Stop Making (so Much) Sense by Dev Petty

Jane Kurtz:

Thinking about this as I start getting ready to teach the picture book semester at VCFA…

Originally posted on Nerdy Book Club:

It’s night time. We cuddle up as we always do, and I begin, “Once upon a time…”

Isn’t that funny? Why do I do that? The books I write and the books I enjoy don’t usually start with “Once upon a time” or end with “Happily ever after.” Part of it is just trying to concoct a story, bleary eyed, at the end of a long day. But conventional, fairytale storytelling, the kind with tidy endings and linear story-lines, is deeply ingrained in me and it’s a lot of work to break free from it.

This is a box I strive to think out of. A box built from once upon a times, happily ever afters, dogs that chase cats and princess movies. Even though I was raised in the 70s and had first editions of some truly experimental writing, and even though I try to write unconventional picture books…

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Family on the hot, hot savanna

It only takes me a second or two to bring back the delicious sensations of the hot, hot savanna.

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When I was speaking at an Ethiopian heritage and culture camp this summer, I showed this picture.

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Someone asked me, “But aren’t there crocodiles in some of the rivers in the warm part of Ethiopia?”

Um…yes.

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The savanna meant adventure to me when I was a kid. It meant so many ostriches and zebras that eventually I got tired of looking at them. It also meant family—letting my dad talk us into the idea that drinking hot tea was a good idea even when we were hot, hot, hot.

I’m thrilled to have a new book to share with kids, especially ones who have a heart connection to Ethiopia, because it celebrates both the savanna and the long connective strings of family. And especially one by Toni because she and I have shared so many adventures in writing and speaking and…well…at camp.

Toni

Your new book, My Bibi Always Remembers, is set in East Africa. What is your connection to the region?

Visting East Africa had always been a dream for my husband Ken and me. In 1995 we were able to make that dream come true for the first time. Our 12 year old son, Topher, and the two of us boarded a flight for Kenya where we spent three weeks traveling across the country, seeing its most beautiful sights—the Maasai Mara—its animals…

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…and visiting with the people there. We fell in love with East Africa and promised to return.

The next year afforded us another trip to the continent of Africa, this time a summer teaching position for me at the Casablanca American School in Morocco. Again, it was an amazing experience, filled with adventures in the sparkling white city on the Atlantic Ocean, a trip to the High Atlas mountains, and a train journey across the desert to Marakech. There we lunched on chicken tagine with lemons, olives, and couscous in the home of a rug merchant living in the medina and made connections to people who lived half a world away from us. Again, when we left, we dreamed of returning to Africa.

Two years ago, that dream came true. This time, I was invited to speak at schools in Ethiopia and Kenya. Ken and I once more boarded a plane for the African continent. What a spectacular trip it was, especially because we had the opportunity to visit a country entirely new to us. I spent a week with the students at the International Community School of Addis Ababa.

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While there, we learned the ancient and modern history of that teeming city and then had the opportunity to travel a bit–to experience the Oromia region at Lake Langano with its many playful monkeys.

monkey

One afternoon, sitting on my balcony, I watched while one of these nimble little guys hopped through the window of the room next to ours and came out with a pilfered bar of soap. As always, we left Africa, dreaming of our return.

What about Africa calls you back?

So often, people here in North America think of “Africa” as one big place. But even in my three trips to four of Africa’s 55 countries, I have seen such diversity! There is so much more to see that I believe I will never be done returning to Africa.

The news we hear about this immense continent is often so grim, famine and disease and war. But that is not the Africa I know. The Africa I know is a continent of wonder—of many different cultures and such a variety of landscapes and animal and plant life. It’s a feast for every sense and a rich experience for the inquisitive mind to land in a place completely different from one’s home and yet to find so much in common with the people. I wish that everyone here on my continent could visit that vast continent at least once. My three African animal books, My Bibi Always Remembers, Just Like My Papa, and Stay Close to Mama allow little ones a journey to that continent on their pages.

My BiBi Always Remembers High Resolution       Stay Close to Mama High Res

Why did you choose to write about elephants?

Just as I love the similarity of people all over the world, when I visited Kenya, I loved the elephants for their similarity to us humans. They live in families.

elephant herd

They love their babies.

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They travel together, protect each other, grieve the loss of even one member of their family. Every individual matters. So when Bibi, the matriarch, is leading her family across the dry, parched savannah to a place she remembers from the last long drought where there is likely to be water, every member of her family matters to her, and none more than the baby, Tembo, her grandchild. Playful, curious, distractible Tembo fails to keep up with the family on their journey and three times is separated from them. But each time she calls, a family member comes to rescue her—her mama, her auntie, and finally Bibi herself.

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Elephants love each other, just as humans do, no matter where on the planet they live.

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

 

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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.

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