As regards the Bonemaster, yes, but the autonomy of the trees was something that developed as I wrote. I gradually realized that if the Urwald was a living entity, then like any other character, it had to have agency and flaws… and a Last Straw.

This series is founded on the balance between good and evil. Did you start writing with this premise or did you discover it during your writing process?

I think I started out not really believing in evil. At least not of the hand-rubbing “Mwuhaha! Cringe before me, mortals!” variety. So I guess it developed as I wrote: Each of the major characters has at some point touched evil. Not just as a victim, but as a perpetrator or potential perpetrator.  And each character is changed by the experience. That’s what evil is— something we all either face down, or embrace. Fortunately relatively few of us do the latter.

And, of course, we can’t always tell it’s evil at the time. Evil can come disguised as an unfortunate necessity, or a great job offer.

What aspect of your story underwent the most change during the writing of the three books?

Jinx himself, I think. At first he was a polite, diffident boy. Then it became clear that he was never going to survive being raised by Simon. Not with his protagonisthood intact, anyway. So he had to toughen up and develop a sardonic edge, and I really became much fonder of him when he did.

I love the ambiguity of your main characters. They seem fully human for this reason. Does this part of crafting a character come naturally to you or is it an effort?

Thank you. It is an effort, but not one I would forego. It’s important that each major character could conceivably be the protagonist, if the story were slewed around a bit. And this is how they see themselves, of course. None of us are sidekicks in real life.

Jinx can’t exactly read minds but he can see auras that show how a person is really feeling. This is one of the most exciting aspects of your books. How did this character quality come to you?

It happened while I was writing the early scenes. Emotions kept coming up in a very visual way, and I realized that that was because I was writing from Jinx’s point of view and that’s what he was actually seeing.

Do you have an affection for trees?

Oh yes! I am a tree-hugger. I spent a lot of time walking in the forest while I was writing Jinx, and this was where I realized that the trees talk to each other—something science was apparently also discovering at more or less the same moment. (People keep sending me articles about this.)

Your over-arching villain, The Bonemaster, is so reprehensible that it’s hard for me to have his presence in the story. How do you figure out the parameters of an evil character?

Well, I had to remember that as far as he was concerned, he was the hero of the story.  A good villain should always think he’s the hero. It’s what villains think in real life.

Therefore, a villain needs values. They can be horrible ones, but he’s got to have them. He has to have a self-constructed ideal he’s living up to. (This is where some Dark Lords fall short.)

How long does it take you to finish writing a book from first draft to the editor receiving your manuscript?

About a year, if I’ve got my act together. Before that there’s a period of drawing pictures, taking notes, and hanging index cards on the wall.

Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? If so, which are your favorite books or series?

Drowned AmmetLike you, I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid. Later I grew disillusioned with the genre. Then I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. She was such a fresh, new voice, seeing the humor in the genre and the magic at the same time. And the way she establishes a world on page one without ever lapsing into mere description… I couldn’t believe everyone wasn’t talking about her!

It was 20 years before I finally met a Diana Wynne Jones fan I hadn’t created, as it were. Now it turns out she was a major influence on many (most?) of us who are writing middle grade fantasy today. We just all found her one way or another.

Some of my favorites of hers are Drowned Ammet, Cart and Cwidder, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and The Homeward Bounders (which is probably structurally her best novel).

Beyond Jones, the Harry Potter series is also wonderful. And I absolutely love Terry Pratchett— perhaps as much for the language as anything else.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sage. Your series of Jinx books ranks right up there with my favorite fantasies of all time.

Thanks so much, Vicki; that’s wonderful to hear. And thank you for coming up with all these great questions that were fun to answer!


The Books in the Night

Phyllis: Night means many things: the terrifying darkness behind the garage where I had to carry the garbage after supper as a child, the dark night of the soul that depression brings, the hours between sunset and sunrise that grow longer and longer as our earth turns into winter. But night holds comfort as well as fear, and this month we want to look at books about the gifts that night and darkness can bring.

In the Night KitchenWho hasn’t heard of Mickey who “heard a racket in the night and shouted ‘Quiet down there!’ and fell through the dark out of his clothes past the moon and his mama and papa sleeping tight and into the light of the night kitchen?” (Maurice Sendak moves through more action in his marvelous first sentences than almost any other author we can think of.)  The Night Kitchen is Sendak’s imagined answer to what might have happened after he had to go to bed as a child, and his comic-book art pays tribute to the comics that influenced his work. This book has encountered both public and private censorship, including librarians painting diapers or clothes on Mickey to cover his nudity, but children love the adventure he discovers in the night kitchen.

