Welcome, Readers – Let’s Get to Know Each Other

About six years ago my original author website hit the Internet. This was my opening message back in 2013. When updating to this new website, I reread my own words and realized how true they still are. 

Books have been my trusted friends for as long as I can remember. In books I can let myself go, confident that I’ll come out the last page slightly changed, but better off for it in some way. I am well past the point when I “have to” read anything, so if I find myself in poor company within the pages of a book, I put it down and choose something else to read. There are always stacks or lists or “old friend” titles at hand, eager for my company.

Treating human companions that way is not so simple, is it? On the “About” page I indicated I rarely lack for words or ideas, and school was not a struggle for me. Social situations, on the other hand… well, let’s just say that’s not my strongest comfort zone. For years I kept a Snoopy poster on my wall that said, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” In my case, that would have been better stated, “I love humanity, but people make me nervous.”

Of course that was in the days before customized poster making, and nothing ever made Snoopy nervous anyway. I should be so lucky. I’m truly not a loner; I crave interactions, conversations, discussions, and even debates. But a voice in my head is always second-guessing that I’ve said too much, or the wrong thing.

This blog offers me the best of both worlds. I can interact with humans (thanks for being here!) through the printed word. That allows me time to filter my thoughts and reread, to work at not putting my foot in my mouth. Or, if it ends up in there anyway, I can look back to see how I managed to do so. It’s much more casual and spontaneous than writing a book, much closer to writing letters to friends and family.

I’m an advocate for sharing books with kids from birth onward. Reading aloud picture books conjures an image of an adult with a child snuggled close, all four of their hands holding the covers of an open book. I see established readers cradling a book in much the same way, as if reaching out to hold hands with the author, to share and absorb the ideas that were so thoughtfully created for that book. (I suspect that is a large part of why I can’t warm up to eReaders, it messes with my lifelong metaphor!)

It is thrilling (truly, thrilling) to have anything published, but especially a book. It reaches out into the real world, traveling who knows where, not unlike launching a message in a bottle.

But this blog offers something more. It opens a door to conversations and feedback. In that sense I hope you’ll consider adding comments, responding to what I’ve shared, telling me about yourselves, or asking questions. I’ll ask some myself, at times, and if I hear nothing back it will really feel lonely on my side of the keyboard.

It’s your turn now. Will you reach out, too? Is anyone out there?

Farewell, Phil

My writing life was blessed and changed by editor and publisher, Philip Martin. His death-by-cancer in early 2019 precipitated many changes. Among them, is the renovation of my website. This was my final post on the previous website, and I want to begin anew by including my reflection here:

Farewell, Phil.

It is with deep sadness that I share some news.

My writing journey began decades ago, but it found a path toward publication when editor/publisher Philip Martin read a very early story about Norway during WWII and encouraged me to find my way forward. After more years of learning and writing and additional research and reading and … all that goes into become a better writer… I sent a manuscript for Odin’s Promise to Phil. He guided me and that story into my debut book, and then encouraged me to work on the sequel that readers assumed would be coming, even though I did not imagine such a thing. In the four years we worked closely on the trilogy I found a friend and inspiration.

A hot day last summer was the final time I saw Phil. We met for coffee and sweets and more planning. He rubbed his curly hair proudly, his usual smile stretched to a grin, and he ate with good appetite. We discussed a potential event for spring 2019, again focused on ecology and social justice. He asked about my recent projects and said he was eager to get involved in more publishing and had new writing ideas of his own in mind.

Mostly, we caught up.

That meeting offered another dose of Phil’s steadiness, his balance of realism and optimism, his capacity to listen deeply.

Some people exude untamed energy. Phil’s energy was also obvious, but it glowed like embers: warmly, rich with promise, never threatening to overwhelm others or outshine their light.

He honored me by his interest in collaborating and seeking my advice.

Others knew him better, longer, and in more personal relationships than mine.

Still, I was Phil’s friend and he was mine.

His voice and wisdom will remain with me.

I’ll miss him.

Here is his obituary, and I ask that you read it through, as a favor to me and to the kind and wise man he was.

