September 30, 2014

Gregory Thiesen found my poem “Shore” in Sam Hamill’s 2003 anthology, “Poets Against the War” and wrote this music. (The poem can also be found in my book, “as if a dry wind”.) There’s a recording of it on this website if you want to listen. It sounds just like the birds looked.

September 29, 2014

Speaking to students at South High School in Worcester, Massachusetts last week, I realized that I wrote KEESHA’S HOUSE before many of them were born. I was happy to realize that it is holding up through time.

This weekend I will be speaking about HIDDEN to middle school students in Kansas who voted for it to win the William Allen White Award. I’m looking forward to meeting the students and others in Kansas, and to seeing the home of William Allen White. I love the fact that so many states have awards for children’s literature and often name them in honor of those who helped bring children and books together.

I’m looking forward to the publication of SWEEP UP THE SUN, a new collaboration with Rick Lieder, with a publication date of March 10, 2015. This one features birds–in flight and at rest–with a poem celebrating birds and speaking to all the ways we go out into the world to explore.

June 18, 2014

Frances Foster–June 3, 1931-June 9, 2014

I have been so lucky to work with one of the best editors in children’s books for more than ten years. Frances Foster edited seven of my books and taught me, in a completely respectful and gentle way, how to take a book from the seed of an idea to a pull-it-off-the-shelf actual book.

She would ask questions in such a way that I would step back and realize I was on the wrong track (“Helen, do you think you are making this harder than it needs to be, by having a dog musher in a wheelchair for most of the book?” she asked about an early version of Diamond Willow, and I saw that the accident should happen to Roxy, not Willow.) She rarely suggested a way to fix things, just said “I know you can do this.” And even when things were very hard, I always found, eventually, that she was right, I could.

I will be forever grateful that Frances and I had an opportunity to work together and become friends. She is a treasure in my life.

May 8, 2014

I’ve been unable to add to my website for a few months, just got that repaired (helpful online support from GoDaddy–thanks Ryan!).

It was a long winter and now a suddenly beautiful spring. Lilacs about to bloom here, bluebirds in residence (though probably not nesting, as the sparrows seem to have moved into the bluebird house again, after 8 weeks of bluebird ownership).

In book news:

I’m very excited to learn that HIDDEN was selected by 6th-8th graders in Kansas as the winner of the William Allen White Award. 37,000 readers voted in their awards this year, and I’m looking forward to meeting some of them next October.

SALT was short-listed for the Jane Addams Award, which means a lot to me even though it didn’t make it to the final three (winner and two honor books). It’s a huge honor just to know it was carefully considered in that great company. I love that award.

A new collaboration with Rick Lieder, SWEEP UP THE SUN, with gorgeous photographs of birds in flight (and a few settled on branches) is ready to go to press, and will be published next March.

A novel-in-poems for young readers (grades 2-4 or so) is finished, ready to be illustrated and designed, and will be published (probably) Fall, 2016. That title is APPLESAUCE WEATHER.

It’s nice to check in again.

December 22, 2013

Light is returning.

We celebrate family and friendship, and honor all those whose lives have led to ours, have touched ours, or will follow ours.

What a joy to be alive in this moment, in this particular place.

With their permission, I’d like to share two emails I’ve received recently from friends who have known me for a long time and understand my life work.

From Jeff Gundy, poet and essayist, friend for 20 years:

“I just finished SALT, and thought I’d write you a few words while it’s fresh in my mind. I liked it very much, troubling as the story is, and am struck again by just how much this mode you’ve found suits your gifts and your commitments. You’ve figured out how to tell stories, long stories, in a series of short poems, and how to engage younger readers without patronizing them, and how to deal with serious, painful issues and realities, and how to embed your narratives in authentic history and traditions from a whole range of cultures and places . . . and, maybe most important, how to write out of your beliefs about peace and justice without sounding preachy or judgmental in the least. I’m just really struck by how much skill, craft, patience, and moral energy it takes to write a book like this one, and how once again you’ve pulled it off.”

And from Don Mager, a graduate student poetry teacher at Syracuse University when I was an undergraduate, and friend ever since:

“Hello Helen,

Are you besieged by a blizzard? Has ice pulled down your trees and wires?

