Guest Post: Terry Nichols on Real-life Setting in The Dreaded Cliff

From my friend of many years and one-time park ranger at Aztec Ruins National Monument, Terry Nichols, here’s a delightful middle grade that Kirkus called “linguistically rich and frequently humorous.”

From Kinkajou Press, The Dreaded Cliff. It’s the story of a packrat, Flora, and her journey through a magical landscape of prickly-pear and yuccas, junipers and towering sandstone cliffs.

The setting sings in this book, so I asked Terry if she’d write about how her real-life high mesa setting (she lives in an adobe house surrounde by this very vegetation, with those very cliffs looming beyond) plays into her story of Flora the packrat and her journey.

Here’s what she wrote:

At the story’s beginning, Flora’s experience of the Southwest landscape is similar to a human’s—though on a smaller scale. Her world centers around the jangly-crate, stashed with her packrat nest of treasures. Like a real packrat who stays within a 160-foot radius of its nest, Flora wanders as far as the prickly pear cactus, the munch mound, the yucca grove, the big juniper tree. Venturing to the other side of the bloated burrow is closer to the dreaded cliff, but there she finds sublime eggplants to nibble. And learns the truth about the ancestral packrat home, jammed in a dark crack in the cliff.

But for Flora, the packrat home’s history is a little too big for her to process. Packrats are like that.

Flora’s physical world needs to expand before she can confront and embrace the dreaded cliff. When the jangly-crate rumbles to unfamiliar territory, her universe stretches to slick rock, sudden thunderstorms, a deep canyon, puzzling creatures, pressing dangers. She’s catapulted into a fantasy world of sorts, where she must learn to interact with animals who behave oddly. Her predicament challenges her to think and feel and act in big ways, defying ordinary behavior of a high desert packrat.

Photo courtesy of Terry Nichols

Although Flora’s journey is deadly serious, this is a children’s story, after all. If I laughed when I wrote, I knew I was on to something. I didn’t deliberately plan Flora’s character. She poked her head into my life, and I found myself writing about this plump, cactus chomping, word-mangling rodent who tumbled into a canyon and discovered all these quirky friends. Ideas for the characters and plot grew not from my scheming mind, but from another place—maybe I’d call it my heart. Whatever the source, ideas popped, and I wrote. If I tried to plan or work at writing, it took forever, yielding a forced, flat result. Then I’d stop writing for months. Thankfully, Flora and I completed our journey in the remarkable Southwest landscape.

And then of course there’s the wordplay that the Kirkus reviewer mentions.


Flora wasted no time gorging on an eggplant-blob. She snipped purple blossoms for decorating her nest, stuffed them in her mouth, and hopped from the box. “Thank you for sharing. I feel sublimated. Bits of delicate petals flow from her mouth. The “sublimated” word didn’t sound right, but the packrat etiquette felt perfect. “I must be going now.”

It’s a lovely little book, full of heart, where even the villain turns out to play a part in the big picture of the unfathomable desert. Congratulations, Terry!

One Book, One Community: A Welcome Choice at a Critical Time

OneBook_March2018-683x1024.jpgI was more than pleased to see the 2018 selection of  March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell as the community’s One Book at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. It felt like a welcome choice for so many reasons.

It was a comic book that influenced the young John Lewis, at a time when comic books were largely viewed as evil influences upon the young. Aydin writes about this in his article on the historical context of March:

Congress, never one to miss a bandwagon, held its hearings on the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

Then, as now,  Congress seemed to have kind of missed the point of what will count as progress in the relentless sweep of history.

In our time, the unthinkable has happened. This from the New Yorker:

Literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses, once the most common mechanisms for disadvantaging minority voters, have been consigned to the history books, but one need look no further than the governor’s race in Georgia to see their modern equivalents in action.

Which is why I’m happy to see that in San Juan County, far from the halls of power, people will be reading Lewis’s powerful book. Everyone reading it should think about what it means now.

Katherine Hauth on Summer Reading Seeds


From Katherine Hauth, on summer reading, books, and life.

My children’s lit. teacher had required each student to read aloud to children at least once a week during our course. If it weren’t for that experience, I likely wouldn’t have realized the value of “just reading” to children and the summer reading group never would have happened.

That class always started with her asking each student to share a first or strongest memory of being read to. Some years after my class, one student cited a summer neighborhood reading group as her strongest memory. When the teacher asked where the student lived, she learned it was my group. That girl had been among the first five participants. A few years later her son joined the group when he visited his grandmother, my neighbor.

