County Roads

River“Why did I listen to you? I was going to take the other road. You have no sense of direction.” (This is true.)

“You weren’t listening to me, you were listening to the GPS. This is the road the GPS said to take!” (Also true.)

“I wasn’t going to listen to the GPS. It thought that other road connected to something and it didn’t. It stopped in the middle of nowhere.” (Frightening.)

We were in the Upper Peninsuala of Michigan, alone. We had food, a tent, and other survival equipment with us in the car, but we were running low on water. The road before us was packed dirt, rough like a series of speed bumps one after another after another. We had no phone signals, and there was no sign of another human being for miles. If our little Toyota Camry got stuck in one of the low places made muddy from recent rain, we would be on our own.

Over Labor Day weekend, we put the dog in the kennel and set out on a grand wilderness adventure. From our home in southwest Michigan we drove to St. Ignace on the north side of the Straights of Mackinack. Our first day didn’t feel so remote: we had beakfast in town and toured around Mackinack Island on bycicle and foot. There were no cars on the island, of course, but there were plenty of people.

That changed on day two when we packed up camp and drove west along the coast of Lake Michigan. It seemed people only lived out there so they could sell us homemade pasties, jerkey, slim jims, and smoked fish, knit us cosy mittens, and sell us gas. The main road – which we were on – was paved, one lane each way, and lined by nothing but lake, sky, and trees.

We reached Pictured Rocks and hiked eleven miles through true wilderness. “All good things are wild and free,” they say, and that was certainly true of this place. After our hike we drove for hours along a winding, unlit road, watching lightning in the sky above the forest tunnel that surrounded us. We were in search of food, and found it, in the tiny town of Grand Marias on the coast of Lake Superior. But we were keenly aware that the brewery we’d found was likely serving the only food availible for hours in any direction.

We kept on that night to Tahquamenon Falls, camped, and enjoyed both the views and the hot food availible at the upper falls in the morning.

Which brought us to the dirt roads.

Our plan was to travel farther north up to Whitefish Point to visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum before heading all the way back home. But we’d seen a sign not too far back for the Big Two Hearted River recreational area.

English major and literature junkie that I am, I’d brought a copy of Hemingway’s collected stories specifically for this opportunity.

So we backtracked a bit until we found the sign, and we followed the arrow.

Little did we know, the arrow was pointing miles back to the mouth of the river, which was hours of gravely dirt county roads away.

We drove until it became obvious that the sign had not been pointing to something nearby. There’d been a small bridge over a branch of the river, so we decided to go back there, snap some photos, and call it good. Time was beginning to weigh on us, and we still wanted to get up to the Point. So we plugged in the GPS and punched in our destination.

We were hours away. But the GPS found another route, one that shaved off about half the time.

“Oh, the GPS says to turn here,”  I said.

And Caleb turned.

And it was the scariest drive of my life. The adventurousness of our trip faded away as I thought about what it meant to be in the middle of the wilderness I often long for.

If something went wrong, no one would see us. No one would stop to help. And we could not call anyone.

I truly realized for the first time how dangerous travel was for generations before us, with their horse-drawn carriages and minimal supplies. As I gripped the handle of the passenger door and prayed while we bounced over the uneven road and took turns too fast out of fear that if we slowed down, we’d get stuck, I would have given anything for a glimpse of asphalt.

We made it out, thanks to Caleb (who does have a good sense of direction) and made it through the rest of our trip without mishap. But I will never look at a “County Road” the same way again, and travelers beware of what the sign for the Two Hearted River on MI 123 doesn’t say – miles and hours of dirt road, this way.)

Oh, but I got my photos.

Two-Hearted

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Mentor Texts: How to use other books to help you write your novel

It’s a scary world out there, and we writers like to stay hidden behind the pages (monitors, screens, etc.) that display our words for us. Getting out there and talking to people? Making small talk? Exchanging pleasentries? Sometimes, even just leaving the house? Writers are not as good at those things.

