All things literacy — Authors, Books, Connections . . .

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Happy Birthday Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943)

Tomorrow - July 28, 2014,  148 years ago Helen Beatrix Potter was born in England and years later she sought to cheer up the five-year-old son of her former governess Annie Moore so she sent an illustrated letter to Noel Moore. That was in 1893. In 1901 she self-published a revised version. It was so successful (despite several publisher's rejections) that Frederick Warne publishers sought to publish it in 1902. That information is rather well-known. What might not be so well known is that Beatrix Potter was one, if not the first, to create merchandise to promote her writing. In 1903 she created a Peter Rabbit doll as a promotional product to accompany the book.

Beatrix Potter made this Peter Rabbit doll in 1903, a year after publishing her first book "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." She registered the doll at the Patent Office (UK).

Many activities and ideas for sharing Beatrix Potter's tales at

And ...
Visit our  Beatrix Potter Room at McBookwords Manor.

Helen Beatrix Potter was schooled privately and spent a lot of time with animals.  Her parents did not view any relationships with men to be favorable.  She did have one major relationship with Norman Warner (of the publishing firm). In 1905, Potter and Warner became unofficially engaged, despite her parents' belief that he was not suited for her, because he was in a commercial business, rather than belonging to the gentry class.  But one month later Warne died of leukemia.  He was just 37.
Eventually Potter used her income from the books and an inheritance from an aunt to buy a farm, and then purchased other farms including Hill Top Farm.  She often spent time at Hill Top Farm and wrote several of her stories there.  As she purchased more land she asked a local solicitor, William Heelis, who helped her protect her investment.  In 1913, Potter and Heelis were married.  In 1914 her father died, and Potter established Lindeth Howe, a 34 bedroom facility where her mother lived until her death in 1931 (at age 93).  Lindeth Howe, is now a destination hotel restaurant in the Lake district.  Her later life was more involved with raising sheep and she became well-know for her restoration of the Herdwick sheep and was established as one of the major Herdwick sheep farmers in the area.  In 1942 she was named President-elect of The Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association, the first time a woman had ever been elected to that office.  However, Potter died but died in December of 1943, before taking office.
Much of her property and literary estate was willed to the National Trust.  William Heelis lived another 18 months beyond Potter's death and when he died he gave the remainder of her property and literary holdings to the National Trust.
The copyright of her materials expired in the UK and other countries when the 70 year after death limit was reached.  The stories are now in public domain.

Happy 148th Birthday, Helen Beatrix Potter.  Thank you for all of your stories.

Updated and added information added to a 2013 post

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Chuck Close: An Artist for Our Times (July 5)

Happy Birthday Chuck Close

Chuck Close • Photo Credit: Gianfranco Gorgoni

Chuck Close (b. July 5, 1940)

Today is the birthday of Chuck Close - a contemporary artist who paints large massive scale portraits of a variety of subjects.  His work is famous for its photorealism quality.  His highly inventive  -- mosaic like -- technique for painting portraits grew out of his need to remember faces.  He has prosopagnosia — an inability for face recognition.  But he is not only a portrait painter but a printmaker, photographer, and tapestries.  In 2000, President Clinton presented him with the prestigious National Medal of Arts.

His career in the art field was formally acknowledged when his work was displayed in the University of Massachusetts Art Gallery in Amherst, MA in the early months of 1967.  Since that time his work has been the subject of many gallery exhibits.  In 1988, Close was in New York to present an award; afterwords he had a seizure, a spinal artery burst.  When he awoke in the hospital he was a quadriplegic.  Extensive therapy helped him regain the ability to paint.  He uses a brush-holding device strapped to his wrist and forearm and has constructed a sophisticated pulley system that allows him to move his canvases into place.  Recently the New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that they have commissioned Close to produce a series of 10-foot-tall mosaics for the future subway station at 86th Street and Second Avenue.  The goal of his work is to "reflect the riding population: old people, young people, people of color, Asians."  The basis of his work will be the photographs of artists that he has taken throughout his career.
Seducitve: Bill Clinton by Chuck Close
Bill Clinton, 2006, Oil on canvas, 108 1/2 x 84 in.
From the book Chuck Close: Work, by Christopher Finch