SALT did not wait long at the top of my stack of books to read. What a marvel! You have mastered the verse novel for adolescents and do it better than anyone I know. What amazing achievements each of your books is.

As a kid and teenager I was an insatiable reader. In my small Iowa farm town of 2000, the children’s room of the library was pretty skimpy. But on the wall of middle-school age books, there were some gems that I read over and over. Biographies of Luther Burbank, Marie Currie and Akhnaten. A wonderful illustrated book called Tim The Dog of the Mountains about an Afghan boy with his herd of mountain goats and his Afghan hound named Tim. He would build a fire and sleep on the mountain while his dog kept the goats from straying. The pictures of the rugged barren mountains and Tim with long silk mane in the wind set my imagination on fire. I named my boyhood dog Tim and for years dreamed of getting an Afghan hound someday. As for poetry, there was scant to none. I read illustrated eidtions of Evangeline and Whittier’s Snowbound. Something strong must have resonated because I can still picture those books. But that was about it for poetry.

Had SALT come in into my hands at, say, age 10 or even 13, I can only imagine how quickly I would have taken it into my heart. There is so much about it that my boyhood imagination would have gobbled up. I was not much of a fantasy reader and I’m sure Harry Potter would have bored me. The Lord of the Rings might have spellbound me. In general, I liked stories about “real ” people, but a touch of historical, cultural or geographical strangeness fascinated. A. E. Rolvag’s Giants In The Earth about Norwegian homesteaders in Minnesota was my favorite book for several years.

Here are some of the things that an 11 year old Don Mager would have loved in SALT. The story unfolds swiftly and with astonishing suspense for as little actual action as there is. Each couple poems is a leap forward in the narrative. So many gaps to fill. So much good work for a young imagination. I love your mastery of what to tell and what to leave untold. 11 year old Don would have loved it too. The brushed in strokes of another language and the vast cultural difference another language forces one to confront. 11 year old Don would have worked to get his pronunciation of those magical words down pat. Some he would have memorized and repeated in his mind while riding his bike delivering papers on his early morning paper route. The map and the historical events would have sent him to the encyclopedia, and as with wikipedia’s version of the Battle of Fort Wayne, he would have been offended by the “American” bias. He would have loved walking along in his mind through the woods, hearing birds, watching for deer and losing all track of time. And most powerfully, he would have been fully engrossed in the mystery, suspense and sadness of friendship with its attempts at connection and mutual understanding and failures of communication and painful misunderstandings. The actual language barrier between Anikwa and James is such an amazing metaphor for all the fraught communication issues of adolescence.

The boyhood Don would have had this book on his favorite book list for quite awhile. I am sure that there must be thousands of similar boys now who will do the same if they are fortunate to have Salt come into their hands by some inexplicable serendipity.


The 71 year old Don”

Don’t I have good friends?

To each of you, coming to this little corner of the internet universe, by whatever search has brought you here, I send love and gratitude, and wish you well in everything you do. May you find vitality in your work and play, and may your friends and family love you more than you think you deserve, which I hope is a lot!

Literary Lights

I’ve just returned from a week in Massachusetts, where I spent three days at South High School in Worcester, for the fifth year in a row–great school, wonderful principal, (Maureen Binienda) and excellent teachers and students.

Then I spent the weekend in Boston, where I received a “Literary Lights for Children” award from the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

Here is what I said when I received the award, after being introduced by Kajayla Boyd, a poised and beautiful 8th grader from Beacon Academy:

Literary Lights for Children

September 29, 2013, Boston Public Library

Thank you, Kajayla, for that thoughtful and beautiful introduction, and thanks to everyone who has made this day possible.

When Kajayla wrote to me, her questions were interesting and perceptive, and I found myself thinking about them even after I’d answered her.

For example: “Does your past,” she asked, “strongly influence your current writing? If so how?”

That question led me back to my earliest influences, the voices of my parents.

My father was a great story-teller. I was one of ten children, and almost every day, usually late afternoon while my mother was making supper, my father would sit in his big green chair and we would all clamber onto his lap or lean against the arms and back of his chair, or maybe peek around a doorway so he didn’t know we were listening—because if you were in the room, he would name a character after you, and often those character descriptions were not exactly flattering.

