Book Review, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a beautifully-written, detail-rich, atmospheric historical novel. Though the story’s setting in 1617 Finnmark couldn’t be more different than that of the 21st century, grief, worry, family, religion, curiosity, power, accusations, betrayal, and love are timeless. I wanted to delve deeper into characters’ motivations and personalities as well as find out the thing that makes us turn the pages–what happens next? I only have one critique. The portion of the book which describes historical events might have been placed before the first chapter. Knowing the research done ahead of time would give this novel even more gravitas.

Hon, have you read this book? What did you think of it?

The Mercies Book Review

After a storm has killed off all the island’s men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves. 

Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil. 

As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence. 

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1620 witch trials, The Mercies is a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

Goodreads

Quotes from The Mercies

“I remember once when runes gave you comfort, when sailors came to my father to cast bones and tell them of their time to come. They are a language, Maren. Just because you do not speak it doesn’t make it devilry.”

“But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgement with a human tongue.” 

“This story is about people, and how they lived; before why and how they died became what defined them.” 

Goodreads
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Kids Kindness Project + Picture Book

I had the opportunity to meet art director and author/illustrator Ann Koffsky when I attended Highlights Foundation “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives” in October. She wrote the adorable picture book What’s In Tuli’s Box? When I read it, I knew just how I wanted to tie it in with a preschool class project.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our theme was Kindness. Our project? Tzedakah boxes! Prevalent in Jewish homes, Tzedakah boxes collect extra coins to be donated to those in need. What an important lesson, in addition to a hands-on, tactile activity, for preschoolers.

The children painted glue on containers, chose colors of tissue paper, and stuck the tissue paper to the gluey containers. They practiced dropping coins in the coin slots, listened it jingle, and discussed the kind acts that they–even as young as they are–can do.

Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for philanthropy and charity. It is a form of social justice in which donors benefit from giving as much or more than the recipients. So much more than a financial transaction, tzedakah builds trusting relationships and includes contributions of time, effort, and insight.

Learning to Give

Review of What’s In Tuli’s Box

In this charm­ing pic­ture book for young chil­dren, Ann D. Koff­sky presents the con­cept of tzedakah through the char­ac­ters of a kit­ten and her moth­er. With kinet­ic images and bright col­ors, chil­dren learn that a sim­ple box pro­vides not only an oppor­tu­ni­ty to climb and play, but is also a means to con­tribute to char­i­ty. The book’s sim­ple text mim­ics the way a child learns from her par­ents about an impor­tant mitzvah.

For par­ents and care­givers con­sid­er­ing the most effec­tive way to intro­duce the con­cept, Tuli the kit­ten pro­vides one answer: con­crete expe­ri­ences and few abstrac­tions. Tuli is as active as a tod­dler, and just as focused on explor­ing her world. Koff­sky begins with Tuli becom­ing inter­est­ed in a box labeled tzedakah. Nei­ther this nor its slit for deposit­ing a coin means any­thing to her. Through touch­ing, push­ing, and lis­ten­ing, she dis­cov­ers the box’s phys­i­cal qual­i­ties, while her moth­er offers more infor­ma­tion. The box is not a toy, she comes to find, although the clink­ing sound of a coin drop­ping would seem to sug­gest that it is.

Koff­sky com­bines feline and human char­ac­ter­is­tics with sub­tle humor. While the char­ac­ters look like real cats, their facial expres­sions of curios­i­ty and affec­tion, cou­pled with the mother’s pur­ple pock­et­book, add a dif­fer­ent visu­al ele­ment to the sto­ry. Gen­tle expla­na­tions from Tuli’s moth­er con­firm what the kit­ten has learned, but also extend the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Tuli is final­ly ready to hear that the coins are meant to help those in need. As moth­er and child rest their heads against one anoth­er, young read­ers fin­ish the book with a sense of sat­is­fac­tion. Tuli’s ener­getic activ­i­ty has become a path to empa­thy, and to the reward of her mother’s pride and love.

