Tag Archives | Liza Ketchum

La Escuela Primaria: A Visit to Cuba

school gardenThis past Feb­ru­ary, my hus­band and I trav­eled to Cuba on an eleven-day tour. Near the end of the trip, we drove from the cen­tral city of Cam­agüey to vis­it a ranch. After a two-hour dri­ve, our bus bounced down a long dirt road and passed under a wood­en sign that resem­bled a gate in an old west­ern, telling us we had reached “The King Ranch.” Sheep, goats, and cat­tle grazed on dry, scrub­by brush, in fields that lined both sides of the road.

We drew up near the ranch’s main build­ing. The ranch man­ag­er who wel­comed us was flu­ent in Eng­lish. He told us that Mr. King — the same wealthy Tex­an who once devel­oped a mil­lion-acre ranch in the U.S — had bought 40,000 hectares of land in Cuba before the Rev­o­lu­tion. At its height, the ranch boast­ed 20,000 head. When Cas­tro came to pow­er, the ranch passed into gov­ern­ment hands, as did all land and pri­vate busi­ness­es on the island. Now the ranch sup­ports 3,000 ani­mals and a vil­lage of about 130 people.

Our vis­it to the ranch includ­ed a small rodeo, where a few vaque­ros, rid­ing small cow ponies, com­pet­ed in calf and bull rop­ing as well as bull rid­ing. One stocky cow­boy man­aged to stay aboard a buck­ing bull for fif­teen sec­onds before being tossed to the ground. He scram­bled to his feet and dust­ed him­self off, unhurt.

After the show end­ed, we climbed into horse-drawn wag­ons that car­ried us to the vil­lage. As we approached a cir­cle of small, thatch-roofed cot­tages, a few kids ran along next to our car­riages, call­ing out to us. Why weren’t they in school?

Before we could ask, our hors­es drew up in front of a tiny, two-room school build­ing. We gath­ered in a gar­den out­side, dec­o­rat­ed with col­or­ful, hand­made sculp­tures of ani­mals and insects. Our guide explained that the teach­ing prin­ci­pal had just been select­ed as Teacher of the Year for all of Cuba. This hon­or meant that the school would host a local dis­trict meet­ing the next day. School had been can­celled to allow a team of teach­ers and par­ents to spruce up the build­ing, set up dis­plays, and sweep out the two small rooms where chil­dren in grades K‑4 were edu­cat­ed. In a nar­row hall, a par­ent was dust­ing and arrang­ing a few dozen books on a nar­row shelf that made up the school’s entire bib­liote­ca.

Mom with Books

Bib­liote­ca (school library): pho­to by John Fischer

 An out­side observ­er might think these chil­dren were deprived. After all, their homes were small sim­ple struc­tures, with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Except for the main ranch build­ing, none of these homes were built to sur­vive a hur­ri­cane. I also won­dered how the school man­aged with so few books and mate­ri­als. Yet the teach­ing prin­ci­pal (speak­ing through a trans­la­tor) was proud of his school’s suc­cess. He spoke of the ben­e­fits chil­dren gain when dif­fer­ent ages learn and work togeth­er. He also explained that par­ents are very involved in their children’s education.

Cuban home

Farm worker’s home: pho­to by Mar­tin Crossland

Cuba prizes its chil­dren. The coun­try boasts one of the world’s high­est lit­er­a­cy rates. Children’s health and edu­ca­tion are a top pri­or­i­ty. Through­out our trav­els, we saw chil­dren who appeared healthy, well-fed, and hap­py. On school days, chil­dren wear uni­forms accord­ing to grade lev­el: red and white for pri­ma­ry school; yel­low and white for mid­dle school; brown and white for high school; and dark and light blue for high­er edu­ca­tion. Their uni­forms are clean, bright, and serviceable.

