Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 23, 2016

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Open this gorgeous book to meet scientists illustrated in mid-air, surrounded by signs of amazing discoveries. The 50 women are quite diverse in scientific fields, time periods, and cultural backgrounds, which adds to the energy and hope on paper that’s pink, purple, and various shades of blue and green. The illustrations are surrounded by smaller pictures labeled with impressive feats, with a quote from or about the scientist drifting like a cloud under her feet.


Rachel Ignostofsky’s joy in the accomplishments is contagious in her well chosen words and vibrant illustrations of Hypatia, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Katherine Johnson, and other mathematicians, geologists, chemists, and more. Each section ends with an allusion to the scientist’s place within history. Illustrated lab equipment and a glossary, as well as recent statistics on women in STEM fields, rounds out the book, with an afterword urging girls to keep changing the world. Yes!


I’m also happy that Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science is now in stores. Many thanks to Tara Smith, who gives an overview of the book at A Teaching Life and to Steve Pfarrer for his review in Book Bag at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.  And it was fun to answer questions about metaphors and other important things from April Halprin Wayland in a Poet to Poet interview.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 12, 2016

Girls at Thirteen

Plenty of young girls enjoying looking under rocks and don’t mind getting muddy. The daughter of my friend Heather Richard could imagine a happy princess scientist.


But studies show that some girls learn to hide their curiosity, energy, and ambition by the time they turn thirteen or even younger. A new report says that age is seven. Yikes. Was this always so? For centuries, some girls pinned back their hair and lowered their skirts. Some of them simmered. In Finding Wonders, I write how Maria Merian, who grew up in Germany in the 1600’s, hates how “growing up means more rules instead of fewer./She’s supposed to walk slower instead of faster,/look around less instead of more.”

But even in the 1600s or 1800s, not all girls were kept out of science. The three girls in Finding Wonders were encouraged by their fathers to take up their professions, partly because they wanted to share their passion, and partly because they needed practical help that their daughters could provide. Before Darwin and Einstein, science was considered a somewhat suitable pursuit for girls who were good with details and found particular ways to glory in the Creation. But there were limits. Beatrix Potter could draw plants and animals as a girl, but when she wanted to publish scientific papers on mushrooms, doors were shut. As an adult she abandoned detailed drawings of fungi, mosses, and butterfly wings and took up writing and illustrating Peter Rabbit and other tales.



By age thirteen, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell were all engaged in work they’d pursue for their whole lives. At thirteen, Maria Merian painted the life cycle of a caterpillar, at a time when metamorphosis was just beginning to be understood. By thirteen, Mary Anning was the first person to discover an ichthyosaur fossil. And at thirteen, Maria Mitchell was accustomed to helping her father observe the night sky from their Nantucket roof and make sky charts. She also used her gift for mechanics to fix an intricate chronometer, which was used at sea to measure distances. On a recent list of “senior superlatives” for a just-for-fun yearbook at The Horn Book to mark back-to-school, these three girls were chosen for “best science projects.” Absolutely!

You can find out more in Finding Wonders. Many thanks to Irene Latham who quotes three poems at Live Your Poem and proclaims the book “Great for wonder-ers of all ages!” Here’s my carton of author copies, with a green cover peeking under the starry jacket. I hope to see some of you at my book launch at the Odyssey Bookshop, where I’ll talk with Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger,  on September 27 at 6:30!


Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 8, 2016

Book Launch with Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger!

I’m happy to be launching Finding Wonders at the Odyssey Bookshop on September 27 at 6:30 with my friends Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger, both of whom will be celebrating new books of their own. Jo just published Still a Work in Progress and Ellen’s latest novel is Local Girl Swept Away. We’ll all read a bit and talk about inspiration and what keeps us going. Spoiler. The answer to that last part is partly: each other. But we’ll give more details.


I met Jo about sixteen years ago at an SCBWI critique group generously led by Jane Yolen in the basement of the Hatfield, MA library. People took turns reading new work, taking a break in the middle of the evening to pull out a carton filled with boxes of various kinds of tea from a carton kept under the stairway. There were also celebrations with champagne when someone sold their first book.

