Interview: Kathleen Krull

Interview with Kathleen Krull, award winning author of books for children

By Rani Simons and Devi Simons
Kathleen Krull is an author most noted for her 60-some award-winning, compelling, well-researched and sometimes hilarious biographies for children. Ranging in subject from history to art, music to science, from athletes to pirates, she has garnered numerous awards and has captured the attention of a very young audience with her unique and entertaining style of writing non-fiction. Her works include the Women Who Broke The Rules series, the Lives of series, and the Giants of Science series. You can find out more about the author and her works at www.kathleenkrull.com.

Devi: Why do you choose to write mostly nonfiction?

Basically, I’m nosy. But I’m also intrigued by the shape and structure of a person’s life–the arc, the story of it. As stories, biographies are some of the very best–people have definite beginnings, middles, and demises. I’m motivated by the challenge of trying to write about a life in a pithy, meaningful way–sculpting with words a portrait that conveys the essence of a person–accurately yet dramatically.

Rani: You make people from a long time ago seem like they’d be fun to hang out with now. How do you make your nonfiction so fun?

To hold their own against all the competition for a child’s time, nonfiction books have to reflect something special.  As with fiction, every sentence in nonfiction is there for a reason, reflecting endless choices within a structure designed to meet some challenge.  For me, mixing in fictional elements would seem like cheating. Instead I try to make fresh, contemporary choices from my research–little ironies, amusing juxtapositions, concrete details, strengths and weaknesses. I use a “warts and all” approach because I want to write biographies for kids living in the real world.  I know readers have to survive all kinds of hurts and traumas; my way of helping is to dramatize how people in the past have done it

Devi: After you do your research, how do you choose what to use and what not to use in the book?

I play detective, by which I mean I’m a heavy user of the library.  I read mostly secondary sources and scour them for juicy details that make information come alive.  I’m taking the fruits of other people’s labors, the most scholarly biographies I can find, and looking for the “good parts.”  I research tons of material, gleaning a mountain of stuff I think is most interesting, and then revise, tinker, revise, edit, whittle, and then do some more revising to get what I hope is the very tiptop of the mountain.  If there is a magic key to what I do, it’s this: After I soak up all the information, I don’t use it all. Being selective is the trick. Because children’s books are short, the text must get to the point so quickly that all the “boring parts” must go.

Rani: How do you decide what to write about?

I think ideas come from paying attention, listening, observing. One thing I pay attention to is what I’m passionate about.  A lifelong passion for music (I grew up playing several musical instruments) inspired Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought). The point of view in all the Lives of books comes from my fascination with neighbors– which is common, I think, though I did go to extremes and marry one of mine, Paul Brewer (editorial: who also illustrates some of her books).

Devi: We love your books about women who break the rules. Why did you decide to write about them?

As a full-time writer, I find that one of my mightiest challenges is my own city: If you’ve ever been to San Diego, you know its sunny temptations. I won’t tell you how many years it took me to get some discipline. A big help is choosing topics that are so vital to me that I don’t want to leave my desk. Probably the biggest of these is women’s history. It’s fascinating, still underreported, and more important than ever for inspiring young girls to break confining rules, to control their own lives, and to take up leadership. Wilma Unlimited came out of this interest, as did books on Pocahontas, Louisa May Alcott, and others. I consider the crown jewel of the “Lives of…” series, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt, to be Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (and What the Neighbors Thought). I’d been angst-y during Lives of the Presidents – just one guy after another. It was a joy to write about women with real power – although the mystery deepened: Why has this country never had a woman President? I explored this question in A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull. She was the first woman to run for the office, back in 1872, when women couldn’t even vote. Hers is a little-known story of a woman way ahead of her time. In 2008, when yet another woman tried, I proposed Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight. The country still wasn’t quite ready, but a revised edition of this book is pubbing this August. Last year, I started a new chapter book series for grades 2 to 4 called Kickass Women– wait, Bloomsbury made me change it to Women Who Broke the Rules. Judy Blume, Sacajawea, Sonia Sotomayor, and Dolley Madison, with Coretta Scott King and Mary Todd Lincoln – these are strong women who helped shape our country and refused to conform to the rules of their day. My literary inspiration was Jean Fritz, the master of this field, who uses such a light touch to keep readers turning pages. All my research was done through the fantastic San Diego Public Library and its interlibrary system that fetches books from local universities.

Rani: What were your favorite books as a kid?

Around the house we had lots of Little Golden Books and inexpensive editions of classics.  The first book I can remember reading is Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, beautifully illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Weekly visits to the library with my mom were a highlight of childhood.  I loved librarians so much I wanted to be one, but when I got a job at 15 in the library I was soon fired- for reading on the job!

Favorites included historical fiction (Laura Ingalls Wilder; Elizabeth Speare’s Calico Captive and The Witch of Blackbird Pond), biography (the Landmark Book series on people like Helen Keller, Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony; anything on queens), mysteries (the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton was thrilling), romance (Mary Stolz, Betty Cavanna), adventure (Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins), fun books like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Above all, fantasy– especially Edward Eager’s magical books, and Carol Kendall’s.  I would have adored the Harry Potter books.

Devi: Who encouraged you to write?

My teachers in third and eighth grades (Sister de Maria and Sister Della) stand out as being particularly encouraging of my writing.  Sister Della (now Marie Tollstrup) gave me an “A” on Death Waits Until After Dark, even though its plot was absurd and nasty.  She was the first person who told me I might be a writer when I grew up, and she remains an important person in my life.

Rani: What was your first story?

My earliest works include A Garden Book (second grade), Hairdos and People I Know (fifth), and The History of Queersville (sixth).  I created a series of weird little books about people.  My first short story was “Death Waits Until After Dark” (eighth grade)–about a teacher who jumps out the window. Diaries!  Very important to keep a diary or journal. I started in sixth grade, but didn’t really get the hang of it till high school.

Devi:  How do you “break the rules”, and “what do your neighbors think” of you?

