A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmases Past: The Best and Worst

I’ve often wondered why two of my nine books are about Christmas, a high percentage considering the number of topics to write about or even the number of holidays in a year. Just the other day it hit me: one was inspired by my best Christmas ever and the other, by my worst!

The ideas for both came directly out of life events. My best Christmas ever was in 1987, just a week after my second daughter was born. Presents and much of the usual Christmas folderol (which I dearly love) fell by the wayside as I basked (groggily – she wasn’t a sleeper) in the glow of tending my new baby. Waiting for Noël started with those emotions, a mix of joy and gratitude and contentment that gradually took on larger meaning.

When Posey Peeked at Christmas, published many years later, is about my worst Christmas ever. That was the year I peeked, not just at one or two presents, but at every single gift under the tree with my name on it. I don’t know which year it was. Ironically, I don’t even remember the presents. What stuck with me is an awful feeling of overwhelming dismay, as it dawned on me that surprises are half the fun – and sharing, the other. That Christmas I learned the hard way that relationships and process are more important than things.

In both cases, it was the emotions that not only lasted, but motivated me to write. As writers, we often fuss over plot and characterization, voice and metaphor, details of word choice and syntax and even grammar. But isn’t it the emotions that truly drive us onward, propelling us into and through a story?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you light in the darkness...

Warmth in the cold... 

Peace and love in every season!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Winter Solstice, the Longest Night

Those of us who live in the North don’t take light for granted. We appreciate its nuances. We study it for both quality and quantity. In the North, summer and winter solstices aren’t abstract events; they are marking points that give us pause for contemplation in summer and cheer us on in winter.

The Longest Night, by well-known author Marion Dane Bauer, is a beautiful winter solstice story about forest animals trying to call back the sun. Just listen to the beginning:

The snow lies deep.

The night is long and long.

The stars are ice, the moon is frost,

and all the world is still.

That sounds like my world right about now! As I write this at nine o’clock in the morning, it is still pitch dark outside. Fresh snow fell during the night, muffling the sounds of the day, which is evidenced only by such human constructs as the ticking clock and the morning news. It’s the time of year when I cheer myself up with Christmas lights and candles. As each day brings fewer minutes of light, I cling to the knowledge that soon -- at solstice -- the process will start to reverse. It will seem slow at first but that’s okay – because I know the light is returning.

The Longest Night by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ted Lewin

Bauer’s simply elegant text and Ted Lewin’s marvelous illustrations capture the essence of this annual phenomenon. Lewin used just three colors, to stunning effect, in depicting the outdoor, nighttime snow scenes. Encountering his animals on the page is nearly as riveting as meeting them in real life on a dark night in the forest.

The combination of Lewin’s art with Bauer’s poetically expressed story makes this a new favorite picture book for me, one I will continue to enjoy sharing with children and use as an inspiration in my own writing.

For ages 4-8.
Golden Kite Award 2010

"A Conversation with...Marion Dane Bauer and Ted Lewin"
Publisher Holiday House's Website

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Twenty-three years ago today my youngest daughter was born. She inspired my writing from the start.

It was she who lost the shoe that began the story in Blueberry Shoe. Without her incessant desire for liberated toes, Blueberry Shoe would not exist.

Later, as planning a child’s birthday party a week before Christmas became routine, memories of her birth and her very first Christmas, when she was just one week old, got me started on Waiting for Noel: An Advent Story.

What’s next? At the moment, I don’t know. Maybe a story about left-handedness, or playing the piano with your toes, or bloody trips to the emergency room. In the meantime, she is busy creating the chapters in her adult life.

Happy birthday, daughter. May your story be rich with living and loving.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Lot of Books

Yesterday a kindergartener asked me to help her find “a book with horses.” While we were looking she commented, “You sure have a lot of books here.”

Now to my mind, this is only partially true. It’s a school library of about 8,000 volumes, which is quite modest as libraries go. Still, to her young eyes, there are indeed “a lot of books.”

Then she asked, “Why do you have so many books?” The question caught me unaware and I was slow to respond – not because I couldn’t but because I was trying to think how best to formulate my answer in terms she would understand. While I was thinking, she asked again, more insistently. “Why do you have so many books?”

To a reader, to a user of libraries, to anyone who has been a serious student, the answer is obvious: so you can find the information you need or something interesting to read. Add to that the fact that people of all ages and backgrounds have wildly different interests and preferences in reading and it’s easy to see why the variety in numbers is good.

But this little girl is just starting out on that journey of discovery. “So everyone can find something they want to read” is what I finally said.

And then we found “a book with horses.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Globalization of Children’s Picture Books (Or Not)

Leonard Marcus, in the November/December 2010 issue of Horn Book (my favorite magazine about children’s books) writes an interesting piece about foreign picture books – and why in the United States we see so few of them.

Everything else is going global, so why not children’s books? In the U.S. we have ready access to foreign culture through world music, foreign films, and a growing number of books for adults in translation – not to mention, the Internet. But children’s books? Not so much, despite the obvious need for American children to learn about other countries and cultures.

Marcus cites a number of factors. One is the economy. Drastically fewer picture books are being published in the United States; those that are tend to be safe bets. Books for all age levels that are most likely to turn a profit are series with proven track records and those by well-known authors and celebrities. Few foreign books fit into those categories.

