Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Once There Was...

"I liked the stories best.
Once there was
a lion who could not roar. . .
Once there was
a man who sailed the sea. . .
Once there was
a child who found a treasure. . .
The stories would lift me up,
the words like a breeze beneath
butterfly wings,
and take me far from the pain in my belly
and the fight not in my heart.

I hope they will have stories
at my school.
If they don't know how,
perhaps I can teach them.
It isn't such a hard thing.
All you must do is say
Once there was. . .

and then let your hoping find the words."

- from HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate

I'm hearing lots of buzz about Katherine's newest WISHTREE, coming September 26, from the viewpoint of a tree (!) named Red. Can't wait!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Some Thoughts on S-TOWN from an Alabama Gal

Maybe you've heard of S-Town, the podcast presented by Serial and This American Life.

Maybe you've listened to it, or read something about it. Reports say it's been downloaded over 20 million times.

For those who haven't listened to it yet, I will not put any spoilers in this post. I do want to give you some basics, though, and also a little of my reaction to it.

The story is a complex one with a lot of pieces and a lot of social issues. It's a story first and foremost about a middle-aged man named John who lives in what he calls "S*** town" Alabama.

On the map that town is named Woodstock, Alabama, and it's just a hop, skip and a jump from where I live.

Backroads, Alabama
For seven hours, I listened to the podcast while driving Alabama backroads to various school visits. And I was riveted. The story starts out as one thing, then, like a stream that widens into a deep water hole, becomes something else.

You couldn't make up a character as layered and interesting as John B. McLemore. You couldn't conjure the conflict that erupts in this story. At first I was just curious. Later I was mad, heartbroken, disturbed - not necessarily in that order. These are my people. This is my Alabama. This is an uncomfortable story with no tidy ending.

It reminds me of something I heard recently about how the poet lives in that space between beauty and despair. I think John lived in that space. I think we all do. Some of us choose to focus on one, some on the other.

S-TOWN reminds me of another book I read recently called HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance. Many of the issues Vance brings to light in Appalachian culture are evident in S-TOWN. The distrust of outsiders, the way people hide their problems/addictions/traumas, the way family/home is everything and how without any good examples/role models, kids have a hard time "getting out."

Brian Reed (producer/reporter/narrator of S-TOWN) didn't know what he was getting himself into when he responded to John's first e-mail. The podcast is as much his story as anyone's. We are with him as he peels back layer after layer. This is good storytelling, y'all. I wish so bad my father was still living so we could talk about this one!

Did I say "mad, heartbroken, disturbed"? Yes. All that. And more. Give it a listen. It's worth your (tedious and brief) time.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Poetry & Play with Poet/Educator/TEDx-er Darius Phelps

Darius Phelps
Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit Keisha from Whispers From the Ridge for Roundup. I am delighted to be in my own home this weekend! I love to travel, but Dorothy had it right: there's no place like home. I look forward to checking in with all of you, today. I've missed you!

If you'd like to catch up on my adventures, you can click to read about
- good eats, good friends & good B&B in Camden
- my time in Gee's Bend
- fun (and quilts!) with West Alabama Quilters Guild
- book signing at Tuscaloosa's only indie bookstore Ernest & Hadley

Poets stick together.
And now: oh boy do I have a treat for you -- an interview with Darius Phelps! I met Darius this past March when we happened to sit at the same table for the Awards luncheon at the Children's Book Festival in Athens, GA. When I told him I was a poet for children, he said, "me, too!" and that's pretty much all it took for us to know we should exchange cards and keep in touch. And since he hadn't heard of our wonderful Poetry Friday community, I volunteered to introduce him. So.... please welcome Darius!

IL: You recently gave a TEDx talk at University of Georgia. Tell us about that experience – biggest challenge, biggest reward?
DP: Honestly, the entire experience have been life changing for me. Never in a million years, did I dream that I had the both the talent and confidence to even be considered gracing the stage. The biggest reward was regaining my confidence to do anything that I set out to do.
learning to fly...
My biggest competition in life has and always will be myself. Being selected for a TEDx presentation, challenged me as a writer to come out of my comfort zone and be willing to tell such a personal part of my journey to the world. I don’t speaking on the impact of  losing my grandfather or how Burke helped me heal in more ways than one, often. Retelling the story of meeting Burke on that stage reignited my passion for teaching, helped me realize that is time to start a new chapter in my career, and say goodbye to both people and a place that no longer serve me a purpose. I’m so excited about getting back to that feeling and starting anew. Sometimes you have to let go, live in the moment, embrace every mess, and be open to accepting change.


