Early Bird



During the daytime and evening, I can think and muse and search for things to write about and different ways to present them without much luck.  Why do I wake up at 4 a.m. knowing exactly what to say?

It’s not a new phenomenon.  When I was teaching I’d have the best ideas for the classroom at about that time.  Before the invasion of the PC, I’d write them in longhand.  Later on, with a light-touch keyboard, I could type away and email them to school.

There are lots of bulleted help lists for writers.  Neuroscientists who have studied the creative activities of early birds state that biological evidence supports rising early to compose.  It is related to dopamine pathways of the limbic system, or something like that.  Practical people just say that in wee hours of the morning, we’re in a better mood because it’s quiet, we’re rested, and we haven’t had t0 deal with people yet.

On the website http://www.brainpickings.org  there’s a chart correlating famous authors’ wake-up times and their achievements.  Ray Bradbury and Stephen King were the later risers, which makes sense, because extra sleeping time would be needed to describe horror and sci-fi.  Or recover from it.  The chart displays this disclaimer: “No specific routine guarantees success.”  I concur, from observing student writers for many years.


Several people have mentioned the helpfulness of coffee during the still-dark hours of the day.  It seems Beethoven used to write music then, with 60 beans worth in his cup.

Then there’s the guy who extolls the advantages of getting up early to write, beginning at 6:30.  6:30?  That’s when I take my morning nap.

Erma Made Me Laugh

I was talking with someone the other day who didn’t remember Erma Bombeck.  Of course, he/she was younger than me.  Why does there seem to be more of those all the time?

I owe Erma for making me laugh — when it was easy and when I didn’t think I could.  She never wrote anything rude or lewd to do it.  I think the closest she got to that was when she referred to her expertise in cooking.  “I thought a pinch of Rosemary was something my husband did once at a cocktail party.”  Her columns and books came straight from life, which she was very perceptive about — and often happened to describe things we had in common with her.

She could pick out absurdities so apparent that they were lost: “I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian.”

She grimaced about sports widowhood: “If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”

She had fun with some issues of the day: “I believe in buying natural products to save the environment, but don’t you think giving up blue plaid toilet paper is going a bit too far?”

But she was vehemently supportive of the Equal Rights Amendment.  No one was sorrier when Congress failed to pass it.  She worked endlessly when appointed to the President’s National Advisory Committee for Women.

Erma was often pragmatic: “No one ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed.”

She could justify almost anything: “I am not a glutton.  I am an explorer of food.”

Once, when my children were young, I was asked to do a reading for a Mother’s Day banquet.  I chose a story where Erma was worrying about her son coming home on his first day of school.  What if the bus windows were steamed up, and he couldn’t see outside and missed the stop?  I laughed so hard I couldn’t finish it.  The audience was laughing partly at Erma and partly at me because I was so tickled.

Her book titles were as good as the one-liners inside the covers.  The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank; If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I in the Pits? and I Lost Everything in the Post-Partum Depression dished up more laughs, but she could be serious, too.  I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise was an empathetic look at children with cancer, whom she worked with.

For eleven years she livened the screen of Good Morning America with short segments.  But a couple of sitcoms based on her work did not work themselves and were cancelled.  I think it was because on paper, people could see themselves in those situations.  When actors were involved, it wasn’t the same.  A TV movie was also made based on one of her books.  She once said, “Success is outliving your failures.”

Erma had grown up near Dayton, Ohio, where her efforts as a writing mom gradually grew into a syndicated newspaper column, At Wit’s End.  Her feature Up the Wall appeared every month in Good Housekeeping magazine for women “who at long last had found someone who understood them.”

It was our country’s great loss when she passed away at age 69, in 1996 after a kidney transplant.  For me, the timing was poignant: it was a month before our older daughter graduated from high school.  I guess God thought I could take it from there.  I often go back to my first memories of reading her take on home, family, and life in general.

The University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater, has a writers’ workshop in her name each year, and maintains a website, http://www.ermamuseum.org, well worth visiting.

“When humor goes, there goes civilization,” she said.  I’m thankful Erma Louise Fiste Bombeck took her turn spinning the plate at the top of the pole.

