Guest dispatches: A.M. Dellamonica / Rambling around Vancouver

I’ve been reading eco-fantasy writer A.M. Dellamonica’s journal (planetalyx) for some years, loved her first novel, Indigo Springs, and know from the photos she shares there how much she loves living in Vancouver–so I was delighted when she agreed to write a guest dispatch upon the release of Indigo Springs‘ sequel, Blue Magic. Here’s what she has to say about the city she’s made home:


I am beginning this essay in the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library, a fantastic building inspired by the Roman Colosseo, designed by local architectural wunderkid Bing Thom. It first opened its doors in the summer of 1995, just as I was heading to Seattle to attend Clarion West, and whenever a writer friend comes to town I drag them to the library to marvel and envy.

Whole cobwebsThe building is exceptional, in its way. Vancouver isn’t chock-a-block with fantastic architectural gems, like Chicago. We have two art deco structures–the Marine Building and the Burrard Bridge–and they’re both wonders to behold. But it wasn’t history or buildings or anything man-made that initially brought me here twenty years ago.

It started with the weather, to be honest.

I grew up in Northern Alberta, where the winter snow is deep and the summer air is moist and mosquito-infested. And from an early age, I hated the cold with a passion that bordered on the pathological: I told wild lies to my grade school teachers to get them to let me stay indoors during breaktimes. I forged notes from my parents about why I had to stay in. They couldn’t have been credible, but sometimes the teachers took pity on me and let me stay indoors. Other times, I hid in the library and under desks, hoping to avoid the one-hour exile to the deep freeze, striving to stay where it was warm, where I could read Hardy Boys novels and write bad poetry.

Now that I’ve been gone for twenty plus years, I can see the beauty of the Prairies. I can look at a field of canola or barley and recognize it as the landscape of my childhood, and think fondly of trees covered in inch-thick blades of frost. I miss prairie thunderstorms. I even write novels set in the north, in the winter, and make it sound like my point of view characters quite enjoy it. I can remember how cool it was like to live so far north that the sun didn’t quite go down in the height of summer, where the sky dimmed but never blackened.

All Imported-22But as a young adult, I wanted to be gone. I chose the West Coast as my future home before I had any idea what it was like. All I knew it was supposed to have less of two things I wasn’t so keen on: subzero temperatures and conservative homophobes. Lunging across the country could have worked out badly. I might not have suited Vancouver, or it me.

I immediately fell in love.

To me, the whole Pacific Northwest has as much magic as anything in my books. It’s a better and more balanced form of enchantment than what Astrid Lethewood releases in Indigo Springs and Blue Magic.

First, the turn of the seasons. It pours and blows from November to January, and that’s what passes for winter. Winter weather doesn’t mean thirty below and driving icicles: it means the sun is hidden behind a cottony gray quilt. But sometimes, just at dusk it sinks below the sheet of clouds, sending gold light in a horizontal sweep across the sky, into the still-falling rain, and we get full-arc rainbows to the east.

Sparrows in ForsythiaSpring? The crocuses and snow-drops start to appear as early as February, and there’s a perceptible greening every week afterward, wave after wave of plant life waking up–daffodils, tulips, hyacinth–until the cherry blossoms come out and coat the city in pink confetti. The weather lurches drunkenly from brightness to pouring rain and back again, and in April we have hailstorms. People complain about the transition from winter to spring, the unpredictable torrents of rain, but I am blessed with a flexible schedule. While others pray for bright weekends, I write fiction by a window and watch the water fall. When blue sky breaks the clouds, I go out and chase herons with my camera.

In summer, it’s rarely hot for more than a week, and all of the heat is eased by sea breezes. There’s none of the steam, none of that sense of breathing cooked syrup. It’s bright and breezy and the False Creek seawall fills up with cheerful people roller blading, biking, walking their dogs. Cormorants sun themselves dry on odd-looking sculptures and kingfishers hunt from the evergreens.

Then there’s autumn, my favorite. The evening air becomes silky, the maple leaves turn red and fall, and when they get rain-drenched on the sidewalks they leave their ghosts tattooed on the concrete. The orb weavers cover every nook and cranny with spiraling webs, and the night’s dew freezes into fleeting morning diamonds. On those first cold mornings, when it’s clear, the rooftops steam as the sun spreads across them.

