Monday, March 29, 2010

A Wet Spring

Like the winter this year, Galicia's spring is wetter than usual. We came a couple of weeks early this time, and spring is getting a late start anyway because of the harsh winter. Usually when we arrive at end of March, the yellow broom and Spanish white broom are in glorious bloom, along with purple heather along roadsides. This year, the broom and heather haven't begun, but the hills are bright with the deep golden blossoms of thorny gorse, and small white daisies are beginning to appear in fields, like tiny stars. Purple canterbury bells are blooming along roadsides. Apple trees and the pink blossoms of peach trees are in abundance. All the vineyards have had the vines cut back, and tiny shoots are appearing at the ends of stumpy branches.

Trees for the most part are still bare and webby, although the willows are developing a fine green mist on their drooping branches, and the dark pines are always green. Some wondrous tree is thick with yellow blossoms. It is reminiscent of honey locust, which, in Sacramento, would be individually planted as a garden accent, but here it is wild in the hill forests and slopes: frondy green leaves, and clouds of yellow. Among all the faint twiggy webs of trees not yet in leaf, and against the bright green landscape, these are splashes of bright yellow under the ever-shifting skies.

At the moment we are sitting in the cafe of the Parador, enjoying cafe con leche and tending to our e-mails. The Parador system is a network in Spain of old castles and monasteries that have been converted into tourist hotels. This particular one was once the castle of Count de Lemos, and was also, in the course of its history, once a monastery. It's a huge stone edifice (building is far too weak a word), going back to the thirteenth century, and it sports two crenallated towers (one of which is a museum with endless stairs up 5 levels) and a cathedral, as well as a restaurant, a cafe, and the rather posh hotel. It dominates the landscape for miles around Monforte, being high on a hill in the center of town, and approached by a road that winds around and around until you reach the top. From any direction, it's beautiful. The full name of the city is Monforte de Lemos.

Time to wrap up until another day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Arrival in Trasulfe, Galicia, Spain

Here it is Thursday, and we arrived in Trasulfe last Saturday. That’s what happens with time in Spain. We have a small house in Galicia, in a village called Trasulfe, and much of that time has been spent opening the house, cleaning, shopping for groceries, meeting up with our neighbors, and contacting other friends in the area. Some of our time has been spent reading. But a good part of the time would really be hard to account for: In Spain, time has a way of slipping away, and time spent in Galicia is no exception. Already we have drifted into late lunches: tapas or raciones (a slightly larger portion than tapas). Already we find ourselves eating supper at 9:00 p.m.

Galicia is the northwestern corner of Spain. It’s the bump above Portugal. The local language, Gallego, is similar to Portugese, though it is considered a “sister language”, rather than a dialect. Castilian is a second language for Gallegans, although—unlike us—they speak it quite fluently.

Due to its location and topography (two coast lines and endless hills and dales) wind-borne rains keep Galicia lush and green. In winter some parts even get snow. Summers are hot, but spring and fall have alternating rain and sunshine on and off during the day. For that reason, Galicia is sometimes called “Green Spain”. Sometimes it’s called “Ireland with sunshine”. It’s completely unlike the tourist Spain one reads about, but utterly lovely. The region has a Celtic history, to the point that there are cultural exchanges with Ireland. (Some regional musicians are famous for their mastery of the bagpipe.)

We arrived following a particularly wet, harsh winter. And then, after howling winds that first day of arrival, we had warm, sunny afternoons, sprinkled with rain. Then for the past two nights we’ve had howling, whistling winds that sound quite eerie, and we had to close the persianas (a particular kind of window blind that shuts out weather) and content ourselves with happily snuggling up indoors. But then the following mornings are so beautiful: wisps of fog rising from the valleys; mottled clouds or rolling thunderheads or smears of pearly white clouds in the lapis skies; and the shadow-and-light dappled fields and the webs of tree branches that haven’t filled in yet with leaves. It’s a painterly landscape and one that never gets old, as the light is continually shifting.

