Archive for March, 2010

Lanie’s playground pops up in Hong Kong

Whooo!  In Hong Kong–city of angles and night glitterings where the street crossing signals sound like woodpeckers gone mad–I did an author visit at a terrific school that has a playground in the air.  Just like the school in Cambridge I used as a model for Lanie’s school.

I knew I would find a city of business and busyness…an intersection that reminded me of Times Square in New York City and is, in fact, perhaps just as bustling as that spot.

I didn’t know people go into the mountains around Hong Kong and hike.  I didn’t know I’d sit in the staff room of that city school and look down on thick trees.  Some of the kids were dressed up to show their admiration for people they consider great…some of whom I recognized and some not.

I happen to have inside information that one of these students is Oprah Winfrey. 

The school was doing a read-a-thon to raise money for Room to Read.  That made it extra fun to show the bilingual books that Room to Read helped Ethiopia Reads publish in Ethiopia.  I loved introducing them to Yohannes, a new hero for their consideration.

I did hear that a lot of the students despise bugs.  Lanie to the rescue!  (I hope.)

All the embarrassing things I didn’t know…

When I travel, I learn.  How did I not know that the Philippines was a colony of Spain, for a while, and thus has all kinds of cultural connections in that direction?  Spain pops up in the food, the language, the dancing.  At the opening of the teacher conference where I’ve been speaking, I also saw bits of what I think of as Chinese acrobatics in the dancing–and echoes of what we saw in Indonesia, too. 

In Ethiopia, we used to visit a bat cave and walk over the piles of bat scat, while my dad shined a flashlight on the furry blobs.  I thought bats only came out at dusk.  But in the Philippines, we saw giant bats mimicing seed pods that hang from trees.  (Seed pods on left, bats on right.) 

From time to time, as if taking turns–“you go…no, you go”…one left the tree and floated and flapped with its papery, huge wings.

Although I’d heard about the “boat people,” for years, I didn’t know that thousands of people from Vietnam and Cambodia managed to cross a tumble of water and land in the Philippines, where they stayed in a camp and got ready for the next leg of their journey.

I did know that here, as with so many other places I visit, I would find kids learning about the things Lanie cares about–including turning off the lights last night for Earth Hour.  I also knew I would find kids not realizing that they can write about the details of the country where they are growing up.  Not their home country?  As the Icelandic proverb says, keen is the eye of the visitor.

Oh what thrilldom to learn as I wrote with these kids who’ve come from many different countries to use their keen eyes in the Philippines.

Writing…what a mess!

I’e had a week of fascinating writing workshops with third, fourth, and fifth graders at Brent International Schools in the Philippines.  When I pointed out that as I travel, I don’t pay much attention to official sites and monuments–like this one–but, rather, got entranced by a French door…by a French octopus in my salad…a fifth grader told me that her father is a writer and is the same way and takes photographs of his traveling family in the oddest places.

Over and over, I pointed to examples in my work that show the ways I get details from observation, from memories, from research.   I shared photos of my childhood in Ethiopia and showed little and big ways that those experiences found their way into books.  I challenged them to think about their memories, observations, research. 

One thing I learned–all over again–is that creative writing is a messy, messy process.  No one can say, “Sit down and go through these steps, and the result will be wondrous.”

But the mess has been fun for me.  I love the words and phrases I’ve gathered as we’ve brainstormed together.  One of them has already found its way into the novel I’m revising.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the sugar clumps.  The butter puddles.  Laundry doesn’t dry.  But people have easy, open smiles, and one of the schools made me cry with the musical welcome and luminous photos of people just…well…being there for other people.

The power of one person to stand or sit with someone else in pain.

From snow to a schmear of flowers

I don’t know where we were on our journey when Leonard pointed out we’d been up–and traveling–27 hours.  No matter how blurry and bleary you feel, it just doesn’t do to count the hours.  But although I landed at my Philippine destination with morning and an author visit less than half a night away, I woke to this.

The third graders wrote that rainy season smells like pigs and frogs and sounds like giant rocks bumping each other in the sky.

The fog is like a smoky fire.

The lightning goes Blink Blink Bzzzzzzz.

When you stick your tongue out, the rain tastes like dirt.

Wild pigs and snakes walk on the slippery roads.

Kids have to stay home, captured by the apartment or house all day long.

The owl crying outside sounds like a baby crying.

One of the administrators at the school used to teach in Ethiopia.  She said rainy season here isn’t like in Ethiopia, where water dumps out of the sky and then the sun floods everything with light and warmth.  In both places, the booming mess of water eventually makes the world look like this.

Last night, I fell asleep to the fluttery call of some bird and woke up thinking about taking a walk…about Lanie’s drive to get herself outside…about how the senses all wake up when I slow down, notice details, pay attention.

As some author said in an interview, I’m a better person when I’m writing.

