Marcia Strykowski

Ever Had a Pen Pal?

1880_steamshipWe were talking a bit about immigration after dinner on Thanksgiving when my son shared a chart with us. (He always provides a little family history on this special day). Turns out many of our ancestors travelled thousands of miles to come live in the USA. thanksgiving-20161124_mg_8260From our small group of nine, we had connections to Canada (with a nod to France, Scotland & Ireland), China, Denmark, England, Peru, Poland, and the Shetland Islands. Thinking about these faraway places led me to thoughts about my interest in pen pals.
As a kid I was already a letter writer, exchanging notes with my grandmother and participating in chain letters, but I think it was 5th grade when our class was introduced to pen palling. After carefully mailing my letter off in a super-thin airmail envelope, I was thrilled to receive a letter from London, England (who wouldn’t be? Especially since all I knew about London was the Beatles!). Christine included two tiny black & white pictures of herself (photo booth style). I thought she was quite fashionable with her short mod haircut and I could just imagine her British accent. We only exchanged a letter or two and then she never wrote back, but no matter, my enthusiasm for pen palling had begun!penpal-13
About 25 to 30 years ago, I got quite involved in the hobby. I used to flip through Women’s Circle magazines to find kindred spirits. I also used an international pen pal finder once. The writer below was a woman I met here in the states. She lived nearby for a year or two and our children were in the same play group, so we corresponded for a while after she returned to Japan.penpal-12I still keep in touch with three wonderful writers from those long ago times: Maryse from France, Michele from Canada, and Monika originally from Germany, but now living in Australia. marcia-michele-circleSeems I am lucky with the letter M.
Recently, I had the good fortune to meet Michele, one of my first pen pals and as pleasant in person as she is in letters. We exchanged small gifts and chatted for about an hour. It would have been wonderful to spend more time together, but she was right at the start of a jam-packed tour of historic places in the area. As it was we were both pretty sleepy in this picture. After so many years of writing, it was fun to hear each other’s voices. Another time, years ago, my French pen pal sent me a cassette tape of her choral group singing. She pointed out her soprano voice above the others and it was thrilling to hear her singing the French words. I was introduced to a beautiful version of a song I still cherish: “Mammy Blue”.  penpal-11If any of this seems corny to the younger generation, you must remember that all this fancy letter writing was long before the internet. (Although I do still force a real letter now and again). Long before you could have video chats with a click of a button. Perhaps my writing friends and I were ahead of our time, reaching out across the world to discover how much we shared with others, be it hobbies, book genres, or even favorite colors or foods. We came to realize those commonalities were much more frequent than any differences. penpal-8I gained a lot from all the many friends I met through words. I remember a Danish pen pal who I’ve since lost touch with. She collected little silver spoons engraved with locations from around the world. I enjoyed choosing one from New England for her collection. I’ve exchanged many fun items with pals, from bookmarks and photographs to candy and tea bags!

penpal-14What a thrill it was to find a fancy-stamped letter in my mailbox. Much more fun to find than a publisher’s rejection letter! Come to think of it, you might remember there is a character in my Amy books who has a pen pal hobby. Miss Cogshell is very fond of writing letters and sending them out to faraway places. Even Amy gets into the act by the end of book two. 

My children tried out penpalling when they were small. My son had a pen pal who lived in California and my daughter wrote to a girl in Arizona. I think they later found their pals on Facebook.

Okay, time to share some books featuring pen pals.

