makoons.jpgThe Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich is often compared to the Little House series, held up as a kind of non-racist version of 19th-century life from a Native American point of view (in this case, an Ojibwe family). There are plenty of obvious parallels–the time period, the focus on slice-of-life family dynamics, the semi-regular threat of starvation/disease/winter–but such a comparison belittles Erdrich’s work, which is so much more fun and nuanced than Little House ever was.

One of the things that always bothered me about Little House (in addition to the racism and Pa’s insistence on dragging the family into ever-more-perilous situations to suit his wanderlust) was its inflexibility. The adults were always right. The kids were only good as long as they stayed quiet and obedient. And can we talk about how annoying Mary was, with her holier-than-thou selflessness? Continue Reading »

Old news to the world, but new news to me so Imma blog about it: Neil Gaiman guest starred on “Arthur.”

In the episode, “Falafelosophy,” Gaimen shows up as a pale unidentified animal with pointy ears and encourages Sue Ellen through the process of writing her first graphic novel, first as himself and then as a falafel-sized figment of Sue Ellen’s imagination.

“Trust your heart, trust your story,” Falafel-Gaimen tells her, when she frets that her friends won’t enjoy her weird story about feuding triangles and circles. “You can’t assume your audience are all squares!”

Other classic lines include:

“Neil Gaiman, what are you doing in my falafel?”

(response) “I’m your Neil Gaiman. I’m your inner Neil, as it were.”

“You don’t want to be stuck with a warm smoothing. It’s like drinking fruity bathwater.”

“Writing can’t be just about pleasing other people. You’ve got a story to tell and you’re the only one who can tell it.”

And this quote from Instructions: “What you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

The folks behind Arthur are on point with their guest stars. Since Neil Gaimean is like a gateway drug for elementary kids to nerdy, creepily imaginative and emotionally honest stories and writing, this is an extremely encouraging episode for any budding writer. Here it is in all its animated Neil Gaiman glory:

littleHouseMaking the drive from the Dakotas to Missouri, I passed the exit for De Smet, South Dakota, aka the town where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake through The First Four Years are set. This awoke a deep nostalgia in me, and the urge to revisit the series starting with Little House on the Prairie. (Sorry, Big Woods. I wasn’t in Wisconsin.)

Rereading Little House was a strange visit. On one hand, some parts were as charming as my childhood memories of Laura’s pioneering life. Then again, I’m astounded the Ingalls managed to stay alive for the entire book, much less the series. As protective as Pa is of his family, he has no qualms about putting them in dangerous situations to begin with.

I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to point this out, but I kept a running tally of all the ways they could have died on the prairie:

  1. The ice cracks the day after the Ingalls crossed over the frozen Mississippi River in their covered wagon from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Indian Territories aka Kansas.
  2. Then they ford a rising creek where their horses almost drown.
  3. While building the walls of their log cabin, Ma narrowly avoids getting crushed to death by a rolling log.
  4. Their cabin is encircled by a pack of wolves at night and they don’t have a real door — only a quilt nailed across the door frame.
  5. Pa and their nearest neighbor Mr. Scott dig a well and narrowly avoid being overcome by fumes underground.
  6. Pa, Ma, Mary and Laura contract “fever ‘n’ ague” aka malaria and it’s unclear who is taking care of baby Carrie while the rest of the family is delirious and bedridden. (Baby Carrie gets ignored during this chapter.)
  7. The chimney attached to their wooden house catches fire.
  8. The prairie surrounding their wooden house catches fire.
  9. A panther visits them.
  10. The U.S. government is in the process of “resettling” the Indians from their land, and meanwhile the Ingalls are homesteading illegally on Osage land, though they don’t realize this until the end of the book. It’s amazing every encounter the family has with an Indian doesn’t end badly…

salt to the seaI remember watching “Titanic” for the first time and refusing to get sucked in by Jack, Rose and their brief but ill-fated romance (though I did shed a tear for the brave string quartet, who serenaded the sinking ship with a dignified rendition of “Nearer, my God, to Thee”) because the ending was a foregone conclusion.

So when I read the book jacket for Salt to the Sea, about the actual worst maritime disaster that I had never heard of, I wondered how author Ruta Septys would tell the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff in a way that would escape the feeling of inevitability without actually escaping the inevitable.

Septys kept things lively by dedicating a good part of the story to the dynamics between three of the four POV characters as they journey from somewhere frozen in Prussia to the equally frigid port where the Wilhelm Gustloff and the fourth character await.

For Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse separated from her family–pay attention to who her relatives are–guilt is a hunter.

