Books I Pretended to Read ‘For the Kids’

Summer vanished overnight.

My corner of the world has returned to its natural state – cold, gray drizzle.

It’s the perfect time to avoid the outside world, curl up with a mug of something warm, a plate of something fresh-baked, and a good book.

Last time, I wrote about the power historical fiction wields – the power to absorb even reluctant historians into an engaging story. In particular, I shared how I’d enjoyed reading Connie Willis’ historical sci-fi books Blackout and All Clear.

Excellent historical fiction is powerful for adults, but it might be even more powerful for young readers.

History cloaked in fiction provides something a list of facts can’t: a face. A character that kids/middle graders/young adults can relate to, empathize with, can guide them through places and times that they don’t have the background knowledge and experience to traverse alone.

I couldn’t choose just one book for this topic, oh no. One of the best things about the title ‘teacher’ is having a free pass to spend large amounts of time reading stories, because hey, it’s research!

The following are just a few of the stories I’ve come across and enjoyed.

DISCLAIMER: This list is not a recommendation to go out, buy these books, and have your child/grandchild/classroom read them, sight unseen.

My children won’t be seeing most of these for a long time yet.

After all, historical fiction deals with real people and real events. Some of these people are cruel. Some of these events are ugly. Stories can help provide teachable moments, valuable discussions, and relevant lessons, but I am a firm believer in saving books for when your child can handle them.

Books about World War 2 (Of Course 🙂 )

number the starsLois Lowry’s Newbery winning Number the Stars details the courage of Anna Marie Johansen and her family as they struggle to protect their Jewish friends in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

There’s a reason this one ends up in classrooms. It’s a moving story, building suspense without delving too deeply into the horrors of the era.

snow treasureChildren in Norway help smuggle their country’s treasure out of Nazi hands in Marie McSwigan’s Snow Treasure.

I read this one in grade-school. I still recall loving the adventure, of the story and loving that children were the heroes of the piece.

MilkweedJerry Spinelli tells the story of a nameless boy without a family  who finds and looses the people he loves in the Warsaw ghetto..

Milkweed is powerful and painful, and definitely one for older readers – honestly, I’d almost say that this is more an adult book (remembering the story to write this is making me tear up.) Still, it bears a mention on this list, as a remembrance of the terrible suffering during the days of the Holocaust.

American History

Johnny Tremain

An injury dashes Johnny Tremain’s dreams of becoming a silver-smith and launches him into the American Revolution.

Winner of the 1944 Newbery Medal, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain is another story I remember from elementary school that I still enjoy as an adult. Johnny’s growth as a character – from being on top of his world, to loosing everything, to finding himself again in a cause that he believes in – makes this book stand out as a classic.

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Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of Isabel, a slave who ought to have been freed, who searches for freedom for herself and her sister during the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War.

I bought Chains this summer just because I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket and it looked interesting. I’m so glad I did! Isabel’s story moved me to tears. (Ok, honestly? I was bawling like a baby halfway through.) Despite this, it’s not a story of despair. There’s sorrow and realism, but also hope.

Chains (and its sequels) looks at this period through the eyes of slaves. I appreciated the unique approach to the era, and the even-handedness of the author. I felt she told the story without vilifying any particular group, (which makes a refreshing change from so much of what’s going on these days!)

Out of the dustBillie Jo wrestles with terrible losses in her family during the Dust Bowl years.

It’s been a few years since I’ve picked up Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, the 1998 Newberry Winner, and I’m thinking I’ll have to reread it. It’s written as free-verse journal entries, and it’s a fast read, but full of depth. (If you haven’t explained childbirth to your kids yet, be prepared for questions. 😉 )

Dear America

Minnie’s family takes in an orphaned relative from the Texas dust bowl, and tries to ‘make do’ for a Christmas during the Depression.

The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift is part of the “Dear America” series. The series employed different authors for its books, and  I haven’t picked up others in the series, but if Katherine Lasky’s contribution is an indication of the quality, they may be worth looking into.

 

World History

The Bronze Bow

Daniel bar-Jamin hates the Romans and determines to help drive them out of Israel, until the teachings of the rabbi Jesus lead him to question whether his hatred will bring the healing he needs.

Set in Israel during the time of Christ, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow delves into the political and social struggles of the day (which fit in awfully well with all of the current world’s turmoil and hate) in an engaging and exciting way. Judging by the Amazon reviews, you don’t need to be a Christian to enjoy the story. As a Christian, I found the story a fascinating way to help me better visualize living in this era…and it’s a great read.