His work has included well-known subjects such as composer Philip Glass, whose portrait Close painted and showed in 1969 and has become one of Close's most recognized pieces. But he has painted other well-known subjects as well, choreographer Merce Cunningham and former President Bill Clinton, and others.   One of my favorites is the portrait of Clinton which was the subject of an interview by Alastair Brooke for 'The Telegraph" (06 October 2007).

Christopher Finch has written a comprehensive book about Close and his work, in Chuck Close: Work (Prestel Publishing, 2007)

Two books written for a young audience include:
Close, Chuck.  Chuck Close: Face Book. With Amanda Freymann and Joan Sommers.  (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012) and Greenberg, Jan and Sandra Jordan. Chuck Close: Up Close. (DK Children, 1998)
Close, Chuck.  Chuck Close: Face Book.
With Amanda Freymann and Joan Sommers.
(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012)
Greenberg, Jan and Sandra Jordan.
Chuck Close: Up Close.
(DK Children, 1998)
Finch, Christopher. Chuck Close: Work (Prestel Publishing, 2007)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day Moment

Civil War Statue donated by Thomas S. Simons in
honor of Civil War Soldiers
Statue is in place at Evergreen Cemetery
Delhi, Delaware County, Iowa
When public funding did not raise money
for this memorial statue, Thomas S. Simons
donated the funds to erect the statue.

Memorial Day Moment -
Civil War Statue in Evergreen Cemetery in Delhi, Delaware County.
Civil War Statue erected in memory of the service of Civil War soldiers.  Statue was funded by Thomas S. Simons (1839- 03 Apr 1919) who served with his father (George)   Co. K 21 Iowa Inf.  Thomas S. Simons was the brother of John Edward (1846-1914). John Edward was the father of Thomas Harold Simons (1887-1951) who became the father of Mary Simons McElmeel (1905-2013).  Mary McElmeel was the grandmother to the McElmeel children (Mike, Deborah, Tom, Steve, Matt, and Suzanne),  making this Civil War Soldier and the benefactor who honored his fellow Civil War Soldiers, their great-great-great uncle.

From the US Department of Veterans Affairs:
"Memorial Day History
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

World Book Night - April 23, 2014

Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein

This basket of books will be distributed on April 23, 2014 in honor of World Book Night -- 

Q. What is World Book Night?
A. World Book Night is an annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person.  Each year on April 23 –Shakespeare’s birthday tens of thousands of people in the U.S. go out into their communities and give a total of half a million free World Book Night paperbacks to light and non-readers.

I am one of those ten of thousands of people who will go forth on April 23, 2014 and distribute 20 of the half-a-million books.  My chosen title is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Disney Hyperion, 2012).  Elizabeth Wein is an author who writes a WWII tale of a secret agent “Verity” who is arrested by the Gestapo. She thinks she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.  They'll get the truth out of her.  But it won’t be what they expect.
As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from a merciless and ruthless enemy? 
  Read the book - comment here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lunching with Peter (Rabbit) and Alice (in Wonderland)

A Luncheon

On April 5, 2014 - a local church invited hosts to decorate tables and to invite six of their friends to share a community luncheon. I decided to host two tables and in wanting to make a statement, I choose two literary themes. One was Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and the other featured Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Here's a peek at the table finery.

Alice in Wonderland
Alice's table featured a mix-matched table setting, but with coordinated dishes in a blue, burnt orange, and taupe.  The plates had a scroll design while the plates (blue or burnt orange) were solid color but with a scalloped edge of sorts. 
The blue/orange/yellow stripped boxes were nut cups, blue napkins, and blue glasses with blue/white striped straws.

