Susan Jeffers Creates a Nutcracker for All Ages

The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers. Harper Collins New York, NY 2007.

When I look for a picture book, I look for the pictures. That may seem obvious, but all picture books are not created equal. I want the illustrations to jump out at me with their stunning beauty. Now, I have nothing against fanciful, even silly pictures. I own a copy of Steven Kellogg’s Three Little Pigs, a delightful, fun re-telling of that famous tale. But when I walk into a bookstore and see beautiful detail, colors that grab me and unforgettable faces, I am more likely to purchase that book.

I have seen many Nutcracker books. I’ve been to the ballet many times as well. When my daughter was small, we bought Maurice Sendak’s version (which is a translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale.) That book, with his signature artistic style, depicts both the darkness and light of human nature and childhood. Unabridged, it was translated by Ralph Manheim and published after Sendak was commissioned to design a ballet for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. As magnificent as that edition is, it is heavy on text and not something you can put on your lap and read to a young child. I was looking for something a little different this year to give to my six-year-old granddaughter, before we went to the ballet. A huge fan of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, when I saw Susan Jeffers name on this book, I immediately snatched it off the shelf. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jeffers says when she was asked to do a Nutcracker book, she wondered what she could possibly say that had not already been said. She concluded that it was all about the dance. Dancers make their way through every page of the story. Text is minimal. This Nutcracker is all about the illustrations. They are lovely and detailed without being overwhelming. The first page has several different pictures, in blocks, as if they are photographs, depicting adults in different parts of the house getting ready for the party. One in particular reminded me of something my mother told me. The picture shows the adults in the ballroom, under the Christmas tree, while the children wait with anticipation behind the closed door, outside in the hall. Mom was German-American and told us how, when she was a child, the custom was that the Christmas tree was trimmed in the parlor, behind French doors. On Christmas Eve, the doors remained closed, while the tree was decorated by the adults. The children would wait anxiously outside the doors. When they were finally opened, there stood the tree, glowing like some magical apparition, lit with real candles.

What I appreciated about this interpretation is that Marie and her mischievous brother Fritz are realistically portrayed to look like real children. The seven-headed Mouse King is sufficiently scary without being creepy. Jeffers use of double-page spreads emphasizes the visual aspects of the story over the text. That battle between the Mouse King and the toy soldiers? The “bullets” are wrapped hard candies. When Marie vanquishes the Mouse King his reflection is cleverly seen in a Christmas tree ornament. He looks like he is only sleeping. Jeffers inserts details like these that readers will discover anew with each re-reading. The dance of the Snowflakes and the Sugar Plum Fairy are all here. Once in the Land of Sweets, Marie and the Prince are treated to a performance by all the familiar characters of the ballet: Marzipan, Mother Ginger, and more.

Susan Jeffers has not just created another Nutcracker. She has created an accessible, beautifully illustrated version in which the pictures tell the story, and every little girl and boy who aspires to dance can dream their way into the magic.

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Stunning Hawk’s Rising will Inspire Many a Young Birder

Hawk Rising by Maria Gianferrari, pictures by Brian Floca. Roaring Brook Press, New York, NY, 2018.

“Father Hawk stretches wide his wings. You stretch your arms as Mars rises red in the sky.” Hawk Rising begins and ends with both Father Hawk and a little girl waking up. Hawk wakes up knowing he must search for food for his new-born chicks. The little girl watches that search from afar. This beautifully illustrated picture book captures the essence of the life of a hawk and its struggle to feed his chicks. The poetic text describes both that struggle and the curiosity of the little girl, who watches using her trusty binoculars. Floca’s realistic illustrations depict the fierceness of the red-tailed hawk: “Hooked beak, sharp as a knife.” Even the chicks are not particularly warm and fuzzy. Father Hawk spends an entire day looking for food for them. “Daylight blinking. Chicks waiting. You fading.” Father hawk still has not found food and the reader wonders if the chicks are fading too. As night falls, he finally traps a squirrel that was just a little too slow.

