November 27th, 2013

Do I have a fun book and story to share with you today!

It all started about a year ago, when the four walls began closing in. People! I thought. I need people!

Cue Barbra Streisand.

Writing is a solitary occupation, and I spend my days largely by myself, four-legged friends notwithstanding. Much as I love my cozy office, increasingly I found myself missing the cameraderie of a “normal” work environment, and the company of other people.

Not one to mope, I decided to do something about it. And so I got in touch with a few writer friends, knowing they were in the same boat, and asked if they’d like to come over once a month and play. I’d provide the soup, they could all bring sides. We’d spend the morning writing, then relax and visit over lunch.

As quickly as that, Soup & Solidarity was born.

It was a huge hit, if I say so myself. My house is small, with a limited number of corners for everyone to curl up in and work, and a table that seats six. Half a dozen of us makes for an intimate, friendly group, prone to linger over lunch as we swap tips, talk shop, catch up on each other’s books and families and yes, sometimes even kvetch about our jobs.

It also gives me a chance to let my inner Martha Stewart out. Once a month, my house is spotless. Once a month, I have an excuse to show off my mother’s pink china and set a pretty table. And once a month, I get to whip up a pot of something warm and nourishing.

(OK, I want to make it clear that I really do clean my house and cook for my family more than once a month, but you get the idea.)

Here’s where things get even more interesting. Coincidentally (was there something in the water last year?), I got an email from my friend Maggie Stuckey.

Maggie Stuckey

Maggie Stuckey

Here’s Maggie. Isn’t she adorable?  She has the best smile!

Maggie sent an email letting me know that she was working on a cookbook about soup, and specifically soup groups. Did I know of any?

Did I ever!

I emailed her back right away to tell her about Soup & Solidarity. And that is how we ended up featured in Maggie’s new hot-off-the-press cookbook, SOUP NIGHT!


I can’t rave about this cookbook enough. Seriously, you need to go out and buy it right now. (In fact, you can click here to do just that.) It’s that fabulous! The best thing about the book is that it’s not just a collection of wonderful recipes, it’s a collection of wonderful stories, including mine.

I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, let’s talk about soup. I love soup. The simplicity of it, the earthiness of it, the purity of it. There’s something almost magical about soup, isn’t there? Soup brings people together. It speaks of hearth and home. Soup is humble; it doesn’t put on airs. You don’t need to dress up to eat soup.

What could be better than soup? Especially on a frosty night…

Canadian Beef Stew

This is one of my family’s favorite soups (and yes, the recipe is in SOUP NIGHT – and I’m sharing it with you below). The leaves on the trees can turn color and blow away, the nights can grow frosty and cold, but fall doesn’t officially kick off at the Frederick house until I’ve made my first batch of Nana Mac’s Canadian Beef Stew.

My grandmother, Eva MacDougall (aka “Nana Mac”) was from Nova Scotia. I have no idea how long this recipe has been in the family, but she taught my mother how to make it, and my mother taught me.

My mother told me the story that goes with this stew, too. It’s a wonderful story, about a young woman from Canada who boards a train in Halifax one day many years ago, bound for a job in the United States. The young woman doesn’t know a soul where she’s going. It’s a big adventure, but a scary one, too. As she says a tearful goodbye to her parents, her mother presses something into her hands–a little piece of home to take with her.

The young woman was my mother, of course. What did my grandmother give her? A simple lunch: a thermos filled with homemade beef stew, some bread-and-butter sandwiches made with homemade Nova Scotia oatmeal bread, and a slice of homemade apple pie. A little piece of home indeed.

The story gets better. My mother was on her way to a job as a private duty nurse in Connecticut. My father, who was in the army, had worked as an orderly in a hospital where he cared for her patient. He came to Connecticut to visit him one day. When my mother opened the front door, my father took one look at her and fell head-over-heels in love. Within a month, they were engaged.

Mom & Dad wedding

Who says soup isn’t magical?

And once a month, it sprinkles some of its magic over my writer friends and me.

Jane & Trudy

We were a smaller group than usual this week at Soup & Solidarity. That’s Jane Kurtz on the left, author of many wonderful books for young readers, including her brand-new novel ANNA WAS HERE (click here to read a rave review in The New York Times). She’ll be featured soon in one of my “In the Spotlight” blog posts. So will Trudy Ludwig, who’s on the right. Trudy’s a nationally-known expert on bullying and social justice (she’s even been on the Today show alongside Big Bird, how cool is that?!), and her latest picture book THE INVISIBLE BOY was just named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Huzzah!

Not able to join us this time around: Susan Hill Long, who was recently featured in one of my “In the Spotlight” blog posts (click here to read it), and whose new novel WHISTLE IN THE DARK was just named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2013; Susan Fletcher, whose fabulous FALCON IN THE GLASS will be featured soon in an upcoming “In the Spotlight”; and Chris Kurtz, who was also the subject of an “In the Spotlight” blog post (click here to read it), and whose hilariously wonderful THE ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG garnered raves and multiple starred reviews.

I have lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season, including these awesome friends!

Happy Thanksgiving to each one of you — now go eat some soup!