"Embrace every mess." - Darius Phelps (yes!)

IL: Congratulations on your Child Caregiver of the Year Award (from the Georgia Association on Young Children)! How has your work with young learners changed you?


DP: Thank you! Receiving that particular accolade still feels like a dream. I’ve only been teaching for five years, with the last two being in my own classroom as a Lead Teacher so I still consider myself a “new teacher”. Working with primarily infants and toddlers have taught me to cherish the little things in life. Adults often take life way too seriously and don’t even realize it. Children can open up your eyes to a whole new world. They’ve helped me learn to laugh and truly smile again.


IL: When we met at the Children's Book Festival, you said you wanted to write poetry for children. What inspires you to write poetry for children? Would you please share some of your work with our audience? What do you most hope to achieve as a poet for children?

DP: When it comes to being a teacher, we are the ones who should know our students the best. We should be able to identify both their strengths  and challenges, so we can find a balance between the two and focus on how we should support our students in a way that teaches them a way to effectively utilize their skills. We should stress the importance of students becoming reflective learners  and what we as teachers can do to mold the child into the blossoming reader that they are meant to be.
We have the power to help students recognize that they have power. I can’t think of any better way than through language, literature, and specifically poetry! My inspiration comes from me growing up loving the arts, beginning with my childhood. Writing and illustrating has always been my form of therapy, and without it, I would not have gotten through the tough times in my life.


My goal is to combine my love of poetry, illustrating, and children’s literature all into one. I am working on a few special projects right now, including a trilogy of children’s books known as the “Our Lasting Legacy Trilogy” that deals with grief and a book that chronicles the love of two dads from two completely diverse backgrounds, all in poem format.
Mother holding tight...
My hope is that I can change the life of at least one person with any of my writing. Children, especially with the way the world is and how hard life can be, need to know and feel that they are supported. Here is a piece I wrote called, “Infants 226” that details a mother’s struggle with letting her son go on his first day at preschool.

Infants 226


"Your child will be in infant classroom 226, with Mr. Darius"


the sky was an overcast that day.
no traffic plagued the streets
just the three of us, riding in silence


his tiny  chubby sausage shaped  fingers
gripped mine in the backseat
as daddy drove us to the place


where my little love bug,
oblivious to the fact,
that he would be starting a new chapter


"he's almost one",
my husband kept saying
I wasn't ready


Ready for him to take his first steps under the care of someone else
Ready for him to look at them with those round beady brown eyes
That charming smile that could melt the heart of any man or woman


those chubby little gummy toes
I wasn't ready


his love was my burden to carry,
bore him for nine long months
working on my blistered feet non stop
I wasn't ready
to let him go

- Darius Phelps


IL: What needs to you see in children's literature? Are there any “gaps” you've noticed, and what advice would you give to those of us who are writing in the field today for how best to serve our audience?

DP: There is not and never will be enough children’s books that tackle what are known as the “hush” subjects such as grief, bullying, freedom to love whomever, and most importantly being yourself. It  is critical that we expose our students to characters that looks or behave like them, as well as those that don’t.  By implementing this strategy in our classroom and in literature,  we are allowing our students to see the world and the people in it in a new perspective, opening up the door to discussions and new realizations about the world we live in.


Advice wise, I would tell them to listen to their heart and just write. Don't be afraid of where it winds up taking you. Sometimes that particular place can be very dark and depressing, but the message is one intertwined in light. Trust the process.


IL: Give us some examples of your favorite poems or books of poetry for kids.


DP: I just ordered and received the book “Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets" by Kwame Alexander in honor of National Poetry month last month. It’s a beautiful children’s picture book that shines spotlight on various poets and the poems that have brought them success. I also love “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson and “Inside Out and Back Again” by Thahhna Lai.


IL: How/where can we find you in the future? Will you be at NCTE in St. Louis?)


Unfortunately, I will not be in St. Louis!  I wish was, but a lot of things are up in the air concerning my fall schedule, at the moment. I have a my own website for my aspiring writing career, where I will be sharing some exciting news soon. You can also find me on both instagram, twitter, and my facebook page:


IL: If there is anything else you'd like to share with us, Darius, please do!

DP: At the beginning of next month, I will be releasing a few e-book collaboration with a good friend of mine titled, “Bruised, but not Broken,”,which will be a collection of poems that explore the internal dialogue of one-sided relationships, the often romanticized negative exchanges that take place along with the hush topic of males being in abusive relationships. Abuse takes on many forms and everything I do is autobiographical/semi-autobiographical. I’ve also just relaunched an open mic night at one of Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA known as “Speaking Pages”. It’s a beautiful way to encourage and foster the arts in the community.