That young boy, now 6′ 3″, stopped by my house to visit this last vacation. I hadn’t seen him since they moved to California about eight years ago. Such visits, as well as invitations to graduations and weddings, suggest that something personal and valuable happens when people share stories and time.


Now that I’m officially a Canadian resident, I can claim the Greater Victoria Public Library as my own neighbo(u)rhood library. Here’s last year’s summer reading program logo–seems apt for what Katherine set out to do in Rio Rancho, NM

Reading group ended (or did it?) when there were no longer young children on my block. It was then that a former neighbor contacted me about starting a reading group. This was the mother of a girl who’d had problems reading, the catalyst for my reading to children. They’d recently moved to a new neighborhood with lots of children and the daughter mentioned how much she’d enjoyed our neighborhood reading group. The mother knew that a reading group could make a difference in a child’s life. Her own daughter was then working on her Master’s degree in a health science field.
We talked about many things, including making good friends with children’s librarians who are wonderful resources for the books children love and need. I emphasized reading each book aloud before reading to a child. Some good silent reads don’t translate well to read-alouds. It’s also good to know the story and where to place emphasis, slow down or speed up effectively the first time a child hears it.

What had started with a conversation between neighbors, plus a seed planted by a teacher, could continue growing, and planting new seeds.

Why Talk About Summer Reading Now?

Isn’t it passé, like Christmas in July? Not really. The waning of the year is a good time to reflect on years past, and to imagine summers that lie ahead. It’s the gift of seasonal change, that inevitable cycle of challenge and comfort in temperate regions of the world.

Katherinebooks1In her video interview with me, Katherine B. Hauth talked about how a group of neighborhood children came together to form a summer reading group.It ran for many years in her home in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. She Doc-12_01_15, 08:52 - 1collected books,  arranged them on the floor, and opened her doors to neighborhood children whose parents had agreed to the impromptu routine. She didn’t know all the families. She certainly didn’t know all the kids. I asked Katherine to tell me how the rules of the group were established.

Here is what she said:

My idea of reading to one child had spontaneously spread in the neighborhood. Now six children, boys and girls from five to ten–I didn’t know with what kind of parenting–would soon be inside. I didn’t have a childproof house so we needed some rules. No matter how much children dislike them, I’d observed that one of the first things they do when creating their own games was establish rules. I reasoned that the rules should be set primarily by the children. We stopped at my front door; everyone bunched together.

“Since we’ll be reading inside,” I said, “what should some of the rules be?” They could hardly wait to be the first to offer suggestions, and they figured things out just fine: no yelling, sit quietly, no talking during reading, and they could leave when they wanted. “But not until the story ends” I added. The rule that surprised me (the joy of letting rules come from the kids) was that they decided, “We need to take off our shoes.”

As they removed and lined up their shoes by the door, I gathered books from my office according the varied ages. Then I read to them as long as they were interested.

The children asked if we could “do reading” every week. I wrote their names, ages, and interests. I checked with the parents to learn that Wednesday at 1:00 was a good time.

Once familiar with our reading environment, the children wanted to examine things they hadn’t noticed at first. I added a rule: Before touching anything, ask permission. Questions about paintings on the walls and fossils on a shelf led to conversations about careful handling, different kinds of art, and how insects become encased in amber. Questions and conversations led us to new books.

We did not eat, drink, or go to the bathroom during reading. They were “responsible” for taking care of those things before they arrived. We were free to immerse ourselves, uninterrupted, in the new worlds that books took us to.

Our first reading session ended unexpectedly with each child hugging me. Hugs became a beginning and ending tradition for each reading day—that continued, even as the group changed, for about seventeen summers.

Seventeen years! Those kids grew up and went on to the rest of their lives. Katherine continues to write and read in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. But those seventeen summers left their mark on a lot of children and perhaps their families as well.

Katherine Hauth on Children, Summer Reading, and the Passage of Time

Delectable poetic lessons on the food chain designed to help young readers rather literally digest the natural world.

That starred review quote from Kirkus Reviews is a punny summary of Katherine B. Hauth’s picture book published by Charlesbridge, What’s For Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World. In a post on the publisher’s blog , Katherine writes:

For me, a silver-haired eight year old, what it means to be a poet is to be childlike, in the sense of seeing with unbiased eyes and heart, and to write honestly in the best language possible for the subject and for my audience.

But writers can only be nourished, so to speak, when readers read. In this video conversation with me, Katherine talks about a summer reading program she created, pretty much out of dust and juniper pollen, in her neighborhood in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. It grew over the years. It created its own story.