The view from our morning walk
Things we read today:
• Landmark History of the American People. I love this book. The chapters on the rise of the American political parties, which we read a couple of weeks ago—fascinating, engaging, even funny in parts, and of course highly relevant to current events, ahem. We’ve read big chunks of Landmark in years past, but never the whole book in one go; it’s a lot to take in. Finished up the Civil War section last week and are just about ready to head into the Antebellum era. Going to hold off a bit, though, until we catch up to 1865 in our American lit readings. Which brings us to…
• Anne Bradstreet. Read about her, read a couple of poems.
• The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan. Just came out. We procured a copy yesterday and it was immediately devoured by the first two sisters in line. Today was Beanie’s turn. All other events come to an immediate halt when a new Heroes of Olympus book crosses the threshold.
• Also I’m seeing
The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (Mysterious Benedict Society prequel) The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma [edited because I should learn to read book titles] in a different set of hands every time I turn around. Scott picked up a copy after my booksigning on Saturday. (This is the peril of bookstore appearances. Any royalty income you might eventually see from the books sold at the event is spent before you leave the shop. Basically, I write books to feed my bookbuying habit.)
• To Huck and Rilla: Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? and Katy and the Big Snow. Ahhh….
• Wonderboy is hooked on Calvin & Hobbes. His favorite bedtime reading. He falls asleep under a collection every night.
Other today things:
• This morning was finally cool enough (which is not to say cool, just not broiling) for me to plant the treasures we picked up at last week’s City Farmers outing. I even did a little weeding. In a San Diego October (our crispy season), that feels like a Herculean feat. (Speaking of the Heroes of Olympus.)
• Thursday means Thicklebit!
• In the made-my-day category, there’s this lovely review of The Prairie Thief by Amy at Hope is the Word:
Thankfully, I was alone when I read the denouement of this lovely little middle grade tale; anyone who watched while I was reading would surely have wondered how I could derive so much enjoyment (as evidenced by the broad grin on my face) out of what is obviously a children’s story. This one is pure enjoyment.
Yay! So happy.
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books review of The Prairie Thief:
“Frontier fiction and folkloric fantasy are an unusual combination, but they actually blend remarkably well here, and Wiley does a fine job of staying true to the pioneer inflections of Louisa’s story while effectively integrating the magical brownie…The effective mashup of popular genres will make this a hit with a variety of readers, so try handing it to Little House fans and folktale-lovers alike.”
School Library Journal, “Fresh and Fun | Books for Emergent Readers“:
Melissa Wiley retells and expands upon an Aesop’s fable in Fox and Crow Are NOT Friends (Random House, 2012; Gr 1-3). Three entertaining chapters describe how these two enemies repeatedly—and humorously—try to outwit one another to earn bragging rights along with a tasty piece of cheese. Sebastien Braun clearly depicts the animals’ antics with lighthearted artwork in sherbet hues. The straightforward text, amusing illustrations, and hilarious rivalry will encourage developing readers to persevere. Expand the reading experience by sharing other fables, and having your students come up with “what happens next…” scenarios.
(Bunch of other fun-looking books in that post I’m eager to check out.)
Today is a big day for me: pub day for two new books. That doesn’t happen often—books launching on the same date, and it’s been a whirlwind for me this month with Fox and Crow Are Not Friends launching a couple of weeks ago. Usually things are more spread out, but one book got moved up, and one got moved back, and boom! Three, three, three books in one month. I’m a bit dizzy.
And you’ll have to bear with me, because instead of doing my authorly duty to share links and talk up one book, I must do it for three. They’re all my babies. They’re heading out into the great world and I feel much the same as I did in June when I put my seventeen-year-old on a plane to spend the summer at an internship in Austin. I suppose the difference is that one never says about one’s book, “Oh, they just grow up so fast!” Takes a looooong time to raise these story-children.
Especially The Prairie Thief.
This novel, very dear to my heart, started taking shape in my head years ago, when I had an idea about a girl whose mother—it was going to be her mother at the time—being accused of theft, and it was up to the girl to clear her mother’s name, with the help of a magical creature. By the end of the very first sentence, it turned out the accused was her father instead.
