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Skinny Dip with DeDe Small

DeDe Small

DeDe Small shares her enthu­si­asm about books, read­ing, and lit­er­a­cy with her stu­dents at Drake Uni­ver­si­ty in Des Moines, Iowa. We invit­ed DeDe to Skin­ny Dip with us, our first inter­view in the New Year.

When did you first start read­ing books?

I don’t actu­al­ly remem­ber learn­ing to read but I do always remem­ber hav­ing books. I even came up with my own cat­a­loging sys­tem in the lat­er ele­men­tary grades.

Din­ner par­ty at your favorite restau­rant with peo­ple liv­ing or dead: where is it and who’s on the guest list?

I don’t know where it is but I know I am eat­ing a real­ly good steak and we need a big table because I am invit­ing Barak Oba­ma, JK Rowl­ing, Buck O’Neill, St. Ignatius of Loy­ola, Jane Goodall, my par­ents, and my aunts.

All-time favorite book?

This is real­ly hard because there are too many to name! I loved it when my moth­er read The Secret Gar­den to me. As a young child, I loved read­ing Andrew Henry’s Mead­ow by Doris Burn. In upper ele­men­tary, Island of the Blue Dol­phins by Scott O’Dell was my favorite. All-time favorite might have to be the entire Har­ry Pot­ter series because it speaks to choos­ing kind­ness, love, and integri­ty over pow­er and fame.

DeDe Small's favorite books

Favorite break­fast or lunch as a kid?

I was cuck­oo for Cocoa Puffs.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Doing the laun­dry.

What’s your favorite part of start­ing a new project?

I love the feel­ing when every­thing starts click­ing and you can sense where the project might go. That sense of poten­tial is ener­giz­ing.

SocksBare­foot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Bare­foot in warm weath­er and socks when it is cold. You will most often find me curled up on my couch with a book, doing school work or watch­ing a movie. The activ­i­ty changes but my loca­tion does not.

When are you your most cre­ative?

I am most cre­ative when I step back and take the time to let an idea per­co­late a bit.

Your best mem­o­ry of your school library?

My strongest mem­o­ry is actu­al­ly of my pub­lic library. We would go once a week. It became a great bond­ing expe­ri­ence with my moth­er and I came to think of the library as a spe­cial place. I now have four library cards.

Favorite fla­vor of ice cream?

Mint Chip.

Book(s) on your bed­side table right now?

Wishtree by Kather­ine Apple­gate, Wolf Hol­low by Lau­ren Wolk, and La Rose by Louise Erdrich.  I recent­ly read The Under­ground Rail­road by Col­son White­head, Refugee by Alan Gratz and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.

Best inven­tion in the last 200 years?


Which is worse: spi­ders or snakes?

Spi­ders. Way too many legs and eyes.

What’s your best con­tri­bu­tion to tak­ing care of the envi­ron­ment?


Why do you feel hope­ful for humankind?

I find hope in the char­ac­ters of good books and real-life sto­ries. Lloyd Alexan­der was specif­i­cal­ly ref­er­enc­ing fan­ta­sy but I think it is true of all good sto­ries: “Some­times heart­break­ing, but nev­er hope­less, the fan­ta­sy world as it ‘should be’ is one in which good is ulti­mate­ly stronger than evil, where courage, jus­tice, love, and mer­cy actu­al­ly func­tion.” Books allow us to rec­og­nize our own human­i­ty in oth­ers and that makes me hope­ful. If we read more, con­nect more, and under­stood more, the world would be a bet­ter place.


Skinny Dip with Karen Blumenthal

Matzo ToffeeFavorite hol­i­day tra­di­tion?

Food! I love to bake and hol­i­days are the best excuse for bak­ing! Peach cob­bler for the Fourth of July, apple cake for the Jew­ish hol­i­days, dozens and dozens of cook­ies for friends and fam­i­ly in Decem­ber, and this killer can­dy that we call mat­zo tof­fee at Passover. I make a ton of it for friends and even send some to spe­cial edi­tors. It’s the most addic­tive thing ever and it proves that choco­late makes every­thing bet­ter.

