Julie A. Swanson

Purer and Purer Streams…

Month: November, 2012

Thank You Henley Middle School 7th Graders and Parents!

henley1Wednesday night I spoke at Henley Middle School   in Crozet, Va, to a group of 7th graders (and some of their parents) who’d read my YA novel, Going for the Record. The kids are all students in Chuck Miller’s 7th grade language arts classes. Chuck uses the book in his classes, has the kids  read it and encourages their parents to read it with them, giving the kids one point extra credit if their parents actually do. Then they do some analyzing of the story’s themes, storyline, and characters, discussing,  writing assignments based on it… And at the end of the unit, Chuck has me come in and do an author presentation in the school library one night in late November or early December, for any students and parents who interested in coming.

Over the years, we’ve had some pretty good turnouts, but it varies. One year there might be 50-some there, another year 20-some. It’s 7 pm. on a week night and kids and families are busy with practices and extracurricular activities, not to mention dinner and homework. But this year there were 97 people there! We had to go and get more chairs, and I’d thought the original number set up was overly optimistic. Chuck said 49 out of 101 students in his classes attended; the rest were parents or siblings. I find it amazing for a non-mandatory event at that time on a weeknight. They were such a great group. Some kids were there with both parents. I saw older siblings who’d come along because they read the book previously. There were many boys there, and I’m always glad to see boys there, even happier when they actually ask questions, which they did. Many parents commented or asked questions showing that they had indeed read the book with their kids, which I find amazing, too.

Anyway, I really appreciated all of them coming, and they asked very thoughtful and insightful questions (some that I’ve never been asked before), and the time flew by. We ran a bit over and Chuck had to cut it off while there were still hands up to ask questions. At the end, kids and parents got in a line to have their books signed and comment or ask more questions.

All in all, it was a great night. Thank you, Chuck Miller, and thank you to all the Henley 7th graders and their parents who came and were such a good audience.


The Virgin’s Promise, by Kim Hudson

A few years ago I got an email from a writerly organization I must’ve inadvertently signed up to receive mailings from, and something in it caught my eye as I was about to delete it. I clicked to read more about it and was so glad I did. Because it led me to Kim Hudson’s book, The Virgin’s Promisewhich could’ve most fittingly been titled The Heroine’s Journey, and probably would’ve been if there wasn’t already an excellent and related book out there by that same title, by Maureen Murdock.

I’d read about Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey;Mythic Structure for Writers, which is a book many writers use in developing novels and which is based largely on Joseph Campbell’s ideas. Vogler outlines the 12 stages of a journey a hero passes through, saying that there’s a basic mythical structure that all stories follow. The hero and the characters he meets along the way on his journey are all archetypes, character types that have occurred throughout human history and are in all movies and stories–the Shadow characters/villians/antagonists, the Mentors, the Shapeshifters (werewolves or vampires or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde types, or just two-faced people…), Tricksters, Allies, the Wise Old Man, the Crone, the Goddess, the Hag, the Whore, the King, the Puer…

Hoping Campbell and Vogler’s ideas would help me with plotting issues, I tried hard to see how my story/stories fit in these 12 stages, or could be made to, but sometimes it seemed like such a stretch, like trying to fit something in a mold that wasn’t quite right for it.

But when I read the email article about Kim’s book, The Virgin’s Promise, I immediately thought, Yes! This sounds more like it. Someone else found that the stages of the Hero’s Journey didn’t match what was going on in her story either, and it doesn’t mean that your story’s ‘wrong’–it can mean the template is wrong for your story. And I ordered the book and read it. And reread it, and highlighted. It gave me a lot to chew. It made sense. It fit my stories.

Basically, Kim’s book explains why the hero and heroine’s journey are often different (has to do with a lot of very interesting stuff about the differences between the masculine and feminine; she has a background in Jungian psychology, which is also the psychology behind the archetypes of Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler’s work), and she gives her own flexible template (13 beats) that the heroine’s journey often follows, the feminine journey. She gives many examples of how the 13 beats of the Virgin Story can be seen in various popular movies which fit the Virgin’s Journey rather than the Hero’s (even a story with a male protagonist can be a Virgin’s Journey).

Her idea of the Anti-Virgin Story (where the Virgin/heroine/protagonist is driven to suppress her inner nature/dream and her community is pushing her to bring her true self to life; a flip-flop of what happens in the Virgin’s journey, where the Virgin is trying to let her true nature/dream out and the community is suppressing it)–was particularly helpful to me, as that’s what one of my stories is, an Anti-Virgin story.