It’s Done! Oh, Wait…

It’s not quite there yet.  Draw a line through a word, a sentence, or a whole paragraph.  Carrot up to a different adjective to make a phrase sound better.  Circle a section and draw an arrow to the beginning or the end.  Replace the lead with a poem or conversation.

That’s how we used to revise a piece of writing by hand.  Now, I change things in as many ways as I can create them: with a computer, it’s fairly easy when copy is saved to a file (“fairly,” because I have been known to get into some deep doodoo when it comes to technology).  I backspace to erase, hold the touchpad to highlight, and then cut, or copy and paste.  Even more fascinating than the word processing programs which have been around for awhile are online sites for bloggers.

Take WordPress, which sponsors the blog you are reading now.  So far today I have made six revisions (I know because it tells me in the margin).  Before I’m done, that will be at the twenty-five plus mark.  I can change the title, which I just did.  I can add or subtract pictures or remove something that just doesn’t belong.   But if I change my mind about it, I can go back and look at each revision to get back what I thought I didn’t want. I type phrases that don’t make sense to anyone but myself, to help me remember my train of thought, and delete them when I’m finished.  Best of all, I think, is that I can view the blog as it will look when published.  And after it has made it to the world wide web, it can be updated.  Never has publishing been more slick or immediate. Can there be too many revisions?  Right now, I’m up to eighteen.

At some point, one has to stop.  Or does one? If I went into the idiosyncrasies of being a perfectionist who has to get everything JUST RIGHT, it would be more than you wanted to read.  And cause more revisions, of which this piece has now had twenty-five, because I’ve been fiddling with the artwork.

Blogs are one thing; books are another.  I revised the manuscript for my book a great many times, sometimes entire chapters, before submitting it to the publisher.  Then, we went round and round on proofreading, and I had to justify several things.  Funny thing was, both sides missed a few.  I will never again criticize a publishing company for a small error I’ve found in one of their books.  You can look at a mistake a hundred times and not see it.  Then, there it is, blatantly asking the public to look at it and say, “Geez, don’t they know anything about English?”

Technology might have changed the mechanics of it, but good writing is good writing no matter if it comes from plastic computer keys, a wooden pencil, or the inky ribbon of a 1948 Royal typewriter, as David McCullough uses.  Good writing is stretchable, bendable, changable.  It is storytelling on paper or screen.  It is worth the extra time.

Steps of Stone

Climbing.  Always more ancient stairs.  On our trip to Israel, I started to groan every time we faced a ruined ampitheater or city wall.  Then I wondered who else had tread on them, or other steps before them.  It turned into a poem which was also inspired by a laser light show with an amazing soundtrack, on a crisp night at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem.



Steps of stone top one another

Inside the wall of the old town

O’er the ages groaning with

The weight of humans bearing down.

David, king, wished a home

For the Ark to be at rest

As a warrior, he could not make it

And bid his son to do his best.

“God’s love endures forever!”

In the temple, lined with gilt

Rightly, prayerfully, dedicated,

For “The Great I Am” was built.

Solomon’s wisdom in the past,

Jerusalem in Judah’s realm

Northern Kingdom, Israel

Numbered ten tribes at the helm.

By Nebuchadnezzar and his army

Battered steps would soon be found

God’s chosen exiled, to Babylon

Stones of the wall fell to the ground.

Persians conquered, a nation freed

It went home to build anew

The second temple rose from rubble

A testament for every Jew.

Then the Greeks of Alexander

Brought their culture in a trample

Maccabees came to the rescue,

Purged and purified the temple.

Herod stretched the Temple Mount

The steps now Roman, stones now theirs

And came God’s Son, Jesus!  Who for the city cried —

Then died, and rose, to make us heirs.

Persian, Muslim empires ruled

God’s people went into decline

More armies, larger and determined

Took the walls in Palestine.

Foreign rulers held the stones

Until Crusaders filed in

Sacrificing limb and life

For God, a holy war to win.

Then four hundred years of sultans,

Ottoman Turks of Istanbul

And steamships bringing travelers

Prosperity, suffering in this rule.