In the center of the table was the opened pop-up book created by Robert Sabuda.
It's a marvelous book with 24 pop-ups through out the book.  This page is my personal favorite and The book is often used as a coffee table piece during evenings when friends come to play a favorite card game - Five Crowns.
Although I did not get them for this luncheon, I did find very large playing cards that, if laminated would make great place mats or decorative pieces for a more casual party.  Cards 8-1/4" x 11-3/4" are available at and the same home site has even larger (Colossal Playing Cards) 10-1/2"W x 14-1/2"H available. 
The tea cup tower was comprised of consignment shop pieces of mismatched cups and saucers - with one teacup with the same design as the cups used with the dinner ware but in a different style.  A miniature "Alice" sits under the garden flowers which were places in a blue mason jar.  Along side Alice is a miniature tea pot in a diamond blue/violet pattern.  Also slightly hidden behind the individual vases with a single flower is a tea for one in a Alice in Wonderland motif.  Tea for one sets are convenient sugar and creamer containers for special luncheons/dinners. There are several variations available.  I found mine at Barnes & Noble and it has a white rabbit on the lid.  Others online are similar but I have not found others with the white rabbit.

Each guest was given a swag bag that contained a note book, a magnetic list pad, a copy of Alice in Wonderland to either savor or gift to a young reader.  I found the books for a bargain price at Michael's (the craft store).  Can't find them online but did come across a delightful DIY Alice in Wonderland Birdhouse Mobile -- Someone would have to DIFM (do it for me) if I were to have this -- but a crafty patient person could have a delightful piece.  There was a wildflower seed packet in each swag bag.  A template for the Alice and the Peter wildflower seed packet will be at the end of this blog.

Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit
Plain eggshell white tableware with a beaded pattern around the edge as used with a cup embellished with a Peter Rabbit motif.
In the center was a basket and potted plant, a tin bucket with paper carrot or two.  A popup book  - Peter Rabbit's Lucky Escape was showcased in the table center.
Along with a tea for one featuring the Beatrix Potter characters around the edge.

These bags were found at the Dollar Store; the fabric flowers (as were the ones used on the Alice bags) were found at Michael's.  Each bag contained a copy of The Tale of Beatrix Potter, a Peter Rabbit notebook, a grocery list and a wildflower seed packet very similar to the swag put in the Alice bag.

The flower motif nut cuts were found in a package of 8 at the dollar store.  

Here are the templates for the seed packets.  Click on the picture to get the full sized image, print on standard copy paper.

I purchased the seed in bulk from my local garden shop and then created the packet to picture each of the flowers that were contained in the mixture. There were other tables with other non-literary themes. Watch for another blog post showing some of the other possibilities.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Max Visits Our Blog and Makes a Cake

Max Makes a Cake by Michelle Edwards, with illustrations by Charles Santosa.  

Max's family is preparing for the Passover Seder.  He knows the four questions in both English and Hebrew -- but first he has to make his mother a birthday cake.  His father is supposed to help but he is busy taking care of Max's little sister.  Max's patience is wearing thin, as he waits and waits.  But then his ingenuity kicks in.  He has the solution — a solution that he can handle all on his own.  

The shining star of this book is the spot on text that describes Max Osher's gentle impatience with the delays in his making the planned cake, and the seamless manner that the author is able to put in bits and pieces of Jewish culture into her books.  I featured one of her earlier books Room for Baby in two blog posts on Author, Author, and an Illustrator or Two (Post 1) (Post 2).  In Room for Baby Edwards was able to walk readers through the highlights of the Jewish calendar all the while giving us a great story about a mother who recycles and reuses anything she can.  A delightful story that just happens to include a Jewish family.  So to is this new book, Max Makes a Cake.  In this title Edwards is able to give readers a bit of information about more traditions in the life of a Jewish child.  While surely young readers will pick up on the theme of the Passover Seder the story itself is universal and will resonant with children of all faiths.  Max Makes a Cake is a must have in any library (public or school) that serves young readers ages 2-8.