Health care is free for all, new moth­ers can take a year’s mater­ni­ty leave, and the state pro­vides free day­care from six months to age five or six. Edu­ca­tion is free, from kinder­garten through uni­ver­si­ty or tech­ni­cal school, and grad­u­ate school.

La Escuela Primaria

Escuela Pri­maria: pho­to by Suzanne Raley

Although this vil­lage is twen­ty-one kilo­me­ters from the near­est town, nurs­es and doc­tors vis­it reg­u­lar­ly, and ranch chil­dren receive the same edu­ca­tion and fol­low the same cur­ricu­lum as their peers in city class­rooms. Twice a week, teach­ers make the long trip to give lessons in art, music, and com­put­er sci­ence. The prin­ci­pal showed us a first grade note­book where a child had writ­ten long para­graphs in per­fect cursive.

Cursive Writing

Dic­ta­do (dic­ta­tion): pho­to by Suzanne Raley

Dis­plays on the wall demon­strat­ed sci­ence projects and geog­ra­phy. Chil­dren leave the ranch in fifth grade to board with fam­i­lies in a larg­er town, four nights a week. There, their learn­ing con­tin­ues, through high school and beyond if that is what they choose.

After our tour, I walked back to the main house with our guide and the vaque­ro who had demon­strat­ed bull rid­ing. I learned that he and his daugh­ter, now 17, were both born in the vil­lage and edu­cat­ed at the vil­lage school. His daugh­ter was now fin­ish­ing high school and would enter med­ical school in the fall. He was proud of her accom­plish­ment, but he spoke as if it wasn’t unusual.

Of course, Cuba has enor­mous eco­nom­ic prob­lems. Though cit­i­zens are well-edu­cat­ed, they work for pal­try salaries and may not find jobs that allow them to use their exper­tise and train­ing. Their lives are con­strict­ed in ways that we would find oppres­sive. But as our bus drove away from the ranch, I thought of the stun­ning and inspir­ing art exhibits, con­certs, and dance per­for­mances we had seen in every city on our tour, which demon­strat­ed the val­ue Cuba places on the arts. This was in sharp con­trast to our schools, where the arts often dis­ap­pear when bud­gets are tight. I thought of city schools in Amer­i­ca with over­crowd­ed class­rooms that lack basic mate­ri­als, and teach­ers who are poor­ly paid and dis­re­spect­ed. What if our coun­try val­ued its chil­dren, their health, nutri­tion, and edu­ca­tion, as high­ly as Cubans do?

The Cubans we met were warm, wel­com­ing, and informed. They asked knowl­edge­able ques­tions about our upcom­ing elec­tions. Cubans hope — as we do — that the rap­proche­ment begun by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma will con­tin­ue to grow and heal the rift between our two coun­tries. Many Amer­i­cans like to boast that our nation is the wealth­i­est in the world. Still, we have much to learn from this fas­ci­nat­ing, croc­o­dile-shaped island.


Liza Ketchum: Serendipity


Liza Ketchum

Serendip­i­ty is one of my favorite words. I love its dance­like sound and the way it trips off the tongue. Accord­ing to my dic­tio­nary, serendip­i­ty means “the fac­ul­ty of mak­ing for­tu­nate dis­cov­er­ies by accident.”

I find the ety­mol­o­gy of words fas­ci­nat­ing. Even as a child, I liked to study the maps that show the rela­tion­ship and ori­gins of Indo-Euro­pean lan­guages. (Here’s an ani­mat­ed ver­sion.) So where does the word serendip­i­ty come from?

My Amer­i­can Her­itage dic­tio­nary traces the word’s ori­gins to the Eng­lish writer Horace Wal­pole, who sup­pos­ed­ly coined the word in a 1754 let­ter to a friend. Wal­pole described a Per­sian fairy tale he had read, con­cern­ing three princes from Serendip. The broth­ers — high­ly accom­plished, smart, and artis­tic — were ban­ished from their king­dom by their father, the king. Wan­der­ing in a for­eign land, they encoun­tered a mer­chant who had lost his camel. The broth­ers used pow­ers of deduc­tion — which we now asso­ciate with detec­tive fic­tion — to find the camel. Wal­pole said, “They were always mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies, by acci­dent and sagac­i­ty, of things they were not in quest of.” 