In all seasons, Vancouver’s twenty thousand crows commute. At dawn, they wing westward, toward downtown and the harbor, spreading out to forage. At sunset, they fly home to roost between the highways. Looking up at the end of the day means seeing streams of black birds on the wing, cawing as they go.

Crows commuting HomeSee? Magic.

So what about the people?

Well, I know now there are assholes in every population; there’s nothing so wrong with Alberta. And Canada in the now isn’t what Canada was in the Eighties–it’s better everywhere, I think. But demographics don’t lie: Vancouver’s leftier, more liberal, and so much queerer than the middle of the country. The neighborhood I chose, East Vancouver, is even more so. There’s a mixed, live and let live community here: it’s not remarkable when I hold hands with my wife on the street, or kiss her goodbye at the bus stop. I sometimes forget that’s not a gimme for all of us. Man, I’m lucky.

People do say this is a hard city in which to meet people. It’s said so often and fervently that I suppose it must be true. I started volunteering at a local rape crisis center the minute my feet hit the ground: one of the women I met there is still one of my best friends. I’ve sung in two choirs – Out in Harmony and A Vancouver Women’s Chorus. I know fans. I know artists. I know activists. A bunch of the people I went to college with moved here.

DSCN8673What’s especially pleasing is that I also know so many of my neighbors. After twenty years, I can’t walk down the street without bumping into someone I know: people I sing with, other writers, or the folks who are also regulars at my favorite coffee house, Cafe Calabria. There’s a guy who’s been selling me kibble for twenty years and four cats. A chiropractor who should be sainted. The Vancouver Events guy, Stephen Duncan. The Books on the Radio host, Sean Cranbury. The guy who made the cake for my big legal gay wedding in 2003. Oh, and also my mother, who followed us here in the Nineties. No small thing, that, and she loves it here, too.

I meet people who like the idea of moving to Vancouver but are afraid to locate anywhere but one of its perfectly manicured suburbs. Some do it, only to end up feeling alienated from their next-doors in White Rock or Maple Ridge. They go green with envy when they visit and an amble down the Drive ends up with me chatting with four passers-by within ten blocks. This makes me unbearably smug. I can walk downtown in forty minutes. Live in Tsawwassen and you have a cool but hard-to-spell address and a two-hour commute to work each day.

As a child, I got moved around a lot. So did my wife. We’ve been in the same apartment for eleven years now, and it’s a lifetime record. And sometimes we talk: we’ve been here twenty-one years, not just the same city but within the same six-block patch of real estate. It’s impossible to not get restless. To long for a shift, a change. New landscape, different accents. Could we do an acreage? Would we like the Okanagan?

BlueMagic_comp-rev2a[1]We try to think of somewhere where we’d be just as happy, anyplace that might fit as well. Even half as well. It’s got to be out there, but neither of us has glimpsed it yet.

That’s what I call damned good luck.


A.M. Dellamonica is author of Indigo Springs and its just-released sequel, Blue Magic, both from Tor Books. Indigo Springs won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. You can read her blog on her website or over at planetalyx, and you can view many more pictures of the city she loves over on her flickr stream.

Guest Dispatches: Elizabeth O. Dulemba / Southern Appalachians

When I realized that writer/illustrator Elizabeth Dulemba had illustrated The 12 Days of Christmas in Georgia, I asked her if she would write a guest dispatch on her home state. I learned that her ties to the South’s landscape, and its influences, run much deeper than that one book. Here’s what Elizabeth had to say about living in and around the southern Appalachians:

Author Janni Lee Simner (who I interviewed on my main blog recently) asked me to guest post on her blog about the South and how where I live affects my writing. I am happy to oblige, because where I am has had a very strong impact on my work over the years.

Most people don’t think of mountains when they think of the South, but north Georgia and the states touching its northern border are home to the southern Appalachians – the gateway to the mountain chain which runs all the way to Maine. My love affair with the Appalachians began at camp in Mentone, Alabama each summer. Wild hydrangeas, mountain laurels, and rivers that ran from muddy brown to deep green twisted into my subconscious and never let go. I still find pressed flowers in the books I treasured during that time.

During college I learned about the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. I used to chug up to the tiny town in my ’78 Land Cruiser and camp behind a B&B, using their shower for $6 a night. I’m so glad I never stayed inside. From my tent I experienced the fog rolling into the valley, creating a green and white wall around me as the sound system for that evening’s “Haunted Tales” was tested by playing the theme from the Exorcist. It was creepy and magical at the same time.

