Marcia Strykowski

Raymond’s Fire Engine

Thought I’d run a different sort of post to celebrate a special day. A version of this story was published eight years ago in a children’s magazine that has since gone belly-up.

Raymond 11 monthsRaymond’s Fire Engine
Whir, whir went the siren on top of the fire chief’s car as it sped onto the main road. Young Raymond Sorensen watched with excitement. Ray lived across the street from the town fire chief. Whenever the fire whistle blew, he would race to the window to watch the chief jump into his car and drive off with lights flashing. At that time back in the 1930s, Raymond had no idea that seventy years later a fire engine would be dedicated to him, his name boldly inscribed on its side.

ray kid 2Early Fire Chief Practice
As a child, Ray spent hours playing a homemade game using a map of a large city. The city had three fire stations. He studied their locations and the list of engines and ladders that were assigned to each. He made flash cards with different types of fire emergencies on them. Raymond would flip a card over and then decide how many fire trucks were needed, and which ones he should dispatch from each fire station.

ray u.s.Following a Dream

Raymond knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. By the time he was sixteen, he was a volunteer firefighter. He says, “I was so proud. I wore my badge on my belt so everyone could see it.” He put a red light on the front bumper of his car. A few years later, and after serving his country, he was appointed to the permanent force. His parents weren’t sure he was making the right choice. He already had a good job with the telephone company. But Raymond didn’t like his job, and his dream of someday being the fire chief was too strong.

Hard Work Pays Off
After a few years, a town official gave him the best advice ever. He said, “Ray, you’re just another firefighter now—just one of the crowd. If you want to get your head above the rest, the only way to do it is to go back to school. Take every fire course you can. Study hard and make yourself stand out.”
fire picture 001chief ray
Raymond did study hard and got excellent scores. Soon he was promoted to lieutenant, then captain, and finally, chief. The above photograph shows him in action. At forty-one years old, he was the one getting into the red car and racing off to fires. A bell was installed in a closet at Raymond’s house. When it rang in the night, Ray would leap out of bed and throw on his fire outfit. He’d listen to the number of taps on the bell and know just where the fire was.
Raymond accomplished a lot during his nineteen years as fire chief. He started many fire prevention programs for the children in his town, such as—“Stop, Drop, and Roll” and “Junior Fire Marshals.” He retired in 1986.

Local Celebrity
Every year, Ray’s town celebrates Town Day in September. He was told that on September 15, 2001 there would be a dedication ceremony for his many years of hard work. After a few speeches by important people of the town, the crowd parted. What a surprise! A brand-new shiny red, American LaFrance Eagle Rescue Pumper truck pulled up in front of the town hall. Chief Ray was asked to remove the little flag that was taped to the side of the truck. Under the flag was an engraved plaque with his name spelled out on it. For many years while cruising through his favorite town, he’d spot his fire engine rushing past, give a wave and say, “There goes my truck!”
truck on blueRay Sorensen - Copy
Since my story above, Ray has continued to keep busy on several committees and also with his own writing. His autobiographical book: Strike a Third, Big Things Happen in Small Places, about his days on the force was a hit around town and beyond. He gets up at 4 AM each day and still volunteers at the hospital, sometimes bringing in homemade baked goods for the group. mom dad 2015 001Ray is an ardent reader, quite computer savvy, loves a good jigsaw puzzle and has many other hobbies and activities. He also enjoys going to bookstores and out to breakfast, as well as family events with his wife of 66 years. This week the hospital volunteer staff surprised him with a special cake and party. Nurses and patients alike joined in to sing “Happy Birthday” and even the president of the hospital wished him well and bought him with cake

Born during a major blizzard 90 years ago today, I really just wanted to say Happy Birthday, Dad!

Vintage Sewing Comeback

Like my character Amy (tween novels: Call Me Amy and Amy’s Choice) when I was growing up, us girls took home economics while the boys took ‘shop’ (woodworking, auto mechanics, etc.). It may seem old-fashioned now to split up the boys and girls, and even did so at the time, since I would have loved to experience both classes. But what’s more disturbing is that in most middle schools around the country, these worthwhile courses have been dropped to make room for more tech-savvy programs.
vintage sewerIn home economics, we had half a year of sewing and half a year of cooking. Both skills stayed with many of us for all of our lives. Hopefully they won’t become a lost art unknown to the next generation who may find it easier to order fast foods and online clothing while plugged into an ever-present internet.
Here are some of the patterns I made:
my old patternsLuckily, there are other ways for today’s kids to try their hand at sewing. Check out these cool books.
sewing book 3

Two popular ones are Sewing School and Sewing School 2. Both books include lots of easy-to-make fun projects.