Magic Tree HouseIn The Magic Tree House books, Jack and Annie of Frog Creek Pennsylvania travel through time to complete quests, helped by the mythical figures of Camelot.

The Magic Tree House series includes a healthy dose of ‘fiction’ in its historical premise, as Morgan Le Fay and Merlin send Jack and Annie on quests for various magical do-dads. The series uses this fantastical premise to introduce all sorts of historical places, people and events in a very basic way. My seven and five-year-old love hearing these as read-alouds, and when Jack and Annie ended up in Normandy the day before D-Day, my daughter was excited that she was reading a World War 2 book, just like mommy.

Then, of course, there are the ones I’ve been meaning to read…

… and if you have others to suggest, I’d love to hear from you!

Happy reading, keep warm, and if you’re in a part of the world that is still enjoying sunshine, soak some up for me, won’t you?

 

 

 

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Connie Willis’ BLACKOUT: The Power of Historical Fiction

I’ve never found history a dull subject.

Walking into the highschool classroom, all geared up to begin my student teaching, it was apparent that I was in the minority.

Some freshmen and sophomores slumped in their seats, eyes glazing over in preparation for a lecture-induced coma. Others gripped pencils, grimly determined to make the grade, however painful the process might be.

No problem. After all, I was twenty-two, in my fifth year of college, and therefore knew everything I needed to motivate and excite them with THE WONDER OF LEARNING!!!

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Sigh. Young Anne. You have so much to learn…

 

Why is that highschool reaction so common? Why does it seem that so many people expect history to be dull?

Maybe it has something to do with the way it’s traditionally presented.

After all, history teachers have a great deal of information to impart in a brief period of time. Great world events are, by necessity, boiled down to bullet points, lists of dates, and a few ageing photos.

While I don’t intend to debate teaching styles, I think it’s fair to say that oftentimes the people who lived history get buried in minutia, and with them is buried a chance for the modern learner to connect and empathize with the past.

Tales of heroism and cowardice, of kindness and cruelty, can engage even the most skeptical learner.

Of course, anyone who perceives history as dull and dry is unlikely to seek out non-fiction books to find these tales.

Therein lies the power of excellent historical fiction.

I was recently introduced to Connie Willis’ novel Blackout and the sequel All Clear. (Many thanks to Sarah Higbee and her Brainfluff blog.)

I was attracted to the books by the WW2 photos on the covers, but what sold me was the twist in their storytelling- a change from my diet of nonfiction to historical science fiction.

Oxford in the year 2060 sends historians to study history first-hand, via time travel. The process has been perfected, and all (well, nearly all) of the experts are convinced that the historians are unable to affect history’s outcome. However, when Polly, Mike and Eileen are stranded in World War 2, it appears that this philosophy may be entirely wrong.

Now, I like my historical fiction with an emphasis on the ‘historical.’ (Am I the only one nerdy enough to be wee bit disappointed that I didn’t learn anything new about World War I while watching the otherwise entertaining Wonder Woman? No one else? Sigh.)

 

wonder woman
“Now, let me explain some of the inciting incidents for this particular war…” (Hm. Ok, that probably wouldn’t have worked.)

 

Ms. Willis packs in a tremendous amount of early World War 2 historical detail. I’ll confess, I suspected at one point during the first book that a few of the POV changes existed for the sole purpose of including some of her research.

Hmmm. This story is primarily set during The Blitz Ambulance drivers and Operation Fortitude fit in…where? 

I’m pleased to announce that my suspicions were unfounded. By the end of book two, (in which I felt the pacing moved along a bit better,) all plot threads were accounted for in a most satisfying way.

Of course, incorporating a great deal of factual detail risks pulling the reader out of the narrative. Long info-dumps can weaken the most fascinating story.

I felt that Ms. Willis avoided this pitfall. Her main characters were visitors in the past, so conversations and observations about the period made sense. She didn’t lean on this ‘free pass to lecture’ overmuch; information was woven into the story as the characters lived the Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuation, and caring for evacuees.

A history lecture on these events might fail to excite skeptics.

I enjoy learning about history, and I still find the facts and figures blending together at times.

Books like Ms. Willis’ give an opportunity to experience history in a different way.

We readers can briefly slip on the shoes of her characters and walk the rubble-strewn streets of London, struggle through crowded tube stations as threatening cacophony fills the skies overhead, and meet the everyday heroes who survived the struggle, one day at a time…

…and it’s all hidden in a time travel sci-fi novel.

