Midwest Writers & Stories

With readers submitting title for Summer Reading Bingo, I’m learning about lots of great books which were either written by Midwestern authors, or set in the Midwest.  Here are some of those mentioned so far this summer:

  • The Big Thaw by Donald Harstad   

The pair of frozen corpses were found under a tarp in the machine shed of an empty farmhouse. Two males — brothers — both killed by bullets from a Russian automatic fired at close range.  (Harstad is from Elkader, IA, and this and his other mysteries are set in Northeast Iowa)

  • Field of Prey by John Sandford                                             

Agent Lucas Davenport is called in to investigate a serial killer who is kidnapping women in Southeast Minnesota.  (Sandford was born in Cedar Rapids, IA, and most of his “Prey” books are set in Minnesota)

  • Heritage of Darkness (A Chloe Ellefson Mystery) by Kathleen Ernst            

For curator Chloe Ellefson, a family bonding trip to Decorah, Iowa, for rosemaling classes seems like a great idea—until the drive begins.  After finally reaching Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Chloe’s resolve to remain positive is squashed when she finds Petra Lekstrom’s body in one of the antique immigrant trunks.  (Ernst writes mysteries, historical fiction, and non-fiction for both adults & children, and lives near Madison, WI)

  • Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson                

Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero.

  • On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves                                         

A thirty-year old woman finds herself stranded on a deserted island, with the sixteen-year old boy she was hired to tutor for the summer.  Not only do they have to face the dangers of the island, but they also have to battle their emotions as they find themselves falling in love.  (Garvis Graves lives near Des Moines, IA)

  • Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger                                  

New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961.  It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year- old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms.  (Krueger also writes a mystery series set in the north woods of Minnesota)

  • Scoop: Notes from a Small Ice Cream Shop by Jeff Miller   

Chronicle of Minnesota-born Jeff and his partner Dean’s first year in Hayward—how they are welcomed by a collection of colorful characters and how they are humbled by the challenges of operating both the ice cream shop and a bed and breakfast. 

  • Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler                            

Welcome to Little Wing.  It’s a place like hundreds of others, nothing special, really. But for four friends—all born and raised in this small Wisconsin town—it is home. And now they are men, coming into their own or struggling to do so.  (Butler was raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop)

  • Vintage by Susan Gloss                                                         

Vintage is centered around a Midwestern vintage clothing shop and a group of women who eventually transform the store and each others’ lives. (Gloss lives in Madison, WI, where this book is set)

Who are some of your favorite Midwestern authors?  Which books set in the Midwest do you enjoy?


Summer Reading Continues….

Well, my summer reading seems to have fallen into a slump.  I continue to read, but unfortunately it’s taking me much longer to finish books than I would like.  I recently finished “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”, and even though I enjoyed it, it seemed to take me FOREVER to get through!  Here are the books I’ve read since my last blog post, with how many stars I would give them:

Field of Prey by John Sandford   (an Iowa author)         * * * *

A couple of high-school lovers conclude an evening of passion in rural Minnesota by noticing a really bad smell. They inform the local cops, who find an underground cistern filled with who knows how many bodies and body parts. It’s obviously not a job for local cops, so Lucas Davenport and his Bureau of Criminal Apprehension are called in. There are 15 skulls and counting when Lucas arrives. The early forensic examinations reveal the killings have been going on for years. How did someone not notice? Davenport’s usual partners are engaged in other investigations, so he teams up with Catrin Mattsson, a detective with the county sheriff’s office. When the killer decides Mattsson should be his next victim, the case escalates quickly. (This book is set in communities of Southwest Minnesota, familiar to many Iowans)

Fragile by Lisa Unger          * *

Psychologist Maggie Cooper and her husband, Det. Jones Cooper, disagree on how to handle their rebellious son, 17-year-old Rick, who prefers to spend time with his band or holed up with his girlfriend, Charlene Murray. When Charlene disappears one night after a fight with her mother, Maggie and Jones wonder if she ran off to Manhattan, but are reminded of the disappearance 20 years earlier of Sarah Meyers, whose mutilated body was found after she vanished on her way home from school. Though the alleged killer confessed, there are still unanswered questions, and Maggie and Jones find themselves forced to revisit the past as suspicion falls on Rick.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson          * * *

In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired). Wry, courtly, opinionated, and  endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?

