Back to School in Ethiopia and always

threegirls021Not long after we got to Ethiopia, my big sister got to go to kindergarten.  Her teacher was so fond of her, she even gave her a lovely, big doll. I was probably mildly jealous of my sister’s having such a doll, but I was REALLY jealous that she got to go to school and I didn’t. (I’m the one holding forth in the red pjs.)

Like a lot of Ethiopian kids I’ve met in the last decade, I could see perfectly well that theEBCEF025chance to sit and read books and learn was something special…and not something everybody got to do.

I wanted desperately to be in school.

determinationOnce we moved to Maji in the southwest corner of Ethiopia, my mom started to homeschool my older sister. We sisters always had great projects going on. (In this picture I’m the determined-looking one on the left.) My mom says that I would ask, “Do I have to go to school?” Since I was only four, she would say, “Only if you want to.” I’d say, “No! Mom! Say I HAVE to go to school.”

I wanted to be legit.

Right outside the fence was a school where I saw kids as old as 15-16-17 getting to to to school for the first time. Very few of them were girls.majischoolMy sisters and I would climb the cedar trees around our house and pretend they were stores. We had elaborate games around pretending that we were shopping or going to real school.

coregoneThis is the year my older sister did go off. To Real School. Boarding school in Addis Ababa. Now I was the oldest kid at home. EAL288

The next August or September, my parents put my older sister and me in a Jeep and off we went down the mountain to get on the Ethiopian Airlines airplane that would take us both to Addis Ababa. Everybody cried. I instantly learned about being homesick. But I also knew that for the first time I’d have classmates. A library. Homework.

Real school.

1 airplane748I’ll never forget standing under the shade of the airplane wing on the hot savanna waiting for the agents to finish their paperwork so we could take off. I’ll never forget the feelings of being off to school.

???????????????????????????????Now I teach writing in an MFA program. VCFA is as real as it gets (although it’s a low-residency program, so I guess it’s somewhat like the schools of my early childhood.) I’ve never stopped being a student, too. Right now, I’m a humble learner about native plants in my backyard and about crafting fiction and nonfiction at my writing desk…so glad for a world that lets me stretch my mind and never stop being curious.

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Foodie process/writing process

I picked up the baton on talking about writing process from one of the writers who often goes on retreat with me in the fall: http://jacquelinebriggsmartin.blogspot.com/  She and I have a lot of the same themes going on in our work and lives. She writes…

“Right now I’m very happy to be planning for the release of my picture book biography of Alice Waters–Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious in September (Readers to Eaters).

Alice Waters and her “family” at Chez Panisse changed the way we in America think about food. She was determined to serve only the freshest, tastiest food at Chez Panisse and scoured the countryside around the restaurant finding such food. Chez Panisse became famous for its wonderful meals. Now we all  look for tasty food grown in our own areas. Alice Waters also started the Edible Schoolyard program, which involves students in growing food and uses schoolyard gardens as opportunities for instruction. She believes the way we eat can change the world. I agree, so it was a great treat to write about her life.”

1. What am I writing about?

The way we think about food! Me too…me too.  My work-in-progress isn’t nearly as far along as Jackie’s, though. It’s a middle grade novel set in Portland, Oregon, and you can’t write about Portland without thinking about locavores (up with tasty food grown in our own areas) and the way we eat.

I’m also puzzling out some ready-to-read books that keep Mr. Geo moving along on his journey through the states. Putting these short-but-informative nonfiction books together is a little like solving an elaborate, complicated, fascinating puzzle.

Mr. Geo pic

 

http://on.fb.me/1mQDfLj

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m with Jackie, here…there’s so much great nonfiction for kids these days–lively and fun to read–and I’m just happy to be PART of the genre.  Whenever I’ve written a ready-to-read it’s been nonfiction. The favorite first and third graders in my life read the books in this picture when I was visiting at Christmas time and made up little quizzes for each other and me about the states. Then we got out the big puzzle of the states and put it together a bunch of times and made up more quizzes. Remember how delicious it was when you could read words for yourself AND stump someone else in a quiz?

