What are my reading and writing roots?…

on Friday, 20 February 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook

What are my reading and writing roots?…

What are my reading and writing roots?…

It is time I gave this some thought after writing/editing/ghostwriting close to thirty books, and heaven knows how many magazine articles.  There were always books around at home when I was very young.  Being “read to” was one of my favorite times.  Receiving THE CAT IN THE HAT COMES BACK from my aunt and uncle in first grade is a memory.  This is because I took it to school as my Christmas gift show-and-tell at school.  I figured it was easy to carry, and no one would want to play with “a book.”  My anonymity backfired.  My teacher decided it would be wonderful if I would sit on her lap, and read the book to the class!  What misery.  Some of the words were unfamiliar, and I sweated blood getting through that ordeal.  So went my first “public performance.”

It was in second grade that I discovered the D’Aulaire’s  book, ABRAHAM LINCOLN.  Such illustrations!  Words I could easily read! 

That book fired my imagination.  I was hooked on history. I became a Lincoln buff, and still am.  Later my class studied Native Americans and Pioneers. When the class visited the library every other Wednesday, I disappeared into the non-fiction section.  Most of my peers were clamoring for Beverly Cleary books, books by authors like Clyde Robert Bulla, Elizabeth Enright, William Pene Du Bois, Robert Mc Closkey.  (I wondered why all authors had such neat names).  Our teacher read us COPPER-TOED BOOTS, a book about Shad Lofft, who lived not far from us in the 1870s.  His daughter, Newbery winner Marguerite de Angeli wrote and illustrated it.  It became a favorite.  And many years later, I knew Marguerite and her family very well….

I read about wars, presidents, inventors, aviators and astronaunts.  But my favorite books were stories of the frontier, and of pioneers.

That’s because our third grade teacher introduced us to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE.  (hence, the cornbread making).  We did many activities surrounding this book, and I discovered a long line of well-used copies of Wilder books in the library's “W” section.  I also noticed my classmates vying for those books on library day.   I asked my parents for copies of my own. They were DELIVERED (pre-Amazon!) by our local glitzy department store for birthdays and other events.

Our local newspaper ran a weekly kids page, all art and writing up for prizes and publication. Our teachers encouraged us to submit and I did from time to time winning a few books for stories like this Halloween one above (my last submission) As you can see my art was published, however our house looked nothing like this!



on Friday, 20 February 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook


Many of my books have been translated into Japanese, and I have participated in several television documentaries there.  Years ago I met Yumiko Taniguchi, a well-known translator of American books into Japanese.  She suggested that I do three books for Kyruyudo Publishing Company in Tokyo.  She planned and designed LAURA INGALLS WILDER COUNTRY, THE WORLD OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT, and THE WORLD OF THE TRAPP FAMILY.  My job was to collect historical photos for these books, research and write the texts.  Photographers David Wade and Les Kelly took the amazing contemporary photos which appear in the books.

It was Yumiko who arranged my speaking tour of Japan—six cities.  She was my translator on the stage.  What a leisurely way to give a speech: rattle off a few sentences, have them translated, and start again.  Much planning time right on the stage.

Highlights: a day of touring Hiroshima, significant to me as a teacher of American History…the majestic Kyoto…bullet trains…a German restaurant in Tokyo…meeting Adachi-san, my Japanese publisher…staying in a traditional Japanese hotel/spa…and getting to know so many friendly people.

I Become a Tour Director

After the Japanese tour, Yumiko asked me if I would arrange for a tour of Laura Ingalls Wilder sites for a group of Japanese readers and admirers of “Little House.”  It sounded fun. Parts were, others were a bit complicated. tourguideSDakota
My job was to arrange logistics for a group of fifteen traveling through Minnesota, South Dakota, and Missouri.  Where to eat, sleep, tour, and fly in-and-out, were my jobs.  As well as explain the sites we were seeing.

Everything was like clockwork.  We toured Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Brookings and De Smet, South Dakota.   The Japanese were so impressed by the open spaces of the prairies.  And then we flew to Springfield, Missouri, to visit the Wilder home on Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield.  When the tour completed, the Japanese left the hotel at 4 a.m., headed for San Francisco.  One of the travelers told me:  “Now we have seen the sky the Wilders knew, the air they felt, and the land they were close to.”

Laura's Lasting Appeal

on Friday, 20 February 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook

Laura's Lasting Appeal

The month of February marks the 148th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder's birth in 1867, and the 58th year since she died in 1957.  Her long life spanned America's post Civil War era to its emergence as a world power.  Her life as  a pioneer became the stuff of her legendary "Little House" series of books, which have retained their staying power since the publication of her first volume in 1932.

Wilder is, by all counts, one of America's classic authors.  She is remarkable for many reasons.  She stored up the images and experiences of the frontier, and felt the urge, as a grandmotherly older woman, to share these stories with America's youth.  Her books recounted the social history of our country's westward expansion, through the experiences of the Ingalls and Wilder families.  Like a thread flowing through her books, themes of independence, faith, courage and strength of family are woven.  Wilder's storytelling style captivates readers with its tenderness, humor, and immediacy.  Her family has become our quintessential pioneer family.

