During quarantine, Natalie illustrated a story I, Pamela, wrote for learners of all ages. I had been thinking for a long time about the ways in which we can show children how to appreciate their own unique qualities by noticing and appreciating the beautiful and unique qualities of plants and flowers. I wrote a story about how a creative teacher can nurture this throughout an entire year by simply bringing a guest — a different plant each week — into the classroom and sharing its unique characteristics and needs. The children come to appreciate each plant and each other.
It’s a picture book for young children to read/look at on their own or to be read aloud at home or in the classroom.
It can easily used as a multi-page greeting card for a beloved child or adult friend with this message you can handwrite inside:
You are unique. You are wonderful. You are beautiful.
Ms. April’s Potted Plants is a 20-page picture book (for ages 3 to 103) written by Pamela Beere Briggs & illustrated by Natalie McDonald. It is inspired by the caring and creative teachers “who helped us grow.” Add a plant to the story and give the book & plant to a special teacher (or student). As Ms. April says: “Plants are like people. We are all unique.”
Our front garden has been our creative and emotional oasis this past year, both for us and our neighbors. Our Free Little Library receives many visitors, who both borrow and donate books. Our rotating art gallery delights pedestrians, delivery people, and drivers who catch a glimpse and stop to look. The bucket of chalk has inspired all ages to draw pictures and words on the sidewalk (and the picket fence).
And the bench at the end of our front walkway provides a resting spot for walkers, including four regular visitors. Twice a day, an elderly man stops for a rest on his twice-daily walks. His helper asked Bill if it was okay to sit in our garden and he said, of course, and so we often see the man at the end of the walkway and his helper on the bench in the garden. We can hear their cheerful arrival. And then about 10 minutes later, they continue on their walk. Every few days, a nanny stops to take a rest on the bench at the end of the walkway, with a young child in a stroller. You will catch glimpses of the above in the photos below. We just added another bench to the end of the walkway.
Recently, I learned about a town in Germany — Arnsberg — where the community has made an active commitment since 2004 to help their elderly residents stay or become active. A tiny office called the Department of Future Aging (DFA) has a tiny staff two and project budget of approximately $24,000 per year, and it is able to support projects that ensure that senior-oriented planning isn’t just woven into the social fabric of the city, but the physical design. For example, the city has numbered benches every 550 feet (approximately one short block) in some of its markets and on the promenade along the River Ruhr. The benches provide essential resting spots, but with an added bonus for someone experiencing dementia. Each bench is numbered. If necessary, a lost person can call for assistance and quote the bench number so that they can be found and assisted. Read the wonderful article where I learned about this here: https://www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2021/07/01/germany-department-of-future-aging
man on bench at end of walkway
Helper adjusting cushion
Resting on cushion 🙂
Wildflower seed paper really works! A fun and easy way to plant wildflowers.
Fence pickets are perfect height for little children
When I read, I sometimes use a recent notecard a friend or family member has given me as my bookmark. While reading Lauren Belfer’s transcendent novel And After the Fire, I did just that. It makes me feel like I am reading with someone whose company I enjoy. As I neared the end of this most wonderful novel, I felt emotional. I did not want the book to end.
Here’s the description from Lauren Belfer’s website: “In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him. In America in 2010, Henry’s niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family’s history—and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past. In Berlin, Germany, in 1783, amid the city’s glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach’s son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come. Interweaving the stories of Susanna and Sara, and their families, And After the Fire traverses over two hundred years of history, from the eighteenth century through the Holocaust and into today, seamlessly melding past and present, real and imagined.”
Belfer says: “I wanted to tell the story of a fictional musical masterpiece from the time of its creation in the 18th century across two hundred years of German history, through the Holocaust and into the present.”
It took Belfer ten years to write the novel and the time allowed her pages to come to life. Characters live. The past and present are connected. Joy and sorrow sing different melodies and come together in transcendent wisdom, which we who read history always hope is possible.
