Thursday, April 26, 2012

DEAL! the musical, a review

Last night Nancy and I had the pleasure of attending a musical play at The Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.
Deal! the Musical uses a family's weekly poker game to expose the tensions and tragedies in the lives of a family and a few friends over the nine-year period from Christmas of 1958 to Christmas of 1967. The entertaining dialogue has an authentic feel to it that goes beyond nostalgia, and like the dialogue, the music is fun, but often very moving. Deal! will make you laugh often and keep you smiling even as you tear up through the many tender scenes.

Deal! is based on playwright/composer Tom Broadbent's experience with his family's weekly card games, which he proclaims in his program comments, "taught me the value of long-term relationships and forgiveness." The story follows Art and Elsie, who have just moved into town after loosing a farm they had been renting for three years. Although Art holds on to his dream of owning a farm, Elsie has settled in quickly and enjoys having a job in town with regular hours. Their two daughters, Julie, 15, and Audrey, 13, cope with real-life issues of lack of self-esteem, conflicts with their mother, conflicts between each other, and conflicts with facing their futures.
Other regulars at the poker game are Pearl, a recently widowed neighbor who copes with loss by successfully managing a liquor store; Oscar, a friend who spends too much time at the Lost and Found Tavern;  and his newest girlfriend, Millie, whose tragic loss and difficult past drives her abuse of alcohol.

Although alcohol's affect on Oscar and Millie is the cause of much really good humor, the play does not glamorize consumption. Events and dialogue clearly show them as people needing to break from past issues and getting absolutely nowhere by using alcohol to cope.
Also, there is a good deal of swearing in the play, but I think it serves the play well, adding a degree of realism and even some humor that is true to the story and the author's experience. I do not believe the play glorifies cursing, but I cannot predict what effect it might have on young people. Would young people see the cursing for it's emptiness or adopt it in their vocabulary?  A conversation between parent and child would be advised should you take a teenager to the play. I think it's fair to say the play is intended for an adult audience.

The play had me at the first scene, which takes place on Christmas Eve, 1958, with details of characters and story rolled into the opening number, "Deal Dammit,"where each character sings verses of personal exposition as they impatiently await the beginning of the poker game. Clear, detailed exposition has never been more fun.
But the play gets even better. I found the brief yelling battles between sisters and between daughters and mother particularly convincing. There were no villains. Musical numbers and dialogue evoked empathy for each individual in Scene Two where Julie opens her heart to the audience in "Julie's Song" and Audrey returns from a date with a Catholic boy. After greeting the poker players and denying that her outing with a Catholic boy was a real "date," she goes to her room to dream of him as her parents and their friends joyfully joke about Catholics and proclaim she will not marry one. Meanwhile in her room, Audrey sings "My Catholic Boy," which shows that her feelings for him go way beyond friendship.

The play is extremely funny, but without flinching it addresses head-on the issues of religion, alcohol, conflicts between parents and children, personal health tragedies, loss of dreams, and the regular hard, uphill journey of life for people who are not sheltered by money or success.

Through it all, it's hard-working wife and mother Elsie who keeps everything together, but the play makes her no perfect heroine. I found myself almost aching as she handles or mishandles conflicts with her daughters and as she expresses resentment because of their dissatisfaction of the life she has struggled to provide for them. We learn of Elsie's hard life as a child on the farm, and it's through Elsie that we feel the pain and joy of sacrificing for those you love. After many of her attempts at doing the right thing have come back to bite her, she perseveres and never gives up on her husband, daughters and friends. Elsie doesn't "save" anyone, but her family and friends understand she makes it better for everyone.

Chad VanKekerix's set design allowed for fluid movement from scene without many prop changes. It was pleasing and functional. Since subsequent setting in scenes often had a time lapse of several years, pictures from the era were projected on the wall behind the poker table and accompanied by short narration which served to set mood and fill in transitional material. The photographs were particularly enjoyable and the narration smooth and unobtrusive.

