Marcia Strykowski

Picture Book Boot Camp

I’m back after an amazing adventure! Attending Picture Book Boot Camp this past week was a high point in my decades-long interest in creating books for children. Picture Book Boot Camp translates to spending four fun, inspiration-filled days at Phoenix Farm in western Massachusetts with a prolific group of authors, led by literary legend Jane Yolen and her talented daughter Heidi Stemple.reload-phoenix-farm-copyI felt extremely fortunate, not only to get accepted into camp, but I got to sleep right there at Jane’s fabulous homestead. The beautiful room I stayed in is called Solatia after one of her books and is located on the second floor of the spacious farmhouse. Like the rest of the rooms, it is filled with books and other fascinating décor.reload-solatia-room-copymy roomLet’s go downstairs where boot campers are already hard at work.reload-stairway-copyreload-workshoppers-copyThis was the fourth boot camp Jane and Heidi have generously offered. Click here for information about upcoming programs. It may seem quite pricey at first, but when you break it down, it is well worth all that you get, along with a heavy dose of inspiration. I easily rationalized it by skipping other conferences for a while. At PBBC4, there were ten campers in total, all with traditionally published children’s books (one of the application requirements). Half of the campers spent their nights at the lovely Old Mill Inn, a pleasant stroll down the road.reload-old-mill-copyIn case you’ve had your head in the sand, Jane Yolen, award-winning author of over 350 books, is often described as today’s Hans Christian Andersen. For those more visually inclined, boot camp might be equal to moving in with Meryl Streep for acting lessons and home cooked meals.

fools jokeSince Friday was also April Fools Day, during morning teatime I offered my campmates a pan of homemade brownies and tricked several of them into reaching for a treat.

OWL MOONEach day at Phoenix Farm began with an original poem and ended with a bedtime story. On Friday night, Jane read her 1988 Caldecott-winning book Owl Moon the way only she can read it, in her true, melodious voice.  She wrote the book about her family’s own owling adventures, with daughter Heidi–still a child at the time–as the main character. OWLAnd then, us boot campers were invited to go out owling with Heidi. Therefore, not only were we led by an expert owl caller, but the actual girl from Owl Moon! To top it off, a little screech owl responded to our call.

Saturday was another fun day that started off with a trip to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.group at CarleOur visit included a special behind-the-scenes tour where we saw where the matting and framing are done. We also got to go inside the vault where all art is stored in archival boxes. Because they fade over time, much of the collection, especially the older pieces, needs to rest for ten years between displays. We felt privileged to see original work from some of our all-time favorite books, such as Caldecott winner Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (at which the whole group gasped at its beauty). Also, Louis Darling, Jr.’s illustrations from a 1955 Ramona book by Beverly Cleary who celebrates her 100th birthday next week (in case you’re reading this–Happy Birthday, Beverly!). raggedy annThere was a full-color book dummy for There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly a Caldecott honor book from Simms Taback, and to go back much further, there were beautiful pieces created in 1928 by Johnny Gruelle for his Raggedy Ann and Andy books.