OBITUARY: PHILIP MARTIN

Phil passed away on March 3, 2019 at age 65. Phil traveled his cancer journey for almost two years and died after a very brief stay in hospice. He was born November 22, 1953 to Carl and Nancy (Clements) Martin.

Prior to his calling to book publishing, Phil worked in folk arts programming, education, research, and publishing. He was an important part of the Folklore Village (Ridgeway, Wis.) community for decades, serving as staff some of that time. He documented and published recordings of the music of many ethnic groups in Wisconsin and he was co-founder of the Wisconsin Folk Museum (Mount Horeb, Wis.).

Later in his career he focused on his passion for indie book publishing, editing, and writing. He founded the nonprofit book publishing house Midwest Traditions and later his own company Great Lakes Literary where he skillfully and gently edited and guided emerging book writers.

He authored several books: Farmhouse Fiddlers, Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, How to Write Your Best Story. And he edited the anthologies The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, The New Writer’s Handbook, My Midwest. He had begun writing a book on neighboring. He served as manager at the nonprofit organizations Rethinking Schools, Alzheimer’s Association, and Sienna Retreat Center as well as Kalmbach Publishing and Odyssey Marine Exploration.Phil volunteered at his church First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, focusing on communications and marketing. He also volunteered in a wide range of ways at Folklore Village years ago, from serving on the board to being a lead member of the landscaping committee.

Phil was passionate about playing soccer and loved cross-country skiing deep in the woods. He was a great and adventurous cook and generous host. He enjoyed hiking and camping, especially along Lake Superior and in the Rockies. He was a wonderfully intuitive traditional Scandinavian fiddler and was Jean’s favorite dance partner for any Scan dance or Wisconsin polka.

Phil celebrated and created beauty and love in this world. He had a reverence for the natural world and was awed by the kindness of humanity. He was gentle and warm, a deep holistic thinker who aimed for excellence and integrity in all his relationships with people and his work.

Review: Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea

By Lauren Wolk

Dutton Books for Young Readers, Hardcover, 9781101994856, 304pp.

Publication Date: May 2, 2017

Writers debate the pros and cons of including prologues, especially in books for young readers. I’d advise writers mulling over that decision to read the prologues in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea  and also in Wolf Hollow (reviewed here). In each, she sets a high bar for their use. Snippets of intriguing information are revealed through the unmistakable voices of her young female characters. Glimmers of mystery bob through those initial pages with just enough irresistible shimmer to spark curiosity and set the hook firmly in the reader’s mind.

I’m not a fisher-person, nor an islander, but I’ll extend the above analogy. It applies to Wolk’s skillful reeling in of those prologue readers. The early chapters of Beyond the Bright Sea unfold at a subdued pace, but one that manages to reveal stunning information: a newborn’s unexplained arrival on an isolated island in the North Atlantic, an austere but tender-hearted man who discovers the baby strapped to a boat and takes her as his responsibility, and a trusted neighbor woman whose steady presence anchors the unmoored pair into a sort of family. That purposeful pace sets the hook before the story accelerates.

The child, Crow, ages quickly to a preteen girl whose growing pains are largely in her heart. In those first few chapters we learn through Wolk’s skillfully side-eyed writing that Crow’s skin is darker than the other islanders, even in the summer season. They keep her at arm’s length, literally, but we share Crow’s suspicions that her skin color alone is not the reason for their distance. We also discover the blend of physical and moral strength and emotional pain of Osh, the only father she’s ever known. Miss Maggie, upright in posture, viewpoint, and resilient self-reliance, is a boundless source of security and comfort, despite her no-nonsense demeanor.

Thirty pages in, we’re fully committed to Crow, wondering with her who she really is, who would have tied her, as a baby, to a boat bench and launched her into the sea. Did her mother give her another name? Who are those “real” parents, ones she can rightly claim all the while reassuring Osh that he would always and forever be her “real” father, too? We ache with her and him when we see those questions raise his fear of losing her. We feel the tension and stakes rise as Crow learns about the nearby but long-abandoned leper colony on Penikese Island. Even now the word “leper” generates misunderstanding, but in the years following the First World War the fear about what is now known as Hansen’s disease was rampant.

