Helen

New book, new baby, new hobby–February 10, 2024

As we prepare to welcome THE MIGHTY POLLINATORS in just a few weeks, I am busy with preparations for school and library visits and in-person conferences. After a cold and icy winter interval, it will be wonderful to be out and about again, meeting readers of all ages. And perhaps with this one, meeting gardeners as well, encouraging them to plant gardens with the intention of helping pollinators.

Can anything be better than welcoming a new book? Well, yes, actually, there is something: A new baby! Born on Christmas Eve in Austin, Texas, a little grandson to celebrate and cherish.

As if it’s an integral part of this new identity, I am taking a crochet class, and enjoying the delights and challenges of learning something new. Initially I found it confusing and frustrating, but after a few weeks, I have learned enough basics that it’s becoming fun. Sometimes I make a mistake and look at it, thinking, “Oh, that’s how you do that!” (Unintentionally learning a new stitch.) I’m finding that crocheting is something like writing–one word/one stitch at a time leads to a pattern I may have been trying to achieve, or it may lead to something unplanned and intriguing, possibly even beautiful.

Learning something new always reminds me of the years I spent as a teacher–when I can’t do something everyone else seems to be picking up easily, I remember children in my classrooms who were learning to read and write, and sometimes seemed baffled at the ease with which others could master those mysterious skills. Such memories encourage me to keep at it, whatever the current challenge may be.

HumanKIND January 24, 2023

I’ve been reading a book that re-affirms lots of things I’ve believed and done and written about through the years. The book, HUMANKIND:A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman, is a carefully researched confirmation of the goodness of humanKIND. It debunks much of what we think we know about the uncaring ways people treat one another, and makes a solid claim that we should redefine what we mean by “realistic.” We can change the cynical view that “realistically” people are programmed for war, bullying, greed, and selfishness, to the well-documented truth that most people would rather be kind, generous, and peaceful. In example after example, he demonstrates how research bears out this more hopeful point of view.

In one example, he gives evidence that in war, most soldiers actually prefer not to kill, and will often purposely misfire so as to spare the life of the “enemy” they have been trained to kill. This is exactly the scenario I imagined in CROSSING STONES, when Ollie comes home from World War I alive, but missing part of one arm, and realizes that the German soldier he faced in the trenches decided to “disarm” him, while sparing his life.

Bregnan also discusses schools, and this took me back to my years as a teacher at Kilquhanity House, a school in Scotland, where students and staff together determined how the school would be run. And to my years teaching at a one-teacher school in Alaska where school and community–parents, teacher, and students–worked together for the well-being of all.

With some 50 pages of notes, it is hard to argue (and why would I want to try?), with his closing suggestion: “So be realistic. Do good in broad daylight, and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. You may be dismissed as gullible and naive at first. But remember, what’s naive today may be common sense tomorrow.”

New Light for Long-Ago “Failure”

December 14, 2021


In the spring of 1971, I got permission to do my student teaching at a progressive elementary school in London, England. It was based on the concept of the “Integrated Day,” a project-based method of teaching, where students engage in lots of different activities that require a mix of science, social studies, math, reading, writing, and art, as well as lots of sharing of what they are learning.

The classrooms in that school were messy and noisy and effective and I loved it. On the basis of that experience, I was hired for my first teaching job, in Hingham, Massachusetts the following fall. But when I tried to create the kind of classroom I envisioned, my enthusiasm was met with resistance I wasn’t yet strong/ brave/ smart enough to meet, and under considerable pressure, I resigned in mid-October. I’ve always thought of it (felt it) as a personal failure, not entirely my fault, but not a good foundation on which to launch a teaching career. In the years since, I’ve been a successful teacher and writer, and that first feeling of failure has faded. I’m left with good memories of the children I taught and the community of Hingham, and I sometimes wonder about who those children have grown to be.

Then, the other day, I opened an email from one of the 6th graders in that class, asking if I was the Helen Frost she remembered. When I confirmed that I am, she wrote an amazing email to me, remembering my brief time in that classroom:

“I loved the way you dressed. I loved your enthusiasm! I knew you cared deeply for all of us! I was heartbroken when you left! … you made an impact that I will always cherish! You gave me so much!”

She remembered that I rode my bike to school and that I once came to her home for dinner. (I had let the parents know I’d welcome such invitations, and many of them did invite me.)

