Friday, November 7, 2014

Grass roof, hands-on, flying with kids in DesMoines

I spent today with about one hundred and fifty fifth graders in Des Moines at the Hands-On Book Fest, sponsored by the Des Moines Rotary Club.

The kids all received a back pack with a paperback book and a notebook and pencil. And they learned about braille books, a short history of book-making, printing (with a real printing press), illustration, paper-making. In the session with me we talked about where writers get ideas--from our families ("my grandma came from far away to make her life in Iowa;" "my brother is afraid of snakes"); from what we wish we could do ("fly," "go to Hawaii," "be invisible"). All those ideas could be great stories--and so could the others I heard.  As I drove home I decided I can't be pessimistic about the future when I see kids who are so open to discussion, to being engaged, to imagining flying.  I hope some of them will spend the weekend reading their new books and writing about flying or invisibility, or an adventure in Adventureland.

When I went to observe the braille book area I learned that five of my books are printed in Braille. And that was a thrill!

Snowflake Bentley in Braille

raised snowflakes in the Braille edition
The students were given a handout of the Braille alphabet. They wrote their names in Braille and made relief pictures, such as the snowflakes on the right, that are in the Braille edition of Snowflake Bentley.

Now for some Thanks:
 -to DeAnn Thompson of the Des Moines Rotary Club who let me know exactly where I needed to be and when--and who gave me a very cool book-fest t-shirt
 -to Richard Early, Executive Director of the Des Moines Symphony, also a Rotary Club member, who drove me to the event and back to my car with stops to check out the Des Moines Public Library's grass roof as well as a Des Moines restaurant--Hoq--which sources 90% of the food used in its meals locally.

Library's grass roof as seen through a window in the former Masonic temple, home of the DesMoines Symphony.

It's all connected--stories about what we are passionate about such as schoolyard gardens, locally-sourced foods, urban farmers like Farmer Will Allen, libraries with grass roofs and greening urban areas, kids in urban areas who have ideas who want to share them, kids who want to fly.

I surely hope they will.  I'll be thinking of them and rooting for them.  And if flying is possible today's Hands On Book Fest will make it more likely.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Visit from E.L. Konigsburg

One of the joys of re-organizing is finding things that have been tucked somewhere for so long that we have forgotten we ever had them.  It’s like finding something new and wonderful—a birthday present in the back of the closet, re-wrapped.

 Re-organizing my bookshelves is how I happened to find “The Mask Beneath the Face,” a talk that E.L. Konigsburg gave in 1989 to authors, publishers, editors, illustrators, reviewers, librarians and potential authors. I loved this talk when I first read it years ago. I still love it. Matters of the heart do not change by the decade.  And I’m so glad to have rediscovered this talk at just this time.  In this election season I have despaired at the mucky, appeal-to-our-basest-nature quality in some political ads—and the fact these ads seem to  work so well.  And I have asked myself what can I do? What can any writer contribute to building a more thoughtful, more thinking culture.  

Then E.L. Konigsburg stepped into my study and said, “Listen up.”

In this talk she focuses on masks, the masks that we wear to both conceal and reveal our true natures.  She noted that masks are especially useful to writers: “…we use our characters as masks. Wearing masks is what writers do, and the masks that one assumes as a writer … reveal; they conceal; they exaggerate, and they do it all for the sake of getting at some truth that is often seen but not fully understood.”   I couldn’t agree more.  Our characters, whether we are making them up or telling the stories of real lives, don’t usually carry signs, but they carry meaning.  The meaning in those characters (masks) is the meaning we hope to hand over to readers as they journey with our characters.

But the really important mask is the one each of us constructs to represent “the ghost of our childhood.” Konigsburg says that every one of these masks is covered with a lacy web of dreams—“Dreams of what we will see. Dreams of what we will be.”  And she says that is why the work of the writer is so important. “Those of us who write for children must give them a variety of masks to try on, and we must write rich and deep so that they can choose what materials they want for the body of that mask. And we must provide threads of many colors to let them weave the web of fantasies to lay over its surface.”