In a musical with eight cast members, each of whom sings and plays a prominent role in the story line, I feel it is high praise to the director and to the cast for me to say there were no weaknesses in the cast. Cast members were strong. In a tightly-knit musical like Deal!, any one weak portrayal would destroy much of the play. I found their characters believable and empathetic, and I found their songs delightful and moving.  Catherine Battocletti as Pearl convincingly portrayed a friend who belonged with the family. As a widow, she was able to scramble to some success even as other central characters were slipping. Most entertaining was her leading of the musical number "Jug Band" during a Mother's Day poker game attended only by the women. The men, of course, are all fishing. Though the role of women is strong throughout the play, this scene in particular displays the plight of womanhood as dictated by their bodies and their places in society. Women both lead and follow in their essential roles in the family, but men tend to get the glory while the women are expected to sacrifice.
Aly Westberg as Julie and Lizzie Schwarzrock as Audrey were particularly convincing in handling the aging of their characters from young teens to married women. David Roberts as Oscar and Kim Kivens as Millie excelled at playing drunk humor with credibility, evoking both empathy and disgust. Jon Andrew Hegge as Art and Laurie Flanigan-Hegge as Elsie both carried the weight of the story, projecting vulnerability and humor. Flanigan-Hegge was especially adept at winning hearts with her convincing portrayal of a mother who gives of herself, sometimes getting little in return.

Work by Audio Designer, Collin Sherraden; Technical Director, Chris Carpenter; Lighting Designer, Jennifer DeGolier; and Costume and Props Designer, Rien Schlecht, contributed flawlessly to make the show move smoothly and effectively.

Playwright/Composer Tom Broadbent; Playwright Jerry Seifert;  Director Joshua James Campbell; Musical Director Kyle Ross Thomas, and Musical Arranger Shane Keister have created a musical that makes for an enjoyable evening, filled with humor, fun music, and serious themes that are real to most everyone. Deal! was produced by Kurt Larsen, and the Executive Producer was Jim Foltz.

The show runs through May 6th at The Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis. Call 612-436-1129 for tickets. Go to for more information.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Living Hope Lutheran School

It's been nearly seven weeks since we visited Living Hope Lutheran School near Shakopee and did our Farm Heritage Program for grades K-4, but as we set up our books on a table in the commons area on Monday of this week, children that pass remember us and say, "Hi." One second grader smiled and said, "I remember you. You're the author who came to our class."
Maybe this isn't the kind of fame that will bring in a lot of money, but it sure makes Nancy and me feel really welcome.
Later, teachers and students gather around the table to look at the books, and parents who are picking up or dropping off their children stop by to browse and chat. Several students read the stories and I show them the preliminary copy of my new book, What I Saw on the Farm. Children and teachers seem intrigued when I tell them the illustrations were done by a twelve-year-old boy.

But today we are doing two shows for preschoolers, and each program will include my story, If I Were a Farmer: Nancy's Adventure.
This is the first group of preschoolers waving to Nancy as she snaps their picture.
Mrs. Menges, far right, is the teacher who arranged my visit to the preschool classes.
After the program, the children line up to take their turn at sticking their hands into the can of oats, as I explain that some breakfast foods are made from oats.

This is the second group watching me demonstrate how to teach a newborn calf to drink from a pail. 
They participate in the demonstration by holding up the two fingers 
that they would use to lure the calf to drink. 

As they feel the oats every student is very careful to leave all the oats in the can.
It's not easy because, as this student proclaims, "It sticks to my fingers."

Nancy and I want to thank all staff members and students at Living Hope Lutheran for welcoming us once again as we visited your school, and we especially thank Bonnie Menges, who arranged our visit.
Performing for these wonderful children is a pleasure for me and having the opportunity to visit with staff, students, and parents over the lunch break was a particularly enjoyable bonus for Nancy and me.