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Side notes: Teaching history ended up being great fun. Every time I did something besides lecture, it was like I was a teaching ROCK STAR! 🙂

I enjoyed the stories and the fresh look at history that these books provided. Due to the harrowing nature of the Blitz and some language used in response to the dangers, this one’s not for the little ‘uns. 🙂 I’m planning to blog on historical fiction for younger audiences next time. (Ahem. Younger in theory. I still like them.)

At some point I’m going to get some more non-fiction on here, when I can climb out from under the piles of sheet music I’m trying to learn…

Thanks for visiting!

 

 

 

Sweet Stories

I had the best intentions.

I enjoy writing. I love my children.

How hard could it be to keep a journal of their milestones? How could I possibly fail to record the cute things they said, and the humorous little anecdotes of their early years?

The pile of blank journals available for use when I started writing stories again speaks for itself.

I’m terrible at keeping regular records. Even our photo albums fell off after the first child. (Yes, we are the cliché family. Millions of pictures printed off of the firstborn, and a few of the second. Wait, there’s a third?)

While I don’t have the detailed records I dreamed of, or even the basic ones that I thought realistic, my children’s little stories surface in unexpected places.

This week it was through birthday cake.

Since I have a difficult time seeing toys and gifts as anything other than future messes to clean, (not more Legos! Noooooooooo!) my husband tends to be the birthday shopper in the family.

My contribution is the cake.

I love to bake. Usually I focus on taste rather than appearance- fancy frosting and designs aren’t my specialty. For birthdays I make an exception. My children  come up with their design requests, and I do my best to fulfill them.

The cakes may not be professional or perfect, but I treasure these old pictures. Each design holds a story, a glimpse of who my children were.

My firstborn always expressed herself well, and had very specific wishes as a three year old. We had cats, so it had to be a cat cake. A pink kitty cake with blue frosting, and sprinkles.

I did my best.

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The frosting didn’t cooperate, but I was the only one who minded.

She grew, and the commercial world intruded.

My husband or I had brought home a DVD of some of the 1980’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. Our little girl was an instant fan.

Still, just as in all of our games, she added her own twist- “I want a ninja turtle riding a tiger. In the snow. With gummy worms.”

cake

This year she requested a ‘Shopkins’ cake. This marked the first year public opinion swayed her- she became interested in Shopkins because of friends at school.

It also marks the first (though likely not the last) time that my children have gotten excited about something that I don’t understand at all.

“It’s food…with faces?” I asked her.

“Yes! Aren’t they cute?”

Cute’s not the first word that comes to mind…I’m not sure I like the thought of my food looking at me…

For her, I gave it a try.

shopkin cake

My son’s requests have been entirely different.

He’s loved vehicles and machinery since infancy. At three, the cake had to have motorcycles with roads and trees.

motorcycle cake

Next year he wanted vehicles again- airplanes.

airplane cake

I expected spaceships this year, but he surprised me.

“I want a cake with water.”

Water?

He loves the water. I almost had to carry him back to the rocks of the shore on his first beach excursion- he just wanted to wade, no matter how wet his tennis shoes got. He has added a river or lake to every scene in his National Park coloring book, including the desert and cave pictures, because “it makes them look better.”

It took a little imagining, but he was happy with the results.

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They’re supposed to be waves 🙂

 

My youngest is the animal lover. The others like animals, she adores them.

Hedgehogs are her favorite, especially her stuffed “Mr. Snuffles,” hence last year’s cake in her favorite color.

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This year it had to be a “fishy cake,” and she’s already planning on a polar bear for next year…but who knows? They grow and change and even a small thing like a birthday cake design marks the passage of time.

fishy cake

I love the little stories that these cakes bring to mind- memories of happy days that are receding too quickly into the past.

No, I haven’t got complete, detailed life-journals to hand to my children someday. I’m thankful that the memories, stories and glimpses of who they were survive even my poor record-keeping.

 

Have you encountered any little things in your life lately, things that brought up half-forgotten memories or moments from the past? Do you have tricks to keeping your family’s important memories close?

 

The Invisible Volcano and Keeping Writing Flexible

I looked forward to this week’s post for about six months.

Our family and several friends  invaded and conquered Seaquest State Park’s ‘Yurt Village’ for an end-of-summer camping trip. (Well, ‘conquered’ in the sense that we made reservations months ago…but in my opinion, camping with small children deserves more adventurous-sounding verbs.)

 

IMG_9584
“Yurt, sweet Yurt”

 

Like most of western Washington’s state parks, Seaquest sports towering evergreens girded with huckleberry bushes and clumps of sword ferns. It’s pretty and peaceful. The real draw, however, is its neighbor.