“The Smirches took Louisa in when her Pa went to jail, but they weren’t happy about it.”
In the space of that one swift sentence, the whole story shifted. I knew, then, that it was going to take place on my beloved prairie landscape, in a time period that has always captivated me. My working title for the story was Not the Whole Truth, both because of a major plot point and because it hints at the tall-tale quality of the story. It’s set in a fictionalized version of a real historical time and place, but it isn’t straight-up historical fiction; it’s more akin to a folk or fairy tale. Well, if you’ve read my Martha and Charlotte books, you know how much I love spinning a fairy tale.
The main character is a girl, and the cover shows girls, so I’ve been asked whether it will appeal to boy readers as well. My answer: I certainly hope so! There are some very important male characters (including a couple of rowdy young boys), and adventure and bugs and wolves. If your boys read it, let me know what they think. Your girls, too, for that matter!
It’s a Junior Library Guild selection, the Bravewriter Arrow selection for October, and it got a nice review at Kirkus. If you’d like to hear me gabbing out it with the wonderful hosts of the Authors Are Rockstars podcast, it’s the first thing they asked me about. The novel features really quite breathtaking illustrations by the amazing Erwin Madrid (I mean, that cover, could you die?) and I am incredibly excited to see it in print. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
And now for Inch and Roly.
Inch and Roly Make a Wish is the first book in my early reader series about an inchworm, a roly poly, and their buggy friends. It’s a Level 1 Ready-to-Read, which means it’s aimed at the very beginningest of readers. (Whereas Fox and Crow Are Not Friends is a Step Into Reading Level 3.)
If Huck is any indication, Inch and Roly works as a read-aloud for younger children as well. 😉
The illustrations are by another fabulously talented artist: Ag Jatkowska. I swooned every time a new sketch came to my screen.
Here’s my author letter to readers at the Ready-to-Read home page.
A sequel, Inch and Roly and the Very Small Hiding Place, will be published in January, 2013.
Here’s a roundup of recent reviews and interviews.
So that’s the scoop on the new books! Got any questions for me?
Photo by Murray Brannon, used with permission, because he’s my dad.
Near the end of my freshman year in college, my mother called me to say she’d seen an ad for a job that seemed up my alley: a tour guide at some kind of local historical museum. Neither one of us had realized there was a historical museum in that area, only a few miles from our Aurora, Colorado neighborhood. (Yes, that Aurora—my dear hometown.) But I agreed that the job description, while somewhat vague, sounded intriguing. I called the number in the ad and made an appointment for an interview.
Driving there the following week, I was perplexed; the directions I’d been given said to continue east on a road I knew quite well—east, out of our neighborhood, past the fringes of the suburbs, right out of town, it seemed. The asphalt turned to dirt. A yellow prairie stretched before me, quiet under an enormous wall of sky that rose up from the undulating plain. My little car bumped and jolted. Prairie dogs chirruped at me as I passed. Another dirt road forked off to the left, near the sign I’d been told to look for: The Plains Conservation Center. I’d arrived.
It wasn’t a historical museum, after all—at least, not the little spruced-up house-turned-museum I’d been expecting. It was a wildlife refuge. 2000 acres of open prairie, I was later to learn, home to a vast array of wild creatures, some of which I’d never heard of before. Burrowing owls, hognose snakes, pronghorn antelope.
Photo by Murray Brannon.
Ah, those pronghorn. They aren’t antelope at all, not really—that’s just what early settlers mistakenly dubbed them. They’re the second-fastest land mammal, behind the cheetah. Gangly brown deer-like creatures with white rump patches they flash to signal danger. I’d grown up just a few miles from this place where they did, in fact, roam, just like in the song that mislabels them, and I’d had no idea.
I parked next to a small, unassuming building and went inside, nervous, already burning to land this job. The sky was so big out here, so impossibly blue.