I might be hiding behind the door, and he would catch a glimpse of an elbow sticking out, and I would hear, “Then who do you suppose came clomping down the road? A big old clumsy mule named…HELEN.” I would come running out from behind the door, and punch my dad in the arm, and then—I’d settle in with my sisters to listen to the rest of the story. I acted mad, but here’s a secret—it meant something to me to know that my father knew I was there, knew I was listening. I was included.

And my mother—when she was not busy in the kitchen, and sometimes when she was—had a head full of poems that she often recited for us. We might be walking to the mailbox together, our shadows dancing along in front of us, and she would begin, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see.” It wasn’t long before we could say the entire poem along with her.

I look back at those years, and I see the roots of many aspects of my writing: the rhythms and rhymes of language as my mother spoke out loud the poems she knew by heart, the intricacies of plot as the stories rolled out of my father’s mind, a new story every day.

Now I trust that stories will come to me, and I write them down with special attention to the sound and shape of the language.

I know everyone does not grow up in the same kind of home I did. I imagine my young readers from their different homes and backgrounds, and I drop little hints to let them know I see them, even if they are hiding behind the door, so to speak. There’s no need to hide, I suggest, come on in. You are included.

This afternoon, I love to look out and see that so many of you have come in close. I catch a glimpse of stories and poems that are beginning in you now, and look forward with great joy to seeing how they will find their full expression.

September 9, 2013

This is the time of year that the story in SALT took place, and as I’ve been spending a lot of time preserving the apples from our tree–a huge harvest this year–I’ve been thinking a lot about what it must have meant for people to have worked so hard to put up a winter’s supply of food, only to see it destroyed.

Here is an interesting blog entry describing another aspect of this time of year in the Myaamia community,

the Grass-burning moon.”

July 5, 2013

Summer is a time for new life, and each year I learn to see more and more of it as it emerges all around me.

A few weeks ago, I was clipping dill from my garden into a salad, and I saw a “bug”–because I’d seen a swallowtail laying eggs on queen anne’s lace a few years ago, and observed it through all the stages from egg to butterfly, I recognized this little bug as a tiny swallowtail caterpillar. I fed it more dill, and some fennel and queen anne’s lace, and the day before yesterday, it emergd from its chrysalis as a beautiful black swallowtail!

I’ve put up a wren house for several years now, and this year, for the first time, a pair of wrens made a nest in it and raised babies. I never saw them, but I often heard them peeping inside the birdhouse. I’ve enjoyed watching the parents’ frequent comings and goings, and then today, noting the absence of such activity (and no peeping), I looked inside and saw an empty nest. Those birds know what they’re doing–how to keep attention away from the fledglings as they first learn to fly!

May 17, 2013

These past three months have been very full–new friends and old, and new book ideas simmering as I talk with readers about earlier books.

SALT is almost ready–I’ve seen the jacket and will have a “hold-in-my-hands” copy in about two weeks. Then, the best part, when it finds its way into the hands of readers.

My travels have taken me to quite a variety of places:

After my trip to China, I went to Sault Ste. Marie, where I spoke to college students and adult writers, as well as children. It was cold and snowy, as were Boston and Alaska, my next two trips!

Alaska was as I remember it from when I lived there in the 80’s, only, if anything, moreso. I spoke at the Alaska Library Association Conference in Valdez, and it snowed heavily the entire time we were there. Moving so many people, into, out of, and around a small town as so much snow accumulated was both exciting and a little overwhelming.

While in Alaska, I saw many of my friends from the years I taught in Telida, and the warmth and friendship was still there, immediate, even after so many years. Wonderful to meet the children and babies of the children I taught back then, and wonderful to see those former students grown into adults I love.

I had a good trip to Minnesota, visiting my sister, seeing other relatives, and speaking at an elementary school in Chanhassen about DIAMOND WILLOW. I also met with the book group of an old friend, who had figured out that another member of the book group knew my family and grew up playing with my sisters and cousins. So many connections.