We Were Here by Matt de la Pena          * * * *

When it happened, Miguel was  sent to Juvi. The judge gave him a year in a group home—said he had to write in a  journal so some counselor could try to figure out how he thinks. The judge had no  idea that he actually did Miguel a favor. Ever since it happened, his mom can’t even  look at him in the face. Any home besides his would be a better place to live. But Miguel didn’t bet on meeting Rondell or Mong or on any of what happened after they broke out. He only thought about Mexico and getting to the border to where he could  start over. Forget his mom. Forget his brother. Forget himself.  Life usually doesn’ t work out how you think it will, though. And most of the time, running away is the  quickest path right back to what you’re running from.  From the streets of Stockton to the beaches of Venice, all the way to the Mexican border, We Were Here follows a journey of self-discovery by a boy who is trying to forgive himself in an unforgiving world.

We’ve still got over a month to go for summer reading, so keep turning in those bingos!

Summer Reading in Full Swing

I’m happy to report I’ve actually been reading a lot this summer (well, a lot for me anyway—I’m a SLOW reader. :) ).  And my reading is even more diversified than usual since I’m trying to complete my Summer Reading Bingo card, with categories such as “A Classic You’ve Always Intended to Read”; “A Book by Someone with UIU or Iowa Ties”; and “The Second Book in a Series”. 

Here are the books I’ve read so far, with a short synopsis and how many stars I gave them (5 being the best):

Brotherhood by Anne Westrick.  (Grades 5 & up)   * * *

The year is 1867, the South has been defeated, and the American Civil War is over. But the conflict goes on. By day, fourteen-year-old Shadrach apprentices with a tailor and sneaks off for reading lessons with Rachel, a freed slave, at her school for African-American children. By night he follows his older brother Jeremiah to the meetings of a group whose stated mission is to protect Confederate widows like their mother. But as the true murderous intentions of the group, now known as the Ku Klux Klan, are revealed, Shad finds himself trapped between old loyalties and what he knows is right.  

Here Lies Linc by Delia Ray  (Grades 3-7)  (an Iowa author)  * * *

When 12-year-old Linc Crenshaw decides he wants to go to public school, his professor mom isn’t so happy with the idea. He’s convinced it will be the ticket to a new social life. Instead, it’s a disaster when his mom shows up at their field trip to the local cemetery to lecture them on gravestones, and Linc sees her through his fellow-students’ eyes. He’s convinced his chances at a social life are over until a cemetery-related project makes him sought-after by fellow students he’s not so sure he wants as friends, helps him make a new, genuine friend, and brings to light some information about his family that upends his world.

Last Child by John Hart (Winner of the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Novel)   * * *

Thirteen year-old Johnny Merrimon had the perfect life: a warm home and loving parents; a twin sister, Alyssa, with whom he shared an irreplaceable bond. He knew nothing of loss, until the day Alyssa vanished from the side of a lonely street. Now, a year later, Johnny finds himself isolated and alone, failed by the people he’d been taught since birth to trust. No one else believes that Alyssa is still alive, but Johnny is certain that she is—-confident in a way that he can never fully explain.

On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves (an Iowa author)  * * * *

Anna Emerson is a thirty-year-old English teacher desperately in need of adventure. Worn down by the cold Chicago winters and a relationship that’s going nowhere, she jumps at the chance to spend the summer on a tropical island tutoring a sixteen-year-old boy.  T.J. Callahan has no desire to go anywhere. His cancer is in remission and he wants to get back to his normal life. But his parents are insisting he spend the summer in the Maldives catching up on all the school he missed last year.  Anna and T.J. board a private plane headed to the Callahan’s summer home, and as they fly over the Maldives’ twelve hundred islands, the unthinkable happens. Their plane crashes in shark-infested waters. They make it to shore, but soon discover that they’re stranded on an uninhabited island.