Mount St Helen'sMount St. Helen’s impressed herself into American memory with a catastrophic eruption which climaxed in the collapse of the peak on May 18th, 1980.

 

Mt St Helen's
For perspective: The mountain before the eruption.

My husband and I hadn’t visited the Mount St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument for twelve years or so. I remembered it as a broken, blasted landscape, still eerily empty two and a half decades after the big blow out.

On this trip, I hoped to return to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, a close viewpoint to the crater, where the words of the man for whom the observatory is named are immortalized.

“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”

Unfortunately for him, it was.

I looked forward to sharing a blog filled with pictures taken by my talented other half, and even had a ‘writing connection’ planned out- how the history of a setting affects the mood of our writing.

I think it could have been an interesting piece.

The volcano didn’t cooperate.

 

IMG_9572
There it is! Or that’s where it’s supposed to be…

 

The crater was entirely covered in haze. The members of our party who attempted the drive to the observatory found the same.

No volcano. No pictures. No blog article.

And no new ideas.

Except… it does serve as an example of why writers need to keep flexible…

Yeah, that could work!

Maybe your writing experience has been like mine. My best laid plans, whether for blogs, for plot points, for character backgrounds, for (insert any that apply here) constantly need adaptation.

Some changes I choose to make.

Others, I’ve been forced into.

For instance, the manuscript I’m querying for right now is historical fiction, set during the Second World War. When I started writing the piece, I already had my story arc planned out. Research, I was certain, would put flesh on the skeleton.

I hadn’t finalized the locations for all of the story events, but I had some exciting ideas. I was fascinated by unfamiliar places and names- names like Tobruk and The Desert Fox and El Alamein. I dove into sources detailing the conflicts in North Africa.

Things went well, and I wrote some scenes that felt vivid and interesting and as if they’d fit the story just right…

…and then I found one, fatal piece of information. During the time period I was scouring, the Allies were not in control of the Mediterranian. Transport to and from these North African conflicts would require an 8 week voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

This one fact completely destroyed my timeline for the rest of the story.

Oh, I tried to wiggle around it, adapt a few things, invent some convoluted backstory, but I finally had to admit it- my characters couldn’t have been there.

Delete. Delete. Delete. Back to the books.

This wasn’t the first, or the last, time the facts forced my story to change. I’d already had to drop my research on the Norwegian campaign (sorry, distant relatives!) and would subsequently axe  bits with V1 rockets, the ‘Baby Blitz,’ and a little section with the history of the cherry tree. Granted, that last one didn’t really have much to do with anything except a clumsy attempt at symbolism. It was a good cut 🙂

As a matter of fact, they were all good cuts.

Every time I hit a roadblock, every time I found that my expectations didn’t fit reality, every time I had to rewrite and rethink, I had another opportunity to grow and improve. Flexibility in my rewrites enabled me to eliminate the dross.

I imagine that this applies to writing in other genres, too. After all, unless you are writing an entirely new universe with rules that don’t match any of ours, (and if you are, I’d like to shake your hand- that’s no mean feat,) it’s likely that you’ve got some background research to do, whether it’s the proper mix of gasses for a dirigible, the load-bearing capabilities of swallows, or just how far the sound of the murder weapon will carry with or without a silencer.

The writer’s willingness to keep their story flexible, to learn the facts and build their fiction around those facts shows through in a polished finished product.

When the facts aren’t there… I’m not certain if the author of the ‘Farm’ board book my children received didn’t quite understand the “facts of life,” if it was a typo, or if they were just confused as to how pronouns work, but somehow the cows were all referred to as ‘he.’ As a child of dairy country, I can’t help laughing a bit when we get to that page. (I’ve tried to explain, but the kids still don’t quite get it.)

 

cow
(Pssst! Just in case, ‘cow’ always refers to the females. If it’s male, it’s a bull or a steer.  Bonus fact: the pretty black-and-white ones are Holsteins. :))

 

Forcing myself to be flexible is hard work, but it doesn’t have to be devastating.

After all, we didn’t see a volcano, but our kids likely enjoyed chasing each other around the woods more than they would have enjoyed educational hikes.

My fictional characters couldn’t get to all of the places I wanted to send them, but I kept their story tighter and more believable.

I didn’t get a photoblog about Mount St. Helen’s, but I was able to share this experience instead.  I also now have a reason to plan another yurt trip someday, and maybe next time we’ll see that volcano, and that bear we think we heard snuffling around!

yurts

Have any of your writing (or other) plans gone in unexpected directions lately?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Tips for Surviving the ‘Query Crazies’

cat waiting
If I just…stare…hard enough…

I am excellent at encouraging my children to be patient.