Things they were not in quest of. This phrase made me think of oth­er famous dis­cov­er­ies that hap­pen by acci­dent — such as the peni­cillin mold that grew when Alexan­der Flem­ing left a Petri dish on his win­dowsill by mis­take, or the burrs that attached them­selves to George de Mestral’s clothes on a moun­tain hike, giv­ing him the idea for Vel­cro. Serendip­i­ty also makes me think about moments in our writ­ing lives when inci­dents, events, and ideas merge to trig­ger a Eure­ka! moment.

bk_When-Women-Were-BirdsThree years ago, at a Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty sum­mer res­i­den­cy, I opened a new note­book late one night, and scrawled these words: “The Last Gar­den.” The title had come to me after I read the first two entries in Ter­ry Tem­pest Williams’ bril­liant book, When Women Were Birds, a gift from Phyl­lis Root. Williams wrote the mem­oir after her moth­er died and she uncov­ered a shock­ing truth about her life. I had recent­ly lost both par­ents, so Williams’s top­ic pulled me in. I was also drawn to the book by its for­mat: a series of short vignettes, fork­ing off a sin­gle idea like branch­es on a tree. Vignettes seemed like a man­age­able, less daunt­ing way to deal with per­son­al sub­ject mat­ter. But wait — since when was I plan­ning to write about gardens?

That same morn­ing, as we dis­cussed our work­shops, Phyl­lis told me that she planned to ask her stu­dents that great ques­tion: “What would you write if you knew you could not fail?” It made me think of Mary Oliv­er, who demands, in her poem “The Sum­mer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and pre­cious life?” 

For years I had tried to write a mem­oir about my rela­tion­ship with my grand­moth­er, and the Ver­mont house where I spent my child­hood sum­mers, but I couldn’t find a uni­fy­ing thread. When I wrote those words — “The Last Gar­den” — I real­ized that gar­dens — and gar­den­ers — could pro­vide that uni­ty. My hus­band and I had just pur­chased a sweet house, down the road a mile from my grandmother’s old place. The prop­er­ty came with over­grown lilacs and tan­gled, over­grown gar­dens that con­cealed peonies, fox­gloves, and an aspara­gus bed. Though I have gar­dened all my life, I real­ized this would be the last gar­den I would cre­ate from scratch.

Since that moment at Ham­line, the focus of my writ­ing has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. In addi­tion to the mem­oir, I’ve been writ­ing essays and arti­cles about nature and the envi­ron­ment. I’m work­ing on two non-fic­tion projects, focused on envi­ron­men­tal sub­jects, with my dear friends Phyl­lis Root and Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin. All thanks to serendipity.

Per­haps the best thing about serendip­i­ty is that we can’t explain how it hap­pens. Who could pre­dict that the loss of my par­ents, the gift of a wise book writ­ten in an appeal­ing form, and the right ques­tion at the right time — would coin­cide with ideas I was “not in quest of”?

ph_camelMean­while, as I wres­tle with the memoir’s final vignettes, I can’t help think­ing of that miss­ing camel that — as the Serendip broth­ers pre­dict­ed — was lame, blind in one eye, and lum­bered under the weight of a leak­ing sack of hon­ey, a bag of but­ter, and a preg­nant woman.

Uh oh. Doesn’t that sound like a pic­ture book, wait­ing to happen?