Toward the end of the talk Konigsburg says “If I can write all the nation’s children’s books, I don’t care who writes its laws.”  To me she said, “Stop moping about changing the culture. Just write better.”   Instead of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon, I should be thinking about reaching one reader, writing a book that gets into the heart and mind of just one reader.  That is work enough (and goal enough). It requires going into my writing space each day and closing the door on thoughts about commerce, thoughts about what reviewers will say, thoughts about others who would be writing this story better.  It means bearing down, taking chances—writing it wrong, and writing it again.

It was a great visit.  I hope she comes back.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Talking about writing in a farming town--my town

Last week I returned to my home town in Maine and to the school that has the same name as my high school, though not the same building, Leavitt Institute.  I came as a guest to talk about writing with high school students who live in the Androscoggin Valley.  It was an honor and a thought-provoking experience to go back to where I had learned of Caesar, Shakespeare, the Pythagorean Theorem. I glanced around, hoping to see my wonderful mentors. And I think they must have been there.

The Androscoggin Valley has been a farming area for almost three hundred years. There aren't as many farms now as in the fifties and sixties when I was growing up. But there are enough for students to be writing their own picture books about farm equipment, goats and sheep, apple orchards, and veterinary clinics.  We talked about books people have written about farms, about who tells the story. Even a barn can tell the story--as in the wonderful book by Debby Atwell. We talked about opening lines and recalled that E.B. White wrote four opening lines before he got to, "Where's Papa going with that axe?"

I realized, in talking to various high school classes those two days last week, how much is on the line when any of us writes. And perhaps more is on the line when high schoolers write. Those of us who've been doing it for a while realize we don't always do it right. I think high schoolers may expect that they are supposed to write it right from the very first word.  I hope I set them straight--or at least a little closer to straight.

I had the pleasure of spending some time with one of my best friends from my growing up years--Sharon Hathaway, who has taught at the high school long enough to have quite a number of former students who remember her classes fondly.

Right now she is teaching a class on the agriculture of the Androscoggin Valley and hers are the students writing about goats and sheep, farm equipment, apple orchards.  And her students maintain a school vegetable garden and memorial garden.

It was good to spend a few hours with her.

And I was glad to meet Leavitt school librarian, Judith Lashman, who has one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever seen--with plenty of books, and plenty of chairs to sit in to read those books, and plenty of windows where readers can look up and see trees.

I ran into a couple of other friends in that library, friends from Hamline. Ron Koertge's new book Coaltown Jesus was prominently displayed, as was Gene Yang's  Boxers and Saints.

I've thought a lot about writing over the past decades and wanted to share so much with these students, some of whom probably don't think too much about writing, and some of whom may, but how to condense all those years of trying and failing, trying and occasionally failing better?

What I finally ending up saying was that it was important find what they loved in the place they lived, to write about what they cared about and that they should not expect to write it right the first time, they should give themselves permission to write it wrong.

Androscoggin River

Friday, September 26, 2014

California: Spending a Week at Delicious

Back from a wonderful week in California, I hardly know where to begin. Should I tell you about the wonderful food? Should I tell you about the book party at Edible Schoolyard? Should I tell you about the great kids at LeConte School?

Well, one can never go wrong starting with the kids. And LeConte School has great kids. We talked about writing about lives and how we look for stories when we want to tell about a person's life. And they had stories about grandparents and axe accidents, Moms and Dads who had adventures of all kinds.  We also talked about how writers hardly ever write it right the first time. I always want kids to know that writers have to work at it. It's too easy to think if one is a writer, there's no effort. It just flows out of the pen. (!!) And we talked about saving memories in a journal or a memory box made out of a cereal box.

LeConte School has its own farmer, Farmer Ben, who brought in a bowl of LeConte figs to share. The LeConte school garden is one of the oldest school gardens in Berkeley. As you can see, they hold classes in the garden, and kids learn with Farmer Ben about growing and preparing good food.
Farmer Ben, who also did the drawings.

