Posts Tagged ‘American Girl’

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:  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

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!


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!

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



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.


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.


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


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


Despair and soaring joy


Every artist feels it, I’m pretty sure.  My feelings about the novel I’m finishing up have zinged all over the place.

Now that I finally know what I want in each of my chapters, though, I can work any time and any place, including this chair in a hotel in Albuquerque last week.

“You write children’s books?” people say to me.  That has to be incredibly fun.

Recently, someone added, “Lucky you.”

Yes.  And no.  So much of art is out of our control…comes swimming up from some odd and mysterious place…refuses to become what it needs to be.

It’s been almost three years since my last two novels for young readers came out.  Granted, Lanie did make quite a splash.  Any American Girl Doll of the Year has instant fans.

So it was a tiny bit distracting to travel around and do book signings–including this one when I won the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota.  But it also made me long to write another book for that age of reader.

Why couldn’t I simply sit down and do it?

Sometimes I was distracted by the fun of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads (

And the book’s schedule wasn’t always in my hands.

But the main thing is that  it’s simply flat-out hard and failure-making hammering out a compelling work of fiction.




At the recent writing retreat, I realized that I had left some of the scaffolding hanging around from various drafts.


I’ve never had quite such a vivid experience of the well-worn advice to “murder your darlings.”


But this week…deep satisfaction. Soaring joy in the work itself.  And a lot of memories of different places where I wrote and revised.

Lucky me.


Celebrating my outside genes

I write a lot about planting reading seeds.  These kids go to school in one of the first schools where Ethiopia Reads got to plant a library–and I had the pleasure of reading a note from a visiting professor who led a training that the librarian and one teacher from the school attended.  “The children read aloud poetry and literature in Amharic as well as English to show us their ability,” she wrote. “They did a great job and a sense of pride was evident in their faces!”

I’ve gotten to watch what happens when you put books on shelves in a room where kids never had a chance to hold and read books before.  Guess what?

No matter how easy the seeds are to plant, sometimes reading takes cultivation.

Imagine the place where you learned to love books.  Even if the rooms were beautiful, how much great stuff would happen if teachers didn’t get support and encouragement, strategies and skills?

In our first Ethiopia Reads library, the staff registered 40,000 visits from kids in the first year.  Seeds–easy to plant.  Now I know more about the work needed to grow deep roots for book love–and sometimes that work has choked out other old loves, including gardening.

As I wrote the Lanie stories, piling words into sentences into paragraphs, I had lots of garden memories to help with the details about seeds and cultivation, rows and dirt and worms.  I grew up digging in dirt.  My kids grew up with gardens–the gardens we planted…the gardens their grandparents planted.  (Leonard’s mom brought flowers from her garden when we visited the ancestral Kansas graveyard on Memorial Day.)

My kids grew up with special outside places, just as I did.

As I wrote the Lanie books what I didn’t have was a garden.

Somehow other things had choked out the time.

But then I moved to Portland, to a house where a renter had planted herbs in the front yard, to a place where sisters and a brother cheerfully handed over plants–tomatoes and lettuce and rhubarb and thyme and something that creeps and spreads.

How could I resist my roots?

Last summer, I enjoyed the volunteer sunflowers and planted a few things with hope in my heart.  In the fall, I started traveling and sort of forgot about things.  But in Portland, even forgotten things often grow.

This year, I’m definitely hooked.

My daughter held the place for me, celebrating the sweetness of gardening, celebrating a childhood that included not only trees but The Secret Garden and who DOESN’T want to plant things after you read that book?

Can you read her blog post and resist heading out to your local farmers’ market for some berries?

She worked for Americorps in an urban gardening program.  She valiantly planted a garden in her back yard even when the animals made off with most of the goodies. 


This year, I’m there, too!  Anyone need some oregano?

I have three different kinds for you to choose from.

So…definitely…share the story love.  Fling those seeds far and wide.

But take it from Lanie and me…every once in a while, resist the inside genes. Take a break, put down the book, shut off the move, and go outside. Plants, like books, are lovely things to pass along.

Powerful Pinky Touches

Hands across continents.  This spring, middle school students in Grand Forks, ND fanned out into their community for a work day to raise money for a library that will be planted by Ethiopia Reads ( in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

A former Ethiopian national football player–now working on his PhD at AAMU–visited the school when he was back in Ethiopia earlier this year.  He reported that the school has 1973 female students and 28 female teachers: “very unusual for Somalis to have this many female students and teachers.”  He added that most of the students travel from 5 to 10 kilometers to get to school.  “There is a library building that does not have anything in it with a hope of being furnished one day.”

Kids and little dogs in Grand Forks are making sure that day will come in 2012.

When I was inventing a character for American Girl in 2009, I researched a lot of projects where kids are doing citizen science.  Lanie discovers that the littlest efforts can make a difference–the plants we choose to plant, the ladybug spots we count, protecting a caterpillar climbing on milkweed.

What about words and pictures?

Kids in a school in Boston where I did an author visit this spring made books and sent them to Ethiopia with Liz McGovern from Mudula Water (  She delivered them to the Ethiopia Reads/Tesfa Foundation mercato school along with supplies for kids to make their own books.

It’s a powerful thing, getting to tell our stories.

Kids in Ethiopia are in school in increasing numbers.  There’s wide open opportunity for team work pinky touches in those schools.

