Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Midwestern United States’ Category

Mix together a mail order bride, a murder, and a goat. Set them down into 1863 Colorado. Throw in historical facts and stories. The result is The Lucky Hat Mine, a fun western romance by J.V.L. Bell.

Gunfire rents the air, tearing Millie from a restless slumber on a packed wagon. This time the gunshots were aimed at a rattle snake. The next time, they came from bandits. Gunshots and adventure follow Millie everywhere she goes. It follows her from New Orleans, across the Great Plains, and even to Colorado. If this trip wasn’t perilous enough, upon her arrival at Idaho Springs, she finds herself without a finance but with plenty of suitors. One of them has already murdered her finance and soon is leaving threatening notes for Millie. Surviving her new life, let alone making herself a home, will take courage and smartness.

Millie has both. She could have hopped on the first wagon leaving town. Instead she stays to bury her finance. She could have stayed at a hotel. Instead she hikes the trail to her cabin in the woods. She could have accepted any number of proposals. Instead she rejects all suitors, knowing that they only want the cabin and the mine that have been bequeathed to her. Upon settling in her new home, Millie wastes no time in making friends with nearby neighbors and in learning how to shoot a gun. When suitors persist in wooing her, she appeases them with home-cooked meals but also accepts their offers of help. And upon discovering that her finance had been murdered by a towns person, she sets a trap for them with the help of her finance’s brother.

In many ways, The Lucky Hat Mine is a typical frontier story. Millie’s finance was murdered for his gold. He left behind a treasure map. Millie has no lack of suitors who court her. One of them falls hard for her; and she eventually falls for him too. There are bar fights, attacks by wild animals, and cave-ins and landslides. In other ways, J.V.L. Bell elevates The Lucky Hat Mine beyond that of its genre. Bell is a Colorado native who was raised climbing Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains, exploring old ghost towns, and reading stories about life in the early frontier days. She infuses her personal knowledge of Colorado and her extensive research into The Lucky Hat Mine. In addition, Bell adds humor through a quirky character, that of a goat named Buttercup.

Mix together a feisty heroine, a mystery, and baby goats. Set them down into 1863 Colorado. Throw in frontier legend and lore. The result is The Lucky Hat Mine, a madcap and heart-filled adventure.

To my surprise, A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck is a novel told in stories rather than a straightforward narrative. As I began to dip into the stories, I also discovered that the real heroine of this short story cycle isn’t a young person but Grandma Dowdel. Despite not being what I expected, I enjoyed Peck’s touching and funny novel.

Eight stories depict several summer vacations as spent by Joey and Alice with their grandmother who lives in a rural Illinois town. The first tale starts with the riveting line, “You wouldn’t think we’d have to live Chicago to see a dead body.” No truth was better spoken for not even the big city crimes of Chicago offered as much excitement to the two siblings than the larger-than-life Grandma Dowdel who tricks a reporter into believing in ghosts, rescues the town from the terror of the Cowgill boys, sets illegal fish traps to feed drifters, bakes a pie to save her town’s honor, comes to the aid of mismatched lovers, outwits a banker, and has a showdown with her closet friend over whose family has the world’s oldest veteran. Each lengthy story is narrated by grandson Joey, as he looks back to share adventures riveting enough to make your heart race and reflective memories of his grandmother that will make you smile. The latter results in poignant lines such as there’s all different kinds of truth and we all grow up faster than we wish.

Not only does rural Illinois offer more excitement than Chicago, but Grandma Dowdel is far from your ordinary relative. Whether or not her deceased husband used a twelve-gauge, double-barreled Winchester Model 21 to ducks, it comes in handy more than once against trespassers and supposed ghosts. In front of her grandchildren, she tells whoppers to a reporter and deliberately pretends her milk has been spoiled by neighborhood hoodlums drowning mice in it. She also sets illegal traps to catch catfish and steals a boat from the town sheriff. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea from my list that Grandma Dowdel isn’t above playing the part of a con artist or even of breaking the law. Now the truth is she’s kind of like a Robin Hood and all other those outlaws who felt serving the people gave them a right to their actions. Despite being a reclusive, Grandma Dowdel makes it a point to help keep law and order in her community, feed the hungry and homeless, ensure her grandson won his coveted ride on an airplane, and keep the bank from foreclosing on the house of her sworn enemy and friend. Her influence becomes on her grandchildren becomes apparent when they become involved in their own charade.