More tomorrow. Or the next day. That’s how the time is here: More whenever. For now, "hasta luego". Or, as they say in the region, "Ta luego."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Today's Guest - Rachel Dillon

Rachel Dillon wrote and illustrated a marvellous picturebook about endangered species, Through Endangered Eyes. Each animal gets a small poem from the animal's perspective, and the illustrations are lush with a techinique reminiscent of both pointillism and Australian aboriginal art. This is a picture book that keeps on giving: Appendices in the back are richly packed with information about each species, as well as ways to help with conservation. A must read for any age group. Here is Rachel to tell how she became interested in writing such a book:

"It's amazing what inspires and motivates people. For me it was a book. I was 16 when my Aunt and Uncle from Australia sent me Endangered Animals of Australia. I had already travelled twice to that country and loved it very much. I had never seen a book geared specifically to animals in trouble. That book really heightened my awareness of the issue.

"The issue followed me in college. In my last year, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I had an independent study. My project choice was to photograph, research, write and design a book about the endangered species at the Henry Vilas Zoo. I had no idea how big the project was and only completed a draft of the booklet.

"In the process of making the booklet, the zoo allowed me to get up close to some of the animals to photograph them. I climbed in the ringtail lemur's cage; got hissed at by an angry lioness; felt the size and power of a tiger as I stood next to its cage; and got to peek at a baby giraffe that was 24 hours old. All of these experiences have molded and shaped my desire to help animals.

"When my daughter was just a baby, that passion and motivation became as clear as day. I didn't even know I was starting a book when I sat down and wrote a poem about an elephant. The poem was fun and lyrical, so I decided to write one about the green sea turtle, and the process continued as I picked seven more species. I had already painted a green sea turtle, and tiger, and thought maybe there could be a book.

"When I read my book to kids at schools I tell them that no one asked me to write and paint my book. I tell them that I followed my heart, because children give me hope. They are filled with wonder, and passion, and immediately want to fix a problem when they hear it exists. It’s hard to share with children the issues endangered and threatened species face, but I don't want to sugarcoat it either. I want children to know there are many habits humans need to change or the planet will become irreversibly unbalanced.

"I hope to continue my series of endangered species books by breaking them down by ecosystem. I just finished the manuscript for my second endangered species book, Through Desert Eyes. It is written about 15 desert endangered and threatened species."

If you want more information about Rachel's book you can go to:
It is also available for sale at: and

For people who live in the Sacramento area, it can be purchased at Discovery Museum; Folsom Zoo; and Borders in Folsom and Roseville.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Interview with Lewis Buzbee

Back in October I wrote about a fine book friends and I had read and discussed, Steinbeck’s Ghost, by Lewis Buzbee. Now it's going to be released in paper on March 30th. Grab a copy: Steinbeck’s Ghost was a Smithsonian Notable Book, the NCIBA Children’s Book of the Year, and it won the Beatty Award from the California Library Association.

Buzbee’s next novel, The Haunting of Charles Dickens will be published this fall, and will be followed by Mark Twain and the Mysterious Stranger in the fall of 2011. All are published by Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan). Buzbee was gracious enough to grant me an interview, which you can read below:

Q: Are you still writing on the series of chapter books, JoJo Pearlwhite's Mix and Match Adventures?
A: Alas, no. That was a planned series, of which I wrote one half of the first book. Nothing happened with them, but it got me into kids’ books, and found me an agent. Funny, though, I was thinking about them the other day, thinking I might want to go back to them next year. I really do have a “middle school” brain, but love chapter books, too.

Q: Do you think you will continue writing for children, and if so, solely for that readership? Or will you to continue writing for a variety of readers?
A: While I wrote for adults for many years, I didn’t stumble into kids’ writing. I have always wanted to write for kids. When I first worked in bookstores, some 30 plus years ago, I was trained in kids’ books by a group of very intelligent booksellers, all women, who made sure I knew the value and pleasure of kids’ books. It just took me a while to get here. I hope to keep writing books for kids, especially middle graders. That’s really all I want to do.