The Center’s director was a warm, affable woman named Cheryl. She greeted me cheerily but almost immediately upon meeting me and learning that I was a drama major at a small liberal arts college across town, dashed my hopes—kindly—by explaining that the interpretive tour guide position was usually held by a biologist or natural historian. I was eighteen years old and looked about fifteen, a book nerd studying acting, with no science or natural history background whatsoever.
“Well,” I said, with more confidence than I felt (acting, you see), “I’m good at speaking to groups, and I’m really good at memorizing material. So if you told me what to say…”
I don’t know what made Cheryl decide to give me a chance. She was a remarkably kind person whose eyes had a genuine twinkle. “All right,” she said. “I tell you what. Take this—” and she handed me a three-inch-thick binder— “and study up, and if you come back next Saturday you can give a trial tour.”
I flipped through the binder, which was crammed with articles and fact sheets about flora and fauna and mineral composition and the Homestead Act and a number of other things I’d managed to graduate near the top of my high-school class without studying. I went back to college and, during a busy pre-finals week when I was supposed to be cramming for exams and writing papers, buried myself in that massive black binder.
I could not have identified this hawk at the time. Photo by Murray Brannon.
The following Saturday, I returned for my audition—that’s how I thought of it, an audition. Cheryl introduced me to the five perky Girl Scouts (Brownies, actually) and their mothers whom we would be hauling out into the prairie in the back of a wagon. Cheryl drove a battered farm truck along a rutted path through the swaying grasses, pulling over at strategic spots and pointing out things I should show the little girls: the tufted head of a great horned owl, barely visible in a nest at the top of a cottonwood tree; a kestrel perched on a fence post; a golden eagle wheeling overhead. I’d hop out of the cab and scurry around to the side of the wagon, jabbering to the Brownies about these birds as if I’d actually known they existed a week ago. (I hadn’t. Great horned owl: who knew?)
Summer 1987. Giving a tour with Tudi Arneill, current director of the PCC.
I was terrified, but I was having fun. The little girls were as full of ooh and ahh as I was. I mean, this landscape—I’d undervalued it my whole life. I’d seen it as blah, barren, bland. Plain, like its name. It was not the Shire, nor Narnia, nor Prince Edward Island. It was not Pern. Somehow it hadn’t, until that day, even compared to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s various midwestern prairie landscapes, which seemed infinitely more interesting than those dull fields out here where nowhere began.
Now I saw how ignorant I’d been. These plains were teeming with life. I saw more species of wildlife that day than anywhere outside the Denver Zoo. And the smell of sagebrush on the wind—oh, I was smitten, I was swept off my feet as surely as when Anne first encountered the White Way of Delight.
On the way back to the Center’s little office/classroom building, Cheryl suddenly gasped and stopped the truck. “Look at that!” she cried, pointing at—was it a snake? A very long, very fat snake writhing and twisting in the buffalo grass a few yards away. I blinked, trying to figure this snake out. Was its tail…forked? Did it have—no, that wasn’t possible—yes, it did. It had two heads.
It was two snakes, you see. Bullsnakes. Mating. Cheryl was practically whooping with excitement. This is not a sight human beings ordinarily witness in the wild. “You have to show the girls!” she crowed, and I jumped out and pointed, and told the five-year-olds everything I knew about bullsnakes while trying to skirt the details of what those snakes were doing exactly. “Everything I knew” wasn’t much. But no one cared, because SNAKES! RIGHT OVER THERE!
Back at the Center, Cheryl pulled me aside. The twinkle in her eyes was cranked up to eleven.
“Since they saw bullsnakes,” she whispered, “we should really introduce them to Perry.”
“Perry?” I quavered. Something told me he wasn’t a guy who happened to know a lot about snakes.
“Our bullsnake!” Cheryl beamed. “He’s very friendly.” She darted into a room I hadn’t seen on my first visit—a large open space with a row of tanks along one wall. Tanks. Full. of. Snakes.
(And frogs, and lizards. But I didn’t meet them until later.)
Perry was the biggest snake of the bunch. Over five feet long from tip to tip, which meant I only had a couple of inches on him. He was as big around as my arm. Maybe bigger. I was pretty scrawny. Cheryl gestured for me to scoop him up. The Brownies huddled together, wide-eyed and wary, their mothers shifting anxiously in the background. I gulped and reached into that cage.