Jackie: Sendak’s editor, the legendary Ursula Nordstrom, was eloquent in defending her books from such censorship. She once wrote to a teacher who had burned a copy of In the Night Kitchen, “I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.” (Dear Genius, p.302)

Where Does the Brown Bear Go?Phyllis: Sendak imagines a rollicking adventure making cake for breakfast, while Nikki Weiss, right from the title, asks, Where Does the Brown Bear Go? Lovely in its simplicity and strong at its heart, this series of rhyming questions, one to a spread, wonders where animals go when night falls:

When the lights go down on the city street
Where does the white cat go, honey?
Where does the white cat go?
When evening settles
On the jungle heat,
Where does the monkey go, honey?
Where does the monkey go?

After every two questions, the same answer comes: 

They are on their way.
They are on their way home.

This would be a sweet catalog of animals headed home at night, but the book resonates more deeply when it asks: 

When the junkyard is lit
By the light of the moon
Where does the junkyard dog go, honey?
 Where does the junkyard dog go? 

Knowing that even the junkyard dog is on his way home moves me almost to tears. 

Jackie: Same here. And it urges me to imagine what is home for the junkyard dog and to put myself in that home for just a bit.

Phyllis: The last page shows a boy snuggled in bed surrounded by his stuffed animals (who resemble the animals of the preceding pages), and the book’s last line reassures us that everyone is home. It’s what we wish for every one of us, that a home awaits us at night where we are safe and cherished.

Night on Neighborhood StreetEloise Greenfield’s Night on Neighborhood Street uses a variety of poetic forms to tell the stories of the children and grown-ups who live on Neighborhood Street as night falls and bedtime arrives. Juma stretches out his bedtime with a willing daddy, a new baby cries and is rocked lovingly to sleep, a family gathers for “fambly time” on the floor, Tonya’s mother plays her horn for Tonya’s friends at an overnight, the church congregation sings songs of praise, and Karen lets her sister be the mama when their mama has to work at night.  But the darker side of life appears as well:  a lonesome boy waiting for his friend to come home looks at the moon “with a sad, sad eye/poking out his mouth/getting ready to cry.” A drug dealer comes around, but the children “see behind his easy smile” and head inside. A “brother who tries to pick a fight” is shut down when everyone else nods and smiles and lets him know they’re not interested in fighting. The book ends with Tonya’s mama blowing lullaby sounds on her horn into the silence of the street. And the children “hear and smile…and they are at peace with the night.” 

Jackie: I love how the families watch out for each other in this book. There is such a strong sense that children are cared for. Tonya’s Mama is a good example of this:

When Tonya’s friends come to spend the night
Her mama’s more than just polite
She says she’s glad they came to call
Tells them that she loves them all
Listens to what they can do
Tells them what she’s good at, too.
Plays her horn and lets them sing
(Do they make that music swing!)…

We aren’t sure why Tonya’s friends are there. Perhaps there was trouble, perhaps it’s just a visit. But we are sure that Tonya’s mother is strong and will love and take care of  these children. Neighborhood Street is a neighborhood indeed, where all are made stronger by watching out for each other.

The House in the NightPhyllis: Susan Marie Swanson’s The House in the Night, inspired by a nursery rhyme from The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, is also deceptively simple in its text. The story is told in short declarative sentences, one sentence each to a double page spread of Beth Krommes’ Caldecott-winning scratchboard illustrations illuminated with bright yellow stars, lamplight, moon, and other objects. “Here is the key to the house,” the book begins.  In the house a light burns, a book rests on a bed, a bird flies with a song about starry dark, moon, sun, all of which circles back (in shorter phrases, a beautiful use of syntax) to the house in the night where art shows a parent lovingly tucking in the child who has read the book in “the house full of light.” Utterly beautiful and satisfying.

Jackie: There is so much to notice in this book. First the travel and the wonderful verbs:  In the house burns a light/In the light rests a bed./On that bed waits a book./In that book flies a bird./In that bird breathes a song….” We go all the way to the moon and the sun—and return. And for the journey back Susan Marie Swanson uses no verbs. We zoom from one place to the next. It really feels like space travel.

Sun in the moon,
moon in the dark,
dark in the song,
song in the bird,
bird in the book,
book on the bed,
bed in the light,
light in the house,…

You are right, Phyllis. This is such a satisfying trip back to the cozy bedroom of the house in the night.