Push by Sapphire  (Inspired the movie “Precious”)  * *

Claireece Precious Jones endures unimaginable hardships in her young life; abused by her mother, raped by her father, she grows up poor, angry, illiterate, obese, unloved and generally unnoticed. Pregnant by her father with her second child, she enrolls in an alternative school program where she meets a determined and highly radical teacher who takes her on a journey of transformation and redemption.    Warning: very graphic and disturbing material

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier     * * * *

On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (Winner of the 2012 Printz Award)   * *

In the summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.
Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.




Driftless Safaris

"Let’s go surfin’ now
Everybody’s learning how
Come on and safari with me”

Last weekend I went on a safari, although it was neither the surfing nor the African variety.  :)  The Allamakee County Driftless Safari is an outdoor county-wide scavenger hunt:

This is an opportunity for families to play outside, be active and become educated about sites that they may have never seen in the county. The safari will increase public exposure to and appreciation of 20 different cultural assets right outside many participants’ back doors. This safari supports an effort that encourages life-long learning experiences for people of all ages.

You can visit their website for more information, but basically you pick up a map and guidebook at a participating location (mainly public libraries), and whenever you visit one of the 20 locations on the map, you will look for a rubbing post, and make a rubbing in the guidebook.  My sister, nephew and I managed to locate 7 the first day, so we’re already a third of the way done!  I see Fayette & Clayton Counties also have their own version — theirs is called the Turkey River Safari.  If you don’t live in any of these 3 counties, see if there’s something similar being offered in your area!

Websites for Allamakee & Clayton/Fayette safaris:   



Pictures of us on our “safari”:




Fossil Hunting

     Today’s “Google Doodle” features Mary Anning (May 21, 1799 — March 9, 1847) a British fossil collector and paleontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made at Lyme Regis in Southwest England. Her work contributed to fundamental changes that occurred during her lifetime in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.             (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anning)

     I would have had no idea who Anning was if I hadn’t recently read “Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier.  The title refers to both the prehistoric species which were uncovered, as well this amazing woman who made significant fossil discoveries, but because of her sex was essentially ignored by the male scientific community.  While the novel is a fictional account, it seems to follow closely with the true story of Anning, whose unearthing of previously unknown species helped debunk the commonly held belief that the Earth was only approximately 6,000 years old. 
     Along with reading about fossils, I recently took my nephew to hunt a few of our own.  The Rockford Fossil Park is one of only a handful of public fossil-collecting sites in the nation.  Equipped with our egg cartons and water bottles, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. It is a strange looking place, with its rocky trenches and odd blue-green water at the bottom of the quarry.  The fossils here are from the Devonian Period, 365 million years ago, when Iowa was covered by ocean.  The most commonly found fossils include brachiopods, which are two-hinged shells. 
     We did in fact collect plenty of the tiny seashells, but not much else.  I was disappointed that we didn’t find any coral or sea lilies, but my 6-yr-old nephew was just happy to be digging in the dirt and rocks.  We plan on going back again since we didn’t cover very much of the area — and he’s pretty sure he found a prehistoric fish embedded in the cliff side that he has to finish exhuming!  :)
     If you are looking for something different to do, I definitely suggest visiting the park and trying your hand at fossil collecting! 
Link to the fossils found at the park:  http://www.fossilcenter.com/PDFs/fossils.pdf


Strange looking water!


What did he find?

On the Island

I recently put out a request for suggestions of UIU and/or Iowa authors.  One name I got back was Tracey Garvis-Graves, Des Moines author who has written On the Island and Covet.  So this weekend, I checked out On the Island, and I definitely had a hard time putting it down!

Anna Emerson is a thirty-year-old English teacher desperately in need of adventure. Worn down by the cold Chicago winters and a relationship that’s going nowhere, she jumps at the chance to spend the summer on a tropical island tutoring sixteen-year-old T.J.

