Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 27, 2015

Boston: Children’s Books, Art, and History

I had a great weekend catching up a bit with my daughter, then with former students and colleagues at the Simmons Center for the Study of Children’s Literature Summer Institute. The theme was homecoming. Novelist Elaine Dimopoulos discussed the pull of stories to shape themselves in the form of home-away-home, or perhaps home-away in literature for teens. Laura Vaccaro Seeger spoke of her journal as a home. Both Jack Gantos and M.T. Anderson brought up maps and the tug between what’s known, even boring, and adventure. E. Lockhart (Emily Jenkins) described her itinerant childhood, but called home a place where you keep your books. She also spoke of home as the place you’re making now versus a place you go back to, truth versus nostalgia.


There were discussions of homes that are safe, homes that are not, and complicated homes. Shadra Strickland spoke of illustrating Zetta Elliot’s Bird, and drawing one man based on her uncle. “Every time I drew him, it felt like home.” Illustrating Sunday Shopping by Sally Derby, she was glad to show whimsy and hope, which she said is important to her as a black illustrator, feeling that we need relief from the rhetoric of pain. She showed scenes of cutting paper and pretending, things she did with her grandmother as a child. (In the panel picture above, Shadra Strickland is to the right of Cathryn Mercier, director of the Center of the Study for Children’s Literature, and illustrators David Costello and Hyewon Yum, and to left of moderator Vicky Smith.)


I loved The Crossover, Kwame Alexander’s novel in verse, so it was a thrill to hear him speak, read, and remember. He said that he wrote the book as a love story to his father, after coming to understand the quiet form his father’s love took. His process for the book was to write about 200 pages of story with some line breaks, rhythm, and figurative language: then go back and rework each passage more fully into a poem. He said that in verse novels, neither the verse nor the narrative should be sacrificed to each other.


I spoke about “Beyond Broken Lines: Finding the Lyric Home in Verse Narratives.” The audience was great, and I thank my friend, Deb, for liking what she heard in the morning enough to come again in the afternoon when I repeated the seminar about a “form where writers can say something while hinting that the opposite could have happened, and maybe will happen off the page. Here’s where we are and the road not taken, showing what’s humble and what’s magnificent all in one line.”

There were more thought-provoking talks, ending with Megan Dowd Lambert and Cathryn Mercier, who both put so much brilliant organizing into the weekend, giving a talk that pulled together threads. Then I walked a few blocks to the MFA. The exhibit “Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent” was in a room with deep red walls and red carpets. I didn’t have the patience that afternoon to peer through glass cases and try to decipher bad handwriting, but I liked the tribute to these newly donated letters, which feature a recurring topic of Sargent’s work and how it should be displayed. I loved seeing photographs of some of his workspaces and sketches alongside finished paintings. Another room is devoted to his oils and watercolors. I picked up “Searching for Sargent,” a guide that shows other of his work in Boston. I admired the murals in the Boston Public Library, up the marble staircase past the grand lions, then walked through the newly renovated section on the other wing. Here is just one shot of the fabulous new Children’s Department.


At the Museum of African American History. I saw the current exhibit, “Freedom Rising: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Black Books.” Glad to see lots of poetry! I went next door to the African Meeting House, recently restored to how it looked in 1855, when notables such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth preached here against slavery. The meetinghouse was built in 1806 mainly by African American artisans and is now the oldest black church still standing in the United States. A docent relayed the history with a passion as if he’d been in that pulpit long ago, and as if all those pews were filled, instead of just me, taking pictures with my cell phone. I was so grateful.


That conference theme of home stayed with me in John Singer Sargent’s letters to friends and paintings of people in rooms, in the new cozy nooks and full shelves in the big library, and this church where people came to be together, pray, sing, and feel safe in the sometimes dangerous world.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 23, 2015

Roz Chast at the Norman Rockwell Museum

My husband gave me Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant when I thought I wasn’t in the mood. His mother was then very sick and requiring care. But the brave truth, humor, and poignance Roz Chast put into her illustrated memoir about the last years of her parents’ lives kept me reading into the night. So much seemed familiar, though her family is different from ours in many ways. The memoir’s acclaim includes being a National Book Award finalist and gasps of recognition from many of my friends.

Many original pages of this moving book, framed one above another, currently take up a big room in the Norman Rockwell Museum. I was glad I’d already read it, as I didn’t have to be so riveted to following the story, but could return to favorite parts. It was cool to see some “old fashioned” techniques looking close: lettering done with a rapidiograph pen, which I remembered an art student friend using back when we were in college, and cut and scotch-taped words and pictures arranging panels on the pages.