Good books always promote curiosity about ideas in the book  -- and since much of the culture related information was new to me, I was curious about some things. Michelle agreed to answer some questions for me (and for you who might have some of the same curiosity).
I wondered how the story began—what seeds brought about the telling?  What were the four questions of Passover?  And was there really a Passover cake mix available?  Here are Michelle Edwards's responses.
Max Makes a Cake: The Four Questions and the Passover Cake Mix
by Michelle J. Edwards

After many years of toying with a story I called "A Cake for Mama,"  I found myself writing a Passover story. I had started "A Cake for Mama" when my children were very young and I was close to their day-to-day triumphs and frustrations. The story was a part of an illustrated collection of stories and poems called Now We are Three. The book starred a little girl, who happened to be Jewish. I named her Meera, after my oldest daughter.

Now We Are Three was ready for production at a large publishing house when my editor found out her imprint was being folded into another one. The editor who inherited the project decided to pass on it. Slowly, over decades, I have picked at the individual pieces of the book and reworked them into independent stories.

Rethinking and exploring the spunky main character of "A Cake for Mama" brought me to Max.  As I wrote the opening anchoring paragraph for Max Makes a Cake, it occurred to me that, in addition to Max being an expert at getting dressed and almost a master at tying his shoes, he also “knew the Four Questions for Passover in Hebrew and English.”  With that discovery, Max and the Passover version of my cake story, evolved.

So, in writing Max Makes a Cake with Passover references, I had to make sure that the story still triumphed. I didn’t want the reader to be bogged down by the unfamiliar. Max offers simple explanations for The Four Questions for Passover, the Passover story, and matzo, the unleavened cracker-like bread eaten at Passover. Nevertheless, a curious young reader might take note of Max’s explanations and have more questions. Opening up one’s world to new cultures will do that.

To give you and your readers a jump start in your Max-inspired research, I offer the following information about The Four Questions for Passover and the special Passover cake mix Max and his dad bought at the supermarket.

1) The Four Questions For Passover:

The Four Questions are the same question asked four times:
Why is this night different than all other nights?

Each answer is different, but they all relate to the Passover story, the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Jews are commanded to tell this story every year at Passover.

Why is this night different than all other nights?

The First Answer: Because on all other nights we eat bread or matzah, but on this night, we eat only unleavened bread, matza. (Matzo is the bread of affliction, slavery.)

The Second Answer: On all other nights, we eat any type of herb, but on this night we eat maror. (Maror is bitter, like slavery.)

The Third Answer: On all other nights, we do not dip our    herbs once, but tonight we dip them twice.(The dip is salty water, like the tears shed during slavery.)

The Fourth Answer:
On all other nights, we sit straight in our chairs to eat our meals, on this we recline.(Reclining is a luxury of a free people.)

The Four Questions for Passover are traditionally chanted by the youngest able child at the Passover Seder.  The Four Questions for Passover are sung in Hebrew by Leah onYouTube at
Leah Singing Passover 4 Questions.

2. The Passover Cake Mix

Max and Daddy buy a special cake mix because on Passover Jews are forbidden to use leavening agents, like baking powder or yeast. Although there are ways to bake a cake without them, it’s more complicated. Passover Cake mixes are handy and easy.   

Max’s inventive cake, built by layering matzo with a jam and cream cheese frosting, resembles the matzo layer cakes I first ate when I lived in Israel. They are quite yummy and simple enough for a child to make. To add a little sweetness to your Max reading, try The Shiksa in the Kitchen’s EasyNo-Bake Chocolate Matzo Cake at


 As I finished thinking about Max Makes a Cake I couldn't help but think about some thoughts running through my head.  How clever of the author, she manages to integrate information about the Jewish culture into a very fun book to read with young readers.  In that respect Edwards is similar to Tomie DePaola who broke a barrier by including bits and pieces of Catholicism in his books, including, Merry Christmas Strega Nona.  Jane Kurtz is another pioneer in this area in her recent title Anna Was Here.  In that title the chief protagonist deals with all the trauma of a ten-year-old moving to a new home, but Anna has to do it while in a family with a very public person in the community—the new minister in town is her father.