Sweetest KuluPhyllis:  Not all nights are dark. The summer sun never really sets in the arctic, although someone who lives there told me how the quality of light changes under the midnight sun. (Someday I hope to see for myself.) In the Arctic Summer of Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk nature comes to give its gifts to little Kulu on the day he is born. The sun gives him “blankets and ribbons of warm light,” wind tells how weather forms, snow buntings bring seeds of flowers and Arctic cotton, “reminding you to always believe in yourself.” Arctic Char, Fox, Narwahl and Beluga, Muskrat, Polar Bear, and the Land itself all offer gifts  both tangible and intangible. This is a child welcomed and cherished by all.  A final piece of art shows Kulu nestled with a polar bear cub in a circle of grass and flowers.  Exquisitely beautiful and loving, this is a book as full of light and joy as the endless Arctic summer days. 

Jackie: I am so impressed with the language of this book. Many phrases caught my ear. Here are a couple of examples: “Melodies of wind arrived,” “Fox, so thoughtful and swift,/came to tell you to get out of bed as soon as you wake,/and to help anyone who may need your help along your way…”

This bedtime lullaby resonates with older readers, too.  We are daily reminded in our own lives of Muskox’s gift. “Muskox shared heritage and empowerment with you,/magnificent Kulu,/showing you how to protect what you believe in.”

These nighttime books, whether in the kitchen, on Neighborhood Street, in the cozy house in the night, or in the Arctic urge us to quiet, to being in a quiet world, where we have space and time to appreciate what is around us in the physical world as well as what is in our hearts and how they are strengthened by affection and care.

Phyllis: This is the season for quiet, after the blooming and buzzing of summer. As days shorten and the nights stretch out toward solstice, choose a book or several to read aloud, an act as comforting as a cup of warm cocoa and a fire in the fireplace.

Here are a few more night stories:

Can’t Sleep by Chris Raschka

Good Night Sleep Tight by Mem Fox

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman

Night Flight by Joanne Ryder

Night Noises by Mem Fox

Ten Nine Eight by Molly Bang


Skinny Dip with Caren Stelson

Caren Stelson

Caren Stelson, author

We interviewed Caren Stelson, first-time author, whose nonfiction book Sachiko: a Nagasaki Bomb Survivor Story has received a good deal of positive recognition, including the longlist for the National Book Award and inclusion on many Best Books of 2016 lists. (Her name is pronounced just as you would say Karen.)

Which celebrity would invite you like to invite to a coffee shop?

If I could invite anyone to coffee, I’d invite Eleanor Roosevelt and happily pick up the tab. Eleanor—what a woman! She overcame so much, from her difficult childhood, to finding and claiming her own life work, to being Franklin Roosevelt’s conscience as First Lady. Actually, she was the conscience of the nation, then as U.N. representative, the conscience of the world. I’d love to ask Eleanor, “What do you think of Donald Trump as President of the United States?”

To Kill a MockingbirdWhich book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

I keep coming back to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as my favorite book. Anyone who wants to understand the United States needs to read Harper Lee’s novel.

Favorite city to visit?

Can I have two favorites? Bath, England is one and Nagasaki, Japan is the other. I lived in Bath, England in 2001-2002 and spent that year interviewing adults who had survived the April 1942 blitz as kids during World War II. I was fascinated by what they remembered about living through the war and what those memories meant to them now. I have great memories of the interviews and great memories of the city of Bath, itself. Bath is a Georgian architectural wonder with layers and layers of history. The Roman Bath in the heart of the city is the best preserved Roman bath in the world. I loved living in Bath. I still have many friends there, making Bath “home away from home” for me. Nagasaki, Japan is another city where I’m at home. Of course, my friend Sachiko Yasui lives in Nagasaki as do many of my other Japanese friends. Because Nagasaki was the second city destroyed by an atomic bomb during WWII, the horror of nuclear war is forever stamped on the city’s conscience. So is the necessity for peace. For me, Nagasaki is Ground Zero for the study of peace.

City of Bath, England

Bath, England

Roman Bath

The Roman Bath in Bath, England

Nagasaki, Japan

Nagasaki, Japan today

Most cherished childhood memory?

One of my most cherished childhood memories is sledding down a hill in Vermont one wintry night with my family. I still can see my father stretched out on a wooden sled with my mother on top of him, speeding down the hill. I can still hear their screams of laughter echoing through the dark. I don’t have many memories of that kind of family laughter, so I hang onto this memory pretty tightly.