Other rooms show additional art of Roz Chast, who was raised by two educators and earned her degree at the University of Rhode Island, though she didn’t focus on cartooning there. After graduating, she moved back with her parents for a while and didn’t feel called to do anything besides using a mix of words and pictures to capture what she saw around her. She says she draws from small moments when she finds herself starting to smile. While she’s most known for her cartoons that have appeared regularly in the New Yorker, the exhibit also features picture books she wrote and illustrated, eggs painted like those for Ukrainian Easters, but in her own style, and handhooked rugs with more of her signature faces. Roz Chast says she thinks of “each loop as a pixel in a highly magnified computer image,” and in an effort to keep up elements of surprise, saves old wool strips of color to “toss into the mix.”

The exhibit celebrating work of thirty-seven years is open until October 26, so makes a great summer or leaf-peeping-season trip. And don’t forget to see the contemporary sculpture on gorgeous old lawns pretty much across the road at Chesterwood, where you can visit the studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French. Or drive a little further north and visit the Van Gogh and Nature exhibit (to Sept. 16) at the newly restored Clark museum, where the water lilies on the pond are blooming. It’s interesting to see what Van Gogh saw when he was outside of houses, not looking at neighbors or in mirrors. We get an overview from the dark paintings of his early years in Holland, to the bright days in Provence, and finally crows over cornfields.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 16, 2015

Stones at Sleepy Hollow

“I can’t believe I just asked a stranger for a ride,” the woman walking beside me said, while pausing to take a picture of a sign for “Alcott Road.”

“And I can’t believe I said yes,” I replied, turning to see if she might get a shot from the other direction that would include Orchard House. But we knew it was all right. We’d both left behind wonderful people at the Summer Conversational Series, and by the time we reached my car I knew about the book about Margaret Fuller she’d bought at the gift shop, her work teaching English to high school students in Appalachia, the blisters on her feet from touring transcendentalist landmarks, what she’d do with the spruce cones she picked up as we walked, and her two children, including one who was almost ten and showed little sign of ever reading and “What a gift to us children are as they show us their own ways of reading the world.”


I dropped her off in town and drove on remembering how a few hours ago I’d been drinking coffee with a new friend named Joan when we were joined by Laurel. I said, “We ran into each other while wandering around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery before breakfast.”

“As we do.” Joan nodded. We’d been talking about historical houses and desires to peer into old windows, which we mostly restrain.

Near Author’s Ridge, Laurel and I had walked around discussing people we’d read about such as the Emerson family, Margaret Sidney, Elizabeth Peabody, Frank Sanborn, and others. Here’s a stone for Louisa May Alcott beside May Alcott Nierieker’s (M.A.N.), though May was buried in Paris. We wondered about the lime – was an admirer hoping Louisa would have a cocktail, or was it a tribute to the pickled limes in Little Women?


Nearby is a stone for Henry David Thoreau, with a blue jay feather and Bic pen offering.


Here is one of Daniel Chester French’s masterpieces, a tribute to three brothers from Concord who died in the Civil War.


It took us a bit of hunting to find the grave Daniel Chester French shares with his wife, Mary. “A Heritage of Beauty,” it says under that sun-dappling. We were first puzzled about the coins left; then realized the Lincoln profiles honored the sculptor’s Lincoln Memorial.


Before he sculpted the Minuteman, displayed since 1876 by the Concord River, Dan had been a student of May Alcott. At his beautiful studio in the Berkshires, Chesterwood, now open to the public, his gratitude to his first sculpture teacher is mentioned on a plaque near a tool May give him, now under plexiglass.


Memorials large and small enlarge the world. And stories continue. The day before I had a lovely conversation with Jaimee at the Barrow Book Store, with bright flowers by the door and just inside perhaps five shelves of Alcott-related books. Jaimee mentioned having worked before in historic houses where people try to stick to facts, but some may blur into legend at least in back room conversations. She laughed as she gave the example of someone intoning “and Dan French used that exact same sculpting tool from May to create the Lincoln Memorial.” We can’t entirely help the way stories shift, which is why I love historical fiction as one way to revere and keep the past.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 10, 2015

Painting a Way Home: Talk at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

I played Little Women, dressing up in my grandmother’s old clothes, before I read the novel from the bookshelf my sister and I shared. We watched the Katherine Hepburn movie on TV, and I loved the drama of deep hope found in the ordinary lives of girls. I remember standing outside of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House with my family and cousins when I was about ten, and quietly freaking out at being so close to the place where one of my favorite stories began. I don’t remember going inside. Maybe we got there too late, or maybe our parents decided not to spend the money on a tour. If I’d seen Louisa’s half-moon-shaped desk where she wrote Little Women I might have fainted. Louisa May Alcott made me feel that one day I could become a writer, too.