Q: How do ideas come to you? Do you get the story first or the character? Or even the setting? (I noticed that in Steinbeck's Ghost the setting was almost another character.)
A: With these books, the literary mysteries, it obviously starts with the writer. I’ve tried to choose those writers who are great writers, but writers that middle schoolers will soon be reading, if they haven’t already. And writers who are part of the culture, too, even if you haven’t read them.

But you’re right about landscape, the setting. I love building these worlds, creating, out of black on white, entire universes for the characters, and the readers, to roam around in. It’s my favorite part about reading, too, landscape.

Steinbeck’s country is well known to me. I grew up near there, and having read about it and visited it for years, found it a delight to re-create his universe. With Dickens, I had to really stretch myself. I’ve been to London, but not 1862 London, and so it was a ton of research to get all the little bits right so that the whole picture would feel true. I spend an awful lot of time simply pondering the universe and building it in my head.

With Twain, there was a double challenge. It’s a time-travel novel that’s set in both contemporary and 184 San Francisco. It was both
a world I knew and a world I would never know. I had to see both worlds in one place.

Q. What do you like best about writing for young people, compared to writing for adults? I know that some books can be read continually throughout life, but in general, is there a different way you approach the work for a younger reader? Different doors that open up in your mind?

A. With middle grade books, you can be as fantastic as you want, and as complex as you want, as emotionally difficult as you want, but you also have to be very clear, stay away from mere cleverness. Kids see through that in an instant. Kids this age are very smart, and very honest. And they’ll read for days at a stretch. It’s more fun than I’ve ever had writing, but also more challenging.

I think I’m drawn to this age group because, well, I’m kind of a big 13-year-old. I think all of us get stuck at some place in our development, and for me, that’s it. It’s a time when your awareness of the bigger world comes into focus. But also a time when, while you’re very smart, you’re still inexperienced. And craving experience. You’re ready to tackle some big ideas about life on the planet.

And this is my ideal reader. If I could write one book that would blow open the doors of a middle grade reader (or lots of them) the way my world was blown open by L’Engle and Bradbury and Steinbeck and all the rest, then I’d be very happy. Steinbeck once said that a good novel is a wedge in a reader’s brain. I’d like to be that wedge.

Q. Who's next after Mark Twain?
A. Right now I’m writing another nonfiction book for adults, Blackboard: The Life of the Classroom, which will be out next year. It’s part history, part memoir, all about what happens in classrooms, especially the teacher-student relationship. It’s not about pedagogy, or educational theory, it’s about what really happens there. The best part of research for this book has been revisiting all my old schools. Talk about time-travel.

Q. Are you "time traveling" as the student you once were while writing about teachers, or through teaching experience you had in the classroom?
A. It's about both, the memoir part, about being a student and having great teachers (I had so many great teachers, very lucky), and about being a teacher, too, how thrilling that is.

Soon, however, I’ll get back to middle grades. I’m still toying with what comes next, but I think it’s going to be Edgar Allan Poe, Lost in the Caverns of Wonder. Poe would be the main character, 13, just starting to write. 13 is such a gothic time to be alive, anyway, all those strong emotions, all those deep secrets, all that fevered imagination. I think it’d be a blast to write this one.

Q. Your wife is a poet, and your daughter inspires your writing. Have you written any poems for young children?
No, I haven’t written any poems for kids, except silly nonsense stuff that we say around the house. I did try to write a few picture book texts early on, but found them impossibly difficult to write. More and more I admire the writers of great picture books—how so much comes out of what seems so little. It’s an amazing feat.

Lewis Buzbee can be contacted at: for those who would like to know more about his writing. In addition to the above fiction for young people he has written an engrossing nonfiction book called The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, partly memoir, partly a history of books and libraries.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Today's Guest is Rachna Chhabria

Today’s guest blogger is Rachna Chhabria, author of The Lion Who Wanted to Sing and Bunny in Search of a Name. Here’s Rachna to tell you about her books.

“The journey of my picture books The Lion Who Wanted To Sing, and Bunny in Search Of A Name, from conception to publication, was swift and easy, courtesy of the enthusiastic publisher. I had written hundreds of features and stories for two Indian newspapers (Deccan Herald and The Hindu) before plunging full fledge into the world of children’s fiction.