I loved learning from an interview that Lauren Belfer’s advice to readers is this: “Keep working and keep sending out your work. The first short story I ever had published was rejected 42 times before it found an editor who loved it. The second short story I had published was rejected 27 times before it found the right editor.”
Don’t give up. Never give up. Sending a letter to a friend is writing a story. Sharing our stories is one way we can change the world for the better. And read this marvelous novel.
This past week, we saw a bicyclist come to a sudden stop when he noticed our miniature art gallery. He spent time looking at the art, the miniature people visiting the art gallery, and reading the description. A Fed Ex deliveryman did the same. A woman walking home with a bag of groceries stopped to look. It gives us immense joy to see that our art appreciation project is giving others joy.
Here is this month’s gallery showing featuring the art of René Magritte, who was a Belgian surrealist artist. He became well known for creating a number of witty and thought-provoking images.
On the left wall of gallery: “The Son of Man” is a 1964 painting by Magritte. It is perhaps his most well-known artwork. Magritte painted it as a self-portrait. The painting consists of a man in an overcoat and a bowler hat standing in front of a low wall, beyond which are the sea and a cloudy sky.
On right wall of gallery: “The Treachery of Images” (1929) is part of a series of paintings featuring images paired with words. This particular piece shows a pipe with the French phrase, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Magritte wanted to highlight that the painting is not a pipe, but rather a picture of one.
On far wall of gallery: “Golconda” is a 1953 painting by Magritte. It depicts a scene of “raining men,” nearly identical to each other dressed in dark overcoats and bowler hats. They seem to be either falling down like rain drops, floating up like helium balloons, or just stationed in mid-air. But does the sky look like it is a rainy day? Magritte wore a bowler hat. All of these men are dressed the same, have the same bodily features and are all floating/falling. But if we look at each person, we can see that each is completely different. The title Golconda was suggested by Magritte’s poet friend Louis Scutenaire. Magritte included a likeness of Scutenaire in the painting – his face is used for the large man by the chimney of the house on the right of the picture.
In our front garden, we have opened a miniature art gallery. The art on the wall rotates. The people inside the gallery change regularly. From our windows we can see pedestrians stop and spend time looking inside. One person left a dollar bill — I think to say it was worth an admission price The art on the easel changes weekly and visitors to the miniature art gallery can submit their own art to be exhibited on the easel. The first exhibit featured paintings by Suzanne DeCuir, one of our Two in the World explorers. You can see more of her work on her website www.SuzanneDeCuirFineArt.com
This month’s exhibit features the art of René Magritte. See my post titled “René Magritte in a Miniature Art Gallery”
It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
On a cold and windy Sunday afternoon in 2015, Bill and I settled into our seats in UCLA’s Royce Hall to listen to Ursula K. Le Guin in conversation with Meryl Friedman from UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance. It was a 90-minute dose of inspiration.
I have carried around Ursula Le Guin’s book of poems Going Out With Peacocks for 25 years. The 81-page book contains five poems that have repeatedly consoled me, inspired me, and given me courage. They are tabbed so that I can find them easily. The lines from “The Hero” gave me the courage I needed to begin my documentary film “Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction” (available for streaming on Vimeo/go to our “Films” page for Vimeo link). I felt the “The Hero” was describing the fictional female detectives I had fallen in love with, who I felt were uncovering a provocative new story about truth and justice:
There are better things to do
with anger, with beauty,
with a headful of serpents
who can hiss wisdom; there must
be a story for my dear young hero.
it will not be the old story.
Her poem “The Years” reminds me, when I need reminding (all of the time!) that life is filled with unexpected joys, challenges, textures…
The years come all colors
like the rags
in the rag-basket my great-aunt
made her round rugs from…
Here are a few notes I jotted down on that wintry day in 2015 when Ursula spoke in UCLA’s beautiful Royce Hall:
Hear what you write. When Virginia Woolf took a bath, she recited her dialogue.