I’d read Ellen’s YA novels before I ever met her, but we became friends when she moved to western Massachusetts. Over the years, Jo, Ellen, me, and other friends sometimes met at each other’s houses or in coffee shops to write, inspired by each other’s quiet company, and discuss events that are dramatic in a writer’s life, though from the outside they might not seem like so much. We cheer for each success and wince together when we hear about hurdles. We’re all lucky with our families, but writers understand writers. And that is something to celebrate, too.

I hope you’ll come hear us talk about some of this and read from our newest books. There will be hugs, laughs, and cookies. What more fun could you have on a Tuesday evening?


Here we are three years ago when Jo had just published See You at Harry’s.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 1, 2016

Maria Merian and Mary Anning in London

When my daughter and I vacationed last week in the UK, we visited Holyroodhouse Palace, where Mary, Queen of Scots stuck to the shadows as her husband murdered her private secretary, and toured Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.While looking at portraits in the old stone halls, Emily filled me in on royal shenanigans. We both like history, but she knows more about Tudor drama, while I prefer scientists who didn’t have to worry about their necks.

Maria Merian’s name is becoming better known, though she’s not yet as famous as she was in Germany and Holland in the late 1600’s, when her paintings first became prized.


During a period when metamorphosis was not commonly understood, her paintings showed how small animals transformed as well as the way plants and animals depend on each other.Some of her work was bought by George III to form part of his scientific library, and are currently handsomely displayed in the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace.




In one room, children can pretend they’re in a rain forest, such as one Maria Merian, at age fifty, explored in Suriname. Children can look up at paper butterflies dangling from the ceiling or try out magnifying glasses.


I wrote about Maria Merian in Girls Who Looked Under Rocks and another scientist in Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. Those extraordinary women have stayed with me, so I wrote longer verse histories in Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. In a spirit of thanks for the good company, happy to visit two in one city, I headed to the Natural History Museum, London, where fossils that Mary Anning found almost two centuries ago still astonish.


I saw several skulls of ichthyosaurs, an extinct animal which she was first to discover and excavate when she was twelve. Some were embedded with ammonites, called snakestones when she first collected them as a young girl with her father.


The fossils are covered with glass, so my photo is riddled with reflections, but you can get a sense of the size – this reptile is about seventeen feet long. I loved seeing the engaged children and grownups posing for pictures with their arms outstretched and still covering only a portion of the creature.


Of course I needed a picture, too, holding Finding Wonderswhich puts together the stories of the German Maria Merian, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, England, as well as Maria Mitchell, the first American to discover a comet.




Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 30, 2016

Edinburgh Writing Tables, Scotland Views

I had a wonderful week with my daughter, starting in London where we visited sites for two days, the second less sleep-deprived than the first. At King’s Cross Station, where happy people imagined a brick wall opening for them, Emily and I boarded a train not to Hogwarts, but Scotland. Close enough.



Emily took some great pictures as we walked the stone streets of Edinburgh, where we often turned corners and spotted the astonishing castle on green cliffs, a glimpse of the sea, or signs of poetry and fiction love.


One morning I sipped tea and ate porridge in The Elephant House, watching fog rise over the same castle that J.K. Rowling saw when she hunkered in that still-welcoming café for hours, trying to stay warm while writing her first book about Harry Potter.


I looked past stacks of free curling magazines, spider plants with yellowing strands, and worked on a poem while hearing Paul McCartney’s Blackbird play, then Auld Lang Syne, one of Scotland’s most famous poems.

Some successful years later, when J.K. Rowling couldn’t write among the wobbly wood chairs and tables in peace, she left this college part of town – the café is down the block from the library –and hid out in a room of the elegant Balmoral Hotel to finish a sequel. That room is now named in her honor.


The city has the world’s tallest statue for a writer — Sir Walter Scott — and The Writer’s Museum, which celebrates him, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.


Here’s a first edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses, which hold some of the earliest poems I remember.


People walk on or past engraved stones outside the museum.