(l to r)Becca Todd, District Lib. Coordinator, Berkeley Schools,  me, Estella Cisneros, Librarian, LeConte School

Of course I also want to share the Edible Schoolyard at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. It is a wonderful spot, a sanctuary made of vegetables and fruit trees and flowers, where kids come to learn about planting and growing all kinds of food.  There are even chickens!

While we were there, a volunteer who is a high-schooler came to work. He said he volunteered here because he loved this place when he was in middle school. And we loved it, too.  Philip and June Lee of Readers to Eaters and publishers of Alice Waters and the trip to Delicious, Anne Ylvisaker, Christy Hale, Kathy Pryor and I wished we had had such a place attached to our middle schools.

It was the perfect place for a book party. What a treat to meet so many committed librarians, some of whom were located in the Bay Area, some of whom were in town for the ALSC conference taking place in Oakland. I was glad to see Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, author of many books for kids, including No Crystal Stair, sitting on a straw bale not far from me. And there were others--librarians who are also teaching kids about seeds and gardening and good food.  And of course there was Alice Waters! After all the research, the reading, the writing, the revising, it was pure pleasure to see her in our circle of food and book lovers and hear her tell us of her firm belief that all kids deserve to eat good, healthy food and her work to make that belief a reality.

Richard McCarthy, Exec. Dir of Slow Food USA and Alice Waters

l to r. Philip Lee, Alice Waters, June Jo Lee, Christy Hale, me, Kathy Pryor

There was more--a reading at the Berkeley Farmers' Market on Shattuck Avenue, two (!!) wonderful meals at Chez Panisse. 

It was an unforgettable week, for a person who loves good food, who loves books, and who loves talking about food, stories, and books.  Thanks Philip and June Lee for arranging all of these events in Alice Waters' back yard. What better place to talk about delicious.

reading Alice Waters' story on her street

dessert at Chez Panisse

Now, for a little bit about flatbread, cooked and eaten right here in Iowa,
because some of you asked--

A little explanation for those who did not ask. This week I made a new bread--Moroccan Flatbread-- and took it to a gathering of writers. I promised to share the procedure.  The recipe is from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day.
The link will connect you to the master recipe. Once you have the master recipe, you can store it in your refrigerator for up to two weeks. When you are ready to bake the flatbread cut off a piece about the size of a large apple. I let it sit on the cutting board for 20 minutes. Then I shaped it into a ball and rolled it out to 1/4-1/8 inch thick and spread with this mix: 1 tsp. cumin, 1tsp. paprika, tsp. turmuric, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, 2 T. olive oil. Roll up like a jelly roll. Then coil that roll, sort of like a snail shell. Let rest for 20 minutes. When ready to cook, roll out the bread to 1/4 inch thick. Heat a 12 inch cast iron frying pan, add 2 T. olive oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking put the flatbread into the pan. Cook for about two minutes on each side. Remove from pan and sprinkle kosher salt on the top.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Forgetting the weeds

Okay. There are weeds in the yard taller than me. There are several stacks of books on the floor in my study that would be a lot more comfortable on a shelf. We can't find the bill from the plumber who installed our new kitchen faucet.  And I don't even want to talk about upstairs. So there's plenty to do, but there is something about this blank space that is calling..

September seems to be a season of gratitudes. As  summer winds down and we head into a long cold spell, with not too much light, every sunny day seems like a gift.

So here are some things that I am grateful for today:

1. Gorgeous cherry tomatoes from Laura Krouse's Abbe Hills Farm.
I'm going to save a few for a salad tonight and roast the others in the oven with garlic and olive oil and save them for those cold days.

