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.