Lisette's List

If you read Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, you will know why I jumped at the chance for an advance reading copy of Lisette’s List. (If you didn’t you might want to rush out and find a copy to read while you wait for the release date of Lisette’s List on August 26.)

I have a great partiality for well-researched historical fiction in the hands of a good story-teller. This book fits both parts of that description. Parisienne Lisette reluctantly leaves the city she loves with her husband Andre to follow the call of her husband’s dying grandfather Pascal in the rural village of Roussillon.

Neither of them could have predicted what the reader anticipates in the 1937 date at the beginning of chapter one about the war that is ahead and what it might do to their lives. Part of Lisette’s coping with change is list-making. As a habitual list-maker, I empathize.

Lisette becomes a ready listener to Pascal’s stories and his lessons in art. His lessons lead her to add Item 4 to her list, “Learn what makes a painting great.” Early foreshadowing of things to come are in Pascal’s words, “When something changes your life, Lisette, you remember everything. Someday you’ll see.”

Well-rounded fictional characters populate the worlds of Paris and the rural village of Roussillon. Real world political and art figures from World War II add realistic background along with a mystery about where Andre hid his grandfather’s cherished paintings before he went off to war.

The reader sees Lisette’s appreciation of her new world as she remains in the village learning to live the rural life and knows she can soon check off item 12, “Learn how to be self-sufficient.” One of my favorite glimpses of her spirit is her wonder at her own good fortune in the midst of difficulty as she receives a painting done expressly for her. I’ll not spoil the story by telling what internationally know artist painted it. I found the way this part of the story unfolded and its lingering presence for the rest of the book intriguing.

I liked this book for much more than her frequent mention of my favorite pastry when we lived in France - pain au chocolat. In fact, that part just made me hungry. There may be a stop at  C’est la Vie, our authentic French bakery right here in Hattiesburg, in my near future. I recommend the book, perhaps read with a cup of coffee and bit of French pastry at hand. 


The Braid Connection

Blame this blog on Margarita Engle. I responded to her Facebook posting of a picture of herself in her youth on the back of a horse with long braids hanging behind her with a claim of kinship since I had a set of my own. She challenged me to post my pigtail picture.

Margarita and I illustrate friendship that reaches across attitudes and cultures. Her braids belonged to a horse-loving girl riding a generous neighbor’s animal with Havana in the background. Mine belonged to a North Mississippi girl, fearful of any large animal, who did her very best to avoid the horses on her grandfather’s farm.

She draws on her rich Cuban-American heritage for much of her work just as I extract stories from my legacy among the rural people in the foothills of the Appalachians. Both of us wore clothes lovingly crafted by our mothers. We both grew up with more wealth handed down in lore and values than in anything that could be taken to a bank.

As adults, we share some likeness and near-likenesses. The best I can recall, our friendship began when I responded to one of her verse novels. She likes to write poetry. I like to read it. We share a passion for diversity in children’s books. We believe that young readers should find children both like and different from themselves in books and magazines.

I am enjoying our new connection with the braids that I knew nothing about until she posted her picture. Her mother used braids to tame too much curl. I had terminally straight hair in a curly-headed world. Curls never seem to come in the right amount – just in too much or too little.

Mama and I were both relieved when she stopped the home permanents that singed the ends of my hair before the curl set in. I don’t know how Margarita felt about her pigtails, but mine were a great relief. However, I did hate the bangs that accompanied those braids. Most of the time, sweat held them standing straight up or swiped to the side where I sent them to curb the Mississippi summer heat on my brow.

Feel free to thank or blame Margarita for this excursion into childhood hair styles. And if you haven’t discovered her wonderful novels in verse, what are you waiting for?


Miss Nelson Is Missing!

As school buses pass this time of year, I experience a tinge of the annual excitement I felt first as a student and then as a teacher. For the occasion, I’ve pulled out an old favorite book for both my second grade students and their teacher. My well-worn copy was my first day read aloud, and then was regularly “borrowed” by students for the rest of the year.

Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall has the inept Detective McSmogg trying to find out what happened to the pleasant teacher Miss Nelson who has disappeared. Her school children join the search since she has been replaced by the evil substitute Miss Viola Swamp. Neither the detective nor Miss Nelson’s students ever solve the mystery, but my clever second-graders understood why Miss Viola Swamp’s attire hung in Miss Nelson’s closet.

Like many teachers, some of Miss Viola Swamp came out in me the first day of school as rules were laid down and who’s in charge in this classroom was established. My goal was to get that taken care of so my Miss Nelson could spend the rest of the year in the class.

