Paddington Bear

As I wrote in one of my first blog entries, my childhood was full of travel.  It was also full of books.  It’s only recently that I’ve realized that most of my childhood heroes were adventurers…

…Paddington Bear, Curious George, Mary from The Secret Garden, Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Madeline, The Little House, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss Rumphius, Babar, Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Jackie Piper and Puff, Ping…

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I had some heroes who didn’t travel, but even their stories were travel-related.  The Box Car Children lived on a train, even though it never moved.  And Mr. Popper may not have traveled, but his penguins did.  And, I don’t remember the story clearly enough, but I have a distinct sense that Jo from Little Women was a traveler, even if only in her heart.

My first big international trip was to England with my mom, sister and aunt.  I wasn’t necessarily reminded of any books I’d read until we were on the London Underground, and I set eyes on Paddington Station.  Suddenly all the Paddington Bear stories I had read as a kid came back to me, as if I was sprinkled with magical fairy dust, gifted with all the images from the books.

The Queen's 80th Birthday - Paddington Arrives

From that moment on, I advocated for afternoon tea and marmalade each and every day of our trip, a tradition I continue to relish and associate with Paddington and that trip, to this day.

Boats, Trains and Automobiles

I love road trips.  And boat trips.  And train trips.  And, not coincidentally, some of my favorite books involve those very trips…

Around the World in 80 Days

This book has trains and boats (and an elephant and sledge to boot!).  I will never forget the first time I picked up this book, and realized for the very first time that people like to travel to new places just for the rush and adventure of travel, itself, and not necessarily only to get somewhere specific.

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The Black Stallion

In this book, the significance of the boat trip isn’t about the journey.  The boat is a catalyst.  It is onboard a boat that Alec meets Black, and befriends the feisty stallion with kindness.  When the boat sinks after an explosion, Black and Alec fight for their lives.

I remember being riveted as a kid, and grasping immediately that the reason Black is drawn to Alec is his kindheartedness.  And I remember staying up way past my bedtime, feverishly turning page after page to see how Alec and Black survive the open seas.

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The Odyssey

Of course, the oldest and most famous story of a boat trip is Homer’s epic.  This was assigned reading in high school, and at the time, I didn’t think of it as a travel story.  It was mythology, and history, and classic literature.

But, on my first voyage to Greece, during spring break of my senior year of university, it all came back to me.  Having devoured the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca, that trip (and later trips, to Greece and Turkey) totally resonated.  The funny thing about books is, when I read them, the story becomes personal; it becomes mine.  I hear my voice in my head telling the story to me.  So, it was my voice that I remember relaying Odysseus’ trials and tribulations, and it was intoxicating to feel personally connected with Greece (and Turkey), even though I had never physically set foot there before.  I had been there in my head.

This was especially true during the two trips in the region that involved boats – I imagined that I was sailing in the same waters as Odysseus, strolling the same shores, exploring the same cities.  And, I imagined I was doing it for the second time, because the first time I had accompanied him (at least in my head).

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The Old Man and The Sea

Hemingway’s classic about an old Cuban fisherman was a simple, yet deceiving story.  Similar to Black Beauty, the boat is important because of a journey, but it sets the required tension for the story.  In this case, it is a story about man’s powerlessness.

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Moby Dick

Wow, lots of books on my high school reading list took place on boats, now that I think about it!  I haven’t even touched on Tom Sawyer or The Tempest.  But, Moby Dick definitely makes my list.  What a remarkable story about passion to the point of madness and determination to the point of obsession, all set on a whaling ship.

Every time I’ve gone whale watching, whether its off Nantucket like Ahab, or Hawaii, or somewhere abroad from America’s coast, I think back to the adventures of the Pequod.

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Murder on the Orient Express

This is the first book, (and subsequently all the Hercule Poirot and Agatha Crisitie novels), that my mom and I read together as adults.  As such, more than being inspired by the romance of the train adventure, I realized books can be connections to family and friends as we each journey together (and separately) through the chapters of a story.