To the British went the spoils

Of a horror — worldwide war

Expansion of an island kingdom

One more sovereign, gaining more.

Home!  Divided, unified

Conflicted first, among the camps

Now agreements, then more fighting

A constant threat of terror rants.

Whose will be the final footsteps

Above the stairway hewn from stone?

God has promised, and we know that

It is Jesus, Christ, alone!

Our Young Folks

Not wanting to be outbid, I clicked “Buy It Now” on the eBay page.  Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents seemed a fair price for something almost 150 years old.  But would it turn to dust in my hands?

A stiff envelope arrived in our mailbox the next week, and I slid out the contents.  There, with its orange cover detached, was an 1869 copy of Our Young Folks.  It had been a popular children’s magazine published by Fields, Osgood & Co. of Boston after the Civil War.  They charged $2 in advance for a year’s subscription.


I had read issues of this magazine online from college libraries.  It is an endearing look at Victorian childhood, a primary source for the same.  Here was what boys and girls of eight, nine and ten were reading as industry and invention changed their somewhat idyllic world.

And who were the people editing the words, phrases and sentences for a wide audience of children?  For awhile, there were three.  All had been teachers, and all were poets.

  • John T. Trowbridge, who also wrote The South, A Tale of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities, The Drummer Boy, and the Jack Hazard series
  • Lucy Larcom, who wrote an autobiography called A New England Girl, which told about her own child labor in a textile mill
  • Gail Hamilton, (pen name for Mary Abigail Dodge), who was an early proponent of equal education and occupations for women

They were in good company — friends included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and John Greenleaf Whittier.  The editors chose stories, poems, illustrations and activities (some by themselves) of interest to children.  Many were about the outdoors.  For example: “The City Girl,” (1865), a contrast between city and country children with pointers on how the two could be friends; “Swinging on a Birch Tree” (1867); “Bird-Catching,” (1867), a poem accompanied by an engraving by Winslow Homer; and “Strawberries,” (1868), a conversation between a child and a berry.

 Engraving by Winslow Homer for the magazine.  (www.americanart.si.edu)

They also included “Our Letter Box,” which printed letters from children, very popular as indicated by the number of entries each month.  “A bright little new subscriber says: ‘Having set my heart on Our Young Folks, here goes my one dollar for it for six months.  By that time I can earn another dollar.  The way I learned how good a magazine it was — we borrowed a few numbers of a neighbor, then Mother bought me a number when she went to town, and this year I feel as if I must have it.'”  The young man named Frank also submitted a story about his cat, Mrs. Socrates, which followed.

In 1873 Our Young Folks was bought out by a new magazine, St. Nicholas.  St. Nicholas was enormously successful, reaching 100,000 subscribers in 1883, and published until 1940.  It was only trumped in the late Nineteenth Centry by The Youth’s Companion (remember the Ingalls girls reading it?) which published 500,000 copies at a time.

The four Roosevelt children: Anna, Theodore, Elliott and Corinne, and their little neighbor Edith Carow loved Our Young Folks.  They still read it as adults, and Theodore said he learned more about life from it than he did from his college classes.

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(My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson.)


Had I lived in their time I’m sure I would have read it.  It is excellent material, and sheds light on our country’s history, a small piece of which I now own — covered in faded yet still glowing card stock.

Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?

I know technically that should be, “To whom are you speaking?”  But this post isn’t about grammar, it’s about audience, which I was sidetracked from last time.  The presence of my childhood books overwhelmed the topic I assigned myself.  Today I guess I’ll speak mainly from the head rather than the heart.  Both are good.

Quite awhile ago I heard some advice worth remembering.  It was from a college professor or guest speaker he’d asked to class.  I’m sorry I don’t remember the source.  He said, “Never underestimate a person’s intelligence, or overestimate his memory.”


I agree that to be successful, an author must have a target audience in age and genre.  Adults who like romance novels, or maybe biography.  Intermediate aged children who lean toward  mystery and fantasy.  Preschoolers who love to look at pictures.   That’s great.  I happen to be under the radar of biography writers.  I tend to read life stories to find out new details of what went on in the past (to the best of our knowledge).  Biographies make history human, and through them you understand a little bit better why things happened.

