Space Invaders (Part 1)

A discovery was made yesterday. I went to my garage searching for a flower pot and heard someone walking and bumping around in my garage attic. I froze.  Seconds later, I heard familiar squeaks, chirps, and growls. Though I hadn’t listened to these sounds for a very long time, I immediately recognized I was listening to baby raccoons.  I walked around trying to figure out how their mother had gotten into the garage. The only thing I could determine was that she had entered through the chimney. It’s unusual for a garage to have a chimney.  Still, at some point in history, the people who owned our house operated a baking business from the garage. The stove has been long gone. But the chimney remains and opens into the attic where a stovepipe hole was connected. 

I really love animals, and of course, baby animals are so much fun to observe. But this was going to be a tricky business. In the past, I lived on a farm where a family of raccoons took up residence in our chimney. It took several nights of trapping and climbing up on the roof with flashlights to capture surprisingly fierce little balls of fluff who wandered the rooftop while their mother was off hunting. I was not anxious to experience this again –especially now that I’m in my 60s and less sure-footed.  Tom and I have agreed that our local animal control expert will have to be involved. Also, a chimney topper will be installed to prevent the invaders from returning to their hidey-hole.

It’s important to relocate the raccoons, so they don’t damage things in the garage or leave feces all over the place.   But I will miss the excitement of being near to such entertaining wild creatures.  I also realize that they won’t understand why we will interfere with their comfort. After all, they’re just minding their own business. Why can’t we? It’s such an arbitrary and complicated dance, deciding where each of us belongs, negotiating boundaries, and learning with which animals we can live side by side.

Over the years, I have met many folks who have had pet skunks, raccoons, and even one who had a pet wolf. I enjoy hearing the stories of people’s insights and relationships with these animals. However, at the end of the day, I feel we should probably let wild things be wild and not encourage wild creatures to live too close to us.

Several years ago, I watched a program about the problem raccoons have become in Japan. When I was a child, in the 1960s author, Sterling North wrote a book called Rascal about having a pet raccoon when he was a child. The Walt Disney company eventually made a film about it, which I recall enjoying. The story grew popular with children across the world. In Japan, an animated series based on the book became a beloved program among children who desired to have their own pet raccoons.  Before long, North American raccoons were imported to Japan to satisfy peoples’ desires to own them as pets. But in short order, they learned that having raccoons as pets can get complicated. 

Soon raccoons were everywhere, either turned loose into the wild or escaping their captivity.  They became invasive species, leaving unhealthy messes and damage to the point that the Japanese government issued bans on importing them and keeping them as pets.  North American raccoons were not only a problem for Japan. In only 2 or 3 decades, raccoons made their way into parts of Europe and the Caucasus. As recently as 2012, Spain had a problem with raccoons carrying rabies. And in that same year, one German city reported having 100 (yes, 100) raccoons per square kilometer!

Other stories from the past teach us that keeping wild animals is not such a great idea. Marjorie Rawlings’ heartbreaking, coming-of-age classic, The Yearling, comes to mind. Joy Adamson’s Born Free, about a couple that raised a lion cub named Elsa, is another excellent story made into a film with the same message.  I know those who have kept wild animals as pets and loved them will take issue with me. But I would argue that it takes a special kind of person and environment to handle wild animals, and not everyone is cut out for it.  We have to ask ourselves what is best for the animal.

So, will I feel bad when animal control hauls away our little raccoon family? No. I know that they will be relocated to a more suitable habitat, away from human activity. Their habituation to humans can only lead to heartbreak or their early demise.

Stay tuned for Part II on this topic. I have more to share.


The Children’s Book That Caused Japan’s Raccoon Problem

By Laura Clark

March 16, 2015

Smithsonian Magazine


Embracing Rain

It has been a rainy week here in Illinois. My knee-jerk reaction to such days is to stay indoors and put off errands until the sun reappears. But when I do this, I am restless, forcing myself to stay inside when I really want to be outside. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling because the minute the weather clears, people come out of hiding like ants out of the ground, and suddenly the streets are bustling with activity again.