When I applied Kim’s stages to my stories, things made much more sense and fell into place. Her ideas were so helpful. I could now see things I needed to do that would strengthen my plot, or how a little reordering of the scenes I already had might help.

There were a few things I didn’t understand, and was eager to, so I contacted Kim with my questions by posting on her blog. She was more than generous in explaining the concepts and helping me understand them and see how I could apply them. I highly recommend this book, and Kim.

If you’re interested, check out her blog:


I’m Sensitive

Our oldest daughter introduced me to this song by Jewel.  I was driving her home from college after not having seen her for a number of months, and we were taking turns playing songs from our iPods that were new to our playlists since we’d last been together, and she said, “I think you’re really going to like this one, Mom.” She was right.

Back On Board ‘The Girl Ship’

In two recent posts (November 16 and November 11, below) I wrote about being a tomboy and how, although I used to be proud of that and had a false sense of superiority over other girls/females, I now see the error in my old way of thinking. I wanted to expand on that a little bit today, on my mid-life epiphany.

I consider myself a recovering Tomboy. Not that being a tomboy is an addiction or a sickness, certainly not in everyone’s case anyway, but in my situation, I’ve come to see how I was a tomboy to such an extreme that I was actually a traitor to my kind, to my gender. I didn’t like the ship we girls got to sail in, so I jumped ship. Or at least I tried to. I mean rather than speak up and work to change things, change attitudes, rather than stick up for being a girl and say, “No, that’s not what I am” or, “Hey, this isn’t fair,” I just thought, “Well, if that’s what a girl is, then I don’t want to be one.” I even went so far as to go into denial and think, “I’m not a girl. I’m not all those things you think and say about girls.” Certainly as a little child it wasn’t conscious, and I don’t beat myself up for being a traitor (well, I did a little when I first discovered what I’d done and seen it in this light!), but that’s what I was, in effect. I tried to jump ship, from the girl ship to the boy ship. Read the rest of this entry »

Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon a River and Q Road, both by Bonnie Jo Campbell, are two really interesting stories–adult fiction. I really enjoyed them, and I don’t often read adult fiction. My mother-in-law and father-in-law loved them so much they bought them for me. They thought I’d appreciate the treatment of the rural Michigan setting, the skill of the author in her ability to show how the land and the water of an area can become a part of a person. So I felt I had to read them. And now I’m glad I did.

Both stories are set in Michigan, in the Kalamazoo area. The rivers, farmland, and woods of that area, the flora and fauna, they figure so strongly in the stories that setting is like a character. The human characters from Once Upon a River also carry over into Q Road. Both books feature fiercely independent female protagonists, teenagers/young women who are wild lone ranger types who hunt and fish and live off the land (along with a quirky cast of background characters). Although in Q Road it’s harder to say who the main character is; there are almost two of them, a 12-year-old-boy and the teenage girl, and in that story the point of view changes so that you take turns seeing things from inside the minds of many of the people in the rural community, a community where farming as a way of life is dying as the land is being sold off for development.

I don’t want to say too much. The story lines, the characters, they’re original, they’re fresh, they’re down-to-earth and real. There’s action and violence and drama and plenty of emotion but it’s all understated. The writing is beautiful and full of insights into human nature. I highly recommend these books and am looking forward to reading whatever else Bonnie Jo Campbell has written now.

How I got to be Such a Tomboy

I went from this in 5th grade…

…to this in 6th. So much happier because I was finally allowed to get my hair cut and wear boys’ clothes.

A couple of posts back, I wrote about the word ‘tomboy’ and how I’ve come to see it differently. I’ve thought a lot about the whole notion of being a tomboy and have a lot to say about it, at least about the kind of tomboy I was.

Why? Well, I’ve spent much of my life wondering why I was such a tomboy. As a kid I’d look around at the other girls–my sister, cousins, the girls in school, girls at church–and think How can they be happy? How can they be OK with it? How can they stand it? Am I the only one who hates being a girl? Why? Why don’t they feel like I do? 

My question was never, “Why was I a tomboy?” (I got that; I had two older brothers and wanted to do what they did and be just like them, I was born with a strong and capable body and delighted in seeing all that it could do, I had a natural affinity for the out-of-doors and nature, and I spent much of my childhood in a rural area. Exploring in the woods, weeds, dirt, and water, catching critters, running and jumping around, throwing things and climbing, riding bikes–those things were fun!) My question was, “Why did I become such an extreme, anti-anything-feminine tomboy?”