Back at the house, along with manuscript critiques, lectures, and discussions, we also learned about the current market and publishing industry from two special guests. Mary Lee Donovan (below in blue), Editorial Director of Candlewick Press shared her great knowledge. It is now evident to me why Candlewick books are of such high quality, always standing out on the shelf.reload-mary-lee-copyOn the fourth day, Dr. Susannah Richards, PhD brought her vast wisdom to the group. She’s a wonderful resource and is on top of all the latest book releases. Here she is with a few new picture books.Susannah 2Have I mentioned the delicious food? All meals were expertly prepared by master chef, Heidi Stemple (below) along with her KP assistant, Laura. Heidi chefEvery mealtime brought opportunity for more conversation and plenty of laughs. Thanks to Heidi for this picture of us digging in, while gathered around the dinner table. pbbc dinnerAs mentioned, there were ten of us and it was awesome to hang out with authors of so many of my favorite books. One example: Wouldn’t it be thrilling to have Ramona or Scout walk into the room? Well, that’s how I felt when Libby arrived. I had read most of my fellow campers’ books beforehand. One of them was Blow Out the Moon, a lovely story of the author (Libby) writing about when she spent a year as a young girl at a British boarding school. You can click on this sampling of the group’s work:group booksI can’t even begin to share all that I learned, but for those who would like to read Jane’s wise words, be sure to check out her book on writing: TAKE JOY. I’ll be forever grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I even got up my courage and poked my head over Jane’s shoulder at the very desk where she wrote Owl Moon and many, many other wonderful books.jane & marcia ovalSunday morning we were greeted with a light dusting of snow covering Phoenix Farm. I ran up to the aerie and took this picture out the window by Jane’s writing desk. Snow phoenix farmAs I made my way back downstairs a beautiful melody reached me. One of my fellow boot campers (Aimee) was playing the grand piano in the music room. Beautiful ending to a perfect workshop.
pbbc group 1reload-pbbc-certificate-001-copy

107 Comments

  1. Brava Marcia!!! Whoo-hoo for risking Boot Camp and sharing your time there with these fabulous photos and tidbits. Thanks so much!

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  2. I must say I am jealous-it looks like such a creative, fun, learning retreat! Especially love the location and the bedtime story! 🙂

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  3. Looks like a beautiful place and an inspiring stay. 🙂

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  4. Such a wonderful blog post that really shares with us what it must have been like to be there. The boot camp is on my personal list of things I want to experience. Thanks for writing this!

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  5. That sounds like a fantastic experience for you! I’d love to visit the Eric Carle Museum some day.

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    • I hope you’ll be able to visit the museum some day, Anabel!

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      • We thought about it when we were in Boston a few years ago, but we didn’t have long enough. Another time!

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        • Yes, next time! Although it’s only 14 years old, I’m sure the museum will be around for many years to come.

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  6. Such an inspiring trip for you! And an inspiring post for us, thanks!

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  7. This is the sweetest! Sounds like the loveliest time ever. What a wonderful experience, one that I’m sure you’ll never forget. Nice post, Marcia. 🙂

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  8. Marcia, you sure know how to tell a beautiful story! I love your description of our weekend. Thank you for sharing it. It was a pleasure to meet you and I hope to see you elsewhere on the New England kid lit trail.
    Chris

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    • Thanks, Christy. It was wonderful to meet you, too, and I hope to see you again soon!

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  9. What an amazing weekend. I am so envious.

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    • It was filled to the brim with good things and no matter how tired and punchy we got, we knew we’d be leaving full of new inspiration.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What a wonderful experience! I’m so jealous!

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  11. Louise Pryor

    Thank you for sharing your interesting experience!

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  12. Bette Norton

    Sounds like a wonderful adventure you were on! What an exciting opportunity for you and fellow children authors to gather together at Jane Yolen’s beautiful home in the country and learn from the masters! The Eric Carl Museum is on my bucket list! You were so fortunate to be given a rare opportunity to see original illustrations from well known picture books written by well loved authors. What a gift that was! It was an amazing boot camp you attended, being in community with like minded people and learning so much about your craft! Thank you for sharing your boot camp experience with us. I feel like I just had a nice visit to a very special place. 🙂

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    • I’m glad you were able to armchair travel with me through the weekend. The museum has various exhibits starting and ending with a lot of fascinating new ones in the works. Hope you’ll get to visit!

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  13. Congratulations, Marcia! I can imagine how inspiring this retreat would be! Thanks for the glimpses into it, including that part about art needing to rest for a decade between exhibits. I didn’t know that.

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    • It was fascinating to realize we were getting a quick peek at special work during its resting stage. Unlike oil paintings, a lot of illustrations are watercolors or other more temporary mediums. And probably the oldest pieces weren’t kept that safe to begin with since many illustrators thought of the printed book as the main product, rather than the original art. I’m so grateful this museum is preserving them. Thanks, Deb!