The idea of an epic train adventure stayed with me, and was the impetus for my (real-life!) journey with my sister on the Trans Siberian Railway.

When my friend Dawn and I were in Istanbul a couple years ago, we visited the hotel, The Pera, where Agatha Christie stayed while she penned this murder mystery.  And, we saw the railroad station where Hercule Poirot boarded the Orient Express in (then) Constantinople.  This is the book that just keeps on giving in my life!

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On the Road 

I had never read Kerouac’s classic novel of angst, freedom and the Beat Generation until a boyfriend and I took a couple road trips across the country.  There was something addictive about being on the open road, seeing the country mile by mile, and entering and leaving state after state, and city after city.  I was hooked.

When I told people about my love of the crossings, they universally recommended Kerouc’s book.  I dove in and immediately related to his intangible search for himself, and for finding a way to truly experience life.

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Motorcycle Diaries 

I was drawn to Che Guevara’s memoir of his motorcycle (steamship, raft, horse, bus and hitchhiking) journey from Argentina to Peru, solely to relish his magnificent descriptions of South American people and landscapes.

By the end of the book, Che and I were both changed forever.  I had fallen in love with South America, and Che had thrown off his upper-middle-class identity for a dedication to the plight of the poor, and to the cause of a united Latin America.

In the diary, I saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama (and Florida).  And since reading it, I have been lucky enough to visit Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Florida).  But, like all “firsts”, my first time “visiting” those places, with Che, has colored all subsequent times.  I am glad my first time was with him.

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Internal Migrations

In February 2013, I attended the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Conference in NYC.  This was my second time participating, and I have also attended their last two annual summer conferences in Los Angeles.

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One of the striking things about these conferences is the caliber of the speakers.  They have giants in the industry, on both the business (publishers and agents) and artistic (writers and illustrators) sides.

The conference in February was no exception: Mallory Kass, Heather Alexander, Tara Weikum, Kate Sullivan, Tina Wexler, Edward Necarsulmer, Ginger Clark, Jenny Bent, Michelle Nagler, Lin Oliver, Stephen Mooser, Meg Rosoff, Mary Brown, Robert Brown, Jon Fine, Peter Glassman, Alexander Penfold, Nancy Siscoe, Shaun Tan, Tomie dePaoloa, Jane Yolen, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Julie Andrews, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Mo Williams.  And these are just the people I heard speak!

I was spoon-fed a wealth of useful information, and inspired to raise the level of my craft, and, all-in-all, reminded why I decided to write to children’s books to begin with.  All these speakers contributed to my bountiful takeaway.

But, Shaun Tan’s talk really stuck with me, which is a little surprising, considering he is more of an illustrator than an author (although he may disagree with that categorization, as he really is clearly both).  But, he is a more visual storyteller than I am, to be sure.

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However, his discussion of “Internal Migrations” and “The Journey Within” resonated incredibly strongly with me.   And it helped me understand how writing fits into my exploration of place.

It is obvious how reading and traveling do.  But, the third leg of my stool, the third thing I am passionate about, is writing (picture books, novels, blog entries) based on my travels and readings.  And, until I heard Shaun speak, I didn’t fully appreciate how closely linked that was to the other two.

Now I get it: writing is the exploration of place INSIDE my head.  It is traveling in my thoughts, without leaving my desk.  It is an internal migration, where take all the material I have gathered, through my travels and readings, and create characters and stories that I can share with others, and enable them to explore those same places.

Writing is a way I explore place, just like reading and traveling are.

So, thank you, Shaun (and SCBWI).  Now I understand what I have been up to!

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Hawaii Deserves Better From Me

I have been lucky enough to visit Hawaii four times so far.  And, I can say without reservation that I loved it each time.  I’ve rented open-air jeeps and driven around volcanoes and found deserted beaches.  I learned to surf.  I danced the hula, ate roasted pig and plates of fresh pineapple, and drank piña coladas.  I visited Pearl Harbor, watched whales dive, and experienced magical sunsets.

