Archive for May, 2014

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.

stacy

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.”???????????????????????????????

 

 

 

 

Starting as a clueless mess

The beginning of my rootedness wasn’t pretty.

old family (2)I lived in Portland, Oregon until I was two years old (look at the daffodils behind us) with a good and beautiful princess of an older sister and (eventually) a younger sister. But after my parents moved us to Ethiopia, I never lived in Portland again…until a couple of years ago.

1 blackberry massWe moved into a house that had been a rental most of its recent life, and the back yard was a mass of weeds including this blackberry thicket. 1 blackberryI loved trotting out to pick fresh blackberries.  I didn’t yet know–in the words of Oregon.gov–“Armenian blackberry is the most widespread and economically disruptive of all the noxious weeds in western Oregon.”

spidermenI’d had a vegetable garden before. When my kids were little, I wanted to share with them the things that had brought me joy as a kid–including my dad’s love of storytelling and tagging along with my dad to the garden in Ethiopia where he rhapsodized about the taste of dirt on a raw potato. Writing Lanie for American Girl, though, had gotten me interested for the first time in how plants could make a difference in your own back yard. I wanted to plant native plants. And I wanted to experiment–not do research and make meticulous plans. Performance anxiety, don’t you know?

1 bare spotThe back yard had those blackberries, ivy on the fence, a big bare spot, and several stumps. So I mostly started in the front–with some herbs and a few things my big sister (see beautiful princess above) shared with me.

Here’s how much I was starting at the total bottom:

–I didn’t know to watch my yard for sun and shade and not plant sun-loving plants in shade or vice versa.

–I lovingly spread wood sorrel because I thought it was charming–not knowing it spreads both underground and through pods that build up pressure and then burst, sending the seed flying several feet (and spreading the wood sorrel everywhere).

(Read more from original site: Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis Stricta), Lawn Weed Identification & Control http://www.better-lawn-care.com/wood-sorrel.html#ixzz30hL5U8zV)

–I was ignorant about and therefore tolerant of a few other yard thugs, too.

–I thought Portland was rainy year-round.

–I didn’t know there were water loving herbs and dry-loving herbs, and it wasn’t smart to plant them in the same small spot.

–I couldn’t recognize what was coming up in my yard the first spring including…grass.

–I BOUGHT MINT and planted it.  Yikes!

Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “Many bright people are really in the dark about vegetable life”–and tells of a friend who asked what she meant when she said, “The potatoes are up.” When Kingsolver explained, her friend said, “Wow. I ever knew a potato had a plant part.” When I was working on Anna Was Here, I knew many of its readers would never have set foot on a farm.

Anna+was+HereKingsolver says, “Now it’s fair to say, the majority of us don’t want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints. Except as straw-chewing figures in children’s books, we don’t quite believe in them anymore.”

I knew about potatoes because of my dad’s vegetable garden when I was growing up in Ethiopia.

But I was still starting from scratch with anything but vegetables–and the beginning wasn’t pretty.