Another issue, believe it or not, is sexuality. Frankness about the human body – at least for book-reading children -- is much more accepted in many other countries than in the U.S. When was the last time you saw a U.S. children’s book that depicts a breast-feeding mother? This common experience for young children and their siblings is reflected in European children’s books, but almost never in the U.S. (Passing gas, however, is wildly popular. Go figure! The Captain Underpants series, Walter the Farting Dog, and Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger, to name just a few.)

Finally, there are differences in cultural style and imagery. Americans are said to prefer more character-based illustrations, while Europeans are keen on design. Marcus also gives an example of differing cultural perceptions from Mitsumasa Anno’s well-known book from the 1970s, Anno’s Alphabet. Anno’s first “A” illustration of an angel was changed to an anvil because his Japanese angel wasn’t recognizable to Westerners.

The challenge of communicating across cultures is something for writers and illustrators to keep in mind. Cultural authenticity is prized these days; yet too much cultural specificity may render a book too “foreign” for general readership outside that culture. At the same time, children around the globe have similar basic wants and needs. Some stories have enough life of their own to reach all children.

Children want and need to learn about other cultures in this increasingly interconnected world. That’s one more reason why funding for public and school libraries is important. Librarians and teachers provide the context for children to understand more culturally specific stories. Library and school purchases help support the publication of valuable books that don’t necessarily meet the mass-sales criteria at chain stores.

Though retail rules the roost at present, I’m willing to bet that some of your most beloved children’s books got their start in schools and libraries.

Friday, December 3, 2010


The other day I received an e-mail asking permission to use a poem from my website on the blog Advent Quietness. Since then the blog writer, Twylla Alexander, and I have been e-mailing back and forth about our mutual interest in children's books, writing, and apparently, Advent. Joys and wonders of the Internet!

So it occurred to me this morning, after the second cup of coffee, that I might post my Advent poem here. Peace and blessings to you, readers, whoever and wherever you are.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fatty Legs: A True Story

Great title, eh? As soon as I saw it, I wanted to know more. When I read this memoir by Canadians Christy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, I wasn’t disappointed.

In 1944, Olemaun Pokiak (Margaret) was a strong-minded Inuvialuit girl who really wanted to learn to read. Because she lived in a small village in the Canadian Arctic, that meant she had to leave home to go to boarding school.

Despite warnings from her older sister, who had recently returned from school, Olemaun badgered her father to let her go. Finally he relented. The trip to Aklavik took five days by schooner. At the age of eight, she said goodbye to her parents and family, expecting to be reunited – and literate -- within the year.

What follows is an account of the price Olemaun paid for learning to read, which she considered the “greatest of the outsiders’ mysteries.” As one year stretched into two, she endured hard labors, punishments, and both cultural and personal humiliation at the hands of The Raven. This nun singled out Olemaun for extra doses of punitive “education,” epitomized by the awful red stockings Olemaun alone was forced to wear. Those ugly stockings earned her the nickname “Fatty Legs.”

Pokiak-Fenton’s true story reminds me of Roald Dahl’s fictional Matilda – except Olemaun’s situation was all too true to be humorous. Olemaun’s torments were committed not only against her but against the Inuvialuit culture that nurtured her spirit. Fortunately, two things saved Olemaun: her determination and The Swan, a kind nun who counteracted some of The Raven’s worst abuses.

The power of literacy comes through loud and clear in this story. Through Olemaun's quest to learn to read, we see the indignities, small and large, that accompany the disadvantage of illiteracy. Imagine, for one, mistakenly purchasing – and trying to brush your teeth with – the contents of a tube of shaving cream that looked like toothpaste.

In 104 pages, this first-hand account conveys directly and uniquely what it felt like to be an indigenous child at boarding school, powerless at the hands of adults from the dominant culture. The telling is thoughtful, spirited, and frequently eloquent. Evocative illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes enhance the chapters, while the black-and-white photographs from "Olemaun's Scrapbook" convey a strong sense of era and setting.

On this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I’m thankful that Olemaun Pokiak did indeed learn to read and found a way, with Christy Jordan-Fenton, to tell her story. Thank you for reminding us that “A wren can be just as clever as a raven.”

Published by Annick Press.
Kirkus, starred review, Nov. 14, 2010.
Fatty Legs book trailer here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tough Topics

I had a sad task this week. I had to look for good children’s books about death.

Two students at my school, from two separate families, each lost a parent in unrelated, tragic accidents. These students, as well as their friends and classmates, will be asking -- or surely thinking about -- the kinds of simple, basic questions that can be most difficult to answer: What is death? Why does it have to happen? How do we cope with our feelings? What happens to our loved ones after death?

Adults struggle with these same questions. One-size-fits-all answers are hard to come by, all the more so, distilled into words and concepts a six-year-old can understand. It’s one thing to explain the death of a beloved pet, or an elderly grandparent, or even someone younger who has been seriously ill. But accidental deaths come without preparation or any sense of transition or notion of fitting within the natural cycle of all living beings.

Wearing my librarian hat, I found several books that deal with the death of a pet or a grandparent. A couple approach death in general as part of the life cycle. But unmitigated tragedy? That’s a tough one, most likely because it’s so difficult to write about.

When I put on my writing hat, I realize how hard it is to think about. How would I approach the topic in a way that kids could relate to? I don’t get very far before my brain starts to fizzle.