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  14. Donna Carlino

    Such a nice get-a-way for you, Marcia! It seems this trip was just what you needed. You sound “invigorated.” Love the photo you took after the “dusting.”

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    • The snow was beautiful and luckily the streets were clear before we all set out for home. Some campers had to catch flights to faraway places. 🙂

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  15. Ashley

    This is awesome. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to head off by myself to overnight retreats. Good for you! Beautiful pictures and words, too!!

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    • I think we were all probably a little nervous beforehand, wondering what it would be like, but Heidi and Jane put us right at ease with their warm generosity.

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  16. Thanks for taking us along on this great adventure! What a beautiful farm and such a talented group of writers. 🙂

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  17. Marcia! What a beautiful description of our magical weekend! And now I don’t need to regret not taking pictures — I have yours. You captured it all perfectly. Thank you. And thank you for what you said about me and my book! I hope I see you again soon — I just joined SCBWI so I could go to the conference in Springfield and see you all — Saturday was full but Friday was open so I signed up for that. I think you are going?

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    • It was so fun to meet you, Libby. I’m not going to the conference this year, but maybe next time. Until then, keep in touch!

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  18. Whereas. . .you forgot to say how helpful Lola was to the whole process, and that now you are at work on your shark hat!!! (It was a joy having you as part of the group and you bore the brunt bravely of the hundreds of heavy sighing recitations of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!)
    j

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    • Funny, Jane, and thank you! You know I almost mentioned Lola, but then wasn’t sure if she’d rather lie low. I think I heard the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” once, but the other times must have been behind my back. Off to find my shark hat! 🙂

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  19. This sounds like a very special retreat!

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    • It’s a good one, highly recommend it!

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      • Not sure it can be called a retreat when it was so highly programmed and every space filled with either talk or creative listening!

        Jane

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        • Exactly. And that was what I especially liked. Some conferences and workshops have too much downtime, where you’re supposed to eat, or mingle, or write quietly, or whatever. Whereas boot camp had numerous scheduled prepared lectures, along with an ongoing exchange of knowledge between participants and instructors. We went continuously from before 7AM until 10PM or later. It reminded me of a river cruise I took once, filled with nonstop activities.

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  20. Oh, Marcia! My heart is still pounding. As I started to read your blog post and immediately saw the lovely farmhouse and Jane Yolan’s name, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Owl Moon has been one of my favorite books for decades. I have taken my class owling at night in the woods of Groton, and created many stunning murals based on this book. Her words, so carefully chosen, brings the reader right there. And her ‘there’ looks so beautiful in all the photos. Jane Yolan read Owl Moon to you? Really? The Eric Carle Museum is one of my favorite’s. I’ve written about my experiences there on my blog, like coming face-to-face with the illustrations of Madeline, The Story of Little Babaji, and on and on. I consistently shout out to everyone that the bookstore is the best I’ve seen in thirty years. And I am at the top of the picky list. Marcia, I am so very happy for you, as this must be one of the highlights of your career and life. Western Massachusetts is beautiful; it’s no wonder that writers and authors want to be there. What a special event, and what an honor that you were invited to attend. Way to go, Marcia!

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    • I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, Jennie, and so glad to learn of your deep connection with Owl Moon. Western MA is very popular with writers. Various authors and illustrators of distinction who live nearby were mentioned throughout the weekend. And I agree–fabulous bookstore at the Carle. As I’ve said before, your students are very lucky to have you in their lives. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Marcia. And, I’m still reeling in your wonderful experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  21. What an amazing experience! Owl Moon was one of my favorites as a child 🙂

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  22. Oh Marcia!! Sounds like a dream come true!! You mentioned several books I love!! I would always read Owl Moon to my students back when I taught kindergarten. They were mesmerized… Wish I could have been a little fly on the wall! Thanks for letting us all have a peek! Take care friend, xox

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    • It’s wonderful how special books can bring so many of us together. Thanks, Rhonda!

