Allison's Book Bag

When I started to read Travels with Charley, a travelogue by John Steinbeck about his road trip with his poodle, I decided it was time to share a story I wrote sometime ago in tribute to a special dog of mine called Chuckles. Tomorrow I’ll post some biographical information about Steinbeck and on Saturday share my thoughts about his last full-length book. For now, take a trip back in time with me.

Chuckles_EndTableI glanced at the picture window as I drove into my family’s driveway, but no dog waited there barking at my return. I opened the front door, but no dog greeted me nails clicking on the linoleum. I had hoped for but not expected either to happen. Since becoming a senior, Chuckles had taken to resting most hours under the far end table in the living room.

Cutting across the hallway, I spied Chuckles in his favorite spot. A white streak ran between his fringed ears, giving his face the appearance of a butterfly—despite an ear that had remained flopped even after months of being taped. Chuckles didn’t quite live up to his breed name of Papillon, but he was mine.

I had just returned from dropping my family off at the airport. Dad had invited me to join them in visiting relatives, but I had declined. Chuckles suffered from arthritis, deafness, decaying teeth, and failing kidneys. I clung to what could be our last summer together.

Kneeling near him, I stroked his nose. He licked my hands and then staggered to his feet. I carried him to the backyard, where he lumbered about more beautiful but less spry than when a gangly and energetic puppy.

His bladder relieved, I carried him back inside where I fetched bed clothes to spread over the living room. Chuckles had slept with me whenever I visited. Then he injured his back, developed arthritis, and couldn’t jump.

Chuckles_BedChuckles sniffed old shirts near my makeshift bed. I wrinkled my nose and offered him a dental treat. They were the only treatment our family could safely give his teeth anymore. He sank to his belly to chew it, but perked his silky ears as I untied a bakery bag. “I picked up biscuits,” I told him. “We can share them and later you can drink milk from my cereal. Next week, we’ll go for walks and visit people. It’ll be like old times.”

I had bought Chuckles after his breeder told me tales about how he liked to watch the toilet flush. On fitful nights when his stomach rejected food while he adapted to his new life, we snuggled together alongside my bed. During daylight hours he tagged along with me to the bathroom where he licked splashed water. As he lost puppy clumsiness, I tried teaching him a few basic commands. He learned all but “Heel”; he persisted in straining at his leash until almost choking. He even joined me on temporary jobs, where he stood against baby playpen railings and wagged his tail at customers.

Alas, five years after buying Chuckles, I landed my first fulltime job—in Nebraska, 2500 miles from my home province of Newfoundland. My search for an apartment near work that allowed pets turned up empty. My sole consolation was that I could leave Chuckles with family.

Throughout the next decade, many other firsts occurred: work visa, rented apartment, and steady boyfriend. Chuckles faced his own changes of bed rest, dietary changes, and pain pills, but took them in stride with family around him. I eventually found a rental that allowed pets, but by then it seemed unfair to take him from family and make him endure flight transfers, quarantine at the border, and hours alone during work. I left him with family but annually visited them–and Chuckles.

CorduroyBridgeThe morning after my family left, we woke to the sun warming the house. I grabbed a breakfast bar, leashed Chuckles, and drove to Corduroy Brook Nature Trail. We strolled over a rickety boardwalk, through a shaded trail, and along a glistening lake. I allowed Chuckles to pick the direction and distance. Sometimes he misjudged how far he could walk and asked for a lift. Or perhaps he tugged beyond his limits because he did not want our amble to end. How I too wanted our time together to last forever!

One morning, we saw movement in the marshes. Chuckles hauled on his leash as if seeing a dog, but a duck family swam out from the reeds. He tilted his head, unsure of how to react.

Another day, we explored a different trail. Cotton grass blew in the wind. Chuckles stretched his neck and batted at it, the way he once had snapped at insects. Later, I stopped to rescue a slug. It was in the middle of the trail where other slugs had already been trampled. Chuckles wrinkled his nose at the slug’s slimy residue, before pulling me onward to further adventures.

Chuckles_TrailLater in the week, two raucous flirting crows swooped back and forth amid birch trees as we snuck beneath unnoticed. Actually, only I snuck, as Chuckles seemed unaware of them. Chuckles used to be able to hear a car turn up the hill to my parents’ house but nowadays barely heard when family called to offer him food.

Chuckles never seemed to get enough walks, but I didn’t want to overexert him and so limited our other walks to fifteen minutes. In the afternoon, we fetched mail at the post office before I drove us to visit family and friends. In the evening, we strolled around the block before returning home to relax.
Chuckles_AllisonWeekends were extra special. I drove us to a convenience store for soft serve. Sun poured upon us, ice-cream dripped over my fingers, and Chuckles coaxed for remains.