Most people like to be read to… Reading aloud isn’t taught much in schools (it isn’t taught enough).
She has read “Lord of the Rings” aloud three times (to each of her three children).
Early in her writing life, she reached a fork in the road. One road had a sign that said the road’s name. The other road’s sign didn’t say. She chose that road. She paused. Then added, “I went my own way.”
She will always remember being in an audience where someone asked the composer Philip Glass what was required to be an artist. He answered: Commitment. She agrees.
And here is a piece of loving advice she offers to writers in her book The Wave of the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination “…for a fiction writer the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there, and you just reach up and pick it. Then you have to be able to let it tell itself. First you have to be able to wait, to wait in silence. Wait in silence and listen. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world.”
We — Pamela, Beere Briggs, Bill McDonald and Natalie McDonald (along with public school teacher Judy Feuer-Walden) – have written a short book (136 pages) that we hope reassures, inspires and as Natalie would says works as a “a call to action” for all children’s right to a fulfilling and nurturing education. We tell our story, Judy writes letters to readers about her classroom experience and how the lessons learned from the schoolhouse can be transferred to the traditional school setting, and we’ve included many short “wisdom boxes” that include research that has allowed us to add tools to our life ditty bag (a ditty bag is a “toolbox” cinematographers use). Our book is the perfect reassuring and inspiring antidote for these days when all of us are thinking about ways to get through the pandemic with our spirits intact and then move forward with the wisdoms we’ve gained.
Our Kickstarter campaign to publish the book launched on Saturday, December 12 and ended on January 7, 2021. We successfully reached our goal, which covered the cost of the beautiful final book design and first print run. We also included in our Kickstarter something for readers of all ages: MS. APRIL’S POTTED PLANTS, a 20-page picture book/Zine that Pamela wrote and Natalie illustrated that delightfully introduces a creative teacher’s way of celebrating the unique beauty of each learner (and each plant). This is a wonderful book to remind ourselves or someone we love of each person’s unique beauty and needs, or to give as a gift to anyone whose spirits need boosting, or as a “thank you” to a teacher who “helped you grow.”
Here are some reviews of THE SCHOOLHOUSE EXPERIMENT and below them two samples pages from MS. APRIL’S POTTED PLANTS: “I love the way the book weaves together personal story, a teacher’s letters to readers and hand-picked golden nuggets of expert advice. I am sure so many people will find this book so helpful. I hope all the parents anxious about their kid’s education right now get to read it.”—Maria Raquel Bozzi, parent and Senior Director of Education & International Initiatives, Film Independent
“This is a true story about a family’s deep love of learning and what would grow from their passion, amounting to a unique, thoughtful, and compelling approach to the education of their daughter. Without giving it away, the intense curiosity that is cultivated in this young woman, and the pure joy she experiences in her backyard schoolhouse is what we all want for our children, enabling them to become lifelong learners and global citizens. A worthy read of any parent, student, or educator. Thank you Pamela Beere Briggs, Bill McDonald, and Natalie McDonald for sharing your story with us.”—Erica Flener, Academic/College/Life Planning, BIGPICTURE
“Learning about the schoolhouse experiment has allowed me to see things in a different light, reframing my view of what is possible in education.”—Judith Feuer-Walden, recently retired public elementary school teacher, co-author of THE SCHOOLHOUSE EXPERIMENT
“We know that school is broken right now, but the truth is, it’s been broken for awhile. This well-researched book offers a guide for how we might transform schools to make them more humane and how we can foster a lifelong love of learning. As a dad and as a high school teacher, I can vouch for the authenticity of their ideas and insights. Please take a moment to support this incredible book so we can share their ideas more broadly.”—Michael Hernandez, Public High School Teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator, Producer of Change the Narrative podcast
Reading this story can help readers figure out how they can tackle similar learning challenges. I like all of the extra information about schooling that you include, and the teacher’s perspective from Judy is really good. The book is concise and so it’s not a daunting prospect for a busy parent to read! I wish our public schools could adopt more of the ideas you talk about in The Schoolhouse Experiment.—Sarah Taubman, mother of two daughters
“In the midst of a pandemic, when remote learning has become another skill parents have needed to incorporate into their families’ lives, this book will bring a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel. It will definitely help and inspire parents/tutors/nannies to approach all learning (not only remote learning) with more confidence, many tips, research and hope. Natalie and Pamela’s experiences as they navigated together through a new way of learning are a delight to read and will make you want to participate in their conversations and activities as well.”—Mariane Kanegae, Professional Tutor
I decided to gather up the books I’ve read this year and lay them out on our living room rug like a quilt. How beautiful it was to see the covers again (like meeting up with friends I haven’t seen in many weeks or months) and, in glimpsing each of them, remember the time I spent with each of them. The other day, I found more books I had read this past year and made another little quilt.