Emily Schneider for The Jewish Book Council

Easy DIY Kids Activity in Honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Image source: thespruce.com

Last year, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my preschool class created Cheerios Birdfeeders. The kids enjoyed stringing Cheerios on pipe cleaners, hanging them up outside of our classroom, and watching for birds, but guess what? The birds didn’t eat them! (Maybe we should have used Honeynut Cheerios?–lol)

Instead, this week with Kindness as our theme, we’re going to create a different DIY Kids Activity–Pine Cone Birdfeeders.

Texture, scent, math, and fine motor skills were explored with the pinecones I collected in the Fall. You know what’s fun? Making pinecone prints by covering them in paint and then rolling them on paper. You never know what patterns will emerge.

Steps to Make Pinecone Birdfeeders:

1) Tie yarn or twine around pinecones.

2) Spread Sunbutter over pinecones (no peanut butter allowed in school, although pb, almond butter, or similar will do).

3) Roll sticky pinecones in pumpkin seeds (birdseed, sunflower seeds, etc. can be used).

4) Hang in bushes and trees.

5) Wash hands!

Tips on creating Pinecone Birdfeeders from The Spruce:

  • Work seeds in between the rows of scales.
  • Hang in cool, shaded area so peanut butter (or whichever butter is used–sun, almond, etc) doesn’t melt.
  • “If you want to make multiple pine cone bird feeders at once but don’t want to hang them out simultaneously, they can easily be frozen for several weeks. The feeders do not need to be thawed before hanging, and freezing them first can help them stay firm in warmer temperatures.”

I’ll let you know what the birds think of them!

Pinecone birdfeeder made by a preschooler.
Image source, BBSMI

This poem by Edgar Albert Guest is thought-provoking and meaningful.

Craft Cocktails & Mocktails, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, December 2022

Craft Cocktails & Mocktails

For my second article in Elegant Lifestyle Magazine’s Winter 2022 issue, I was tasked with finding fun drinks for a variety of holidays. I admit it, hon, I didn’t know what making a craft cocktail entailed, and researched ingredients and instructions on how to create simple syrups before deciding which drinks to include. Craft Cocktails & Mocktails features recipes for: Cranberry Old Fashioned, Apple Cider Fake-Tini, The First Fruits Cocktail, Bread & Oil, and Cotton Candy Mocktails. Guess which drink sounds the best to me? Hands down…Bread & Oil. Why? It includes jelly doughnut holes!

Good things definitely come in small packages when the “gift” is made with fresh ingredients, tailored to the holiday, and presented in a unique and imaginative way. Craft cocktails, poured one glass at a time, usually include four or five ingredients, homemade syrups, freshly squeezed juices, and niche liqueurs. In a hectic season, creating and serving flavorful upscale drinks is a way to slow down and drink in the moment.

Naomi Gruer

Pretty Party Pieces: Your Guide to Fashion for Festive Occasions, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, December 2022

Pretty Party Pieces: Your Guide to Fashion for Festive Occasions is the first of two articles I wrote for the December issue of Elegant Lifestyles Magazine. Writing this fashion article put me in the mood for holiday get-togethers and, now that’s it the end of December, I’m happy to say I went to a bunch! The directors of the pre-school hosted a Chanukah dinner, my niece and her husband hosted a family Chanukah brunch, we’ve been out to dinner, the owner of The Red Balloon treated us to a holiday dinner, and we’ve had company here. The best? Visiting our dear friends, their children and extended family on Christmas Eve–think trivia games, Left-Right-Center, and tracking Santa on an app–lol!

Usually, New Year’s Eve is mellow as Hubby and I act as chaperones for our youngest daughter’s annual NYE party. She’s having a party, but this year we’re changing it up. Hubby has planned a “night on the town,” and we’ll be dining and dancing at a restaurant overlooking Times Square! We’re staying in Manhattan overnight, so no need to worry about driving back.

