Wild Things Below the Balcony

This morning we witnessed a creature drama in the brook below our balcony.  We’ve seen birds, squirrels, and ducks, but these two were a big surprise.


At first we thought it was a beaver, but it didn’t have a beaver’s tail.  Muskrat!  Was Ratty in Wind in the Willows a muskrat? We watched it swim upstream and climb out of the water.

Along came a huge snapping turtle.  The shell was almost two feet long.  Her appearance sent that muskrat diving for cover–twice!  She continued to mosey downstream.  Do snapping turtles eat rodents?


This was a lot of excitement for apartment-dwellers.  I feel fortunate that the Seakill company who built this complex didn’t disturb the waterway.

What will we see next?

Reading like an Author

woman reading beside red painted wall

Anything written by Barbara Kingsolver is bound to be good.  I got my hands on Unsheltered (2018) because it was waiting to be reshelved on the library cart. Glory! What serendipity!

I used to read fiction just for the story.  Now that I’ve got two middle grade novels in print, and one more in the wings, I read differently.

Take, for example, the way writers include exposition.  I recently finished two novels in which the information was provided so awkwardly that it was irritating.  One book about the Reconstruction era became more of a history text toward the end.  The other novel had some character carrying on with facts to the point of boredom.

Kingsolver, of course, does exposition beautifully.  I’m only in the beginning third of the novel, but I’m so impressed.  The protagonist, Willa, has a conversation with the curator of the town’s archives that gives us the history of Vineland, New Jersey.  There’s humor and voice, and the personalities of both speakers are revealed.

While reading Unsheltered, I get the impression that the author crafted and revised each sentence meticulously.

Another feat of expertise is Kingsolver’s inclusion of historic characters.  On a whim, I googled Mary Treat, the biologist in the story.  Surprise!  Mary Treat was a real person, one of the first published female scientists, who corresponded with Charles Darwin, among other illustrious biologists and thinkers.  I love that our first encounter with this historic personage is seeing her flat out on the ground, apparently observing some creature of interest.

In this book, the plot moves from present day to Mary Treat’s era, and keeps the reader involved in both parallel stories.  I already adore Mary Treat, and the character of Willa has my heartfelt compassion.

How does Kingsolver do this?  There’s much to learn from such an accomplished writer.

Petunia Pig

by Kim Ellis


Petunia Pig sighed as she sat down in a kitchen chair. She had swept and mopped the floor. She’d even the scrubbed out the oven. The kitchen was clean and quiet. In fact, the whole house was clean and quiet. For the first time in twenty-two years, she heard nothing but the ticking of the teapot clock on the kitchen wall. Another sound came to Petunia’s ears. A puzzled frown creased her brow, and then she smiled.

“The wind,” she murmured. “I’ve never heard it over the hurricane in here every morning.”

The kitchen counter reflected rays of sunlight coming through the pink-checked curtains. No plates of congealing fried egg and beans sat in the sink. No crumbs of toast or strings of shredded wheat littered the floor.

The whole house echoed and hummed in silence around her. She had sent all three of them away, Oscar, Coreopsis, and Hardy. “You are all adults,” she told them, “and it’s time for you to make your own way in the world.” When they stared at her in shock, she added, “My retirement pension won’t support all of us.”

She gave them a date, September 1st, and, just to be sure, she changed the locks on August 31st.   She’d felt determined and strong at the time, but now, in the silence, she wondered if she’d made the right decision.

Oscar, the least ambitious of her brood, was couch-surfing among his party-prone friends and working at MacDonald’s. Coreopsis was going to massage school and living with two roommates in a seedy apartment building in a questionable part of town. Hardy, the practical one, had apprenticed himself to a building contractor and was going to night school for a degree in business administration.

Before they left, Petunia warned them once again. “There’s more than one wolf in the world,” she told them. “Don’t be out alone after dark, and always lock your doors.”

She knew she couldn’t protect her children forever. She had been so focused on getting them out of the nest that she hadn’t thought about her own future. Now here she sat, on a bright September morning, with no one to clean up after. There was nothing she had to do, nowhere she had to go. The day was as blank as a piece of paper. What would she do now?