T.J. Callahan has no desire to go anywhere. His cancer is in remission and he wants to get back to his normal life. But his parents are insisting he spend the summer in the Maldives catching up on all the school he missed last year.

Anna and T.J. board a private plane headed to the Callahan’s summer home, and as they fly over the Maldives’ twelve hundred islands, the unthinkable happens. Their plane crashes in shark-infested waters. They make it to shore, but soon discover that they’re stranded on an uninhabited island.

At first, their only thought is survival. But as the days turn to weeks, and then months, the castaways encounter plenty of other obstacles, including violent tropical storms, the many dangers lurking in the sea, and the possibility that T.J.’s cancer could return. As T.J. celebrates yet another birthday on the island, Anna begins to wonder if the biggest challenge of all might be living with a boy who is gradually becoming a man.

What can I say, I’m a sucker for “stranded on a deserted island” stories, and this one did not disappoint.  What I found fascinating is that the author self-published it, and its popularity grew from word-of-mouth.  You can find out more about this process at http://traceygarvisgraves.com/frequently-asked-questions-faqs .  The film rights have been optioned, so look for it to become a movie somewhere down the road.   

I enjoyed the characters, and thought the difficulties they faced were realistic (yes, even being stranded on an island!).  The author alternates the chapters between the two characters, which is effective because it allows us to see how they think about and react to the same situations.

 If you’ve got some time to get lost in a book, I definitely recommend this one! 



How it works:  Bingo will run from May 1 – September 1.  Read books that fit categories on the following card; when you’ve completed a bingo (a line across, down, or diagonally), submit the titles of the books you’ve read to Jodi at hilleshiemj@uiu.edu.  Anyone completing a bingo by Sep. 1 will be entered in a prize drawing for a basket of goodies donated by Paint Creek Soaps (check them out on Facebook!).  Fill up the whole card & receive special recognition!

imageNeed some ideas for books by someone with UIU ties? Here are a few:

  • After the Glory:  the Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans by Donald Shaffer
  • At Stormy Time:  the Story of Charles Coleman Parker and Upper Iowa University by Richard A. Barker
  • Horses’s Hoofs by Richard A. Barker
  • I Want to Marry Godzilla and Have His Children by Melle Shipwash Starsen
  • Ida B. and her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan
  • Life in a Box by Jeff Keenan
  • The Main by Jeff Keenan
  • Murder Most Holy by Michael J. Manno
  • Not Quite Heaven by Melle Starsen
  • Pioneering Spirit:  Upper Iowa University Celebrating 150 Years, 1857—2007 by Stephen Regan & Jerome Wadian
  • True…Sort Of by Katherine Hannigan

A couple things to keep in mind:

  1. You can’t use the same book for 2 boxes.
  2. You can’t use a book you’ve read before, but you can use a book you are currently reading (as of May 1). 

That’s it!  Have fun!


An Author to Know: Khaled Hosseini


I recently finished reading And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.  Hosseini, born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965, moved to San Jose, California in 1980, where his family was granted political asylum.  After earning his medical degree, he began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner, which turned into an international sensation, spending 2 years on the New York Times Bestseller List. 

I’ve read his first and his third novel, but not the second (A Thousand Splendid Suns).  I’ve actually heard that is often people’s favorite of the three books, so it’s definitely on my “to-read” list.  I really enjoyed both And the Mountains Echoed, and The Kite Runner.  Hosseini is a wonderful storyteller, filling his books with interesting characters and vivid settings.  Have you read any of his books, and if so, what did you think of them?

The Kite Runner:

The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

A Thousand Splendid Suns:

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them-in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul-they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman’s love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

And the Mountains Echoed:

A novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations. In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most. Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page.

April is Financial Literacy Month

Looking for children’s books & lesson plans dealing with economics, saving and spending, and young entrepreneurship?  Check out some of the following! 

A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams   https://www.stlouisfed.org/education_resources/assets/lesson_plans/ChairForMother.pdf

After their home is destroyed by a fire, Rosa, her mother, and grandmother save their coins to buy a really comfortable chair for all to enjoy.

Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell; illustrated by James Ransome  http://www.philadelphiafed.org/education/teachers/lesson-plans/UncleJedsBarbershop.pdf

As the only black barber in a county of sharecroppers during the 1920s, Uncle Jed traveled for miles to tend to his customers. Saving his money to build his very own barbershop was a dream that had to be postponed because of his generous heart and the Depression.

Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco   http://www.mcee.umn.edu/documents/CHICKEN%20SUNDAY_Lori%20Urke.pdf

A young Russian American girl and her African American brothers determine to buy their gramma Eula a beautiful Easter hat. But their good intentions are misunderstood, until they discover just the right way to pay for the hat that Eula’s had her eye on.

Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall; pictures by Barbara Cooney   http://tcaassets.org/public/lesson-plans/grade-two-money-versus-trade.pdf

A lyrical journey through the days and weeks, the months, and the changing seasons in the life of one New Englander and his family. The oxcart man packs his goods - the wool from his sheep, the shawl his wife made, the mittens his daughter knitted, and the linen they wove. He packs the birch brooms his son carved, and even a bag of goose feathers from the barnyard geese.

The Tortilla Factory by Gary Paulsen; paintings by Ruth Wright Paulsen  http://www.philadelphiafed.org/education/teachers/lesson-plans/tortilla-factory.pdf

Expressive paintings show the cycle of life—from seed to plant to tortilla. Workers till the black soil, operate the clanking machinery of the factory, and drive the trucks that deliver the tortillas back into the hands that will plant the yellow seeds.

My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa M. Mollel; illustrated by E.B. Lewis  http://www.socstrpr.org/files/Vol%205/Issue%201%20-%20Spring,%202010/Features/5.1.13.pdf

The market is full of wonderful things, but Saruni is saving his precious coins for a red and blue bicycle. How happy he will be when he can help his mother carry heavy loads to market on his very own bicycle—and how disappointed he is to discover that he hasn’t saved nearly enough!

A few other titles:

The Berenstain Bears and Mama’s New Job by Stan & Jan Berenstain

Bunny Money by Rosemary Wells

Do I Need It?  Or Do I Want It?: Making Budget Choices by Jennifer Larson

A Dollar for Penny by Julie Glass; illustrated by Joy Allen

How Much is that Doggie in the Window by Bob Merrill; illustrated by Iza Trapani

To Market, to Market by Anne Miranda; illustrated by Janet Stevens

Find these and lots more financial literacy books, lessons, and ideas for children at http://financeintheclassroom.org/student/books.shtml; http://www.nea.org/tools/lessons/resources-for-teaching-financial-literacy.html; and http://www.phil.frb.org/education/.

The Library on Pinterest

Did you know the library has a presence on Pinterest, the “online pinboard”?  I find it’s a great way to organize and list things, such as books & videos on certain topics, crafts for college students, funny finals pictures & memes, and ideas for book club reads. 

For most of the “book” boards, I try to only include books that we have at the UIU Library — one example is the “Children’s Books, Birth-3” board. 

Some of our other boards include:

  • Autism Awareness
  • Book Crafts
  • Bookmarks to Make
  • Favorite Read-Alouds
  • Hispanic Heritage Month
  • The Holocaust
  • Libraries & Librarians in the Movies

If you have suggestions for boards, or want to share your pins, let me know. And of course everyone is invited to follow us!

What would a post about Pinterest be without some pins?  Here’s a fast & easy craft I like:  http://www.instructables.com/id/No-Sew-10-Minute-T-Shirt-Tote/  My suggestion when making this tote is to start off smaller with the neck & sleeve circles, and enlarge them later if necessary.  The first time I did it I made them too big. 


And here’s an adorable idea for Easter:  http://confetti.typepad.com/confetti/2011/04/fashback-friday-peeps-smores.html


WARNING:  Pinterest is addictive; prepare to lose a few hours when perusing!  :)