Photographs by Nancy A. Fredrickson

Saturday, April 21, 2012

G-E-T Schools in Wisconsin

Back in January of 2012, Sandy Ravnum, the Elementary Library Media Specialist for the Galesville-Ettrick-Tempealeau Schools in Wisconsin, invited us to visit the three elementary schools to speak about my process of creating books.  She said the entire school district was planning a "Young Authors' Event" in April where every student in the school would become an author by writing, illustrating, and assembling his or her own book.
 I was intrigued with the idea and immediately booked the event for April 19th.
At Trempealeau Elementary, Sandy greeted us at the door and then showed us the hundreds of books the students had written. Topics included family vacations, hobbies, biographies, death in the family, pets, farms, and almost anything imaginable. One student whose book was on the 4K-2 (4 years old through 2nd grade) table, wrote of her father's struggle with cancer before he passed away.  

Throughout the Trempealeau School, mounted animals and birds are displayed, inviting every student to learn more about the natural world.

The first group at Trempealeau included 4-year-olds, Kindergartners, and second graders. 

After the show a student named Paris gave me a card she had made especially for me.

The second group included first and second graders.
Deb and her dog Gus from Coulee Region Humane Society watched with the second group. Gus serves as a therapy dog that students can read to. Deb says the program is both popular and successful.
I projected a picture of 12-year-old Brad Simon onto the screen because he is the illustrator for my newest book, What I Saw on the Farm,  which will be out in May. Since the last half of my program focused on my writing process, I thought I would go over the steps in creating my new book, and I thought it especially appropriate to discuss Brad's work with these young authors and illustrators that made up my audience. 

Since all students in both groups were authors, they asked some serious questions: 
"How long does it take you to write a book?"
"Did you get mixed up working on two books at a time?"
"When did you get the idea that you wanted to write?"
And many more.

Next we followed Sandy in her car through the beautiful farm country about seven miles to Galesville Elementary School, where I was scheduled to do two programs for grades 4K, K, 1, and 2. The programs included my story, If I Were a Farmer: Nancy's Adventure, followed by an explanation of the process I followed writing my newest book, What I Saw on the Farm.
The enthusiasm of the students and staff made us feel really welcome as we met them in the library. They started to explain their gardening projects. They grow the seeds (see the lighted shelf in the background), plant them, and Jean Wallner, the school's head cook who is also a master gardener, prepares the fresh food to serve in the cafeteria. A boy explained. "We plant the seeds now and I will get to eat the tomatoes next fall when I am in the first grade!" 
A young girl exclaimed, "I Love tomatoes!"

The garden is on a tennis court that would probably cost thousands of dollars to resurface. Since it is fenced in, it presents a perfect set-up for an above-ground garden where the children help grow onions, lettuce strawberries, carrots, peas, corn, and other fruits and vegetables. Of course, a lot of work has to be done in the garden yet this spring, but in the picture above you can see the raised areas where the perennials are growing. The gardening experience is valuable for students. It presents the opportunity to raise food, eat vegetables, try new things, and share that experience with friends at school. Many of the kids probably work with their parents in gardens at home,  but for those who do not have a garden at home, the school experience gives them something really unique. For those students who have gardens at home, the school gardening experience may help them learn about some new plants to grow and eat.
First and second grade students in the first group at Galesville (above) and
The cover of my newest book (below).

4K, K, and grade 1 students in the second group at Galesville raising their two fingers to help me demonstrate how to teach a calf to drink from a pail.

After Galesville we have to hustle because we have about 45 minutes to pack up, drive eight miles to Ettrick, and set up for a program that is scheduled to start at 2:15 PM. 
But once again, we follow Sandy through the beautiful countryside.
 That's Sandy in the car ahead of us. I don't think we would have found our way through the short cuts without her help.

We arrive at Ettrick to a group of enthusiastic students in 4K, K, and first grade,who assemble early and patiently watch as we finish setting up.
Above, the students watch and listen as I begin my story, and below, they hold up two fingers as I demonstrate the craft of teaching a calf to drink from a pail.