Hon, what should I wear? I better check my article!

Highlights Foundation Word Garden

Highlights Foundation Kidlit writer retreats in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains are said to be magical. I’d head the campus is a place where editors and agents take the time to read and discuss the writers’ work, publishers and writers support each other in their joined goal of creating quality stories for children, there’s space and time to write, imagination is nurtured, and the food is excellent. One writer-friend told me a retreat changed the course of her career.

I’d also been told poems were “written” in the Word Garden, but had no idea what that was. In October, when I attended the “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives,” I found the place where words are engraved into hundreds, if not thousands, of smooth, round stones. There, amongst the nouns, adjectives, prepositions, and verbs, sit “tables” made of flat-topped boulders—surfaces on which to create and communicate associations, poems, stories, wishes, and dreams.

Truthfully, hon, the Word Garden made me emotional. It felt like the words were pleading with me. They wanted to be lifted from the piles, combined with other words, and formed into something funny, catchy, quirky, or meaningful. Something all their own.

It felt like the smooth stones with grey and black engraving wanted what my own words want–to be known as stories that are lyrical, honest, beautiful, and wonderful. Stories which can be read over and over, and each time reveal a little more magic.


When I was ten years-old, I started attending a Girl Scouts sleep-away camp in Shadowbrook, MD. Upon arrival, we were told we could be called whatever name we wanted. My counselors were Clover and Honey, and I asked to be called “Flower.” Thereafter, in the summers I spent at Shadowbrook, I was known as “Flower.” No one knew my other name and I preferred it that way.

As “Flower,” I was free and happy and curious and independent and adventurous. I made friends with the other girls, and also the raccoon who woke me up in the middle of the night when it stood on my chest and spoke to me with its shiny, black eyes. I said hi to the daddy long legs who climbed over my sleeping bag as I slept under the stars. I practically touched the constellations which lit up a dark, wild grasses-filled meadow. I swam every morning at dawn with the Polar Bear Club, tracked animal footprints while hiking in the woods, cooked over an open fire, learned how to use my Swiss Army Knife, and helped out in the mess hall and wherever else I was needed. I wasn’t afraid of the dark or the cemetery adjacent to the camp. I belted out the words to the “The Littlest Worm” and other songs. No one told me to shut up. Or worse. At Shadowbrook, I didn’t have to pretend to be a mouse. I was a lion.

As sweet as a flower, but as strong and brave as a lion. I was who I was meant to be.

When I started writing and illustrating my own picture books, also as a ten year-old, my pen name was “Flower Milsten.” Flower was with me in the Word Garden.

Here and now,

Flower

must make it through

the thicket of bramble

in order to 

succeed in finding

light and water and wind.


			
					

Highlights Foundation Writers Retreat

Lucky me! I recently attended a Highlights Foundation writers retreat in the northeastern Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. The campus consists of a “5,200-square-foot Retreat Center known as the Barn, 21 cabins, a lodge, and the Founders’ farmhouse, located in Boyds Mills–10 miles from Honesdale, Pennsylvania.”

I’ve known about the Highlights Foundation since I started on the path to publishing Kidlit and, thanks to a generous scholarship from PJ Library, I was able to attend the “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives.” PJ Library, an organization that “sends free Jewish children’s booky to families across the world every month,” is also well-represented in the synagogue preschool where I teach. Everywhere I look…beautiful children’s books!

Hon, I was so nervous when I drove up. Nervous as in major imposter syndrome! What business did I have being there, surrounded by award-winning Kidlit authors, talented illustrators, well-known Jewish educators, and successful literary agents?

The main reason I signed up was because my literary agent Rena Rossner was going to be there. She was wonderful as were the other professionals, writers, illustrators, and educators. My nerves didn’t go away completely, but though it was my first, hopefully it will not my last writers retreat.

The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.

We do not take lightly what it means to create engaging, authentic stories for children and youth. We believe that you, as storytellers, have profound impacts on the lives of children. This matters a great deal to us as an organization, and most importantly to our world.