With each secret revealed, Crow’s nimble mind arranges facts amid glaring gaps. Her developing theories compel her to pursue answers relentlessly, exposing her and the people she loves to unimagined dangers. The rising action never really ebbs, creating a book that exceeds the must-read label to a read-it-to-the-end-before-I-sleep story.

And that’s the way I read it, feeling the same driving compulsion that Crow felt. All the while, though, I knew I’d reread it– sooner rather than later.

And I did.

The second read was for the writer in me.

I’m not an island person, and Wolk definitely is. Even so, I’ve read other books with island settings, both classics and current ones, that took me to their worlds with vivid sensory grace. None, though, made me want to claim the island as my own.

None, until now.

Now I long to visit that little fictional, unnamed chunk of land off Cuttyhunk Island in the Elizabeths near the coast of Cape Cod. And, thanks to Wolk’s writing, I have visited it, virtually, and will again.

Her writing is as breathtakingly potent at describing physical circumstances as it is when revealing character and relationships:

“When I learned from Miss Maggie that coal squeezed by the weight of the world turned into diamonds, I looked at it differently and wondered what other rough and simple stuff held the promise of something rare.” (p.20)

“The flames in the distance, still burning in the night, had made it seem as if the sea itself had caught fire.” (p.38)

“I was so afraid of losing what I had, not sure what I could both cling to and still reach for without losing my hold.”(p.230)

In her debut novel, Wolk’s antagonist was a cunning, sociopathic girl who generated danger in a calculated way. In this novel the antagonist is a brute of a man, driven without a moral rudder by greed. His first appearance is a menacing and ominous one, achieved with a minimum of description or detail. As he reappears in successive scenes, the potential for harm escalates: to Crow, Osh, Miss Maggie and to the life Crow is beginning to understand.

I recommend this as highly as I did Wolk’s earlier Wolf Hollow, and I look forward to reading whatever she creates next.

Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books • 2017
284 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Chapter Book/Ages 10 -14
ISBN 9781101994856
multiple starred reviews

Verse Novels: Who, What, How? Passing along an Interview with author Caroline Starr Rose

I am a fan of Caroline Starr Rose on many levels. My fan-girl status began when I read her books, in particular the verse-novel MAY B. Since reading that amazing historical novel, I’ve subscribed to her blog, followed her on social, media, and read her other books. I’d already been a fan of verse novels, but Caroline’s work inspired me to try my hand at writing in this form, and I’m actually making progress.

As when trying anything new, and even with established skills, I seek out ways to improve and deepen my understanding of the craft. In the case of writing verse novels I’ve attended workshops, participated in webinars, and read massive numbers of outstanding titles, many of them repeatedly.

Then I came across this wonderful interview of Caroline by blogger/author Gae Polisner. [link to Gae Polisner- http://gaepolisner.com] It was first posted on Gae’s Goodreads blog in 2012, the year May B. Was released. I somehow managed to miss it then, and throughout my pursuit of advice on the genre. I recently found it and read it, so I don’t want to let this same thing happen to anyone else with a similar interest.  Caroline’s insights about the craft of writing  (and revising) verse novels offer wise but user-friendly coaching tools that I will now refer to often. You can click to read the entertaining and informative post from Gae and Caroline for yourself.

I highly recommend that you do, even if you aren’t writing. There is sometimes a sense that verse novels are “lesser”, since there are fewer words and much more white space on the page. That’s the way verse works, after all, yet few would say that writing (good) poems is easier than writing prose. Take that same mindful and meaningful effort on poems to the next level by crating a cohesive and compelling story, and you’ll have a sense of the challenges involved in writing verse novels.

To accomplish that effectively without losing the heart, soul, and strength of a story is, to some extent, a gift. That’s the word I’ve often used when describing Caroline: she is gifted. This conversation between Gae and Caroline will enhance the reading of verse novels, too, allowing readers to recognize that even the most gifted writer works seriously, intentionally, and intensely at their craft.

That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I admire about Caroline and other masters of the craft.

The SEAGOING COWBOY: A REVIEW, an INTERVIEW, an INSPIRATION

Warning, readers. This is a longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll find it’s worth every word.

Many people are familiar with the adage:  Think globally, act locally.