As a young adult, I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee (home to Lookout and Signal mountains) to pursue hang-gliding, hiking, and rock climbing – anything to keep me in those woods. There’s a rolling gentleness to the Appalachians that begs exploration – unlike the brown crags of the younger Rocky Mountain range. Summer would enclose me in green stained glass as the sun attempted to penetrate the forests. While winter… ahhh winter. I could enjoy long views through the skeletal trees, listen to rain tapping on the leaf littered ground, and be alone. Blessedly alone.

Then I met my husband and we moved to a log cabin near the tri-state area of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. There I learned how trees are more like grass – the wind makes them sway and knock against each other like enormous wooden chimes and made me feel very, very small. I learned that creeks flood, and I lived through a cicada swarm – where the song that usually lulled me to sleep became more like a sawmill. Mother Nature fought us there, making it clear she would quickly reclaim our land if ever we stopped trying. But she also gave us blackberries to make my annual summer pie and jams.

Through it all, I learned the stories that grew in these underdeveloped regions – Jack Tales mainly, and about their hero teller, Ray Hicks. Two of my books are Jack Tale adaptations: Paco and the Giant Chile Plant (Jack and the Giant) and Soap, Soap, Soap. My first novel (still unpublished) is about the closing of the copper mines in Copperhill, Tennessee. There, history is so thick, stories go on and on and on.

Now I’m in Atlanta again, returned to my urban southern roots, and my latest work in progress novel takes place in the neighborhoods of downtown during the height of Spring blooms – azaleas and dogwoods which turn our world temporarily pink and white like an enormous Easter parade. Yet we still maintain a family cabin in the mountains – I can’t stay away.

If a soul can have a magnet, the North Georgia mountains are it for me.

But my South isn’t just about the mountains. There are the marshes off the Georgia coast which I’m only just discovering, the Gulf of Mexico where I spent many summer vacations on sugar sands, the city I now call home which has grown into a major metropolis while maintaining its small town hospitality (and hosts the Decatur Book Festival – one of the best in the country). I had the pleasure of rediscovering my state while illustrating The 12 Days of Christmas in Georgia (part of the series by Sterling Children’s Books). We have so much here and I’ve become fiercely proud of my home.

We have a mystique in the South which percolates into my work both consciously and subconsciously. I’m proud to think of myself as a Southern writer, the legacy I carry, and the place that I’ve come to love in all its variations.

p.s. – And yes, I say “y’all.”


Elizabeth O. Dulemba is author and illustrator of Paco and the Giant Chile Plant and Soap, Soap, Soap (published in both English and bilingual editions). She’s illustrated several other picture books, including The Twelve Days of Christmas in Georgia and the Ready For … series. She shares her art with readers through her weekly Coloring Page Tuesdays. Visit her web site at and her blog at

(Read more guest dispatches here.)

Guest Dispatches: Western Massachusetts

Ever since I first came upon asakiyume‘s journal, I’ve loved not only the photographs she shares there, but the way she sees those pictures, and the world she takes them in–ways that remind me that this world and its places are indeed full of magic, if only one doesn’t forget how to see them properly.

Just a few days before the shortest day of the (northern hemispheric) year, she brings us a dispatch from–and reminder of–the year’s longest days.


Let me tell you about a season in western Massachusetts, because all the seasons—like all the times of day—feel like their own places. And because these days there are lots of people talking about winter, I’ll tell you about summer.

Many people have reservations about summers in western Massachusetts. They don’t like the humidity. It’s true; summer in Massachusetts is humid. The air is full of moisture, and the moisture is full of scents and sounds. Once it’s got hold of the scents, it doesn’t let go—someone’s barbeque, cut grass, wildflowers, peaches ripening (or spoiling) on the counter. The sounds it pulls in from far away. You can hear more on a humid summer night than you can at other times; it’s like you have superpowers. Voices travel. Someone’s music, a television show. Where are the sounds coming from? It’s hard to tell. On a humid summer night, maybe they’re coming from the next state over, or just from next door. Distances are no longer constant. Everything is bendy, melty.

In the daytime, the humid air drapes itself on you like wet gauze, and you sweat. That’s okay, though—it makes you long and loose and limber. You don’t have much energy, can barely breathe, but that’s okay too, because the air will breathe for you. Exhale, long and slow, and let the atmosphere around you be your lungs.

