Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Western United States’ Category

California the Magic Island by Doug Hansen will appeal to readers of all ages. Part history and part myth, the structure hails from Arabian Nights in being a series of interconnecting short stories that cover a diversity of subjects. As for the illustrations, the vibrant poster like pictures possess a bold classical feel which well suit the overall larger-than-life style of California the Magic Island.

Hansen used a Spanish romantic adventure novel from five centuries ago about a Queen Calafia and her magical island named California, where “black-skinned Amazon women, ferocious griffins, and abundance of gold” surrounded her, to establish the basic elements of California the Magic Island. Then inspired by Arabian Nights, Hansen added the creative twist of having animals tell stories to save their home state from an angry queen. In blending these two pieces of literature, Hansen created an imaginative story that readers will return to again and again. With twenty-six adventures, ranging in length from 200 to 400 words, there’s a lot to absorb. One is unlikely to appreciate the richness of each and every story upon the first read. Whether to reread the story of the wild horses of Death Valley who will not be mastered by humans or a desolate and savage land, or to reread the story of a Gila monster forced to leave his burrow when Californians wanted running water but instead got a runaway river, or to reread the story of a ground squirrel with underground gardens, readers will want to rediscover a forgotten tale or revisit a favorite.

There are other merits to Hansen’s book too. Aside from the aforementioned stories are the magnificent illustrations. The first half consist of fantastical sequences of Calafia’s California, while the latter half incorporates realistic depictions of architecture, vehicles, animals, and people of America’s real California. Soaking up the atmosphere of the illustrations took me as much time as appreciating the stories did. But there’s still more to enjoy. Ten back pages are dedicated to providing information about the origin of the Queen Califia legend, additional details about each of the animals and the stories they narrate, and a note about the artist.

My complaints about California the Magic Island are minor. One, although I realize the stories were probably kept short to meet the attention spans of modern audiences, I think they could have run longer in length. The tales in Arabian Nights are well over double the size, running closer to 1000 words. Second, even though increasing the size of the print would make for a bigger book, I think the increased friendliness of a larger size would have been worth it.

California the Magic Island should appeal to readers everywhere. The introduction to this golden state’s history will be admired, as will the tribute to fantasy and myth. Hansen has created a treasure. Readers can only hope more gems will follow.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Doug Hansen picThe oldest of six children in an artistic family, Doug Hansen was born in California. He received both his BA and MA in art from California State University and was awarded the Dean’s Graduate Medal in the College of Arts and Humanities in 2001. He teaches illustration at his alma mater, California State University.

Hansen’s professional career as an artist developed during his 23 years as a staff artist in the Editorial Art Department of The Fresno Bee newspaper. He received the Fresno City and County Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Award for two published volumes of Fresno Sketchbook that collected hundreds of his pen-and-ink renderings of Fresno. Other highlights of his freelance career include: Fresno’s centennial poster in 1985 a collaboration with family members to complete the artistic work The San Joaquin River: Gravity and Light, which is installed in the Woodward Park Regional Library.

Mother Goose in California, an ABC book , was his first attempt at a children’s book. At Curling Up With A Good Book, He credits his editor at Heyday for instilling in him the confidence to write. As for what inspired his most current work, California The Magic Island, his publisher at Heyday suggested a California history book. In additional, Hanson was “reading some tales from the Arabian Nights at that time and the Scheherazade story inspired the twist of animals telling stories to save their home state from the angry queen”.

Thanks to Doug Hansen for answering a few questions about his life and his newest book. I’ll review California The Magic Island tomorrow. Save the date: May 11!

ALLISON: Have you always wanted to be an artist? Why or why not?

DOUG: I always have been an artist. From my youngest days I drew pictures.  Pictures in certain books fascinated me as a young reader – the more complicated the better. I always wanted to be the person who made those pictures, and now I am.

ALLISON: Who influenced your decision?

DOUG: My mom is an artist and has always encouraged and nurtured us. Out of six children, three of us have careers as visual artists.

ALLISON: What has been your favorite illustration project?

DOUG: I am perhaps proudest of my Mother Goose in California book. It was my first children’s picture book and I labored on it for years without even having a publisher involved. When it was ultimately accepted and published I felt like I had won the Golden Ticket from the Willy Wonka story.

ALLISON: Why did this project interest you?