The two how-to-sew books shown below contain slightly more advanced tasks.
sewing book 5

sewing book 1A new picture book biography with a sewing theme is Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey From Slave to Artist written by Barbara Herkert and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Born in 1837, Harriet learned to stitch while she was a young slave girl on a Georgia plantation. She created several story quilts and, as a free woman, became known for her art.

In a post about sewing, I can’t resist including an old favorite: Corduroy by Don Freeman. This book, including the wonderful sewing-on-the-button scene, first appeared in print in 1968. A follow-up companion book arrived ten years later.

Margaret Thompson Sorenson's QuiltsSewing has been a part of many families for generations. For example, my mother has created many beautiful quilts and bags. Her sisters, as well as my own sister, made clothes and costumes. My children both enjoyed making homemade sewing projects, too.

My grandmother on my father’s side also loved to sew. Below are pictures of her sewing box. Her grandmother gave it to her for her 12th birthday in 1912.
elmerta's sewing box blueElmerta's box openedElmerta's box top shelfThe above photo is a close-up of the top drawer which lifts out to reveal the larger spools underneath.
Elmerta's box inside

elmerta's stuffed toysSew, what’s new with you? Any childhood memories of stitching, cooking, or woodworking in the classroom?

Orchard House & Little Women

alcott signAre you one of the more than 50,000 visitors who arrive at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts each year? This is the very house where Louisa May Alcott penned Little Women. The Alcott family moved there in 1858. Although healthy for many reasons, it’s become almost a fad to minimize, downsize, and unclutter, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who is extremely grateful the Alcotts and their ancestors were savers. I certainly wouldn’t call them pack rats, but they had the ability to know what treasures might have great sentimental value someday.
alcott 4For example, we all know that Little Women closely connects to the four Alcott sisters and that Beth’s death scene will forever be in our hearts. At Orchard House, although Lizzie (character Beth) actually died a few weeks before they moved in, you can see the sewing kit given to her by her father on her 21st birthday in 1856, her little melodeon piano, and other mementos of her life. May (character Amy) is a very strong presence in Orchard House from her sculpture studio on the ground floor (frequented by young sculptor Daniel Chester French and where we watched a lovely introduction video) to her etchings and paintings that cover the walls of their home.
alcott 3Unlike many other author residences I’ve visited, Orchard House is filled with about 80 percent of the original furnishings and belongings of the Alcott family including the little half-moon desk Bronson Alcott built for his daughter Louisa’s novel writing. I can’t think of another classic novel where you are able to experience it in this manner 150 years later—to wander through the rooms soaking up actual details and belongings described within the story of the not-so-fictional March family. In the parlor you’ll see where Anna Alcott (character Meg) was married, along with her wedding dress. Although photography is not permitted inside, the Little Women movies stuck pretty close to the true appearance of Orchard House.
Little-Women-movie-house-fireplaceThere are also pictures and panoramas of each room on The building in the below photograph sits just behind Orchard House on the left side of the property. Led by Bronson Alcott, it held the very successful Concord School of Philosophy from 1879 to 1888.
alcott 2
alcott 6On the November day I visited Orchard House, special artifacts (such as etchings and locks of hair) were added to the display for one month only. There was also an event downtown at the Concord Bookshop. 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner John Matteson was there to discuss his new book: The Annotated Little Women. john-matteson-talksAfter he was introduced and just before he began his inspiring talk of how he became connected to the Alcotts, there was a disturbance. Who should appear from behind the rows of books, but Louisa herself!
alcott 5She was quite confused as to what was going on. One of her many humorous comments was how pleased she was to see that her name was printed larger than John’s on his new book. (Rumor has it Louisa’s true identity was the director of Orchard House!)

little womenThere have been many versions of Little Women from musicals and plays to ballet and opera. There have been seven movies produced, as well as animations and a 1958 TV series.

Do you have a favorite?

Another place of interest in Concord pertaining to the Alcotts is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts, among others, are resting in peace in the Authors Ridge section.

A short 20 to 30 minute ride from Concord will bring you to Fruitlands where the Alcotts lived during the early 1840s.