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      • You’re right Marcia– our lit group has been bonding over books and they interact with our own stories for 30 years! Happy weekend there friend! xo

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        • That’s great you have a good strong group of readers, Rhonda. Have a great week!

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          • It really is a fun group Marcia– my smartsy friends. I learn a lot from them. I know you have a raft of book friends too… xox

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  23. Hello Marcia, my goodness what a wonderful time you all had! That dusting of snow at the end just made it for me, how beautiful.
    I was compelled to order a copy of Take Joy. It is coming from the US so won’t arrive until mid to end of May by which time I will have forgotten all about it so it will be a lovely surprise. Thank you so much for sharing this amazing experience.

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    • That’s great, Barbara. I’m sure you’ll love Take Joy. Happy reading (in May!). 🙂

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  24. Wow, what a neat experience 🙂

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  25. Oh wow! what a lovely post Marcia. Thank you for sharing your amazing time at boot camp. x

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  26. Hoo-hoo-hoo-hooooot! To go owling with Heidi and to have Jane read Owl Moon is like a dream come true! Sounds perfect!

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  27. mirkabreen

    Lucky YOU! I’d never want to leave, if I were there.

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    • I think there were many who could have just moved in permanently. Luckily for the hosts, we all took our leave eventually.

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  28. Marcia, thank you for this lovely, lovely post — this is something I would like to do someday and your post makes me want to do this NOW. But I must cultivate patience.
    By the way, I love Jane’s book TOUCH MAGIC too. A must for children’s writers.

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    • Hope you get to attend at some point, Vijaya. Thanks for mentioning Touch Magic, great read for all children’s writers, especial lovers of fantasy and folklore.

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  29. Rosemary Krol

    Great post Marcia. Sounds like you had a fabulous time. I loved reading about it.

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    • Thanks, Rosemary–it was a wonderful experience. My head was so full of information by the time I returned home that it felt good (and necessary!) to get all the details out here on the blog while they were still fresh in my mind.

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  30. How lovely – and what a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the work! Thanks for sharing.

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  31. Rebecca C

    Wowza! It looks like it was the most amazing time! I’ve long wished Jane would do something similar from her Scottish home on this side of the Atlantic. Thanks for sharing and letting the rest of us live vicariously through your post!

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    • Hi, Rebecca! Wouldn’t that be great to have Picture Book Boot Camp in Scotland, as well, for all of you fans across the pond. 🙂

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    • Alas–I only have two guest rooms. The kitchen is too small to cook the kind of high-end meals we offer. Because I’d have to bring Heidi over, and myself, the price would be astronomical to make it work. And not sure in the summer where all the students would stay, unless I could work out something for them to stay in the university dorms. PLUS I don’t know any nearby editor who could come, or a proper academic as guest who could do what Professor Richards does. PLUS I am not as familiar with British children’s book publishers. Plus Heidi works for three months solidly on planning.

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      • Hmmm, those are a lot of reasons why it wouldn’t work. We’ll just have to get Rebecca and others to pop over here for boot camp. 🙂

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  32. Rebecca C

    Ah, well! It was worth a shot, but it now makes complete sense why it’s only offered in Massachusetts. So glad I was able to read (and drool) about it here! 😉 Thank you both for commenting!

    Liked by 2 people

  33. This is such an inspiring post, Marcia! What a wonderful opportunity to work, learn, and enjoy the camaraderie of other writers!

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    • Boot Camp was very enjoyable. Nothing like the kid lit community. Thanks, Kath!

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  34. Oh, Marcia, you have a generous way of sharing your amazing experiences. Thank you, and Jane, too! for allowing us to “visit” Picture Book Boot Camp. The photos are so cozy that I’m sure we don’t realize the real work that you were all doing! How wonderful of Jane to offer her inspiring surroundings to others in this way. But then, her generous spirit has helped all of us for a long time – think SCBWI! I am so glad you got to have this wonderful experience and hope one day you will sign a PB for me that has its roots at Phoenix Farm!