Then:a few days in New York City, meeting with editors and others who support me in my writing, followed by a long weekend at the Highlights Foundation,, where I co-taught a workshop on novels-in-poems with Kelly Bingham.

Winding up this year’s travel, I had a lovely week in Texas, where I saw my son and sister and niece, and spoke at six middle schools, mostly about HIDDEN. Happily, I was home in time to enjoy our flowering crabapple, in all it’s Maytime glory. I love the smell of apple blossoms, and they bloom at the same time as lilacs, which I also love.

What I learned from making 8 out-of-town trips in five months is–not to do this again. Wonderful as each trip was, altogether, it was too much travel. I’m enjoying being home now, with the summer stretching ahead of me, and the luxury of deciding which of several writing projects I will bring from the back burner(s) to the front.

One last note: we have wrens nesting in one birdhouse and bluebirds exploring another (though the house sparrows are not as welcoming of the bluebirds as we are. We’ll see.)

February 7, 2013

In January, I spent two weeks visiting my son, Glen, who is teaching English in Huzhou, China, this year. What an amazing experience.

The first week, we stayed in Huzhou, and Glen showed me the places he loves there. We walked a lot: climbed Ren Huang Shan (Humane Emporor Mountain), strolled in several beautiful parks, dodged traffic in the city center, and went up the steep stairs of Feiying Pagoda. We ate in little street-side cafes, in lovely restaurants, and at a Chinese Pizza Hut.

I learned to count to 100 in Chinese, though I never quite mastered the tones, which are important, so I’m not really sure what words I was saying when I thought I was saying numbers! Glen, having been there for five months, was able to understand quite a lot, and make himself understood in many situations. (I learned that gestures are not necessarily the same in all languages, so you have to be a little careful with that.)

And I learned that when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, it’s important to have written directions, in the local language, not in English, to give to a taxi driver (wouldn’t you think I would have figured that out long ago, and not needed to learn it now?). Though knowing how to say numbers was very helpful in such situations. And, as I find everywhere I’ve ever been, people are willing to help, and interested in communicating, and it can be fun to converse across languages.

A few things I loved right away:

People in many different public places, drawing, singing, dancing, teaching and learning different kinds of movement. All ages and body shapes. Dance seemed to be for good health and pleasure, not for performance, a sense of community about it. (We also saw several dance performances, but I loved the feeling of joy and dailiness of this.)

Tea–the way it is served in glass glasses sometimes, the green tea leaves floating on the top at first, then slowly sinking. Like drinking a garden. And it comes with a thermos of hot water that seems to say, “You can stay here and enjoy your tea in this beautiful place for as long as you like. Just keep pouring hot water over the tea leaves and your tea will last forever.” Not quite forever, of course, but a good long while.

Chinese breakfasts–rice porridge with pickles; hard boiled eggs with soy sauce in the water (shells cracked just enough to let the soy sauce flavor the egg); dumplings with a variety of fillings.

Noodle shops–quick, delicious, inexpensive, meals.

After a few days in Huzhou, we were in Hangzhou for one day, most of which we spent walking around West Lake, famous for Longjing “Dragon Well” tea. Beautiful lake, and as Glen remarked, “Everyone here seems happy.” Sort of a vacation place–that might have been part of it, but also a certain joy in the landscape that people were part of, or became part of as they (we) walked there.

Then we went to Guilin for four days. An elegant city, surrounded by beautiful karst mountains. The city planning has been such that no tall buildings obstruct the view of the mountains, so everywhere you look, there is beauty. We went on a river boat ride at night, through the city, and another, longer one during the day, out into the countryside. Each time, we saw cormorant fishermen, reminding me of “The Story of Ping.”

We also went on a road trip out into the mountains, up into a village surrounded by terraced rice fields. It was not growing season, or harvest season, so the fields were brown, but still, I found them beautiful. We had lunch in the village, delicious and plentiful, again accompanied by green tea.

I’ve only touched on this whole experience. I did not experience any jet lag at all when I arrived in China (a 13 hour time difference), but since I’ve been home, I’ve found that I get sleepy at odd times, intense and sudden. And now I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open…

oh one other thing–the day I returned home, the bluebirds were here, as if to welcome me. Travel is good, and home is wonderful.