They know me as someone who plays my piano and my radio too loud, asks nosy questions, goes in and out of my house with huge armloads of books, plays with toys, and makes noisy splashes in my pool.  I’m always sharing books with the neighbors–whether they want me to or not–so they think of me as a book person.


Rani Simons is a second grader at Germantown Friends School who enjoys writing and performing plays with her sister. Devi Simons is a third grader at Germantown Friends School who enjoys reading way past bedtime, and writing her own stories that will someday keep other kids up way past their bedtime as well.

The Blood Orange

Ughhh! Why do all of the other oranges pick on me for being a ruby red blood orange?! I even get death threats from the Giant Boy now! He threatens to eat me. And since summer has begun, the attacks from the Flies have been worse since the Giant Hand has forsaken us! It never comes by and smashes the Flies anymore. It’s like it isn’t even trying. But, according to the Wise One (I don’t know why we can’t just call him Apple, since that’s what he is!), this means one unlucky banana and one unlucky ruby red orange must be sacrificed to the Giant Blender From Which There Is No Return. Since I am the last of my kind, I am sure they will sacrifice me!
    You’d think they’d have more respect for me since I’m the last of the ruby red blood oranges. There’s no way I can escape this evil fate. Unless…no! That hasn’t happened in the kitchen for decades. But it is a possibility. No one has been taken by the Canine since the new Woman has taken control. She doesn’t let the Canine in since he took my mother underneath the couch.

But now that I think about it, I could be—Oh no! The sacrifice has begun! They took Lenny! NO! I almost tricked him into becoming my friend. I can’t believe the Giant Hand betrayed Lenny like that. Wait…the Giant Hand is moving this way! It wouldn’t sacrifice me. I’m the last of my kind! Ahhhh! The Giant Hand has me. And its clone is peeling me! It’s taking me to the Giant Blender From Which There Is No Return. I’m falling into the Blender. SLOPT! Jjjjtttt.

Where am I?

“Follow the light, Paul.”

“Mother?”

“Follow the light. It’s better there.”

“Woah, woah, woah. Are you really my mom?”

“Yes. I can prove it. I died on a Wednesday, remember? We were enjoying a day at the edge of the basket. Then the Canine took me. He hid me under the counter, and I was reunited with your father.  Then, about 20 minutes later, the Canine returned and relieved himself on my face. I quickly became rotten and came here, waiting for you.”

“Wow, Mom. Are you saying you were waiting for me almost 15 years?”

“Yes, Son. Now follow me into the light.”

Jggght.

Wow! We are in the Better Place! It’s not a myth! And look, they have an ice cream parlor! I’m going to get some chocolate ice cream.

“WAIT! Don’t eat the ice cream!”

“Why not? Who are you?”

“I’m Anita. I’m an apple as you can see. And your mother just took a lick of ice cream and now she’s gone forever. After this second life, there isn’t a third. Trust me.”

“What was that you were saying? Yum! This ice cream is delic—“

POOF!

Why does no one ever listen to me when I warn them? That’s the 33rd time some poor fruit has died. Poor ruby red blood orange. Sigh.  

Sharon Zea-Rineon will be a 7th grader at Planet Abacus Charter School in the fall. She wrote this short story at the PSJr writing workshop at the Tacony Branch of the Free Library.

The Shoe Thief

Once there was a little red fox.  She had clear green eyes and pointy brown ears. She had very good taste, but she had no fears!  Every day, she took five minutes to lick her pretty brown coat, five minutes to brush her pointy white teeth, and five minutes to groom her well-padded paws.  However, it took this little red fox more than thirty minutes to decide which shoes to wear around her den.  When she grew tired of wearing a pair, she set it aside to chew and tear.  Simply put, this was a fox with flair!
          

More than anything else in the world, this little fox loved shoes.  If she had to choose, it was always shoes!  She would choose a shoe over beef stew!  She would choose a shoe in any hue!          

All the other foxes chided her, “Silly fox, why do spend all your time with shoes when there’s an entire forest to play in?”  Amused, the little fox replied, “You choose the forest grooves, but I choose the groovy shoes!”   With that, she turned and walked away with her spirits up, her head up, and her tail   up!
          

One morning, the little red fox woke up before dawn.  In her den in the woods, she decided that it was time to fetch more goods. So, she set out for her favorite village.  There she always found a large selection of irresistible shoes that came in all sizes and colorful hues! Shoes in reds and blues!  Shoes with glittery glues!  Shoes always in twos!  All the villagers here left their shoes on their porches overnight for the little red fox to take.  At least, that’s what she thought!
          

As the little red fox trotted through the sleepy village looking over all the shoes on display, a large black, yellow-eyed cat, named Rudolph, yowled angrily at her.  The little red fox was used to it.  What she was not used to, though, was a big, black dog whose mean growl made her heart beat faster than a spinning top.  It was all worth it, though, when the first sunbeams of the day danced upon a shiny purple shoe.  How it caught her eye!  The little red fox gasped, “How gorgeous!  How glorious!”  She ran towards the gleaming purple shoe, picked it up with her teeth, and carried it home.
          

Soon, all the villagers began to hiss, “There must be a shoe thief in our midst.”  Shoes were disappearing now on a regular basis.  The town sheriff then ordered a search of every house in the village and in the surrounding area.  The shoes were nowhere to be found!
          

In the following weeks, more shoes disappeared from this little village.  Then, a policeman, still searching for the traitor, found a slew of chewed shoes scattered along a forest trail. Bemused, he thought out loud, “Could this be the clue to the mystery of the missing shoes?”  Cautiously, he looked around until he stumbled upon a crumpled, discolored shoe in front of a fox’s den.  Carefully, he looked inside.
          

The policeman was amazed at what he had found!  Surrounded by a multitude of colorful shoes, the little red fox sat happily chewing on a bright yellow shoe!   Then, the policeman looked even more closely and was surprised to find something else!  It was a happy brood of little red foxes!  And, what were these little red foxes doing?   Chewing!  Each little fox was all aglow, gleefully chewing on a bright and shiny shoe, each a different color of the rainbow!