I’m touched and grateful that this long-ago student sought me out 50 years later to let me know she had become a teacher, and that she remembered me with such warm affection. (I haven’t asked her to describe the way I dressed…hmmm, it was 1971, I can imagine.)

My wish for you, for all of us, this season is: May all our failures be fruitful! We really have no way of knowing whose lives we may have touched, and how we are remembered.

April 12, 2021

Spring flowers are everywhere and it’s National Poetry Month, so there is plenty of beauty to be seen and appreciated all around me. I planted new bulbs last fall and they are blooming now,  joining the annual parade of crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, tulips–iris and peonies will arrive a little later, and lilies later still. Over the years, I’ve come to know which ones to expect each week as spring progresses.

And we are at last, I hope, beginning to emerge from this long year of Covid restrictions and cancellations. I’m optimistically planning for events a year from now, looking forward to gathering with other writers, with friends and family.

Not so happy is the news from friends in Myanmar/Burma. People are suffering under a military government that forcefully took power just before the democratically elected government would have been sworn in. Because we have friends there, we hear first hand reports of brutality against citizens who dare to protest. Children, poets, journalists, and students are among those who have been detained and killed. It is difficult to know what actions or words are helpful, beyond assurances that “we see you.”

Bluebirds came in early January, and are still here, looking now for nesting sites. This is the longest time we have seen them at our feeders. So far, they are unsuccessful in fending off the “hosp” or house sparrows for the birdhouses we have put up. Someone suggested ways of making the birdhouses inhospitable to sparrows, and I wondered if that pun was intended.

 

January 16, 2021 Award News!

I opened my email on Wednesday morning and found a message from Deborah Stevenson telling me that ALL HE KNEW is the winner of the 2021 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Such wonderful news: a committee of three people whose opinion I value greatly had decided that I was the winner of an award that has been given, over the past 40 years, to many other books I admire. I was awed that this committee had placed me and my book into that company.

It was a secret for a little while, and that was lovely. It gave me time to sit quietly with the news and with the book. I wonder if other authors do this: I read the book from beginning to end, including the jacket flaps, the copyright page, the story itself, right through to the last acknowledgment–thinking about each person who had helped bring the book into being, about Maxine and her brother, and their mother, remembering how I had first been touched by their story. Appreciating the power of poetry, the strength of story. I held the book, and felt, in this affirmation from others, yes, this book holds its own. Isn’t that a beautiful expression? To hold what is your own, to stand in the company of others on solid footing.

It is, for me, a gratitude, a deep calm breathing.

May 26, 2020

What a strange spring this has been, and now it’s summer.

Thank you, teachers, parents, students, friends–everyone who has shifted gears so suddenly and made learning possible these past weeks. I’ve received quite a few letters from children who are reading my books and I’m so glad to see what they notice and tell me about. I’ll share a few excerpts:

Carter writes about SALT, “I love your book! Before we read it, I picked Little Turtle as my famous Hoosier. When I opened up the book I was so excited it took place in Kekionga and with the Miami tribe.”

Marin, also writing about SALT, especially loves the “..small poems included after every section. The poem I love the most is Salt Streaks. I don’t know how to even describe it. It is just amazing. Another small poem I love is The Deer’s Heart because you put the words in a sideways heart. It is sort of sad for the deer though.”

Amalya, writing about HIDDEN, says, “The book you wrote, Hidden, is by far the best book I have ever read. I read this book 5 times. It is written fantastically. I like this book because of how things like this could happen maybe not exactly like this but quite similar. I felt bad for Wren because of the anxiety it put me through. I can’t imagine what she went through; I know it is just a book, but it felt so real. … In the end, I liked how Darra and Wren met again at camp, I think that is what makes this so much better than the other books.”

And Renee, a mom reading HIDDEN with her daughter at home, writes, “I bought the book Hidden for my oldest daughter when she was 11.  She and I both loved it.  Now my littlest daughter is 11.  I love to read books with or before my girls do so I can discuss them.” She had a question about the book and took the time to write to me. I thought that was amazing. What a great example of parent-turned-teacher.

Thank you and congratulations to all the teachers, parents, and students who have made this school year work as well as possible. It’s been hard, I know, and you’ve done it.

As for me, I have enjoyed the time at home, reading, writing, cleaning, gardening, though I miss going out in the wider world as much as I used to. Now that summer is here, I’m seeing flowers and insects and other creatures return as they do every summer. A milkweed plant that popped up near a small rosebush last summer has come back bigger than ever, and I am happy to think of the monarchs on their way to meet it.