Dawn comes very early in the summer—5 am, at the solstice—and the birds sing their dawn chorus even earlier. They fill the outdoors with song until a little before sunrise, and then grow quiet as the sun comes up. Then the morning advances a bit and the cicadas start to sing as the temperatures rise. Midmorning is a good time to play the game of jumping from shadow puddle to shadow puddle. Each time you plunge into the shade, it’s like cooling off in water—then you must endure another burst of bright sun until the next tree-shadow or building-shadow.

What about noon? How do you survive noon? You can retire to the cool of indoors, or. . . with the air breathing for you and your sweat to lubricate you, you can see what the meadows have to offer at this time of day. Grasshoppers, mainly, springing away as you walk through the queen anne’s lace and the buttercups. I’ll imagine you some water to splash through next, to cool your feet in. I’ll imagine it a fast stream though mossy boulders, such as you see so often around here, and with lacy hemlocks and smooth trunked beeches on either side.

And what about summer thunderstorms? They’re a place all their own. Wild wind whipping up, trees bending low, the leaves showing their white sides, as if in surrender. The sky changing to strange bruise-like shades of yellow, purple, and green. And then sheets of rain, and temporary rivers everywhere. And then the sun comes back out, and steam rises from the streets, and people say, “I thought that storm would cool things off, but it’s as sticky as ever.” And I nod—there’s no denying it—but I’m happy for it, because this is summer.

Guest Dispatch: Lake Champlain Valley, New York

Kate Messner (kmessner) is the author of the forthcoming children’s book Sugar and Ice, which I’ve been looking forward to ever since I read and enjoyed her The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. She also writes picture books, and during the school year inspires middle schoolers to read as an English teacher. I’ve been enjoying her sense-of-place posts about living just south of the Canadian border for years, so was delighted when she agreed to write a guest dispatch for me. Here’s what she had to say about writing in the Lake Champlain Valley, in a house that does, indeed, look right out over the lake:


Setting is one of my very favorite things to work on when I’m writing, so it’s probably not surprising that my first two novels with Walker/Bloomsbury have strong connections to the Lake Champlain Valley, where I live. It’s a pretty inspiring place, after all…

[Lake Champlain pic]

While The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. celebrates autumn in Vermont through the eyes of a 7th grade girl collecting leaves for a school project, Sugar and Ice is a bit of a love song to another season I love: sugaring time.

The nay-sayers among my Northern New York neighbors call it mud season, but I know better. Every year, the last weekend in March or the first weekend in April, my family bundles up for an outdoor pancake breakfast. We zip sweatshirts, pull on gloves, lace up mud boots, and drive to one of our local sugar houses. You can see the steam way down the road, just pouring out the chimney from the sap boiling down to syrup inside. We order plates of pancakes – two or three to start, and they’ll keep bringing you more until you’re full – and find spots at picnic tables, usually not far from a guy playing acoustic guitar under a tent.

This local tradition says home to me, and it says home to Claire, the main character in Sugar and Ice, who lives on a maple farm near the Canadian border. She’s a figure skater who’s learned most of her moves from her cousin on the frozen cow pond, but her life changes when an elite Russian skating coach spots her at her local ice show and offers her a scholarship to train in Lake Placid. Claire accepts it, but she finds that her sweet dream come true has some sharp edges and wonders how she’ll make it in this new world of mean girls on ice.

It was the contrast between Claire’s two worlds – the sweet, slow, tradition of sugaring and the fast-paced, uber-competitive world of high level figure skating – that really made me want to write this novel. My editor says every time she read one of my drafts, it made her crave pancakes. I’m hoping that’s a good sign!


Sugar and Ice comes next week, on December 7, and is a Junior Library Guild selection for Fall 2010. Want a signed copy? The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid is hosting a launch party from 3-5 pm on Saturday, December 11th. If you can’t make it but would still like a personalized book, just give them a call at (518) 523-2950 by December 10th. They’ll take your order, have Kate sign your book after the event, and ship it in time for the holidays.

Guest Dispatches: Rincon Valley, Arizona

Caitlin Brennan (aka dancinghorse) just far enough outside of Tucson to be in rural rather than urban Arizona, on Dancing Horse Farm where she breeds and raises beautiful white Lipizzan Horses. She’s already known for her adult horse fantasies, The Mountain’s Call, Song of the Unmaking, and Shattered Dance. When I learned she writing a horse-based fantasy for teen and pre-teen readers, me and my inner horse girl were both thrilled.