The juxtaposition of the Hawk’s search and the little girl’s observation keeps the story moving along. The spare, poetic text should appeal to the youngest child sitting on a lap. The glossary will appeal to teachers and older children curious about birds and the way they live. This is an excellent book for the classroom science collection and would also fit well into a poetry unit. The artwork is perfect as inspiration for art lessons. The author thanks the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for its work on behalf of birds (see November post, On Duck Pond by Jane Yolen). The illustrator thanks the Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation Education Center in Connecticut, where he undoubtedly was inspired to draw such striking and realistic illustrations of hawks.


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Sleeping Beauty Grows up in E.K. Johnston’s YA Novel, Spindle

Spindle by E.K. Johnston, Hyperion, New York, NY, 2016.

“The little rose was only five years old when her parents ruined my mother and brought ruination to my own life. I can tell the story like I was there, though I wasn’t. Even if I had been, I had only six years to my life then, and my memory would likely fail me on the finer details. So it is better that I heard the story from others, others I trusted. That means I know the truth.”

And so begins Spindle, a young adult novel of extraordinary prose, with a back story in classical fable that weaves the time-honored archetypical plot of good vs evil. Spindle begins in the voice of the demon, explaining how humans, for centuries, have foiled those like her from sewing their dark magic. Bound as they are by iron, demons can do little but watch the humans. They have, however, two advantages: they cannot die and they can learn.

Spindle begins with the telling of a story. The story Yashaa has heard since he was a small boy. A story of how a demon came uninvited to a small princess’ birthday party and cast a vicious spell on her. A spell that would ruin the lives of all who lived in Kharuf but a spell that would specifically torture the spinners, who forever after would be exiled, as practicing their craft in Kharuf caused them to be desperately ill. The demon had made sure of that.

So, the Spinners from Kharuf travelled to the desert, the home of their ancestors. But Yashaa’s mother chose instead to take her son and what few other spinners remained in Kharuf over the mountains to Qamih in hopes that they could ply their trade there. But a harsh guild system would not allow them to sell in the public markets. Life was difficult and Yashaa has since blamed the little Rose.

This novel presents a fascinating culture: a mix of humans, piskey’s, sprites, dragons and, of course, demons. That alone should attract readers of fantasy, but it is so much more. Johnston takes a fairy tale that readers are familiar with and develops it into a story of mature characters who wrestle with good and evil. In the end it is the tale of making the choice to serve the needs of the many, rather than capitulate to the pleasures of the moment, certainly a message worthwhile in a teen novel.

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Award Winning Hawk a Cautionary Tale for Earth Day

Hawk by Jennifer Dance, Dundurn Publishers Toronto, Ontario, 2016

“Less than an hour ago, I was Adam, the long-distance runner. Now I’m Adam, the boy who…I can’t even bring myself to say it.”

The young adult novel, Hawk, begins from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Adam, who has just found out he has leukemia. Then the point of view switches to a female “fish-hawk,” better known as an osprey, who is returning to Alberta. It is her first migration back to the place she was born; she is here to find a mate. Throughout the novel, the osprey pair and the teenager will be forever linked through a chance encounter, and more importantly, through their individual struggles to survive.

Alberta Canada is home to what is usually referred to as the “tar sands.” The people who live in the area, many of whom are First Nations, rely on the industry for their livelihood. The money they make at good jobs supports their families and has improved their lives in many ways.

But there is a dark side to this windfall. Many are getting sick. Bile duct cancer, which is quite rare, shows up more in the tar sands area. Although this novel is a work of fiction, Dance has done her research painstakingly. Her conclusions, and the conclusions of a real-life doctor, Dr. John O’Connor, may be controversial, but the reality is that there is usually a price to pay for disturbing the balance of nature.

The story of Adam, though, overshadows all the controversy and argument. He’s just a kid who wants to be a long-distance runner. He’s also a kid with a complicated relationship with his parents, who he calls, Angel and Frank. It’s his way of punishing them for leaving him with his grandfather when he was a baby. Seven years ago, Adam’s parents brought him back to Fort McMurray to live with them, but he still refuses to call them Mom and Dad. They try to explain to him that they left him with his grandfather because they needed to move to Fort McMurray to get jobs. That’s where the money was. They only wanted what was best for him. And when Adam is honest with himself, he actually does miss the time he lived with his grandfather in the wilderness. But he is too angry at everyone to admit anything of the sort.