All roads lead to Dallas

I love the way the tangled threads of my life came together in Dallas.  I got to spend time with one of my nieces–Grace–who married a Texas guy.  What thrilldom to leave winter in Kansas and end up in their full-of-flowers (and vine-draped trees) yard and talk about the connection between local plants, local insects, local birds.  I got to sign lots of Lanie books.  I got to meet an adoption dad who is doing work in Ethiopia.  (We’d collaborated on a project to get a photographer and videographer to film Ethiopia Reads libraries—–and also the work he’s doing in Ethiopia.  But we’d only talked on the phone before.)

And I got to meet girls with sisters.  Girls who love to read.  Those great girls who are interested in birds and butterflies and worms (more worms than at the other American Girl signings).  I told them they could look at my blog post about dirt.  I said I hoped my blog would inspire them to write about their observations and memories…and to research the things they’re interested in.

Today, for example, Twitter and the National Wildlife Federation led me to articles about something that fascinated me while I was doing research for the books (how birds learn their language) and about wrens–a bird that looms large in Lanie’s life.  

My only disappointment was that the American Girl store sold out of my books before everyone who wanted one got one.  My niece Grace’s mother-in-law made heroic effort and buzzed over to the one of the bookstores where I’d signed the day before.  She managed to snag one in time for my signing of their books. 

A brand new little reader!  And today I’m off to the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.

The power of so many Lanies

To my great good luck, Nancy Werlin, one of my author friends, chanced to meet the dad of the girl who was the model for Lanie in my books…and–isn’t this a kick?–she’s a lot like Lanie.  Her dad shared some pictures, including ones where she’s doing her thing for bird sustenance.

Awwwww.  I love it.  My efforts to save birds were always doomed.  One time when I was in college, I was mowing a lawn and found a fallen nest and stayed up all night trying to save those baby robins.  Alas.  No.

I don’t have the details figured out yet, but we’re dreaming about a signing this summer that will include me, Lanie-model, and the artist who created the illustrations that are so fun to share with kids.

Another Lanie has popped into my life, too.  This one saves orangutans just like Dakota, the best friend I invented for Lanie after my visit to an Indonesian school where the kids save orangutans.  Go see the orangutans at

 After my Dallas signings Sunday and Monday, I’ll be flying to the Philippines where, among other things, I’ll get to re-connect with the librarian who organized my visit.  Of course I’m taking books for him to take back to that school! 

I’m glad to be in the world with so many starfish throwers.

Dallas and dirt

To be fair, those two things aren’t really linked, except in my headline.  The rain in Lawrence is making my yard smell…well…I guess I wrote it best in RAIN ROMP.  The whole world smells like dark, wet dirt. 

So I’m thinking about dirt while I pack my bags for Dallas, where I’ll be signing at a B&N in Plano at 3:00 on Sunday and a Borders in Allen at 7:00 on Sunday and at the American Girl store on Monday afternoon.

I’ve always been fond of dirt, since my dad plucked a potato from his garden in Ethiopia, rubbed most of the dirt off, and cut a slice for me with his pocket knife.  My siblings and I grew up spending most of our days outside in Maji, Ethiopia, where our parents took the attitude, “What’s a little dirt?” 

That attitude seems to have gotten passed on to our children and now grandchildren.  I have quite a collection of pictures that I’ve been sticking in my Power Point presentations to illustrate the power of lovely, compelling, to-be-celebrated…dirt.

To also be fair, it was my editor who alerted me to the fact that there’s such a thing as state dirt.   As Lanie and Aunt Hannah are digging for their first garden, Aunt Hannah asks, “Did you know that Massachusetts has a state soil to go with its state flower and state bird?”

Lanie thinks that she knows the state flower (mayflower) and state bird (black-capped chicadee) and even state reptile (garter snake).  “But a state soil?  ‘I didn’t even know soil had names,’ I said.”

Can you name the Massachusetts state soil?  Or the Texas state soil?  Or, for that matter, the Kansas state soil?


Are you curious?

One of the problems with talking about research is that it starts with some things that are hard to measure, hard to teach.  Curiosity.  Determination.  Maybe even obsession.

It takes the same instincts that drive people to do detective work.  (Okay, I really wanted to include this picture of my own little detective.)

When I ask kids about research, the Internet comes up first about 50% of the time now.  Sometimes I have to coax out books.  I like to show them this pile of books I’ve been reading as I work (unsuccessfully, so far) on a novel set in ancient Egypt.  When I was working on my first novel, The Storyteller’s Beads, I read and read about one of Ethiopia’s most terrible decades…making it all the more fascinating that I recently met the man who was at the head of the opposition army in those days.

But curiosity drives me beyond the internet.  Beyond books.  To interviews, for instance.

I was lucky when I was writing The Storyteller’s Beads that writers had gone to Israel and interviewed survivors of the terrible flight of the Beta Israel out of Ethiopia.  I was also lucky to be able to travel to Ethiopia while I was writing the book.

Both of those things were important for Lanie’s story, too.  I especially needed to pick the brain of Jim McCoy and the other birders he put me in touch with.  He suggested I come to Boston and go with him to Mt Auburn cemetery, birder heaven especially in certain months. 