House of the Star was everything I hoped it would be: magical horses and girls who dream of riding them, travel between worlds, a touch of faerie magic, and more than a touch of Southern Arizona desert.

Here’s what she had to say about living in Southern Arizona:


I moved to Tucson for my health.

Seriously. I did. I developed fibromyalgia, I was rusting shut in Connecticut, and my doctor said, “Move somewhere with less humidity.” I already had friends in Arizona, also there for their health, who invited me to come out and have a look.

Before that, I would have sworn that I would never, ever leave New England. I was born and bred there. I loved (and still love) the landscape, the ocean, the extremes of the seasons. I hate hot weather. I love the cold. There’s nothing better than a good old nor’easter in a warm house with plenty of tea and hot chocolate. And those colors in the fall? The way apples taste just like the air? How could I leave all that behind?

I might have toughed it out. But one very important thing became harder and harder.

That was the horses, and the riding. I’ve loved them all my life. I’m a horse kid. I’m one of those people for whom the half-ton herbivore with the giant publicity machine is pretty much a necessity. You sleep, you eat, you breathe. You do horses.

It was getting so I couldn’t ride. It wasn’t so much that it hurt as that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t mount easily, and riding was an exercise in stiff frustration.

Plus, there was the fact that, in Connecticut, horse boarding is fairly plentiful, but it’s incredibly expensive. In the winter you need a covered arena to ride much at all, which further adds to the expense. I was getting tired of leasing or borrowing other people’s horses, I wanted my own, and I wanted my own farm, because I was also tired of living by other people’s rules.

[House of the Star cover]“Year-round riding,” my friends said. “Horse country. Affordable boarding–and land, and horse facilities, and…”

I didn’t exactly book the next flight, but I came pretty close.

My first sight of Tucson was from the air, in a late October sunset. Miles and miles of rugged brown landscape, and this pellucid sky. It was dark by the time the plane landed. The city was a long dark tunnel lit by headlights, with a hotel at the end of the road.

In the morning I woke up, drew the drapes, and saw Mountains. Not just hills, those. They were some serious jagged slopes with sunrise on them, and the bluest sky I’d ever seen, even in Maine in October.

That did it for me. It was an alien planet, a climate and a landscape like nothing I’d ever seen before, but it felt right. Much to my surprise, I realized I could live there.

I moved out the following summer. The horses came one by one–the first just a month after the moving van deposited all my worldly goods in an apartment on the east side of Tucson. After one and half horses and two years came the five acres in a little town outside of Tucson, with the horse facilities.

By then I’d lived through one of the hottest summers on record, and survived. I’d learned that when the heat breaks along about October, suddenly you understand why human beings want to live here. I’d sloshed through the Floods of ’93, and seen the wildfires on the mountains. So many extremes–and I loved them all. I was home.


You can see images of both the white horses and the Rincon valley the book trailer for House of the Star:

Guest Dispatches: Los Angeles, CA

Anyone who reads the blog of memoirist and fantasy writer Rachel Manija Brown already knows she’s in love with Los Angeles. (Like many great loves, it’s not without its … moments … of course.) So I was thrilled when she agreed to write a Los Angeles dispatch for me. Here’s what Rachel had to say about the city:


[Thailand Plaza]I’m not here to tell you that Los Angeles is a city of vapid Botoxed starlets, red carpets, Hollywood phonies, and shallow rich people driving Humvees through Beverly Hills. You know that already, and anyway I rarely encounter that world.

I’m here to tell you about the grungy corner stores that, you will discover if you walk inside, contain mini-kitchens in which they prepare made-to-order soft tacos for about $1.50 each, in your choice of carne asada (beef), al pastor (marinated pork), carnitas (fried pork), chicharron (crispy pork rinds), lengua (tongue), or buche (stomach), and, on the weekends, birria (goat.) They also tend to carry Mexican breads and pastries.

I’m here to tell you about the Japanese-French pastry shop which makes cream puffs with black sesame-flavored cream and a thin layer of honey, and is kitty-corner to a Japanese-Peruvian sushi place. I haven’t been to the latter, but I’ve heard that it’s run by a married Japanese/Peruvian couple. The famous Korean taco truck Kogi (which you can follow on Twitter) was also the result of an interracial marriage, when a Mexican-American guy and his Korean-American sister-in-law were up late one night discussing tacos and Korean barbecue. Scoops, the avant-garde gelato shop whose proprietor Tai Kim produces gelato in every flavor imaginable, including bacon, olive oil and sea salt, chocolate Guinness, taro, wasabi, lavender, cucumber, and brown bread, has had at least one commission to produce a gelato to commemorate a multicultural relationship.