Highlights Foundation






			
					

Sorbet for the Soul, Energy

Energy is my buzz-word.

It’s the word people say to me (“You must have a lot of energy” referring to my four children) (“Where do you get all of that energy?” referring to my passions and interests) (“You’re high-energy, aren’t you?” referring to my aura, but not meant in a nice way).

It’s the word I use to describe how I raised those four children along with many other children–on snow days, half-days, and random days off. I filled my car and we drove to the beach, headed to a mountain to ski, rode the train to the city, invited kids to spend a vacation with us, and was “the house.”

And all along the way, I put my mental and physical energy towards writing Kidlit.

Over the last year, I’ve given a lot of thought to the word, concept and reality–where do we put it, how are we using it, is it going to our pursuits and passions, or are we squandering it on unimportant things? We must focus on health, family, and work, but where do we fit in, carve out time, and make a priority our pursuits and passions? Until they become a reality?

Hon, I’m working on it.

Sorbet for the Soul, Resilience

She was right.

A group of moms was catching up, and I said how proud I am of my children. One of my daughters recently moved into her own pre-war, one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan and I am so impressed by her ambition, hard work and determination.

Me: “She’s a rock star!”

Other Mom: “We should not be telling our kids that they’re rock stars!”

Me: speechless

Other Mom: “We have to teach our kids how to be resilient! Things will not always work out for them. There will be times they didn’t get that job or were passed up for a promotion because it went to the boss’s relative! Or they’ll have to live at home while they’re saving money! Or they’ll have health issues. Lots of things in life won’t go their way! We have to teach them how to deal with them!”

Me: thinkingThis mom has gone through a horrible tragedy in her immediate family so, although I was taken aback, I listened and said only

Me: “You’re right.”

After the gathering, I felt angry and indignant about Other Mom’s words. But they stuck with me.

The more I think about Other Mom, the more I realize she was right.

I know many things won’t go the way my kids had hoped for. As in the times they already haven’t, when they’re faced with disappointments, hard situations, heartbreak, health issues, and death, we’ll discuss how to deal with them, how to process feelings, where to get help, and the ways in which we can support each other emotionally and practically.

But, hon, I want to tell Other Mom that when things do go they way we hoped, dreamed, wished for and worked hard for, in that moment, it is okay to feel like a rock star!

Book Review, Little Weirds by Jenny Slate

I recently finished reading a strange, delightful, searching and insightful book by American actress and stand-up comedian, Jenny Slate. Slate is the brain-child behind Marcel the Shell, which is just about the most endearing anthropomorphized character I’ve ever seen. Her book was like Marcel–a tiny shell with a large voice; an odd outlook with mainstream problems; interruptions in thought with concentrated musings; a lost soul who finds a home inside herself.

I kept reading Little Weirds to find out which bizarre thoughts would come out of Slate’s mind and to hear the unique way in which she expresses those thoughts. Slate uses words to create her own language and to illustrate how she views the world.

Hon, have you read Little Weirds? What did you think?

You may “know” Jenny Slate from her Netflix special, Stage Fright, as the creator of Marcel the Shell, or as the star of “Obvious Child.” But you don’t really know Jenny Slate until you get bonked on the head by her absolutely singular writing style. To see the world through Jenny’s eyes is to see it as though for the first time, shimmering with strangeness and possibility.

As she will remind you, we live on an ancient ball that rotates around a bigger ball made up of lights and gasses that are science gasses, not farts (don’t be immature). Heartbreak, confusion, and misogyny stalk this blue-green sphere, yes, but it is also a place of wild delight and unconstrained vitality, a place where we can start living as soon as we are born, and we can be born at any time. In her dazzling, impossible-to-categorize debut, Jenny channels the pain and beauty of life in writing so fresh, so new, and so burstingly alive, we catch her vision like a fever and bring it back out into the bright day with us, where everything has changed.

Amazon