Monday, August 21, 2006

Mary Jane in the Hill Country on Mysteries, Beautiful Places, Kiddies and Kittens.

  Posted by PicasaYou are the author of "25 years of lesson plans." What were some of the best ones?
It seems to me that the "best" lesson plans were never really written down.... but happened, with guidance. Particularly, I enjoyed introducing kids to various kinds of children's literature. (I've been retired for two years, so I'm having to go back to the archives to answer this question.)

One year, we sent out Flat Stanley. Some of your readers may be familiar with the series of Flat Stanley books penned by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer. Now in my honest opinion, these books are not the greatest ever written... or even grammatically correct... but students LOVE the main character, Stanley, flattened when his brother knocks over the bulletin board.

In the classroom, we had a huge United States of America map, and we tracked Stanley's travels as we mailed him out to individuals all over the country. The host or hostess was asked to describe Stanley's day... then return him with an entry for our journal.

Let me tell you: That little guy got around! Some folks were extremely gracious about sending photographs of Stanley in different locations: classrooms, libraries, the Statue of Liberty, even the set of a television soap. And the class received many books (and other gifts) from teachers, librarians, authors. I was really touched by the kindness of people that never met me... yet freely participated in our class project. (And need I add that many of the host/hostesses were subscribers to DorothyL.)

I can't possibly list all of the concepts covered by this project: reading, writing, art, geography, math (as we calculated mileage)... social studies and culture...

The Jolly Postman or Other People's Letters by Janet & Allan Ahlberg provided another "fun" project. In this book, fairy tale characters write letters to each other, and then of course, students make up their own letters to write. We also enjoyed rewriting fairy tales, from differing points of view. And one of my favorite activities was reading the Cinderella stories from as many countries as possible... even Bigfoot Cinderella.

Who could forget The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg? Students
brought housecoats, houseshoes, teddy bears or other stuffed animals to school; we'd cuddle up on the rug, and read this book while drinking our hot chocolate. Now my grandchildren and I read The Polar Express and drink hot chocolate!

Have you always been a mystery fan?

Pretty much. My sister taught me to read, and then she'd make me write book reports. I still remember writing a book report about Donald Duck and the Chipmunks... When I was in the first grade, the teacher gave me a book and pushed me out on the stage to read to a school assembly. (I'm certain the other kids were bored to tears!)

I started reading Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton in grade school.... even "wrote" my own version of a mystery. (I remember thinking it was so cool to be able to use the word "analysis.") Then in the seventh grade, I wrote a book report on The Bat by Mary Roberts Rhinehart, which caused lots of excitement and conversation in our English class. I do believe that Mrs. Stuckey's head is still spinning around! She responded by handing me a list of books for "preferred reading."

Joining the DorothyL list in the early nineties, I re-discovered mystery books. And I've been "hooked" ever since.

Older sisters are so bossy. Mine was always the teacher when we played school. What are you reading right now?
Recently I finished Hard Truth by Nevada Barr and Bleeding Hearts by Jane Haddam. But like most readers, I have a huge "to be read" pile that keeps growing. Included in the wobbly pile of books are: The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein, Consigned to Death by Jane K. Cleland, The Trouble with Magic by Marilyn Alt, End Run by Steve Brewer, Deadly Patterns by M.E. Cooper, Sheet Music by M.J. Rose. and Desert Shadows by Betty Webb. I'm also interested in local literature, including books about ghosts and mystical sightings described in The Devil's Backbone by Bert M. Wall. I was involved in an automobile accident on the Devil's Backbone two years ago, so one of my favorite comments is, "Ten seconds earlier, and I could have been a chapter!"

That's so eerie!

On a different subject, tell me a bit about Smith Bears and how you got started making them.
I'm so proud that I have a blog: Two years ago, my dad died. Like most elderly gentlemen, he enjoyed wearing one-piece jumpsuits. My dad worked in the fabric industry most of his life, and he altered all of his clothing, including the jumpsuits. They were hemmed, patched, repatched... and no one in the family could even consider giving away those jumpsuits. Thinking that I might use the material to make a quilt, I brought the jumpsuits home... And while looking through a book dedicated to projects using men's neckties, I found a pattern for making bears. Four jumpsuits became four bears that could be shared with other family members. And the idea for Smith Bears became a reality.

If someone wishes to have a bear made from the clothing of a loved one, they can contact me through my blog and order a Smith Bear.

That's a great idea!

You recently posted on DorothyL some things that authors can do to get you to come to book signings. One was to clean your house. If some authors now come forward with dustmops and vacuum cleaners, will you honor the deal?
CERTAINLY! And I'm not that particular, either, about how well they clean my house! But the truth is that I'd attend a book signing anyway. (Although I'd really like to get that "pet" fecal testing done....)