All eight stories are memorable but I have to admit my favorite is “The Day of Judgement”. In this short, the town banker’s wife asks Grandma Dowdel to bake a pie for the country fair. The town wishes to keep their name in front of the public and believes Grandma can do it with her gooseberry pie. To convince Grandma, a ride is even offered to both her and the grandchildren. Grandma spent three busy days preparing for that fair. In the end though, she couldn’t pull off first prize. I like this story best, because it shows a vulnerable side to an otherwise tough woman. The town felt fine with the results, because a second place ribbon still did them well. She however had her pride and her grandson to consider. The first-place winner would win a ride in the airplane and Grandma desired this prize for Joey.

This week has given me a promising introduction to Richard Peck, but already I wish to check out more of his writings. To date, I have read his memoir, some of his poetry and short story collections, and A Long Way Home from Chicago. In other words, I still need to regular one of his more straightforward novels. Stay tuned. 😉

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

How would you rate this book?

Simpson’s Sheep Won’t Go to Sleep by Bruce Arant is a fun and colorful picture book. Drawing on his personal experience as a parent and a sense of humor, Arant has created an imaginative fun twist on a familiar bedtime struggle of putting young ones to sleep. His pastel illustrations also help bring Simpson’s farm to life.

“I need a drink.” “I want a snack.” “I have to go!” Every last one of these laments are excuses we’ve all heard one time or another. They’re also all complaints that Farmer Simpson is plagued with on a nightly basis. The difference is Farmer Simpson isn’t trying to put kids to bed. Instead he’s trying to put pigs, cows, ducks, hens, and sheep to bed. All of  whom are being cooperative except for the sheep. The latter have even invented a few new excuses such as: “The ground is too hard.” “The grass is wet.” “The sky is too dark.” “The moon is too bright.” Maybe we should be glad that we aren’t dealing with sheep!

Fortunately, after weeks of little rest, the more than a little distressed farmer comes up with a solution! While it seems like a sensible one, it also feels a little quick. If room allowed, it might have helped build up the suspense if Arant had shown readers a few of the ways in which Farmer Simpson tried to get his sheep to fall asleep. Instead while on a birthday shopping trip, Farmer Simpson spies other presents. Even if the solution feels a little simple, it works well enough because of the sweet effect Farmer Simpson’s present has on his sheep. Their eyes droop and they can’t find “one poor excuse to stay awake”.


Combined with soft pastel drawings that are both silly and soothing, Simpson’s Sheep Won’t Go to Sleep makes a perfect read at bedtime. Every page is clutter-free, with all the emphasis landing on the weary Farmer Simpson and his sleep-resistant flock, the latter of which just might make you want to have your own sheep. Sure, they might keep you up at night for a time, but their expressive  eyes and hilarious antics would make the loss of sleep worth it. Besides, one isn’t without hope. After all, Farmer Simpson has revealed the secret to getting sheep to sleep. Oh, and I have to tell you, sleeping sheep are absolutely adorable precious! I also love the way the pastels help reveal the texture of the paper beneath the illustrations.

Simpson’s Sheep Won’t Go to Sleep is a pleasant discovery for me of a picture book by a local author. Parents will sympathize with Farmer Simpson, while children will totally understand where the sheep are coming from. A win-win for all that is bound to become part of a family’s “read-at-night” collection.

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

How would you rate this book?

BruceArantNear the end of the 2104 Plum Creek Literacy Festival, I met a local author not on the roster who I couldn’t resist sharing with fans of my blog. After getting his degree in marketing at the University of Nebraska, Bruce Arant spent twenty years in the publishing industry working in a variety of editorial roles.

For as long as he can remember, Bruce has loved to draw. On his blog, he even shares about how drawing him helps with him being a better listener. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been good at sitting in a meeting, a church or classroom setting and just listening … unless I’m accompanied by … a pencil or pen and anything upon which I can draw.” Arant is self-taught in a variety of mediums that include pencil, ink, pastels, colored pencil and watercolor. Much of his illustration work is commissioned by authors who self-publish their manuscripts.

Recently, Arant decided to use his creative talent and personal experience as a father of three to create his own picture book. Bruce Arant both wrote and illustrated the whimsical Simpson’s Sheep Won’t Go To Sleep! I’ll review it here tomorrow. Save the date: November 11!

ALLISON: What were bedtimes like for you as a child?