penpal-3First up: Same Sun Here, by Silas House & Neela Vaswani for ages 9 & up. Description from Goodreads: In this extraordinary novel in two voices, an Indian immigrant girl in New York City and a Kentucky coal miner’s son find strength and perspective by sharing their true selves across the miles.
Meena and River have a lot in common: fathers forced to work away from home to make ends meet, grandmothers who mean the world to them, and faithful dogs. But Meena is an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown, while River is a Kentucky coal miner’s son. As Meena’s family studies for citizenship exams and River’s town faces devastating mountaintop removal, this unlikely pair become pen pals, sharing thoughts and, as their camaraderie deepens, discovering common ground in their disparate experiences. With honesty and humor, Meena and River bridge the miles between them, creating a friendship that inspires bravery and defeats cultural misconceptions. Narrated in two voices, each voice distinctly articulated by a separate gifted author, this chronicle of two lives powerfully conveys the great value of being and having a friend and the joys of opening our lives to others who live beneath the same sun.
My next selection is I Will Always Write Back for ages 10 & up. Description from Goodreads: The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever. It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one. That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives. In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends –and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it.
Tpenpal-2his third book is for teens and up. Description from Goodreads: Once you let a book into your life, the most unexpected things can happen…Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds that Amy’s funeral has just ended. Luckily, the townspeople are happy to look after their bewildered tourist—even if they don’t understand her peculiar need for books. Marooned in a farm town that’s almost beyond repair, Sara starts a bookstore in honor of her friend’s memory. All she wants is to share the books she loves with the citizens of Broken Wheel and to convince them that reading is one of the great joys of life. But she makes some unconventional choices that could force a lot of secrets into the open and change things for everyone in town. Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a warm, witty book about friendship, stories, and love.
A few more favorites you might be familiar with.penpal-6What about you? Have you corresponded with someone of interest? Or maybe for a long time? Got a book to recommend? Please share any memories you may have in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!

Allergy-Free Pumpkin Bread

recipe-8I decided to bake something for our monthly library staff meeting. But the trick was finding a recipe that everyone could eat despite the many allergies we’ve got on board. Pumpkin bread seemed a perfect solution and all who tried it gave it a thumbs up.recipe-1This easy treat starts with a basic gluten-free yellow cake mix. I used Hodgson Mill, but there are many to choose from, such as King Arthur or Betty Crocker.  I’m a one bowl kind of gal, so I usually mix all dry ingredients together first.recipe-3recipe-2You can use a variety of spices or just 2 teaspoons of already mixed pumpkin pie spice. Next toss the vanilla into the oil and add that to the mixture. Now you’re ready to dump a can of pumpkin in and stir it up. recipe-4pumpkinOf course you could always cook a fresh pumpkin and scoop out two cups worth of flesh to use instead of canned. And if you prefer your batter to be a little moister, feel free to add ¼ cup of rice milk. If your diet allows, toss in an egg for even lighter results. Adding vanilla, milk, or egg, are all completely optional. Believe me, this cake tastes yummy whether you add them or not.
Last, but never least, stir in lots of chocolate chunks.recipe-5 Grease the bottom only of a 9” by 1 ½” pan (a dab of creamy coconut oil works great). Spread batter into the prepared pan and bake it in a 350°F oven for 40 minutes. recipe-6recipe-7If you can stick a toothpick into the center and have it come out dry, your bread is done. Using a knife, push cake away from pan edges after cooling 5 to 10 minutes. Tip the cake upside down onto a rack to cool completely before serving.pumpkin-breadFor more recipes, click on Recipes & Crafts from the page menu. Hope you have many warm treats coming your way over the holidays!

P.S. After reading some comments, I realized I should add in a note about cooking gluten-free. If your friend or relative has Celiac disease, make sure there is no contamination in your kitchen before you begin baking. Gluten can be in so many ingredients where you might not expect it to be. Look for products that sport the certified gluten-free symbol. If you’re not sure, check the company’s website or give them a call. It would also be wise to use a pan that hasn’t already held regular gluten-filled cakes. Mixers, toasters, wooden spoons, and other types of equipment have an uncanny ability to hold onto invisible gluten. Your friend will thank you if you let them know the procedures you went through to make sure your offering is truly gluten-free.

New Picture Books

As always, there are many beautiful new picture books being released (yay!). Therefore, I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch of deserving titles, but I did try to vary between styles and publishers to come up with the following sixteen favorites to review—all hot off the press.
First up: My Friend Maggie, written and illustrated by Hannah E. Harrison, is a delightful, gentle read about friendship,  peer pressure, bullying, and fitting in. This soon-to-be-classic features adorable animal characters in its lovely illustrations. Dial Books—August 2016.

pb-oct-4Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion, written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith. This humorous retelling of the popular fairy tale takes place in Africa and features a brave, clever little girl who knows how to put a big, hungry lion in his place. Great twist for the ending and bright colorful illustrations add lots to the fun!  Scholastic Press—July 2016.