We enjoyed ten days to ourselves. Then my family returned. I spent two more weeks with them, but even this time came to an end. I left, heart heavy, knowing there was little chance I would see Chuckles again, but oh so happy for our precious days together.

Chuckles surprised me. He hung on past the following April when I married and to the following summer when I introduced him to my husband. On the last night of our visit, I slept again in the living room with Chuckles. I asked to hang on once again and maybe next year we would have a baby for him to meet.

Chuckles_AndyOne month later, the emails and calls began. Dad informed me, “Chuckles isn’t eating. He’s peeing in the house.” The veterinarian said she could try flushing his kidneys to buy him a few months, but the following evening I pulled to the curb in front of our house to discover my husband’s car already there.

There was only one reason my husband would leave work early. I took a deep breath and raced up the walk. I needed my husband’s embrace. He met me at the door. “I’m sorry,” he said, and held me as I bawled.

That evening, one of our indoor plants bloomed. I photographed and will forever remember its purple flower, because of the life it symbolizes.

Chuckles_FlowerAs I look ahead to visiting family, my sole consolation is that I can visit Chuckles’ grave to say goodbye. After hugs and hellos, I will retreat outside to a bed of flowers in a far corner of the backyard where Chuckles is buried.

I will dream of my butterfly puppy darting about and chasing after dandelion seeds. When he flops beside me with happy eyes, I will smooch his nose and share what we have missed in our time apart.


Especially when I was younger, I used to imagine being able to play in the clouds. To me they looked like castles and chariots. When I had the opportunity to take an airplane trip, I’d even fancy myself climbing out of the window and taking a ride on the those billowy balls of cotton. For these reasons, I welcomed Sora and the Cloud by Felicia Hoshino.

A young boy who likes to climb steps from a tree onto a friendly low-hanging cloud, which takes him for a ride. Sora and his new friend float up into the sky where they view the city landscape. There’s a skyscraper, where Sora’s father works. Then there’s an amusement park, with rides that “whirl in a kaleidoscope of motion”. Next there are kites, which “swirl and squeal”. Higher up are fireworks, which whisper “like the soft pitter-pattering of your heart”. Sora even gets to meet some rain clouds. There’s plenty of adventure to be experienced when riding on a cloud!

The story text is simple, with most pages just having one to two sentences, and can be easily read by young readers. Speech bubbles enhance the story. The soft pastel illustrations are pleasing on the eye, and gently compliment the whimsical story with their combination of quiet hues, mixed paint formats, and colored papers. Spreads are intricately detailed and provides young readers with entrancing visuals. One reviewer also noted that if the detailed illustrations aren’t enough, readers can play spot-the-squirrel! Hoshino has hidden an adorable squirrel on almost every page. So far, all is good.

Hoshino wanted Sora and the Cloud to be bilingual, both English and Japanese, so that she and her husband could enjoy reading it to their children in each of their natives languages. On this level it succeeds as a multicultural text. If one takes the time to read the back pages, one will also appreciate the notes on the Japanese expressions. One problem I have here though is that young American readers, however, tend to overlook supplementary features. Another problem I have, because I am trying to evaluate whether this picture book should be included or not in a multicultural collection, is that  Sora and the Cloud felt very “American” to me. For example, the pictures are all of San Francisco and the main characters seem to have blonde hair, which goes against my preconceptions of Asians. However, this is also where I admit to an inexperienced eye, because other reviewers have observed such visuals as the use of chopsticks by the father. Also, the back pages do refer to cultural inspirations to at least four of the illustrations.

Whether or not one discerns Japanese culture in it,  Sora and the Cloud is an imaginative and pleasant story. Many of those who have purchased Sora and the Cloud have referred to their pleasure at finding such an enjoyable book with a bilingual translation. Seems like a win-win situation for all readers.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

A noted children’s artist, Hoshino authors her first picture book, inspired by her own experiences as a mother. The growing boy Sora enjoys the ultimate daydream–to soar like a cloud!


So reads the back of Sora and the Cloud by Felicia Hoshina. I’ll review this book tomorrow. Save the date: April 23!