We visited the Edinburgh Book Festival where lovely lines of people waited to purchase  armfuls of books. Emily and I alternated two days in the city with two days of taking van or bus into the Highlands, where we saw more old abbeys, castles, and stunning views. Heather mixed with green grasses on the hillsides.



We gazed up at taller mountains and into deeper lakes, or lochs, than those I love in Massachusetts, where I sit now. But I close my eyes and remember views of Loch Ness and Glen Coe.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 5, 2016

Who is a Poet? Who Gets to Decide?

At the beginning of the class I taught on verse novels, a student told us she’d asked a prominent writer whether she might write a good one if she isn’t an experienced poet. He told her no. This story sort of hovered over us through the course. Even if no one had told us we shouldn’t attempt what we were attempting, our own minds supplied such a voice. We began reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion and Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, in which both Lonnie and Jack have teachers who see poets in their sensitive young students. But we also read essays from writers who insisted that not every child is or can be a poet. We’re grownups, but we have histories of encouragement and dismissals. Who is a poet and who gets to decide?


Through July, we read verse novels and composed parts of some, trying to blend poetry and stories. As we wrote, we didn’t murmur aloud, “Is this worthy of being called verse? Is it good enough?” But I could feel the breath of the effort to infuse narrative with lyric moments. And everyone wrote some brilliant pieces. We had much to celebrate in the last class as people read work aloud. It was a festive evening.

Then the next day I got an email from a student, who let me know that she wasn’t going to stalk me with her doubt, but what she’d read the night before sounded a little flat to her ears, maybe partly in comparison to other more brilliant work.

Her work wasn’t flat. But I understand that amidst the celebration, traces of doubt were rising. Second thoughts had appeared in apologies we quickly squashed.

Doubt is always with us, and I think can rear high right after a class. We’ve had deadlines, prompts, structure, and each other’s interest and applause, and now all that is gone. I told my student a bit of what I loved in her work and advised her to reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and read Art and Fear. She wrote back that she would and was going for a swim. A lake was another most excellent idea.

A writing class makes a sort of home, and it’s sad when that door closes. But there will be other homes, though we have to make them. Staying connected with people in the class, and/or finding others who will share work, deadlines, and cheers. Doubt is part of the process. It doesn’t mean one should stop work. Rather we should make a place where it can be swatted down and kept in its proper sleepy place.


In Hate That Cat, Jack gets another school year with Ms. Stretchberry, who encourages him to examine his antipathy to cats, move beyond grief, write about a new love, and experiment with more poetic forms. Locomotion has shown Lonnie mourning not a dog, but his parents. And in Jacqueline Woodson’s follow-up, Peace, Locomotion, Ms. Marcus, who called him a poet – “Not a whole lot of people be saying, ‘Good, Lonnie,’ to me.” — is gone, replaced by a teacher who says he’s not a poet as he isn’t published. He stops writing poems, and more of the book is made up of letters to his sister. Though the poetry shines through.

Not just in a class but in our whole lives as writers, we’ll meet those who nudge us forward and those who seem to hold us back. Sometimes they can be the same person. Sometimes they can be us. Perhaps the writer who was asked by my student if she might be up to this challenge thought that if she had to ask, she didn’t have the talent or fortitude. But he was wrong. A better answer might have been to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

None of us can see the future value of anyone’s work, including our own. When I’m asked about potential, I like to err on the side of “go for it.” Writers owe that to each other as much as we need to urge each other to go back for another draft, letting each revision teach us how to make the next better. Most of us who write remember both teachers who saw hope in our work and ones who were unmoved. Both nurturing and fearful voices remain in our heads. Our job becomes to feel prodded by both, raising our own standards, while being kind to ourselves.


Meanwhile, we try to be grateful for the process, as no one knows how what we write will be received. Finding Wonders will be published this September. Stone Mirrors will come out this coming January. I love having two books of historical verse, which represent perhaps ten years of work, moving into the world together. Sometimes we get such happy endings – before we begin again.