[Jacaranda blossoms]I’m here (if I can drag my mind away from food, which is quite difficult in a city where many people are obsessed with it, and there is such a wonderful variety of choices, many extremely inexpensive – izakayas (Japanese pubs), Jewish delis, Americana sandwich joints, Din Tai Fung’s soup dumplings, Chinese bakeries, Korean fried chicken, and the very best roast chicken I’ve ever had (at Zankou Chicken, where it comes with a mysterious and excellent garlic sauce)) to tell you about the peculiar and marvelous Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is better experienced than described; the La Brea Tar Pits, where primordial tar still oozes up through cracks in the sidewalk and life-size mammoth statues struggle in a still-bubbling lake of tar; Thai Town and its perfumed cupcakes and serenades by its three Thai Elvises, one of whom is female; the strip mall on Sawtelle and Olympic which features shops selling anime DVDs and memorabilia, erasers and candles and oven mitts shaped like sushi, Angry Little Asian Girl T-shirts, and crepes stuffed with tuna fish and corn. And also Tomato Bank.

[All the Fishes cover]I’m here to tell you that the jacarandas bloom purple in spring and summer, that the maples turn wine-red in fall, that snow falls on the mountains in winter, that the hills outside the city bloom brilliant yellow with mustard and orange with California poppies, that sunsets are neon pink shot with gray, and that the hot Santa Ana blows only long enough to make me appreciate the just-right sunniness of the rest of the year.

I’m here to tell you that I couldn’t possibly tell you everything there is to know about Los Angeles; that it’s not one city, but hundreds, scattered like pearls; that if you asked anyone else who loves it here, they’d give you a completely different list of wonders; that I love this city so much, sometimes I’m convinced that it loves me too.


[Rachel Manija Brown]Rachel Manija Brown is the author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, an account her childhood on an ashram in India (“Horrific childhood: check. Searing, indelible prose: check. Comparisons to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors: check (and they’re richly deserved) … Grade A.” –Entertainment Weekly), as well as (with illustrator Stephanie Folse) Project Blue Rose and its sequel. (Both Project Blue Rose books are intended for mature audiences.)

Rachel was the youngest person ever to receive an MFA in playwriting from UCLA, worked in TV/film development for the Jim Henson Company for four years, was a staff writer for the one-hour TV horror-comedy The Fearing Mind (which played on Fox Family), and now does freelance TV development. Her play Driving Past was produced off-Broadway.

She’s been a disaster relief worker, a movie reviewer, a CPR/first aid instructor, a stage manager, and a teacher for teenagers who have been expelled from public schools. She can be found on livejournal as rachelmanija, where–among other things–she regularly reviews awesomely depressing books.

Guest Dispatches: Tucson, AZ

Marge Pellegrino is a fellow Tucsonan. As leader of the Hopi Foundation’s Owl and Panther expressive arts group here, she works with new Arizonans who arrive as refugees from around the world.

Here’s what Marge had to say about how that work and Tucson’s desert landscape came together to inspire her novel, Journey of Dreams:


[full moon over the Rincons] The full moon pulled up large and yellow from behind the Rincon Mountains. I drove Vicky, my 12 year-old student home from an Owl and Panther expressive arts meeting. We were mesmerized by the dark sky changing minute by minute. After a long pause, I had a feeling I was about to be schooled again.

“In our village everyone is going outside to bang pots and make noise to help the moon be well again.”

We pulled over and hooted and clapped our hands and stomped our feet at the yellow tinted moon. Back in the car, we beeped the horn a few times. By the time I dropped this Guatemalan refugee child off at her home in Tucson, Arizona, the moon was a glowing white orb and we’d had another magic moment when she shared a delicious detail from her real home.

The research that began as a means to better understand the families I served turned into a passion to share what had happened to force them from the highlands they so loved and continued to long for. I felt driven to understand their experience as best I could. I wanted to offer children who were lucky enough to live in a safe place a story to help them understand why these refugee children were in our community, why they had to flee for their lives.

[Journey of Dreams cover]The book I originally produced was eight pages – a picture book or an early chapter book was what I had envisioned. Enthusiastic rejections followed submissions. They were all variations of “well written but will miss its audience.”