Skinny Dip with Liza Ketchum

Which book of yours was the most dif­fi­cult to write or illustrate?

cover imageMy non-fic­tion books required the most intense peri­ods of research, but the YA nov­el, Blue Coy­ote, was the most per­son­al­ly chal­leng­ing. How could I, a straight woman, take on the char­ac­ter and voice of a young male teen who was explor­ing his sex­u­al­i­ty? Yet a num­ber of read­ers who had read the novel’s pre­quel, Twelve Days in August, had writ­ten to ask, “What about Alex? What hap­pened to him?” They also asked the ques­tion I couldn’t answer myself, with­out writ­ing the book: “Is Alex gay — or not?” I felt these read­ers deserved answers. As I worked through many drafts, I received won­der­ful insights and sug­ges­tions from my writer’s group, as well as from a cou­ple of gay friends who read the man­u­script in draft form. Writ­ing the sto­ry in a third per­son lim­it­ed point of view also gave me some need­ed dis­tance. When stu­dents in schools ask me which book I’m proud­est of, Blue Coy­ote is at the top of the list.

Which of your books would make a good movie and who would be the star?

cover imageNews­girl—because it is an adven­ture sto­ry with plen­ty of action, an excit­ing set­ting (Gold Rush San Fran­cis­co), and a diverse cast of char­ac­ters. Amelia should be played by a feisty, deter­mined 12 or 13 year old girl who can hold her own in a gang of boys. And since she goes fly­ing off in an unex­pect­ed bal­loon ascent, she shouldn’t be afraid of heights.

What’s your favorite line from a book?

I will cheat and cite three. The first is the famous open­ing line from One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude, by Gabriel Mar­cia Mar­quez: “Many years lat­er, as he faced the fir­ing squad, Colonel Aure­liano Buen­dia was to remem­ber that dis­tant after­noon when his father took him to dis­cov­er ice.”

I also love the open­ing sen­tence of M.T. Anderson’s nov­el, The Aston­ish­ing Life of Octa­vian Noth­ing, Trai­tor to the Nation: “I was raised in a gaunt house with a gar­den; my ear­li­est rec­ol­lec­tions are of float­ing lights in the apple trees.” This is fol­lowed by six more breath­tak­ing sen­tences that intro­duce the narrator’s amaz­ing voice and set the tone for the sto­ry that follows.

The last sen­tence of Eliz­a­beth Bowen’s nov­el, A World of Love, has stayed with me for­ev­er. While many final sen­tences wrap up a sto­ry, this one opens the reader’s mind to a whole new begin­ning for the pro­tag­o­nist, who has been through a dif­fi­cult time: “They no soon­er looked but they loved.”

What book do you tell every­one to read?

cover imageA tough ques­tion, when there are so many great books out there! I often men­tion Philip Hoose’s mag­nif­i­cent non-fic­tion book, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Melanie Kroupa books, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux). It is one of the few non-fic­tion books that I have reread a num­ber of times; I even read and stud­ied the foot­notes at the end. It’s a true sto­ry with the dra­ma, pac­ing, and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the best fic­tion. I learned a lot about birds, avid bird­ers, and about the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of com­merce and the envi­ron­ment. Who knew that the dis­ap­pear­ance of the ivory-billed wood­peck­er in Louisiana was linked to the rise of the Singer sewing machine? I cer­tain­ly didn’t.

Are you a night owl or an ear­ly bird?

I’m an ear­ly bird. I raised my sons in Ver­mont, where the school bus came ear­ly, and we had ani­mals to feed before start­ing the day (a small flock of sheep and a goat or two to feed and milk). My sons were also ear­ly ris­ers, so I got into the habit of being up with the sun. In good weath­er, I love to walk or gar­den first thing in the morn­ing. When I was teach­ing at Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty, I was lucky to room with Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin. We woke up at the same ear­ly hour dur­ing the July res­i­den­cies and explored Hamline’s St. Paul neigh­bor­hood, admir­ing the gar­dens, but­ter­flies, and birds as we walked the qui­et streets.