Currently, Wilder is again a hot literary name.  Her previously unpublished manuscript, a first person autobiography, is a runaway best-seller.  The book, entitled Pioneer Girl,was Wilder's first attempt at writing a book.  In it, she recounted her whole childhood and youth, up until her marriage to Almanzo Wilder in 1885.   She wrote of her family's pioneering and life in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota, over a period of fifteen rugged years.  The manuscript failed to find a publisher in 1930, but it served as the blueprint for a much better plan: the recasting of the tales as a nine-volume series of children's books.

Although Pioneer Girl was used as a research source by several authors, including the present one, it was archived among Wilder's papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa.  Late in 2014, the book was published by South Dakota State Historical Society Press, with expert annotations by Pamela Smith Hill.  Since then, it has been a struggle to meet  international demand for the book!  By next month, a whopping 75,000 copies of Pioneer Girl will be in print, and waiting readers will have back-ordered copies.  The book publication matches excitement connected with such latter-day appearances of Mark Twain's autobiography, Louisa May Alcott's long-lost gothic thriller, and the announcement that Harper Lee's prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird will be issued.  At Wilder's restored and preserved homesites, all heavily visited by her readers, the demand for the new book has been constant. Amazon announced that Pioneer Girl  was their top requested book in early February.

Yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder's name and fame are alive and well!

But are there more words by the beloved author still awaiting publication?   Yes, the writer of this blog is currently working on the very last unpublished material written by the amazing Mrs. Wilder.

A Visit to the White House

on Monday, 09 March 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook

A Visit to the White House

When the 200 invitees assembled at the East Gate that September Tuesday, the scene was like airport security.  Finally we all were filtered through, and escorted to the State Dining Room for breakfast.   Food was not too interesting to me. I was more into checking out the White House…not as a tourist, but as a guest.  Wandering through the Blue Room, Green Room, and Red Room, studying the paintings on the walls---that was the real feast.

I was one of the guests invited by Laura Bush to her Seminar on Literature of the American West.  To be told that the First Lady knows and reads my books…what an honor.

Running into people I already knew at this conference made it more enjoyable. We all felt similarly honored.  There was Les Kelly, my photographer, historian John Miller, Jean Coday, author Ann Romines, and others from South Dakota well known to me.  There were four Ingalls siblings, all descendants of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s aunt and uncle.

Checking out a first edition of one of my books sent over from the Library of Congress, during White House visit.

In the East Room, Mrs. Bush opened the proceedings with a gracious, warm, sincere manner.  She was low-key, but in charge.  She praised the Wilder books, considering them childhood favorites.  Then came the speakers, film clips, and discussions.

Breakfast in the State Dining Room during White House conference.

At noon the symposium ended.  No one wanted to leave.  We wanted to bask in the atmosphere of the East Room, take pictures, and explore.  The Marines, obviously used to this behavior, gently escorted us out the double doors.  Finally the lights were dimmed.  Our afterglow spilled into the grand corridor, where showcases highlighted books mentioned in the morning proceedings.  There, from the Library of Congress collection, was one of mine!

Then it was back to the summery warm day and on to other discoveries in Washington.  I caught a late flight out, and the next day was back in school, teaching.  No one had a clue where I had been the previous day! Sometimes it is best to keep experiences to oneself.

How did I Happen to Write all Those Wilder-Related Books?

on Monday, 09 March 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook

How did I Happen to Write all Those Wilder-Related Books?

In third grade, our teacher read Laura Ingalls Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE to the class.  She made that book extra-interesting; as we heard the story of a family heading west in a covered wagon, we enacted a lot of the topics the book described.  Our class built a teepee in one corner of the room.  We made butter/cornbread.  We drew our own illustrations for the book. Next year, we were exposed to another Wilder book. I became fascinated with frontier/pioneer stories. 

I finished the rest of the nine book series. Our teachers told us that the Ingalls-Wilders were real people, the stories really happened.  I wanted to know what happened next to these book characters. There was no supplemental material at the time, except a small entry in WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA. Later, we had an assignment: write a letter to an author.   I realized that Laura and Almanzo Wilder were no longer around, so I wrote to their daughter, author Rose Wilder Lane.  She counted; she had written many biographies, novels, and short stories.   I asked Rose a lot of questions.  She replied, and suggested that I visit her parents' home in Mansfield, Missouri, now a museum.   I got there.  Seeing artifacts described in the books, and the intact farmhouse was great.  The curators, Mr. and Mrs. Lichty, were friends of the Wilders, so they told me many first hand stories about them.   

Later, on a family trip, we passed through Malone, New York, the scene of FARMER BOY. Some of Almanzo Wilder's distant relatives still lived there. They filled me in on the Wilder family, and took us to the old farmhouse, still standing.   I was gathering a lot of first hand information and answers to questions about these people.  My parents were right: I had always been a kid who asked questions, wanted to know how things worked, and what had happened.