Petunia heaved herself up off the chair and shuffled into her bedroom in her fuzzy pink slippers. She stopped in front of the full-length mirror and stared. “I’m fat,” she said. “Too fat. Dr. Jowls told me I had to lost weight. Maybe I should join the gym.”

A half-hour later, Petunia was listening a to lean, muscular otter named Bethany as she explained the features at the Fitness Center. “With a six-month membership, you get, like, one half-hour with a personal trainer, like, you know, once a week,” said Bethany in a high, nasal voice.

Petunia signed up for six months. That afternoon, she returned to the gym wearing her new workout clothes. She was relieved to find that Frank, not Bethany, would be her personal trainer. Frank was also lean and muscular, but, as he was a woodchuck, his body shape was less daunting to a fat pig like Petunia.

After her first half-hour with Frank, Petunia was drenched in sweat and discouraged. “Give it a month,” Frank said, “and you won’t believe how you look and feel. I know. I used to be carrying an extra 50 pounds.”

For dinner, Petunia ate a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. She savored every spoonful, but when the carton was empty, she burst into tears.

“This won’t do,” she said. She picked up her cell phone and called her friend Rosemary.

“Why don’t you come to my Mahjong game this evening? The girls are coming to my house. “

Petunia had always told Rosemary that she didn’t have time to play Mahjong, but now her excuse was gone. “Oh, all right,” she agreed.

That evening at Rosemary’s house, the girls (all Petunia’s age or older, and not girls at all) patiently taught Petunia the rules of the game. Petunia enjoyed learning something new and liked the feeling of focus and exercise happening in her brain, which, she feared, was beginning to lapse into dullness. She also enjoyed the pretty tiles with their Chinese characters and graceful pictures. The conversation, however, gave Petunia the urge to run screaming from Rosemary’s house back to the empty quiet of her own kitchen.

“Did you see Marigold? She must have put on twenty-five pounds in Paris! Her double chins had double chins!”

“Larkspur had triple by-pass surgery. No wonder she had a heart attack with a husband like Otto.”

“You would not have believed the hat Zinnia wore to Bluebell’s daughter’s wedding! Two feet wide, and draped in sunflowers. Quite absurd!”

As Petunia got ready for bed that night, she caught sight of her face in the mirror. “If this is all there is, I will either offer myself to the abattoir or tell the kids to move back in,” she said to her drooping face.

The next morning Petunia finished her workout at the gym early. Then she called her friend Calendula.

“Volunteer!” Calendula suggested. “You would not believe how many retirees help out at the hospital. Why, we practically keep the place running!” said Calendula. They arranged to meet at the Resources office in an hour.

Petunia put on a conservative navy skirt and a white blouse. It looked a bit parochial school, but she wanted to appear sincere and responsible. The hospital’s volunteer coordinator was delighted to enroll Petunia for two afternoons a week.

“Why don’t you do rounds with our precious Calendula today, so you can learn the ropes?” she suggested.

After two hours of plumping pillows, rearranging flowers, and pretending not to be dismayed at the illness and despair of the patients, Petunia knew this type of volunteering was not for her.

“I don’t think I’m cut out for candy striping,” she told Calendula.

Calendula sniffed, “Well, what are you going to do?”

Petunia shrugged. ‘I don’t know.”

When she got home that night, Petunia opened the refrigerator and peered into the freezer. There were two more pints of ice cream, and a box of Oscar’s favorite Sara Lee cake.
Petunia shut the fridge door. “No!” she said, “I’m not going to give in!” She ate celery sticks and low fat yogurt dip instead.

As she chewed, Petunia looked around her kitchen. Yes, it was clean, and the house was deliciously quiet. But it wasn’t enough.

“What do I really want?” she murmured.

The next morning she called Hardy. “Would you come and live here for a while?” she asked her one reliable child.

Three days later, Hardy hugged Petunia at the airport check-in.

“I’ll email you,” she said.

“And we can Skype,” he added.

She kissed his cheek and boarded the plane.