(As we learned about state insects and state possums and state soils and state shells and so on, one of the quizees commented that state legislatures seem to have WAY too much time on their hands.)

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I never know where a writing idea or inspiration is going to come from. Sometimes it’s offered to me. That was true with Mr. Geo. Sometimes it comes from something I read about in a newspaper or blog. Sometimes it’s in my own back yard. That would be true of the middle grade novel I’m working on!

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I tell kids when I’m doing author visits that both ideas and details come from memory, real life observation, and research. (Notice the Africa-shaped decoration in my garden :>…Ethiopia finds its way into all my books no matter where they are set.)

4.  How does your writing process work?

Creakily!  It changes all the time and is never smooth. I bounce back and forth between ideas and details…between finding the voice and true innards of my characters + the places where they are walking around…and finding interesting things for them to do and pickles for them to get themselves out of.  In other words…plot.  I dream of writing straight through and then coming back to tweak and polish words and sentences. It never works that way for me, though. At some point, I have to feel the thrilldom of juicy words and sentences in order to believe in what I’m doing and keep going.

With Lanie, I had to write a detailed outline so the creators of the doll and her things could get going on their part of the process, which they couldn’t do until they knew a lot about the story.

With Anna, I revised for four years trying to find the heart of the story.  It’s fascinating to me that the Safety Club wasn’t even in many of those early drafts. Now it’s hard to imagine Anna’s life without it.

cat in KSMy characters are always me…and my kids…and the kids around me while I’m writing…and sometimes my cats.img021And next up for answering these writerly questions will be fellow Portland author Rosanne Parry, just as soon as she finishes a week of wilderness and writing!  www.rosanneparry.com

Written in Stone, 2013
Second Fiddle, 2011
Heart of a Shepherd, 2009

 

Free-spirited and precise in writing and the yard

1 bek751Once upon a time, my garden was planned and–thanks to a a more orderly person than I am–in relatively straight rows. Now I’m embracing what a book I’m reading calls “free spirited.” After all, I’m focusing on a lot of native and hardy plants and self-seeding perennials.

1 dadAs my cowboy dad lived in many periods of his life and my brother Chris famously sang in elementary school, “Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don’t fence me in.”

IMG_0276This camas lily in my rain garden might be my favorite of all the things that bloomed this spring.

I loved stumbling onto this quote from Meriwether Lewis’ travel journal in June of 1806: “The quamash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could I could have sworn it was water.”

http://www.hugheswatergardens.com/camas%20lilies.html

Wow. Can’t wait until I have a lake of those lilies!

???????????????????????????????The monkey flowers have been spread from one little spot last year and are adding such a great yellow to my life. All I have to do is keep the soil moist and I guess I’ll have these around until fall.

???????????????????????????????Something like blue-eyed grass is so delicate and teeny I would never have noticed it until I started working on my backyard certification and learning about native plants. I know that writing depends on what John Gardener calls precision of detail.  In The Art of Fiction, he says that for stories to work, readers must come to feel them physically, as if they were injected directly into each scene.

GSS and cows grazingGrowing up in Ethiopia slowed me down. With no distracting television or shopping or even changing seasons, it feels like I noticed–and soaked up the sensations–of the world. Even my boarding school, which we say was in the city of Addis Ababa, was pretty slow paced. Notice the grazing cows.

A fast-moving plot is one pleasure of reading. But give me the slow, precise, vivid, unexpected detail…on the page and in the yard for making me feel most alive.

In this watermelon, the seeds stuck together

Inku and beach 007I don’t know why that title popped into my head, but I was thinking about my siblings. Some people don’t choose to hang out with their siblings now that everyone is all grown up. It stands to reason. Why not spend time with people who like to do what you like to do? But my siblings and I oddly all like reading and writing and music and processing our feeeeelings…and laughing…and plants.