Lighthouse Love

lighthouseFor centuries, people around the world have been fascinated by lighthouses. They can be found on dangerous coastlines, islands, and harbors. Before their existence, people lit fires along the shore to guide sailors. One of the very first (and tallest) lighthouses was built in Egypt around 280 BC. The first in America was built in 1716 in Boston Harbor, but was destroyed during the Revolutionary War. The current lighthouse, dating from 1783, is located on Little Brewster Island.

In Bermuda, I climbed all 185 steps of the lighthouse shown in my photograph, above–-what a view from the top (shown below). [117′ tower]
lighthouse view 2A lighthouse features in Amy’s Choice, the sequel to Call Me Amy, and yes, Amy gets her wish to climb to the top. Naturally, in order to write the book, I had to do some research. :) Below are pictures I took of a few of the Maine lighthouses I’ve visited, along with excerpts of their history taken from their websites.

We’ll start with one of my favorite lighthouses: Marshall Point in Port Clyde, ME. [31′ tower] The history of the Marshall Point Light Station goes back to 1831, when Samuel Marshall sold 4 acres of land to the U. S. government for $120. Additional acres were added later to extend the site to 6.5 acres. With a ¼ mile shoreline, it is a nature spot enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.lighthouse - CopyI noticed in the first picture (which is from way back when I took 35mm slides) the tower top is red, but in my more recent pictures (such as the one below), it’s  black. In the 1994 Forrest Gump scene, where he runs up to this same lighthouse, the top is black, so it must have been painted over before that time—probably during the late 1980s.lighthouse shipNext is Nubble Light (or Cape Neddick Light Station) in York, ME. [41′ tower]
Nubble lighthouse 2013In 1874 President Rutherford B. Hayes appropriated the sum of $15,000 to build a lighthouse on this “Nub” of land.    On July 1, 1879, construction was completed on what at the time was known as the Knubble Lighthouse where a 4th order light began to protect our men and women on the sea.
me photo shootA wee bit chilly that day…
Next up is Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, ME [80′ tower]
Portland Light 2In 1776, the new Town of Cape Elizabeth posted a guard of eight soldiers at Portland Head to warn citizens of coming British attacks.

In 1787, the General Court of Massachusetts provided $750 to begin construction of a lighthouse. In 1790, when the United States Government took over the responsibility of all lighthouses, Congress appropriated $1,500 for its completion. The original tower measured 72′ from base to lantern deck and was lit with 16 whale oil lamps. It was first lit on January 10, 1791.
Portland LightAnd last but not least, Bass Harbor Light located in Acadia National Park. [32′ tower]
Bass Harbor LightThe lighthouse was built of brick in 1858 on a stone foundation, stands 56 feet above mean high water and is accessible by car off Route 102A.
2013 Blue biz - CopyDo you have a favorite lighthouse?

Ribbon Candy Crafts

ribboncandy1Although many find it way too sweet and sticky, ribbon candy has long been a holiday staple. This thin hard candy was invented in Massachusetts by F. W. Washburn c. 1856. While still warm, the candy is crimped into shape, giving it a ribbon appearance and a glossy shine. Popular flavors include spearmint, cinnamon, orange and lime.

A couple of quick crafts for last minute holiday fun.
Ribbon Candy Bows final
ribbon felt ornamentsAnd for good measure, I’ll include a recipe.

Ribbon Candy

1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
2 Tablespoons corn syrup
3 drops flavoring
2 drops food color

Combine sugar, water, and corn syrup in a saucepan. Stir over med-low heat until sugar is dissolved. Stop stirring and continue cooking until soft-crack stage (290 degrees F). Scrape sides of pot to dissolve sugar crystals.

Remove pan from heat; let stand for 3 minutes until all bubbles have disappeared. Stir in flavoring and coloring.

Pour syrup onto a nonstick cookie sheet. Cool until it is easy to work with (about 10 minutes). Turn up edges of candy with a spatula.

Tear off pieces, pull them like taffy until they are light and shiny. Fold each piece back and forth, curl around a wooden spoon handle until it looks like folded ribbon. Let cool completely and wrap in plastic wrap.

Hope you’re having a very sweet season of holiday surprises!

December Author Spotlight

jama-headshot-2I’m thrilled to introduce you to Jama Kim Rattigan on this month’s author spotlight. Jama caught my attention not only with her lovely picture books, but with her delightful, colorful blog. There is a wonderful variety of interesting information on her blog including art, books, and novelties, along with members of her adorable teddy bear collection. Scroll down to meet two of her fuzzy friends. But first, a few questions!