But you know, you can’t really tell who’s going to read what you’re writing.  I was on a panel for Young Adult books recently, and an author (a very good one) who writes for teens said he’d heard from two 78 year-old-ladies who read his book on the beach.  I think parents who read books aloud to their children should be included in a writer’s prospective audience, too, because they, as well as the young ones, are impacted.  Have you ever discovered a great book that was written since your childhood?  I have, and keep checking the Newbery list each year.

Of course, my six-year-old granddaughter wouldn’t understand War and Peace.  There are words and themes appropriate to adult experiences.

We should not underestimate kids’ intelligence, though.  Teaching for 25 years made that clear to me: they understand quite a bit.  And books for kids?  They can be enjoyed and appreciated and applauded by everyone for their simple focus.  About 400 parents and children who stood in line to speak with author/illustrator Jan Brett at our public library recently proved that.

TR said that a children’s book was not good unless an adult could get something out of it, too.

When you write, have a purpose, an audience, and a topic.   And don’t be surprised if your radar reaches further than you planned.

History Buff’s Buffet

Some groan at the thought of endnotes, but much can be taken from them.  They often add explanations authors wouldn’t want one reader to miss.  After all, he or she may never pass that way again.

Edmund Morris, King of Endnotes, gives his audience two books in each biography: the primary text, and the notes in the back.  I can’t try to approach that level.  His card files have been documented on more than one C-Span interview. But I did find some tidbits at the end of The Amazing Bird Collection to share this week.

Theodore’s photograph of the Elkhorn Ranch House.

From Wilderness Writings, by Theodore Roosevelt: In post-Civil War days, photography was difficult for amateurs because of the instruments and the developing process, but when they got a bit more portable, Theodore liked to shoot with a camera as much as he did with a gun.  He developed prints himself in the cellar of his North Dakota ranch house.  His book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, lists photography equipment and circa 1915 directions for using it.

From My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson:  Soon after the Civil War ended, Theodore’s mother received a mysterious letter.  It said that a young man would wait to meet them under a certain tree at Central Park.  It turned out to be her youngest brother, Irvine Bulloch, a Confederate soldier who fought on the warship Alabama (captained by their older brother James).  They had a happy but short reunion, after which Irvine moved to a permanent home in England.


 “Teedie and Ellie” watch from a second story window.

From The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, by Stefan Lorant: Edith Roosevelt, TR’s widow, confirmed that in a famous photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City, Theodore and his brother Elliott were the two small boys looking out the window of a mansion.  Little Edie, their friend, had been watching with them at the home of the boys’ grandfather, Cornelius.  When she cried, they pushed her into a back room.  Lorant says that he was so charmed by Mrs. Roosevelt that he said, “If I were twenty years older, I’d propose to you.”  She answered, “Mr. Lorant, if I were twenty years younger, I would accept.”

From The Boy Hunters, by Mayne Reid, a book Theodore read growing up: A father sending his boys to the western frontier to hunt was described in this way.  “Like the great Audubon, he was fond of the outside world.  He was fond of drawing, his lessons came from nature itself…he combined a passion for the chase with his delicate taste for scientific pursuits.”  That could have been part of the eulogy at TR’s funeral. 

 Widely circulated cartoon of TR shooting holes in Mr. Johnson’s dictionary.

From An Autobiography, by Theodore Roosevelt: During his presidency, Theodore tried to get Congress to pass a bill on simplified spelling.  It did not pass, but the press had a lot of fun with it.  Some of the words he wanted to shorten have evolved anyway (He might have liked texting).

Finding Freddie

“From Freddie Osborn,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote on the back of the letter he’d received in the summer of 1875.  “He was drowned the day following.”

TR saved the piece of paper all his life, and it was deposited with family correspondence at the Houghton Library at Harvard.  I found it on the library’s database last year.  I can’t tell you why I missed seeing the actual letter when I visited the library several years ago.  It was exactly the kind of primary source material I was looking for, from someone who knew TR well in his youth, and previously unpublished.