And another thought - I can't wait to try making the Chocolate Matzo Cake -- I wonder if  I am able to buy Matzo at the store?  Well I am about to find out.  Isn't it fun what even a picture book can teach you while entertaining you too? Well-written picture books know no age limits.   Thanks Michelle - you've given us a great book to share with readers of all faiths.  Knowledge about one another's beliefs and traditions promotes acceptance and respect of one another and helps us know how much we are alike.


Michelle Edwards is a popular speaker in schools and libraries and brings much inspiration for reading and writing.  She is also a master knitter and has written a superb book The Knitter's Home Companion  (see an earlier blog post about this book)— All this in addition to being the author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays and cards for knitters. In addition to the titles mentioned early in this blog post, Edwards's picture book titles include Chicken Man, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Michelle lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her husband, a house full of books, yarn, and the artifacts of their three daughter's childhoods. Her next picture book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman will be published in 2016 by Schwartz and Wade and illustrated by Brian Karas. I can't wait for that one.

Join Michelle Edward on these stopping spots:   Facebook   Twitter   Pinterest

Next stop on Max's (and author Michelle Edwards's) tour is tomorrow -- stop by at The Brown Girl with Long Hair/ Interview -  March 10, 2014. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Anna Was Here by Jane Kurtz - A BLOG STOP

First Stop on Author Jane Kurtz's Blog Tour

Jane Kurtz is a well-known author of books for children and young adults.  She has written many books (read all about her earlier titles on her website) and she works tirelessly for literacy in her childhood homeland - Ethiopia.  In 2011 she was honored with the Kerlan Award.  To the left she is shown with her friend Mary Casanova who was among those who attended the Kerlan award ceremony.
And just as authors often make the rounds of talk shows to promote their new book, we've invited Jane to stop at our "talk show" - blog to talk to us about her newest title Anna Was Here (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2013). Anna Was Here debuted in August to rave comments. The book introduces us to Anna, a fourth grader, and her family as they move from Colorado to rural Kansas. And as if the move is not enough to cope with, she must also deal with the move as the daughter of the new minister in town. School Library Journal's review said, "Anna must try to navigate her family's history, fit into a new community, and prepare for natural disasters, all while figuring out what God has planned for her and Midnight H. Cat." And Elisabeth Egan writing in the New York Times said, "Jane Kurtz's timeless and sweetly funny middle-grade novel…delivers a gentle, optimistic story about a devout family whose spirituality functions as both a safety net and an umbrella (a must-have in Kansas)." I found the humor in this book to be a smile rich narrative about a 10-year-old who can't fathom how she will survive the move -- but her apprehension about a new situation will be one that many readers will be able to relate to.

We had a few questions we wanted to ask Jane about her book, Anna Was Here.  Jane was gracious enough to take time to visit our blog and answer our questions.

Anna Was Here introduces us to 10-year-old Anna and her struggles in a new town (state).  Many young readers have experienced similar experiences but Anna’s struggle was complicated by the fact that her father was the new minister in town.  Other children have situations that complicate their struggles as well.  Of all the complications that you could have written into the plot why did you choose the minister father as a factor?

      Stories come from mysterious places but when I look back—as I tell students about their own ideas—I can pretty much say any story of mine came from 1) memory, 2) observation/real-life experience (something going on at the time), or 3) research.  Long ago when I wrote a first draft of Anna Was Here, my story welled up inside me based on that second way of generating ideas.  When two of my kids were about Anna’s age, we moved from Colorado to North Dakota, spending the first week in Kansas.  The cat really did spend the whole trip under the seat.  And my kids’ father is a minister.  My own dad is a minister, too, but since he chose to spend most of his career in Ethiopia, my material for what it’s like for a minister’s family in a Midwestern town came more from observing my own kids. 