Inku and beach 016My sister Cathy and I went on a yard tour last week–we saw Portland yards that are at least a “gold” in the Backyard Certification program, including one where a woman had turned her backyard into a little woodsy glen where she sometimes sleeps and eats and soon plans to take showers. While we were chatting, I discovered that Cathy loves to turn her compost. Huh. I love to turn MY compost. Go figure!

Inku and beach 019Jan got me started on sweet potato vines.  When we all went to a plant store last year, she pointed out two things that turned out to be BIG favorites of mine, one with its association to Ethiopia and the other an ornamental oregano. Cathy and Jan and I are all experimenting with sedums and vines and things with small, interesting leaves–and trees. Chris, though, knows more about trees than we do.

Inku and beach 034Caroline knows about trees, too, because of her little farm near Salem. They got a grant to plant something like 500 trees. She’s the one who gave me the Douglas Spirea and vine maples and red current and elderberry and other understory trees after the Backyard Certification volunteer said I needed that layer in my yard to provide habitat for birds.

These pictures were all taken when we gathered at the beach one weekend to interview Mom and Dad about memories of Ethiopia. Joy wasn’t there. She’s the only sibling who doesn’t live in Portland–but I like talking about yards and plants with her, too.

When I was about six years old, Ethiopian girls stopped coming to play because they were working in their homes–not going to school, not playing with the ferenji kids.Ethiopia+82Is it because of our odd remote upbringing that we got so stuck together and continue to like so many of the same things? I don’t know…but I do feel lucky.

Life imitates art imitates life

cover286When I started writing about Lanie’s garden, I admit that I was mostly working from memory–drawing on the details of my Dad’s garden in Ethiopia when I was a kid but even more from my various vegetable gardens that I plotted and planted and harvested and played around in after I had kids. In fact, I was helping rototill a garden plot the day my son David was born.

A few years later, David later grew an enormous pumpkin in North Dakota, which I was crazy enough to chop up for dinners. This is why I’m leery of vegetable gardens now. davidpumpkin015

 

Bekpumpkin016I thought growing things should be USED and not WASTED.  When the kids carved pumpkins, I was crazy enough to roast the seeds for us to eat, too.

I was raised to be practical. I was raised with a certain reverence for food and what it means to humans especially when they don’t have enough. I was also raised to be conscientious about choices and how we can make a difference even with little actions.

So I didn’t grow flowers. I barely NOTICED flowers.

flower2My mom was fond of her flowers in Ethiopia. We kids shamelessly grabbed any part of them we needed for our games–and they sometimes got stuck in our hands for photos–but they were just, um, frivolous. Decorative. Not. That. Important.

Let’s just say I was a little short-sighted. Lanie changed all that.

IMG_6915When I did my research for my little outside girl who realizes the power of her own backyard, I came to understand the intricate dance of life in a way I never had before.  Nothing is unimportant.

IMG_0362In fact…guess what? Planting a flower can be part of our little actions that can save the world.

I know this now as I listen to my heart going pitter pat as I watch bees and bumblebees in and out of the flowers in my garden. Here’s a smidge of this month’s news about bees:

“The mysterious vanishing of honeybees from hives can be directly linked to insectcide use, according to new research from Harvard University. The scientists showed that exposure to two neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used class of insecticide, lead to half the colonies studied dying, while none of the untreated colonies saw their bees disappear.”

Check out birds. Check out butterflies. We humans are hard on the creatures who share space with us.

But turns out we can create little oases in our back yards. Birds and butterflies and bees need us to care. .Caroline farm (5)

 

???????????????????????????????And we need our backyards, too. At least I do. I feel centered and calm and present to every moment when I’m out in mine. I love it that I created Lanie based on kids–myself, my own kids, kids I met in my travels that year–and now I’ve become Lanie, crazy about backyard habitat, in love with my rain gardens and my native plants (like this blue-eyed grass) and all the flowers and interesting leaves and stems and seeds.

???????????????????????????????Art imitates life imitates art.

