Writer’s cottage

I was in Sacramento this past weekend, visiting family and attending the annual Curtis Park Home & Garden tour.  Curtis Park is a fabulous, eclectic neighborhood in the heart of the city, filled with unique old homes built between the turn of the last century and the 1920s and ’30s.  I fell in love with every single one I stepped foot in.

I’m a big fan of old houses.

Especially ones with intriguing outbuildings in the back yard.  Check this out:

Would that not make the perfect spot for a writer to set up shop?

Maybe someday…

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep trying to turn my 1950s ranch-style house into the English cottage of my dreams.

Patriot’s Day

I woke up this morning early.  I mean really early, like w-a-y before dawn.  I often do that when I’ve got a book cooking, as I do now.  Hard to stop the wheels from turning.  But this morning was different.  This morning something else was on my mind … Patriot’s Day!

I spent a goodly portion of my growing up years in Concord, Massachusetts.

And for anyone who grew up in this historic town, April 19th will always have a special significance.  First of all, we always got the day off from school.  Second, a parade was involved, along with fifes and drums and cannons and men in uniforms.  Last but not least, there was food.  Always a good thing when you’re a tween.

It was very exciting.

Our house was within walking distance of Minute Man National Park, and the Old North Bridge.

I considered it an extension of my backyard, and used to walk or ride my bike over there all the time.  I’d find a tree and climb it, and hang out spying on the tourists, or reading.  It was great.

The Old North Bridge was even more fun on Patriot’s Day, though.  Each time the holiday rolled around, my dad (who was the elementary school principal in neighboring Lincoln, Massachusetts, and who pounced on every educational opportunity that life afforded) would roust my sisters and me out of bed at 4:00 a.m. and hustle our sleepy little selves down the street to watch the battle reenactment.  I still remember the ripple of excitement that pulsed through the gathered crowd as two men on horseback thundered into view — men dressed up as William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, who had accompanied Paul Revere for the final leg of his famous ride from Boston raising the alarm (“the British are coming!”).  Paul didn’t quite make it to Concord.  A British patrol stopped the three of them just outside of town.  Paul was detained, but Dawes and Prescott escaped, so word got through.

Here’s N.C. Wyeth’s famous painting of Paul Revere:

Love that N. C. Wyeth.

As dawn lightened the sky, we began to hear the rattle and snap of snare drums, and gradually, more men appeared.  Redcoats, of course:

And also the local militia, the ragtag farmers and residents who streamed in from all the neighboring towns to join their Concord brethren in the face-off against the British.  Here are the Acton Minutemen arriving on the scene:

By this time my sisters and I were usually hungry, cold, and complaining that we had to go to the bathroom.  Sometimes, a quick trip home was in order.  More often, we were told to suck it up and hang in there.  Soon, the battle reenactment got underway:

Things looked dicey for a while for our minutemen, and I remember worrying that maybe this time it wouldn’t turn out so well for them.  But our side always rallied:

When it was over and the redcoats were properly routed and sent packing, it was time for the 21-gun salute.  I would plug my ears to try and block out the deafening sound, but this was pointless, of course, because the boom of the cannons reverberated through every bone in my body.

Finally, it was time for the best part of the morning, the event my sisters and I had REALLY been waiting for:

The parade was the icing on the cake.

Nowadays, of course, Patriot’s Day is celebrated on the third Monday in April, no matter the date.  It’s only once in a blue moon that it actually falls on April 19th, as it did this year.  Maybe that’s why I awoke so early this morning…

Time to rustle up some pancakes.

National Library Week

Sorry, Disneyland.  Libraries are actually the happiest place on earth.

Except maybe this year, when so many of them are in peril.

With the budget axe currently hanging over school and public libraries in many states (including New Jersey, where libraries are facing a potential whopping 74% cut in state funding — read more about it here), they need our support more than ever.

Those of you who read my blog already know how much I love libraries, and what an enormous role they played in shaping me as a writer — for a reminder, click here.  I’ve always lived within walking distance of one, and I’ve chosen every home I’ve ever lived in as an adult based on whether the town it was in had a thriving library.  Thriving library = thriving community.  For me, the equation is as simple as that.

I’m not the only one who feels this way.  My friend Jo Knowles has a particularly heartfelt post on her blog  today reminding us how tightly libraries are woven into the fabric of American life, and what a hole they’d leave if they were to be ripped out, or their role in our communities diminished.

This is National Library Week.  Stop by your public library.  Enjoy it.  Be grateful for it.  Champion it.  It’s presence is a gift for and from your community.

Pie-of-the-national-poetry-month-club: Susan Blackaby

As part of an ongoing celebration for a pair of pie-related books that I have coming out later this year (“Babyberry Pie” and “Pies & Prejudice” learn more here), I recently launched a pie-of-the-month club to showcase new books by friends and colleagues.