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I know this paragraph will sound snobbish and off-putting, but here I go: everyone speaks English so it’s comfortable and easy.  And it’s American, so it’s clean and modern.  There aren’t any bugs or snakes.  Or exotic diseases.  You can drink the water.

As a tourist, it is hard to imagine a more potent example of paradise.

But, taking off my tourist hat and looking at Hawaiians as fellow Americans, I start to feel a little more uncomfortable.  They have a long and tortured relationship with the mainland U.S., and their rich culture, I feel, has been Disneyized for easy consumption.

After my last trip there I was determined to learn more about it and be a more responsible tourist.  So, I read Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes”.

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Anyone familiar with Vowell (I wasn’t) will immediately see the error of my ways.  Her book is very entertaining.  But, even in the course of criticizing the patronizing way the missionaries and U.S. government treated the nation of Hawaii, her easy-breezy, overly-chatty tone manages to patronize its history.

I was enjoying the book so much as I read it, that it wasn’t until almost the end that I realized how cringe-worthy this irony really is.  And how much I felt like the book was my fifth visit to Hawaii, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself but didn’t give the island or its people the respect they deserve.

In fairness, I did learn a lot.  From the death of Captain Cook, to the influx of missionaries, whalers and sugar cane prospectors, I do have a much more nuanced understanding of the plight of the Native Hawaiians as their population was decimated from 300,000 to a mere 40,000.

But, as much as Vowell educated me that Hawaiians are sensitive to this day about their annexation into the U.S., I was left feeling uneasy with her flippant tone and the shallowness of her descriptions.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

The truth is, I have been spoiled by all the effort that Ryszard Kapuściński, and other authors I’ve been reading, make to remove the “Us and Them” mentality, and explain history, places and cultures with sensitivity and depth.  And, that’s just not the charter Vowell embraces.  She is purely an entertainer.

I ate up her book, but it left me hungry, with the all too familiar guilt of a junk food binge.

I’ve Never Been To Yemen…

But I feel like I have. That’s how good a job Jennifer Steil did introducing me to the country in her book, “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.”

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Her writing is masterful, and intoxicating. As she reveled in the sights, tastes, and sounds of the country during her one-year stay there, my senses lit up. As she lamented the role and status of women, my sense of justice was inflamed. As she fought to adjust to working in a non-U.S. (a VERY non-U.S.) environment, I felt her frustration. As she fell in love with the country, I started to develop an infatuation from afar. As she explained the countries political issues, I started to worry.

I have written before about how reading news stories about places I’ve been to affect me differently (more deeply) than stories about places I have yet to see. And, for the most part, that’s true. But indeed, there are some places I haven’t physically visited, that I still feel a kinship with: these are the places I have visited in books.

I read Steil’s book in the fall of 2011. And, since then, Yemen has been reported on regularly. I am not sure if this has always been true, and if I just glazed over these news stories prior to my completion of the book, or if Yemen’s dubious celebrity is a new thing. My sense is it’s the latter.

I always take a deep breath before clicking on an article about Yemen; it is rarely good news. The reports are about accounts of human rights abuses, poverty, and a country moving decidedly in the wrong direction. If it weren’t for Steil’s book, I wouldn’t even really bother reading. There is enough depressing news in the world — why does it matter about what is happening in a tiny corner of the Arabic Peninsula?

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It matters to me now because Steil made me care. That, quintessentially, is the power of books. I care about the people of Yemen, even though I have never been there because I met them through a book. I care about the future of Yemen even though it is uncorrelated with my future, because I started to hope for a brighter future while reading a book.

While I will likely never visit Yemen, I did the next best thing by watching the quiet and quirky film, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”.

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While this movie only skims the surface of the issues of corruption and violence that Steil explores, it did a wonderful job of satisfying my curiosity about what the country looks and sounds like.

I’ve never been to Yemen…but my spirit rallies with hope and sinks with disappointment as I follow its developments from home.