My respect and appreciation go out to writers who can fill the need for those books.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Diamond Willow

In general, I am not a fan of novels in verse. To me the continual line breaks get annoying. I tend to complain: Just get on with the story! And the voice, which is so integral to both poetry and fiction, often seems to wear thin.

That said, I’m a big fan of Diamond Willow, a novel by Helen Frost that is written primarily in shape poems. The story is about a 12-year-old part-Athabascan girl struggling to find her sense of self. She lives in a fictional Bush village in Alaska. The voice is authentic, an almost painful reminder of what it feels like to be a young girl on the cusp of adolescence. The plot is powerful on an emotional level, as a family secret unfolds and issues of friendship and relationships are examined. It is also an adventure story, as Willow survives a blizzard and serious outdoor challenges while dog mushing. And if that isn’t enough, it’s a terrific dog story, as well.

Throughout the story, Willow speaks in shape poems, most often diamonds.

These are not highly structured poems in the traditional sense, which is probably why they work as narrative prose. But look more closely: do you see the words in bold? Each poem contains some. Like a secret message, they summarize the theme of that poem, underscoring Willow’s emotions on that page.

A gimmick? Well, maybe. But it’s nifty and innovative. And it works.

Other characters also talk to us throughout the story. Their voices appear in standard line format, which helps the reader shift from one point of view to another. But even their contributions to the story have a twist: they are all animals, some representing the spirit of Willow’s relatives who have died.

All in all, it’s a great read. It reminds me a little of Stone Fox, both in terms of subject matter (love of family, dog sledding, struggling to find one’s way) and emotional impact. The story is more complex -- its intended audience is older, I’d say 5th to 7th grades – and the main character is a girl. But in both stories that special love of a child for a dog shines through.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Running for Books

Today is election day. After yet another almost unbearably intense election season in Alaskan and national politics, I awoke this morning with some trepidation, worrying about the outcome. Then I checked my e-mail. Waiting was a message from a friend saying, Who should I write the check to for your school library?

Those are mood-changing words for any librarian, but especially for librarians in underfunded school libraries. These days, with tight school budgets and so much money going into testing and technology, books are not always the top priority that they should be if we truly want kids to read. My friend understands that. She is a runner who, with the help of just one other person, over the past two years has organized a series of fun-runs in our little community. She uses the proceeds from those runs to help out her favorite community groups. The school library where I work is one of them.

The check isn't huge -- it's a small run in a small community -- but it's significant. It will buy books the kids want to read. Maybe equally as important, it sends a message: your community understands that reading and books matter. Your community cares.

However the elections turn out today, might I suggest: do something positive for literacy, for children, for libraries. You'll feel good about it and you'll probably make someone's day.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Real Money for Children's Book Writers!

Once again, I have to hand it to those Scandinavians. They put their money where their mouths are when it comes to children's books.

When I read last week that J.K. Rowling was awarded the first Hans Christian Andersen Literature Prize in Denmark, which comes with 500,000 Danish kronor (about $93,352), I was both impressed by the amount of the award and a bit confused. I knew that the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) has been honoring children's book authors and illustrators for decades (since 1956, it turns out) with the Hans Christiansen Award.

Though close in name, these are two different awards. The Hans Christian Andersen Literature Prize is brand new, given to authors whose work is comparable to Andersen's. The prize money is garnered from private donors. Rowling traveled across the water to Andersen's home town in Odense, Denmark to receive it. She also received a bronze statue of the Ugly Duckling -- an appropriate metaphor for struggling authors!

The Hans Christian Andersen Award is also an international prize, given every other year "to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature." The Danes are involved in this award, as well; Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is its patron. It comes with a gold medal and a diploma, as well as international prestiege and, one assumes, increased book sales.

The top U.S. awards for children's books, the Caldecott and Newbery, are awarded annually by a division of the American Library Association. The Caldecott honors an American picture book artist, while the Newbery recognizes an American author. The prizes involve no cash, but wide acclaim and a much-coveted medal that virtually guarantees continuing book sales.

The biggest monetary award for children's literature comes from the Swedes: the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It may go to multiple recipients, who can be authors from any country, as well as illustrators, oral storytellers, or people involved in the work of promoting reading. The government funds the award and the Swedish Arts Council administers it.

This is a serious prize: 5 million Swedish kronor, which is comparable to between 700,000 and 800,000 U.S. dollars. Why so large? Because the Swedish people and their government wanted to honor their beloved author, Astrid Lindgren, by making a statement about the importance of reading for children and teens. They also wanted to inspire children's book writers.

I'm inspired! Isn't it great to know that somebody thinks children's literature is important enough to put real money on it?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Congratulations to Debby Dahl Edwardson on Blessings Bead!

I’ve intended to write in praise of Debby Dahl Edwardson’s Blessing’s Bead ever since I started this blog (not so long ago). Now I’m kicking myself for procrastination because I’ve missed my chance to say, “I told you it was good!” Blessing’s Bead was just selected by Booklist as one of the Top 10 First Novels for Youth. Booklist is published by the American Library Association and is one of the leading review journals in the country, so this is a *big* deal!