Please visit the ever-encouraging Tara at A Teaching Life to enjoy more Poetry Friday posts.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 29, 2016

More on Verse Novels

Writing verse novels means trying to keep people turning pages, while also deepening with what we call poetry. And what is that? Coleridge wrote that prose is words in the best order, while poetry gives us the best words in the best order. His friend Wordsworth tells us that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Both offer a good beginning, but we find something to argue about, too. Emily Dickinson wrote that she can recognize poetry if she feels as if the top of her head were taken off. And Mary Oliver wrote, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes led down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

“Poetry raises a high bar,” I tell my students. Poetry may be defined subjectively more often than novels are, and readers may have more expectations of something higher or deeper than they find in fiction.

“And there’s another bar,” a student pointed out. “Lots of people hate this hybrid form.”

Yes, there’s that. From time to time well-educated people think it’s a fine idea to tell me that they hate verse novels. Um, okay. You know I write them, right?


We do our best to put tension into narrative, which we can learn about from E. M. Forster, including his insight that plot asks for elements of mystery, which means that part of the mind must be left behind brooding, while the other part marches on. And then we try to tease forth lyrical moments.

At its best, a verse novel puts together poems in a way that makes each one mean more than it meant alone. And then I ask my students: Can every line both deepen and move the story forward? We wonder what makes a good verse novel, and why should or shouldn’t what we’re writing be in verse? We try to create a sense of moving forward, while leaving white space where we ask readers to pause to absorb or reflect.

We want something intimate, but we’re using conventions such as litany, alliteration, rhythm, and sometimes rhyme that aren’t part of everyday speech. John Stuart Mills wrote, “Every poem contains within itself an essential difference from ordinary language, no matter how similar to conversational language it may seem at first to be. Call it formality, compression, originality, imagination – whatever it is, it is essential… the space between daily language and literature is neither terribly deep nor wide, but it does contain a vital difference – of intent and intensity.”

Aiming for what is personal and universal, we’re bound to fall short, while hoping our efforts leave something. My students are courageous.


For more on poetry and the inspiration of hollyhocks and Emily Dickinson, please visit Margaret who is hosting Poetry Friday.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 14, 2016

A Day with Louisa May Alcott and Friends

“Beauty in the humblest things” was the theme of this year’s Conversations at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was able to be there only yesterday for conversations that take up most of a week, but I left, as one often leaves that Concord neighborhood, refreshed from being around not only Alcott devotees, but people who carry a sense of what makes life good. Here is historian Kristi Martin, who spoke about the sacred domestic and literary imagination, standing with her sister on the left. (And a copy of one of May Alcott’s portraits in the background.)


When Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House, speaking as Louisa May Alcott referred to Little Women, the whole room chimed in on the novel’s first line: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” It was a lovely chorus, and fun to hear this Louisa speak of her other less-well-known works.


Gabrielle Donnelly also evoked the warm parlor and sisterly connection as she compared the March family to Jane Austen’s Bennett clan. Later in her talk, she mentioned Mr. Bhaer’s proposal, in which he and Jo huddled under one umbrella, sheltered as the girls had been in Little Women’s first chapter. There’s a lot of such warmth in Gabrielle’s books, too. I hope you’ll read her novel, The Little Women Letters.


It was great to listen to talks and also just chat together near the old Concord house. Remembering, teasing, digressing – we felt among family.

Here are Gabrielle Donnelly, me, author Susan Bailey, who blogs at Louisa May is My Passion, and Kristi Martin.


I’m standing shut-eyed between Professor Anne-Laure François, Lis Adams, education director at Orchard House, Gabrielle, and Iman, who I met last fall when she led a tour through the house – something offered seven days a week.


That was an intimate tour group with just me, my friend Jen, and an uncle and his niece, so I felt free to reply to a comment about May Alcott, which led Iman to mention she was reading a novel about the artist. “Little Woman in Blue? Um, I wrote that,” I said. Iman beamed and invited me to spend all the time I wanted in May’s bedroom.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 6, 2016

Verse Novels: What Bears Repeating


Picking flowers for the bud vase, I remind myself, “Not too much.”