Ethiopia Part II: The Ark

Want to know what really blew my mind in Ethiopia? The religious history. I totally recommend you pick up “The Sign and the Seal” by Graham Hancock, which will do this so much more justice.  He’s crafted a spellbinding (and controversial) history/adventure story about his investigation of the Ark.

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Ready for this? Ethiopian tradition has it that:

  • The Queen of Sheeba was Ethiopian (yes, that Queen of Sheeba)
  • She had a son with King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon)
  • Their son (King Lalibela) took the Lost Ark of the Covenant (yes, that Ark) from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem to Ethiopia, where it remains to this day

Hancok’s quest to discover whether the Ark is really in Ethiopia, as told compellingly in his book, includes ancient Egypt, Jerusalem, the Bible, the occult, the Knights Templar, and, of course, Ethiopia, itself.

I visited many orthodox churches everywhere we went, but the most awe inspiring were the churches said to be built by King Lalibela in the late 12th century. Some of them are monolithic churches, carved from one single rock. Amazing.

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The stories tells that King Lalibela, again believed to be the son of King Solomon, went to Jerusalem to see where he was born (or at least where his father lived — I forget if he was born there or just conceived there), and died while he was there. Then while in Heaven, God sent him back to Ethiopia to build the churches. So, he built one set to look like those he saw in Jerusalem, and another set to look like those he saw in Heaven.

When I went to Israel after my trip to Ethiopia, it made sense to me why I saw a kibbutz of Ethiopian Jews. Without my trip to Ethiopia, I would have had no idea how strong a connection there is between Judaism and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

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Seeing what a strong role the Church plays in the day-to-day lives of most Ethiopians, I couldn’t help but wish it used that power in different ways. Stay tuned to hear thoughts on that…

Lietuva Part I: It’s In My Blood

My dad was born in Lithuania (Lietuva), and escaped with his family during World War II.  Although my dad sports a classic Chicago accent, his parents never learned English, and I spent many days of my childhood listening to the grown-ups speaking Lithuanian, while my sister and I ate Lithuanian food and were spoiled with wordless affection.

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I think it is because of this time that I don’t flinch when I find myself spending hours surrounded by people speaking to each other in languages I can’t comprehend.  I have become pretty adept at following conversations through body language, tone, and facial expressions.  Sure, understanding the words is a plus.  But it’s often not needed.

I recently heard Ruta Sepetys speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, and I was blown away.  Let me say, first, that I think the whole audience was in awe of this dynamic woman.  But, on a personal level, she shares my relationship with Lithuania.  She, too, is the daughter of immigrants.  She, too, had family who was displaced, exiled, and killed in the war and post-war.  And, she, too, grew up not speaking the language, but being surrounded by its music.

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After her speech, I immediately downloaded her book, Between Shades of Gray, and devoured it.  It is an important story for me, for my family, and for Lithuania.  But, it is also an important story for all of us to be reminded that there were atrocities committed in World War II beyond those horrors architected by Hitler.

Though the eyes of a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941, Sepetys reminds us that Stalin has even more blood on his hands.

Can A City Be Sexy?

I think so.  Because to me, New Orleans is sexy.

I guess, first, I should acknowledge that there are different types of sexy.  But, in this case, I am not talking about perfectly packaged, “everything in its place” sexy.  And I’m not talking about cute, fun, flirty sexy.

I am talking about seductive, sultry, a little messy, too much of a good thing but you don’t want to stop, sexy.

On my first trip to New Orleans, I was just impressed alone with the outside showers.  I was a little kid, and we were there for the World’s Fair.  All I remember is it was stifling hot, but they had outdoor showers, or misters or something, that we spent a lot of time admiring.

Now, I think of New Orleans as a different kind of hot.  The food.  The music.  The architecture.  The history.  The people.  Hot, hot, hot.  Sexy hot.

And, the books I’ve read based in New Orleans do as much to bolster my impression as my visits have.

First and foremost, Anne Rice.  I was a teenager when I first discovered her books, and I felt a flush of excitement of the forbidden fruit as I read about the vampires in New Orleans.  I would never think of the city the same again.