I am less than excellent at following my own advice.

When I submitted my first round of query letters to literary agents a couple of weeks ago, I knew that waiting for a response was just part of the game.

Ok, they all say to wait four to six weeks for a response. No problem. I’ll just keep busy and not even think about it until then.

Riiiiight.

I kept that resolve for about….half a day?

Throwing that query letter out into the world where I have no control over it, and waiting, waiting to get a request for more… or a rejection… or (THE WORST) no response at all, has left me a bit nervous.

SO, in case any of you are in the same boat, (or just want to share in my misery- thanks!) I’ve written the following handy guide to surviving the ‘query crazy.’

  1. Don’t obsess over your e-mail Inbox. After all, if an agent is going to write back, they’re going to do it on their own time. It’s not as if you’re going to get a manuscript request withdrawn by not responding immediately. (But just in case you will, maybe check just one more time.)
  2. Remind yourself that everything is a process. Whether you get picked up at this time or not doesn’t eliminate the hours…and hours…and hours you put into your manuscript. (And if you DO get picked up, you’ll likely be spending more hours on it. So really, this is like a mini-vacation!)
  3. Catch up on housework. If you are like me, during the crazy writing and researching and submission processes, something in your cluttered sink has begun smelling like death. It’s as good a time to mend this as any.
  4. Stop! I said don’t obsess over your e-mail. But, if you need to check if your mom has responded to your last and you just happen to check the rest of your inbox, who can blame you?
  5. Bake. You’re cleaning the kitchen anyway. It’s always more fun to clean when something is baking in the oven, and then when you have the urge to stress-snack you have something homemade.  So far in this process we’ve made it through two chocolate zucchini cakes. (Hey, it has zucchini in it after all- it’s practically a salad.)
  6. Remind yourself that rejection is typical. After all, Kate DiCamillo was rejected 47(?) times before Because of Winn Dixie was picked up, and then she won the Newberry.*
  7. Ride out the mood swings. “I hate my story now! It’s awful and they won’t like it either!” is not productive. You liked it before, remember? You will again. Be confident!
  8. Let it go. Yes, you just realized you missed a typo in the first query you sent out. Don’t panic. Improve your proofreading, and hope that she won’t hold that ‘who’ rather than ‘whom’ against you
  9. Try not to drive your friends crazy. You may get urges to pester sweetly ask your spouse/friend/beta reader/random facebook acquaintance for reassurance. “You like my story, right? Right? What about this bit? What about this character? What about…?” Settle down, friend.
  10. Don’t check that e-mail again! It’s after working hours now- they won’t be writing you. (Unless they picked up your pages at the end of the day and just couldn’t put them down…maybe one more check…)

Hang in there, writers! And to the rest of you, thanks for your patience!

Anyone else have tips to make waiting (whatever your current wait is 🙂 ) more bearable?

 

* This is based off of my memories of a wonderful presentation she gave while I was in college. Knowing my memory… well, I’m reasonably sure the number is correct, but feel free to prove me wrong!

 

The Blitz

It’s time!

It’s time to continue the series of articles on major World War 2 events that I began with After Dunkirk: The Fall of France and The Battle of Britain!

We’ll pick up chronologically right after the last, and take a brief look at the story of The Blitz.

Observer corps
Tens of thousands of men, women and youths participated in the Observer Corps, watching for enemy planes and supplementing the still-inadequate radar systems of the day.

The British knew the bombs were coming.

With Hitler’s forces just across the Channel, attacks were inevitable.

They had taken early precautions, evacuating around 800,000 mothers and children from cities in September of 1939, but when the threat did not immediately materialize, many returned to their homes.

About a year later, on September 7th, 1940, Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe shifted its attacks from RAF facilities to civilian centers. Attacks changed from daylight runs with specific targets, to night attacks on the massive population of London.

The people endured continuous bombing raids every night until November 3.

For the first three nights, London’s few anti-aircraft guns remained silent in the hopes that their pilots would be able to engage the Luftwaffe craft successfully.

Night fighting…didn’t go as well as hoped. On September 10th the guns opened up. Winston Churchill reflected,

“This roaring cannonade did not do much harm to the enemy, but gave enormous satisfaction to the population. Everyone was cheered by the feeling that we were hitting back. From that time onward the batteries fired regularly, and of course practice, ingenuity, and grinding need steadily improved the shooting.”               (From his memoir Their Finest Hour, pg 343)

Air raid sirens (sometimes) warned the citizenry of incoming attacks- the sound became almost commonplace. Mr. Churchill also recorded his memories of watching people vacating the streets at the sound of one, “except for long queues of very tired, pale people, waiting for the last bus that would run.”