Thank you, Darius! We're so glad to have you in this wonderful world of children's poetry!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stitching Our Stories: West Alabama Quilt Guild

One of my favorite things is to hang out with quilters, so imagine my delight last Saturday when I was the guest speaker at West Alabama Quilters Guild in Tuscaloosa. What a great group! When Eve Engle (and her co-v.p.) Rose Osuma invited me to attend, she said to be sure and come early for the Show-n-Tell portion of the meeting. She didn't have to tell me... Show-n-Tell is my favorite part!

Eric Carle book quilt!
Listening to the women, I was struck by a few things: 1. how many of these quilts were made as gifts for others, and 2. how talented these quilters are, and 3. quilts really do tell a story! 

One of my favorites was a mom who quilted a top created by her daughter. She said it was intended to be a Rail Fence design, but after her daughter had her way, it was a "crooked" Rail Fence. Oh boy, can I relate to that! Pretty much all my quilts are crooked. That's what makes them beautiful and unique!

Here are some of the beautiful quilts.... I was also introduced to "book" quilts, which are themed toward a child's favorite book and include in the bottom corner a pocket for storing the book! I am totally doing this in the near future. :)
Eric Carle book quilt!








The "crooked" Rail Fence. Love it!


football quilting! Only in Alabama...





Thank you, West Alabama Quilters! I do hope you enjoy Ludelphia's story!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

RTR for BOOKS at Ernest and Hadley Bookseller in Tuscaloosa, AL

For those uninitiated: RTR is for Roll Tide Roll!

While I did earn a Master's Degree at University of Alabama, I have always cheered for the Auburn Tigers... but I do love Tuscaloosa!

And I am thrilled to share with you the newest indie bookstore on the block: Ernest & Hadley Booksellers. The store is a mother-daughter venture, and I enjoyed meeting Easty and Avery. The books are housed in an adorable downtown home, and it's such an inviting space... with lots of beautiful books!

 Ludelphia and I felt right at home in these rooms. And I am so grateful to the folks who stopped by and picked up copies of our book! I especially enjoyed meeting a couple who hails from Camden, as we were able to talk about mutual friends and acquaintances. Fun!

And Easty and Avery seem to be settling in well to this new adventure... there was even a quilt on the wall, which I loved! Oh, and a special guest in the bathroom... who some might call "the King." Do you know who I'm talking about? Go to the store and see if you're right. :)

Here's a picture of Avery, Easty, me, and my friend Eve, who is also a book lover and quilter and all around lovely person (more on my visit to West Alabama Quilters Guild tomorrow!):


Oh: before the book event, Eve took me to the Cypress Inn in Northport for lunch! It's on the river, and we had (delicious!) catfish. Here's pic of our view of the river which includes a tree with markers for how high the water has been at various times in history. I love Alabama! And books! And rivers!
long view...


and close up!

Thank you, Easty and Avery and Eve, for having me!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

When in Gee's Bend...

quilt by Mary Ann Pettway
that I am completely in love with!
I have visited Gee's Bend lots of times over the years, but never before have I gone with a school group! What a pleasure to join students from J.E. Hobbs Elementary School (Camden) for a Gee's Bend adventure! For more details about the Camden part of my trip, click here. While I talked with school groups at the ferry terminal/nutrition center, the other groups visited with quilters at the Collective.

The beautiful Alabama River
Our morning started with a gorgeous 7:45 ferry ride. What a great way to start the day! I remembered all the reason I love the water and was filled with such peace and calm...

When we arrived at the ferry terminal/nutrition center, we were greeted by Doris Young and her granddaughter Maya, who was having her breakfast -- and a beautiful blue quilt-in-progress:

quilt square in the frame

While we waited for the students to arrive (due to insurance reasons, the kids were not allowed to ride over on the ferry and had to take the long 40-mile route by road), Sulynn and I hopped down the road to the Collective, so I could say hello to Mary Ann Pettway. She was already working away... later I heard she told the kids about the tape she keeps on her fingers, because yes, if you quilt, you're going to get poked! Here she is hard at work:


... and then it was back to the ferry terminal to meet the kids. Oh,
what a wonderful group! The acoustics aren't all that great in that room, and we had no microphone, and we were missing cables for the powerpoint, so.... we winged it in true Gee's Bend style! One thing that was super fun was that all the kids had ipads donated by Apple, and they were charged with telling a story about their day. I loved meeting the Apple folks and seeing all those kids using technology to share stories. I have been promised links to their projects very soon!

me and Mary Lee
...and then... oh, my goodness, the very best surprise: MARY LEE BENDOLPH walked into the building!!! I adore Mary Lee. She's the one whose story won J.R. Moehringer a Pultizer Prize. Click here to read "Crossing Over."  She's the one who made the quilt I have a signed print of in my family room. She's one of the ones who was recently awarded a National Heritage Award. And she hasn't been well... but on this day she was smiling and giving advice to the kids about loving the world and listening to their parents and I was enraptured. Here she is with the group of kids.