pb-oct-5They All Saw a Cat, written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel.
Quietly told story has a peaceful feeling to it, as well as an important message of how we each see things a bit different. The amazing mixed-media illustrations are worth poring over again and again. Chronicle Books—August 2016.

pb-oct-16Kiss it Better, written by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Sarah Massini is a great choice for your next bedtime story. The rhyme is spot on and the illustrations are delightful. How could you not love a book filled with cuddly teddy bears and kisses? Bloomsbury USA Childrens—October 2016.

pb-oct-6A Child of Books, written by Oliver Jeffers and illustrated by Sam Winston. Sparse on words, yet with multiple layers of text make for many classic tales within this new story of a dream-like girl who introduces a young boy to the world of the imagination where everyone is welcome. Candlewick Press—September 2016.

pb-oct-7The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles is written by Michelle Cuevas and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. I’ve long been fascinated by messages in bottles and this timeless story shows just how special they can be. The soft dreamy pictures are a perfect match for the lovely prose. Dial Books—August 2016. Both this and A Child of Books become more brilliant with each reading.

pb-oct-17Tek: The Modern Cave Boy, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell is about a little cave boy who is so connected to his gadgets, he’s missing out on all that’s going on in the world beyond his cave—a story many of us can relate to. The clever design imitates a tablet. I wasn’t sure how well it would wear with heavy library use, but it seems sturdy enough. Lots of funny lines and details between the thick board-book covers (inside pages are thin). Little, Brown & Co.—Oct. 2016

pb-oct-8Monday is Wash Day, written by Maryann Sundby and illustrated by Tessa Blackham. A gentle tale of bygone days is beautifully complimented with soft, layered paper-cut illustrations. I’ve noticed this small publisher has an excellent eye for art and this new release is no exception. Ripple Grove Press—September 2016.

pb-oct-9Penguin Problems, written by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith.  This unique book features a little penguin who is constantly complaining about his lot in life, his appearance, the behavior of others, and anything else that might not be exactly to his liking. A wise walrus sets him straight, but like many, the little penguin is rather stuck in his ways. Perfect prose and striking illustrations. Random House Books—September 2016

pb-oct-3Mary Had a Little Glam, written by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Various characters from Mother Goose nursery rhymes make up this entertaining story. Good choice for fans of Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, and Olivia. Personable young Mary comes alive in dazzling pictures filled with fun details. Sterling Children’s Books—August 2016.

pb-oct-19Lucy’s Lovey, written by Betsy Devany and illustrated by Christopher Denise. Many small children have a special blanket or doll they favor over all else. That’s how it is for Lucy. She takes her favorite doll everywhere with her until Smelly Belly goes off on her own. All ends well in this delightful story accompanied by gorgeous, sunlit illustrations. Henry Holt & Co.—September 2016.

pb-oct-15The Summer Nick Taught his Cats to Read, written by Curtis Manley and illustrated by Kate Berube. A surefire hit for those who love cats and books. Because Nick’s cats distract him while he’s reading, he decides to teach them how to read. The dour-faced ‘reluctant reader’ cat is especially well done. Simon & Schuster—July 2016.

pb-oct-11-noGrumpy Pants, written and illustrated by Claire Messer. A charming tale accompanied with bright, original illustrations created in a printmaking style. Nice choice for toddlers learning about feelings and how it’s okay to be grumpy once in a while. Albert Whitman & Co.—May 2016.

pb-oct-2There’s a Bear on My Chair, written and illustrated by Ross Collins. A little mouse finds a large bear taking up space in his home. He tries everything to get the bear to leave, but nothing works until the surprise ending. A fun read-aloud with plenty of rhymes! Nosy Crow—August 2016.

pb-oct-18Samson in the Snow, written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead. Another beautiful story about friendship. This one features a large, woolly mammoth and a tiny red bird. Lovely soft artwork brings magic to this quiet story. Roaring Brook Press—September 2016

pb-oct-20Dear Dragon, written by Josh Funk and illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo. Great pairing of awesome rhyme and well-done illustrations makes this a fun choice for children learning not only about pen pals, but about how much they may have in common with others even if they look very different from each other. Viking—September 2016.