Dance creates a well-developed portrait of a teenager angry at the world. He’s angry that his parents “abandoned” him, and he uses that word purposely. He’s angry at cancer.  When he and his grandfather visit his father’s workplace and discover a fish hawk struggling in a tailings pond, covered with tar, Adam begins to think about things he never considered before. What is the company his father works for doing to the environment?   When he and the osprey both struggle to survive, Adam discovers there is a way he can make a difference.

Hawk is a serious book about a timely and important subject. People can argue about the pros and cons of tar sand development, but in the end it is we humans who must find a way to live on this earth. It is our decisions that will determine the health and life expectancy of not only wildlife, like the osprey, but our very own descendants well-being. Adam’s grandfather re-names Adam Hawk and tells the teenager about how canaries were used as a warning system in coal mines. His grandfather says that the birds who suffer and die from oil slicks are like those canaries. They are a warning to us. And children, who get diseases like leukemia, may also be a warning, a kind of fragile “canary.”

Every April, Northland College of Ashland Wisconsin, chooses books in several categories for their Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA). Hawk was last years’ choice in the YA category. To see this year’s winners and a complete list of past winners, click on this link:

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Midnight Teacher a Suspenseful Non-Fiction Choice

Midnight Teacher Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by London Ladd. Lee & Low Books Inc., New York, NY 2018.

“From a young age, Lilly Ann Eliza Cox believed the path to freedom was through education.” She was enslaved in Kentucky where she lived in the master’s house. “When the adults weren’t watching, the master’s children often played school with her.” And so, using an old speller the children found for her, Lilly Ann learned to read. Although it was not illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write in Kentucky, it was frowned upon. It was feared that enslaved persons might get ideas about freedom and running away, if they had the ability to read. She was proud when she learned to write and to read the Bible on her own.

As she grew older, she shared her knowledge with other enslaved people. On Sundays, while the master’s family attended church, she and others would find a secret place to practice their words using sticks to form letters in the dusty soil.

Lilly went through hard times when her master died, and was bought by a plantation owner in Mississippi. She was put to work in the cotton fields. Reading and writing by enslaved men and women was against the law in Mississippi, but Lilly managed to carry on with her secret school, teaching young and old alike. Eventually, she was found out.

After the war, Lilly Ann went on to become a teacher and advocate for education. She helped establish Natchez Seminary, which is now Jackson State University.

Midnight Teacher is a suspenseful piece of non-fiction. Yes, you read that correctly. Like Janet Halfmann’s previous book, Seven Miles to Freedom the Robert Smalls Story, Midnight Teacher takes the reader, along with the protagonist, through a perilous journey. Based on a true story of a courageous woman who takes risks so that she can accomplish her goal of educating other enslaved men, women and children, this book is the ideal companion to a Social Studies unit on slavery and the Civil War.

Janet’s research spanned about ten years and many interviews with not only scholars, but also with family members of Granderson’s (Lilly’s married name). Her respectful research and writing are a tribute to the care she took with this story and Robert Small’s. When asked how she finds these stories of little-known people, she said if she reads an article and someone like Lilly or Robert is mentioned, she jots the name down and begins her research.

This is an inspiring and fascinating read. Teachers are searching for high quality non-fiction, and a suspenseful, fast-paced read is just what is needed to keep kids engaged in both reading and, in this case, social studies. This book belongs on every classroom shelf.

Check out The Storied Past blog to see reviews of many great books, including my review of Seven Miles to Freedom.   

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Three New Picture Books Make Great Gifts

If you haven’t finished your holiday shopping (or even if you have-there’s always room for books, right?) here’s three delightful picture books for the younger set that were just published in 2017.

Spring Hare by Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 2017.

This book reminded me of another wordless picture book from my days of student teaching. Of course I can’t remember the name of that book—only the pictures. I believe there were bears involved. Spring Hare begins with a little girl about to jump onto a trampoline as a small rabbit watches. She in turn gives him a look that seems to say, “Come along.” And come along he does. He follows her up, up, up into the air as she rides in an airplane, a hot air balloon and a rocket ship. All the while, the girl keeps an eye on the little rabbit following her. He has some trouble along the way, but young children will have no trouble at all making up their own story to go along with the pictures. Yelchin’s whimsical illustrations are sure to delight the youngest child as well as the adult sharing this book.