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Houghton Library, Harvard University

It was a sweet letter.  Fred, 16, son of the president of a major railroad, talked of studying for his entrance exams to Princeton.  He wanted Theodore to come to the Hudson highlands for a visit: to ride, drive, fish and row as much as he wanted.  They would trade skins of pine-creeping and worm-eating warblers (both boys collected birds).  He hoped his friend could come as soon after the Fourth of July as he could.

But tragedies intervene in our lives.  As Fred dove into the Hudson River just before the holiday, a strong current pulled him under.  He never resurfaced, and his body was found two days later.  The boys would not explore nature together again.

In his 1913 autobiography, TR made a point to remember Fred.  He was “a fine, manly fellow,” whom he could see just as plainly as in his youth.  Fred’s brothers grew up to do great things, Henry as president of the American Museum of Natural History, and William as businessman and philanthropist.  William named his son Fred, and there has been a Fred Osborn in every generation since.

I contacted Fred Osborn III in Garrison, who directed me to a great-grandson of Henry’s, Nat Prentice.  Nat and his wife, Anita,  live at Wing and Wing, the same country home Fred invited Theodore to in 1875.  About a year and a half ago my daughter and I visited the Prentices there.  They showed us an album Henry kept which described the history of the house; in it were pictures of young Henry, Fred, and William.  There was a also photograph of a frequent visitor to Wing and Wing, John Pierpont Morgan.  Morgan’s first wife was the boys’ Aunt Amelia, who died of tuberculosis.  He later remarried.

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Freddie and William in the 1860s.  Photo courtesy Nat and Anita Prentice.

The Prentices took us to see St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a stone structure on stately grounds, with a memorial window for Fred and his sister, Virginia.  Behind the church in the cemetery are many members of the family, including Henry, William, and their parents.  But neither Fred nor Virginia, who died within two months of each other, rest there.  They are together with a common headstone in the East Cemetery of Fairfield, Connecticut, home of their mother’s people.

I noticed the grave of Hamilton Fish, a Rough Rider who was killed in Cuba in 1898.  His story is well-known to readers of TR; and like Fred Osborn, he had ancestors and descendants with the same name.




This spring I was able to read in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, where Fred’s mother’s papers were donated by a relative.  Would any of Fred’s be among them?  No.  His sister’s were, and his grandmother’s and uncles’.

Virginia wrote about her brothers planting peanuts on their farmland, and of Fred scattering his all over the place instead of taking time to line them up.  He was just being a boy.  A boy who was a good friend to another who would grow up to be president.

Memorial Window

Garrison, New York photos by Amy Griffin.

I am pleased to say that more of the story of Fred, Theodore, and the nature club they belonged to will appear in the next issue of The Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal.  Titled “The Determined Independent Study of a Boy Who Became America’s 26th President,” it is taken from two chapters of my book, The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt, which is published by Xlibris.  It is available on both amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Reading, Writing, and Roosevelt

When you gather a lot of information, there’s always some left on the cutting room floor, so to speak .  Because I’m a teacher, I began tagging things I’d read about Theodore Roosevelt’s language development; some I used in my book and some I didn’t.  I rolled snippets together into a chapter at the end.  Although my favorite part of The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt is always going to be the chapter about Theodore and his friend, Fred, the one about how he became a “literary feller,” the author of countless speeches, magazine articles and over thirty books, comes in a close second.

Why do some children learn to read sooner than others?  Why are there excellent readers who would rather do something else?  How is writing learned?  Is it a gift?  Is it hampered by strict adherance to mechanics and grammar?  Should boys and girls be required to sit and write during the same period every day at school?  And where does speaking fit into that picture?

If I had all the right answers I’d be Education Czar of America and we’d be a nation of Ernest Hemingways.  But a few years in the classroom helped me note what Theodore had in common with the best of them: speakers, readers, and writers.