Born in Christiana, Delaware, Sarah is the youngest of four. She attends the Charter School of Wilmington and has won awards for her essays. She also plays violin and viola and likes to bowl (her three-person team won 1st place in Nationals in Washingotn, D.C. at the National History Bowl in 2011).

SIDE NOTE: This children’s tale is based on a true story from a small town in Germany. Have you read a news item that you wanted to turn into a story?

To The Sea

Armal, Asturias, Spain, 1898

There was no wedding. If I could’ve done anything differently, there would’ve been a wedding. A wedding with a gown, many guests, dancing, food and music. All my friends were as disappointed as I was. They’d been planning my wedding since before I had turned ten. The same with me for all of them.

No wedding. Instead, these documents.

I sign my name, and everyone bursts out in applause and singing. It is not much of a wedding ceremony, signing a piece of paper, but when José and I are an ocean apart, what can we do?

It is raining. Again. The muddy ground and chilly air gives me a headache. But there is something in my hand that separates this rainy day in Asturias from any other. To some people it may only look like a piece of paper, but to me it is my life.

A ship ticket.

“I wish you didn’t have to go, Eloisa,” my mother says, handing me my cloak. Poor Mamá. She had everything set on me marrying Luis, who is in Armal like us. Instead I go overseas, to Puerto Rico. “There’s still time…”

“No, Mamá.”

She sighs, and I tie the cloak around my neck. The journey across the sea will be long and tiresome in of itself, but today I leave my house, my siblings, and all my friends with their weddings and parties. Are there parties in Puerto Rico? Will I have friends? For as much as I’ve been longing to leave Spain, I feel a pang as I glance around my little house.

“Safe travels,” my sister Carmen says.

“Gracias.” I kiss her on the cheek, and she wraps her arms around me.

“How I will miss you,” she murmurs.

“And I you, Carmen.”

We break apart.

“They are improving the ships,” my father says. “Soon a voyage will not be long. We will come visit you, Eloisa. Do not doubt it.”

And with that, he turns the doorknob, and I leave the house.

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1911

I cannot imagine my other life. I cannot imagine life without José, without the children, and I cannot imagine life away from Puerto Rico. Today is the anniversary of our “wedding.” With Mercedes in my arm, I open the door to my husband’s shop, which he shares with his brother Bernardo. The smell of foods imported from Spain mingle delightfully in the air.

“My husband has bought the smells of Spain to Puerto Rico on a warm summer’s day,” I announce, since he is not busy with a customer.

“Eloisa!” he says. “And Mercedes! Whatever are you doing here in the middle of the day?”

“But it is not just any day, José. It is our anniversary. Do you not remember?”

A smile creeps across his face.

“Of course I do,” he says.

“I thought you might be able to come off work a little early.” I smile at him teasingly. “For a little party, no?”
“One thing I’ve learned about you, Eloisa, is that nothing you say is ‘little,’ especially when it comes to parties.” But José is not exasperated; he is preoccupied. He sits down on a crate. “Eloisa, I must tell you something.”

The smile fades off my face, and his.

“What?” I ask, the word sounding as a breath rather than a word.

“Bernardo is leaving.”

 His words send my vase of a life in Puerto Rico into shatters. “Leaving? But why?”
 
“He wishes to return to Spain,” says José. I cannot say I blame him; I cannot remember the sight of my mother’s face.”

“We aren’t leaving.” It is a statement, not a question. “We can’t leave – you love it here! No?”

“I do love it here,” he says quietly. “I do.”

“Then?”

“We will not leave,” he says with a decidedness that helps me to let out my breath. “I am taking over the business; he has sold his share to me and it will continue to be profitable, I am sure. Do not worry, Eloisa. We will stay.”

The party lasts late into the night, but the children fall asleep early. Bernardo, José, and all our friends in Puerto Rico eat the foods I prepared; and our celebration sways between talking, eating, drinking, and dancing. At one time, José lifts me in the air, and we swing around and around.

Still Bernardo lingers in the backdrop, not physically, but in my mind. He and José have not been home for many years. I see the image of Mamá in my minds’ eye, and Carmen and all my friends in Armal, but my link to them lies in the letters they send me. Will I one day leave Puerto Rico, one day when the letters have yellowed and the faces blur?

Miramar, Puerto Rico, 1913

To see the sea! Now this is paradise. Holding Mercedes’ hand in mine, the other children behind us, I throw open the doors to the balcony. The sea, the glorious sea sparkles at us. Antonio, the oldest, grasps the railing.

“Imagine, the sea whenever we want it,” I whisper, almost to myself. “Miramar. To see the sea.”

José steps onto our balcony. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I say. “Thank you – “

He shakes his head. “You found this place all by yourself, Eloisa, and I am so glad you did.” He kisses me on the forehead.

“I want to see too!” Luisa says, jumping up and down. Rosario crouches down to peek between the bars.

“But you are looking at it, right now,” I say. “See, the sparkling blue out there? That is the sea.”

That is the sea, I write in a letter to Carmen. The blue expanse that looks like a precious jewel, it sparkles so brightly in the sun’s light. Back in Armal, we are enclosed by mountains.

The door opens and Antonio, Little José, Rosario, and Luisa burst wildly into the house. I smile at them. “How was school?”

“Good,” Antonio says. Little José nods.

“We learned a new letter!” Luisa pipes up.

“I can sing a song!” says Rosario.

When they leave, I turn back to my letter:

And we have schools here too, Carmen. The children go every day and learn new things.  José is well, and …
 
As if my words summoned him, José walks in the door. He has a strange look on his face, one I have not seen before. He sits across from the table where I have been writing, and looks me in the eye. “Eloisa, listen to me.”

And I listen.

It does not matter, I had told José. As long as we find time enough together over the next few years, I will be happy. It does not matter at all.

But of course it matters. It matters to learn that your husband is going to die.