I’m very pleased for Debby because I love the book. Debby writes from way up north – Barrow is on the Arctic Ocean -- where she has lived for thirty years and raised a family. Her first novel takes place in two parts. In the first, a young Iñupiaq woman named Nutaaq loses her sister, who leaves to marry a Siberian, and within two years, the remainder of Nutaaq’s family is dead from the influenza that ravaged so many in 1917-1918. In the second part of the book, Nutaaq’s descendant, Blessing, must adjust to moving from a dysfunctional situation in Anchorage to living with her Iñupiaq grandmother in Barrow. It’s a beautiful story set within a specific culture, dealing with themes of loss, survival, and healing that resonate with people of any time and place. I’d say it’s both a coming-of-age and a coming-of-culture story. Well done, Debby!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Letters About Literature -- Deadline December 10

Alaska Center for the Book, in partnership with the Library of Congress Center for the Book and Target stores, sponsors an interesting and worthwhile contest every year for students in grades 4 through 12 called Letters About Literature. It's a writing contest with a challenging construct: students are asked to write a letter to an author, alive or dead, about how that writer's work changed the student's understanding of self or others.

I served as a judge one year and was impressed by the depth of some responses. They are further proof that students are still reading and thinking deeply, and that the work of writing is valuable and necessary.

Another very cool thing about the contest is the prizes. At the state level, winners receive $100, a $50 Target gift card and are entered into the national competition. At the national level, top prizes include $500 Target cards and $10,000 grants to promote reading for the student's library of choice! I love the concept of rewarding both the student and the community.

This is no small prize and one for which Alaskan students can compete as effectively as anyone else. Indeed, last year Alaskan Anna Wichorek, at that time a junior at West High in Anchorage, won the national competition for her letter to Velma Wallis, author of Two Old Women. Wichorek's $10,000 went to Mountain View Elementary School library. What a great way to make a difference!

The competition is broken into three levels: grades 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12. For more information and official entry forms, visit the Alaska Center for the Book website.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

George Rogers

George Rogers, a man I admired greatly, died this past week in Juneau at the age of 93.

What does George have to do with children’s books in the North? George was one half of a 69-year partnership in marriage with Jean Rogers, the author of several Alaskan classics for children, including King Island Christmas; Goodbye, My Island; Runaway Mittens; and The Secret Moose. I met George through Jean, with whom I became friends back when I first started writing children’s books.

Jean and George invited me to stay with them several times while I was visiting Juneau for various reasons. Though his accomplishments were many, the George I knew was one of the kindest, most unassuming people I’ve met. He was also one of the most interesting.

As others have said, George was a Renaissance man. He designed their homes (two, because the first one burned down), wrote books, sketched, sang, acted in community theater, served on the Juneau assembly, and raised six children with Jean. Just being in their home, filled with books and art, color and design and architectural surprises, was a pleasure.

A Harvard-trained economist. These days, that phrase conjures up connections to elite Wall Street consultants, think-tank schemers, and billionaire CEOs. Though George was indeed a Harvard-trained economist for the state of Alaska, none of those images fit George. He put his talents to work designing some of Alaska’s basic institutions, both before and after statehood. For him, economics wasn’t an abstract theory, or a tool for personal profit, but a system of exchange that existed for the well-being of people within society.

During one of our first conversations (probably in the mid-nineties), I asked him about the Great Depression. All my life I’d heard stories from my mother about growing up during the Depression but I never quite understood why it happened. Recently I’d read that an underlying cause had been the disparity between rich and poor. George explained that any time there is a concentration of wealth in too few hands, social and economic chaos eventually follows. In a healthy economic system money flows throughout society relatively freely, like blood throughout a body, carrying oxygen to all its cells. I’ve thought about that conversation many times over the years, as wealth and power have concentrated more and more to record levels in the U.S.

George was right.

In a time when self-promotion is considered not just desirable, but essential, we seldom see the words “modest” and “accomplished” together. But that was George. I am blessed to have known him.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Our Three Bears

When you share a state with three types of bears – black, brown, and polar – "the three bears" is not a new theme in children’s books. However, it is one that is always ripe for fresh treatment and that’s what we have in a new book, The Three Bears: With Real Photographs! by John Schwieder and Cindy Kumle.
The title says it all: this book tells a story in photographs, taken by Schwieder in Katmai National Park. Many are simply wonderful, such as the cover photo of the three sibling bears standing together, curious and alert.

Photo copyright John Schwieder
The story is slight – basically, we follow the three cubs and sometimes their mother through the activities of a long summer day. But that’s okay because the pictures and information are so interesting. The text is a mix of narration and, in asides set off by smaller text, basic facts about browns bears and their habitat. Kumle does a good job of concisely explaining what is happening in the photos and pointing out details that might be missed -- like the fish that got away while three adult bears argue over it.

I do have one quibble with the book: talking bears. Now, I have no problem with talking animals in fiction. I’ve written a number of talking animal stories myself. But the art in this book is clearly documentary nonfiction and the text should reflect that. Nonetheless, this is a book that will delight children and capture the interest of their parents, as well. These intimate views into the daily lives of some of nature's most awe-inspiring creatures are fascinating. And the cubs -- well, they are as endearing on the page as a real-life passel of puppies. Children will love the scenes of the cubs at play or snuggling up for a nap.

Photo copyright John Schwieder
Although Schwieder, the photographer, has also produced a previous book (ALASKA, America's Wildest State) he didn’t go to Katmai with the intention of writing The Three Bears. He says, “The cover picture...makes people smile and they know there's a story behind it. I originally titled that photograph "Grizzly Triplets" but everyone else called it "the three bears" so that's where the title of the book came from.” His website is

Earlier books on a similar theme include Alaska’s Three Bears by Shelley Gill, illustrated by Shannon Cartwright, published in 1990 by PAWS IV Publishing. This fictional story about a polar bear, brown bear, and black bear finding their home territory in the wilderness is interspersed with factual information about the three species of bears.