Once, on a trip to Ireland, my husband and I learned you can pretty much expect to experience three seasons of weather every day. Each day began cold and windy, which was followed by rain. Then the sun would come out, and things would dry up and warm up. We learned to wear clothing in layers and to face each day prepared for everything.  If we waited in our motel rooms for the weather to clear, we would have missed half our days.  As we looked out our windows, we saw the locals just walked about in mist and rain as if it weren’t there and were not inconvenienced in any way. No one seemed to worry about rain giving them a bad hair day or making their shoes soggy. People just rolled with it.  After a while, we did so too, and I have to say, being outdoors, exploring the world in all kinds of weather made things a bit more exciting and memorable. We visited an ancient fort in the Burren, in the rain, then headed inside to a museum where we were the only visitors. In the snack bar, we watched the rain while enjoying tea and a tray with samples of Irish cheeses and assorted fruit. A museum volunteer talked with us about our Irish family surname, and the day could not have been more perfect. On another day, we stood in the fog and mist, at the Cliffs of Moher, staring out at sea, imagining approaching ships of long ago, bringing friends and foes to Ireland’s shores.  The weather added richness to the moment, and we wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world.

I am also reminded of an even longer time ago when my family took a Florida vacation in April. It was not during spring break, so we had to have permission to take my daughter out of school.  She was about 10 years old. Her teacher required that she keep up with her studies on the trip and write about her Florida discoveries.  Nearly every day of that trip, heavy rains impacted our plans to spend time on sunny beaches collecting shells and working on our suntans. Instead, we found other opportunities, like a marine biology lab with a visitor’s center where my daughter got to pet a sea slug. Another day we happened upon what seemed like the world’s tiniest museum, where we learned about the man who invented air conditioning. I also met a wonderful woman in an antique shop who told me how to collect periwinkles (tiny edible sea snails) from the beaches and make them into soup.

Yet another happy rainy day memory of mine was from my own childhood.  My brothers and I stayed with my grandparents in Iowa for a week during the summer.  We were rambunctious kids, likely driving my grandparents crazy trying to find things for us to do.  I remember it began to rain one afternoon, and grandma said if we wanted to play outdoors, it was fine. We were in shock. We’d never played in the rain before, but we took her up on her suggestion. Barefoot, we stepped out into the shower shivering, and squealing as the drops trickled down our backs. We delighted in feeling the sloshy grass and mud oozing between our bare toes and splashing in puddles.  All told, we may have only played outside for 15 minutes. Still, I will never forget the smell of the rain, the little earthworms that wriggled across the sidewalk, or the feel of a nice dry towel wrapped around me when we came back into the house.  I don’t remember much else from that visit, just the rain and the magical time it had offered.

Today more rain is forecast.  I had intended to garden and think I will proceed with that plan. There surely will be a slight lull between showers in which I can sneak outside to stick some pansies and chives in pots. They will definitely benefit from the rain. Maybe I’ll even go out barefoot and walk through a puddle for old time’s sake.

(Note: In keeping with a rainy day theme, my latest book review is about Beatrice Alemagna’s, On A Magical Do-Nothing Day.  Also, check-out How to Make a Pine Cone Weather Station under the Activities section.)

My granddaughter Jaycie (at right) and her cousin jumping in mud puddles after a rain. Photo by Katie Houser.

Growing Season

Yesterday was gorgeous. As I glanced out the window to see rabbits nibbling in the grass, birds seemed to be singing extra enthusiastically. By afternoon, temperatures reached the mid-70s, and most of my neighbors were outdoors raking, planting, or putting out lawn furniture. It’s official; spring is here to stay.

If my father were still alive, he would be asking if I’d gotten my potatoes “in.” For as long as I can remember, the rule was to plant your potatoes and onions by Easter.  Dad loved gardening and did so until his hands, legs, and hips no longer cooperated.  Dad’s family took gardening seriously and used their entire one-and-a-half acre property to grow food. The whole family worked at it, and Grandma canned hundreds of jars of vegetables for them to eat each year. I used to marvel at one room in my grandparent’s basement, lined with shelves filled with canning jars. Such work in a day and age when canned goods from the grocery store were so cheap and available! But that had not always been the case. My grandparents were from another era when resources weren’t always at hand and families were ever-conscious about how they’d feed their children over the year. Gardening to them was about survival.