DOUG: I love history, and I love California. Each book I complete reveals new landscapes, animals, and stories I want to tell. This book took me to new locations in the Golden State and allowed me create a series of little stories illustrated in an epic, luminous kind of way.

ALLISON: What kind of research did it involve?

DOUG: Heaps of research. My two decades as a newspaper artist at the Fresno Bee taught me that readers will notice if you get something wrong. Plus I am intrigued by the way things work and I have to understand everything from the brakes on a logging cart to the harnesses for a twenty-mule team. so I checked out piles of books, did lots of image searches on the Internet, and took road trips to many of the places pictured in the book. That was fun.

ALLISON: How did you tell an entertaining story but also make it fact-based?

DOUG: The key for me was to have the animals tell stories from their animal point of view. This compelled me to look at things with fresh eyes. The juxtaposition of an animal with a historic event (a pigeon describes the Tower of Jewels or a flying squirrel encounters a Pony Express rider) generated surprising storytelling dynamics.

ALLISON: Why did you decide to tell your story as a fantasy?

DOUG: It had to be a fantasy to get all those creatures from different times in one cave on the magic Island of California and – oh yeah – animals don’t usually speak in a language we can understand! Plus the legend of Queen Calafia just begged to be retold and how else could I account for those griffins?

ALLISON: What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators/authors?

DOUG: My advice is the sappy-sounding advice that aspiring illustrators and authors probably don’t want to hear: Write or draw the kind of book you have dreamed of, not what you guess might be in demand. Will it get published? Who knows – but at least you will have created something meaningful and personal and wonderful – a book to be proud of.

Rancho San Felipe by Scott Barnes is both an entertaining and educational picture book. It’s about eleven-year-old Victor who wants to become a real vaquero, otherwise known as a cowboy or herder. The Wieghorst Western Heritage Center, a publishing partner for the book, describes Rancho San Felipe as “an important contribution to our history and western heritage”.

As part of my interview with Barnes, I learned that illustrator Sarah Duque had originally shown Barnes a draft of a true tale of California from one hundred years ago. However, she had written it as a “slice of life” story: where this happens, then that happens, and then something else. Barnes rewrote Rancho San Felipe so that it had a beginning, middle and end. While I haven’t seen the original draft, I can tell you that Barnes’ version is charming and delightful. Victor is a likeable boy who wants nothing else than to become a real vaquero (the Mexican predecessor of the American cowboy) and to work on the fall cattle drive. To do that, he’ll need new boots, a new rope, and a tall horse. The latter is especially important to him. His father tells him to become a real vaquero, he needs to work hard. His mother tells him to become a real vaquero, he needs to help with the chores. And Victor does so without complaint, making him a likable and sympathetic hero. Over the summer, Victor receives roping lessons and befriends a donkey. He also faces some dangers, such as twice encountering a mountain lion and once a rattlesnake. There are other subplots too, such as a tooth tree, which add to the sweetness and humor. I thoroughly enjoyed this historical adventure tale.

California’s fourth-graders study the state’s history, and learn about missions and ranchos. Apparently, however, few tales from this period have been written down. Rancho San Felipe is based on a true story about one of California’s last ranchos. Through Victor’s story, one learns about the equipment needed by herdsman, how they develop their skills such as roping, typical duties such as checking on calves, and some of the dangers they face. Readers will also learn about far more than ranch life. Characters whom Victor interacts with include Spanish Americans, Native Americans from the Luiseño tribe, and Basque and Chinese immigrants. Then there’s the story’s background or landscape. During a train ride, Victor learns the origins of towns. At a friend’s house, Victor sees shelves of California Indian baskets. He also attends the Feast of San Antonio. That the book’s author is from California shows in every detail, lovingly woven into the story. The lavish illustrations depict native flora and fauna and are indexed at the back of the book. The back pages also include a description of brands used to mark cattle and a map of nearby ranchos.

The only thing the book is lacking is a glossary of new words. “Vaquero” is a new one for me and might be for other readers outside of California. While it’s meaning is implied throughout the story, a definition might be helpful to have at the end. The word “reata” is defined in the story as a “lasso,” but it and other unfamiliar words could also be included in a glossary. However, I should stress that Barnes does an excellent job of defining new words in the course of the story and so a glossary would simply be a bonus.