But, I’m doing something scary for the sake of my future books. (It’s like planning ahead for your children by creating a bank account that you have to keep investing into, only for books, you’re investing yourself into the internet so that more people will like them when you kick them out into the world.)

I made a video!

It’s about mentor texts, how to select them, and how to use them to make your own story better. Tell me about the mentor texts you’ve selected for your own project, and feel free to ask questions or suggest topics for my next (eek!) video.

“I Am Not An Environmentalist.”

When I was probably ten years old, I saved a young maple tree in my back yard. Possibly growing nature’s way, from a scattered seed rather than a planted bucket, the tree was tall and spindly. When we’d moved into the house it was shorter than seven year old me, but it quickly caught up and overtook every member of our family. It was about ten feet tall when my father decided to cut it down – it was smack in the middle of our yard, and we had several trees already. Slicing through the two-inch diameter trunk would have been easy for any of the saws kept in our garage, but I’d grown attached to that tree. I begged for it’s life, and my wish was granted.

The yard now gets almost no sun at all, instead of a little bit of sun in the afternoon.

Maple

As part of  my research for my critical thesis at Spalding, I wrote and conducted a survey of children ages 4-18 that I called “Environmental Reading Habits.” The questions were simple enough, most of them multiple choice and having little to do with the environment. But the last question – “List some nonfiction or fiction books you’ve read that touch on environmental topics” – was the most interesting to me.

Many answers included The Lorax, Magic School Bus Books, Eye Witness, and National Geographic. Quite a few said “none,” “n/a,” “I don’t think I have ever read a book like that.” But one answer caught me off guard. Rather than simply saying “none,” one participant wrote, “No, I am not an environmentalist.” I got stuck on this and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Unlike the kids who were answering my questions, I could list a few dozen books that dealt explicitly with conservation or environmentalism. Did that make me an environmentalist? I had never thought of myself as one before. Was every kid who listed Hoot an environmentalist? It was an interesting question that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Something about that tiny maple tree in my yard inspired me to want to keep it there. I don’t think I knew that the tree would provide more oxygen to our yard, or that songbirds would make homes in its branches, or that squirrels would leap through its leaves. But I could remember when the tree was smaller than I was, and that made me feel protective of it. I think that’s how environmentalism really should be. The world might be older than we are, but we are stronger than its individual parts. It is fragile and struggling to hold on, and more than our lists of facts on its (many) benefits, it simply needs our protection.

Environmentalism

So I think my answer is no. I am not an environmentalist. I am not, by training or trade, a scientist, an activist, or a crusader for the earth. What I am is someone who loves the earth and wants to protect it, just like that tiny maple tree.

Maybe that’s a problem. Maybe people can’t tell the difference between these two things, and if they aren’t an environmentalist they don’t believe they can do anything to make a difference.

If you think that, I’m sorry, but you are so wrong.

Start recycling. Grow some food. Use Energy Star when you replace things. Buy things second hand, or know where they come from when you buy new things. Stop making the world that we all live on a party issue and going against it simply because you’ve been told it’s “liberal.”

Plant a tree.

Or protect the one that’s already there, planted by the wind.

Photo used under Creative Commons License from The Value Web

Good Childrens’ Nonfiction?

Another round up of mini-reviews, but this time focusing solely on nonfiction for kids! Nonfiction usually isn’t followed by a “!”. It’s usually thought of as dull, dry writing full of boring facts – and a lot of the time that’s what it is. But it doesn’t have to be! Good nonfiction can be just as engaging for any age as good fiction, with the added bonus that when you finish reading, you might just go out into the world and change it for the better.

This blog has been neglected recently as I’m in the throes of work on my critical thesis for my MFA from Spalding University. I’ve been looking at environmentalism in both fiction and nonfiction books for children of all ages, and the sad truth is that there just isn’t much out there that is informative, engaging, and entertaining for kids. I think there are probably a lot of parents and teachers out there who have realized this, too, so I thought I would share a quick list of the books I’ve found that DO seem to do a great job of communicating facts to the age group they are marketed for.