What’s your dream vacation?

My dream vacation is a photographic safari to the Serengeti Plain. My husband and I traveled to Tanzania in the 1980s and camped on the floor of Ngoro Ngoro Crater, the place with the greatest concentration of wild animals in the world. I can still hear the lions’ roaring at night. And the eyes. At night, we aimed a high-powered flashlight outside the circle of tents and watched the eyes of antelope stare back at us. Today it’s not possible to camp on the crater floor, but I’d do it in a heartbeat as my dream vacation.

Ngoro Ngoro Crater, Tanzania (Wikimedia Commons)

What makes you shiver?

There’s a lot to shiver about these days, but honestly, the first thing that popped into my mind was shark attacks. Any story that has a shark attack in it will give me nightmares.

Morning person? Night person?

I used to be a night person when I was younger, but now I’m a straight morning person. Sometimes I’ll get out of bed around 5:00 am, maybe earlier, put on the coffee, and start writing right away. When I’m in that half-sleep, half-awake zone, lots of interesting things start happening on the page.

What’s your hidden talent?

I really love having conversations with three-year-olds. I think that can be considered a talent.  I recently took care of a three-year-old for a day and we had the best time exploring every mechanical item in the house, from how a mixer works to how a piano makes its sound. If we could all sustain our three-year-old curiosity, we truly could be wide-awake, life-long learners.

Piano iinterior

Explaining how a piano makes sound (Wikimedia Commons)

Favorite candy as a kid?

Good ‘n‘ Plenty. I loved those pink and white candy covered pieces of licorice, particularly if I ate them at the movies.

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

I have an older brother and a younger brother, so I’m the sister stuck in the middle. Being the only girl shaped my life quite a bit. My brothers weren’t all that interested in sports, but I was. My father taught me how to throw a football, play tennis, and get up the courage to play varsity high school sports. Having that fatherly attention gave me confidence. But I also missed not having a sister I could confide in. I looked for that closeness in the books I read and in my personal journals. Today, I think of my closest women friends as my sisters, which makes up for the hole in my childhood.

Sachiko: a Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's StoryHope for the world?

What is there but hope for peace? The world is heating up with fears and tensions we haven’t seen in decades. This does not bode well for the future. It’s a long shot, but I hope the nations of the world will collectively realize war is not the answer to our problems. Really, we have no choice. Between nuclear weapons and climate change, our existence on this planet is at stake. We Americans and the rest of the world’s population have to figure out how to work together and work for peace. As individuals we may feel powerless in the face of world tensions, but we can begin the peace process among neighbors and across our cities and states. I love the quote by peace activist and Quaker Gene Knudsen Hoffman, “The enemy is a person whose stories we have not heard.” We can start listening.

Nagasaki, Japan

Caren Stelson in Nagasaki, Japan


Karen Cushman, the Girl in Men’s Underwear

Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

We welcome the opportunity to talk with Karen Cushman, Newbery Medal and Honor recipient for The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy, as well as historical fiction set in the western United States. Her most recent novel is the fantasy Grayling’s Song. We look forward to talking with Karen because her sense of humor is always in play, something you’d expect from reading her books.

 Are you working on a new manuscript? (Care to offer a teaser)?

I’m struggling my way through a book set in San Diego in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor. Here’s the beginning, or the beginning at the moment:

Jorge lifted the slimy creature to his lips and bit it right between the eyes.

I shuddered as I watched. “Doesn’t that taste muddy and disgusting?”

“Nah,” he said, wiping mud from his mouth. “Is only salty. This way they don’t die but only sleep, stay fresh.” He threw the octopus into a bucket and slipped through the mud flats to another hole in the muck. He filled a baster from a mud-spattered Clorox bottle and squirted the bleach into a hole.

When the occupant slithered to the surface, Jorge pulled it out and bit it, too. “You want? Make good stew.”

I shook my head. I preferred fish that came in cans and was mixed with mayo and chopped celery.

 Elvis PresleyAre there particular memories of growing up that, looking back, you see as leading you toward a writing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be leading me to a writing career. I wrote all the time: poems, short stories, a 7-page novel, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis (see the last question below). A lot of what I wrote was involved with creating a world I’d like to live in starring a person I’d like to be.

Are there three books you’d recommend for gift-giving in the upcoming holidays?

I asked my daughter, who works at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland and knows more about books than anyone. She recommended three illustrated nonfiction titles. I plan to buy them for myself.