Could I write a novel? I knew I could produce 7,000 words – but 50,000? As our Tuesday night meetings continued with these children’s art and writing as a back drop, I dug in by day and read boxes of books, interviewed scores of people, watched videos and before long, I started to hear Tomasa’s voice.

It took ten years from the idea to holding a copy of Journey of Dreams in my hands. Weaving the narrative with folktales and dreams, I had built a world so real to me that I grieved leaving Tomasa and her family behind when the writing wrapped up.

On Tuesday nights now, my students are mostly from Iraq, Nepal and Somalia. I never ask about the details of my ever-changing charges’ past. But it’s hard to avoid knowing. Their pain of separation and the feeling of being an “other,” echoes those original families in the late 1990s.

When the full moon rises from behind the Rincons, my mind always drifts off to Guatemala and I feel Tomasa’s hand in mine. A deep gratitude rises up. I’m so glad I risked knowing her.


[Marge Pellegrino] ” On the seventh day, only the owl and the panther were still awake. Because they did not succumb to sleep, they were given the power to see in the dark. ” – from a Cherokee Creation Story

Marge Pellegrino leads Owl and Panther, a Hopi Foundation project designed to help those affected by torture, dislocation, refugee status, and family problems through creative writing, counseling, and community service. She also runs the Word Journeys program at the Pima County Public Library, which received the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities’ Coming Up Taller Award for excellence in after school programming in 2008. She was named a Local Hero by the Tucson Weekly in December 2006. In 2009 Marge received the Judy Goddard/Libraries Ltd. Young Adult Author Award from the Arizona Library Association for Journey of Dreams.

Guest Dispatches: Cynthia Leitich Smith / Austin, Texas

As anyone who reads Cynthia Leitich Smith’s excellent and informative Cynsations blog knows, Cynthia lives in Austin, Texas. Her love of the city shows through, and I wanted to know more about it–so I asked her to write a guest dispatch about her chosen home. I was thrilled when she agreed.

Here’s what she had to say:


[Austin pic]I’m a sense of place writer. My stories spring from suburban Kansas City, northeast Kansas, resort-town Colorado, small-town Oklahoma, downtown Chicago, and college-town Michigan—all places that I’ve lived or visited again and again.

But it’s Austin, Texas; where I now make my home, and it’s been singing to me since I first arrived. That feels like the right verb, “singing,” for a city that bills itself as the “live music capital of the world.”

Austin is the kind of place that’s almost impossible to leave—a capital city, a college town, high tech, overeducated, joyfully diverse. Crunchy, funky, corporate and entrepreneurial. Hippy, urban cowboy and urban cool. A 24-7 celebration of the arts.

Fascinated by its history under all six flags, and every other waiter has a Ph.D.

[Austin pic]It’s proudly weird. A foodie town, a fashion town, and has established its own dress code called—not surprisingly—“Austin casual.” It’s Molly Ivins’s and Ann Richard’s city. Willie Nelson’s and Lance Armstrong’s city.

(And yes, we do take our bike lanes very seriously.)

Green—politically and literally. Young, active, outdoorsy. Over 300 days of annual sunshine. Lakes sparkle, palm trees sway, flowers bloom.

[Eternal cover]It is my oasis and the first place where I’ve felt like I wholly belonged. It’s such a relief to find that. The place that is true to you.

It was in Austin that I could first see glimpses of worlds beyond this one. Rifts in the heat, shadows on the trail, eyes that glowed too bright…

Since 2001, I’ve been writing within a Gothic fantasy world largely inspired by Abraham Stoker’s nod to Texas in the form of his Dracula character, Quincey P. Morris.

[Holler Loudly cover]Well, that and the fact that the Congress Avenue Bridge is home to 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats that careen like swirling ribbons into the rising night.

When I joke with Texans from elsewhere that ghosts and bloodsuckers, angels and shape-shifters roam our streets, they claim that explains a lot.

Which brings me to my werearmadillos—does anybody else write ‘dillos my way?

I set my vampire-themed restaurant on South Congress AKA Main Street Austin, a music-shopping-entertainment district in the midst of re-gentrification, and then juxtaposed the local homeless against local money, old and new.

The angels were the easiest. Arch angels. Guardian angels.

I see angels on every corner, some of them wearing boots.


[Cynthia Leitich Smith]Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Eternal and its companion Tantalize (both Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes and Rain Is Not My Indian Name. (all HarperCollins). She looks forward to the upcoming release of Holler Loudly, (Dutton, Nov. 2010) as well as Blessed and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, Feb. 2011).