2. That my brother-in-law Ron is home and doing well.
3. That my granddaughter Evelyn gets to take her medicine with chocolate frosting. And that Owen has so far avoided the need for medicine this fall.
Owen and Evelyn in June

4. That Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious turned out to be such a beautiful book (thanks Hayelin Choi for those lovely illustrations and Philip Lee of Readers to Eaters for all your care with the book!) and I get to go to California next week for a book party at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. It's Wednesday, September 17 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. I'll also be visiting with the students at the LeConte School on Thursday. We'll be talking about the fun of stories and good food and writing about lives. On Thursday afternoon Philip and June Lee, Anne Ylvisiker and I will be at the Berkeley Farmers Market on Shattuck Avenue. On Saturday we get to go to Book Passage in SanFrancisco.  Finally Saturday afternoon at 4:00 I'll be reading the book at the Claremont Branch of the Berkeley Public Library.  I hope whoever is in the Bay Area and reads this will be able to come to one--or more--of these events.

5. That my granddaughter Ella is enrolled in a wonderful Spanish language immersion school in Chicago. And that Jonah hardly ever falls off his scooter.
Jonah and Ella

6. That Rich and I saw a Belted Kingfisher this morning.

7. There's more--family in Maine, who are eating succotash they grew themselves, playing with dogs, reading Middlemarch; writing friends here in Iowa and all over the country who keep me going when I'm not sure about where I'm going. You know who you are.

8. Finally, I guess it's enough that the sun came up once more, and we get to try again to be present in the world, rough and roiling and beautiful as it is.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Tomatoes and ducks and stories

This is one of those summers when it seems to help to remember Anita Silvey's story at the Book-a-Day Almanac of  Robert McCloskey sitting in his apartment in New York City trying to draw a couple of ducks he had adopted. It must have been around 1939.  The Nazi army was on the march. People were suffering in many places.

But Robert McCloskey wanted to tell a story about a family of ducks finding a home. I have wondered many times if he ever had doubts about this work, these ducks. And if he did, how did he overcome them? I'm glad he did. How many hundreds of thousands of kids have loved the story of Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack, and Quack? And a story of family finding home is just what we need for the hard times.

These are hard times, too. So much horror. So much suffering.  Every week brings a new outrage.

In "The Testing Tree" Stanley Kunitz writes:

In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!
Perhaps what we do in a summer like this, while "looking for the trail," is just keep doing, writing our stories, picking tomatoes, saving seeds, showing up. Saving seeds is a balancing thing. We look at the mucky water, the mess, and hope that something will come of that, something nourishing, something that reminds us that the earth is a place of gifts, too.

It seems trite, perhaps too easy, to say that stories are balancing things. But they are. When my brother used to be upset as a child the old uncle who lived with us would tell him a story of a fishing trip they were going to take. They'd discuss the bait, they'd talk about the fish, they'd talk about the stream. They planned that trip many times. And they never took it.  We love to think of getting away--and coming home to Boston Gardens, of triumph over difficulty, of a good stone soup made with neighbors who thought they had nothing to share, of a woman who sowed lupine seeds, of a Knufflebunny found.

What we put against the dark is the best work we can do--out of the mucky fermenting, the slime, we hope to make something good.

Before we sharpen the pencils and go back to work, how about a song from Harry Belafonte and the Muppets? It works for all times--especially the hard ones.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When the world is too much with us

Some weeks it just seems like "the world is too much with us," as Wordsworth said, not with the getting and spending necessarily, but with the unbearable sadness of one who made us laugh, the suffering on an Iraq mountaintop, in hospitals and huts in Africa, in Gaza and Israel, the outrage in St. Louis. It seems almost frivolous to be thinking of making books for children.

But the world will keep tumbling along--and the children will keep coming and growing and needing and waiting for our best books. So it was especially heartening to me to read this morning this wonderful book by Jamaican poet Olive Senior--Anna Carries Water (Tradewind, 2013).

The book is the story of Anna, the smallest in her family, who wants more than anything "to carry water on her head."  We don't all carry water, but we do all want something more than anything, especially the smallest of us want to do something that means we are not quite so small.