It’s beyond thrilling – but I won’t faint! — that next Wednesday I’ll be speaking not in Orchard House, but just next door, at the Summer Conversational Series. I’ll always adore Louisa, but as many of you know, I’ve spent much of the past years obsessed with her artistic sister, May, the subject of my forthcoming novel, Little Woman in Blue. My talk is “May Alcott: Painting a Way Home.” I’ll discuss the spirit of place in nineteenth century Concord, and May’s connections to rivers, ponds, houses, and watercolors. Check out registration information at the link, and come if you can!


And thanks to my daughter, Emily, for taking this picture of me at Orchard House just past lilac season.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 5, 2015

Maine Botanical Gardens

Last week, just before the nick of July, my friend Sue got me to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, a wonder she’s been telling me about for years. We got a second spring, where, this far north, we could smell lilacs. It was great to wander with a friend who I’ve known since she passed me origami-folded notes in high school English, illustrated with lots of intertwined stars that she must have drawn while the more vocal among us offered thoughts on Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Joyce’s Dubliners, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.


Now we wandered, smelled, sighed happily, and gawked, taking a picture now and then. I loved the foxgloves and peonies, and walking along stone paths and by the shore. We headed back into the woods where children (of all ages, as they say) were welcome to make fairy huts or set tables on flat rocks for wood nymphs. Inside, there was a display on Myth, Magic, and Medicine of Plants.


I was pulled into this library lined with guidebooks and adorned with cut paper artwork. The gardens are open year round. I look forward to going back for new colors. Maybe I’ll bring a pen and notebook.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 30, 2015

Historical Novel Society Conference

I’m back from my first Historical Novel Society Conference where I enjoyed chatting in hallways or at tables about Viking footwear, Napoleon, Josephine, the hero’s journey as seen from a woman’s point of view, the Irish in mid nineteenth century Boston, conniving mistresses to kings, and the pros and cons of big and small presses. Every introduction was like opening an enticing book. I met more Latin teachers and Mesopotamian scholars this weekend than I have in the rest of my life. And all this between a full program with talks, an intro to sword fighting, a look behind the making of book covers, and dancing as Jane Austen might have done.

At lunch on Saturday, Karen Cushman spoke about inspiration and procrastination. She told us about how she wrote her first novel after twenty-five years of telling her husband ideas for books she never went on to write. Finally, he cut her off and said he’d be happy to read her novel when it was done. She was frustrated, but wrote Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor book, which she called a lovechild of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Adrian Mole.


Later she met with a small group of us where a professor who taught medieval literature said that many of her students come from having fallen in love with that novel. Other readers, Karen told us, write to her about how they identify with that girl from hundreds of years ago because they also feel trapped. She spoke more about topics including her research methods. She told us that she begins with a story, usually with a gutsy girl at the center, then moves into research. She gathers details then returns to the story until questions push her back to the library. Some of what she finds there may lead to a new scene, which may shift the structure and raise new questions demanding research. The process zigzags between imagining and seeking answers in books.


There were many great panels including one on trends in women’s historical fiction (awards tend to go to books about men written by men, 20th century history and leaner books, but write what you love). One of my favorite panels was on Art and Artists in Historical Fiction. No surprise for you who know me. The panelists discussed topics including use of artist’s spaces, thinking through the eyes and heart of an artist, and how much artistic process to put on the page. We heard from Donna Russo Morin, author of The King’s Agent, (starting from the right in the picture), Mary Burns (Portraits of an Artist: A Novel about John Singer Sargent), Stephanie Renée dos Santos, (Cut from the Earth, featuring a Portuguese tile maker), Alana White (Sign of the Weeping Virgin, a mystery set in 15th century Florence), and Stephanie Cowell (Claude and Camille: a Novel of Monet). Stephanie spoke of a painting that inspired a crucial scene about the couple, then read an excerpt in which Claude Monet “told the canvas what he could not tell her.”

I left inspired, with lots of notes and my suitcase a bit heavier with new books to read.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 24, 2015


“My favored flowers, the tulips,

can contain only so much feeling

before they tip over.”

–Deborah Gorlin, “The Grief of Trees” in Life of the Garment


Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 15, 2015


“It would affect our thoughts, deepen and perchance darken our reflections, if such huge birds flew in numbers in our sky.”

Henry David Thoreau was referring to blue herons in this April 19, 1852 journal entry, but witnessing big, fierce, or even ordinary birds can change us. Yesterday my friend Jess dressed like a tree with dark pants, a green top, and some of her hair twisted into a nest on top as we had a chance to meet birds at New England Falconry.