When I was 10, I wanted a garden of my own, with no vegetables, only flowers. I told Dad, and he seemed pleased. He offered me a small patch of earth next to the back porch.  I was thrilled. Of course, I had no money and no ideas on what to plant, but this would be mine to tend.  Dad also happened to be a seed-saver and presented me with some old butter tubs filled with seeds he’d collected in the fall. There were zinnias, marigolds, and morning glories. It was a start. He taught me about preparing the soil, scattering the seeds, and gently covering them with a shallow layer of dirt. Every day I gently watered the plot and waited hopefully. In a short time, my seeds sprouted. I monitored how the different flowers developed and how much space they took up, which grew fast, which grew slowly, shrub-like, or required a trellis. I also noticed other plants sprout that shouldn’t be in my garden– weeds.  And I learned to pluck them the minute they appeared. That small plot taught me a lot.

When I grew up and moved away to college, spring called to me again. While other kids geared up for finals, looked for summer jobs or played Frisbee on the quad, I tended small pots of cherry tomatoes and green peppers in my dorm room window. I missed home, and knew that my Dad would be working in his garden a hundred miles away from me. Once I was in my twenties, married, and had a home of my own, a garden was part of the plan. Over the years, I’ve lived in many places, and my gardens grew and grew in each location until I began to long for a country life where I could have a large garden and live close to the earth. 

After several decades, the big garden became difficult for me to maintain and produced more food than my husband and I needed. In deciding to scale back on projects and maintenance in our lives, we opted for a house with a tiny yard. It’s easier to care for, and now I find new ways to satisfy my urge to grow things. I plant more perennial flowers to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  I have a small raised bed where I will grow just a handful of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and eggplants.  I’ll grow herbs in small pots scattered here and there, and we’ll raise things indoors as well. My husband grows bean sprouts in a jar. In just a few days we can harvest them to enjoy in salads and on sandwiches.  This year we also are growing oyster mushrooms from a kit we found at Walmart.  It’s not the type of gardening I’m used to, but I still love learning how things grow and finding that you don’t always have to have more and more land to enjoy gardening. Sun, water, seeds, and a few pots of soil are all you need to experience the magic of growing great things.

The Secret Visitor

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just published my first E-book, “Cleverly… The Fox,” which is available for purchase through Amazon. To learn more about it, just click on “E-books” in the menu above. This story was inspired by my love for foxes, even though I rarely get to see one. I’ve also developed a fox-related activity for children, provided under the “Activities” menu option.

For many years my husband and I lived in the country and only recently traded our bucolic lifestyle for one in a city. Alas, we are older and keeping up our rural property seemed to consume too much of our time and, energies. We have lived in our new home one year now, and while we love our house and community, there are some things from our past life that we still ache for, namely wildlife.

Over the years, encountering wildlife was a daily thrill. We lived on the margins of agricultural land, and our property was surrounded by woods and prairie. It was Eden to us. During our time there, our endless nature encounters gave me the idea to begin writing children’s stories. There were visits by coyotes, Cooper’s hawks, turkeys, skunks, raccoons, opossum, and deer. But of all the animals we frequently watched, one was conspicuously absent — the red fox. We had hoped to see one, and we did, but it was about a mile from our home. A family, in fact, that took up residence near the home of a friend. One year we spotted kits, and I thought surely they would grow and disperse, and possibly one of them could wind up living close to us. But it was not to be. For fifteen years, we watched, listened, and waited. If a fox ever came, we saw no evidence.

Then the last winter we lived there, I was worried about my chickens trying to keep warm in their unheated coop. I got the idea to build a temporary “winter coop” in the garage, where there was access to electricity for heat lamps. This turned out to be a cozy arrangement, and I liked taking only two steps outside the kitchen door to gather fresh eggs for our breakfast. But one morning, after an evening snowfall, I stepped outside to discover tracks coming from our prairie and walking right up to the garage door. Small dog tracks — one foot in front of the other — a fox! It appeared the fox had paused at the door, considering ways to get into the garage. Then the tracks continued past the garage and hugged our house’s foundation, eventually passing on through the yard.