Olive Senior gives us a character all children can relate to and I'm glad that my grandchildren, who only have to climb on a stool to turn a tap, can read and care about this girl who carries water with her other family members. Carries, "Water for cooking and drinking./Water for washing dishes./Washing faces./Cleaning teeth./And for washing dirty feet at night before putting them into clean beds."

I love that washing dirty feet detail. It speaks of love and care and tucking in at night. Tucking in at night crosses borders.

Read this story and see for yourself how Olive Senior makes a neighbor of Anna and the illustrator, Laura James, gives us vibrant colors and almost-magical birds. Any book that gives us more neighbors, gives us a friend in a faraway place who has wants and spills and triumphs is fun but not frivolous.

Also not frivolous are these portulacas, who (sorry for the personal pronoun but I do think of them as friends) just volunteered in a little corner of our yard.

And these Swiss Chard, most generous of vegetables.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Veggie Love

pole beans in May
pole beans in July

 I feel as rich as Jack who survived the giant and ran off with the golden-egg laying goose. I am loving these pole beans. They just sat in the garden and grew for the eleven days I was at Hamline and this morning I picked two pounds and fifteen ounces! We ate them for breakfast and they were delicious--the perfect complement to eggs and toast.

I'm not sure what is so satisfying about growing pole beans. Perhaps it's the contrast between the shriveled, dry bean seeds that I put in the ground and these lush plants that are working so successfully to make more seeds. I'll help them by saving seeds for next year. (And I'll be glad to share seeds with anyone who wants to try pole beans.)  As our Mount Vernon neighbor Bob Baxa used to say, "It's a miracle.." He was one of the best gardeners I ever knew and he was aware of the mystery of growing plants.

One thing I have learned from the beans is patience. They have their own rhythm and frequent trips to the back yard to check on their progress during the early summer did nothing to speed their growth. I'm trying to bring that lesson to my writing desk, to not want to have written a story, but to be present for the process, not to force the story, but to show up, be there when the story blooms.

Patience is easier for one who's just returned from eleven days at the Hamline MFA residency filled with thoughts of lectures reminding us that we give our characters heart and emotion by giving them action--a particular walk, a posture, a way of holding their hands and arms, a facial expression; reminding us of the powerful tools that are voice and point of view.  We get to voice through word choice, phrasing, speech tics, speakers' consistent concerns. We choose point of view to fit the story we are telling. We considered point of view in our workshops and in our lectures and were pleased to notice the difference a re-write from first person to intrusive third can make in a particular story. 

We also talked about the current landscape of children's literature and the need for diversity. Just since the residency students have set up a webpage to promote diversity in children's literature. 

We all left armed with energy and ideas. More than beans are growing in the midwest this summer.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Straw Bales in Saint Paul

Here in St. Paul, people love their gardens. In morning walks, we've seen prairie patches, vegetable patches, arrangements with chairs, Buddhas, bed frames. And I've seen straw bale gardens. These photos come from a straw bale "farm" I saw yesterday. The gardener told me they had just moved to this house this year and the soil was bad, so they decided to do straw bales. She said they weren't yielding as well as her garden last summer at a different house. But I saw tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, greens, and squash.

I really want to write about the Hamline MFAC (Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults) Residency, but it's not over yet and I don't want to miss out on what's going on by leaving the scene to write about what has already happened. Soon.

In the meantime, here are some vegetables growing out of a bale of straw.  We are hard-wired to nourish ourselves, no matter where we live. We do that by putting seeds and plants in the ground, or in a bale of straw. And we do it with stories.