One brave turtle vs. the world

monarch eggsWhen I was asked to write the books for the 2010 Doll of the Year, American Girl flew me to Wisconsin to brainstorm about the theme–something related to saving the earth. American Girl talks about keeping things “girl sized.” As I searched my brain cells for images of myself as a girl Lanie’s age, spending my days outside in Ethiopia, what came popping back most vividly were plants, frogs, and butterflies. This is a picture of monarch eggs–just one of the things I ended up learning a lot about as I wrote my story.

When I was Lanie’s age, I spent part of the year with those plants and frogs and butterflies in Maji but part of the year in boarding school in Addis Ababa, where I entertained myself here on this big campus riding my bike or pretending I was a horse running, swishing through the grass..campus

As I started doing my research for Lanie’s story, I discovered kids outside…making a difference for the earth: creating backyard habitat, doing citizen science and becoming part of the team to save monarch butterflies. We start with what fascinates kids–which is what I love about Toby. 

Toby Cover3Here’s my interview with VCFA grad, Stacy A. Nyikos. When she was a student at Vermont College, we connected as Midwest writers. But–as I tell young writers–being a reader or a writer means you can go anywhere in your mind.

Q: You and I met a Vermont College of the Fine Arts when we were sort of neighbors–Kansas and Oklahoma. My latest book is set in Kansas, but Toby is definitely not set in Oklahoma. Will you share a bit of what it’s like to write a story that isn’t set in your own back yard?

A: True Confession? I’ve been sneaking out of my own backyard every since I was little. It all started when I was three. My mom was busy. I was bored. And my parents were big proponents of making your own fun. So I put on my best (slightly wrinkled) dress and followed the neighbor boy to the local high school. I had an amazing adventure! And after they reached my mom and she came to get me, I got to go to preschool. I guess my parents decided to help direct that whole “making your own fun” thing. Preschool was A LOT more fun than my own backyard. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn out of it so often. I know there’s an adventure waiting for me somewhere.

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Q: Ever since writing Lanie, I’ve had a great fondness for books that relate to kids making a difference by connecting with the earth. Is it just me thinking that Toby is another one of those books?

A: You nailed it! Toby is another one of those “connect to change” kind of stories. Kids love animals. And they’re so curious. My hope is that the story of a sea turtle’s adventures and struggles will create an emotional interconnection, and kids will cherish and care for these animals in that big-hearted, no holds barred way that kids have.

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Q: It would be fun to see Toby paired with my friend Mary Casanova’s Utterly Otterly Day. I was with her when she was struggling with the rhymes for that manuscript. Was it hard to find your Toby rhymes? Do you have one you MOST love to read aloud?Utterly otterly

A: Rhyming is a game of literary chess. Finding the right way to express an emotion, a situation, an action is already a challenge, but to do that AND make it rhyme. I got kinda Shakespearean on my family some days, talking in rhyme. I guess that’s like an actor never breaking character, but I think it got a little old for my kids. Still, my favorite stanza is still the first. There is that anticipation of action, followed by fun action.

 

In a sandy little nest

With a happy little shout

Toby broke apart his shell

And…

Kerploppled headfirst out.

Q: A turtle’s quest for the sea and an author’s quest to get books into the hands of readers strike me as somewhat similar. What’s the most fun thing you’ve done or are doing as you dodge your own birds and crabs and crocs?

A: Connecting with readers is the most fun thing I do. I talk shop with librarians and book buyers at conferences, such as BEA, coming right up–May 28 – June 1. This year I’ll be there signing for Toby!  Stop by and see me. I do signings at bookstores, such as Full Circle Books, my local indie store.  And then there are school visits. I love the energy, enthusiasm and wide-eyed optimism that kids bring to the world each day. If I could see the world through a kids’ eyes every day, it would be a wonderful life. To them, the world is filled with adventure and possibility. So yeah, connecting with readers, that not only keeps me going, it makes my day.

Q: I was charmed by the illustrations in Toby. Tell us a bit of story about how words and text found each other and got so beautifully meshed.