After listening to me explain the process of writing the story, students giggle as I read the last page, which has an illustration showing cats playing ball and a one cat batting while holding one bat with its tail and one with its paws. 

Nancy and I thank all teachers, administrators, custodians, cooks, and all office workers for making us feel so very welcome. For example, even as we walked from our car to the Trempealeau school at  7:30 AM, a man cleaning the sidewalk greeted us with enthusiasm and a smile. 
It is the enthusiasm of everyone that carries through to the students, making their school experience more productive and fun. It is also what enables me to do the best job I can when I perform my program. 

Nancy and I thank Mrs. Ravnum for inviting us to the schools, arranging our visit with all three schools, and spending much of her busy day guiding us from school to school, and giving us tours of each school. We enjoyed talking to her throughout the day, and we learned a lot about the schools and the area around them.
We thank Terry Thompson, from the Trempealeau County Times, for taking pictures and visiting with us.
We especially thank all teachers and administrators and others who stopped to thank us or say a kind word or two.
And to the students, the focus of my visit, I say "Thanks so very much!" for your warm reception, your honest enthusiasm, your questions, and your kind remarks of approval. Keep writing! You are making your parents and teachers proud, and you are learning skills and creating memories that will last a lifetime.

Photographs by Nancy A. Fredrickson

Monday, April 16, 2012

Kenny Community School, Minneapolis MN

This morning Nancy and I drove to Kenny Community School in the southern part of Minneapolis to do three Farm Heritage shows for students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. We wanted to arrive at about 7:15 AM, and we were a bit worried about running into heavy traffic. We decided to leave by 6:15 AM.

Well, traffic turned out to be a non-issue as we crossed the river and turned at Lyndale Avenue without even one slowdown. As we unloaded, very light snow/rain fell, forcing us to cover our equipment as we took it into the school, but the weather, like the traffic, was not as we had feared.

We were greeted with a smile by a lady at the office, who contacted Charles, a custodian who showed us where to set up and carried in some chairs for the teachers. Library Media Specialist, Dianne Kersteter, who arranged our visit to the school, stopped by to chat and thank us for coming. After we set up, I talked with David Horne, who was substituting for the physical education teacher, and he told me some stories about his farm connection. His grandfather, Hans Horne, was the Chippewa County Agent in Wisconsin during the 1930s, a difficult time for farmers and a time that yielded many fascinating stories.
At 8:15 AM, kindergartners assembled, and I started my Farm Heritage Program, 
which included my story, If I Were a Farmer: Nancy's Adventure.
Kindergartners hold up two fingers as I demonstrate how to teach a newborn calf 
how to drink out of a pail (above), and (below) they wave to Nancy as she takes their picture.

First grade assembled at 8:45 AM as I begin the program (above), 
and (below) they hold up two fingers as I show them how to teach a calf to drink from a pail.

Second grade students assembled for the program at about 9:20 AM (above),
and (below) they wave and say "Hi" to Nancy as she snaps their picture.

All the students were great audience members, and I was especially pleased with the questions. Many students told stories about their link to the farm. I always encourage them to ask their parents and grandparents to tell their stories of farm life.
Questions by second graders followed by my shortened answers are shown below:
Q. Did you like growing up on the farm?
A. Yes, but there was always work to be done. We took no vacations. In my books I try to show the work and the fun for kids on a farm.
Q. How many pockets in the overall you have on?
A.  Two top snap pockets, a watch pocket, a pencil pocket, a two-in-one tool pocket (I showed him the pliers I carry), deep side and back pockets, a hammer holder.
Question from a first grade girl:
Q. Why do you do this?
A. I want to preserve farm heritage by telling fun stories so readers can see what it was like for kids on a farm in 1950. 
Then I encouraged her to ask her parents and grandparents to tell their stories.
Q. Do you still farm?
A. No I don't and haven't for 12 years. I'm too busy doing this.