I throw open the balcony doors, and I breathe in the Puerto Rican smell I love so much, the smell we will leave behind when my husband wants to go back to Spain and see his family. I think of how selfish I am, and I cry.

I wish he wanted a funeral. A big funeral with lots of people, singing, talking and prayers. Instead, he wants a quiet service for just the family. And of course I do not argue with my husband over his wishes. It frightens me to have to discuss this with him.  

“Mamá?”

It is Luisa.

“Yes?” I worry my voice will crack with emotion.

“When are we leaving?”

“Leaving?”

“You know. For Papá. Spain.”

I sit on my bed. “Next week. We have the ship tickets, and we will be leaving early in the morning.”

Luisa sits down next to me.

“I don’t want to leave,” she says. “And I don’t want Papá to leave either.”

“Neither does anyone, Luisa,” I murmur. I want to say something more to comfort her, but instead of words, there are tears.

At the port a week later, I catch my last glimpse of the sparkling sea. I wonder if José sees it too. I do not ask. He has gone silent. Where once he was laughter and parties and the business, he is now a kind of statue. I want to say something, to wave a magic wand and cure him, but I am helpless.

We board the boat. When the children are eating, somewhat occupied, José waves me over.

“I’m sorry, Eloisa,” he says. “I know you don’t want to go back.” He takes a deep breath. “You and the children can leave after the service. But it’s important to me, to see my family one more time before… “

And then I am crying. “Don’t say it; it sounds like you’ve given up hope. I am selfish. I’m so sorry… ”

The boat rocks and jerks against the Atlantic Ocean.

Castropol, Asturias, Spain, 1913

I had never been to Castropol. I lived my whole life in Spain mostly in Armal, but José is from Castropol. And so now here we are, in Castropol by the sea, just as the winter weather sets in. It is damp, cold, rainy, just as I remembered Spain, and the wind makes a lonely, howling sound. But José is embracing his brother. “Bernardo! Oh, I missed you…”

His mother stands to the side, and when José lets go of Bernardo, they embrace.

“What do we do, Mamá?” Luisa whispers to me, her forehead creased. “We don’t know these people.”
 
“No, but they are family,” I remind her. “That is your grandmother.”

  “She is?” Luisa asks.

  I nod. “And you have more family, in Armal, where we will visit soon enough.”

  “Eloisa!” José’s mother calls out. “Oh, it is good to see you! And the children too – such, bright, happy faces…”

If anyone passed by, they would think it was a family reunion, but I glance over at José, and I remember the real reason we are here.

The winter holidays slip through my fingers like water through a sieve. All I can think about is José, and: is this his last holiday? The words make my stomach hurt. He travels Asturias like I don’t think he would have otherwise. We leave Castropol. We see Ovideo, Gijón, and Aviles. The children come with us, enthralled. Even the little ones seem to comprehend somewhat.

One day we stop by a mountain range.

“There,” José says.

“There what, Papá?” Antonio asks, which is what I was going to ask.

“This is where we come from,” José says. “This is what I wanted to see. This is Asturias. This is home.”

I remember how glad I was to leave Asturias. I never thought of it as “where I come from.” But it is true. My throat is tight with emotion.

 “I love it here,” Luisa says.

Everyone agrees.

Castropol, Asturias, Spain, 1917

There is no funeral. The way he wanted it. In the days following his death, it is the way I wanted it as well. I cannot think of the funeral like a party. I need to cry. I need to remember.

I do not notice the cold, the wind, or the rain. In general, I do not think about where I am, where I come from, and where I want to be.

The children cry. I think. I hardly notice. José’s mother takes care of them. I walk outside, a misty haze drifting through the tips of the mountains.

I complained. I wanted a big wedding. A big funeral. To stay in Puerto Rico. But I loved him. I loved him without a big wedding. I loved him without a big funeral. I loved him if we were in the mountains of Asturias or seeing the sea from our house in Miramar. And did I ever tell him that?

Hours pass. How many, I do not know. I wrap my quilt around me for warmth. And then the question comes to me, the question I do not want to answer.

Now where do we go?

Armal, Asturias, Spain, 1918
 
As the days passed, the option of leaving became clearer in its ridiculousness. The Great War had broken out soon after we arrived. All we could do was to hope that the war would not come to Spain, and it did not – Spain stayed neutral.

And now the war is over. Just as I can allow myself to see the sea again in my mind, this offer from Mamá.

“Stay in Spain with us, Eloisa. You and the children. Please… we missed you in Puerto Rico.”

I do not want to stay.

It is drizzling a little today, which is not a surprise. I take a picnic basket and call the children – who are now not so much children as they were when we arrived – to the mountain range José showed us in our travels.

“Your grandmother has offered – ” I begin.

“I heard,” Antonio said. “She told me as well.”

Silence.

“There is a better life for us in Puerto Rico,” I say. “An education for you children. Your father’s business, carried on. A view of the sea…” I try to smile.

“But Mamá, Abuela is not young,” Little José says, and the other children nod their agreement. “When she is… you know… will we have to come back?”

I take a breath. This is a possibility. “Maybe,” I admit.

“And then Abuelo? And your uncles, and aunts, and how will we ever see them again?”

Luisa’s voice brings back a memory, a memory of when Bernardo left. He had not seen his family in years, and he couldn’t stay in Puerto Rico, no matter how beautiful. For the first time, I feel a flicker of doubt. Is it wrong to leave my family for where I would be happier?

And then the answer comes to me.

“Maybe,” I say. “It is important to know who came before us. But it is also important to carve a path for those coming after us, and their future. And I believe that the path is in Puerto Rico.”

There is another silence.

Then – “Can we see the sea?” – from Mercedes, who had heard me talk of our home in Miramar.

I nod. “We’ll buy a place near the sea again.” And with those words, I feel hope rising in me.