This advice, like much advice, is simple on the surface but more complex when it comes to real life. I support organizations that have proven themselves to be successful in accomplishing things globally by providing services and support locally.

Sustainable, life-changing support.

Some examples are:

DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS

HABITAT FOR HUMANITY

HEIFER INTERNATIONAL

Click on any of the above to learn more about their approaches, although I suspect most of you are already familiar with these organizations. I invite you to suggest others in the comments.

My awareness of Heifer International began when I read a picture book, featuring one real girl and her family. BEATRICE’S GOAT, written by Page McBrier and illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter, released in 2001. It’s a winning story of how Heiffer International programs change lives and provide the catalyst for communities to change themselves. Here’s a link to learn more about how Beatrice seized her opportunities and used them to the maximum.

I’ve supported this organization ever since, always knowing their person-to-person programs make the most of the limited dollars I could contribute.

Recently I learned about the origin story that was totally unknown to me. And again, it reached me through a picture book. In this case, it’s SEAGOING COWBOY, written by Peggy Reiff Miller and illustrated by Claire Ewart (Brethern Press, 2016)

 

The story is told through the voice of a young man who looks for adventure and finds a connection to people a half-a-world away. During the late 1940s the Church of the Brethern of Indiana were seeking a way to help desperate families in central Europe rebuild their lives following years of destruction during the Second World War.

An inspired Midwest community decided to provide donated breeding stock to farmers whose land and lives had been left in ruins. But their valuable horses and heifers needed to arrive in good condition. Knowledgeable “cowboys” volunteered to tend the pregnant cows and horses on their voyage from the United States to Poland and other countries most in need.

These men dealt with seasickness, storms, and the delivery of a calf named HOPE during their passage. They were met with a landscape of devastation and faces of hopefulness. The illustrations capture the mood, setting, and challenges described in Miller’s simple rhythmic text. The author included back matter (text and archival photos) that reveal further details of life aboard ship and accounts of other voyages by surviving volunteer cowboys. Her author’s note provides context for the needs addressed and the impact of those initial efforts, as well as her resources for assuring authenticity to her story. She continues to post interviews with various “Seagoing Cowboys” on her blog, here.

I’m very pleased that Peggy was willing to answer some questions for me about the origins of her origin story in this debut picture book.

Welcome, Peggy, and congratulations on the March, 2016 release of THE SEAGOING COWBOY.

PRM: Thank you!

Your website header says you’re a writer and historian. You also indicate you’ve been writing for many years, producing manuscripts for a variety of audiences and outlets. Why did you choose picture book format rather than a longer form to share this particular history?

PRM: I don’t think I chose the format as much as it chose me. I had started out writing a YA novel, which did get written, revised, and re-written a few times after major workshops, like a Highlights Foundation workshop and the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop. But the market for straight historical fiction for young adults without a fantasy element or romance went south; and agents I contacted who liked the story said they didn’t think they could sell it. So it’s resting. Parallel to writing the novel, I had gone to a Highlights Foundation workshop with Carolyn Yoder on writing nonfiction. I pitched the idea of a story to her about the seagoing cowboys and she was interested. So I wrote a piece about seagoing cowboys in general that she didn’t think was right for Highlights, but she wondered if I might be interested in rewriting it to focus on a single cowboy, which I did and which was published in Highlights for Children in October 2013. When I saw a picture book in my public library about a couple of grandfather’s sitting on a porch telling their stories, I got the idea to revise my original manuscript sent to Highlights from the viewpoint of three grandpas who went as cowboys to three different countries and call it “Grandpa Was a Seagoing Cowboy.” Brethren Press purchased that manuscript; but through the editing process, the resulting book became a quite different and more wonderful story.

Few people have heard of the post-WWII origins of the Heifer Project on which your fictionalized book is based. How did you learn about the seagoing cowboys?

PRM: I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, which started the Heifer Project in 1942. Most all involved members knew about the project and participated in some way or other–raising heifers, donating money, or transporting animals. So I had heard about seagoing cowboys as a kid, but I didn’t know that my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. After Grandpa died, my father gave me an envelope of pictures from his trip to Poland in 1946. Those pictures beckoned to me for a long time and became the impetus for my novel and the resulting research.