Nancy and I wish to thank Mrs. Kersteter for inviting us to visit Kenny Community School, and we'd like to thank the entire staff for making us feel welcome. We had fun and I hope the students did too.

Photographs by Nancy A. Fredrickson

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A visit with Illustrator Robert Williams

Since January Bob Williams from Vernon Center, Minnesota, has been working on sketches for my new book, A Farm Country Harvest, which I hope to publish with Beaver's pond Press in 2013. Nancy and I visited Bob in November of last year to discuss the project and he agreed to create 36 illustrations according to the text, photographs, and sketches I sent him.
After we delivered the packet of drawings and photographs to him in January, he began sketching each illustration on a piece of wooden slate measuring ten inches wide and eight inches high.
We swapped emails regularly as he would send me a copy of each sketch to discuss and I would send it back with comments. In March he completed all 36 sketches, each exceeding my expectations.

I collected the email attachments of Bob's 36 sketches on the long tables in our library at home. I like to lay them all out side by side so I can check for continuity from one illustration to the next.

Bob told me he planned to paint them in groups of six, selecting non-sequential pages that had similar characters and scenes. Recently, he contacted me to say he had completed six illustrations, and we agreed Nancy and I should visit him to ensure that we concurred on the results.
When Nancy and I visited Bob's studio last Wednesday, we were delighted to view six completed illustrations for our book, A Farm Country Harvest. 

 Before painting the detail, he covered the entire surface with a gold harvest color that gives the finished product the bright, earthy color of harvest in hot August.

Above, Bob works on the next six illustrations, and below, you can see the golden color that covers the details of the sketch on those painting on the right. Bob has painted some of the detail on the paintings on the left. 

Bob is a generous with his time and his art. He willingly explains his techniques and takes time to show us many of his other paintings.

His studio is populated with finished works and some works in progress.

Bob and his wife Anne enjoy the many artworks that Bob has created and hung throughout their house.
He also paints some artwork directly onto the walls in the living room and kitchen.

 Bob Williams with some of his art.

Bob shows us his sketchbook, above, and we see that the sketches below reflect the fact that his first job as an artist was working for Josten's, a company that provides plaques, awards, rings, etc. for schools.

He encourages young artists to keep a sketchbook and draw, draw, draw.
He says, "Prospective employers are often more interested in seeing your sketchbook than they are in seeing your finished paintings. Sketchbooks show your thinking. And drawing is thinking."

Bob expects to finish the illustrations for my book,  A Farm Country Harvest, in three months or less.
So you might ask, "Why is the book not going to be ready until next year?" 
Well, Bob's illustrations are intended to help tell the fictional story of what happens when the threshing machine arrives at the Carlson Family Farm in 1950, but because the word "harvest" or "threshing" brings to mind so many various images to people, the last half of the book will contain a narrative accompanied by actual photographs of harvest activities. 

To gather these pictures, Nancy has been sending out emails to museums, historical societies, and individuals requesting harvest pictures from the 1940s and early 1950s. She has been organizing them, and we plan to select which photos to use some time this summer or fall. Then I will write the narrative as Nancy assembles and identifies the photographs.

A Farm Country Harvest will be a unique attempt at telling the harvest story. The fictional account of the Carlson Family will be in fun meter and rhyme as others in the Farm Country Tales series, and the book will attempt to tell an entertaining, universal story of the activities on a family farm when the threshing machine arrives in 1950. Activities will be accurately represented and the story is based on actual events.

The second half of the book will trace harvest activity with pictures submitted by people from all over the Midwest and other parts of the United States. I hope the combination of a story with illustrations and a narrative with actual photos will help make the book personal, entertaining, authentic, and memorable to readers. I want it to be a book that will be set out on special spot in people's houses and be picked up often to be paged through for its illustrations, its photographs, and its story, a story that people can embrace as their story or the story of their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents.