Author’s Note: ‘To See the Sea’ was based on the true experiences of my great-great-grandmother, Eloisa Castrillón Infanzón. Though I have fictionalized the story to make it richer, I believe I have not changed the basic facts.  Soon after the family returned to Puerto Rico, Eloisa died at age forty-eight, in 1926. I am the great-granddaughter of her youngest child, Mercedes.

Lena is a fourteen-year-old Philadelphia homeschooler who loves writing, reading, spelling competitions, and pretty much anything that has to do with language and literature. I have really enjoyed participating in the “Teen Lit Magazine” workshop at the Musehouse Literary Arts Center in Germantown and am excited to be published in Philadelphia Stories Jr.!

My Cat

I am
Black Gray and
White
I am indoor cat
I meow and purr
I like treats and cat food
I am fat
I like to watch squirrels
When I look at a squirrel
I HISS!
I am Riley the cat


Matthew McHugh is from Medford Lakes, NJ, and he likes playing soccer. His school is Neeta School and he is 8 years old.

African Weave

“Hurry, Tibira! I want to get there quickly!” Niki’s voice echoed through the serene white noise of the forest.

“Niki, you want to get everywhere quickly!” I replied, quickening my pace to catch up with her.  “Maybe, but this is different! We are going to Ife! We are going to the place where the world began, and we are going to learn how to weave! How can you stand to move so slowly?” she said, stopping as I caught up with her.

    I paused a moment to look at her. She had stopped directly in one of the scarce patches of sunlight that penetrated the trees. It was highlighting her perfectly; her dark skin, her faded blue work wrapper slightly askew from running, and her wide, cocked grin that seemed permanently etched on her round face. Suddenly I couldn’t help but smile. “I am taking time to appreciate the forest! It is so beautiful here, it will be good to enjoy the peace before we must face the business of Ife,” I said, chuckling.

“Oh, I give in. You are right. Ife isn’t going anywhere,” she sighed. “But if we are appreciating the forest, let us appreciate Iya Mapo, Mother Earth, as well.”  Without another word, we both began to sing together: “Iya Mapo, Iya Mapo,” our song a sacrifice to the divinity as we walked through the forest.     Eventually, the forest began to thin, giving way to farms, and we stopped singing. We began to see more and more people, some carrying goods, some going to tend their farms, and the occasional person traveling, just as we were. Then suddenly, our path ended, and we stopped. It was then that we saw it. The gate to the Holy City of Ife.  When we approached the gate, we were confronted by the guards. We gave them some of the cowry shells we had brought, paying our tax to the Oba, and stated our reason for being there: to ask Niki’s grandmother, Tanti, to teach us to weave. They let us through.  I wondered how they knew who to let past, but decided that there would be time later to ask someone about it.  As soon as we walked in, we almost immediately began to feel overwhelmed. The sun glared in our eyes, and the city was so hot, and it felt even hotter after having been in the cool forest. The sheer number of people there was dizzying. The streets were fairly packed, and, with so much to take in all at once, combined with the heat and the glare of the sun, we quickly began to feel tired. We only just barely noticed the scenery. The shrines, the compounds, the murals; they all went by in a blur. However, we managed to remain alert enough to find our way. The city was complex, but before we had left our small village, we had spent much time committing the route to Tanti’s compound to memory. Finally, after what seemed like forever, we reached our destination: the weaver’s compound. It was a large compound, and the outside was a white background, decorated with colorful lines, which represented different entities. We opened the gate, and walked into the courtyard, which was paved in an intricate pattern of spirals and waves. Neither of us was sure what this represented. There were a few goats and chickens roaming around, and there were many beautifully carved and painted posts that held up the roof. There was a shrine to a divinity in another room. Ahead, there was a second doorway leading to another courtyard.        As we walked into the second courtyard, we saw a young man who looked to be around fifteen. He was sitting in the middle of the courtyard. He looked up as soon as he heard us.

“Niki! Tibira! You are here. Grandmother has been expecting you,” he said.  I realized that this must be Eyodun, one of Grandmother Tanti’s son-in-laws. He walked out of the second courtyard and into a separate room. Sitting in front of a loom and weaving sat Tanti.

“Excuse me, Mother, Niki and Tibira are here,” Eyodun said respectfully, bowing. Tanti’s smiling face peered out from behind the loom, her dark eyes glittering with happiness.

“Niki! Tibira! It is good to see you again! It has been a long time since I have visited your village, but it seems that this time we meet in my home. Have you been enjoying your time in Ife so far?” she asked, maintaining her wide grin.

“Yes, Grandmother,” we both answered, bowing deeply.

“Good, good. But you must be tired from your journey! Eyodun, would you please show these two to their room? Then they can wash up, and we can show them around the compound,” Tanti said.

“Yes, Mother. Come with me, please,” he asked us, bowing once more to Grandmother before leaving the room. A long time later, after we had seen the compound, washed, eaten, and settled in, I sat on my mat, going over the day’s events. I could hardly believe we were really in Ife! And with my best friend! It was like a dream come true. Niki and I had always wanted to learn to weave, but we lived in a small village with no weavers and only obtained cloth through trade.  Becoming the talented weavers we wished to become was a very unlikely prospect.  Then, one day, a messenger had come from Ife, saying that two of Tanti’s apprentices had left the compound to move to another village, and we were invited to come to the weaver’s compound in Ife in two months time to learn to weave.  It was better than anything we could have hoped for. Tanti was one of Ife’s most talented weavers, and it was almost more than we could bear to wait the two months.

But now we were here, and we were settled, we were ready, and tomorrow, we were going to start to learn how to weave. I lay down on my mat, smiling. It really had been an eventful day.     The next morning, I woke up to the shrill voice of Niki’s seven-year-old cousin, Duni, ringing in my ears.