Were you a teacher’s pet or teacher’s chal­lenge?

Most­ly a teacher’s pet. I had poor eye­sight and super-thick glass­es and had to sit up front. But I also have strong opin­ions, so I’m sure I was a chal­lenge as well.

Mexia TexasWhat’s the first book report you ever wrote?

This is embar­rass­ing, but I don’t remem­ber book reports in ele­men­tary school. I remem­ber reports on a town in Texas (I chose Mex­ia, pro­nounced Me-hay‑a) and oth­er sub­jects, and even a report on Nixon’s trip to Chi­na, but no book reports. Maybe I blocked them out! We did do them in junior high and I got in trou­ble for choos­ing a 1934 nov­el by John O’Hara that the teacher deemed too old for me.

First BookDo you like to gift wrap presents?

That’s kind of a fun­ny ques­tion. Yes, and no. Here’s why: For the last 12 or 13 years, my fam­i­ly has gift-wrapped books at local book­stores dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son to raise mon­ey for a lit­er­a­cy orga­ni­za­tion called First Book. Some years, we worked many shifts at sev­er­al book­stores and some years, we worked just a hand­ful of shifts. But near­ly all of those years, we gift-wrapped on Christ­mas Eve, which is a crazy day when all the last-minute or vis­it­ing-from-out-of-town shop­pers come in. By the mid­dle of the sea­son, I could hard­ly bear to wrap our family’s own gifts.

All togeth­er, our wrap­ping raised more than $20,000 for First Book. But we decid­ed 2014 would be our last year. Our daugh­ters, who were 12 and 14 when we start­ed, are now grown and live on oppo­site coasts and we don’t get to spend much time with them.  It was a great expe­ri­ence though, and I’m now an excel­lent wrap­per!

What do you wish you could tell your 10-year-old self?

Hmmm. I enjoyed writ­ing at that age, but was becom­ing self-con­scious about it, and I had class­mates — includ­ing anoth­er Karen — who were more skilled. Prob­a­bly I would tell her that pas­sion and per­sis­tence are about as impor­tant as any­thing and to keep at it.

ph_dinner_300What 3 children’s book authors or illus­tra­tors or edi­tors would you like to invite to din­ner?

One of the real­ly great things about being an author is that you get to meet oth­er authors, and even have a meal with them. So I’ve got­ten to meet some of my heroes, like Rus­sell Freed­man, Steve Sheinkin, and Susan Bar­to­let­ti.

Oh, this is so hard! Bev­er­ly Cleary, for sure, because she was one of my ear­ly favorites and still is.  J.K. Rowl­ing, because that would be amaz­ing. And maybe John Green, because he’s so cool.

Where’s your favorite place to read?

Any­where! Real­ly! I’ll read just about any­where, though I pre­fer a chair. I read a lot at my break­fast table, but also in a com­fort­able chair in our den, on the bike at the gym, on planes, and when I’m wait­ing for an appoint­ment. 



Virginia Euwer Wolff: Considering Flaubert

by Vir­ginia Euw­er Wolff

Flaubert photo

Gus­tave Flaubert

For years I’ve tak­en prim­i­tive com­fort in Gus­tave Flaubert’s mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry remark in a let­ter to a friend: “Last week I spent five days writ­ing one page.”

And Gar­ri­son Keil­lor’s Writer’s Almanac remind­ed us (Dec. 12, 2014) that Flaubert often put in a com­ma one day and took it out the next. Yes, sure, fine, yeah, we all do that, and we can tell the key­board, or the cat, who­ev­er keeps us com­pa­ny, that in these inser­tions and dele­tions we’re hon­or­ing Flaubert and the noble tra­di­tion. But these hours of wifty inde­ci­sive­ness may instead illus­trate my own inabil­i­ty to per­ceive accu­rate­ly, rather than Flaubert’s lofty aes­thet­ic.

In this same Writer’s Almanac we hear that Flaubert said this (trans­lat­ed from the French):

It is a deli­cious thing to write, to be no longer your­self but to move in an entire     uni­verse of your own cre­at­ing. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mis­tress, I rode in a for­est on an autumn after­noon under the yel­low leaves, and I  was also the hors­es, the leaves, the wind, the words my peo­ple uttered, even the red  sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.