It’s a good way to start a morning of writing poetry, though teaching a course in verse narratives, well … I’m stacking up books and scribbling more notes than will ever get spoken in class, particularly since I’m sharing a table with nine smart and vocal grad students. I try not to talk too fast and remember Maxine Kumin’s words: “A poem is a small thing. It’s fragile, and you don’t want to overcrowd it.”

Verse novels are bigger and sturdier. Still, even as we advance the story, we need the compression of imagery or other strategies to elevate the form beyond broken lines. We want narrative that is brightened or leavened by lyric, or what Mary Oliver refers to as a coiled moment ready to spring. Tess Gallagher calls too much narrative slog in verse the presentational mode. She asks poets to aim for a sense of direction formed by value and judging. What’s on the page should be there not just because it happened or could happen. It should be of consequence.


Fairy tales remind us of the power of what’s brisk and concise, and when they’re used to shape verse may give an echo of what we’ve heard before. We’re always paring, but repetition can bring readers into a poetic rhythm. Repeated words or phrases at the beginning of the lines are what some poets call anaphora, or more informally litany or incantation. Repeated words such as Let, Listen, Behold, can cast a sort of spell, setting us free to nod, tap our feet, and switch from one kind of paying attention to another that might be deeper or more joyful. We find litany in psalms, Walt Whitman, Goodnight, Moon, ocean waves, and breath. In Kwame Alexander’s Crossover, one poem begins “Mom, since you asked, why am I so angry,” and is followed by a series of lines beginning with “Because,” repeated like a bouncing basketball, one student noted. The central metaphor of a crossover shows up as a basketball term, a crossing between brothers, and moving between life and death, offering another pattern. So do the repeated formats of dictionary-like definitions, all beginning with the universal and moving to the personal.

We’re reading some sonnets with the echoed sounds of rhymes and sestinas with words reappearing at the ends of lines, but also find that sometimes repeated shapes of poems, such a series of couplets or tercets that reoccur give form enough. Always there are questions, such as when do formal elements take us out of the story and when do they bring us deeper in? Someone compared Crossover’s theme of basketball to being like poetry. The sport may look spontaneous and even chaotic, but there are lots of rules and form behind all that movement. Oh, my students make me happy.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 28, 2016

Socks and Verse Novels

The local strawberries are so very sweet, and buying at a stand this morning, the kind woman gave me some extras, washed, so I could taste in the car. Delphiniums are doing their very blue thing. Neighbors down the road just got one majestic black cow and one ivory cow, both impressive as if a statue had been hauled off the streets of Paris and plunked in the green field. I straightened my sock drawer and feel embarrassingly satisfied. The news from the world has been making me feel speechless in its face, but my social media also shows me that some people are still baking clementine cakes, reading by the water, feeding hummingbirds, going to work, dancing with librarians, making pottery, fretting over first drafts, and other good things. Sometimes I’m glad to take a very short view of what’s around me, and let the wider background fade.


Those short views can be solace. It’s one reason why I’m glad to be teaching a course in verse novels at Simmons at the Carle starting this afternoon. I look forward to meeting ten people who care about the genre, and it’s one that doesn’t skirt news of the world, but also promises beauty. In Love That Dog and Hate That Cat, Sharon Creech shows a boy slowly approaching grief with words. In that first volume, it takes Jack about eighty pages to get to the memory he needs to mark. Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson shows us another boy who lives in a harsher world but also uses language to navigate memory and loss, and finds beauty in his relationship to his sister. Oh, and we’ve got a few essays, also, though they’re crankier re defining poetry than Ms. Stretchberry or Ms. Marcus. Those teachers and Jack and Lonnie are characters I feel enriched for knowing. And when I write, I also choose characters who I love and want to spend a long time with. They make the rest of the world fade for just a while, even while calling me to another complicated world on the page. What a privilege. And truly, even better than matching socks snuggled close.

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FYI to writers: Open spots remain in Writing One in the MFA program at Simmons at the Carle which I’m teaching this fall, a course that can be taken by itself without going for the degree. Anyone around the Amherst, MA area, let me know if you have questions or interest!


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