BRUCE: When I was young, probably an early grade schooler, my bedtime was at 8:00 pm. I remember watching the clock, but trying to keep a low profile from my parents, like that would make them forget about it. I absolutely dreaded having to stop playing or watching TV (black and white at that time) to go to bed.

ALLISON: If you could make any wish from childhood come true, what would it be?

Being able to fly. I remember running and jumping on a hill in our backyard, trying to take off. I ended up breaking a toe (the first of three toe-breaking experiences). Airplanes have become a better choice.

ALLISON: What was your favorite part about growing up in the Midwest?

BRUCE: Living next to my grandmother’s farm. My uncle across the road also had cattle, hogs and a cornfield. I took it all for granted at the time, but now I look back on all of that with a sense of privilege. One of my favorite memories is of a farm neighbor who was really an old-timer type of guy. He still used mules to plow his field and I can clearly remember watching him do so. Again, I thought nothing of it at that time, but I was actually witnessing the last vestiges of a bygone era.

ALLISON: When did you first develop an interest in art?

BRUCE: Did you develop it at school? I think my first grade teacher, Mrs. Landman, had a lot of influence on me with regard to art. Art was the first thing we did every day in her class. I remember she was very enthusiastic about my artwork and looking back, I think she helped instill a sense of confidence in me. Creating art can be very intimidating (it still is), and the outcome of one’s creation is greatly affected by one’s level of confidence. (Thank you, Mrs. Landman.) So, as I grew up, I really got hooked on doing art, mostly drawing. Eventually, I wanted to go to art school, but that didn’t work out. Instead, I’m self-taught in a variety of mediums. I’m still learning how to create art and I still get intimidated –both of which are good things.

ALLISON: Your bio says that you were an editor for twenty years. What was the difference for you between being an editor and an author?

BRUCE: There are actually a lot of similarities. In both instances, you are striving to find to find the most clear, concise, engaging way to communicate a thought, whether it’s originating from your own head or from the head of another writer. I’ve always viewed editing in the same way as sculpting a lump of clay. Sometimes the lump is in a really nice form, so it’s just a matter of reshaping and smoothing out bumps here and there to enhance what was already very well done. That makes editing really fun. On the other hand, sometimes the lump is just a lump. That can make editing really not fun. Likewise, as a writer, sometimes you have a concept in your head that is well formed and just needs to be smoothed out–and sometimes it’s just a indistinguishable lump.

ALLISON: Did being an editor helped you establish yourself as an author?

BRUCE: Not really. Becoming established as an author really comes down to having your work accepted by a publisher, and I’m sure my background as an editor had nothing to do with that. At the time I was picked up by Peter Pauper Press, they didn’t know my background. Getting published is a humbling experience, in that, I know so many other authors and illustrators who are more talented that me, and their work is still out there being rejected by publishers. It’s a frustrating business, for sure. So, no, I don’t think being an editor helped me get published, but I do think it was helpful to me on a personal level, in that, I had a pretty good understanding of how the publishing industry works in general.

ALLISON: Why did you decide to feature sheep in your picture book?

BRUCE: For some reason, I was thinking about how we associate sheep with sleep (counting sheep, etc.) and the thought occurred to me, what if a farmer had a flock of sheep who wouldn’t go to sleep? It just all kind of built from there and I anthropomorphized the sheep characters based on my three kids who used to always have excuses why they couldn’t go to sleep at night.

ALLISON: What do your children think of your book?

BRUCE: My kids aren’t “kids” anymore, but they’ve really gotten a kick out of it and always like hearing the latest story from one of my school visits. One of my daughters lives in California and works in a shop where the book is sold. She’s had fun telling customers who are buying the book, that she played a part in inspiring the naughty sheep characters. One of the customers wanted her to autograph a copy.

ALLISON: Share a highlight from visiting schools.

BRUCE: Presenting to grade school kids has been a really great experience. They become so engaged and excited, and their questions and comments are always either really hilarious or really touching. I’ve had a number of kids come up to me afterward and with all seriousness, tell me that someday they want to do what I do. Who knows? Maybe some of them will. My intent is to inspire kids to use their imaginations and creativity. I think there is too little emphasis on that for kids nowadays. Just a couple of weeks ago, I received in the mail, a “book” that a first grader made for me. He drew pictures inspired by the pictures I drew in the presentation and his teacher said he made a point of using a Sharpie, just like I did. With his first-grade style misspelled words and drawings, it was the cutest thing ever and I was really touched by the fact that he was so inspired to create.