This is a somewhat shorter review than my normal ones. One can only wax so long about good books. 🙂 Rancho San Felipe features an endearing male protagonist, provides positives examples of how to live through the various characters, and is rich in its depiction of 1905 California. A big thanks to Scott Barnes for asking me to review it!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

ScottBarnesToday I’d like to introduce you to Scott T. Barnes. Along with award-winning illustrator Sarah Duque, he recently completed the fourth-grade illustrated reader Rancho San Felipe, published by the Wieghorst Western Heritage Center. 

Born in California, Barnes spent most of his early life working on the family farm in the mountain town of Julian. According to Writers of the Future, he loved science fiction from an early age. His mom would leave him at the mall bookstore for hours, on her shopping trips to San Diego, knowing she could later find him in the science fiction section reading everything he could reach. Since childhood, Barnes also wanted to be a writer and wrote his first science fiction story at age eleven on an old manual typewriter. After graduating high school, Barnes obtained his Bachelor of Arts in journalism and Spanish, Master of Business Administration, and worked in a variety of places including Mexico and France. When he finally returned to his first love of writing, he set himself publication goals and achieved them. Today, he is a stay-at-home dad and editor of the online magazine New Myths. This past week, he took sometime to answer a few questions for me.

ALLISON: Share a memorable farm story from childhood.

SCOTT: There are too many to pick from. I can only say that growing up on a farm in a small town is the best childhood anyone could ask for. I wish I could offer the same to my two girls, but my wife refuses to live more than 20 minutes from a Macy’s.

ALLISON:  You wrote a novel once on a typewriter. Do you miss the typewriter?

SCOTT: I do not miss the typewriter one bit. I started on an old manual and my parents got me a selectric at an early age. The huge advantage of that was that it could erase words. Also you wouldn’t wear out your fingers with the manual keys. But I have grown accustomed to cutting and pasting. I don’t worry much about where I start writing, beginning, middle, or end. So it would be very hard for me to go back to a manual typewriter.

ALLISON: Dare I ask…. United States or Europe?

SCOTT: I moved to France to follow a girlfriend. Not a reason I would recommend these days, but when you are in your early 20s you are entitled to rashness. It all worked out, and the experience was fabulous. I lived there around 8 years out of 14. But I’d suggest there is no “Europe.” Every country is so different that I don’t like saying “Europe this” and “Europe that.” I really only know France. (This is certainly one of the problems the EU is having; they have tried to pretend the differences didn’t exist, hoping they would go away if ignored.)

One thing I absolutely love about the United States is that everyone has a personal project for betterment. For example, this person is taking acting classes in the evening, someone else is studying knitting, another person makes pilates videos to upload to YouTube and a third person reviews books online. 🙂 Everyone has some project with a goal of making money or becoming a better person. Or both. You don’t find that in France. People work very hard, equally hard as Americans. However, outside of work most of the people spend their time thinking about food or vacations. Really. Those are the French obsessions. And family, of course. But those “extra projects” are lacking. As long as we have that spirit of entrepreneurship in this country, I wouldn’t pick anyplace else.

ALLISON:  In your twenties and thirties, you spend a lot of time studying flamenco guitar and kenjitsu. What is a flamenco guitar? What is kenjitsu?

Flamenco culture is native to Andalusia.

Flamenco culture is native to Andalusia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SCOTT: Flamenco music is the music of Spanish gypsies. Its history and development have been obscured by time and illiteracy, but it has roots in Spanish, Moorish, Romanian, and possibly Indian music. It has taken a lot of influence from the Americas as well. It is rhythmically complex, often with alternating rhythms within the same piece of music. I’m planning a fantasy novel around Flamenco music and the gypsies. I have been blessed with some extraordinary teachers, from Juan Serrano and Diego Corriente in Flamenco music, to Thierry Blot, a French classical guitar player, composer, and conductor.

Kenjitsu is Japanese sword fighting which I continue to study with one of the world’s great masters, James Williams. We have just finished a nonfiction manuscript together called Edged Weapon Combat. Black Belt magazine offered a contract for the book on very poor terms which we declined, but we are confident we will find a publisher.

ALLISON:  What drove you back to writing?

SCOTT: I have wanted to be a writer since I was 11. My problem has been discipline and focus. It takes tremendous discipline to sit down and write every day. And because I have so many interests, I have a tendency to try to do too many things. I had to give up guitar playing to finally focus on writing. Now I write the first two hours every day.

ALLISON: How did a writer of fantasy end up writing historical fiction?