Were you most like­ly to vis­it the school office to deliv­er attendance/get sup­plies, vis­it the nurse, or meet with the principal?

cover imageI hat­ed school from the mid­dle of kinder­garten — when we moved from Ver­mont to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — to the end of third grade. I had stom­ach cramps every day. When I com­plained of pain, my teach­ers sent me to the principal’s office. She was a fierce old­er woman who scold­ed me and accused me of invent­ing my symp­toms. When I was grown and liv­ing in Ver­mont years lat­er, I learned that a close writer friend had attend­ed the same school, a few years ahead of me. She, too, suf­fered from repeat­ed stom­ach trou­ble. “It was because of recess,” she said. “Remem­ber how the boys played war?” I had for­got­ten, but it all came back: the gangs of boys on the play­ground, who tor­tured and bul­lied us girls. They chased us until we fell and skinned our knees; they yanked our hair and called us names, while the staff — who were sup­posed to be watch­ing — ignored the whole scene. When we moved to New York State — where I attend­ed a won­der­ful pub­lic school — the stom­ach aches dis­ap­peared, and so did my trips to the principal’s office.



Partners in the Dance: From Fiction to Nonfiction and Back Again

by Liza Ketchum

Liza's nonfiction bookshelf (Click to enlarge)

Liza­’s non­fic­tion book­shelf (Click to enlarge.)

This week, while I pre­pared for a talk at AWP (Asso­ci­a­tion of Writ­ing Pro­grams) on writ­ing non-fic­tion biogra­phies for kids, I thought about how I enjoy research­ing both non­fic­tion and fic­tion titles. Yet a gulf often sep­a­rates the two gen­res. In my local library, you turn right at the top of the stairs for the non­fic­tion stacks and left to peruse the nov­els. The same divi­sion holds true in the children’s room down­stairs. In my own writ­ing stu­dio, non­fic­tion books fill one shelf, while nov­els threat­en to top­ple anoth­er. Yet ele­ments of one often bleed into the other.

I have always been fas­ci­nat­ed by the role of women in Amer­i­can pio­neer his­to­ry. My first YA nov­el, West Against the Wind, drew heav­i­ly on 19th cen­tu­ry diaries, let­ters, and news­pa­pers. The facts of the time shaped and inspired the sto­ry. A few years lat­er, I was asked to write a non­fic­tion book on the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush. For that book, I drew both on pri­ma­ry sources I’d used in my nov­el, as well as on new mate­r­i­al I uncov­ered in such won­der­ful resources as The Hunt­ing­ton Library in San Meri­no, CA. 

An edi­tor at Lit­tle, Brown was inter­est­ed in the sto­ry of the child per­former Lot­ta Crab­tree, whom I pro­filed in The Gold Rush. Could I write about eight adven­tur­ous pio­neer women like Lot­ta, who “broke the rules” and made his­to­ry dur­ing that time? I agreed and end­ed up with my non­fic­tion book Into a New Coun­try.

note basket

Gold Rush notes (Click to enlarge.)

By now, I had a huge box of notes and images on the pio­neer peri­od. I thought I was fin­ished with that era, but the dance con­tin­ued. In the process of writ­ing The Gold Rush, I uncov­ered infor­ma­tion about chil­dren who also caught “gold fever.” They panned for gold along­side their par­ents, helped them run stores or restau­rants, and per­formed in saloons — where some girls ran hair­pins along cracks in the floor­boards to col­lect gold dust.

Two small items from my research went straight into my Idea File. One was that gangs of boys in San Fran­cis­co could make more mon­ey — sell­ing six-month-old East Coast news­pa­pers on the street — than their par­ents, who strug­gled to sur­vive in that hurly-burly town. Anoth­er was a news­pa­per item about a boy who sur­vived an acci­den­tal bal­loon ascent. He became the first per­son to see the bay area from the air.

Those sto­ries — and some nag­ging ques­tions — stayed with me. What if a girl want­ed to be a news­boy? What if the boys wouldn’t let her in? And what if her fam­i­ly arrived in San Fran­cis­co pen­ni­less: could she help them sur­vive? And what if she tried to get a news scoop on a bal­loon ascent? 

bk_newsgirl_120.jpgI wrote News­girl to answer those questions.