“As a child, I was fascinated with the animal kingdom, from the tiny ant to the elephant. I would stare at a line of ants crawling into the anthill; and at the zoo, I would spend several minutes before each enclosure, memorizing every tiny detail. Questions regarding animals constantly buzzed inside my head: Did they have desires? What motivated them? What did they talk about?

“The two picture books are the result of those unanswered childhood questions. Deep inside each story are embedded my own secret desires, desires of all, irrespective of age. The issues faced by the animals are issues we all encounter at some point in our lives, like Kiara the baby elephant’s body image worries, or, Casca the crow’s deception.

“Like Bunny the baby rabbit, many of us may have felt we were saddled with unglamorous names. Unfortunately, most of us lack Bunny’s spirit of adventure to venture in search of a new name. Leo the lion, too, echoes everyone’s secret desire to be more than a bathroom singer. Unlike Leo, many of us are unable to summon the courage to take up singing, or sacrifice everything to achieve that goal.

“The animals in the books are all too human. Each animal has his or her own story to narrate. Sometimes the stories overlap (ours and theirs). But ultimately the tales are uniquely their own. I have written several more animal stories, all awaiting their participation in a book.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Guest Blogger, Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson writes award-winning books, no matter what the genre. I first was captivated by her writing when friends and I read and discussed the Newbery winner, Hattie Big Sky, the story of a 16-year-old orphan who takes over a deceased uncle's homestead in Montana. Here is Kirby now, to discuss her writing:

Q: You have said that Hattie's story was inspired by your great-grandmother's life. Since her family didn't really know much about her early life, much of the story in the book was made up, based on research. The book Hattie feels so believable and real. Who did you draw on for her personality and character?
A: Great question! I would say I drew on all of the journals and diaries I read to create Hattie, but my daughter says Hattie is me. I'll let you be the judge.
Q: You have mentioned in an interview that it took you about three years to write Hattie Big Sky. In the same interview, you said it took about ten years to get The Magic Kerchief right. Why do you think a picture book was harder to write than a historical novel?
A: Oh, a picture book is so much more difficult because every single word has to earn its way into a picture book. With a novel, you have a bit of space to linger on this thought or that notion. Not so in a picture book.
Q: Do you have a special approach to writing a new book, or does each one come to you differently?
A: I wish I did have a special approach; then I would know what to do each time. So far, for me, each book has come to me differently and with its own unique and challenging set of challenges and gifts.
Q: Of all the books you've written -- and so many of them win awards! -- do you have a favorite? If so, which one, and why?
A: Ah, this is like asking Mom who her favorite child is. Easy to answer if she only has one! But honestly, Hattie is probably dearest to my heart because writing it allowed me to keep my connections to my beloved grandmother (Hattie's step-daughter) alive.
Q: You co-wrote Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival, and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle with Mary Nethery (and in the latter case, with Marine Major Brian Dennis). Both have won acclaim. Are future "true story" collaborations in the works?
A: Mary and I are eager to write a third (and fourth and fifth. . .) book together. So far, however, we have not come up with just the right story. We're open to suggestions!
Q: You have written award-winning books, taught writing courses, spoken at conferences, and presented at schools. Do you find that the latter activities have affected your writing approach in any way?
A: Everything I do that's not writing enriches my writing. . . and takes away from it at the same time. I am reminded every day of Katherine Paterson's powerful words: "The very persons who take away my time and space to write give me something to say." The very activities that take away my time and space to write, do indeed give me something to say.
Q: You have always been an avid reader. But some books affect a reader more than others. When you look back, what books that you that you read in elementary school, middle school, and high school left their “imprint” on you? Which books have changed your life?
A: I would be hard pressed to pick one or two titles. I will always treasure Alice in Wonderland, not so much for the story but for the fact that it was the first book I ever owned -- thanks to my aunt. Our family read and re-read Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen so many times, we wore it out. If only I'd bought the book when it was brand new and $4.99! When I finally went to find a copy about 6 or 7 years ago, I had to pay over $100 for it. But still, it's well worth it. There have been so many books that have left their imprints on me, it would be impossible to name them all. However, it was Arnold Lobel's Ming Lo Moves The Mountain that struck the chord in me to lead me to write children's books.
Q: Who is your first reader for a new work? Your family? Friends? Another writer?
A: My first reader is generally my good friend, Mary Nethery, or my local critique group -- Bonny Becker, Kathryn Galbraith, Sylvie Hossack and Dave Patneaude-- depending on the type of book it is and any deadlines associated with it. My family and friends read the books when they come out!