I’d never touched a snake before. I expected clammy and slimy. But Perry was cool and smooth to the touch. He coiled loosely around my wrist, flickering his tongue.
“He’s smelling you,” Cheryl explained. Then that big old snake surged forward and tried to crawl right up my shirt. “Oh, he always does that,” Cheryl laughed.
The Brownies looked like they might run for the door. I realized suddenly that this was their first snake too, and they were five years old. I didn’t want them to be terrified. This meant I couldn’t display my own terror. I pretended I was one of those intrepid creatures who absolutely adores all wild and frightening things, the more serpentine, the better—a sort of Jane Goodall, only with snakes.
Perry poked his head out the top of my shirt and flickered his tongue at me. The Brownies burst out laughing. He really was kind of…cute. That funny wide mouth and round, staring eyes. I fished him out from under my shirt and held him out for the girls to feel. They were giggling, crowding close. Perry had won us all over.
After the Brownies left, I said to Cheryl all in a rush, “I had no idea snake-handling was a part of the job!”
She chuckled. “Well, you said you were an actress. I wanted to see how good you were!”
She gave me the job, one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I worked there for two summers, falling harder in love with that landscape and its wildlife every minute I spent on the refuge. Down a little curving path from the Center we had three small sod buildings—a reconstructed blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and sod house. A big part of my job was taking school groups through the buildings, talking about pioneer history and the Homestead Act. We’d play school in the little one-room schoolhouse, the kids delighting in working math problems on their slates. On special event days I got to dress up in a gingham frock and a bonnet, and the kids and I would churn butter and make johnny cake in the iron stove.
Summer 1987. Not one of our dress-up days.
To this day I carry the Plains Conservation Center, big as it is, inside me wherever I go: its sweep and wonder became the landscape of my imagination. Its wild things taught me to look more closely at every patch of land I happen to live upon. Its ten thousand secrets, and the clean smell of sage, and the whimsy of tumbleweeds scuttling ahead of the wind, and the kildeer crying and the meadowlarks rejoicing and the burrowing owls blinking gravely from their low perches beside the paths—oh, these things are so woven into the fiber of my being that when, a few years ago, I sat down to write a story about a girl living in Edwardian England, the whole thing up and transplanted itself to the Colorado prairie. It belonged there, where a big piece of my heart will always be.
That novel, The Prairie Thief, hits the shelves on August 28. It takes place in the 1880s, and things happen in it that could never happen in real life. (Let’s just say it involves an entirely different kind of Brownie.) But its setting was inspired by those sprawling acres of prairie, right down to every tough blade of buffalo grass. I dedicated the book to to the Plains Conservation Center, of course. How could I not? I wasn’t a biologist nor a natural historian; I was barely even an actress; but I was, it turned out, a prairie girl to the core.
Photo by Murray Brannon.
I’m a longtime fan of the Brave Writer writing program for homeschoolers—as this gushing review from (gasp) 2005 will attest. I’ve borrowed many an idea from Julie Bogart’s The Writer’s Jungle and I’ve ordered a number of issues of The Arrow and The Boomerang over the years. These monthly newsletters, which you can purchase individually or by subscription, are focused around a particular novel that you read aloud to your kids. For each book, there are copywork and dictation passages, a discussion of a literary element that appears in the reading, and writing prompts for your students. For my kids, I’ve found these downloads to be great discussion starters—and for me, they’ve been an easy way to introduce my kids to the tools of literary analysis.
So it’s a tremendous honor to see one of my own books on the list of Arrow titles for 2012-2013. The Prairie Thief, which comes out in late August, will be the October selection. Thanks, Brave Writer!
Julie Bogart has some fun plans in mind for October, such as a podcast interview with me…I’ll keep you posted!
P.S. Here’s next year’s Boomerang list (aimed at ages 12-15), if you’re interested. The Arrow is for kids ages 8-12. And this year Brave Writer is adding a new tool for early readers: The Wand.