With so much research and so many personal stories collected, what shaped your decisions about the narrator and the cowboy in your book?

PRM: As I said, I had started out writing from the viewpoints of three grandpas telling their stories. But that was just too cumbersome, and my editor and I realized I needed to write the story from the perspective of one cowboy in the historical setting and not as a grandpa looking back in time. I decided to use an unnamed narrator who would represent “every cowboy” and add a friend so there could be a consistent companion. I’ve always been captured by John Nunemaker’s experience of finding his own family’s horse on his ship, so when I needed something to help create a storyline, I borrowed his story and named the friend John.

What goals will you use to judge your response when someone asks, “How is your book doing?”

PRM: I’ll base my response on comments I get back from readers and not on sales numbers. Brethren Press is a small press that can’t get into the large distribution networks, so I’m not anticipating mega-sales.

The book has had a wonderful reception so far by seagoing cowboys and their families, as well as members of the Church of the Brethren who share this history. Heifer International staff are excited to have this part of their history told.

One of my main goals in getting the book published was to offer a way for families of seagoing cowboys to be able to honor the service of their loved ones and share the story with succeeding generations. From the responses I’m getting, I’ve hit the mark on that one! It’s very humbling and rewarding at the same time to receive their notes of appreciation.

The mission of Heifer International, [link] includes training and the expectation of a pay-it-forward commitment from recipients. How are the principles of the current organization rooted in the original Heifer Project?

PRM: The intention of the original Heifer Project Committee and the Brethren Service Committee under which it served until incorporation in 1953, was to provide help to the neediest of farmers without regard to race, religion, or nationality. Heifer International continues to operate in that vein. And they operate on the basis of their “Twelve Cornerstones,” where each community that receives Heifer’s assistance receives training in values such as accountability, sharing and caring, gender and family focus, improved animal management, sustainability and self-reliance, etc. But the main cornerstone that makes Heifer so special and in tune with the original program is “Passing on the Gift.” To participate in the program, recipients pledge to pass on the first female offspring of their animal to another family. This gives the original receiver the dignity of becoming a giver and expands exponentially the outreach of the program. The “Pass On” ceremonies pictured on Heifer’s website are very moving.

Please tell readers about your current projects?

PRM: Always too many to get them all done! I have a Seagoing Cowboys website that I’ve recently revamped and write a regular twice-monthly blog on it about seagoing cowboy history. I’m currently working with Heifer International as a historical consultant, researching a book project on the shipments they made to Germany throughout the decade of the 1950s, helping Germany in their recovery from World War II. A writer in Germany is working on that end to find the recipients with the information I’m feeding him, document their stories, and write the book.

Outside of my work with Heifer, I’m independently working on a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, which I’d love to have ready by Heifer’s 75th anniversary in 2019, but I have my doubts I’ll make that deadline. I’m also working on a book for adults about the seagoing cowboy history, and would like to do a middle grade nonfiction book on this topic, as well. I have another historical fiction picture book manuscript drafted related to the shipments to Germany in the 1950s, which I’m ready to start submitting. And my novel will beckon to me at some point to try again. Not to mention several other picture book manuscripts waiting for attention.

You indicated a lifelong “itch” to write, and that you’ve now found your way to embrace your writing self and find outlets to share it with readers. Do you have any advice for others who have felt (or are just now feeling) that itch to write?

PRM: If the itch is for writing for children, I’d say join SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. That was one of the best things I ever did. It’s where I found my wonderful critique group, and where I’ve been able to participate in conferences to learn from other authors, editors, agents, and publishing professionals. Without the conferences and my wonderful writers group, The TaleBlazers, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Thank you, Peggy. It’s been delightful to virtually meet you here and learn more about your own voyage to sharing these amazing stories.

I urge readers to request this book at your library or independent bookstore. Share the story on social media and help others learn about it. When the problems of the world loom so overwhelming that hopelessness rears its head, books like this one remind us that problems are solved one person at a time.

For more about the early days of this organization, check out another picture book from Brethern Press, FAITH, THE COW, written by Susan Bame Hoover and illustrated by Maggie Sykora.