“Elders! Niki! Tibira! Wake up! Grandmother wants to see you!” she yelled as she ran back and forth, alternately shaking us. Grunting sleepily, I opened my eyes and groggily rolled over to see her shaking Niki, who was covering her head and whining in irritation at the rude awakening. Duni turned to face me, leaving Niki to continue to hide from the bright sun streaming through the windows.     “Ah! Elder! You are awake,” Duni said, as though it were a surprise. I stared dumbly at her for a moment, collecting my thoughts. She was big for a girl of seven, almost the size of a ten year old, and very smart as well. Her blue work wrapper hung loosely around her small form, thin but strong. Her unusual, bright, copper-colored eyes stared at me eagerly as she tilted her head, waiting for a response.      She will make someone a good wife someday… I thought, my mind wandering.

“Yes, Duni. I am awake,” I said after a long pause.

“Grandmother wants to see you and Niki,” she said in her bouncy, cheery way.

“Alright. Niki, wake up!” I called over at her sleeping form.

“Please, just five more minutes…” she groaned.

“No, Elder! Grandmother must see you now!” Duni retaliated.

“Yes,” I joked. “You must do what Oba Duni says!”   That woke Niki up.

“Tibira! Do not joke like that, it is disrespectful!” she cried.

“You are right, I am sorry,” I responded.  A few minutes later, Niki and I had gotten up and washed, and were standing outside Grandmother’s room.

“Grandmother? You wanted to see us?” Niki called in.

“Yes, yes. Please, take a seat,” came Tanti’s voice from inside.  We walked in, bowed, and sat down.

“What did you want to talk to us about, Grandmother?” I asked.

“Well, you see. I have been thinking about your weaving. You both look very talented, and I think you would make excellent weavers, but…” I held my breath.     “…I think we should speak with the Babalawo first, to see if this is the right path for you two.”  I inwardly sighed in relief.     “That is a good idea, Grandmother,” Niki said quietly.

“Thank you. So then, you two get ready, and we will head off as soon as you are done,” Tanti said.  After some light preparations, we were once again walking through the streets of Ife, but this time our destination was the Diviner’s compound.  I felt so worried, and even in the warm morning sun, I was shivering. It was just a yes or no question, a simple toss of the Diviner’s kola nuts, but what if they landed dark side up? What if the answer was no? We would be crushed. Niki and I had wanted to learn to weave since we were both very small, and now we had come so close. But what if it was all in vain? I did not know. The fear of the worst happening wrapped itself around my heart like a cold hand.

We were finally there. We walked inside, and sat down on the floor. The Diviner sat in front of us, on a brightly colored mat. He was wearing all white, symbolizing the bloodless sacrifice.  I threw a brief glance at Niki, and, judging by the look on her face, she was feeling as tense as I was about our fate. I only saw Grandmother give the Babalawo the cowries, and I watched her lips move as she explained our situation, but I heard nothing. I just kept repeating a little prayer over and over in my head, “Please let the answer be yes, please let the answer be yes.”  I shut my eyes tight as the Diviner began the brief ceremony, as if my not seeing it would prevent the bad result I feared was coming.  My hands were balled against my knees, and I shut my eyes tighter and tighter, scared of what the answer would be, until suddenly…

“Yes.”

I opened my eyes.

“The answer is yes. This is the correct path for you,” the Diviner said solemnly.  I could have jumped up right there and hugged Niki, but I managed to contain myself, silently thanking every divinity I could think of for their kindness. Grandmother Tanti nodded.

“This is good news for you girls,” she said, smiling. After we had left the Diviner’s hut, and were walking back through Ife, Niki and I were doing our best to act composed, but we would give each other overjoyed looks as soon as Grandmother Tanti wasn’t looking. Suddenly, Tanti stopped.

 “Congratulations, girls. It will be hard work, but I will teach you all I know, to the best of my ability. When we get back to the compound, we will begin your lessons on how to weave,” she said.   Niki and I grinned at each other again. It was the start of a good day, and an even better career.

Aislind Waters is 12, in sixth grade, and loves to write descriptive stories, poetry, and song lyrics. She also loves reading and drawing, and lives with her mother, younger brother, and her two cats. She had read many book series, including The Hunger Games, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, Tunnels, and all 21 Redwall books. 

Prodigy

Falling. Falling into darkness. It won’t end. There is no end. I keep going. The wind makes my spine crawl. I feel my heart beating. It’s in my throat. I clench my fists. Force a smile on my face. When the bottom comes I want to be…

            I jolt. This room, its full of light. I’m back. It was just a dream. But it felt so real. I could feel myself plummeting down.

Why is it so silent? Not a whisper being spoken nor a footstep placed. Mom should be home, its Sunday. Dad doesn’t go to work on Sundays until late. There will probably be a note on the kitchen counter written on thin paper with sharpie so it bled through onto the white granite. Mom always does that.

My room is hot, uncomfortably hot. The heat can’t be on, it’s August. I push open the glass window to let the fresh, windy breeze in. But there is none. Just heat.

On the counter, there’s no note. But there is a piece of paper. Scrawled across the paper are notes. Music notes. They aren’t in any pattern though. They just seem to stretch across the page, blown around and left there. As scattered as possible and still on the staff lines.

In the middle of the page there are five words written, barely legible. I know nobody with that handwriting. It reads: Someday soon you’ll understand.

I take it to the piano. Now that I look at it, it’s pretty simple. Only three notes. B, E, and G. Odd combination though. B, E, G. G, B, E. they slowly get softer. Since I started playing, I’ve known of that soft touch. My teacher told me about that talent when I was three. He called me a prodigy. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. A prodigy. It was an interesting word. I just loved to sit down and play. Just let out myself into the keys. That was about the time I refused to talk.

Now they are too soft. I’m not playing it that way. I pound it. nothing. I glide my finger over the key. Nothing. What is happening. The birds stop singing. I need to hear the music. I need it. It’s my air. It’s what I need to breathe. Is it the piano, or is it me. I’m still playing: Painted Glass, the first song I composed. I was four. Instead of getting that rush, feeling the connection, being one with the piano, I feel nothing.