I’ve read each of these books more than once and in several of them a deeper story is revealed during the second or third reading. In others a previously missed illustration detail shines through. At first I was choosing too many animal stories, but with a little shuffling, now it’s the other way around. Nine of the above sixteen books have people as main characters. As mentioned, I tried to pick from a variety of publishing houses and from only those books released in the last few months.

But what have I missed? Any great new books I might not know about? Do you have a preference for animal characters or people characters?

Other posts from 2016 about picture books include thesePicture Book Boot Camp, New Library Books, More New Books.

Monhegan Island (part 3)

As mentioned in my last post (Monhegan Island part 2), around midday the sun burst through the clouds and kept right on shining until our departure. This final part of the triple-post will be mainly pictures to show how Monhegan Island looks at the end of September on a crisp clear day.monhegan-lighthouse-less-copymonhegan-view-topmon-panoramamonhegan-water-view-2monhegan-water-viewmonhegan-view-copymon-red-bushmonhegan-marigolds-copymonhegan-open-copyThere are 17 miles of trails to hike on the island. Here’s one we popped into.monhegan-trail-2At the end of the day it was a welcome sight to see a more modern, larger boat arrive in the harbor—the lovely Elizabeth Ann would get us back without mishap in less than an hour (thanks to a calmer sea).monhegan-elizabeth-anne-copymarshall-point-6-copy-copyWould I do this adventurous voyage again? Oh yeah, in a heartbeat! Check out part 1 and part 2 to learn a lot more about this picturesque island.

Monhegan Island (part 2)

monhegan-welcomeOK, it’s time. Off we go down the plank! It’s bright and early—7 AM— on a Wednesday morning and we’re off on the Laura B. I took half a motion-sickness tablet and I’ve got my sea-bands firmly in place. The water is somewhat smooth at first as we sail past the Marshall Point Lighthouse. But there’s no beating around the bush, the sea suddenly kicks up and we’re in for the ride of our lives. Since it’s the tail end of the season, we number less than a dozen passengers.

laura-bThe 12 mile trip over should have been about one hour and 15 minutes, but an extra half hour was added on due to dodging waves. We rocked and rolled. The waves completely lifted the boat at times while thoroughly splashing us. Have you seen the movie “The Perfect Storm”? That was us. High winds and a raging sea had come out of nowhere. As we neared the island, sometimes we had to back off again and again. It was just too rough (I think life jackets were under our seats…). At times I wanted to shout at the captain: just fly through the worst of it, get me off of this thing! And no, sorry, I didn’t take any pictures. No seal, porpoise, or puffin sightings either. Let’s just say I was busy focusing on my nausea.

While we were hanging on for dear life, a crew member ran back and forth. He grabbed package after package from the front of the boat and tossed them to more sheltered areas in the back. Islanders receiving goods from Amazon that day have him to thank for their dry purchases.monhegan-roadWhen we finally arrive in the harbor, the crisp air quickly revives us. Monhegan is on our left and the stark island of Manana is just across the way. Manana is famous for being where Ray Phillips, the professed hermit, lived by himself for over 40 years until his death in 1975. monhegan-catIn reality he was very friendly whenever he crossed over to Monhegan to collect his mail or pick out a new stack of books from the library. He was well-educated, had sheep, and a goose named Donald, and kept up with the news by radio. I didn’t come across any geese, but I did notice the scowl on this island cat’s face.

There is lots of activity going on at the pier. Although there are no paved roads or cars on Monhegan, there are plenty of trucks for hauling goods and general construction. From the wharf, it’s up the hill towards the village. Other than that one cat, Monhegan is a friendly island and throughout the day we bump into the same people several times, either islanders or fellow passengers.monhegan-sunflower-copy