For Florian, a disillusioned Prussian teenager on a secret high stakes mission, fate is a hunter.

For Emilia, a Polish girl caught between the Germans and the Russians, shame is a hunter.

For Alfred, a sailor on the Wilhelm Gustloff desperate to prove himself to the girl next door and to the Third Reich, fear is a hunter.

Continue Reading »

My side of the water tower


Up close and personal with a 24 day old peregrine falcon chick. This is what it must feel like to be a NatGeo photographer.

Confession: I became obsessed with peregrine falcons for a time after reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain as a child. During recess, I would scan the skies for the definitive peregrine silhouette, widespread wings and long tail feathers, and wonder if I could track the bird to a cliff side nest where I could snatch a chick to raise as my own, as Sam did with Frightful. (Granted, that was probably illegal, even back in my day, and I could never tell kites, hawks, and sometimes, low flying crows apart.)

Nevertheless, I had the chance to live my childhood dream when I got to pet four fluffy chicks that were temporarily removed from their lofty water tower nest for banding. At 24 days old, the chicks were too young to do much except flap their wings and squawk indignantly at being handled in such an undignified manner.


This is exactly what it looks like. The chick is temporarily placed into a purple plastic pumpkin so it can be weighed on the scale. Females are larger and heavier than males.

Give them another two weeks to grow, and they’ll be soaring and swooping with the best of them.


In two weeks, these primary feathers will be light, long and strong enough to help this guy or gal reach speeds of up to 220 mph during dives.

I later found out there’s a whole color-coded system for banding peregrines. The chicks I touched were banded with black over red ankle rings, signifying that they were from the eastern U.S., even though they were technically Midwest/Great Plains birds. I should find out what that’s about.


Confession: ever since we set foot in the young adult department at the Cambridge Public Library and casually asked librarian Maya Escobar for book recommendations, we’ve been secretly plotting how to get her to do a Q&A with us.

When we finally got around to asking her about the state of YA–including common misconceptions about YA books and readers–and what it’s like to be a YA librarian, she graciously agreed.

picture day

Photo courtesy of Maya Escobar, who’s clearly showing off her love of comics!

1. How did you become the CPL YA librarian?

I first worked at Cambridge Public Library part time, mostly in the evenings, when I first got out of college.  I worked at the checkout desk and met and observed all kinds of interesting folks — not just library visitors, also my co-workers!  Then I went off for a bit and worked in graphic design and publications, ending up at a nonprofit called YouthBuild USA.  I really liked being back in a nonprofit setting, which was also geared towards improving the lives of young people.  But I missed having more face-to-face interactions with those people; I was mostly sitting in front of a computer, working on layout and editing.

Around that time I ran into CPL’s director, Susan Flannery, on the T, and she said if I ever wanted to come back to the library she was sure there would be something for me.  So I went in for an informational interview with the current head children’s librarian at the time, and learned more about what was involved in becoming a children’s librarian.  I decided that I wanted to go for it, and applied to the GSLIS program at Simmons and an entry level position at CPL at the same time.  And those both worked out!  So here I am🙂

2. Best job perk?

I work with really wonderful, smart, creative people!  And the children’s staff at Main has always been made up of a fun group of people who are really passionate about this work and have wonderful senses of humor.  I also like not having a formal dress code.  After working in the financial district, I can tell you: khaki pants NEVER AGAIN.

Continue Reading »

wind and firedarkestpartofforest

The first time Sarah Rees Brennan read A Tale of Two Cities, she dropped it in the bathtub because it made her so upset. Too bad it was a first edition copy that belonged to her grandmother.

Family trauma aside, Brennan liked the book so much she ended up writing a retelling, she explained on Thursday during a talk at Brookline Booksmith. Holly Black (author of the wonderful Doll Bones) was also there, but most of the conversation revolved around Brennan’s Tell the Wind and Fire.

As Brennan sees it, the beauty of a retelling is the opportunity to both praise and insult the original author. She kept what she liked from Dickens’ novel (the basic plot, a sad ending, the key characters) and threw out the bad stuff. Most importantly, while Dickens’ Lucie Manette rarely talks and has no agency (she’s too busy fainting in carriages, Brennan noted, but “I’m pretty sure ladies could talk back then.”), Brennan makes Lucie the protagonist. And she definitely talks (she also fights, and does powerful magic). Brennan then took Dickens’ weakest plot point–the coincidental resemblance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay–and makes it integral to the plot, by giving Lucie’s boyfriend a doppelganger created by magic. Continue Reading »