A: Shawn Sisneros is one of my most favorite illustrators. Shawn studied art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We work as a team, which isn’t always the case for authors and illustrators. I love it because Shawn makes my writing better. He’ll tell me when a passage isn’t working, or that I’ve got too much illustratable action in a scene, can I pare it down to the most important. And it works vice versa. When he’s having trouble with a scene, we talk through it, looking for the most illustratable moment and how to make it happen. And then there’s the joy of seeing Shawn take my words and make his own visual story out of them. The text gets better through his interpretation and becomes a new story with more depth and discovery.

Q: Did you take the picture book semester while you were at VCFA? Did you work on picture books there? So many VCFA students are working on YA novels that I’m tickled to see two fun new picture books by a VCFA grad! ???????????????????????????????

Q: I almost took the picture book semester, but I chickened out! I didn’t think I’d be able to write THAT many picture books in a six month stretch. Picture books are my guilty pleasure. If I’m knee deep in a year-long novel, and some plot line or character is giving me trouble and I don’t know how to go any further, that’s usually when a picture book idea comes to me. I divert from the sodden path I’m on, work on the pb, getting off some pent up creative energy, and usually, by the time I’m done, have a working draft for a new picture book and a solution to the novel problem. So, I don’t ever know when a picture book is going to pop by and play, but it’s fun every time they do.

Thanks again to Stacy Nyikos for appearing.  For other stops on the Toby blog tour please check http://www.stacyanyikos.com/blog.html

 

Higgeldy-piggeldy wanderings through spring

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver writes that on Mother’s Day, in keeping with local tradition, they took a tomato plant to a neighbor. “Carrying the leggy, green-smelling plant, our family walked down the gravel driveway to her house at the bottom of our hollow. ‘Oh, well, goodness,’ she said, taking the plant from us and admiring it. ‘Well look at that.'”

In her region, she explains, you never say thank you for a plant. “If you do say it, they vow, the plant will wither up straightaway and die. They have lots of stories to back this up. They do not wish to discuss whether plants have ears, or what. Just don’t.”

DSC03182Lucky me…when I moved into this house, I was also the recipient of plant gifts–including tomatoes. Imagine my surprise when black globes began to appear on one plant. Since I didn’t yet know the language of heirloom varieties, I thought they were diseased.

???????????????????????????????Other gifts were left over from earlier plantings by the one renter who loved growing things. Huge sunflowers. Oregano–several varieties.  Alyssum, with its snowy sweet-smelling drifts of flowers.

Hops came over the fence from the neighbor’s house. “Hey!” I said to my husband. “We could make beer.”

Anna+was+HereThe farm community where my husband grew up is at the heart of Anna’s new Kansas home. He said, “Sure. All we have to do is grow something like barley.”

Oh.

I didn’t realize you needed grain to make beer.

Kingsolver talks about how her husband grew an urban garden during graduate school and befriended some boys who would run through the alley. One time Steven pulled up a carrot and asked his astonished audience if they could think of another food that might be a root vegetable.

“Spaghetti?” one of them guessed.

DSC02354Well, I wasn’t quite that bad. But never having grown plants in the damp Northwest, I had quite a learning curve from those first days including how to identify powdery mildew on my squash plants and what Neem oil is.

A friend in Ethiopia said, “Visitors come from the U.S. and ask me, ‘what’s the name of that plant? What’s that bird we’re hearing?’ but I grew up in the city. I say ‘Grass’ and ‘bird.'”

???????????????????????????????I learned to try hard to identify plants, though, after having the misfortune of nurturing a few invasive botanical bullies. Luckily, this one–gift from another sister–has brought nothing but beauty to my collection.

I’m so thankful for my sisters and other friends who shared and shared their plants and knowledge with me. As Kingsolver says about how her garden grew, my yard, too, has grown “higgledy-piggledy, florescent, and spontaneous, like friendship itself.”???????????????????????????????

 

 

 

 

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