What birds would be easy to see, even without binoculars?  Great Blue Heron.  Baltimore Oriole.  Northern Cardinal.  Black-capped Chickadee…and more.

What would be a dramatic bird that would make a brand new birder say, “Wow”?  Indigo Bunting, maybe. 

We wandered around the cemetery and sat by the Dell, where birds bathe.  How would Aunt Hannah start teaching Lanie to listen for bird calls?  Jim told me he finds “wichety wichety wichety” an unconvincing way to describe the call of the Common Yellowthroat but likes better the common description for how a Carolina Wren sounds: Tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle!

There’s nothing like learning from someone who knows and loves what he’s talking about.

The Research Paper and Other Lies

Sometimes a writer wants to write about something–cares passionately about something–but has no vivid, compelling details about that something tucked away from memories or observation. 

Research to the rescue!

When I said the word research to my university students, their minds zipped to The Research Paper.  But research underpins a lot of genres, including fiction.

As I was working on my first published novel, The Storyteller’s Beads, I used memories–of the tattoos I saw on some women in Ethiopia, for instance, that I didn’t know very much about.  My character, however, would know. 

I was lucky that so many people have written about Ethiopian village life and customs. (Last night I watched a heart-grabbing movie, Live and Become, with great visual detail I didn’t have when I was writing.) 

I was lucky that my mom taught me how to read so well that I like reading both fiction and nonfiction in search of details.

I was also lucky, when I was working on Lanie’s stories, that people have written such lively and fascinating details about their obsession with birds: books such as The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik. 

Know anything about Nutting’s flycatcher?

I didn’t. 

Now, I know it’s small and plain and says “Wheek.”  Before the Big Year of the biggest bird lists ever, the author writes, this bird hadn’t been seen in the United States since “Jackie Robinson was slugging his first home run in an All-Star game.”  In 1997, a birder spotted one in Arizon.

Here’s what happened next:  “Maricopa Audubon flagged the news on the Internet; the Tucson Rare Bird Alert posted a message on its twenty-four-hour phone number;  the North American Rare Bird Alert in Houston started phoning people on its HIgh Alert subscriber list.”

Did you know a plain bird that says wheek could set all that in motion?

I didn’t.

I also didn’t know that John James Audubon, the first person to go on a big ol’ bird hunt in America, failed at at least five business ventures and was thrown into debtors’ prison.  (Some people say it’s because he was paying too much attention to birds and too little attention to business.)  When he got out, he only had clothes, his gun, his water color brushes–and a dream: “to paint a life-size portrait of every bird in the New World.”  His 45o paintings are still treasured in Birds of America.

Obmascik is a great nonfiction writer.  Take this description of birding on the banks of the Rio Grande:  “Grackles crackled and catbirds meowed, but the loudest of all were the chachalacas, the Mexican thicket-dweller that sounded as if Ethel Merman had swallowed a rusty trombone.”

With so much delicious information to read about the world, it’s hard to imagine huge schools in Ethiopia that have no books.  This one does, now, thanks to students in California who raised money for its very first library

What characters know that authors don’t

My parents took me traveling…Ethiopia, no less…when I was two years old.  That’s where I fell in love with gardens, with the outdoors, with other things in the threads I wove into Lanie’s story. 

But one thing I don’t remember paying attention to in Ethiopia was birds.

Maybe I was too active and wasn’t able to narrow my focus, get still, and pay attention.

This week, though, I’ve been sitting on my couch in Lawrence, for hours, getting ready for my travels to Dallas (for American Girl), to Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines for speaking.  I still get a thrill from travel.  BUT…

…it stretches and drains me, too.  So I’ve mostly been waking up too early and lying in bed and thinking.

In the dawn hours, one thing I now notice is bird twitter.  Once, I didn’t know why birds would be more vocal then.  Now I do.

Maybe birds have a hard time competing for kid-love compared with other animals I’ve written about.  Maybe, though, girls who read Lanie’s story will open their eyes and hearts to birds more quickly–more easily–than I did.

This is from a Lanie draft when she’s hiking at dawn:

That’s when I spotted something that made me glad we were awake even when everyone else was asleep–my very first Red-winged Blackbird. 

Oooooo la la.  The twenty-third Life Bird on my list. 

As soon as we got back to camp, I could put those shiny black wings and splats of red in my field notes.

“Listen,” Aunt Hannah whispered.

A bird song bubled out from the tree branches above our heads.  Number twenty-four?

I scrambled onto a giant stump that smelled like fresh sawdust.  I held my breath and stared.  “Any clues?” Aunt Hannah murmured.

Tail straight up.  I squinted and lifted my binoculars.  Some kind of wren.  But I couldn’t figure out the species. 

(I wouldn’t be able to figure out the species, either.  I don’t even know if I could identify a wren.  Luckily, we get to create characters who know delicious things that we don’t, and Lanie knows things that are stored in the brains of Jim McCoy and his Boston birding friends who helped me out.)