More later.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Running into friends at the Crowded Closet

Yesterday was errand day, return books to library, take no-longer-needed things to Crowded Closet, the wonderful Mennonite thrift shop in Iowa City.
While waiting to drop off, I noticed, spine-side-up in a scruffy cardboard box, a book written by Scott O'Dell and illustrated by Lynd Ward--The Treasure of Topo-El-Bampo (Houghton Mifflin, 1972). I had run  into two old "friends" in those mounds of discards. Scott O'Dell gave my family some of our best nights when our daughter Sarah, at about age 11, read Island of the Blue Dolphins aloud to Justin, Rich and me. And Lynd Ward, won the Caldecott Medal for The Biggest Bear, a book I read regularly as a preschool teacher in the 1980s and early 90s. He also illustrated six wordless books that are now considered to be forerunners of graphic novels. I asked if I could trade my box of books for this one story.

I started started the book during the ride from the thrift shop to the grocery store and felt as if Scott O'Dell was talking from the back seat:

"Long ago, two hundred years ago almost, the poorest village in all Mexico was Topo-el-Bampo. Not one person in the village was rich. Not the grocer nor the baker nor the man who sold sandals and straw hats, candles, charcoal and cooking pots. Not even the mayor, Franciso Flores, was rich."  One reason the mayor is not rich is that he has a large family--nine children and two burros--and Grandmother Serafina, "who was one hundred years old and toothless but still ate a lot." And the burros: "Tiger was small for a burro. ...You could hit him with a stick and he never got angry. ... Leandro on the other hand, was twice the size of Tiger. He had long white teeth and a glossy coat that looked like chocolate pudding."  

The mayor sells the burros to the owners of a silver mine. Carrying silver bars from the mine to Mazatlan wears out the burros so the mine owners have to continually purchase more burros. Tiger always remembers the way back to Topo-el-Bampo and turns toward the town on every trip.  One day bandits attack while the mule train
is crossing a river and the two burros are separated from the rest.  They turn return to Topo-el-Bampo bearing three silver bars.

 Scott O'Dell gives us the time (two hundred years ago) the place, the characters, even the characters of the mules. We have Topo-el-Bampo as a setting and we have the mine. O'Dell describes the mine by describing the party that occurs at the mine on the day the  silver-bearing mules leave:

"The brothers set up great tubs of red punch and carts filled with steaming tortillas. At night they sent rockets streaking into the sky and a band played merry tunes until dawn....They seemed to forget that they never were paid for their work. That they were really slaves. That the Vargas Brothers gave them no money, nothing except a hut to live in and a pot of beans each day. They forgot that the mine was a thousand feet deep and had five hundred steps. And that twice every day they had to climb that ladder, hand over hand, with a heavy basket of silver ore strapped to their backs."

This is setting, too. And it shows us that Scott O'Dell thought kids could handle the whole story, the days when the kids at Topo-el-Bampo were hungry, the mine slaves who lived on a pot of beans a day.  I think Lynd Ward must have agreed with him.  The expression on the mule crossing the river is one of struggle and despair. The story is painted on a large canvas, large enough to include this musing by Father Bruno: "Where does the treasure go?" the young padre asked out loud. "It goes across the seas," he answered himself, "into the chests of the King of Spain to be used for war."  Kids who read this book in the 1970s could focus on the parts of the canvas best for them, the rest would be there, to be discovered later.

I'm not sure, where, or if, this story would fit on today's bookshelves. It's got a lot of words. Ward's illustrations are done in only two colors. But it does make me wonder if we can make our canvases bigger in our writing for young children. I don't know. Maybe this is the kind of book that belongs on a shelf in a summer cabin, or in Grandma's attic, for a rainy afternoon read that's a trip to another time and place. I hope kids find it, by chance, the way I did. I think they might never forget the encounter.

Monday, June 23, 2014


Well, here we are--and welcome.  I'm so glad to have been summoned by award-winning, chapter book writer  Anne Ylvisaker to be part of "My Writing Process" Blog Tour--a tour that's covered many writers and many genres.

Whenever we are not writing it seems like we are thinking about writing, so it's good to have a place to put down some of those thoughts.  I'll answer the questions posed for the tour and then tag two authors to share later.