  • Atlas Obscura (by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton). A fascinating tour guide to the strangest and most curious places in the world: glowworm caves in New Zealand, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, salt mines in Poland, a parasitology museum, bone museums in Italy.
  • David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now. Packed with information on the inner workings of everything from windmills to Wi-Fi, this extraordinary book guides readers through the fundamental principles of machines and shows how the developments of the past are building the world of tomorrow. 
  • In the Company of Women (by Grace Bonney). Photos and descriptions of inspiring, creative women across the world who forged their own paths and succeeded. 

Three book recommendations by Karen Cushman

What did you study in college?

I entered college as an English major but quickly became enamored of the Classics department because it was much smaller and more interesting and they had sherry parties every Friday afternoon. My final major was double—Greek and English.

Did you taking writing classes?

My university had a graduate creative writing major but there was only one course for undergraduates. I took it, hated it, and never went. People sat around and criticized each other’s work. Not for me. The night before the quarter was over, I stayed up all night and wrote twelve short stories. The professor commented that I seemed to have learned a lot during the class even though I never came to class. Go figure. That was my first and last writing class.

men's boxers What was your first job?

I worked in the men’s socks and shorts department of a Target-like store, where I was known as the girl in men’s underwear.

What’s your strongest memory of the 1950s?

Elvis. No question. I also remember looking at all the unhappy housewives on our suburban street, sipping martinis and making lunches, and feared I would end up like that.  

PS:  I didn’t.


In Draft

Henry James“He was always chasing the next draft of himself.”

 American critic Dwight Garner, in the New York Times Book Review on February 16 of this year, was describing the childhood of Henry James.

An expandable list comes to mind, some of our memorable figures moving toward the next draft of themselves: Anne Shirley, Holden Caulfield, Jo March, Jody Baxter, Arnold Spirit, Jr., Gilly Hopkins, M.C. Higgins, Jane Yolen’s Hannah/Chaya, Will Grayson and Will Grayson, Billie Jo Kelby, Ramona Quimby, the Gaither sisters, Hugo Cabret, Stanley Yelnats, the Logan family of Mississippi, Winnie Foster, Walter Dean Myers’ Steve Harmon, Terry Pratchett’s Mau and Daphne and their Nation.  Harry, Hermione, Ron.

One of our truisms is that the characters who transport us in their stories are actually showing us—seldom without pain—about revising and becoming. We’ve all felt it happen.

After the last page, our selves have enlarged, leading us often subtly, silently, into our own next draft.

Generation after generation, many of our young, in fiction and in the house just down the road, must revise themselves by fleeing chaos, violence, or neglect wrought by callous or confused adults. Others seek change and release from what seems an abyss of boredom. And some of us lucky ones try on differences just because we can.

draftRight now, December 2016, in our own USA, many of our neighbors and students fear deportation, a cruel next draft in a world they never made. As the new administration struts toward Washington, we’re wary of the convulsive upending, we’re apprehensive about the precipitous swerves and the jaw-dropping, impetuous tweets, and some of us place bets. Here is Henry James’ declaration from about a hundred years ago: “I hate American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort.” Come on back, Henry. We have drafts galore for you, we’ll help you catch up on your reading, and we’ve got real life complications that will blow your spats off.


Irresistible Reading: How Things Work

How Things WorkNow, if that Science Encyclopedia wasn’t cool enough, here’s another sure-fire hit for kids who love to read facts, true stories, and know how things work.

In fact, the book is called How Things Work and it’s another powerhouse from National Geographic.

As the book admonishes, “PUT THIS BOOK DOWN NOW. It’s dangerous. It might make you think you can do impossible things.” Followed closely by “You must be one of those. The kind of kid who thinks ‘just because’ isn’t a real answer.”

Do you know one of those kids? Endless questions? On the trail for the real story? Wondering all the time? Lucky you. Lucky them if you give them this book.

How do hoverboards work? This comes with a “Try This!” that encourages experimenting with the attraction and repelling of magnets.

How do microwaves work? There are infographics, fun facts, diagrams, another Try This with ice cubes, Myth vs. Fact, a short biography of Percy Spencer whose melting peanut cluster bar sparked his imagination … and it’s all terribly exciting.

The visuals that accompany every fact in this book, the layout, the colors, all of this put together makes me want to devour this book. There are so many cool things explained that it makes me breathless.

Don’t you want the kid in your life to feel the same way about learning?

How Things Work
T.J. Resler
National Geographic, 2016
ISBN 978-1426325557, $19.99