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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

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 […]


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 […]


Award winners, award criteria

Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato Red Reading Boots 1 Several years ago, a mysterious package arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire family with a return address “TMVDP.” The package weighed almost nothing. It weighed almost nothing because the box contained four lunchbox serving-size […]


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 […]