This being National Poetry Month, I have a special treat on the menu:  my dear friend Susan Blackaby, who stopped by to chat about her new poetry collection and to share her favorite recipe for — what else?  — pie!

Susan Blackaby

Suz’s day job is writing for the educational market.  She’s published over 100 leveled readers, as well as the picture book “Rembrandt’s Hat” (Houghton) and the biography “Cleopatra: Egypt’s Last and Greatest Queen” (Sterling).

Suz and I live in the same neighborhood (a corner of Portland that goes by the charming name of Garden Home), our kids went to the same school, and we get together often at a local coffee shop to talk about writing, cheer each other on, and most of all to laugh.

What have you been busy cooking up for readers, Suz?  Tell us about your new book, and how it came about.

My new book is called Nest, Nook & Cranny (Charlesbridge).  It is a collection of “home poems,” focusing on the cozy, crawly places inhabited by animals.  It started with a terrific writing teacher in 3rd grade and got a significant boost at a Haystack workshop with Ann Whitford Paul and a little hermit crab who shall remain nameless.

Can you give us a wee taste of one of the poems in your collection?

Sure.  Here’s a cinquain:

Skinks sneak

From cool crannies

To catnap in the sun,

Making themselves at home on slabs

Of stone.

How about your favorite pie-in-the-sky moment as a writer?  Have you had one of those “I never dreamed it would really happen to me” moments that was special to you?

Well, you can pinch yourself silly once the acceptance letter arrives, but I can think of two moments I’ll never forget even when I’m 100 and my cheese has totally slipped off my cracker.  One was when I got to see the finished artwork for my picture book Rembrandt’s Hat—the editor flipped up the protective sheet of tissue paper and I totally came unglued.  Rapture is similar, but not quite so heady.  The second was the night that you gave me your PW review copy of Rembrandt’s Hat—it was such a thrill to open the actual book (a thrill that repeats over and over, I might add), and sharing that with you was really special.

[Note:  In a previous life, I was a contributing editor for Publisher’s Weekly, and one day I opened a box o’ books they had sent for review, and lo and behold there was a copy of Suz’s new baby — which she hadn’t even seen yet.  Although alas I couldn’t review it — conflict of interest — I could and did hop in the car THAT VERY MINUTE and drive over to her house with it!]

Has there ever been a moment in your career when you had to eat humble pie?  (I did, big-time, that time I showed up at a major chain bookstore for what I thought was just a signing and found to my chagrin was educator night – dozens of shining faces looking at me expectantly, and I hadn’t prepared a talk…)

Ooh. I once told an editor that none of the major publishers (including hers) know beans about producing leveled readers.  Just because something is true doesn’t mean you need to be the one to say so….

Now let’s REALLY talk pie.  What’s your favorite kind?  Do you have a favorite pie memory?  How about the recipe you’re sharing – can you give us a little background on it?

Making pie is, for me, closely connected to picking the apples, apricots, peaches, or huckleberries that go into the pie.  Especially huckleberries, which are the size of teeny peas.  It takes forever and a day to pick a pie’s worth.  In California my folks had an apricot orchard that produced bushel upon bushel of fruit.  My mom made apricot pies like mad, but she had a nifty trick: She froze pie fillings in a perfect pie shape and stacked them up in the freezer like frisbees.  What holiday dinner is complete without fresh, home-grown apricot pie for dessert?

Miffy’s June-in-January Apricot Pie

For each pie, mix the following together:

4–6 C fresh apricots cut into quarters

1 C white sugar

¼ C brown sugar

1 T fruit fresh

2 T minute tapioca

1 T lemon juice

Crisscross a pie plate with two long strips of foil and fill with apricot mixture.  Bring the foil up over the filling and crimp closed.  Put the pie plate in the freezer.  When the filling is frozen solid, slip it out of the pie plate and store it in a Ziploc freezer bag.  Wait until the dead of winter.  Make your pie dough, unwrap the frozen filling, drop it into the bottom crust, cover it with the top crust, pinch the edges, add a few slits, and bake at 425° for a half hour or so.

(This works with peaches, too; it takes all day and all the neighbors’ pie plates to turn a lug of peaches into a stack of pies.  Apricots are easier because you don’t have to peel the fruit.)

Yum!   I don’t  think I’ve ever had apricot pie.   That needs to change, and soon.  Thanks, Suz!

To read other selections on the “pie-of-the-month club” menu, check out my interviews with Jane Kurtz, Toni Buzzeo, Lisa Schroeder, and Jennifer Ward.  Be sure and drop by again soon, because throughout 2010 I’ll be serving up more stellar books by some of my favorite authors and illustrators.  Oh, and pie is on the menu, too, of course.   Pie is ALWAYS on the menu here on my blog.  Enjoy!