Six of us sat on a shady bench in front of four tethered hawks as Chris Davis, master falconer with an advanced degree in Resource Management, told us some about the history of falconry. Records go back more than two thousand years, showing that falconry began as a way for people to share what hawks hunted. Falconry moved through Africa and the Middle East to a history more familiar to many of us: the Medieval and Renaissance men and women wearing cloaks and long leather gloves. There’s only about a hundred years of falconry history in the United States, where the first settlers were more likely to shoot than become allies with birds of prey. Falconry gained ground after two women, aghast at the slaughter done to provide feathers for fashionable hats, helped found Mass Audubon in 1896.


Some of us came with some mythology that’s explored, with much else, particularly all the guises of grief, in Helen Macdonald’s gritty and gorgeous memoir, H is for Hawk, which I’m reading now. Chris is all scientist. He gave us facts about varieties of birds of prey, habits, weights, the sharp eyesight and swiveling necks, and flight speeds (with the Harris hawks here can fly 30 to 40 mph, compared to the 200 plus mph of peregrine falcons.) When Jess asked him if his hawks had names, he told us they had numbers. When she asked if they had fun, he explained that he can only consider fun in terms of what animals do to survive.


Jess and I were scared and excited as we walked past multiflora roses, bent cattails, through fields of grass, buttercups, and clover. Those clawed feet look kind of crazy, and those beaks are sharp. But the hawks were as disciplined as promised. Chris’s calm presence helps keep the great birds on task and was a perfect backdrop for our marveling at the birds’ swooping arcs, the shapes of their wings, the wonder of their approximately two pound selves lighting on our gloved hands, then sweeping off as we swung back our arms. We left more attentive to what’s in the sky or trees, what’s on the ground, and the briefly visible magnificence in between. The world a little larger than we’d known.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 12, 2015

June Afternoon in Maine

One friend wants to paint a snail or the waves.

Another sits on a rock to write a poem.

I mulch the perennials.


Working by a wheelbarrow in front of the house, I look up to say hello to a woman leaning on the arm of her daughter, walking slowly down the road. She nods at the garden, says, “It looks good.”

I’m aware of all that’s still left to weed, clip, and mulch, the spaces where I mean to plant more. But I let in the casual praise that I didn’t beg for, but came freely, like the small new leaves on a stalky star plant I dug from my Massachusetts garden and transplanted here.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 8, 2015

Behind a Woman’s Face

Inspired by the cover of Vanity Fair and Elinor Burkett‘s thoughtful New York Times article, yesterday my grown daughter and I talked about what it may mean to be a woman. Who wouldn’t agree it’s more than corsets and nail polish, but as Elinor Burkett points out, many of us who support trans rights seemed to slide over that in a rush to applaud Caitlyn Jenner’s courage. I’d only seen the well-publicized cover, but my daughter had read the Vanity Fair article and reported that Bruce didn’t seem like a particularly good person. I think Emily said he’d had three wives he dumped and was a father and stepfather to many kids he never saw much, playing golf rather than attend even markers like high school graduations. These kids now seem expected to cheer on Caitlyn’s transition, but what is she doing for them? Does some favoriting of men lurk within the cheers for Bruce/Caitlyn on the cover of a magazine from those who’d walk past a cover picture of his former wife? Whatever we may think of those who make a living from reality shows, if we’re going to applaud the courage of one family member, shouldn’t we acknowledge that a former wife and mother of his/her children must be struggling, too?

Both women and men must be changed from living so long in front of cameras. As I return to writing this morning, again about a woman who was pretty much erased from history, I see that shifting sense of being known and unknown as an experience women often recognize. Writing about inspirational women who’ve fallen out of public sight often takes me to biographies of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. There I’ve found the woman now a subject of my poems named sometimes in a single sentence of praise, though she’s in the shadow of many chapters. Yesterday I read of her stellar accomplishments hidden behind sentences written in passive voice. The author wrote of things happening, as if no one had made them happen. I read with quiet outrage, unsurprised. I see it as my work to supply the pronouns, put the woman back at the beginning of sentences, supply the credits.


My field is history, full of ghosts, but all of us must make peace with some kind of disappearing, which happens sometimes against our will, but is at other times essential. We all should learn the difference between being ignored or run over and finding ways to flourish in privacy. Many writers grow used to putting others forward, and stepping back behind our own words. Good parents often put the unglamorous needs of others ahead of their own desires. Flowers burst into bloom then fade into foliage until another season. Everyone has a right to be seen for who they believe they are, but who are we when no one is looking? Who are we in the night?

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