Please share a little about your published books.

jama 1Though I’ve published three picture books, I am probably best known for my first one, Dumpling Soup, an autobiographical story about an Asian American girl who learns how to make Korean dumplings for her extended family’s New Year’s celebration in Hawai’i. Illustrated by Lillian Hsu-Flanders, it won Little, Brown’s New Voices, New World Multicultural Fiction Contest and is still in print after 22 years.

jama 2My second book, Truman’s Aunt Farm (Houghton Mifflin) was illustrated by G. Brian Karas and is a humorous story about a boy who receives an ant farm for his birthday. When he sends away for ants, he gets aunts instead. This punny tale was inspired by the many aunts I grew up with and is a nod to one of my favorite writers, Truman Capote, who was raised by relatives in the South.

jama 4The Woman in the Moon (Little, Brown), illustrated by Carla Golembe, is a retelling of an ancient Hawaiian legend. Hina, the best tapa maker in the land, escapes the toil of earthly life by escaping to the moon. A strong female role model, she was able to transcend a life of oppression through artistic expression. Carla is the only one of my illustrators I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person. :)

How has where you’ve lived or traveled influenced your work?

Well, I’m from Hawai’i, land of natural beauty, cultural diversity, friendly people, and GOOD FOOD. In Hawai’i, food is a favorite topic of discussion, an expression of love, an endless obsession, a social institution. As my primary frame of reference, it’s no surprise that I continue to be fascinated by what people eat and what that tells me about their personal histories, culture, and social mores. Though Truman’s Aunt Farm isn’t set in Hawai’i like the other two books, I still managed to work food into the storyline (rice pudding, little hot dogs, jelly sandwiches).dscrop2I also lived in England for three years, an experience which reinforced my love for the English language and all things British. I’ve often felt I was born in the wrong century. Studying food history is a wonderful way to connect with the past and explore my former lives. :)

Living in Virginia for more than 30 years has piqued my interest in Colonial American cooking. I especially enjoy reading and writing about what our Presidents ate. Jefferson was quite a foodie!

Could you briefly tell us how you came to keep a blog and a little about your process?

 I started blogging to join the online conversation about children’s books, to support my fellow writers, and to learn more about the publishing industry. It was also an exciting opportunity for creative expression.

I’ve always considered blogging a unique art form with unlimited possibilities for a writer. The prospect of being able to write in my own voice, connect with like-minded people, and get instant feedback was irresistible. Writers hear a lot of “no’s” from industry professionals in their careers, and this was my chance to say YES.IMG_3426Alphabet Soup has evolved organically over 8 years, to include more recipes and more of my own photos. I work largely by instinct, both in choosing which books, authors, illustrators, poets, or indie artists to feature, and how best to do them justice. I’m not a professional book reviewer and don’t pretend to be one – I’m here to celebrate tasty stories and poems, share some good recipes, and cultivate joy.

My posts can take anywhere from one day to a couple of weeks – and that includes obtaining review copies, images and permissions from publicists and authors, doing background research, writing interview questions, shopping for ingredients and making recipes, gathering props and setting up photo shoots, taking and editing photos, writing copy, revising, formatting, and proofreading.

Writing remains the hardest part, taking the most time. It’s ironic that a slow writer is trying to work in a fast medium. But that’s the great challenge, where all the learning comes in. I rarely begin writing a post until I have all the images in hand. They help me crystallize my thoughts.IMG_3677What advice would you give to new authors hoping to start up a successful blog?

Be yourself, follow your passions, write about things you truly care about, and don’t worry about trying to please everyone. If you’re bored, your readers will be bored. Write what you want to read. Subject is not as important as voice. The bloggers I read and admire most are those whose voices I can recognize online even when they’re not writing on their own blogs. A good writer can make any subject interesting.

I think we’re all curious about the people behind the books we enjoy, so be generous and share details about yourself, but be mindful of that tricky balance between the personal and the professional.

Favorite books: anything by Maira Kalman, The Secret Garden, A Bear Called Paddington
Favorite food: Pie and Dark Chocolate (special weakness for Sea Salt Caramels)
Favorite movies: My Fair Lady, Notting Hill, Love Actually, A Hard Day’s Night (do you see a pattern here? Anything set in England :) !)
Favorite hobbies: Baking, collecting teddy bears and china, watching British period dramas on television
Favorite color: All the different colors people come in.

Thanks for sharing your creativity, Jama! Check out her amazing Alphabet Soup blog here.


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