The Grizzly Bear Family Book by Michio Hoshino uses photography to follow a mother and two cubs through a year’s cycle of activities. Hoshino, a renowned nature photographer, died in 1996 from a bear attack while filming a documentary about brown bears on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Japanese by birth, he made Fairbanks, Alaska his home. His book was published in 1994 by North-South Books.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pippi for Grown-Ups?

This will be my last post on Pippi. But I simply can’t leave Pippi behind without mentioning the connection between Pippi and another fictional Swedish heroine currently taking the world by storm: Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster “Millenium” series for adults (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest).

Larsson was interviewed by Lasse Winkler on October 27, 2004, just three weeks before Larsson’s unfortunate death and a few months before publication of the first book. Earlier this year, Winkler discussed their meeting and quoted Larsson (in English) for The Guardian:

“‘I considered Pippi Longstocking,’ he said...‘What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.’ That thought evolved into Larsson’s formidable heroine, Lisbeth Salander.”

According to Winkler, Larsson chose another Astrid Lindgren character, Kalle Blomkvist, boy detective, upon which to base his character Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative journalist who becomes involved with Salander.

If you’ve read the books or seen the Swedish movies (Hollywood hasn’t come out with their version yet), you may have noticed another neat little nod to Astrid Lindgren and Pippi. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander’s apartment is named V. Kulla – short for Villa Villakulla.

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it. Who says children’s books are "just kid stuff”? Maybe Larsson was a kid at heart, as I suspect most of us are.

The take-home lesson for me as a writer of children's books is this: never underestimate the impact of your stories. You never know how they may live on.  

Pippi's house, Villa Villakulla, at Junibacken
in Stockholm.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Does Pippi Look Like?

We all have our own imagined visions of how fictional characters look, which is one reason I generally like to read a book before I see its film equivalent. I prefer to form my own picture before I see Hollywood's version.

Someone like Pippi inspires a strong impression in the reader, with or without pictures. I've been living with my ideas about Pippi for a long time -- since the original editions (in English) from the 1950s, illustrated by Ingrid Vang Nyman . I suspect that my own idea of what Pippi really looks like is more connected than I like to admit to the illustrations I pored over as a child. Compared to the overwhelming power of screen images to shape our perceptions, it's easy to forget that book illustrations can strongly influence our perceptions, too.

I'm reminded of this as I look at newer cover art for Pippi, updated for modern children. I find myself reacting strongly to the new images because -- guess what? -- they don't look like my Pippi!

Of course, I will cope. The important thing is that Pippi lives on. But I'm curious what other Pippi-lovers might think.

Below are links to four illustrators' images for the cover of Pippi Longstocking. Which do you prefer?

Statue of Astrid Lindgren, the author of Pippi Longstocking
and many other books for children, at Junibacken in Stockholm.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Amsterdam's Airport Library

I can't resist spreading the news about a very cool idea: airport libraries.

Last month the Dutch Public Libraries, in cooperation with the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, opened a library. Travellers can find books in 29 languages, listen to music, and watch or even download films for free.

The library was inaugurated by Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, which sounds charming to me. In the U.S. we must make do with politicians or celebrities for that sort of thing.

Though we may not have a tradition of royalty in the U.S., we can claim a strong heritage of public libraries. The Dutch press release states that this is the first airport library but that is apparently not the case. The Nashville Public Library ran an Airport Reading Room at their Municipal Airport from 1961-1969. Follow this link to see photographic proof!

I'm hoping airport managers are paying attention to this. An airport library sounds like a much-needed oasis of sanity in the increasingly barren landscape of air travel. Might I suggest: no blaring television screens; no unintelligible loudspeaker announcements; and free Internet connections.

The only drawback I can see is that some of us tend to lose track of time in libraries. In an airport, that could be a problem! Simple solution: make timers available.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


read the sign in the store window.

“No,” said Pippi… “I don’t suffer from them. I love them.”

Tommy, Annika, and Pippi at the entrance to Junibacken, a museum
in Stockholm dedicated to children's books.

I grew up reading all the Pippi Longstocking stories. Maybe you did, too. At a time when girls were required to wear skirts to school (which meant you had to also wear shorts underneath if you wanted to play on the monkey bars), Pippi was a marvel. She said and did the most surprising things! She was brave and strong, creative and self-sufficient, yet kind and touchingly vulnerable at times, too.

Pippi and friends also inspired my daughters during their elementary-school years. In one memorable episode, they decided to imitate Pippi’s famous pancake-making. In the book, Pippi ends up with eggs in her hair while mixing batter; she then extols the virtues of egg yolk for healthy hair. My daughters thought that sounded intriguing. Fortunately, they undertook this project outside in their playhouse. Unfortunately, they took it one step further, adding oatmeal to the eggs. A thick, sticky paste resulted, which they rubbed vigorously into each others’ scalps. It probably was healthy for their hair but as you can imagine, took more than one washing to get rid of.

In honor of Pippi and her irrepressible spirit, I hereby present a few
Fun Pippi Facts.

• Her full name (in English) is Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking. (In Swedish that’s Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump.)

• Pippi’s mama is an angel in heaven. She died when Pippi was a baby but still watches over her through a peephole in the sky.