TR Family Members

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (National Park Service photo)

His parents were role models.  Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (Thee) loved to read.  He would recite chapters of scripture to his future mother-in-law when he was courting Martha (Mittie) in antebellum Georgia.  Mittie was a wonderful storyteller herself and later enchanted her children with tales of her childhood and ancestors.  They both treasured books, of which there were many in the home’s library.

They read a variety of materials.  One of the children’s favorites was a magazine called Our Young Folks, which exposed them to authors of classics and values of the Victorian Era.

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(Author photo)

Poetry was important to their thinking.  They memorized it, the rhyme and rhythm of the words becoming second nature to them.

The family constantly wrote letters.  In the days before telephones and even typewriters, they communicated by writing longhand in cursive, which, by the way, was carefully developed.  They took time to think and organize their thoughts on paper.

The children were exposed to many people, ideas, and great architecture and art.  They were fortunate enough to go with their family on two year-long tours of Europe after the Civil  War.

They were given blank books to compose stories in, take notes in, and keep diaries.

Teedie’s  first diary.  Note his use of specific measurements.  (National Park Service photo)

They played word games for fun.  Crambo was a favorite, in which they’d make up rhymes about each other.

Theodore wrote about what interested him.  He learned more about science from a taxidermist and two uncles who were specialists in conservation and medicine.

Theodore’s young life was full of “being there” experiences, literally a series of what we would call field trips.  Especially notable were his ventures into the outdoors at their summer houses.  Then he could, as we’re still urged today, “Write about what you know.”

The children belonged to literary clubs.  Some were girls only, some were boys and girls, but they met to read each other’s writing and had studio pictures taken of their small groups.  Selfies in a writing club today would be fun, don’t you think?

 The Dresden American Literary Club: Theodore, brother Elliott, cousin Maude, sister Corinne, and cousin Johnny.  (National Park Service photo)
I hope these observations are helpful for someone working with a struggling reader, which I once was.  While physical limitations do play into literacy, there are some things, most of all a LOVE for books and language, that can be given without danger of overdose.  It won’t matter if the reading or writing is done on a thin piece of wood pulp, or on an electronic screen.

Book Beginnings

Since picking up a big round pencil in kindergarten at the Carnegie Public Library, I’d dreamed of writing a book. A published book, with interesting things others could learn about, and pictures on slick pages to go with it. But reading didn’t come easy for me. Could I even write? I couldn’t figure out for a long time how my big sister knew what those funny symbols on the pages meant.

A wonderful second grade teacher named Mrs. Fox gradually helped me understand. By the time I was eleven I had fluency to match anyone in the class: I learned to love words, their meanings, their rhymes, their rhythm. I wanted to make stories happen, too.

Writing for newspapers in high school and college, and then at our hometown weekly during the summer was good experience, but I never got into anything in real depth. The usual research papers. News stories, features. The expectable.

I became a fifth grade teacher for many years and enjoyed writing class especially. I occasionally wrote, mostly nonfiction pieces, for class examples or just for fun — but with a growing family, the self-discipline that serious writing required had to go in different directions.

Then – a great opportunity. I received a Lilly Teacher Fellowship. It allowed me to experience something or someone I really wanted to learn about, and my choice was Theodore Roosevelt, our exuberant twenty-sixth president known to most everybody as “Teddy.” It didn’t take me long to find out he didn’t care for the nickname. With my family I visited the places he’d lived, east and west, and did some serious research among the files of the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Theodore Roosevelt's snowy owl from his bird collection, displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Theodore Roosevelt’s famous snowy owl, displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

At last I had enough material. There are so many primary sources (letters, journals, manuscripts, notebooks, drawings) for Theodore’s life that biographers worldwide have had a heyday writing about him. I narrowed my own study to the ten years before he went to college, because it presents an “amazing” model for independent learning.

Author David McCullough says to write the book you want to read. Though it had to wait for my retirement from the classroom, I finished the manuscript last December and made it through the stages of proofreading and publishing. It’s now an official book with a real ISBN number, (a little like Pinocchio becoming a real live boy), in paperback and hardback, and available on Amazon. I will be at some book fairs this fall and hope to make school visits, too. Contact me for more information, and I hope you will subscribe to my blog,  More to come.