... and then it was time to leave Gee's Bend. We got on the ferry, and guess what else got on the ferry, despite insurance concerns? Two schoolbuses full of kids! This was a pretty big deal, and I was glad to be there to witness it. Thankfully, there were no mishaps. Next we headed back to Camden for a quick bite to eat at Larry's (the day's special was spaghetti and
Students waiting for the rest of the group,
so we could begin!
meatballs...yum!), and onto Wilcox Academy. I spoke at Wilcox Academy way back in 2010, so it was fun to go back, especially on the eve of Mother's Day, with all the special-made treasures waiting on the backshelf to take home, and me there to talk about a book that's about a girl who loves her mother more than anything. There are more pics -- and better ones -- over at Black Belt Treasures Facebook page, thanks to Kristin Law!

art by students atop bookshelves in library
The final school I visited was Salem Elementary in Orrville, Alabama -- not in Wilcox, but Dallas County. In many ways it felt every bit as isolated as Gee's Bend, and I was reminded of how the Black Belt stretches on and on, so many trees and woods and narrow roads and no cell service. :) There I was met by a wonderful teaching-artist Jo Taylor and an enthusiastic artsy librarian Karen Grimes ... and a bunch of bright-eyed kids!

What enthusiastic readers!
 Thanks again to Black Belt Treasures, the quilters, these kids and all the wonderful educators and artists who made this a trip I will never forget. May we all remember Mama's words of wisdom: "err on the side of love." xo




Monday, May 15, 2017

This Little Piggie Went to Camden, Alabama

"Welcome, Y'all" says it all!
So last week it was my great pleasure to spend time in Camden and Gee's Bend, thanks to the good folks Sulynn Creswell and Kristin Law at Black Belt Treasures and Cultural Arts Center. They funded my visit to schools in the area, giving students an experience they wouldn't otherwise be able to enjoy. Who knows? Maybe some of those kids will go on to write novels and poems and stories! More on this later in the week.

Have you ever seen a more
adorable little pig?!
I love Black Belt Treasures. It's a store full of beautiful things and a foundation whose mission is to celebrate and support Alabama's Black Belt artisans. On the day I arrived, I fell in love with this little piggie, made my Kristin, and a leftover from the previous weekend's Hog Wild for Art event. (Black Belt Treasures always has the cool-est events! If only I lived closer!!)

Liberty Hall
I was honored to be the very first guest in Camden's new Bed and Breakfast: Liberty Hall, run by Julia Ann and Dudly. Y'all: this place is gorgeous! I had my cello with me (recital next week, so I had to practice), and when Julia suggested the parlor/music room, I was delighted. And then when I rosined up and

Julia Ann dusting up!

My bed
started tuning, I felt like I was in a hall of angels! What fabulous acoustics! So, so beautiful. And you won't believe the amount of furniture and paintings unique to the house... so much history and beauty. And Dudly cooks a mean breakfast, too. And brownies! Mmmm, those brownies...
fresh roses!


The porch. Or "breezeway"
between sleeping area and kitchen.
So, so breezy and lovely!







me and Kristin's beautiful daughter Sami
Another Camden treat was dining at Gainesridge, home of black bottom pie, which is on the list of 100 Things to Eat in Alabama Before You Die. I was filled with nostalgia as we sat in the old house eating our delicious meal, as the last time I was at GainesRidge, it was with my father. I remember where we sat and what we had to eat.  Here's a picture:

Papa and me at GainesRidge May 2012


Sulynn, Kristin, Irene
And you know, Papa was with me this time, too. As I was squirting ketchup onto my plate, I remembered one of my father's stories. Once, at a different restaurant, when Papa asked for ketchup, and the server proclaimed the steak was so good, he wouldn't need ketchup, my father said to bring the ketchup anyway. Papa told me, "Doesn't he realize that sometimes I order steak just so I can eat ketchup?" Ha!

Before leaving Camden, I was already plotting how to return. :)