• Her papa is a sea captain who was blown overboard during a storm and disappeared. Pippi is convinced that he swam to safety, however, and will return.

• Pippi has a monkey named Mr. Nilsson and a large sack of gold, both taken from her papa’s ship when she left the sailing life to live on shore.

• Pippi is strong enough to lift her horse (and grown men).

• Her hair is carrot red; her long stockings are mismatched (one brown, one black); and her shoes are two times the length of her feet.

• She never cries.

• Her home is called Villa Villakulla.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Random Act

I just performed my Random Act of Publicity for a favorite book (yet to be featured, so I'm not saying which) by writing a review on Now that I've done it, I can't believe that I haven't before. Really, quite painless! And perhaps it will nudge a deserving book into the hands of new readers.

If you love to read (and I doubt you'd be reading this if you don't), I recommend taking a few moments out of your week to promote a good book. Spread the word! Maybe "your" book will go viral, in a good way. Or at least sell enough copies to stay in print for another year.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


These are the first three words that come to my mind when I think of Tales of the Elves: Icelandic Folktales for Children (adapted by Anna Kristín Ásbjörnsdóttir from the Icelandic Folktales of Jón Árnason, and illustrated by Florence Helga Thibault).

My adjectives apply to both the stories and the illustrations. Perhaps you’ve heard about the origins of the elves? (Or perhaps not, if you weren’t raised in Iceland or other parts of Scandinavia.) The elves were originally children of Adam and Eve. But when God came to visit, Eve hid away some of her children -- the ones that hadn’t been washed. This turned out to be silly, of course, because God knew what Eve had done. God pronounced that the hidden children would remain so, becoming invisible to humans while living in the mountains, hills, and rocks all around them.

Thus began the kinship between humans and elves. It is the founding story for those that follow: “Midwife to the Elves,” “Elf Wind,” “Payment for Milk,” “The Elves of Drangey Island,” “Queen Bóthildur,” and “Fostered by the Elves.” All are marvelous tales about the magical interface between humans and the “other.” It turns out that those others aren’t so different from us. They respond to kindness, respect, and courage from humans with good will in return.

 I love the art in this book as much as the stories. At first glance the pictures may appear simple – but there’s magic in the details. Take this one from “Midwife to the Elves”:

Everything alive (and mysterious) is connected by patterns and designs that resonate: stars, lights, the moon, flowers, leaves, trees – and the elf girl. The human girl, in contrast, is much plainer. As a reward for helping with the birth this ordinary human girl becomes extraordinary, however. She is gifted with the ability to see elves, which she does quite often, until she loses the gift by…ah, but I can’t give away the ending!

I feel quite lucky to have come across this book in my local public library. Though it’s translated into English, I haven’t been able to find a place to buy a copy. The book I hold in my hands was purchased and donated to the library by a neighbor, who was on a cruise that visited Iceland. The publisher is Bjartur and pub date 2008. If anyone has a lead on obtaining copies in the U.S., please let me know. I love this book!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Day Job

Last week I wrote about “wasting” my talents as a librarian. I think the sentiment behind my friend’s comment was this: the time I spend working a job takes me away from writing. And that is a dilemma that all but the financially independent must grapple with, as I have throughout my writing life.

Anyone who has been writing for any length of time has heard – and experienced -- the harsh economic realities of the business. The vast majority of writers do not support themselves by writing. At the SCBWI conference I attended a few weeks ago I heard it again: one agent estimated that 85 to 90 percent of his clients hold outside jobs. I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard the phrase “keep your day job” uttered by some guest expert at every writing conference I’ve ever attended.

Of course, some writers do manage to make their living by their words alone. But every writer’s situation is unique. Some have private sources of income to rely on, spouses with jobs and benefits, or other financial back-up systems in place. Others don’t. The personal risk factor figures in, too. Some writers can tolerate financial instability, while others find it overwhelmingly stressful.

In the U.S., having health insurance is huge. Many people work primarily for those precious medical benefits. I wonder – though I’m not sure how one would figure this out – if writers in countries with universal health coverage have an easier go of it? Are there other challenges, such as smaller markets and higher costs, to contend with?

All of which gets me to wondering: how do you balance the need to write with the need to make a living? Which challenges do you find most difficult? Does your country or region do anything to support and encourage writers?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Just When I Thought I'd Seen It All...

I found The Blue Bead by Kate Boyan.

If you know kid’s books, you know that the illustrations can be amazing. Artistry, creativity, innovation, boldness, intricacy, subtlety – it’s all there.

Mediums of expression? How about paint (all kinds), ink, markers, crayons, photographs, collage, cut paper, torn paper, folded paper, fabric, embroidery, wood cuts, linoleum block prints, pressed leaves, modeled clay, computer-generated graphics, and combinations of all the above. (Did I miss anything? Probably.)

Until a few weeks ago, however, I’d never seen this: a book that uses beadwork for the illustrations.

Let me repeat that: each picture on every page is comprised entirely of beads. Take a look:

The author-illustrator, Kate Boyan, is a beader who lives in Homer, Alaska. As someone who has embroidered and done just a very little beadwork, I can only marvel at the work that went into this project. According to her website ( ) each of the 25 illustrations took more than 200 hours (or longer) to create. All together, Boyan spent ten years making The Blue Bead.