The Eye of the WhaleThe Eye of the Whale: A Rescue Story by Jennifer O’Connell is a great, really short picture book telling the story of a whale that was caught in some fishing line/crab netting. Divers cut the whale loose, and it appeared to thank each of them for their help. Great for really young kids because it is narrative nonfiction – true story.

A Place for Turtles by Melissa Stewart would be great for lower grade kids. Each page talks about a different type of turtle in the US and how humans have damaged their habitat – but also how humans can help the turtles survive. This one is mostly facts, but they are told with simple language and great illustrations (which show diversity in humans, too!), so I think it would engage young children. It could also be a good way to teach children that turtles are not pets and they shouldn’t bring them home. (This book is just one in Stewart’s A Place For… series – check them out!)

a chicken followed me homeA Chicken Followed Me Home!: Questions and Answers About a Familiar Foul by Robin Page is just a great book! It’s a picture book with a question about chickens on each page, and the answers are clear and conversational. The pictures are lovely and the book would be great to teach kids of any age about backyard chickens.

case-of-the-vanishing-honeybeesThe Case of the Vanishing Honey Bees by Sanda Markle is a toss up for me on this list. It’s in picture book format and full of great, macro photographs of honey bees, but it is heavy on text and long on new vocabulary words. However, the information is very clear in explaining the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, some of the probably causes for it, and best of all why honey bees are so important and we need them so much. Suggested for older elementary and middle grades. (This is one in a series of Scientific Mysteries.)

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman is a great resource for teens (and adults too!) that digs deeper into the environmental topics of the day to show how the problem started and what is keeping it from getting fixed in a way that incorporates politics, psychology, and history. Recommended for anyone.

 

 

As another part of my research for this paper, I’m conducting an anonymous survey of kids ages 4-18. If you fall into that age group or you know or have kids who do, please take quick minute to fill out this very brief questionnaire. It would really help me out!

For more books that deal with environmental topics in both fiction and nonfiction, I suggest looking at the list of Green Earth Book Award winners chosen each year by the Nature Generation. What is your favorite book about the environment? Tell me in the comments!

Write Every Day?

o-WOMAN-WRITING-facebook

Write. Write more. Write even more. Write even more than that. Write when you don’t want to. Write when you do. Write when you have something to say. Write when you don’t. Write every day. Keep writing. ― Brian Clark

You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world. ― Ray Bradbury

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at 9 am every morning. – Peter DeVries

These quotes, and more like them, can be found all over the internet, in writing craft books, and in those images with words on them that get put up in classrooms everywhere. They are repeated because they are quotes from writers who are published, renowned, and – perhaps most importantly – successful. Somehow, I think we writers believe that if we can just follow the advise of those who have gone before, who have “made it,” we’ll be able to make it, too.

The concept of writing every day, sticking your but in your chair and typing away until you have something, is common in quotes like these. That’s why they make me nervous. There was a time in my life when I did, in fact, write every single day. No matter what. Sometimes it was a paper for school, sometimes a blog post, sometimes a newspaper article, sometimes just a few pages in a journal. After a few weeks of doing this, I did find that when I decided my writing for a given day would be directed toward an essay or a story that my fingers moved a little faster and the words flowed more readily than before. It was great place to be, having a semi-regular schedule that offered the opportunity of following all of the advice of the writing gods and writing every day.

But those times never last for ever. Since I’ve been working through my MFA, I find that the few short weeks where the workload is lighter during semester transitions are cherished times – times where I do home renovation, catch up on housework, do a ton of yard work, go to parties, watch TV in the evening, catch up with friends, and generally do not write. At all.

During the heavier parts of the semesters, I find myself thinking of these in-between-weeks wistfully. But during the in-between-weeks, I find myself afraid, because I absolutely do not write every day. I find myself wondering, is this what my life will be like when I’m done with my program? Will I make myself so busy with home and friends that my writing desk is just sitting there to hold up the wall? Will writing simply be there, in the back of my mind, as something I will do when I have time?