I Promise by David McPhail. Little Brown & Company, New York, NY 2017.

Mama Bear and her baby are splashing in a waterfall when Baby Bear asks Mama to sing to him. She replies, “Later, dear…I promise.” When they decide to dry off, Baby Bear asks her what a promise is.

Mama explains to Baby that a promise is “…when you say you will do something, and then do your very best to do it.” She further explains that a broken promise is not easily fixed.

McPhail’s watercolor illustrations, done in the soft tones of nature, have a soothing quality which makes this the perfect bedtime story. And it will reassure all Baby Bears everywhere that Mother Bears keep their promises to not just sing to them, but to love them, “…always and forever.” As Mother Bears everywhere know.

On Duck Pond by Jane Yolen, pictures by Bob Marstall. The Cornell Lab Publishing Group, 2017.

“As I walked by the old Duck Pond,
Its stillness as the morning dawned
Was shattered by a raucous call:
A quack of ducks both large and small.”

And so begins this rhyming story about a single moment in time, when the water of a quiet pond is disturbed by a group of rowdy ducks. The boy telling the story notices that even his reflection in the water is distorted:

“And my reflection, too, looked strange—
Every part of me was changed,
I looked like I’d been re-arranged.”

Marstall’s illustrations are big and bold. For example, a frog leaping off a lily pad takes up almost a whole page, and clearly shows the terror the frog is feeling on being so suddenly disturbed.

This book is published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but don’t let that cause you to file it away for older children. The cadence of the poetry makes for a faster read with the youngest child, while older children will be enthralled with the detailed illustrations. The last three pages identify the birds and other animals in the story, as well as activities and resources to pursue. This book can and should be used in K-5 classrooms, as it surely would appeal to a wide range of ages. And like the book Journey which I recently reviewed in this space, On Duck Pond can be used in many subject areas, from poetry and writing to science and math.


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One Wolf’s Fascinating Journey will Delight and Educate Young Readers

JOURNEY Based on the True Story of OR7 The Most Famous Wolf in the West by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Robin James. Little Bigfoot, imprint of Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA, 2016.

When a young girl, Abby, hears that a wolf has ventured from Oregon to California—the first wolf in California since 1924—she becomes fascinated by his journey. The wolf has a collar and is named OR7, the seventh wolf to be collared in Oregon. Thirteen months after receiving the collar, he leaves his pack, and people begin keeping track of him. Many are excited to have a wolf heading to California. But when Abby gets on the website where people are tracking him, she discovers that some do not like the idea of a wolf coming to California.

Abby “…scrolled down on the screen and read comments from other readers. Many people were happy about the wolf. But others were afraid, and that fear was turning to anger. ‘That wolf better keep away from my farm, or else,’ one comment read.
Abby knew what that meant. The wolf was in danger. Was there anything she could do to help?”

When a conservation group sponsors a contest asking kids to name the wolf, Abby jumps at the chance. With a real name, OR7 will be too famous to harm.

Journey is a fascinating true story of one wolf’s solitary venture far from his original pack. Journey travels three years and almost 2,000 miles in search of a mate so he can establish a family, a pack of his own. It is also a fictional story of a little girl’s determination to help make the wolf “too famous to harm.”

Robin James’ lushly illustrated pages alternate between Journey’s story, from his point of view, and Abby’s. Journey’s pages beautifully depict the Pacific Northwest as a vast, untouched wilderness, while Abby’s pages show her determination to track and protect the wolf. Her zeal will ring true with many young readers who’ve maybe felt that same desire to protect some little piece of wilderness near their own homes. Children have a natural desire to want to create and work on projects that mean something, particularly when it comes to helping animals. Abby’s character is empathetic and engaging. When the contest organizers choose her name—Journey—for the wolf, OR7 becomes famous all over the world. Abby’s cousins in New York call her, as well as her grandparents in Mexico. OR7, aka Journey, really does become “too famous to harm.”

