Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature


Sally M. Walker has an obvious talent for finding important (nonfiction) stories that are not as widely known as they might be.

On December 6, 1917, an explosion rocked Halifax Harbour, leveling much of the city and killing 1,952 people. It was the largest manmade explosion prior to the atomic bomb. After painstaking and exhaustive research, Ms. Walker wrote the excellent and moving account, Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917.

A lot of things had to go wrong for this explosion to have taken place. World War I was raging, and the Mont-Blanc was newly outfitted to carry munitions to Europe. The Imo was riding high in the water and had moved to avoid other harbor traffic. When the Mont-Blanc caught fire, her captain and crew abandoned ship. They were the only people who knew of the cargo. Had it not been for Vincent Coleman, the telegraph operator who perished in the explosion, the outside world may not have known of the explosion as soon. Halifax was cut off. The next day, a blizzard hit the city.

Through Ms. Walker’s eyes, we get a glimpse of the daily lives of Halifax’s citizens and how the event affected them.  She brings in details that bring the disaster to a personal level. Clothing blown off, lost relatives, and struggles to recover. I was in tears more than once. The force of the blast threw part of the Mont-Blanc’s anchor over two miles. Very sobering.

Strangely, Halifax had learned about morgues and body identification just five years earlier when bodies from the Titanic were brought to the city. Her citizens brought the same efficiency to dealing with housing, medical care, and other relief.

With starred reviews, this was a book I was happy to have discovered. Because I have several nonfiction projects currently on my plate, I look forward to hearing from the author herself.

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More Nonsensical Sparks

Another writer I’m looking forward to meeting this July is Deborah Wiles. I have not met or seen her before, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to like her.

I recently read Love, Ruby Lavender, published in 2001 by Gulliver Books/Harcourt.

It’s the story of nine-year-old Ruby, who is learning to deal with her grandfather’s death nearly a year later. Living in a small town, she has strong relationships with her single mother and her grandmother. She does not have a good relationship with Melba Jane, a girl her age. The reasons for the animosity between Ruby and Melba are revealed slowly throughout the story.

Ruby is a great character. She’s flawed, but in such a way that the reader cheers for her even when she’s messing up or being unreasonably stubborn. In her own words, she’s “a chicken thief. And a housepainter. And a floor sweeper.” All of which makes complete sense in the context of the book. She’s much stronger than she realizes and has a unique view of the world.

Although this is a very serious book with very serious themes, the author makes great use of humor. As Ruby learns about separation, grief, friendship, and tolerance, the reader learns right along with her.

She is separated from her grandfather by death, from her grandmother by distance, and from her chickens in several ways. She grieves because of these separations, each in a different way.

She should be friends with Melba, but neither of them sees it. She makes friends with Dove, a girl visiting Ruby’s new teacher.  But her best friends are her grandmother and her chickens.

First, Ruby must tolerate herself. She appears self-assured, but she carries a lot of guilt. She must learn to tolerate Melba, if only for the sake of peace. She must learn to tolerate her great aunt, who misses her brother, Ruby’s grandfather. Miss Mattie, as Ruby knows her, doesn’t share Ruby’s unusual view of the world.

The title gives a clue that colors are important images in this novel. Ruby Lavender, Melba, Dove, the Pink Palace, Grandpa Garnet, brown eggs, and some blue paint are just a few of the colors mentioned.

Love Ruby Lavender!


Sparking Nonsense

Next month, my local SCBWI chapter (MD/DE/WV) will host its annual summer conference.  The theme this year is “Creating Sparks: Kindle the Fire of Imagination.” Since I wormed my way into the inner circle (i.e., planning committee) of this region, I’ve enjoyed getting to know some of the best authors, editors, and agents children’s literature has to offer. Of course, I do work pretty hard as the registrar for these events (It’s a much tougher job than even I imagined.), but it’s always worth what I get out of it.

I try to read ahead and get to “know” the authors a bit. (Yes, I did always do my homework in school. Don’t you just hate that?) Our speakers for this conference include Sally M. Walker (!), John Proimos (J), Bobbie Pyron (yay!), Deborah Wiles (love her), and (wait for it) Richard Peck. (I know I’ve forgotten some important writers, but I couldn’t wait to get to Richard Peck.)

So, what do I love about Richard Peck? As a writer, that is.