HoshinoFBorn and raised in California, Hoshino found that she liked to create things with her hands. In particular, Hoshino liked to draw. Paper Tigers reports that her parents were supportive of her budding dreams to become an artist, but it wasn’t until her junior year in high school that Hoshino took her first official art class. Her instructor not only was built like a football player, but also had a deep voice and dark sunglasses, which seemed to contrast with how delicate he was with his paintbrush. As such, he changed Hoshino’s perception of who she thought an artist was or should be. Hoshino went onto attend City College of San Francisco, where she enrolled in as many art classes as she could find, and to obtain her Bachelor of Fine Arts at California College of the Arts.

After graduating, still unsure of her path, Hoshino told Paper Tigers that she worked at Naganuma Design & Direction for three years, where she applied her illustration skills and learned a lot about the graphic design process. At this job, Hoshino also picked up computer skills that she could apply to her illustration work.

After taking classes specifically about illustrating children’s books, Hoshino created promotional postcards and sent them out to various publishers. It took about a year before she received her first response, which came from an imprint of Lee & Low. Her first book project, notes Paper Tigers, was the first of many enjoyable challenges. Hoshino’s prize-winning illustrations can now be seen in children’s magazines such as Cricket, Spider, and Ladybug, along with children’s books.

In addition to creating mixed-media images for children’s books and magazines, Hoshino enjoys illustrating children’s portraiture, cooking with her husband, and decorating the walls at home with art created by her son and daughter.


This wonderful flight of fancy is created in Hoshina’s evocative style of mixed media.


Hoshino’s preferred techniques are pen and ink, watercolor and collage, and she usually likes to combine them. Most of her illustrations are created on tissue paper or cold press watercolor paper.

Plus the bilingual Japanese translation highlights the empowering themes of self-discovery and cultural exchange.


The Japanese translation was done by Akiko Hisa, a native of Japan, and friend of Hoshino. According to Hoshino’s About, Hisa too studied fine arts in California. She enjoys finding ways to combine her creativity with her cultural background. When she was young, like the main character Sora, she really thought clouds were made out of cotton candy!


MusingMondaysWhat are you reading right now?
What do you think of it?
Why did you chose it?

About a year ago, I started working through activities in writing guides, which I had brought after the 2012 National Novel Writing Month. Four of them are listed at the end and they focus on characterization or description. Today I’d like to introduce a couple more, both which have to do with plot.

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress requires one to do a lot of analyzing published works and then applying lessons learned to one’s own work. Both the section on beginnings and the section on endings contain one chapter which looks broadly at a novel’s first or final third, one that looks more narrowly at just the opening or closing scene, and then one short chapter that contains general tips.

What is most important about the beginning? How about an implicit promise of an interesting story? One which gives the reader a character to focus on, events which aren’t going as expected, and details which not only anchor one’s story in reality but also set it apart from all the others out there. After these three are established, and only after that, should one add in backstory and flashbacks.

What is most important about the ending? How about the use of characters, conflicts, and tensions to show a collision or climax? It’s where the climax lives up to the forces which all the other chapters have been building towards, as well as delivers an emotional impact and remains logical to the plot. When one has does that, one has fulfilled a promise to both their readers and to their self.

There’s also a section on middles, which is often where many novels sag, but where Kress tells how to keep one’s story in motion. She explains how to pick the scenes to write and how to develop and change the motivation of one’s main character. As with the other sections, there is also a short chapter which includes general tips.

Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell is a much longer book, focused on two specific areas of plot, which requires one to undertake several interesting activities. The introduction defines the concepts of conflict and suspense. What is conflict? Basically, it’s what causes two sides in a story to clash. What about suspense? Well, it arises out of conflict, and is the tightening of an emotional experience for a reader. Bell goes on to use the comparison of a boxing match. The two combatants are in conflict. The suspense arises from the questions about how the fight will proceed.

Bell starts his section on conflict by suggesting brainstorming for ideas through activities such as What If…? lists, creation of an image through music, dreams, or movies, exploration of familiar and unfamiliar settings, theft from classic plots or first lines, and even random opening of the dictionary. From there, Bell explains how to integrate conflict into the beginning, middle, and ending of a novel. There are some standard activities such as outlining the four acts to your novel or creating a character grid. There are more unusual activities such as writing the cover copy for your novel or keeping a voice journal for your main character.

Bell summarizes the section on conflict by saying that it’s all about having the reader ask: “What’s next?” He lists and gives examples of four types of suspense: macro, scene, hyper, and paragraph. Then he proceeds to describe how to use elements of fiction such as dialog to build suspense. Bell also provides and overviews activities for practicing aspects of fiction which are unique to suspense such as cliff-hangers.