First, as promised, I’ll show you the c. 1928 library and the 1847 schoolhouse. (See previous post to learn their fascinating history).monhegan-library-2-copymonhegan-library-4-copymonhegan-childrens-room-copy

monhegan-library-3-copymonhegan-school-house-copymonhegan-flowers-2-copyMost of these pictures are self-explanatory—various views and flowers while wandering the island from one end to the other.monhegan-yellow-flowers-copymonhegan-flowers-copyA non-denominational religious service takes place every Sunday morning in the village church.monhegan-chapelAnd we can’t leave out the all important post office where many of the locals meet daily.monhegan-post-officemonhegan-artist-copyDespite it being just about off-season, I spotted several artists at work, like the one above.  And below, a good ol’ fashioned pumpkin patch. All the vegetables and flowers seemed to have done well, unlike many places in New England still recovering from the drought.monhegan-gardenAfter poking into a few galleries and shops, we made our way up to the 1824 lighthouse where the view is amazing (next post!).monhegan-lupine-gallery-copymonhegan-lighthouse-boatThere is a museum attached to the lighthouse containing all sorts of history and art. We were invited to a function being held that evening for all islanders, but regrettably it was after our scheduled trip back. The event was to take place before sunset outside on the grounds surrounding the lighthouse. As you might notice it was a gray day until the sun burst through around noon (which sent us back up the path to see everything again). Please check in next time to see splendid views in bright sunlit colors, as well as the boat we traveled back on.monhegan-yard-copymonhegan-sculpture

Monhegan Island (part 1)

monhegan-harbor-1909-postcardDespite my love for the sea and my small connection to Monhegan (shown above in a 1909 postcard), I tend to get seasick. Perhaps that is why, until a week or so ago, I had never taken the 12-mile journey across the Atlantic to this beautiful island. Monhegan is a rocky little island (barely a square mile) where the year-round population usually varies between 50 and 75 residents. laura-b-3Ever since I was very small I’ve known of the Laura B. Built in 1943, this 65-foot heavy-duty wooden boat spent her early years in the South Pacific where she worked as a patrol boat, carrying troops and supplies during World War II. There were two 50-caliber machine guns on deck. The Laura B. arrived in Maine in 1946 and was initially used to transport lobsters all the way to Boston and New York City. 293930-r1-17-17_018-copyFor the past 60 years this hardy boat has been the Port Clyde mail boat carrying passengers and cargo back and forth from the island. Because my grandparents lived in Port Clyde, we visited often. And one of the highlights of our vacation was strolling down the winding road and then out onto the pier to wait for the mail boat to come in. We’d watch adventurous travelers and various packages unload and wonder of their stories, maybe even catch a peek at Andy Wyeth coming back from a visit.monhegan-painters-1940sThe first artists to discover Monhegan were circa 1850 and by 1890 the art colony was firmly in place. The above photograph is from the 1940s. Talented painters were drawn to Monhegan for its gorgeous cliffs rising high above sea level, enchanting coves, deep dark forests, and meadows sprinkled with wildflowers, as well as the constant melody of humongous waves crashing against all sides of the island. Below was painted by George Bellows in 1911.monhegan-george-bellows-the-gulls-1911And here’s one from 1916-1919 by the fabulous Edward Hopper.monhegan-edward-hopper-blackhead-public-domain-1916-1919helena-tibbettsMy great grandmother (Helena Tibbetts, shown at left in later years) taught in the little schoolhouse which has been on the island since 1847. I don’t have many details of her time there, but I do know she was also a fine painter and mother of four.
Enrollment goes up and down in this one-room wooden schoolhouse and currently there are only a handful of students, but back in the 1840s there were often 40 students gathering for class. After 8th grade, today’s students continue their education on the mainland. monhegan-schoolhouse-3monhegan-schoolhouse-2To see how the schoolhouse looks today, please stay tuned for my next blog post.

monhegan-bookplateThere is a sad story of how the little memorial library came to be. It was first formed after a tragic event in 1926 when two children were swept up into the sea by a giant wave while picnicking—Jackie, who was celebrating her eleventh birthday, and fifteen-year-old Edward who valiantly tried to save her. They are honored in this early bookplate. Pictures of the library inside and out will also be in my next blog post.
Meanwhile, here’s another painting by George Bellows from 1913.monhegan_island_by_george_wesley_bellows_1913The night before our trip out to the island, we stayed in a lovely ocean-view room on the top floor of the historic 1820’s Ocean House Hotel in beautiful Port Clyde where the Laura B. waits patiently by the pier for the next day’s excursions.
laura-b-sunsetThe water looks smooth as glass with barely a ripple in sight. What could possibly go wrong? Will I make it across to Monhegan after all these years?pc-sunset-2-copyI ended up with way too many pictures for one blog post, hence the three parts. See you next time and thanks so much for coming along on my adventures!

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