For the next few weeks, the fox was a regular secret visitor. I never saw him or her. I suspect the visits were at night while I slept. Just two months later, we were preparing to move. I was in the living room packing a box when Tom, in a strained whisper said, “Julie, fox!” I ran to the kitchen, and there he was, all beautiful and orange, crouched warily on our patio, checking the birds at the feeder but nervously looking here and there. Then quickly, he darted into a bush and made his way out of the yard. Perhaps he sensed he was being watched. Needless to say, we were overjoyed. It had taken fifteen years, but we finally got to see our fox.

A year later, settled into our new home; Tom and I had just said good night when suddenly we were jolted by the strange sound of an animal. If you can imagine a distressed cat attempting to bark, that would be the sound. I’d heard the sound before in a recording — a fox. Tom agreed with my assessment, and it made sense. We lived near a park with a creek and woods, and it happened to be fox mating season. The following day we explored the back yard, and sure enough, following along some rabbit tracks that zigged and zagged across the yard, we found the tracks of a fox. It was a happy discovery and it’s good to know that we can look forward to more secret visitors.

Fox tracks adjacent to rabbit tracks.

Again, again, again!

I never seem to run out of ideas for stories. But what I do struggle with, and I think most writers do, is developing the “It” factor that will hook a reader and make them want to read your book. So many things are at play in writing children’s books, such as the subject matter, story arc, problem resolution, word choices, cadence, repetition, illustrations, and on and on. And we must not forget that children’s books must also be child-centric. In short, there simply is nothing simple about writing a children’s story.

Every time I study a children’s book, I ask myself, is this a story they will want to read again. I ask myself this same thing about my own writing. It’s hard to tell. Every reader’s needs are different, and those needs change constantly. What becomes important or enjoyable to one child may have no special power over another — for instance, the classic Itsy Bitsy Spider. I remember reading the story as a child and, of course, singing the song with accompanying hand motions. For me, it was mildly amusing but not something I needed or wanted to do over and over. But I looked at this story a little differently after an interaction I had with a child several years ago.

I used to work in my church’s “nursery” on Sundays. For those of you who aren’t familiar with a church nursery, it’s where families can drop off tiny kids (from infants to kindergarten age) to be babysat during worship services. This service helps to cut down on distractions or disturbances during a sermon. Each week, I worked with two or three other ladies to rock babies, change diapers, read stories and play on the floor with toys. The other ladies I worked with were probably 20 to 30 years older than me and preferred to devote their attention to infants and let the others just play. I spent most of my time with toddlers. One week a young mother brought her three-year-old daughter, who had severe separation anxiety, and commenced screaming and crying for the duration of the church service. When her mother returned and learned her child had been a wreck and we were unable to calm her, we all felt horrible. I was sure we’d never see her again. But I was wrong.

The following week Mom brought her daughter back, and again, she reacted to her mother’s departure most extremely. I was on it. I walked to the door with a stuffed animal and a book and said, “I have something special for you!” She was not convinced, but her mother handed her off to me and quickly scurried down the hall. I carried the sobbing child to a rocking chair and said, “Let’s find out about this crazy little spider.” She squirmed and pushed and didn’t want to calm down, but I ignored this and began to read in a calm, quiet voice and tried to look totally enthralled with the images in the book. She quieted down to listen, looking at me as if I was nuts. I read the pages slowly, holding the book with one hand, and with the other hand I made my fingers crawl across the top of the book, over to her arm. I touched her arm lightly, then ran my fingers back over to my side as if I was afraid to touch her. I acted out the spider’s climb up the water spout, the spider being washed back down by rain, and the sun coming out to dry up all the rain. Her eyes revealed there was some interest. When I finished the book, I closed it and said, “He made it!” And she said, “Again!” Ahh. She was going to be alright, I thought.