But the artwork here is not about impressing us; it serves the story, as all good picture-book art should. The medium is completely appropriate to the tale, which is about, as the title says, a blue bead. Boyan explains in her prologue, “It is the story of an 18th Century Bohemian, blue glass trade bead that survives its journey into modern day Alaska.” Readers travel through time, places, and history until the bead reaches the hands of a modern-day girl, beading a gift for her grandmother’s potlatch birthday celebration.

Raven steals the blue bead.
Has anyone else seen beadwork as illustration in children’s books? I’d love to hear about it!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Random Acts of Publicity Week

Michelle Houts, a new writer friend from the SCBWI conference, sent me a Facebook invitation for the 2nd Annual Random Acts of Publicity Week.

What is it? Simple. Borrowing from the idea of Random Acts of Kindness, during the week of Sept. 7 - 10 we all do our writer friends a favor by posting a review of a friend's (or friends'!) book on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing or other favorite site.

This is a great way for writers to support each other, friends and family to support the writers in their midst, and readers to support their favorite books and writers.

It's easy to do. It helps to spread the word about good books and helps writers sell books so they can publish more. And I can assure you, there's nothing like reading a glowing recommendation for one of your own books to make a writer feel encouraged!

So writers, in addition to focusing on our own work, let's pay some attention forward. It's good for the soul and the writing community!

Thanks to Darci Pattison for the idea and spreading the word! For more info, see her webpage Random Acts of Publicity Week.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wasting My Talents?

As well as being a writer, I am a librarian. Last week school started around here, always a frenetic time for school librarians. But off and on, when I’ve had a moment to think, I’ve been considering something a neighbor recently said.

We were chatting at our local Farmers Market. When I mentioned that I was preparing to go back to work, she said, “You’re wasting your talents.”

The librarian side of my brain did a jaw-drop. The writer side did, too.

I’ve always had this professional split-personality situation. Even when I’m writing, part of me thinks like a librarian. When I’m working as a librarian, I’m also thinking – and using my abilities -- as a writer.

I consider both professions to be honorable and high callings with plenty of room for overlap. In my work as a school librarian, I get to read new books as well as classics in a variety of genres and formats. I also get to hear unvarnished reactions to these books, straight from the mouths of their young readers. Together we read stories, write stories, tell stories, share poetry, and seek out interesting (and reliable) information.

Am I wasting my talents? Come on in to my library when the kids are there. Observe them absorbed in a story we’re reading aloud. Witness their excitement at finding a new book by an author they love or about a subject they can’t get enough of. Listen to students insist that their friends Look at this! Watch them drag a buddy by the shirtsleeve to recommend a great book they’ve discovered. (Occasionally it’s even one of mine.)

These moments don’t just happen. I facilitate the serendipity by choosing good books, promoting them, and matching them with my students’ interests. I don’t make kids read; I make them want to read. (Okay, I do make them learn the Dewey Decimal System.)
Raven, Little Red, and Pinocchio enjoy
 a good book.

In my book (any of them), sharing my love for reading, literature, and learning is never a waste of my time and talents. It’s a joy.

Friday, August 20, 2010

New Book Alert!

Not many people can list their occupation as "adventurer." Pam Flowers can.

I've known Pam for decades -- I believe we first met in my small town's public library -- and I've vicariously followed her adventures over the years. After she completed her solo dog-mushing expedition from Barrow, Alaska to Repulse Bay, Canada (that's about 2,500 miles, give or take a few) she asked me to help her write about that journey. The resulting books, Alone Across the Arctic and Big-Enough Anna (illustrated by Bill Farnsworth), have won several awards and are still in print. (Yay!)

Since then Pam has authored two more picture books on her own, Douggie: The Playful Pup Who Became a Sled Dog Hero (illustrated by John Van Zyle) and now, Ellie's Long Walk: The True Story of Two Friends on the Appalachian Trail. This new book, also illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, takes readers along the famous trail in a gentle story that recounts both the beauty of the experience and the challenges. Above all, the story is about the relationship between Pam and Ellie, her dog.

Anyone who knows Pam knows two things about her. Once she sets a goal, almost nothing (even Mother Nature) will prevent Pam from achieving it. The only thing that can stop her is the second thing: her love for her dogs. It shines through in every adventure she pursues and every story she tells, including this one.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Great Kodiak Connection

I love it when I find an amazing children’s book when I least expect to!

Last spring I was sipping coffee in Monk’s Rock Café, my favorite Kodiak (Alaska) coffee shop, when my writer/librarian eyes lit on a small treasure – just 4.5” by 4.5” -- tucked into a display basket. The silhouette of a white chicken pranced on a yellow background. What could this be?

I opened the hand-bound pages of The Great Chicken Escape to find a simple but evocative wordless story in black-and-white about the adventures of a cat, some hens and some nuns.

Now nuns might seem like an odd component for a children’s book, unless you’re sitting in Monk’s Rock Café. The coffee house and bookstore is associated with St. Innocent’s Academy, a Russian Orthodox school and residential community in Kodiak. An author’s note in the back of the book explains that Nikki McClure, the author and artist, lived for a time with the nuns on nearby Spruce Island in a small Russian Orthodox monastery. McClure ends her note, which briefly describes daily life through the seasons on Spruce Island, with thanks for the community’s “immeasurable gifts.”

Perhaps it was the habits of the nuns that inspired McClure’s choice of color palette. In any case, her use of white and black space is creative and engaging, with some occasionally stunning designs. I particularly love the close-up of the cat stalking the chicken (below); and the beautiful final spread of white and black hens sleeping under a starry sky.