One of my most memorable students took the word home at the end of the first day. “Dad,” he said. “Mrs. Butler is mean.”

His wise father asked, “Is she mean or is she strict?”

“What’s the difference?”

His father explained, “Mean is when the teacher doesn’t tell you what to expect and then when you do something she doesn’t like, she punishes you. Strict is when the teacher tells you all the rules and consequences up front and then does what she said she would do.”

R. J. said, “She’s strict.”

I don’t think R. J.’s dad had read the book, but he understood the concept. As you might guess, with that kind of parental backup, R. J. saw my Miss Nelson with only rare glimpses of Miss Viola Swamp during his tenure in second grade.

As I watch those buses roll again, my desire is for schools with parents like R. J.’s dad and his mother who became an outstanding volunteer, teachers like Miss Nelson, and classes with students like R.  J. and the reformed children who had met Miss Viola Swamp.



People have sometimes said I was like my mother – when they were intending both compliments and insults. Often, they were right, but sometimes I’m vastly different.

Trips and special events were fairly scarce in our growing up years so I tried to get the most out of them by anticipating ahead of time. I counted weeks, days, hours, and minutes. I loved dreaming about looming excitement. Mama’s reluctance to join my exuberance baffled me. She answered my questions about her lack of glee by saying, “Something could go wrong and the trip/event might not occur. Then we would be disappointed.”

Was she right? Well, technically. In my view if something went wrong, I would wind up just as disappointed, and I would have missed all the anticipation fun as well. I made up my mind early in life to enjoy the expectation and take my chances on a letdown. That decision has led to a life filled with anticipation, special events, and an occasional disappointment. Which brings me to my current state of mind – chock full of anticipation.

I began to count months in early March when I made a credit card deposit, moved to weeks the first of July, and am now down to eight days! The big event is Carolyn Yoder’s Alumni Retreat put on by the Highlights Foundation in the area where Highlights for Children claims its roots. They do many workshops and retreats. This one is for those who have been in one of Carolyn’s retreats before, hence “alumni.” My anticipation fun has included visions of:
•    walking trails in the Pocono Mountains
•    quiet writing time away from the daily calls on my time
•    cooler August temperatures in Pennsylvania than in Mississippi
•    personal writing critiques from history/historical fiction editor extraordinaire Carolyn Yoder
•    sunrises over the mountains
•    great meals by an excellent chef with fresh local produce
•    making new friends who are also crazy about playing with words
•    batches of time not ruled by a clock to read, write, or do nothing at all

Mama was right when she said something could go wrong, and I could wind up disappointed. Nevertheless, my glass remains half full as I picture my week of retreat. Even if disappointment shows up, I have had five and a half months of wonderful anticipation. Not tomorrow, but the next Saturday morning I move to counting hours.


Eliminating Rocks

Don’t you just hate it when someone begins with “to make a long story short” and then doesn’t?

I just found this quote in my stash.
          A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning is like a bad marksman who, instead of aiming a single stone at an object, takes up a handful and throws at it in hopes he may hit. -Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

This week my Southern Miss friends have been understandably proud and basked in the reflected glory as Ray Guy became the first true punter to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Among his USM accomplishments is a 61-yard field goal in a snowstorm. To my chagrin, he also kicked a 91-yard field goal against Ole Miss. “What has all of this got to do with wordiness?” you ask. I’ll tell you.

My friend Mike, devoted enough to watch the entire Hall of Fame presentation show and listen to all the speeches, said, “Ray Guy stuck to the script. Those other guys seemed to wander all over the place.” His carefully planned speech took aim as accurately as his kicking foot.

This whole concept has been center front in my mind this week as I have cut words from a story under construction. Every writer has her (or his) own system. Mine includes writing the whole thing – call it picking up a whole bucketful instead of a handful of stones – and then throwing out the ones that don’t fit.

An early version of this story came in at 1407 words and got a positive review along with a few suggestions from my Louisiana/Mississippi SCBWI critique group. A second improved version got better comments at 1039 words. The current version, with probably another 25 words yet to toss, boasts only 876 words. It’s crazy how throwing out those extra rocks has lightened the load and made for a better story. Cutting surprises me with its improvements almost every time.

Now if I could just get people, including myself, to keep the promise of, “To make a long story short.”

[I had written this before I watched the New York Giants win the Hall of Fame game last night. Ray Guy, sporting his Southern Miss black and gold tie to go with his new gold jacket had a sideline interview with a reporter. He actually said, “To make a long story . . . “]