The final pages have a timeline and map of the wolf’s journey, as well as real photos of Journey and his pups. Also included are discussion ideas taken from the teacher’s guide, which is available on-line. This book should be in every K-5 classroom. Besides being a good story that kids will love, it’s an invaluable resource that cuts across many subject areas, from language arts to science. It’s not easy to write non-fiction that engages kids. Smith accomplishes that by threading Abby’s fictional story throughout. It’s a unique approach and works very well.

Journey received the 2016 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA) best book for children from Northland College in Ashland Wisconsin. The college chooses three books each year on Earth Day in the categories of Adult, Young Adult and Children. View all the winners at this link:

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Stunning Picture Book is Perfect for this Season

The Gold Leaf by Kirsten Hall, illustrations by Matthew Forsythe. Enchanted Lion Books, Brooklyn New York, 2017.

Breathtaking. That was my first response when I came across this beautifully illustrated book. My granddaughter received it for her birthday and with all the celebrating going on around me, I couldn’t give it a proper read. But just leafing-no pun intended- through it, I was blown away. Ok, that last one was intentional.

The first page is wordless, just an illustration of the woods in winter. Or is it? There is a large tree on the right hand side of the double spread. But tip the book sideways and the tree looks a lot like a deer that shows up on the next page. See that hole in the tree? That’s his eye. And those branches on top? Those are his antlers. Turn the page and now you see two actual deer, waterfowl and baby birds being fed by Mama. Spring has arrived. Turn the page again and the text tells you the many colors of green that exist in the artwork, as well as in the season of Spring.

“Jungle green, laurel green, moss green, mint green, pine green, avocado green, and, of course, sap green.” All the while I am thinking of the many art lessons I could do with this book, if I were still teaching. The possibilities are endless!

A few pages in, that deer shows up again, as well as a squirrel and some rabbits. And what have they spotted? A gold leaf. From now on, when the gold leaf shows up, it looks exactly like gold leaf, the art form in which gold is pounded into thin sheets. The animals are fascinated by it. They all want it. But their greed causes them to keep snatching it away from each other and inevitably, the gold leaf shreds into countless tiny pieces.

“The forest grew still. The only sound was the wind rustling the leaves, which sent bits of gold swirling in every direction. With sorrow, the animals realized that their precious leaf was gone.”

Summer comes, then Autumn arrives, with all its many-colored leaves. Winter follows. The animals forget about their gold leaf. Spring arrives with even more colors of green.

“Something shone and sparkled.”

The gold leaf has returned. But this time, the animals do not fight over it. They are simply happy to have their gold leaf back. The second to last page is a double spread that shows the animals leaping through the greenery, and look! Some of them have turned golden! The final page pictures them as becoming part of a fanciful tree, as if they are happy to simply exist in nature, as of course, animals are. It is humans, after all, who fight over gold.

Pre-school teachers, art teachers, writing teachers–any teacher instructing students of any age could find myriad ways to use this wonderful book.  Parents can cuddle in their favorite chair and read it to the littlest ones as the text, which flows like poetry, is quite spare. And of course Autumn is the ideal season to read a book about leaves and seasons.

A note explains that “Kirsten Hall’s grandfather was responsible for the gold leafing of many famous gilded buildings in NYC, including Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Helmsley building.” This is a stunning book.

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Mari’s Hope a Suspenseful Conclusion to the Trilogy

Mari’s Hope by Sandy Brehl. Crickhollow Books/Crispin Books, Milwaukee, WI 2017.

“Suddenly the door to the main house flew open. Two soldiers burst out, tumbling off the steps and shouting at each other. She crouched beside the hedge, shivering as much from fear as from cold. A flash of moonlight pierced the night, revealing a drama playing out just a few meters away.”