Do you have some photos to submit? Here is an opportunity to get your family harvest photo into a collector series of books. We are looking for all kinds of farm photos so give us a call. My next book will be about filling silo with bundles and a silage cutter so if you have any silo-filling pictures, let us know. 
Nancy will contact you before we use the photo, and if we use a photo that you submit, we will give you a free book.

To contact Nancy or me to submit photos, call 952-461-2111 or click here to email.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Proofing New Book

Before printing thousands of copies, a printer will print a "proof" that shows the exact layout, wording, and artwork that will be produced by their presses.Yesterday morning Heather Kerber, Publishing Operations Manager at Beaver's Pond Press, called to say that they received the proof of my latest book, What I Saw on the Farm, from the printer, CG Book Printers of Mankato. I told her that Nancy and I would come up that very afternoon to check it and sign off on it.

Since I knew that my illustrator, 13-year-old Bradley Simon, was not in school this week, I quickly called his mom to see if he could come along and be part of the process. He agreed to ride with us and he invited his cousin Amanda Bjerke to come along.
From left to right are me, Bradley Simon, and Amanda Bjerke.
Brad and Amanda are both 'A' students in New Prague Middle School.
 My mom always told me that if I hung around with smart kids some "smarts" may rub off on me.
 I figure that it's never too late to take Mom's advice.

The professionals at Beaver's Pond Press are always fun to visit, but after we exchanged"Hellos" and some small talk, we got right to work. Vice President Dara Beevas, who is my editor, was not in that day, but all the others pitched in to help.
Brad looks on as Managing Editor, Amy Quale, worked with Nancy and me
 to pick just the right color for the end sheets.
Amanda and Brad look through the proof of the book. 
What I Saw on the Farm is the first book Brad has illustrated. 
He completed all the illustrations when he was twelve.

Even the top brass got involved.
Tom Kerber, Chief Publishing Editor of Beaver's Pond Press, 
helped us decide how to address some needed changes in the proof.
From left to right are Tom Kerber, me, Brad Simon, and Amanda Bjerke.

Nancy and I thank all the professionals at Beaver's Pond for helping us with the proof.
It's always fun to visit with everyone again.

Photographs by Nancy A. Fredrickson

Friday, April 6, 2012

Red Pine Elementary School 2012

It's Thursday morning and Nancy and I drive into the parking lot at Red Pine Elementary School in Eagan, Minnesota, to do three Farm Heritage Programs for second-graders. This will be our third consecutive year visiting Red Pine in April when they study nonfiction books and farming. I eagerly anticipate having fun doing my shows at Red Pine because students and staff make my visit a special event.

Though office personnel are busy as we walk into the school office, they greet us with smiles and seem to recognize us and anticipate our needs by contacting Mary Kate Nelson, the teacher who has arranged our visit every year. Mary Kate is here in seconds and helps move our equipment into her room, which is already set up for my program.

We take part in the Pledge of Allegiance as school begins. Teaching moments start immediately as we listen and watch the television monitor where an adult explains the importance of getting outside and being physically active. Then two students give the school announcements. They're pretty good at it too.

Here is the first group waving to Nancy as she takes a picture near the end of my program, which included my book, If I Were a Farmer: Nancy's Adventure. Mrs. Nelson is seated at the left.
Second group waving at Nancy.

Third group waving to Nancy.

Performing for second grade students at Red Pine was as I anticipated, a joy and an education, for the students teach me something every year. I hope I provided them with the same experience.

I want to thank everyone at Red Pine for having me visit their school, especially Mrs. Nelson who arranges my visit every year. Nancy and I always look forward to it.

Photographs by Nancy A. Fredrickson

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Turkey march in March

I haven't seen too much of the turkeys all winter, but near the end of March they decide to march around the yard.
They seem to know where they are going.

But then, they stop and mill around a bit.

And march off in the other direction!

They are more brave than usual as they march around the yard for about ten minutes, managing to keep close to the tree line, of course.

Photographs by Nancy A. Fredrickson