The government provided families individual shelters free of charge or for low cost. The Anderson Shelter was made of corrugated metal and could be buried in the garden. The metal Morrison Shelter could fit in place of a dining table. These protected their occupants from debris or shrapnel. They could not withstand a direct hit.

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Photo from http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

Others found public shelters or slept in the Tube beneath the city. Still others remained in their homes or workplaces when the alarms sounded, carrying on in spite of it all.

Different types of bombs brought different types of danger and damage. Time bombs and regular bombs that did not explode on impact necessitated the forming of unexploded bomb (U.X.B.) disposal squads. This tense, dangerous work left its mark.

“In writing about our hard times, we are apt to overuse the word “grim.” It should have been reserved for the U.X.B. disposal squads.” (Churchill 362)

October’s full moon brought another horror- 70,000 incendiary bombs dropped along with the regular load of explosives. Rather than taking cover, the people of London were encouraged to head to the roofs. They organized fire-watchers and fire-services to combat the destruction.

On November 3 the London air raid sirens remained silent for the first time in nearly two months. The Luftwaffe had changed focus again, dispersing their targets to various industrial centers.

Coventry suffered their blitz on November 14th. Six hundred tons of high-explosives as well as incendiary bombs dropped, killing four hundred people and seriously injuring many others.

Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool…the list of cities struck by German bombs grew.

On December 29th the Germans planned another assault on London to correspond with the low tide. Having also destroyed the water-mains, they rained incendiary bombs over London, starting nearly fifteen hundred fires.

london blitz

The bombings slowed by May of 1941, as Hitler turned his attention towards attacking Russia.

These painful eight months left tremendous damage to property and homes, 43,000 civilians dead, and Great Britain’s resolve undiminished.

Of course, the end of the ‘official’ Blitz did not signal the end of bombings. The Allies and Axis traded explosives of increasing power throughout the war, to tremendous loss of military and civilian life. Mr. Churchill reflected,

“Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!” (pg. 349)

 

NEXT TIME: It may take me a while to get my research lined up as fall is a busy time, but I’m planning on the next history article to visit the campaigns in North Africa. I hope you’ll come along!

OH, WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

This is a recording of a rather wonderful speech Winston Churchill gave during this time- worth a listen if you’ve got five minutes.

If you are interested in more detail on this period from people who have studied it much longer than I have, the following sites might be of interest.

General information: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/the_blitz

Memories of people who LIVED it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c1161/

Information on Anderson/Morrison shelters: http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

Nightmare Season

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Photo courtesy of Johannes Plenio via Unsplash.com

It’s my nightmare season.

I had my first one just this week. After twelve years, I ought to expect them.

Each is a little different, but it’s just a theme and variations. I’ve named them “the teacher nightmares.”

I stand in front of the classroom.  I have all of my plans in my head, ready to go, and I haven’t remembered to prepare any of the materials.

Chaos slowly consumes the classroom as the children, sensing weakness, descend into anarchy. Nothing I say or do makes any difference.

I am completely ineffective.

Granted, as nightmares go, my “teacher nightmare” is a mild example. I wake feeling uneasy, and it takes a while (and a few successful lessons) to be fully comfortable again.

Some of the other dreams that drift in from time to time…they aren’t so easy to shake.

Am I right in supposing that each of us has at least one nightmare that we can’t forget? One that haunts us and lends weight to the fear of the sailors in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when they realize that they are in danger of running aground on the isle where such dreams take on flesh and bone?

No, my annual nighttime expressions of classroom anxiety aren’t my worst dreams- not by a long way. At least they serve a useful purpose- they keep me on my mettle as far as planning and preparation!

After all, fear is a powerful motivator.

The start of ‘nightmare season’ got me thinking about novels that use dreams- specifically nightmares.

For instance, in Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, Jane’s pre-nuptial nightmares blend in to a frightening reality, warning her that the future may not be as bright as she hopes. (If you haven’t read it yet, yes, I KNOW it’s long, and has a great deal of backstory at the beginning. I still LOVE IT!)

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (Charlotte’s sister) uses a nightmare in the beginning of the novel to introduce the main storyline- the tragic relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine.

Other classics such as Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Macbeth involve characters tormented by nighttime terrors.