Mari is on her way home one cold Norwegian night during the German Occupation of World War II. But it is not really her home anymore. German soldiers moved in over two years ago and Mari’s family lives instead in her grandmother’s small cottage next door. She is unsure what the “ruckus” she has just witnessed means, but it is just another incident in a long list of frightening dramas played out every day under German Occupation. As she enters the cottage and finds no one home she knows that her mother and grandmother are still in the main house cleaning up after the Germans evening meal. They often linger with their cleaning to glean useful information from overheard conversations between the soldiers. Her father, too, is not yet home. He undoubtedly stopped at the home of trusted contacts in the Resistance. For Mari’s part, she locks the door and takes out the forbidden radio that is always hidden. She will listen to the BBC broadcast. This is the Resistance in Occupied Norway.

In Mari’s Hope, the third book of a trilogy, author Sandy Brehl has deftly managed to add mystery and suspense into a story whose historical conclusion we all know. The Occupation has made life hard in the town of Ytre Arna. Food and medical supplies are scarce. Mari’s fourteenth birthday is approaching but she knows there will be no possibility of a celebration. But there are surprises along the way. She takes on a secret mission which enables her to travel to Bergen, a large city where her sister and her husband live. And people who seemed to be one thing, she realizes, can also be another. Sometimes things are not what they seem.

This novel, with its well written prose and suspenseful plot will keep lovers of historical fiction—of all ages—glued to the page.

Sandy has two book release parties coming up: Boswell Books, 7:00 PM September 14 and October 1, 2:00 PM Hales Corner Library.

A Conversation with Sandy Brehl

SGL: For the benefit of readers who are new to this trilogy, what inspired you to write about the occupation of Norway during WWII?

SB: First, I’m not Norwegian, but I visited the little village near the west coast of Norway with a friend who was traveling there to meet her own first- and second- generation relatives. That was DECADES ago, but it was a revelation to me! I love the country. I was amazed to learn stories of the German occupation during World War II from those who had lived through those years. I returned home convinced that I should write stories about that time and place; trying to capture the resistance spirit of the people I now call friends.

SGL: Have you been writing all your life? When did you start writing seriously, for publication?

SB: I’ve been writing my whole life, starting with crayon scribbles in the few books my family owned. (Practicing for book signing?) I grew up in a family of storytellers and proficient-but-functional writers. “In my day”, as old-timers say, creative writing rarely found a place in schools. So I learned all about “writing” correctly, and used those skills competently, but I had little experience with writing stories. Nor did I keep a journal.
Any storytelling I did was oral, except for the few times when such a thing was “assigned”. In those cases my paper earned good marks, but also included a comment that I was a “good storyteller”.

Those encouragements came back to me eventually. When I began teaching I realized the power a teacher has to provide opportunities to write creatively, to write on topics of choice, to encourage and provide specific praise. The impact of directly stating, “You’re a good writer,” or “You tell stories well,” or even, “What a writer!” is beyond measure, and I tried to reinforce those messages to students as often as possible.

I wrote WITH and FOR my classes for years, but never considered submitting anything to publish until I had a fender bender one fall. I wrote the full story of that on a blog post. The learning curve from there to publication was steep and far from smooth. From that time on I viewed myself as a “pre-published” writer.

SGL: What is your writing/creative process? Do you outline first?

SB: My process is as messy as my desktop and files. For longer works, I work in my head first and longest. Throughout the process I am writing notes and passages, but not actually drafting. Historical and well-researched pieces like this trilogy require extensive notes and I have books stuffed with sticky tabs from which timelines and significant event chronologies emerge. As my critique partners often remind me, this can lead to falling into a “teacher voice” in the writing.

I always have a plan, but am not devoted to it. I have stacks of notes and webs and chapter tags in spiral notebooks, but none of it would make sense to anyone else. Once the drafting and revising are underway, the notes rarely make sense even to me. When writing picture book text, poetry, and other short pieces I never work from notes, but I do work by hand rather than on a keyboard. Only when I have the writing pretty solidly in place do I move to the computer to work on various refinements and save multiple versions where I can find them.

SGL: Your characters were very well developed. Do you keep charts for each character? Some writers use post it notes of different colors and put them up on a board to keep track of traits their characters have. Do you have a similar system? How did you come up with the character of “Goatman?”

SB: With Odin’s Promise, it was lucky, really, that I’d written so MANY versions and approaches over time. None of them had managed to take control of the stories effectively, but I liked them very much and they did have things to say and do. Once I found my main character I had an entire supporting cast waiting in the wings to take on new roles.