1 tablespoon olive oil

2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into

2-inch cubes

2–3 cups water

1 teaspoon summer savory

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 pound fresh button mushrooms, stems removed, cleaned, and cut in half

4-5 medium onions, chopped into large dice

10–12 good-size carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

4–6 potatoes, peeled and chopped into large chunks

2-3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices

1 medium turnip, peeled and chopped into large chunks

1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat; add the meat and sear on all sides. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to work in batches. Don’t crowd the meat; if you do, it will steam rather than sear. Each batch will take about 5 minutes to develop a good sear.

2. Add water to cover and the summer savory; season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the mushrooms until tender, about 8 minutes.

4. Add the mushrooms, onions, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and turnip to the soup pot. Cover with water again and simmer for several hours (or all day in the slow cooker), until the meat is fork-tender.


Pie-of-the-month-club – Susan Fletcher

September 12th, 2010

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

On the menu today — my good friend and fellow Oregonian Susan Fletcher, who stopped by to whet our appetites for her new book.  Oh, and to dish about pie, too, of course!

Susan Fletcher

What have you been cooking up for readers, Susan?  Can you tell us a bit about your new book, and how it came about?

Um, it was actually lizard spit that got me going again with dragons.  Perhaps this requires an explanation.

For years, I’d toyed with the idea of a near-future sequel for my Dragon Chronicles series.  But nothing really popped until my daughter, Kelly, a microbiologist/environmental engineer, told me about a rare lizard whose saliva has microbes that might be able to degrade environmental toxins into compounds that are completely safe.  Lizard spit!  That was it, for me: a way to return to my Dragon Chronicles and re-explore, through dragons, what we may lose when a species disappears.

So Ancient, Strange, and Lovely (Atheneum) tales place in a near-future, slightly dystopian world.  I have to say, I had so much fun writing this book!  Partly because I got to hang out with those baby dragons again  — draclings — inspired by our dear old cat Nimbus.  (They thrum in their throats and knead you with their little talons.)  And also partly because in Ancient, Strange, and Lovely the age-old folklore of dragons bumps right up against modern culture and technology: biopiracy, Elvis species, petrified dinosaur eggs, remote webcams, deformed crocodiles, solar-powered socks, invasive ladybugs, two CNN anchors, and a YouTube lawn dwarf vid gone viral

In anticipation of Ancient, Strange, and Lovely, Atheneum also rereleased the other Dragon Chronicles, giving them gorgeous new covers.

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?

My novel Shadow Spinner was translated into Farsi by a well-known Iranian translator.  He invited me to a conference in Tehran.  The visa arrived too late, so at the last minute I had to tell him I wouldn’t be there.  But I later found out that, after the translator spoke about my book, there was a run on copies of Shadow Spinner at the conference.  They sold out all the copies at the event, and people went out to bookstores all over Tehran searching for the book.  A group of children at the conference had already read Shadow Spinner and had been looking forward to meeting me and talking about the book.

I was astonished.  Iranian kids reading my book!  You just never know where your books are going to go and who they’re going to touch.

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…)

Maybe the silliest one was when a group of children’s writers (including a three-time Newbery Honor winner) were invited to read from our work and answer questions at a large literary festival.  Apparently there were more writers than space available; we children’s writers were assigned to the ladies’ lounge.  It was a large and luxurious lounge to be sure, but every time someone emerged from the adjacent room, the sound of flushing toilets nearly drowned us out.

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?

Unfortunately, my most vivid pie memories involve trauma and humiliation.  I have spent many a day-before-Thanksgiving trying to wrestle a pie crust into submission.  Just never got the hang of it.  I know that some people can roll out a nice, flaky crust in the time it takes to say “Yum!”

I hate those people.

My crusts morph into weird, lopsided configurations; they crack in half; they spring leaks. Fortunately, I have discovered crisps, which are actually healthier and, in my opinion, just as tasty.  I hope you will accept crisps as a subset of pies!  This one is delicious.  I found it in Cooking Light magazine, and it’s never failed to please.

Blueberry Crisp a la Mode

6 cups blueberries

2 T. brown sugar

1 T. all-purpose flour

1 T. fresh lemon juice

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup packed brown sugar

½ cup regular oats

¾ tsp. ground cinnamon

4 ½ T. chilled butter, cut into small pieces

2 cups vanilla low-fat frozen yogurt

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2.  Combine first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl, spoon into an 11 x 7-inch baking dish.  Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup, and level with a knife.

3.  Combine 2/3 cup flour, ½ cup brown sugar, oats, and cinnamon, and cut in the butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  Sprinkle over the blueberry mixture.  Bake at 375 for 30 minutes or until bubbly.  Top each serving with ¼ cup frozen yogurt.  Yield: 8 servings.

To read other selections on the “pie-of-the-month club” menu, check out my interviews with Jane Kurtz, Toni Buzzeo, Lisa Schroeder, Jennifer Ward, Susan Blackaby, Jennifer Jacobson, Frederic HunterKimberley Griffiths Little, Stephanie Burgis, and Andrea Beaty.  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!

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