My sight goes blurry. I’m sobbing. I scream. I need to hear something. Anything. My feet lift me. The faucet in the bathroom is on, but I hear no water. Nothing. I can’t hear the creak of the floorboard, I can’t hear the piano. I can’t hear. Looking up, I see a monster. Red face, blue eyes popping out of a head. Wet streaks down cheeks. Crooked teeth.

The piano calls me back. I pound. No song, just notes. Anything. I try the new piece again. B, E, G. B, E, G. Nothing. I hear nothing.

Music is how I speak. Now, I can’t hear what I say.

B, E, G. Someday soon, you’ll understand. B, E, G. Someday soon, you’ll understand.

I need to beg. That means I need to talk. I can’t beg if I don’t talk. But how will I know what to say? How will I know if I sound right? I need to beg to hear.

Who in their twisted mind would do this to me? Who gave me that music? I’m sobbing so hard I feel my body shake.

Wait. I run through the living room into the kitchen, rip all of the papers out of the drawers. I need that prescription, the one Doctor Clay gave me. This is his handwriting on the music. Its undeniable.

He found something. That test he did. He knew something was wrong, but he wouldn’t tell me. How could he? How could he not tell his own patient that she would lose her hearing? How could he do this to me? Is this really Dr. Clay’s way of getting me to talk? Anything else but this. Take away anything, but you take away my music, my hearing then you may as well take away my life.

Maria Dulin is a student at Villa Maria Academy and one of the winners of the first “Teens Take the Park” writing contest.

Oakey

I wrote my first story sitting under the oak tree as tall as the Empire State Building.

            I might have been ten years old, but it’s hard to remember now, three years later. My memory is so fogged, I can’t even remember what the story was about. I have lost so many notebooks over the years, including the one that story was written in. I think it had a kitten on it like most of the school supplies my mom purchased. My handwriting probably was scrawled across the page, erratic. That’s how I was then. Jumping around, running, and playing.

But all that’s beside the point. The point is the oak tree.

            For the past three years, I’ve been going to that oak tree almost every day. I discovered her by happenstance once while my family and I were taking a walk after dinner. At that first walk, maybe a few months before I started dropping by, I hated the oak tree. She was in a little clearing where the sun poked at her body, but even that didn’t enhance her figure. I had to squint to look at her, and that didn’t help either. She was too tall and too wide, too shady and too cool, and far, far, far too ugly and too plain. She needed some care, or a good pruning. If only some cared enough.

            Some kind soul did care enough. One day in March when the weather began to turn lamb-like, we drove past the oak tree. Most of the dead limbs that had blackened with age and disease were gone, lying in a tied bundle beside the curb. Now the oak tree looked polished. I knew she had been there for years, but now she had a certain charm. Before, she was just scraggly. Now she was almost antique. A vintage tree. What a strange, novel idea.

I made it a point to make the walk up to the oak tree sometime that week. The time didn’t come until the weekend, though, and even then it had to be in the evening because of lack of time. The clouds were the color of orange sherbet and the consistency of cotton that day. They looked almost good enough to eat and shaded the meadow, making it just the right amount of cool. Breeze rippled the tall grass and the flaxen heads of wheat bent to reveal golden undersides. The way the blades moved in unison looked like a wave.

My legs ached climbing up the big hill to the tree. I had to see her, I had to. I wanted to try to wrap my arms around her solid trunk and itch my belly against the patterned circumference. I wanted to drink in the sweet, dull smell of buds burgeoning on the thick branches. I wanted to lose myself in the tree’s essence. Somehow the oak tree seemed much more appealing up close. She seemed like the only unique tree in the small, lime green, sunlit meadow because of her enormousness, hardiness, and branches that tended towards the ground. They looked like dozens of human arms with dark, peeling skin.

            I was armed with a pen tucked in my hair like I’d seen journalists do and a notebook only. I planned to draw something, a landscape. Under a tree in a meadow would be the easiest place, I figured. It was submerged in nature and no one would be around. I could be alone.

            At first, the tree loomed high above me like a skyscraper and I was afraid somewhere deep in my heart. When the fear passed, the tree looked like something more. She was not a skyscraper. She looked almost inviting, comfortable. I stayed under her canopy of skeletal branches for as long as I was allowed. I had to be home to do important things like homework, but I promised to visit old Oakey whenever I could. The moments of tranquility I’d experienced with her were an escape. I could go there and not be nagged or bothered by anyone or anything besides the repetitive songs of crickets. It felt good to get away for a little while in a place no one else knew about or could take. The tree was all mine.

            When it rained or was too cold to see the tree, I dreamt about her and wrote about her. I dreamt that someday I would climb high into her branches like a sparrow and sit there feeding off of the tree’s energy and spirit. All trees have a spirit, but the oak tree’s was special in some way. She was content to be alive, thriving, and growing. The oak tree was a kindred spirit.

            Oakey grew more old and gnarled over the three years I visited her. She was starting to lean over like a giant sunflower and her trunk broke out in knobs. I tried to soothe her but I could tell she was aging with alarming alacrity and soon her spirit would be sapped away and carried along her roots. It worried me more than the math test tomorrow.

            Exactly three years to the day I started visiting Oakey, I woke up and felt her crying. It wasn’t the kind of awakening where you roll over and think, I can sleep in five more minutes, no. It was panic. I tore myself out of bed and didn’t bother to get dressed. My fingers fumbled to tie my sneakers in the laundry room. I knew they would get me there the fastest. Oakey’s cries grew louder and more frantic as I started running for her. I cried out and screamed, “Oakey! Hold on, I’m coming.” She didn’t hear me. She was too upset.

            I reached the fence that blocked off the clearing from the road and saw several faded orange trucks lined up on the street. A few men were leaning on an enormous machine that looked like a cement turner. They wore reflective neon lime vests, sunglasses, and hardhats. I clambered over the split rail fence and over the hill that was so steep you had to walk on your toes or else your calves would burn like fire. The grass was still slick from dew and I slipped a few times getting to Oakey, but I made it over the hill.