More recently, the ever popular Harry Potter’s nightmares not only terrified, but provided valuable (though at times, unreliable) information, and Katniss Everdeen’s nightmares strengthened her bond with Peeta, her fellow Hunger Games contestant.

Of late, I’ve worked on writing some nightmares myself. My male protagonist in my WW2 novel is a platoon sergeant. While James is able to keep his fears in check and put on a brave face during waking hours, sleep brings little rest. He is haunted by dreams- flashbacks twisted to remind him of every way he has failed and could fail the men he’s responsible for. He runs the risk of being crippled by survivor’s guilt- made inneffective by his fears.

If you’re writing just now, and are working towards well-rounded characters, it’s worth taking some time to consider how fear motivates them. How will they react when their nightmares appear to be coming true? Will fear and foreboding galvanize them to action, or paralyze them?

Can you think of any other examples of nightmares/dreams in stories you’ve read or written or watched? Did they ‘work’ for the story?

In any case, I’ll close tonight by wishing us all sweet dreams. 🙂

 

EPILOGUE: Teaching day one went well. No supplies forgotten, minimal anarchy, no bleeding or tears. Chalking it up as a win 😉

 

 

 

 

Watching Over Me: A German Girl’s World War II Story of Survival and a Quest for Peace

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Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on Unsplash.com

I try to resist my addiction.

With the bookshelves in our home full to overflowing, in some cases stacked triple-deep, I try to focus on using the public library for new reading material.

Still, exceptions must be made! When an acquaintance of a friend of a friend published a book, AND it happened to be a World War 2 memoir, what choice did I have?

Watching over meWatching Over Me , by Rachel Hartman, records the recollections of Elfi Gartzke, supplemented by her mother and other relatives.

Elfi was born in eastern Germany in 1940. Her family did not subscribe to the ideologies of the Nazi party. Devout Christians, they managed to lead fairly quiet lives on their acreage as war consumed the world around them.

This changed in 1944 as her father, (along with all men between the ages of 16 to 60 who could bear arms,) was drafted into the Volkssturm, or “people’s army.” He was sent away to an unknown location just before Christmas.

His family still knew nothing of his whereabouts- or even if he were still alive- when they fled their home in January of 1945 to escape the advancing Russian army.

They managed to find transport via train. The journey was interspersed with frantic scrambles to shelters to avoid falling bombs, where Elfi’s mother, ‘Mutti,’ would sing hymns in the dark to comfort her three children.

Reaching the relative safety of Harksheide, a city farther west, Elfi’s family struggled to build new lives in the rubble. As refugees, they faced negative attitudes, inadequate housing, and meager food allotments.

In spite of the challenges, this memoir is anything but bleak.  Trouble was interspersed with joys, such as the return of Elfi’s father. Elfi still experienced some of the simple pleasures of childhood: making friends, finding a place to play (even if it was only a particularly large bomb crater,) and receiving her first doll. Through all, her Mutti strove to keep their hopes alive and their faith strong.

Largely told from a child’s memories, Watching Over Me was quite different from the other books I’ve read about the same era. Elfi’s concerns were primarily relegated to day-to-day life. Her perspective was a poignant reminder of the suffering that lingers on both sides of a conflict, even after the hostilities of war have ended.

The author also interspersed some significant ‘big picture’ events into Elfi’s narrative. She dealt frankly, if briefly, with the horrible crimes committed under Hitler’s regime. She also related dates in Elfi’s life with events in the world, such as the Berlin Airlift, the conflicts in Korea, and the beginnings of the space program.

The last third of the book described the family’s emigration to the United States, sponsored by a kind stranger from Nebraska and their subsequent lives- learning a new language and a different culture. While I hadn’t expected this much post-war information, I found the stories interesting. My family left their European roots a few generations before Elfi’s, but I imagine some of the experiences were similar.

Overall, I found Watching Over Me an enjoyable and uplifting anecdotal history of faith and family, and a worthy addition to my bulging bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding and Losing Time

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“Put me in your hair,” says my baby, (who isn’t anymore, really.)

“What? Put you in my hair?”

“Put me in your hair, because I’m a flower!”

She proceeds to attempt to climb onto my head as I laugh and try to preserve my spine.

She’s spent the summer weaving dandelions into my hair and tucking them behind my ears.  From time to time she tries to keep up with the ‘big kids,’ but generally she’s content to wander along her own path, inhabiting a hidden world of imagination.

And she still wants me to come along.

The others run off together to play games of their own invention, only interrupted sporadically by sibling squabbles. I love to see them grow and bond, and to hear the elaborate stories they create together. I enjoy regaining time to follow my own pursuits.