This fall, some schools are going to do it through Bring a Book,  Buy a Book days to raise money to get books to kids in Ethiopia.

And then there’s the impact teachers can make by sharing skills and ideas.  This month, my brother from Portland, a teacher from the UK, and two educators from Kansas are in Ethiopia doing that kind of pinky touch.

The PhD student who visited Somali wrote, “I had a great time staying in that area talking and walking with those individuals and learning from them as I observed what is going on in and out of the school environment.”

Walking and talking are powerful.

Sharing and listening are powerful.

Up with students and teachers, readers and writers, doing their everyday powerful work across this world.

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

Tangled emotions, ancient cities, new dreams

“Do you like it better in Ethiopia or America”

Again…at an author visit in Boston last weekend…the question.

I had talked about how I left the U.S. so young I had no memories of that country, how I’d reconnected briefly with Adrian, Oregon and my father’s home the year I was seven.  About how awkward it felt, coming to the U.S. every five years for a brief visit.  About how my writing finally gave me a way to talk about Ethiopia.

But what about the teenaged self that visited my grandparents’ farm and played on the swing with cousins and wanted to hang around with them?  What about now…that I’ve lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life?

Sometimes a book gives us words to wrap around complicated emotions.  For me, I explained to the student who asked, it’s Grandfather’s Journey, a picture book that won the Caldecott Medal in 1994.

“The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”   Such a lyrical book.  Such a gift for naming the ways of the wandering heart.

I didn’t know until I looked at his official biography that Allen Say lives where I live.  I did know he was born in Yokohama, Japan. “He dreamed of becoming a cartoonist from the age of six,” says, the bio, “and, at age twelve, apprenticed himself to his favorite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei.”

Sometimes passions hook onto us when we’re six.  Or twelve.  Sometimes not until we’re much older.  At the Ethiopia Reads ( events in Boston, it was thrilldom to meet grown-ups who are exploring art or fundraising or entrepreneurial ideas for the first time.  A lot of people visit Ethiopia and get impassioned, as I do, about the possibility of a worldwide community that can form around reading and writing and dreaming and connections.  (This Boston group was helping raise money so the young women who work for Ethiopia Reads can have a vehicle to drive around to offer support and books to the new libraries.)

This Saturday in Portland, my bro and I will do a presentation at Make a Difference Day, an idea that grew out of a book group that read Half the Sky and wanted to do something to reach out to women and girls.

It’s no accident that Lanie, the character I created for American Girl, discovers she can make a difference in her backyard or around the world.   On Saturday, people will come to hear about writing a book–about gardens–about the animals in our back yards…and about libraries.

If we’re lucky, this girl in school in Harar, Ethiopia will have books to read because of those who come to Make a Difference day and the other volunteers who’ve supported that project.

So today I’m sitting in Portland, Oregon, looking out at the gray sky, but I’m remembering Harar…

A mysterious, ancient city I visited when I was about 12.  A chance now, many years later, to help its children someday tell its stories.

Homesick everywhere I go.

But finding a home, over and over, in books and words and stories and the joy of sharing the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures of my life.

Oh the places you’ll go

Pawing through a suitcase…curling cramped in an airplane seat…feeling stark pop-eye awake in the middle of the night…feeling draggy deadish in the middle of the day…making a living through traveling and speaking has its agonizing side.  Once I had just returned from Ethiopia and was sitting with my three-year-old granddaughter on the couch while her parents ran out to do a quick errand, and she wanted a piece of mango.  I couldn’t even dream of getting up and walking over to the sink and doing something as complicated as peeling skin off that complicated fruit, so I told her, “The mango isn’t open.”

The next morning, she woke up, leaned over the side of her bed and earnestly said, “Grandma, the mango isn’t OPEN.”

I was pretty impressed with myself for impressing her even in my groggy jet-lagged state.

But as I’ve written before in this blog, travel has its delights…jolting us awake and alert, carving us open to the world around and the world within, making life feel anything but ordinary.

In Abu Dhabi, we took a tour of a sumptuous palace where dignitaries hold their meetings and people can sink into luxury.  (There’s a vending machine that dispenses gold.)  One of the other people on the tour was from Kuwait, and she loved having the tour guide take pictures of her at every stop.  I liked taking pictures of the picture-taking.  Words…images…somehow help our jumbled, jangled cells make sense of all the new stuff.

I’ve had the chance to do presentations about my books or about Ethiopia Reads in some pretty cool spaces, too.

One was a planatarium, under the dome of the sky.

This weekend, a volunteer organized an Ethiopia Reads event at the Birmingham zoo.  During my author visits in Birmingham this week, I heard about the man who had turned the zoo around–turns out he spent time in Rwanda with Dian Fossey and her gorilla work, and he’s bringing Africa to Birmingham.

I loved the animal show.  I loved seeing my grandkids helping hold the Burmese python.

(We heard there’s such horror of snakes in this area that if one of the local news organizations prints or runs an image of one of the zoo snakes, subscriptions fall off by the hundreds.)

I shared the story of Lanie, my little science lover of a character who longs to do something exciting for animals–the kinds of things Dian Fossey has spent a lifetime doing–and discovers she can make a difference with birds and monarch caterpillars.  My daughter-in-law jumped in and handled the book sales.  My grandkids helped with the orangutan experience.