Do you still teach? If not, do you miss teaching? What did you teach?
I'm a retired elementary teacher, grades 1,2,3. For five years, I taught computer curriculum for grades K-5.

My new philosophy is "You can take the teacher out of teaching, but you can't take the teaching out of the teacher." True, I don't stand up in front of a classroom of elementary kids anymore.... But I had a blast at Vacation Bible School this year! And I'll be substituting in the local elementary school. Of course, sometimes the grandchildren just want to turn on television and watch Sponge Bob, but hey! I have to find students SOMEWHERE, even if they aren't always willing.

You are, apparently, giving away kittens. Can I have one?
Okay, I admit to fibbing about the kitten. While I couldn't possibly give away any of my cats, I do have "friends in high places." Just one telephone call, and I can have the kitten here in thirty minutes, give or take a couple of minutes if color is an issue.

Good to know. What's the most beautiful thing about the hill country where you live? Where's the most beautiful place you've been aside from your house?
Man, you don't ask for much, do you? When I read the first part, I thought, "Hill Country sunrises. Nope... Hill Country sunsets." Then I remembered the magnificent sunrises and sunsets in West Texas. So I thought, "Overlooking the Devil's Backbone near Canyon Lake. But how about that drive down Fischer Road... or... the wildflower trail at the back of the LBJ ranch... the Cypress trees at Driftwood.... NO!... the old Confederate hospital in Driftwood (now the Salt Lick).... or.....

Good to know there's so much beauty! Now, back to mystery. Who are the writers on your top five list?
Can we change it to top 50? I can't possibly answer this question! Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Elizabeth Peters, Sharyn McCrumb, Walter Satterthwait, Margaret George, Victoria Holt, Bill Crider, M.C. Beaton, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Ruth Rendell, Nikki French, Maeve Binchey, Suzanne Morris (what happened to her, by the way), Diana Gabaldon, Antonia Fraser, Susan Albert Wittig. (I've left out a ton of names!) Whew!

But those were some good ones. There was some discussion recently about teachers (or students) being too reliant on the internet. As an educator, do you think this is true?
It's probably true in some cases. But the reality is that everyone is an individual, and we're responsible for our own actions. If we're talking about students' cheating here... then yes.... some students are going to cheat. But then, they would probably cheat anyway, but perhaps in not such a sophisticated way as the internet. I wasn't part of the discussion, so I can't really comment on teachers' being too reliant, unless they're not checking sources responsibly. Sometimes, though, I must admit that I think "we" were better teachers when we had fewer tools. Too many choices can be a blessing or a curse.

Well said. What's an average day like for you?
Really, I can't describe an average day because our days are so varied. Jack (my husband), three cats, and I live in the Hill Country near Austin, Texas. Several days each month, I volunteer in the church office(receptionist, answering the telephone, etc.) and at least two days each month, I work with the local VFW. Often, on the week-ends, we have our grandchildren... and boy, are they energetic! (One of our great pleasures is to eat lunch with them at school.)

If I have a "free" day, I usually work on my quilts and other sewing projects. I'm teaching my grand-daughter how to sew on the sewing machine, and she has started her first quilt. Secretly, I'm writing children's books.... and I've completed the first chapter in an adult mystery.

Future projects include: getting Smith Bears up and running; getting orders to make Christmas stockings; substitute teaching in the local elementary school.

Wow! You are one busy person. And I have taken note of the fact that you are writing a mystery! We shall be looking for it on DL now!

How do you like your new kitten?
Well, you just had to ask, didn't you?

When I was a little girl, my mother was allergic to animals, so I didn't have pets, except for one dog that lived in the backyard. His name was Lucky, and he kept knocking me down! I would feed the stray cats, who never stayed around very long. When my daughter was a child, she had two dogs: Crickett, a beagle-bassett, and Muffin, a dachshund. After our daughter left for college, I really never thought much about pets...until the day we went to the boat show in Abilene, Texas!

Knowing the Phantom of the Opera is my FAVORITE musical, my husband casually mentioned, "Did you see the cat with the opera mask... in the cage over there?" It seems that Rescue the Animals had a display of dogs and cats to adopt. The first time I saw Niko, literally it was "love at first sight"..... and the one-year-old white & gray tabby found a home. Of course, my husband kept insisting that he didn't really "like" cats.... but I would find him sitting in the recliner with the cat on his shoulders... on his head....beside him in the chair. My daughter's comment: "Well, I guess you're going to drag that cat all over the state of Texas!"..... and we did!

I learned quickly that Niko would let you kiss her head.... but not touch her tummy. My husband still laughs at the time he heard me yelling, "Hey, hey, hey! I touched your tummy only one time!"