Mari came about as a direct result of research. While reading journal entries written by young people during the occupation, Mari walked in the door, sat at my side, and redirected the many different characters, events, and issues from her point of view. In the process she made MY stories HERS, arriving as a fully formed character who jabbed her elbow in my ribs whenever I wavered from the story she needed to tell.

It wasn’t until the prospect of writing a sequel that I needed to chart Mari’s personal development over time, then merge it with the timeline of historical events and changing conditions.

As for Goatman, giving derogatory nicknames to various Germans was yet another way for the loyal locals to demonstrate their resistance to and contempt for the occupiers, mocking them behind their backs. I consciously worked at humanizing “the enemy” from the beginning, portraying the German soldiers and occupiers as individuals with various motivations, backgrounds, and personalities. Readers (young and old) often comment on that aspect of the story.

As the occupation stretched out over the years, all pretenses of Germans being there as “protectors” disappeared. Goatman became a symbol of a complex soldier, one who was neither kindly nor evil, but simply self-serving and surviving. Mari needed to have an antagonist who personified the most base aspects of an “enemy” while portraying a distinctly individual personality, one who was irritating and offensive to the other soldiers, too. The last thing in the world I wanted readers to take away is that “ALL” Germans (or anyone) should be viewed as monolithic stereotypes.

Each of the characters became very real to me, growing more so with each revision and extension of the stories. I feel like I would recognize them if I met them on the street and I’d want to ask them what they’ve been up to. It’s very gratifying to hear from readers who seem to feel the same way.

SGL: What do you do when you get stuck? (For example, I work in the garden or go to the Y and swim.)

SB: I tend to switch gears. Sometimes it’s physical activity, like gardening or walking the dog. Sometimes I just stop, save, and get busy with household chores, errands, etc. I spend an hour on the treadmill every morning followed by thirty minutes of physical therapy exercises. That’s when the characters are likely to return, often uninvited. They initiate internal conversations with me, often pretty opinionated ones.

SGL: You manage to keep the suspense going and even add a little mystery in this third book. Assuming readers all know how WWII turned out, how did you manage to do this? Do you read mysteries?

SB: You’ve pointed out the biggest challenge of all, and one that was an early talking point with my editor. We considered approaching the final book as a full flashback, acknowledging immediately that the war ended and Norway is free. I’m not a fan of flashback in general, and this felt very deflating to me.

Once again research gave me a structure and insight to get started. Germany had never declared war on Norway. The occupation/invasion was described as a protective move, “saving” Norway from the Allies. That lie quickly dissipated, but the Germans remained in Norway with no official declaration of war, increasing their presence every year.

After the Allies began making headway against the Axis forces, in North Africa, in Italy, and finally in France and beyond, the free world began feeling hope, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. In Norway, though, there was lingering doubt that an official peace would affect them. The occupying German forces in Norway steadily increased until the final days, suggesting that defeat in Europe might lead to a “last stand” in Norway, making it the fortress in the north that Hitler so often claimed. That reality added some significant tension to Mari’s life even though the Allies would have come to help, the war might just be starting for Norway once the peace treaty was signed.

Mari’s more personal, direct challenges during those remaining years, even mysteries and threats, were essential to make this a novel, not a dissertation. I do sometimes read mysteries, but not often. Those details and situations emerged from the characters’ imagined development, from anecdotal stories told to me by survivors, and from researching biographies of individuals. I’m pleased to have you feel that continual tension.

SGL: When you were writing Mari’s Hope did you have concerns that this book wouldn’t live up to the other two?

SB: YES! Concern, anxiety, and stress. First I tried writing a single sequel to Odin’s Promise and realized that it needed to be two separate novels to reveal changing conditions, historical events, and Mari’s development over such a long span of time. That meant I had a skeletal version of the “final book” written when the middle book, Bjorn’s Gift, released. Mari’s Hope required many revisions to account for changes in the second novel, but my very skilled editor, Philip Martin, had confirmed that the bones of the final novel were effective. In fact, he initially insisted on me writing both books before offering a contract on a trilogy.