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    • Hi Joyce! Yes, some of it was work, but the best kind of work there is. Wouldn’t that be great if a picture book (by me) emerged from those cozy surroundings, in the way many other books have. I’ll keep you posted!

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  35. My goodness, what a thrill! Marcia, I’m so glad you went for it. I read Take Joy many years ago and feel like a re-read soon is necessary. You’re right about Candlewick books — they are of top quality!

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    • Thanks for adding to the comments, Claudine. I’m happy to hear these books are popular in Singapore, as well.

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  36. Wow, what an incredible experience! The writers, the camaraderie, the locale, the food. . . it all sounds perfect. I’m also in awe that Beverly Cleary will be a hundred later this month. I have some many wonderful memories of her books.

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    • She’s a real treasure, special to so many readers, and still going strong.

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  37. Marcia, this post was amazing! You could really feel how much this experience meant to you- and for good reason! Wow, to get to soak in all that knowledge and general awesomeness, lol! Oh, and that is a great April Fool’s gag- I’ll have to remember that one! =)

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    • Thanks, Leandra. Many years dedicated to the field lead up to these special times when it all comes together.

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  38. Angie

    What a fabulous experience! I’ve added it to my bucket list. 🙂 Thanks for sharing with us.

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    • They’ve just posted new boot camp information for next October. Hope you get there someday, Angie!

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  39. What an amazing and awe-inspiring event, Marcia. Perfect to get all the juices flowing… Happy writing! (Very humbling to be in the presence of such achieved and respected writers! :-))

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  40. Oh wow, this sounds so inspiring and exciting!!

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  41. Congratulations Marcia! How wonderful that you had such a unique experience. It was heaven, just reading all about it!

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  42. Wow! What an experience. Thanks for the insider’s glimpse.

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    • All participants seemed to have a positive, worthwhile experience. I’ll be looking forward to seeing some of the manuscripts we worked on as a group become books.

      Liked by 1 person

  43. Thank you for a wonderful post and for following my blog.

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  44. christinabanach

    What a wonderful post, Marcia. No wonder you had such an awesome time – Jane is a legend!

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    • That she is, Christina! 🙂

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      • Er. . .pinching myself. Nope. Not a legend. In fact quite real. Ouch!

        As a folkorist manque, I take the word “legend” seriously!

        Said LOL.

        Jane

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        • Ha! Since seeing your comment come in, I can’t get a certain Carly Simon tune out of my head. Christina met you last year in Edinburgh, so I’m sure she means legend in the very best sense of the word. 🙂

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  45. Oh, I’m absolutely certain it’s meant it in the best sense of the word. She’s not saying I run around with mortal men before leaving them as husks or that I made a deal with the devil at the crossroads or have slain the mighty serpent Yggradrisel or lie down in the furrows to make the crops grow. (Well, maybe that last!)

    And you did begin by calling me legendary in your opening. It’s just one of my buttons that often gets pushed. Like the word kiddylit (which sounds like something cats do in the corner that smells). Legend has a specific meaning. And it doesn’t mean REAL!

    LOL Jane

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    • Oh, that’s right. I forgot I used the word, too! You are definitely real. And yeah, kiddylit should be done away with. Thanks for the explanation!

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  46. I’d thought to apply for that the first time they offered the workshop, but the $ held me back. But what a wonderful experience! Excellent pictures. She’s truly an icon/hero to all of us. Thanks also for your kind reviews of THE POWER OF HARMONY:)

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    • Hi, Jan, I hope you’ll get to participate in a future boot camp. I’m picky about which events I go to, and skip most of the costly ones, so it was a real treat to attend. p.s. Reviewing your book was a pleasure! 🙂

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  47. I’ve only just seen this. Sounds fascinating. You can’t beat learning from those with first hand experience.

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