At first glance I assumed the art was of wood or linoleum block prints. Not being an artist, however, I wasn’t sure. Plus I was curious about this Nikki McClure: who is she? What does she do? So of course I searched her name online.

It turns out that Nikki McClure ( is a paper-cut artist who lives in Olympia, Washington. She makes posters, books, cards, t-shirts, and calendars, as well as designs covers for books and recordings. She also illustrates for magazines and – I knew it! – children’s books! Nikki has conceived and illustrated seven of her own stories, as well as illustrated All in a Day for Newbery award author Cynthia Rylant. (Follow the “Projects” link on her site to learn more about her books.)

I'm glad to see that McClure is using her paper-cut talents for storytelling. And gratified to know she finds inspiration, like so many of us do, in the beauty of the Northern landscape.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Burning Desire Meets Real Life

Is that a raven in L.A? Probably not. But as the only Alaskan
at the conference, I liked to think so.

Have you ever gone to a fabulous conference -- and then returned to harsh reality?

Recently I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) annual conference in L.A. Even though it was 4 a.m. by the time I reached home (after the flight and the two-hour drive), I woke up the next day feeling flush with energy and a burning desire to write. (Spoiler notice: foreshadowing has just occurred.)

I did notice that the house needed vacuuming and dusting; the bathrooms, a good scrubbing. A stack of mail waited on the dining room table, which was crumby. What the heck, it could all wait until later.

Laundry couldn't, however. My suitcase lay open in the middle of the living room. I began pulling out dirty clothes but decided I needed coffee. In the kitchen I discovered that my dear spouse, who left hours ago for work, had drunk the last of it.

I made a fresh batch in the French press. Oddly, the press wasn't working quite right but filled with determination I forced the plunger to work, pushing down hard and steady, harder and steadier, until nearly-scalding coffee exploded all over the counter, the cabinets, the floor…and my tender inner arm.

I ran cold tap water on my arm, then cleaned up the mess.

Fortunately some coffee hadn't spilled. I drank it with my arm back under the faucet.

The burn hurt a lot. The skin was very red. I began to imagine that perhaps I had second or even third degree burns. (Or is it first degree burns that are worst? Something to look up.) I told myself to calm down; it wasn't that bad.

But it sure hurt.

I called my sister, the nurse, at work. She was surprised to hear from me, since I live three thousand miles away and don’t normally call her at the hospital. I explained the problem; she switched smoothly into nursing mode. “Watch for blisters,” she said. “Don’t pop them. Keep running cold water for up to 30 minutes. Go to the doctor if it still hurts in 24 hours.”

Twenty-four hours? Definitely.

I drank more coffee and ran more cold water.

When I started doing laundry I noticed that the dryer had moved an inch or so from its usual position. I ignored it.

I was starving, so decided to make breakfast. My refrigerator had gone Wild West on me: full of suspicious characters. I put on my tin badge and threw the moldy bums out of town. Now only wide open spaces remained. Thank goodness I'd stocked up on eggs before leaving.

I checked my email while I ate.

Guess what? A cousin I hadn't seen since my mother’s funeral 16 years ago was in the area and would like to stop by with his family, whom I may or may not have met. Of course I wanted to see him! After all, he’d never been to my house before because, like my sister and every other relative I have, he lives at least three thousand miles away.

Did I mention the house was a mess?

I called his cell, left a message and started unpacking. Shifted a load of clean laundry into the dryer and started another. Went back to unpacking.

Made phone calls. Moved the suitcase upstairs to finish putting clothes away. Progress!

Remembered there was another suitcase, still in the car.

Then I noticed a moist, laundromat smell. That smell meant only one thing: the vent from the dryer was disconnected. I turned off the dryer and looked. Sure enough.

I called my dear spouse. He had no idea what had happened or how. He hadn't noticed that the dryer had moved. He swore both innocence (dubious) and total ignorance (possible). He promised to look at it that night when he got home.

I looked at my mound of laundry and hoped that my cousin would be coming tomorrow, not today.

I wrestled with my misty moisty dryer until the vent tube thingies almost lined up. It was difficult to reach behind the dryer to fiddle with them because my scalded arm rubbed against the dryer in the narrow space. I resumed drying, opened the window for ventilation, and closed the laundry room door.

Sliding into flip-flops, I walked outside in my jammies to retrieve the second suitcase.

Since the moment I'd gotten out of bed, my desire to write had run head on into reality -- as it always does. Would I survive? Of course. I'd just met dozens -- no hundreds -- of writers, struggling like me. Sure, at least some of them must have nice tidy lives: spouses with good jobs and insurance; no distracting children, pets, or gardens; a housecleaner (sounds great!); or at least ready-made coffee in the morning.

But I also knew that most were returning to just as many hassles as I had. Quite possibly – though I hated to admit it -- even more. Because that's life: messy and unexpected, often annoying, sometimes even tragic.

The knowledge of shared struggle brings comfort; comfort brings strength; strength brings energy and that burning desire to write -- preferably with coffee in my cup, not on my arm.

I sat down to start this blog. Let's see where it goes! How do you deal with the on-going challenge to carve out time and energy for writing?

P.S. My cousin and his two beautiful daughters visited the next day. And I'm so glad they did!

 The incomparable Ashley Bryan, performing poetry that revives the soul.
SCBWI Conference, 8.2.2010