All of which makes me wonder – is writing every day really necessary? Are quotes like “Don’t be a writer, be writing” both inspirational and unnecessarily harsh? If I only write a few times a week, or even once a week, does that mean I am not a writer?

I don’t think so. But while I am enjoying this time of home improvement, relaxation, and “spare time,” I am looking forward to beginning the next term, where I will once again be writing every day.

Frozen! Anna’s Winter Dress

Guys, I made this costume for work. The only thing better would be if I could have made it at work. But seriously, this was one of the easiest costumes I’ve ever done! I found the light blue blouse, a black t-shirt, and the blue skirt for $15 in a single trip to the Goodwill one block away from my house. A quick Google for Anna’s costume details revealed stencils and color guides.

I simply trimmed up the t-shirt to the shape of Anna’s vest, hemmed the new edges, and shaped up the collar of the blouse. Then, guided by a YouTube tutorial, I drew the designs onto the vest and skirt with white eyeliner, and painted them in.

Ta-da!

Winter dress

 

Anna

To finish it off, I used one of those great JoAnn’s coupons to get three yards of pink fleece for another $20 and with some quick cuts and just a little bit of sewing created Anna’s cloak. The lining fabric was provided courtesy of Juliet, who shewed up the bottom of our burgundy duvet cover.

Pink cloak

 

Anna

Costumes are so fun! I’m thinking that for Halloween, I will try to find time to add the gold details to the bodice and reuse this costume, which is one reason I didn’t mind spending the out of pocket money for the materials. Also – for $35 this costume was cheaper and (in my opinion) better than a store-bought version of Anna’s winter outfit.

Since no one is thinking about Halloween 2015 yet, what did you dress as for Halloween 2014? Did you make your costume or buy it? Let me know!

Review: Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo

 

I first heard about Echo when Pam Muñoz Ryan came to speak at my fall residency last November. Our focus for that residency was on writing for children – more specifically on the fairy tale – and our book in common was Ryan’s Esperanza Rising. During her visit, Ryan shared with us a bit about her upcoming book, Echo. My interest was piqued immediately, and I’ve been anticipating the book ever since.

First, although the cover and appearance of a book is something the author has little to no control over, it’s been proven that the cover of a book really does affect the way potential readers perceive the contents. That won’t be a problem for Echo. The dust jacket is  beautiful in reds, blues, and purples, with black and white accents. The board cover is enchanting, a pale wood that closes over bright red end papers. (I love good end papers.)

Second, there are many stories within Echo, but if the book is about one thing the most obvious answer is an enchanted harmonica. Who doesn’t love harmonicas? It’s even a pretty word.

Third, is what I mentioned above: Echo is one book, but it contains many stories. There’s Otto, a young German boy who finds himself inside a fairy tale in the woods; Friedrich, who must try to get himself and his family out of 1933 Germany due to a birthmark that covers his face; Mike, who tries to get himself and his orphaned brother adopted from the orphanage together during the Great Depression in 1935; and Ivy, whose family moves to a new farm in southern California to take care of it while the Japanese owners are held in a 1942 war camp. Each child is connected by the love of music, and each story by the thread of a single, enchanted harmonica.

With so much story, this middle-grade novel comes in at nearly 600 pages – but don’t let that hold you or your child back. The stories provide convenient breaks in the action, and the new characters will keep readers engaged. The pages are not crowded, and I found them turning swiftly. This book is a wonderful entry into conversations about Nazism, orphans, and segregation, but it can also be enjoyed simply for the stories it provides. I would recommend Echo to anyone who loves music – there is much love of music here, for everything from the cello to the piano to the harmonica.

I really love Echo – and I think you will too! If you’d like to read more about it, click here to read an interview Pam Muñoz Ryan did with Horn Book.