Shameless Author


man in brown jacket holding a book

Photo by Bùi Nam Phong on Pexels.com

Last Wednesday I met up with my summer workshop co-teacher, Ken, at Barnes and Noble to plan our classes for July.*  After he left, I wandered over to the neighboring table where a boy about 10 years old was reading.  Next to him, his father was working on a laptop.

Peeking at the title of the kid’s book, I got excited.  He was reading Rick Riordan’s Camp Halfblood Confidential.  I’ve only read two of Riordan’s books so far, but I jumped right in, asking the boy if he liked the Percy Jackson series.

He did.  I told him what I enjoyed most about The Trials of Apollo.  It followed easily to mention that I, too, wrote fantasy.  By now the dad was listening, and he asked for the title of my book.  “Tangled in Magic,” I told him, and added, “It’s available on Amazon.”

The lovely man immediately went online to Amazon, and then asked his son, “Do you want to read it?”

Oh, yes, the boy did.  Dad bought it for him right on the spot.

Honestly, readers, I did not have a sale as my ulterior motive.  I really just like talking to kids about books and writing.

The boy’s name was Rohan, which I now know is a location in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  I gave him my card and told him he was welcome to write to me.  “I always write back.”  That’s the same promise I gave to my second-grade students at the end of the school year.

Maybe we get a little bolder as we age.  Or maybe I miss being around kids.  In retrospect, I had to laugh at myself.  Have I become a slightly dotty writer-crone, starting up conversations with strangers in bookstores?

Doesn’t matter.  It was fun.


*Ken and I will be teaching a Sci-fi/fantasy writing workshop for 12 – 14 year olds in July.  Go to Hudson Valley Writing Project, based at SUNY New Paltz.


Silly, Evil Grassmen

Awakening Magic by Kim Ellis

Illustrations by Matt Wall


The Grassmen first appeared in Book I of the Karakesh Chronicles, Tangled in Magic.  Malcolm, age 12, awakens in the forest to find three small, green men admiring his horse.   The Grassmen have an odd way of talking, but they are wily and strong.  They don’t hesitate to toss sneezie powder in the face of anyone who stands in their way.

Crooked Nose laughed and clapped his hands.  “Yes, yes, stealing!  We be the Grassmen and we be stealing your fine horsie.”  

Last week I read that part of Tangled in Magic to a fifth grade class at Walden Elementary School.  They were a great audience.  After I read, the teacher asked, “How did you picture the Grassmen?”

“Like a Leprechaun,” said one student.

“An elf,” said another.

I wish I could remember what inspired the Grassmen.  They came into being a long time ago now, probably in 2011, when I wrote the first version of the book.  Small in stature and decidedly green all over, the Grassmen of Karakesh are known for stealing horses.  They are an amoral bunch who can be hired to do evil. As one character in another book says, “If you pay him enough, a Grassman would murder his mother.”

In Awakening Magic, the Grassman named Vetch is hired to kidnap young prince Emric.

You can find Tangled in  Magic and Guided by Magic online at



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What I’m Reading:

Hello, Universe

by Erin Entrada Kelly

Greenwillow Books, 2017

hello, universe

Hello, Universe won the Newbery Medal for 2018.

I’m still puzzling why it did.

Sure, it’s an entertaining story, but it didn’t pull me in deep or settle in my heart.

“Virgil Salinas is shy and misunderstood.  Valencia Somerset is clever and stubborn.  Kaari Tanaka tells fortunes and reads the stars.  Chet “the Bull” Bullens is the biggest bully in the neighborhood.” (from the inside cover)

The plot includes a kid who is deaf, a kid dealing with parental pressure, and, of course, the bully.  Virgil spends most of the story trapped in a dry well, listening to a spirit culled from his grandmother’s folktales.

I liked that the kids were smart and solved their own problem before the adults could organize themselves.  They were round characters, each a bit odd and original.  The writing was good, too, with an interesting plot structure.  But was this the best middle grade novel published in 2018?

If you’ve read Hello, Universe, send a comment and tell me what you thought of it.  I’d like to know.


Ladythorn aka The Solitary Wasp