ALLISON: What’s next?

BRUCE: I’m currently illustrating a book for another author and that project will probably be finished around the end of the year. After that, I intend to start on another one of my own books. It will likely be another Simpson’s Sheep book, but I’ve also got a couple other ideas that could be a lot of fun.

In a presentation at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival entitled “A Year with Who?”, Jeff Kurrus talked about the life of a writer and photographer who has taken the motto “know your audience” to an entirely new level. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Kurrus lives in the Midwest and is the author of the Golden-Sower nominee Have You Seen Mary? and The Tale of Jacob Swift. What follows are the highlights of his presentation.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJeff Kurrus began by saying that he is no different from a seven or eight year old kid. When he looks at readers, he wants them to love his books.

On the heels of this statement, Kurrus talked about how photos are an optimal way to teach art and stories. Kurrus displayed a dazzling array of photos and explained that one can stop a room with an image that hasn’t been seen before or with an angle that hasn’t been done before. For example, kids like his photos of a deer that is making a face and of a snake with a head in focus but with the rest of it blurred. Bringing this idea closer to the classroom, Kurrus observed that a popular topic that kids write about is Disney World. He suggested that instead of students writing about the amusement park rides, why not write about the long lines?

When he teaches writing, Kurrus also shows his photos. This makes it personal. He also presents multiple variations of those photos. For example, he might show a photo of a flower and then zoom in on the bee, or he might show a fish but then present it from an underwater perspective. This to him is an ideal way to teach revision.

After this introduction, Kurrus proceeded to give examples of specific activities that teachers might try. Most of them relate to animals, because Kurrus wants to generate an interest in the outdoors.

  • Students can create a photo story. One will be a supervisor. Another one will be the photo editor. And another will be the writer. Students will create a story that others will read and critique. The activity addresses content and audience.
  • Teachers can also photos to talk about research and about animals that kids normally take for granted. For example, one topic could be robins. Teachers could lead students into a discussion of history by connecting robins to the passenger pigeons.
  • Finally, teachers could quiz students to encourage them to learn about animals. By asking leading questions about animals, and requiring students to research the answers, teachers can prompt them to ask: WHY???


After listing various activities for teachers to share with their students, Kurrus talked specifically about his two books. He enlisted about forty students to critique Have You Seen Mary? and about a thousand for The Tale of Jacob Swift. Initially, he was petrified. There are an abundance of chapter books. Most young people don’t know anything about sand hill cranes, the topic of Have You Seen Mary? How would they react to his manuscript?

In teaching students to do peer reviews and to work with one another, Kurrus starts out with two rules:

  • Be nice. I’m sensitive.
    (I have a desire to write but only average talent.)
  • Be specific. Explain why something should be changed and how.
    (I will listen and evaluate. I’m looking for patterns.)

Next, he shares the writing process:

  • Draft
  • Research
  • Organize Photos (10,000 to 40)
  • Revise
  • Polish
  • He stressed that students need to know that writers don’t live on a magic farm. Authors have to revise.

With these basics out of the way, Kurrus will talk with students about the conceptual ideas for a story. From there, they will focus on smaller aspects of the story. And, finally, they will get down to titles.

Kurrus advises that when teaching students to write, the idea is to give them the tools they will need and then have them look at topics in a different way. However, they also need to learn to critique and revise. The writing process is a philosophy for life too.


His presentation over, Kurrus took questions from the audience, starting with one about the inspiration for Have You Seen Mary? He watched the sandhill migration and realized there were hundreds of cranes. He started to think about the individuals. As he researched cranes, Kurrus realized that they mate for life. He began to ask questions from a research-minded point of view: What happens if a pair becomes separated? From there, he kept chasing ideas, having fun with an outline, and then turned to figuring out the structure for a story.

Although Kurrus is a professional photographer, he enlisted others to take photos for his two photo-fiction books. Having others photograph allowed Kurrus to focus on just the content. However, unlike with some picture books, Karrus did have control over who he picked for a photographer and what photos he used. He maintained control of the whole process.

One might think his books would just appeal to those from the Midwest, but specialists from all over the United States will buy hardcover editions to keep and paperbacks for the kids to use. One example of an outside purchase was that of a snow goose festival in California.

As for young people, they relate to the big picture of Have You See Mary? For example, how do you handle losing someone? And what lengths will a person go through to be there for the one they love?

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