I will mention one of my favorite books, which I almost forgot to include in the newest book quilt because I had placed it in a special spot to re-read some chapters all over again. It is the first book in a trilogy that Natalie had already read by Judith Kerr. I am not going to say much because there is so much to say. Judith Kerr wrote the story many years after escaping Berlin in 1933, days before the election of Hitler (yes, Hitler was elected and so many people never believed he would be elected). She was a young girl living a ordinary girl’s life in Berlin. Her father was a writer who received a warning phone call a couple of weeks before the election from a police officer, who loved Judith’s father’s books, warning her father that he had seen her father’s name on a list of Berliners whose passports were to be taken if Hitler won the election. Fortunately, Judith’s father took the warning seriously. There are frightening moments, suspenseful moments, hilarious moments, loving moments, and sad moments — all imbued with such honest clarity. Read this book if you are 10 years old or older. You will set it down and want to read it again.
Pictured here is the British edition of the third book in the trilogy, A Small Person Far Away, which Natalie read this year and loved as much as the first two. Guess what I will be reading next? The second book in the trilogy: Bombs on Aunt Dainty. All three books are available in a packaged version with covers pictured below.
I will be writing about some of my other favorite books from 2020 in the coming weeks.
Stream our new short documentary film DEAD LAND/Sara Paretsky: A Reflection free on Vimeo.
In a Sept. 2020 panel discussion, Sara Paretsky and filmmakers Pamela Beere Briggs, William McDonald and Eric Marin shared stories about launching a new book and making a film during quarantine. Natalie, the filmmakers’ daughter & Two in the World’s “Happy Guinea Pig,” moderated an engaging Q&A. Stream the discussion free on Vimeo.
Here are some additional questions that were submitted during the Panel Discussion. Watching the 9-minute short doc DEAD LAND and the one-hour Panel Discussion would make a wonderful event to share with friends or writing/reading groups, or students.
LOVED “Dead Land”—it is quite a complex book with a lot of different plot strands! How do you keep track of them while you are writing? Do you use Post-Its, outline extensively, or something else? I like to work with big artists’ pads – 11 x 17 – where I write characters and actions in columns as the story progresses. It helps me see where I may need to rethink the direction the story is taking.
In “Dead Land,” Sara gives a wonderful sense of the richness and depth of Lydia Zamir’s music, with its connections to classical music. Are there any particular musicians that she had in mind when she crafted this character? I loved creating Lydia Zamir’s music. I even tried to find a composer to write music for the songs in the book, but it turned out to be a more complicated and expensive venture than I was ready for. However, I didn’t have a specific composer or singer in mind.
Do you have a favorite book or two in the V.I. series? All the books have flaws that I couldn’t figure out how to correct when I was writing, but Hardball is one of my personal favorites. The story came together really well, and the backstory has to do with the riots against Martin Luther King and integration that I experienced my first summer in Chicago.
With Killing Orders, I had a chance to tell my grandmother’s story – I gave a very romanticized version of it to Gabriella, but it still feels quite personal to me. And Blacklist, where I tried to create a villain who starts out as one of the good guys, was a book I enjoyed writing. I created an elderly woman who was modeled on my own mother-in-law, whom I adored, and I enjoyed bringing her to life.