Cynthia is a member of faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her website was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.

Non-Desert Dispatches: Benjamin Tate / Upstate NY

So, for years I’ve been posting intermittent desert dispatches on this blog. One of the things I love, as I wander the blogosphere, is seeing hints of the places you all live, too.

So it occurred to me that a series of irregular non-desert dispatches would be a lot of fun.

With that in mind, a couple weeks ago, I asked Joshua Palmatier (who also writes as Benjamin Tate–and blogs as jpsorrow) to send me a dispatch from his corner of the planet, and to tell me how his own native landscape (landscapes, as it turns out, though I didn’t know that when I asked!) influence him and his writing.

Here’s what Joshua had to say:


Cherry blossoms upstateFirst, I want to thank Janni for offering me this opportunity to guest blog. Thanks! I appreciate it!

Typically what I do for guest blogs is to talk about something related to my current book, or how I write, or I answer interview questions, etc. But Janni wanted something a little different. Still writing related, of course, we are authors, but different. She said she’s fascinated with the natural world around her and she wanted to know if the world around ME had any effect on how and what I write.

The answer is a resounding YES!

I was raised in a military family, which means that we moved around. A lot. While this probably stunted my social growth (since most of the moving happened during my high school years), it did provide me with the chance to see many locations across the US, and I think this view of different types of settings and surroundings became essential to making my fantasy worlds real. Unlike Star Wars, where each planet was its own singular type of setting–the “desert” planet, the “swamp” planet, etc–a fantasy novel has to have different climates and natural surroundings to give it that sense of realism that may be lacking when the magic becomes prevalent. The goal of every fantasy is to have the reader suspend their disbelief over the magic, and the only way to do that is to make EVERYTHING ELSE as real as possible.

Upstate in winterWhen building my own world for my fantasy novels, I make certain that I incorporate different locations, typically based on all of the places that I’ve either lived or visited. In my “Throne of Amenkor” books (written by Joshua Palmatier), you get a strong urban setting because I’ve lived in cities, such as Washington, DC, and I know what it’s like when the “natural” surroundings are composed of buildings. But Amenkor is also a port city. I incorporated many of my own memories of growing up in Key West as well, the docks, the seagulls, the pelicans, etc. All of the action takes place up and down the coastline, and as they ships travel south from Amenkor, you see the rocky shoreline of the Pacific northwest, with the narrow inlets and hidden bays, the beaches made of rounded stones and the evergreen forests that come down to the dunes. All of that came from my experiences living on the islands in Puget Sound. In fact, to write those scenes I would start by imagining myself there, on the beach, staring out over the water . . . and then I’d let the characters and action unfold before me.

Well of Sorrows coverFor the new series (written under the pseudonym Benjamin Tate), I’ve had to reach for a completely different set of experiences. I have an entire continent to explore, which of course must have a diverse number of natural settings. I currently live in upstate New York, so when the book opens, the settlers of this new continent are living in a region much like where I live now. There are deciduous trees, and open fields, and a vast grassland to the east. They hunt deer and rabbit and grouse. They begin in a port city, and the land this time (unlike in Amenkor) is sandier, with breakwaters, more like the beaches off Virginia’s coast, or the Carolinas.

As the book progresses, and the characters (and readers) see more of the new continent they’re exploring, we see wild plains, run into a dark forest or cedars (like those in the Pacific northwest), and journey to vast mountain ranges like the Rockies. All of these lands, all of these settings, are built upon my experiences traveling across the US. Without those experiences, I don’t believe my world would feel real to me. And if the world doesn’t feel real to the author, it won’t feel real to the reader either.

So, yes, the world around me inspires my writing and becomes an essential part of what makes my fantasy settings real. If my characters are traveling through the woods, I imagine myself standing among the trees near my grandmother’s house, the sun piercing the foliage in dusty streaks. If they’re sailing across the ocean, I recall sitting in the bow of our boat off Key West, no land in sight, the ocean a blue so dark it’s nearly black. And if they’re traipsing through a snow-blocked mountain pass, I take myself back to hiking the forests of the Cascade Mountains, feet sinking knee-deep in the drifts.


Joshua’s Benjamin’s most recent book, Well of Sorrows, was recently released by DAW books and looks to have no shortage of dark forests. I’m looking forward to it!