I enjoyed both books, but especially appreciated that every chapter at the end of Kress’ book contained activities. Her book also helped me view chapters as being made up of scenes and scenes as being units within themselves which fit into the larger whole. Bell’s book made me think a lot of how to ramp up the tension in my novel, although it had the negative side effect of my creating too many problems for my characters in my second draft. Also, especially for the section on suspense, I had to work harder to find activities to practice the skills taught.

If you’re at any stage of writing, any or all of the guides which I have reviewed as part of my Current Reads would be worth adding to your shelf. They’re all ones which I used to create the second draft of my novel. Now I’m on the lookout for guides to help me with my third draft. :-)

What is your current read?

Flowers in the Sky by Lynn Joseph is a coming-of-age young adult romance with a multicultural palette. The main character of Nina leaves her lush island home of the Dominican Republic to live with her brother in New York and to seek a better life. In this tale of innocence and intrigue, Joseph recognizes the gloriousness of living in the land of opportunity, while not shying away from an exploration of the darker and grittier side that immigrants can face in the United States. I related strongly to fifteen-year-old Nina’s homesickness, along with her plunge into independence and romance.

What struck me most as I settled into a leisurely read of Flowers Flowers in the Sky is how in many ways Nina’s story felt like mine, because in 1998 I too reluctantly left my family and Canada to change my life. Nina didn’t want to leave her flowers or the nearby sea. Nor did she want to say goodbye to walks with her Mami, during which cool breezes blew over her skin and she sipped on a soda. If Nina left, she’d miss the joys of singing along to the songs floating from the stereo speakers of parked cars. Fantastic tales of trips to the capital or a cousin who won the lottery were also part of her weekend highlights. Life in the Dominican Republic was good. And then she moved to New York, where she faced crowded and sweaty subway stations, humid air, and sidewalks that smelled of burnt tar. Buses rushed by, not stopping to pick up late passengers who then proceeded to swear. Nina felt burdened by fear and regret, wanting only to return home.

Yet Nina didn’t leave. After all, her mother felt that life in New York would give Nina more opportunities, good schools, and a rich prince. Nina’s brother tried to help her feel more settled by bringing her flowers that she could grow on their apartment balcony. Yet try as she might, Nina continued to feel torn between her old life and her new life. She held many conversations with an older lady friend about how to fit into this awful new place, how to embrace change without letting go of her former life, and why she should even let go of what she loved. The longer Nina stayed, the more independent she grew. Nina even started to assert herself with her brother, demanding that he help her with housework and defying him with her choices of boys. Her brother wasn’t always sure how to handle this new sister, but in reality he had himself changed before she came to live with him. And here arises the darker and grittier side of being a stranger in an alien country. The longer she stayed in New York, the more Nina worried about losing her true self. Her brother might already have lost his way.

Part of Nina’s new life involved a love triangle, which only partly works for me. One of her options is a fellow student who wants to date her, but Nina likes him only as a friend. Her other option is a local barber named Luis who is handsome, rich, and mysterious with a troubled past. He sweeps Nina off her feet, while acting as a protector against her bullies and sending her expensive gifts. Combine this with her brother’s dislike of Luis and his role feels cliché. I enjoyed the moments when they shared casual conversations, but not so much those when he acted evasive or when the two become romantic.

Flowers in the Sky marks the welcome return of Lynn Joseph to writing after a ten-year absence. Despite its minor flaws, I highly enjoyed Flowers in the Sky. Like Nina, I missed my family greatly after leaving home. Moreover, I felt miserable in my new location, which consisted of so much pavement and noise. Yet also like Nina, I discovered the richness that change can bring. Flowers in the Sky should be a welcome title to multicultural shelves, while also telling a charming and universal story.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

May: Advanced Reader Copies

In May, I'll return to reading Advanced Reader Copies. They're piling up again! When possible, I'll include author interviews and special posts. Besides the above, I'll continue to include reviews I write for our local multicultural group and for our local dog club. Enjoy!

Advanced Reader Selections
April 23: Sora and the Clouds by Felicia Hashino
April 26: Travels with Charley by John Steinback
April 30: Victor Cruz: Out of the Blue
May 3: Alex Ko: From Iowa to Broadway
May 7: Sticky Icky Booger Bugs by Sherry Frith
May 10: SNUB Club by Diane Christiansen
May 14: The Poodle Tales by Toni Tuso Faber
May 17: Journey to Pandora's Jar by Nicole Walters
May 21: A Bed for Fred by Lori Zoss
May 24: Skylar Robbins by Carrie Cross



Thirty days. Minimum average of 1666 words per day. A total of 50,000 words. I am a NaNo Winner for two years in a row and my novel in its second version.

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