            A crew of workmen with chainsaw, pulleys, and masks were taking down my tree. They had already cut a sliver out of her left side to make it fall right. The sight churned a muddy panic in my stomach. I was rooted to the spot, much like a tree. I watched as Oakey was taken down, unable to do anything besides. Here was my only private spot that was all mine being robbed away by mean men in ugly vests. I wanted to scream and protest but my tongue was a worm on dry gravel. The chainsaws growled as the men started them and shrieked like firecrackers when they hit Oakey. I couldn’t hear her crying anymore. She was already dead, murdered. The men lassoed high onto her crown to pull her onto the ground and the last string holding her together snapped. 

            She fell like a great ship.

Celeste Flahaven is a student at Villa Maria Academy and one of the winners of the first “Teens Take the Park” writing contest.

Goodbye

“William, you’re running late!” his mother yelled up the stairs.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” Will said, opening his eyes and peeling himself off his bed. He still hadn’t packed; he’d just put off the inevitable.

He strode over to his closet and tried to calm his nerves. Will wrenched open the door, prepared for the usual mountain of junk that came flying out. He winced as his trombone smacked his shins. His mom would be in for a surprise when she came to clean out his stuff. Will pushed the thought aside as he dug through a pile of clothes. Eventually, he found what he was looking for.

He pulled his half-zipped suitcase out from under an old skateboard. God, what was that stench? Will began haphazardly stuffing clothes into his suitcase, not bothering to fold them. He’d lived in Westmouth, South Carolina his entire life. Never once had he left the small town. But now, he was leaving, once and for all. Will couldn’t necessarily say this was how he had expected to leave, and he hadn’t slept a wink the previous night, dreading his departure.

He’d gotten the phone call early one morning.  In fact, it had awakened him from a pleasant dream about an eagle in flight, swooping through the air before him.  At first, he’d had to pinch himself to be sure he wasn’t still dreaming.  The voice on the other end of the phone just didn’t seem real.  Will remembered sliding down onto the floor, his back against the wall, the phone clutched to his ear by his white-knuckled hand.  That was the phone call that had changed his life forever.

Will slammed his suitcase shut and surveyed his room one last time. The walls were painted black, and the ceiling was covered with glow-in-the-dark stars. A few beat-up paperbacks sat on his bookshelf. His Star Wars alarm clock barely illuminated the room with the faint glow it was emitting. At last, Will’s eyes rested on the only photograph in the room. It was a bit battered, but Will didn’t mind.  The picture displayed three grinning faces: his 5-year-old sister, Lily, his 17-year-old brother, Mark, and himself. It had been taken a few weeks ago, before Will knew he would be leaving.

Will gingerly picked up the photo, as if it was in danger of disintegrating in his hand, and pocketed it. His head snapped up when he heard the floor creak outside his door. Mark stood there, hands shoved in his pockets.

“Are you ready? Mom’s having a panic attack,” he said, surveying Will’s nearly empty room.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Will said, avoiding his brother’s gaze.

“Well, come on, then,” Mark muttered, crossing the room in three strides and grabbing Will’s suitcase.

“What do you have in here?” Mark demanded as the two brothers stomped down the stairs. “It feels like two dead bodies and a hand.”

Will felt a lump rising in his throat, prohibiting him from forming words. The lump seemed to double in size when he reached the kitchen, where his mother and Lily were sitting.  He fought to hold back the tears that threatened to spill over as his little sister streaked across the room into his arms. Almost immediately, he felt his shirt grow moist from Lily’s tears.

“Please don’t go, Will,” she pleaded, her red, puffy eyes meeting his.

“I’m sorry,” Will said, disentangling himself from her monkey-like grip and planting a kiss on the top of her head. Taking hold of his bag, Sergeant William Mercier, of the U.S. Air Force, walked through the door for the last time.

Olivia McCloskey is one of the winners of the first “Teens Take the Park” writing contest.

Richer Writing-Personification

We all know that animals can’t talk, right? Or can they? Have you ever found yourself having a conversation with your cat or dog, or another type of pet that you might own? In a way, your pet does talk to you, either through a look, a bark, a meow or whatever noise your particular pet may be able to make. I believe that  any people think their animals communicate with them without actually saying words. But what if animals could speak? What would they say? These are questions that have fired the imagination of writers for almost as long as there have been writers. Writer who have animals talk in their books and stories are using a literary technique called personification.

When I think of talking animals, two particular works come to mind: The Redwall books by Brian Jaques and Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh. I find the Redwall books interesting because, not only do the animals speak, they also have human characteristics. Some are good, some are bad.

Some are nice and some are mean, just like people. In the Martha books, I especially love the idea that Martha gains the ability to speak by eating alphabet soup. Children’s literature is filled with books and stories which use personification as a literary technique. But what about adult literature?


Celia Varady, Age 7, Homeschool Student © 2012

One of my favorite examples of personification in adult literature is a book called La Jument Vert, or The Green Pony. It was written by Marcel Ayme, a humorous French writer. The entire book is told from the point of view of a painting of a green pony that hangs on the wall in the living room of a French farmhouse. The pony tells us all about the family who lives in the farmhouse. Most of it is pretty embarrassing because the family doesn’t know the pony is watching them, and many of their family secrets are revealed. This particular novel also goes to show you that when using the technique of personification, it is not only animals that can tell a story. A painting can be the protagonist (or main character) of the story and give the main point of view. A tree could tell a story, or a rock, or even a cloud. When I was a kid I once wrote a story told from the point of view of a pair of sneakers. They had gotten separated in the locker room after gym class, and, alas, they despaired of ever finding each other again! I think it all worked out in the end, but really, I wrote it so long ago I can’t actually remember.

How about you? Have you ever written a story using personification? If you haven’t, you might want to give it a try. It can be a wonderful way to make your writing richer. If your pet were to tell a story, what story would it tell? How about the computer in your house? If it could report on what it sees every day, what would that tory be? Give it a try. Until next time, I wish you richer writing.

Teresa Sari FitzPatrick is a writer and board member of Philadelphia Stories, Jr.