My hope for the milkweed and the rosebush is that, like all of us, they will be able to live side-by-side, neither of them overwhelming the other as they bring their gifts to the beautiful world.

I hope you all remain in good health, and that you will have time for leisurely summer reading.

Are You Home?

March 26, 2020

Many of you (teachers, students, librarians, parents, others) are having school at home for a few weeks. It’s not what any of us have planned on, and we are all missing things we were looking forward to. Here are a few ideas of things you might do to keep learning while you are out of school.

Is your library closed? Ours is, and I miss it–I will appreciate it more when it opens again. You can find a lot of stories and information online, and if you have books at home that you have already read,  you may be able to trade books with friends so you all have books that are new to you.

And this may be a great time to write stories and poems of your own and share them with others (or keep them in a private journal). Here are a few ideas of things to write about:

*What is happening outdoors?

If you live in a city, is it quieter than usual? What do you hear that you’re not used to hearing?

If you have a place to observe nature, keep a journal of one tree or smaller plant–on what date do you see buds of leaves or flowers? On what date do the leaves fully open? How about the flowers? What insects live on or near the plant? Do they crawl, or fly, or both? Do you ever see birds or animals near the plant? What is their relationship with it?

*What is happening indoors?

Do you have parents at home? Sisters and brothers? Pets? Write down conversations or other interactions you may have with them. Do you have grandparents you can talk to? Ask them to tell you about something that happened in the news before you were born. What questions do you have about it? Someday your children or grandchildren may ask you what this pandemic was like–imagine what questions they might ask, and write down your answers. Save them–they’ll be interesting to read in a few years.

A friend recently sent me some letters I wrote to her about 30 years ago, and it was fun to “meet” my younger self. She (younger me) made me laugh and think about things I hadn’t thought about for a long time. And “she” shared a joke that my son told when he was in elementary school. Maybe it will be new to you and you can share it with people in your house (or save it for when you go back to school and everyone is excited about being together again):

What do you call something that sits on the ocean floor and shakes?

Think about it for a minute, and then if you give up, scroll down for the answer.

 

 

 

a nervous wreck

Trip to Myanmar

friends in Mawlamyine

with friends in Myanmar

January 22, 2020

 

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Myanmar (Burma), and have recovered from jet lag. It is a long trip, but so well worth the time and effort.

My city, Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a Friendship City with Mawlamyine, and this is the third time I have been there. The friendships we have established are substantial, especially among the students and university faculty who have spent time in the two cities.

On this trip, after one week in Mawlamyine, we stayed for another week to learn more about other places in the country we had heard so much about (Bagan, Pindaya, Inle Lake, Yangon).

Bagan is a place of beauty–old pagodas in a landscape that glows in the evening light, a newly built monastery made of petrified wood, a laquerware workshop–I’ll try to update this entry with more details and photographs soon. I want to write more about all the places we visited and people we met.

For now, I am preparing for the launch of Blue Daisy in just a few weeks, and reading through galleys of All He Knew. This will be an exciting year!

 

Walking to School

August 25, 2019

I love this time of year, as summer days grow cooler, and monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises and head south. I think back to my childhood in Brookings, South Dakota, where this turn of the seasons meant “back to school.” And that meant walking to school with sisters and friends. We walked through an alley where, for some reason, a huge bell had been abandoned. We named the bell “Old Nellie” and we’d ring it and run away before anyone could come out and yell at us. We also kept an eye out for “the chasers” a group of boys about our age who liked to chase us, but rarely caught up with us. There was a  lot of teasing banter between the boys and the girls, and I wasn’t very good at it.

“Hey, look, Frost is wearing her big brother’s raincoat,” taunted one of the boys.

“I don’t have a big brother,” I shot back.

“Oh, your father had it when he was a little boy?”

I definitely lost that one–I hated the raincoat to begin with, and that just confirmed how awful it was.

These memories of the streets and alleys on our way to school came to mind as I imagined the landscape of Blue Daisy. I now have Advance Readers’ Copies, and I love how Rob Shepperson has depicted the community and the place so that it feels both contemporary and nostalgic.

Blue Daisy will come out as an audiobook, published by Recorded Books, and maybe some readers will listen to it as they follow along with a print copy so they can enjoy the delightful illustrations.