Whether I write non­fic­tion or fic­tion, each informs the oth­er. I use fic­tion­al tech­niques in non­fic­tion. I want to grab the young read­er, pull him or her into the sto­ry with action, dia­logue, strong char­ac­ter, and sig­nif­i­cant detail. I want to appeal to the son of a writer friend who asked his mom, “When are you going to write one of those books where, you know, some­thing hap­pens on every page?”

At the same time, I use tech­niques and infor­ma­tion from non­fic­tion to anchor my nov­els in time and place. My most recent YA nov­el, Out of Left Field, is not his­tor­i­cal fic­tion per se (though 2004 may feel like ancient times to some young read­ers). The Viet­nam War casts shad­ows over the nov­el. Though I lived through that era, I didn’t know enough about men who fled the coun­try for Cana­da, as my protagonist’s father did. I tracked down mem­oirs of draftees and enlist­ed men who fled the coun­try and read accounts of life on the run. My friend, the Cana­di­an writer Tim Wynne-Jones, sug­gest­ed books about Amer­i­can resisters who lived in Toron­to dur­ing those times. I watched a video of the draft lot­tery that took place in 1969, an event that deter­mined the lives — and deaths — of thou­sands of young men. And I read and reread Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Car­ried, itself a stun­ning fusion of fic­tion and memoir.

While Bran­don, my nar­ra­tor, is invent­ed, I had the actu­al Red Sox sched­ule at hand as I wrote. Bran­don fol­lows the 2004 sea­son with as much devo­tion as I did that year. When Bran­don sees David Ortiz slam his game-win­ing hit in the 14th inning of the Sox-Yan­kee game, the pan­de­mo­ni­um in the stands is real, as are the smells, the sounds, the ener­gy of a ball park when fans real­ize the team could win it all — for the first time in eighty-six years.

My friend and col­league, Phyl­lis Root, asks: “Is the line grow­ing more mal­leable between spec­u­la­tion and fact?” Cer­tain­ly young read­ers need to know the dif­fer­ence between what is real and what is invent­ed. But per­haps the sep­a­ra­tion between non-fic­tion and fic­tion is arbi­trary. Maybe I’ll mix the two gen­res on my own shelves. Who knows what sparks might fly if these books end up danc­ing together?



On Your Bedside Table

Mem­bers have writ­ten to tell us about the books that are cur­rent­ly on their bed­side tables. I’m in the midst of five books, so it’s good to gath­er more titles. Who knows when I’ll run out of some­thing to read? (Is that the ground lev­el ques­tion of the bookaholic?) From Lau­ra Pur­die Salas: After Ever After, by Jor­dan Son­nen­blick, and loved it as much or maybe even more than Drums, Girls, and Dan­ger­ous Pie.… more

Bank Street’s 2010 Choices

We eager­ly await the annu­al list of books cho­sen by the Bank Street Col­lege of Edu­ca­tion as books that work well with chil­dren from birth to age 14. Each year, the Chil­dren’s Book Com­mit­tee reviews over 6000 titles each year for accu­ra­cy and lit­er­ary qual­i­ty and con­sid­ers their emo­tion­al impact on chil­dren. It choos­es the best 600 books, both fic­tion and non­fic­tion, which it lists accord­ing to age and category.… more

Monday morning roundup

Hey, Joyce Sid­man, your new book, Ubiq­ui­tous, has done the Most Unusu­al … five starred reviews! In 2009, only 13 books received five starred reviews (if you’re curi­ous, check out the See­ing Stars 2009 doc­u­ment, stored on Radar, the CLN mem­bers’ home page). Book­list, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, and School Library Jour­nal all think so high­ly of this book, illus­trat­ed by Beck­ie Prange and pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, that they’ve giv­en Ubiq­ui­tous the cov­et­ed star.… more