1. What am I working on?

Right now I'm very happy to be planning for the release of my picture book biography of Alice Waters--Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious in September (Readers to Eaters)
Alice Waters and her "family" at Chez Panisse changed the way we in America think about food. She was determined to serve only the freshest, tastiest food at Chez Panisse and scoured the countryside around the restaurant finding such food. Chez Panisse became famous for its wonderful meals. Now we all  look for tasty food grown in our own areas. Alice Waters also started the Edible Schoolyard program, which involves students in growing food and uses schoolyard gardens as opportunities for instruction. She believes the way we eat can change the world. I agree, so it was a great treat to write about her life.

Watch for news about a book party during the ALSC conference in California in September.

I'm also researching for a new non-fiction project that I'll be talking about later.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Honestly, I'm  not sure what to do with this question. There is so much wonderful non-fiction for young readers right now, that I am just happy to be a part of this genre. I'll let readers observe the differences.

I get excited by doing research, learning enough to walk around inside a story, discovering the quotes that capture the core of a life or an event. I often find myself living in the story. Once when I was researching a story I was so into my work, even while grocery shopping, that I walked up to a total stranger and tried to plan dinner with him!

I also love the sounds of words. I cannot not be aware of the way words sound, and that is part of in my writing.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I love writing about people who have a passion and follow it, not because it leads to fame or fortune, but because that passion defines a life. That was certainly true of Wilson Bentley, subject of my first picture book biograpy--Snowflake Bentley Houghton Mifflin, 1998). His snow crystal photographs always cost more to make than he was paid for them, but he spent his life photographing snow and eventually made 5000 photographs.

Farmer Will Allen's goal was to grow good food for people who had no access to good food, not to become famous. He learned how to do what he wanted to do and has shared that knowledge around the world. [I'm happy to report that this book has been selected by two states--the Wisconsin Center of the Book and the Iowa Center for the Book-- to represent them at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C.  Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table (Readers to Eaters) will be listed in the Festival brochure "Discover Great Places Through Reading" on the Wisconsin and the Iowa pages. This brochure will be given to all who attend the festival.]

Alice Waters wanted to share the pleasure of delicious food. She knew early in her life that good food makes good times and she wanted to give others the happy experience of a delicious peach or a just picked berry.

4. How does your writing process work?

I often have to write a story wrong before I get to the heart of it, kind of circle around the subject, go down a blind alley and return to the center. I wrote Snowflake Bentley with three different formats. The Alice Waters story started out as a story of Alice Waters cooking a shoe--which she actually did!

What helps me to find the story is to ask myself why I wanted to write the story. What about this person or event did I want to share? If I keep asking that and go deeper and deeper into my love for a certain story I eventually find the way to tell the story.

I'm excited to tag these writers who will be sharing their writing process in the next weeks:

Claudia Mcgehee is an author/illustrator of three awarding winning non-fiction picture books A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, A Woodland Counting Book, and Where Do Birds Live?, (University of Iowa Press). Her distinctive scratchboard style can also be found nationally in museum exhibits, packaging, and magazines. Part of her mission is to create art and writings that inspire and connect children of all ages with their natural world. She lives in Iowa City, where she writes about pictures and draws about words at

Jane Kurtz  was born in Portland, Oregon, but when she was two years old, her parents moved to Ethiopia. Jane grew up in Maji, a small town in the southwest corner of the country.
Since there were no televisions, radios, or movies, her memories are of climbing mountains, wading in rivers by the waterfalls, listening to stories, and making up her own stories, which she and her sisters acted out for days at a time.  By the time Jane came back to the United States for college, she felt there was no way to talk about her childhood home to people here. Eventually she found a way--through her children's books. But Jane doesn't only write about Ethiopia. She's written non-fiction,  "It's been a healing and inspiring experience," she says, "to re-connect with my childhood and also be able to help people know just a little of the beautiful country where I grew up." She is also a co-founder and member of the board of Ethiopia Reads that works to bring books and literacy to the children in Ethiopia. Learn more about Jane at this site.