Characters. How can you not adore Grandma Dowdel? In some ways, my grandmother was just like her. Well, my mother’s mother, anyway. If she doesn’t remind you of someone you know, you’re missing something in your life. She appears not to care for her fellow citizens, but she is actually deeply ingrained in Midwestern practicality. She only helps those unable to help themselves. She tricks others into doing the same. And she does so with unparalleled grace. She appears to be uneducated, but she’s educated in the ways of the world and insists that Mary Alice get every ounce of formal schooling she can.

Mary Alice is also a great character, but her traits are so subtle, the reader may not recognize them at first. She goes along with her grandmother but is constantly questioning and assessing.

Gotta love a postmistress who poses nude (or was that naked?).

Setting. I grew up in Iowa. Although Des Moines is my hometown, I have more than a passing familiarity with Midwestern small towns. After reading A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, so will you. In small towns, everyone thinks they know all your business but it’s not difficult to let appearances speak for you and serve pumpkin pie, made with stolen pumpkin, to the owner of the pumpkin patch. My in-laws got perverse enjoyment in waiting for the gossip to filter back to them on some little project they were engaged in. My uncle, who lived in village of about 300 souls, used to complain that the citizens would drive to the bathroom if they could figure out a way.

Plot. Life lessons are everywhere. Mary Alice spends so much time trying to figure out Grandma Dowdel – or not figure her out – that she fails to recognize she is becoming more like her every day.

Voice. Peck’s writing is funny, sad, insightful, and hopeful all at once.

I heard Peck speak at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles and was thoroughly entranced. Can you tell I’m eager to hear him again? Also a lttle eager to read his next book, Secrets at Sea.


Specific Nonsense

My mother visited this past week. She’ll make it to 84 later this year. She has one sister who will reach 97 this week and another sister who is 85 since January. Hopefully, that leaves me a lot of time to keep reading.

How can you even think of your mother without being reminded of your childhood? I mentioned in an earlier entry that I read a lot as a child. I can’t begin to remember all the books.

My SCBWI chapter has a blog ( in which the bloggers are issuing writing challenges leading up to the annual summer conference. This week’s challenge was to list what you read as a child and why.

All of this has caused me to think some more about that very subject.

My Grandma had an ABC book that was well worn. We used to give her a hard time when she’d try to skip pages.  The rhythm and rhyme drew me in. Mom got very tired of The Little Red Hen and much of Mother Goose, including “The House that Jack Built.” Same type of repetitive rhythms.

I never, ever missed Captain Kangaroo when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the books he introduced, including Curious George and Mike and the Steam Shovel. I suppose the presentation was some of the fascination.

Dr. Seuss was new to the world when I was in grade school. I just missed being born in the same year as Horton Hears a Who! I don’t remember having his books at home much, but the school always had them around. The silliness and word play were evident even to a very young child.

By the time I could read more than a couple of words, I was heavily into horsey books. My third grade teacher read us chapters of Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry, who also wrote Misty of Chincoteague. It wasn’t long before a re-read occurred. Animals were a big draw for me.

I ordered as many books from the Scholastic list as my meager budget could handle. Of course, in those days there were many titles for twenty-five cents. I’m not sure of the exact title, but there was another book about horses I know I read at least four times.

Disney’s television shows were another way I got interested in stories. (Television was a big deal in my childhood.) I love adventure, but only if there are good characters involved. Upon seeing The Fighting Prince of Donegal, I immediately had to read the book by Robert T. Reilley. I can never get enough of a good character. In junior high, I was reading Leon Uris novels and Gone with the Wind for the characters. The fact that they were long only made the characters stay around longer. This bloomed into reading a lot of classics. Hardy, Dickens, even Shakespeare. Love them all. Again, I love adventure, but what I love most is a good character.

When my own kids were little, we got to know Berenstain Bears and Richard Scarry very well.

As an adult, I went through stages with Agatha Christie, Dick Francis (still love those horses), Mary Higgins Clark, Susan Howatch, and John Grisham. I’ve read Lord of the Rings multiple times, loving Treebeard  more with each reading. Now, I read a lot of children’s books and do reviews. Many of the books are nonfiction, which I forgot to say I also enjoy. Every once in a while, I still need to read those long epics or re-read an old friend.

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