Still…

The time I’ve gained is bittersweet. They’re moving beyond me.

This one, the last, stands at the foot of the rocking chair as I begin the article I planned for today, and smiles sweetly. “Mommy, will you play with me?” (She uses perfect grammar, but always in that irresistible baby lisp.)

I hesitate, then sigh. There’s so little time…

“Ok, honey.”

Her eyes light up as if we hadn’t played together in weeks. (It’s been about fifteen minutes.) “Oh, thank you!”

The dandelions are all going to seed, and the summer is waning, and next year my baby might not want to put flowers in her hair and mine.

The article can wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deepest Fears #4: What If My Setting is ALL WRONG?

There are plenty of things to poke fun at in Minnesota.

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This could be the view from my childhood home…except I don’t recall being able to see any barns. And it should be flatter…Corn. Just picture corn.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my home state. But just as it’s easy to give a beloved family member a hard time for his quirks, it’s easy to laugh at the little absurdities of a familiar place.

Of course, it’s not comfortable for someone ELSE to poke fun at your family…or your home.

This is why I cringe a bit when the big movie companies attempt to set films in the Midwest.

Maybe you remember the movie that came out a few years back, “New in Town”? It was set in New Ulm, MN.

I spent a considerable amount of time in New Ulm, and no, I never met a cow in the road. Still, the little river town has plenty of quirks.

The movie missed them all.

 

Sure, they had a lot of jokes about snow, and yes, Minnesota gets a bit chilly. (Ok, fine. It’s cold enough that your snot freezes when you go outside most Januaries. It just makes us stronger!)

The problem is, the ‘it’s cold in the north!’ gag could be applied to thousands of locations.

New Ulm is fairly distinctive, as little Minnesota towns go. It has German immigrant roots, and it’s pretty proud of its heritage- hence the big glockenspiel downtown, and the statue of Herman the German up on ‘the hill.’

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‘Herman the German’ led German tribes against the Romans in the early A.D.s, and now he sits atop a prime sledding hill in New Ulm, MN

It also completely closes down by 8pm, so college kids, desperate for excitement, used to cruise around the aisles of the 24 hour Hy-Vee grocery store. (Rumor has it a Wal-Mart went in, so maybe there are more options now.)

I could go on, but my point is that the film’s writers chose a place that has some interesting quirks, but having never been there, they only took easy shots. “Hey! Let’s talk about snow! Oooh, and at least one character’s gotta have that goofy Midwest accent!”

I don’t imagine that these decisions affected the success of the film. Plenty of friends with New Ulm connections saw it and enjoyed it, and I didn’t come out of it outraged, just a bit disappointed.

And, thinking about it now, more than a bit frightened.

You see, while I’ve visited the majority of the ‘lower 48’ of the United States, I haven’t had much chance to leave the country.

Growing up in Minnesota, we made the occasional trip up over the border to Canada. These weren’t extensive visits, they were more along the lines of, “Hey! I went shopping in Canada! Culture!!!”

We went to Aruba for our honeymoon (AMAZING) and were excited to get local money and go to local shops  and sites rather than the touristy places. The poor kid at the store where we bought provisions was completely flummoxed when we didn’t hand him American dollars. He figured out how to make proper change…eventually.

Aside from a very seasick trip to Victoria, British Columbia, that’s it.

And here I am, trying to produce a realistic story, set in an era I don’t live in, and on a continent I’ve never visited.

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I’ve tried, oh how I’ve tried, to do it well.

I’ve poured over maps and histories so that my characters are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be.

I’ve lost count of the number of first-hand sources I’ve read to get the ‘flavor’ of the times and places. I’ve focused hours on cadences of speech and proper word usage.  (I had no idea that ‘tea’ could mean so many different things!)

I’ve found travel books at the library to get pictures of the landscapes and of construction materials common to different areas.

I’ve checked locations of railway lines.

I’ve checked native plants and when they’d be blooming.

I’ve checked weather conditions…

…and while I keep telling myself that I’ve done the work and it should be fine, I still have this sinking feeling that if anyone who LIVES in any of the areas I write about reads this book, they’ll KNOW. They’ll know that I’m writing as an outsider.

Here’s where the fear rears its ugly head: will my attempts be taken as they are meant- as an homage, though perhaps an imperfect one?

I hope so.

Maybe next time I just need to come up with an exciting plot set in a corn field.

Writers- how do you cope with writing in unfamiliar settings? (Or do you just avoid it?!)