We’ve all been told: Write what you know. Some of us have rolled our eyes when we hear it. A cou­ple of decades ago, Win­nie Mor­ris  was the first author I heard say this to that: “Instead of writ­ing what I know, I work at writ­ing what I want to find out about.”

Ah, yes. Did Jean Craig­head George know how she her­self would live with wolves when she sat down to begin Julie of the Wolves? Did Tol­stoy know how Kutu­zov brood­ed? Had Jer­ry Pinkney ever been a majes­tic Serengeti lion in vio­lent dis­tress? We can bet that J.K. Rowl­ing did­n’t even know the Quid­ditch rules when she began.

My hunch: Gus­tave Flaubert, that man of scan­dalous­ly racy mind, knew not a whit or a jot about actu­al­ly being a horse or a leaf. I’m will­ing to guess that instead he paid scrupu­lous atten­tion to things, cul­ti­vat­ing a vis­cer­al sense of life in motion, an immer­sion in the drift of pas­sion­ate giv­ing and tak­ing, using and being used, of hope, sor­row, envy, greed, kind­li­ness, faith and faith­less­ness, of the plucky pulse of plan­et earth breath­ing. How else could he know about “love-drowned eyes”? And those things he had to learn about includ­ed horse and leaf. And he helped him­self to them.

I think that must have been how he was able to force me to the front of my chair and cause me to plead, “Oh, no, Emma! Not him! Please, no!” Just as I want to leap from my seat and shout at Romeo in the tomb: “No! Don’t!” And to cheer Win­nie Fos­ter on as she makes her choice not to drink the water at Tree­gap. And every time I write “for deposit only” on a check, Dicey Tiller­man comes to mind, and I thank Cyn­thia Voigt for let­ting me into that big sto­ry.

We set out to make a nar­ra­tive nobody else has writ­ten. Of course it’s scary in there, that room or that cave we enter, alone, not know­ing if those sounds are the voic­es of our sto­ry or of the forces that don’t want us to write it. As an arti­cle of faith, we pay atten­tion. We exam­ine the drip­ping walls of that cave, we find it’s the cave of our uncon­scious, and every­thing lives there: love and hate and envy and devo­tion and betray­al and exu­ber­ance and grief and uproar­i­ous laugh­ter at what mar­velous­ly var­i­ous fools we mor­tals be.

woodpecker photoJust now a female downy wood­peck­er is scoot­ing up a pine tree out­side my win­dow. She does­n’t find an insect in every hole. She keeps hunt­ing, hop­ping about, doing her work, going where she may nev­er have been. I don’t expect ever to be her, but I cer­tain­ly learn lessons from her tenac­i­ty, her rou­tine of scoot­ing, scam­per­ing, soar­ing.

As I’m con­sid­er­ing Flaubert and wrestling with a recal­ci­trant man­u­script, I’m remind­ed that Mau­rice Rav­el took a year to com­pose the three and a half minute “Bac­cha­nale,” the lush com­mo­tion that con­cludes his Daph­nis et Chloé bal­let. A year to move from the periph­ery, where it may have seemed easy, into the invit­ing and defi­ant heart of the mat­ter.

Some faint melody, some shad­owy sto­ry is wait­ing, just over there. Of course it’s been made before, and by wis­er minds than mine. But maybe I can do it with a dif­fer­ence. Maybe. Make it an eighth-note just there. No, no, wait a minute: Make it two six­teenths. Yes, that’s it, exact­ly. No, I was wrong. Back to the eighth-note. Yes. I think.




Harry Potter

Har­ry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the Har­ry Pot­ter series, came out a few months after Child #1 was born. In my sleep-deprived stu­por, I didn’t notice for awhile; but it quick­ly became dif­fi­cult to be a cit­i­zen of the world and not know about Har­ry Pot­ter. Suf­fice to say, the first four books were in the house by the time that baby boy went to school, which is when and where he found out about Har­ry and friends.… more
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