SCOTT: I have always loved multiple disciplines. History comes with my family. My grandmother was born at a gold mine in my small town of Julian, California. My great-grandfather raised lemons on the beach, literally, in Pacific Beach, now a resort community. The local university has done oral histories of all the elders in my family. So history and the love thereof is in my blood. I don’t know where the love of fantasy and science fiction comes from. My parents don’t care for anything that they haven’t read about either in Science magazine or the newspaper, so maybe I was unconsciously rebelling against them.

ALLISON: How did you come across the story of Rancho San Felipe and decide to tell it?

SCOTT:  I hesitate to admit the time period, but around 20 years ago the illustrator for Rancho San Felipe, Sarah Duque, approached me with 40 full color illustrations and a draft book and asked if I would collaborate on it. She had written the first version of Rancho San Felipe and no one wanted to publish it. I took a look. It was a “slice of life” story, this happened, then that happened, then something else. I felt I could help with the rewrite, so I agreed. The “slice of life” is how life really happens but that’s not what people want to read. I rewrote the book so that it had a beginning, middle and end by focusing on the friendship between Victor and the donkey, Pedro. This unifies everything while keeping it a true story.

With this new version in hand we found a publisher (Sunbelt) and a partner for distribution, the Olaf Wieghorst Western Heritage Center. After working on the production and financing for some time, we decided to publish with the Olaf Western Heritage Center, keep copyright in-house and leave Sunbelt out of it.

ALLISON:  What’s next?

SCOTT: For the Rancho San Felipe project I am working with two teachers to develop a study guide. This should be available by the end of October.
I’m always writing short stories. But my big project is a fiction novel from the salmon point of view. The outline is nearly finished; I hope to have the book written by April of 2014. It is an epic journey along the lines of Watership Down, though the salmon “culture” is far different from that of rabbits. In real life only about 2 in 750 salmon survive the migration to the ocean and back. The book deals with the effects this has on their culture and how one salmon must break their instinctual pattern of behavior or an introduced species of bass will destroy them.

Set in 1905, Rancho San Felipe has been promoted as a tale of adventure and an unlikely friendship on one of California’s last ranchos. Finally 11-year-old Victor is old enough to work on his family’s cattle ranch in the Southern California desert–Rancho San Felipe. If he proves himself a real cowboy Victor will be allowed to ride on the fall cattle drive to Temecula. But how can he prove himself without new boots, a new rope, and a well-trained horse? Please return tomorrow for my review. Save the date: August 20!

Shark King by Kikuo Johnson disappointed me with its simple text and muted color palette. Perhaps this is just a matter of my not being part of the target audience, which is emerging and reluctant readers. However, only one of my group of struggling readers showed any interest in Shark King—and then just as a second choice.

In contrast, out of the stack of graphic novels that I picked to read with my students this month, Shark King had originally most attracted me. Why? Because it had two points in its favor, being based on a myth and being from Hawaii. From my earliest years, I’ve devoured everything about myths, legends, or folklore. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, traditional, modern, or twisted. Yet most of my reading is of Canadian or European tales, which meant one from Hawaii doubly attracted me. Shark King is about a shape-shifting god who falls in love with and marries a human woman. Many cultures have such stories. What makes this version different is that it is mostly about the child who results from this supernatural coupling.

So what happened? Well, then I actually read Shark King. According to the inside of the back cover, its reading level is aimed at emerging readers and as such follows these guidelines: 300-600 words, short sentences and repetition, and a story arc with few characters in a small world. Granted, should I feel moved to analyze them, there are picture books which I love that probably fit within these constrictions. What can I tell you? They possess an adorability factor that Shark King doesn’t. Only once did Shark King make me laugh: When Nanaue discovers an appetite for fish, it grows from a fish to an eel to an octopus. And even then, he’s still hungry! Other books like Zita Girl, a graphic novel which I reviewed earlier this month, also possess a depth that Shark King doesn’t. According to Toon Books, Johnson had apparently been quite taken with the Shark King myth and wished to use it to explore the father-son relationship. But Nanaue barely spends anytime with him. There aren’t enough quiet moments between Nanaue and anyone else either.


The story of Shark King does make for a sufficient adventure and will no doubt entertain the one student of mine who wants to read it. But, will he remember it? I suspect that for him Shark King will simply blur into a memory of bland stories that he had to read at school. And I want more for his reading experience, and mine, and yours. So, it’s onto the next graphic novel!

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other subscribers