So, I obliged her and read the story again, with my fingers acting out the story, but the second time I made my fingers crawl across the top of the book and over to her arm. I touched her arm lightly, then ran my fingers back over to my side, as if I was afraid to touch her, and she laughed. When I finished the story, she said, “Again!” And again, I complied. This went on for quite a while, and each time I reread the story, my finger- spider crawled up her arm a bit farther until it was brave enough to tickle her under the chin, then scurry away. This brought much giggling, followed by “Again, again, again.” She didn’t seem to tire of the game or the story, and before we knew it, Mom had returned, pleased to see that her daughter was moving past her trauma.

For the next several Sundays, the little girl returned. Though there was some pouting upon arrival, she quickly settled in, walked to the bookshelf, and came to me with Itsy Bitsy Spider. Every week we settled in to read and giggle. Soon other little kids noticed and began to gather around to listen. Soon other children wanted to act out the spider and tickle someone on the arm. Soon my timid friend reached out to tickle me. And soon she allowed others to tickle her. The walls were down and we were all one big team of spider-loving ticklers.

It wasn’t long after that, that when my little friend arrived, she could confidently kiss her mother goodbye at the door and run to play with her newfound friends. Altogether we may have read Itsy Bitsy Spider twenty times. It was a hard-working little book, and I viewed the story differently after the experience. I had always missed its magic when I was a child, thinking it was just an observation of spider’s diligent behavior. But for this one child, it represented more. I think my friend identified with the little spider, perhaps feeling a little knocked down when mother left her each week and overwhelmed by the rain of strange people around her. In the story, she saw that Itsy Bitsy Spider bravely faced his trials, eventually succeeded, and the sun came out again. My accompanying finger-play was a gentle way to tease away her fears. For her, the sunshine was finding a place where people welcomed her, and made her feel safe and part of something fun. And that’s the power of an “It” factor. A simple connection and aha moment that we want to absorb again and again and again.

A Confession

I have always loved reading. My library visits as a child are among my favorite memories. I can still smell the books, feel the quiet atmosphere, and see the illustrations in my favorite stories. Those times were magical because I was entering secret worlds, where only I was invited. At one point, during a summer reading program, the Children’s librarian pulled me aside and said, I think you might be ready for other things. I guess I was getting too old to hang out in the children’s section of the library. She said, “Let me show you some things,” and walked me over to the adult section. It was overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start. For some reason, she pulled out a copy of David Copperfield and said, “What do you think?” I read the first page, and I was in.

That summer changed everything for me. I loved being in the adult section of the library. I couldn’t believe I was allowed to be there! But despite all the wonderful things I found there, I missed the brevity and illustrations of children’s books.

Flash forward. I became a mother, and before my daughter was even born, I was buying her books. She was my excuse for going into the children’s section of bookstores. It seemed that books had grown more beautiful and exciting since I was a child. Now there were texture books for infants and toddlers, pop-up books, and books with parts that moved. Even little poofy plastic books that could be chewed or taken into the bathtub. Naturally, I had to buy some of each for her. It was always a priority for me to make sure she had good books to read. When she was older and in school, I made sure she always had a Scholastic book order to turn in. I’m pleased to say she grew up loving reading and still does.

What’s more, she has made sure her daughter has wonderful books. I now have the joy of encouraging my granddaughter to read. We read together on her visits. I buy her books. And most recently, she has been telling me she intends to write books. In fact, she works at it now.

I am now 61, recently moved to a new town, and got my library card. And I’ve become a frequent patron of a local bookstore. But I have yet to buy an adult book. Each week I borrow numerous children’s books from the library, and I relish every one. I’m sure the librarians wonder why I only check out children’s books. They perhaps assume I teach or read to a grandchild. But they’re all for me. I use them as mentor texts to see how masters write, how illustrators illustrate. I’m always surprised, awed, and inspired by the endless creativity, storytelling approaches, and magnificent tales that are out there to be told.

So here’s my confession. I am a child at heart, and I still love children’s books best. I will always read adult books on wide-ranging topics. But I will also always read children’s books because they utterly delight me. I am a mature woman with a lifetime of experiences, but deep inside, I am still that little girl in the corner of the children’s library, lost in her magical worlds. And that’s okay.

My granddaughter reading in bed.