The Lichtys asked me to write up some of the data I'd found in a booklet. Many of the museum visitors had the same questions I had.  So, my first published writing, THE STORY OF THE INGALLS, was printed.  I was fifteen. Later I got out to South Dakota to see the prairies and the town of De Smet, where the Ingalls family finally settled.  Back then, there were many people still around who remembered these pioneers. I asked questions, and found a lot of welcoming people in De Smet.  Two of the family homes still stood--they eventually became museums.  Aubrey Sherwood, publisher of THE DE SMET NEWS, became a mentor.  He started the organization in De Smet which preserved the Ingalls-Wilder sites.  The increasing number of tourists often stopped in the NEWS office.  Aubrey dropped his work to conduct them around town and answer questions.  He had known Laura and Almanzo Wilder, and was a neighbor boy of the other Ingalls family members.  A great source of information.

As a student at Albion College, I did a summer hands-on project: working for the Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet.  By then, two of the homes were tourist attractions.  I gave tours, along with other college students, did restoration work, research, and generally had a great summer on the prairie. I remember one day we had 900 visitors to usher through the houses. I returned to De Smet for seven summers.  And my research materials expanded.  What a great experience, an apprenticeship for many life experiences to come.

Japanese and USA editions

While Wilder's books have always been classics in literature, with some 60 million in print, the "Little House on the Prairie" TV show even widened their recognition.  Not always true to life, the ten year network run of the show made the Ingalls family a household word.   During the 1990s and into the 21st century, Harper Collins, who first brought Wilder to print in 1932, asked me to do a number of books on the Ingalls-Wilders, their homesites, and other aspects of their frontier life.

That, in brief, is how I happened to write so many varied books on these pioneers and writers.

Those Summer Festivals….

on Monday, 09 March 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook

With Dean Butler and Melissa Sue Anderson at Heritage Hill, Green Bay Wisconsin

(Pictured Above: Dean Butler and Melissa Sue Anderson at Heritage Hill, Green Bay, Wisconsin)

For years I have made author visits to schools, been a speaker in hundreds of public libraries and colleges, but a new twenty-first century venue has developed: the historical park-museum trend to hold “Wilder Days”.  Many of the great historical parks, filled with reminders of pioneer days, have discovered that “edu-tainment” brings in crowds.  Laura Ingalls Wilder has become a real draw, and since the historic buildings, blacksmith shops, farming operations, and old schoolhouses so resembles Wilder’s past, these summer festivals are popular.

My first invitation to one of these events came from Heritage Hill in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when Renee Graef and I were asked to appear the Wilder Days one sunny July weekend.   We spoke, signed books, and generally had a fine time examining the historical wonders of  the park’s historical collections, restored homes, and working craft areas.  Thousands of people, mostly families, streamed in.   Later on, stars of television’s Little House series were included in the annual celebrations.  For the first time, I was confronted with the television series I knew little about.  I respected the fact than millions enjoyed the show, but  I hadn’t watched it during those years it was on network.  Too busy.  So I got latter-day exposure to the actors who played Almanzo, Nellie, Miss Bedal, Carrie, etc.  It was fun to be paired with them.

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Alison Arngrim and I do a Readers' Theater Show

I’ve been back to Heritage Hill many times, to Genesee Historic Village in New York, and other summer venues that celebrate the Wilder legacy.

Parade! At "Holy Terror Days" near Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. Super Event.


It Happens Every March

on Monday, 09 March 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook

The authors (and illustrators) I am holding the

Forty-some years ago, two profs at Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, decided it would be nice to invite a few authors to campus for a tea.  It was a success.  No one could have envisioned that this event would grow, and grow, and grow…until now, each March during college spring break, the campus comes alive with up to forty authors and illustrators who meet with, talk, and interact with thousands of students, teachers and parents.

I am referring to the annual Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg.
When Ophelia Gilbert and Phil Sadler founded it, they had no illusions of the festival’s importance, that it would inspire similar festivals throughout Missouri, Kansas, and Michigan.   Ophelia and Phil are no longer with us, but they lived to see their bookish idea grow to phenomenal proportions.  It is their legacy.

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6000 kids and teachers in two days!

Phil Sadler invited me to The Fesitival, (yes it deserves upper-case letters), in the mid 1980s.   With a few exceptions, when other engagements conflicted, I have been one of The Authors, again, upper-case, for twenty-something times.  I may be closer to thirty.  The event is like Christmas.  Each year is somewhat predictable—lots of good company, wonderful kids, thousands of books to buy, meals to share, and Sessions. Over two days The Authors, and The Illustrators do eight sessions for the thousands of kids who are bussed in.  Many travel long distances to attend. 
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These heartland kids are simply great to talk to.

In down times, The Authors & Illustrators have their chance.  Friendships have evolved, and it is amazing to contemplate on the amount of talent in one place. I treasure those creative people I have met at Warrensburg.

As Dr. Seuss said….”Oh, the places you’ll go.” He was right!