As Niko aged, we decided that she needed a companion. With full intentions of getting a kitten, we visited our favorite Abilene vet again... and I saw Smokey, a five-year-old Russian Blue, a beautiful cat. The vet aides kept saying, "Oh, you don't want that cat." Her elderly owner died and left her to the daughter, who promptly had the cat declawed, then put outside. Smokey was traumatized!

We took Smokey out of the cage, put her on the floor, and she was intimidated by a half-ounce scrap of hissing fur. Smokey promptly slinked over to the corner, huddled against the wall, and started purring. Well, that settled it! Smokey was coming home with me!

You can imagine the look of surprise on my husband's face when he came into the room, expecting a tiny kitten, and found me holding a 300-pound, five-year old adult cat, and whimpering, "I just can't leave her!" Of course, I explained that we were simply getting "the economical size".... more cat for the money.

I'm not sure that I would advise anyone to drive 200 miles (from Abilene to Austin, Texas) with a terrified cat, who quickly scooted underneath the driver's seat as soon as we turned off the car engine. I thought we'd never get that cat out! But with a little tuna (which I hope is good for the hair since I ended up with most of it smeared all over my head) and a great deal of patience, we managed to convince Smokey that we had her best interests at heart. Getting her into the house, we realized that she did, indeed, look just like a bear cub, so we gave her the name Smokey Bear. It was three days before we saw her again.

Okay, so Niko is five; Smokey Bear is six... and we're a happy, complete family. Right? Right!.... Right until we visit the local grocery store, and I spy a lady holding a laundry basket with a sign, "Free kitten!"... and then I see a furry, black face peering out at me. Jack grabs my arm and attempts to navigate me into the store, but I'm too quick for him! Later, when we check out, he says nothing as the cashier rings up the cost of Purina kitten food. My daughter's response: "Dad, you're just going to have to learn to say 'No!'" Of course, he says he was never asked.

What was the question? Oh.... How do you like your new kitten? Fine, just fine!

That's terrific! Did the new kitten get a Russian name?

Her name is Koshka Pillywiggin. Koshka is the Russian word for "cat." Pillywiggin is a Welsh word describing a "cute" pixie.

Mystery lovers and cat lovers are so often one and the same! Will your grandchildren be mystery readers, do you think?
Recently I bought three Nancy Drew books for my grand-daughter, so I guess she is, indeed, a "mystery reader." My grand-son reads anything, including cereal boxes and little tags on pillows. But right now, they're "into" telling scary stories. I think I may have "hit the jackpot" with my "killer with the bloody knife" story. Let's just say that no one slept much on our last trailer camp-out!

Well, I'm at the end of my question-and-answer session. But I would like to add one thing... On my tombstone, I shall have inscribed: "Here lies Mary Jane in the Hill Country. She never spent money on anything except books, cats, quilts, and grandchildren."

A wonderful epitaph. Thanks, Mary Jane.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Wow - again, another fantastic interview Julia!

And I want one of those bears! In fact, I want to put one of those bears in my protagonist's house! I collect bears - fantastic! Mary Jane, you have talent that makes me envious. And a sharp wit! Thanks for posting on DL!

Julia Buckley said...

Yeah, I think the bears are neat, too. I'm going to pass that on to some friends. Mary Jane might get more business than she bargained for!

Anonymous said...

I love the bears! And I'm going on my first book tour starting Friday. If I clean your house will you come to Michigan to see me?

Anonymous said...

Loved the interview, in fact ALL of your interviews are great! Mary Jane is a woman after my own heart, I love teddy bears.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Lonnie. Mary Jane, I'll let you answer these!

Unknown said...

A great interview! I wonder if Mary Jane likes cats.

Julia Buckley said...

That is a safe bet, Bill. :)

Smith Bears said...

Sandra, there are always bears waiting "to be birthed." And I think one would love to visit your protagonist's house... as long as you allow him/her to scratch elbows and rub foreheads.

Mary Jane in the Hill Country

Smith Bears said...

Hey, Bill. I can get you a good deal on a kitten if you're interested. Or even if you're not interested!

Mary Jane in the Hill Country

Smith Bears said...

Deb, maybe you should drop by and take a look at my house before you agree to clean it. Three cats (times) three shedding furry bodies (times) scads of dust kittens (times)... Well, it's just too much to contemplate.

Good luck on your signing. Any chance that you'll visit Austin Texas?

Mary Jane in the Hill Country

Smith Bears said...

Hi, Lonnie. I'm sure you've "heard" the saying, "Those who can't.... teach." Maybe I should add, "Those who can't write (books), interview well."

I enjoy your posts on DorothyL.

Mary Jane in the Hill Country

Smith Bears said...

Julia, Thanks for giving me this opportunity to interview on your blog. Cats and teddy bears thank you, too.

I'm just sorry that no one "took me up" on that "fecal testing" for pets. Sheesh! Some folks have no sense of adventure! But oh well.

Mary Jane in the Hill Country

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