Truthfully, I was a little afraid that maybe no publisher would touch a story of a minister’s family, but when I took this story out, many years after I first wrote it, and wrote a new first chapter and talked it over with my editor, she liked that element and encouraged me to finish it.  The new version might not have even one sentence from the original version but it still is based on that long-ago trip and some of my kids’ observations about church and about life as a preacher’s kid.
     Your sense of humor certainly comes through in Anna’s spunky personality.  Were any of these bits of humor taken from events in your own life (or perhaps the lives of your children/family)?

      Both.  Details, too, come from 1) memory, 2) observation and 3) research.  Students ask me, “What about imagination?”  It’s hard to explain, but first I have to have a strong sensation of being inside a real person’s brain—Anna’s brain, in this case.  Her way of looking at the world comes from both me and my kids.  Then, in any scene, something she thinks or says might be something I’ve said or thought, might be something one of my kids said or thought, or could be totally made up, but it still comes from an outlook that is rooted in real life.  An example of research is when Anna overhears a parent whisper, “This song was written one hundred and fifty years ago.  People have been going to church for two thousand years.”  That’s a comment I actually overheard in church while I was working on Anna Was Here, and I knew Anna would have a funny thought in response to it.
There is another bit in Anna Was Here that came from my niece’s Facebook page:  "Advice that I would give a new teacher is 6th graders are awesome. Ms. Kurtz is awesome too but sometimes were just to much awesomeness for her to handle. Dont let your students over awesomenize you." -6th Grader

       In the N.Y. Times  November 11, 2013 - Elisabeth Egan called Anna Was Here  "a moving-day classic,"  and compared its gentleness to Sydney Taylor’s "All-of-a-Kind Family" series, and others compared Anna Was Here to books by Katherine Paterson.  How do you feel about having Anna in such company?

     Can I answer that question once I get down from the ceiling?  Actually, the entire review was a jolt of joy from which I may never recover.

     Somewhere in my head I have a title for a sequel to Anna Was Here.  I can not find any information about that.  Is there going to be a sequel?  Will we get to learn more about Anna’s life in another book?

     In my experience, sequels are not something that authors have much control over.  In my own brain, I have a little family that is related—Lanie, the character I made up for the American Girl doll of the year in 2010, Anna, and the character in the book I’m working on right now.  They are all about the same age.  They all come to love the earth and its plants.  They all come to a new understanding of family and their place in it.  But whether Anna herself will go on is an open question right now.

      In part of the book Anna’s mom is gone taking care of her grandparents.  What was your writer’s reason for absenting Anna’s mother from Anna’s new home?

     Anna’s parents are loving and full of guidance—as we all hope parents everywhere can be—but in a middle grade novel, an author has to let his or her characters come out from under parental wings to find their own way in the world.  Even kids from very warm, wise families can feel as if they are on their own.  I grew up in a warm and wise family that nonetheless sent me off to boarding school when I was Anna’s age so that I spent most of the year every year in the capital city of Ethiopia while they lived in a remote southwest village.  So I needed to see how and what Anna would do if her mom wasn’t around and her dad was feeling worried and distracted by his new role in a small town church. 

      Why Kansas?

     The answer is a combination of #1 and #2 from above.  I was living in Kansas, where I spent 9 years of my recent life, while I was working on Anna Was Here.  So I was able to find details in real life observation, including lavender and emus.  My husband grew up on a farm in Kansas, so I was also able to use memory and family stories.  Although I made up Oakwood, I had a lot of fun talking to my husband about farm life and the history of his mostly Mennonite community—and I know a lot about how scary and unpredictable the weather on the Great Plains can feel, as if the earth is shaking and ready to fall apart.  

     And before I knew it Jane was on to her next blog stop -- and I had missed asking her about that next book that she is working on.  Perhaps she will talk about it on one of her next stops on her tour.  Be sure to check out her other stops -- and get your own copy of Anna Was Here.  It's a great book to share with young learners.  Check her website for her next stops.