Thank you, Kirby, for sharing your thoughts. I know readers will be looking forward to your next books, as I will. I'm sure, too, they will enjoy following your blog (as I do) at:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Like'em and You Don't Leave'em

I subscribe to Guide to Literary Agents online, a newletter that always has good advice for writers. Today's article was about a book written by Blake Snyder, titled, Save the Cat. The point made in that book (and the article) is that a reader has to care about a character to hang around and find out what happens. Reading this was one of those "coincidence moments", because I had planned to blog about a book I'm reading now and just love.

The book I'm reading now is Billy Creekmore, by Tracey Porter, and I was charmed by Billy on the first page. He tells tall tales to anyone who will listen, and he thinks (or says) he can commune with spirits, even if he can't see them. The story opens in 1906, an era that interests me for my own book. (I am always on the lookout for a book set in the first 2 decades of the 20th century, so readers, please give me titles.) Once I started this book, I was on Billy's side immediately.

Billy lives in an orphanage when the book opens, and conditions are terrible and exploitive. But within a few pages you know that plucky Billy is going to rise above all this and have some grand adventures. It's Billy's voice that grabbed me. He may not always tell the truth, and he has bad grammar, but he's good-hearted, and his voice rings true. I'm about halfway through it, and already Billy's life is changing, but I don't want to be a spoiler and tell you how.

I couldn't help comparing it to another book I recently read. It's that matter of "voice". I believe in Billy. He's so real, I feel I could walk out my door and run into him on the street (even though it's 2010, and he's a century away.) Billy tells his story so naturally, it's as if there is no such thing as an author or narrator. You feel as if he's telling you personally his not-so-tall tale, and shaking his head at the wonder of it.

By comparison, the other book (which shall remain nameless, because I notice it's selling well, so kids do like it) had a "voice" problem for me. At least at the outset. I liked the story and the plot; and I grew to care about the character. But that took awhile, because for a few pages, his voice seemed "overdone" and it grated on me. I was too aware that a grown up was writing kid talk. It's a nuance thing, I suppose. Kids do talk the way the book character did, but not so noticeably. In Billy Creekmore, well, everything works. It just works. It's a great book, and I can't wait to get back to it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Two Charming Story Collections for Children

Recently I had occasion to read two charming story collections written by Rachna Chhabria and illustrated by Rosei Koithra:

The Lion Who Wanted to Sing and Other Stories
Bunny in Search of a Name and Other Stories

These stories are gentle in tone and full of humor and quiet wisdom that never intrudes on the storytelling. The author describes them as “read-aloud books for parents and tiny tots”. They would also be appropriate as “early chapter books” for first and second graders. The first book is 39 pages, the second is 38 pages, and the stories are not too long or too difficult for an early reader.

In the first collection’s title story, “The Lion Who Wanted to Sing”, Leo pursues his dream with humorous results. In spite of scoffing friends and family, Leo doesn’t give up. “Kiara’s Diet”, explores the dangers of trying to be what you are not. In the third story, “The Promise”, a young sparrow’s act of mercy brings unusual consequences to all.

In “Bunny in Search of a Name” (the title story of the second collection), a discontented bunny finds that getting what you want has a price. In the next two stories, a small ant teaches a parrot the meaning of friendship, and a crow learns that those who admire an imposter are not trustworthy friends. The fourth story, “Chaos in the Jungle”, is perhaps the funniest. Again, it deals with the danger of granted wishes, especially when those wishes are based on envy.

All of these tales are charmingly told by Chhabria. Koithra’s spirited illustrations capture the animals’ personalities as they go through their various adventures.

Purchase information: The books are published by Unisun Publications and are available on