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I have recently discovered Isabelle Allende.  She shares Rice’s talent of being able to weave a spellbinding story while relaying history and culture.  AND a powerful talent to anthropomorphize places.

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Both of these authors bring New Orleans to life for me, and in their incarnations, New Orleans is as sexy  as the city I know and can’t stay away from.

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part I: Getting Ready (…To Die!?)

 I don’t know if it was reading Hemingway’s book as a kid, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

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And a couple of years ago, I decided to finally do it.

It was during my final shopping trip to REI that I started to have doubts.  I was at the checkout counter with everything from waterproof mittens, a down jacket and hiking socks to antibacterial wet wipes, an in-rucksack platypus water carrier with insulated tubing that won’t freeze, and a headlamp with spare batteries…

“Where are you off to?” asks the woman ringing me up.

“Africa.  I’m going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in a few weeks,” I answer.  I get a jolt of excitement, and nerves, every time I say that out loud.

“Oh, wow!  I did it in September.”

“And?  How was it?”

“Awesome.  Truly.  You’ll love it.  I have two pieces of advice.  First, buy a bunch of pens and bring them to give to the kids.  There are kids who have come to expect foreigners to give them candy or money.  Giving pens just felt better to me than handing out a bunch of bubble gum.”

“OK.  That’s a great tip.  What else?”

“Take the Diamox.  Do you have a prescription for it?”

“Yep.  I went to the doc last week, and I already picked it up.”

“OK.  Good.  Don’t mess around.  Take it.  Two people died when I was summiting.  Not in my group, but the same day I summited.  From altitude sickness.  It means you’ll have to pee all the time, but…I think that’s a small price to pay for, well, living.”

Holy. Shit!  I just stood there and looked at her.  I had thought the biggest risk was the embarrassment of having to admit I didn’t summit.  My sister’s friend had been carried down the mountain in a wheelbarrow when she got altitude sickness and couldn’t go on.  The thought of being rolled down a mountain was mortifying, but a risk I was willing to take.  Two people died?

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I left REI with shopping bags full of supplies, and a healthy new respect for all the potential (maybe probable?) risks in my upcoming adventure.

I’m Going to Graceland

There are a few places in the United States that are still on the top of my list to go visit.  I have done a pretty good job seeing the country, but there are gaps.  One of the gaps until recently was Graceland, and Memphis, in general.

When describing myself, “Elvis fan” would not make the list of characteristics.  But, I do love me some Elvis.  And, I have always wanted to make the pilgrimage to see his house (and car museum, and plane).  And, I was looking forward to a lot more than just Graceland:  I wanted to see the duck parade at the Peabody Hotel, try Guss’s famous fried chicken, and listen to some music on Beale Street.

We got to Memphis, and headed directly to the Heartbreak Hotel, where we spent our first night.  (We were actually scheduled to stay both nights there, but immediately upon checking in, we decided we needed a plan B.)  Then, we taxied to Beale street, and got into the Memphis groove.

The next day we toured Graceland, which lived up to all my expectations, and then moved into the Peabody Hotel where we saw the ducks.  The staff at the Peabody couldn’t have been friendlier and they directed us to Guss’s, where we imbibed several frosty beers while waiting for our table.  The wait was worth it, that chicken was finger licking delicious.

The whole visit to Memphis, I was thinking about the latest Stephen King book which I had just finished, 11/22/63.  In a nutshell, it is about a time traveler from the present day who travels back into the late 1950’s in an attempt to stop the assignation of John F Kennedy.  I really enjoyed the book, and while it doesn’t take place in Memphis, it kept coming to mind.

One of the major takeaways I got from the novel was that while, in many ways, the late 50’s and early 60’s were a golden era in the US (the food was tastier, the beer was fresher, the air was cleaner, the cars better), it was really only a golden era if you were a white, Christian, heterosexual man.  If you weren’t, you are a lot better off in 2012, no matter how good the food used to taste.