As an adolescent in Lawrence, were you aware of the civil rights struggles, and is this period the beginning of your commitment to social justice? My mother was an active advocate for open housing in Lawrence, which practiced de facto segregation. It wasn’t until my last year in high school (1964) that I became aware of some aspects of the racism that my school and town practiced. We also, as Jews, experienced some forms of discrimination that made everyone in my family more sensitive to it. I would say that my education on civil rights and social justice is ongoing – the current Black Lives Matter movement has taught me a lot – including how much more I have to learn.
Are there any words of wisdom Sara would like to share with aspiring writers? You should write what you care about. Be careful in your craft – grammar, a graceful sentence, still matter, even in the age of abrupt, punctuation-less communication. Read and write, read and write, and don’t worry about selling until you have something you feel you’ve completed to the best of your ability.
Please describe the procedure of writing your books. For example, do you submit a draft of the whole book to your publisher or editor, or submit an idea, or…? I write a draft, which takes a long time, many iterations, because I work out ideas by writing them. This means that when it becomes clear that an idea isn’t forming into a coherent story, I have to abandon it and start over. When I have finished a complete draft, I send it to my agent and my editor, who often have very good ideas on how to improve the story. By then, I’m sick of the book, but I grit my teeth and dig down and make the recommended changes.
Sara, can you speak to the transition from corporate employee to author? I took a big chance, quitting my day job after finishing my third book. I wasn’t well known and I wasn’t making much money from my writing, but I had saved enough to live on for a year. I knew it would be a difficult transition: in the first place, when I wasn’t dependent on my writing for my living, it was easier to write, but when everything depended on it, the pressure would be painful – as it has proved to be, time and again. The other challenge is that writing is a solitary occupation. I miss the camaraderie of the office. No matter how many book clubs or volunteer organizations you belong to, they are no substitute for working together with other people – I think one of the stressors of Covid is we are all having to cope with that isolation.
I am a fiction writer and have a character in a novel who is involved in the 1973 coup in Chile. 20 years later he is the governor of Minnesota. Have you ever considered writing directly about the ´73 coup as a novel?My most recent novel, Dead Land, is actually based in part on that ’73 coup. I would never actually set a book in that time and place because the amount of research it would take to get the political/social/judicial relationships correct would take me years. Good luck with your own novel.
Natalie went through some of her beloved toys and found her Madeline doll with suitcase of clothes, a barn/stable with animals, and some dinosaurs. Maisie, our cat, was intrigued and wondered if there were other things to be found in our hall closet. In the meantime, Natalie had written a letter to the family we call the “cute family” on the next corner asking if their little children might be interested in them. She received a reply that indeed they were quite interested. A day and time was agreed upon, and Natalie set the toys out on our garden bench (can you see them in picture?)
A little while later, the 5-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl arrived with their father. Within three minutes, Madeline was tucked under the little girl’s one arm, and the little girl marched off down our path with Madeline’s suitcase in her other hand, too excited to even wait for her brother or father. The little girl happens to have bright red hair so the sight of red-headed Madeline under her arm was delightful. Natalie and I were so glad we were standing by the window to see that wondrous sight, straight out of a storybook. Her brother followed with the riding stable and their father carried the big box, holding the barn and dinosaurs.
By the way, this delightful 1952 animation of “Madeline” is so charming, with classic animation and a lovely voice doing the voice-over. I love when Miss Clavel sits up in bed (twice) and says: “Something is not right!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHuQlcO7hyI
If you, or your little or big students want a fun writing assignment, ask them to write a story about 12 people or animals that go out and about, seeing this and that, with a serious adult who is along for the ride and says a funny line twice. Such a story might lead to discovery or laughter or a wonderful story to tell and tell again.
Here are the thank you notes that landed in our mailbox from our neighbor family.