Every reader who responds with interest and satisfaction after reading the final book gets a huge sigh of relief from me along with my thanks.

SGL: What’s next? Do you have another book in the works? You mentioned that you have worked on creating picture books.

SB: Writing picture books is my first love, and early on I envisioned writing bits of the war year stories as a picture book. At that time, some picture books were for older readers and had much more extensive text. Even so, my journey just goes to show how little I knew at the time about finding the right format and genre for the right audience and the right story ideas. Since then I’ve worked hard and learned much about what it takes to write a really good picture book. I have several manuscripts polished and out on submission while continuing to take workshops, courses, work with critique partners, and WRITE.

I also have works in progress for middle grades, including a novel in verse and a contemporary with a fifth grade boy as the main character.

SGL: Your books deal with very serious issues. When you visit schools, how do you talk to kids about the themes in your books? How does a typical school visit play out?

SB: My school visits are often scheduled by teachers with content in mind, aiming to extend and explore works of historical fiction and my book specifically. Several schools have invited me to return year after year, which is a great honor. At school visits spanning many grades I focus on writers being real people, about the need to get ideas onto paper and then treat those ideas as seeds. Revising is a way of feeding, weeding, watering, and working on those seeds to eventually harvest as fully developed stories, poems, or other content. I also share picture books with the youngest students, books that relate to the writing process and to being brave and honest.

Many thanks to Sandy for spending time with me and answering my questions so thoughtfully. I have interviewed Sandy before; the links to those interviews are here. Interview with Sandy about Bjorn’s Gift

Sandy Brehl is the award-winning author of a Norway historical trilogy for ages ten-thru-adult. (Odin’s Promise, Bjorn’s Gift and Mari’s Hope.) She also writes a blog about picture books ( and contributes to a blog about historical works from middle grade readers ( She’s an active member and volunteer with SCBWI-Wisconsin. Sandy writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young readers of any age. A retired educator living in the Milwaukee area, Sandy offers programs for schools, libraries, and adult groups. Learn more at, follow on Twitter @SandyBrehl and @PBWorkshop, and on Facebook: Sandy Brehl Author.


Related Links:

Crickhollow/Crispin Books:

Amazon link

Goodreads link- with reviews

Check out the next two reviews on the Blog Tour!

9/18 Suzanne Warr

9/20 Alex Baugh





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One Last Book for Summer Reading

Summer of Lost and Found by Rebecca Behrens. Aladdin, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY 2016

“You don’t expect your life to change because of a toothbrush. But that’s really how my summer of lost and found started, with one missing object.”

During the course of one summer, Nell Dare will become interested in solving several mysteries: Where did those Lost Colony people go? Why is her mother acting so strange? But most of all, why did her father suddenly run off to England? From the moment Nell notices her father’s toothbrush is missing until she meets an unusual boy who seems just as interested in solving mysteries as she, this middle grade novel is full of action and intrigue that entertains from start to finish.

After seeing the word separation on her mom’s computer, Nell is too scared to come right out and ask her why Dad has gone to England. But his disappearance has ruined her summer plans of staying in New York, taking tennis lessons with her best friend, Jade, and maybe meeting cute guys at the tennis court. Her mother announces that Nell will be accompanying her to Roanoke Island to help with her plant research. All the arguments Nell thinks up for staying in New York don’t budge her mother’s resolve.

Once on the island, Nell meets Lila, an annoying girl who thinks they should be best friends. After Nell snubs her, she meets Ambrose, a somewhat odd, but intriguing boy who also likes mysteries. Nell figures that if she and Ambrose can find enough clues to the Lost Colony, maybe her father, a mystery writer, will come home and write about it. But why does she get the feeling someone is spying on her? Is it Lila or someone else?

The end of the book includes an Author’s note, history of Roanoke, a section on Roanoke Today and an extensive bibliography for those wanting to learn more about the island and the lost colony. What I love about historical fiction is how it piques my interest in visiting intriguing locations, far and wide. Roanoke Island, with all its history and mystery, is definitely on my list of such a place.

I found this story particularly fascinating as my father, known for his telling of tall tales, once claimed his mother was a descendant of the Lost Colony. Probably not true, but one never knows…


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