It’s taken many years, but I think I finally have it figured out  (and I share it here because I’ve never read anything on this, and I would’ve liked to. I would’ve liked to know I was not alone in this and that someone else understood. I know I can’t be the only one to have ever felt this way. There must be others out there. I’ve talked to people who can relate to a point, but never to anyone who can totally relate. So here it is, for those of you who were like  me–or still are–and would be glad to know you’re not alone, or for those of you who might better understand such a tomboy by reading this): Read the rest of this entry »

Cranberry Thanksgiving

In anticipation of a a great feast with friends and family in another week, I present a Thanksgiving story I loved as a kid (and my kids liked it, too), an oldie but a goodie, Cranberry Thanksgiving, by Wende and Harry Devlin. The illustrations make it. Who could forget Mr. Whiskers? Or they way the ‘sticky’ trees look, so much like Mr. Whisker’s beard? Or the rich detail showing the texture/weave of the adults’ clothing, all those little criss-crossy pen scratches?

The recipe at the end makes a very good cranberry bread as well. Check it out and enjoy!

The Word TOMBOY; Can We Come Up With Something Better?


“Tomboy. Alright, call me a tomboy. Tomboys get gold medals, tomboys can fly, and oh yeah, tomboys aren’t boys.” Julie Foudy

I’m not sure I would’ve liked this quote as a kid, particularly the “…and oh yeah, tomboys aren’t boys” part. I wanted people thought to think I was a boy then.

But I like the quote now. Because now I see that a large part of what made me so anti-girl, well, that’s exactly what’s wrong with the word tomboy. Why do we have to define a strong, independent-minded girl in terms of ‘boy?’ Boys don’t own the qualities that make a girl a tomboy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the word tomboy. As I wrote on my ‘About’ page, there’s a certain nostaglia in it for me. I took pride in being called a tomboy, having people recognize that I was different than most other girls, typical girls, normal girls. Whatever that is. But in my mind I thought I knew. I had a definite idea of what a normal girl was. She was weak, a sissy, she occupied herself with frivolous things. She was touchy, giddy… But I see now, as an adult finally, the error in my thinking, the twisted conceit. There’s a paradox in thinking that you’re better than all other girls, when your whole reason for feeling that way is because you think your gender is so inherently inferior that you want to dis-identify with being a girl altogether. I mean it’s like you feel so inferior as that, that you pretend you’re not that, and that you’re better than those who are (and are at least honest enough to own up to and accept who they are, what they were born as!). You’re feeling superior because deep down inside you feel inferior. You turn your back on your own kind and say, Yeah, you’re right, Guys, girls (other girls, not me, I’m different) they aren’t anywhere near as good as you, …or me, because I’m like you. Anyway, I see now that part of the whole problem, part of what got me hating being a girl way back when, was that I felt I had to deny that I was a girl, that I had to define myself in terms of a boy. And the word ‘tomboy’ perpetuates that. So I see what’s wrong with it. And it would be great to find another term to replace it.

Words are important. And the origin of the word tomboy makes little sense. The meaning of the word is not at all clear. Well, the boy part is pretty clear, but Tom, tom+boy? Seems some combination of girl and boy  would be more appropriate– like suzyboy or sallyboy.

Steve suggests Strong Girl, but that doesn’t sit right with me because it brings up the image of a tough Amazon-woman type girl flexing her biceps for the camera. Not all tomboys are physically strong or tough. There are frail nature-girls who aren’t afraid to get dirty and muck around in nature looking for frogs and toads and snakes and crayfish, tender-hearted critter-loving tomboys who tend to birds with broken wings and orphaned baby mice. Girls who aren’t afraid to touch a worm but can’t stand to put the hook through the worm or the minnow’s back when fishing. There are athletic tomboys who are great at sports and enjoy them and are aggressive on the field or court, but who also love painting their nails and dressing up and looking feminine when they’re not competing. There are wee little girl explorers, and, yes, there are tomboys who wouldn’t be caught dead in pink and want to look as boyish as they can. And there’s everything in between. There are as many different kind of tomboys as there are anything else.

A tomboy could be aggressive, or simply assertive, or shy but determined. She might be hyper, fiesty, dramatic, calm and stoic, meek and mild, seemingly confident, cocky or insecure. Temperament varies widely. The only way that all tomboys are the same is that, in some way, they consistently exhibit  behavior(s) that are more the cultural norm for boys. Given the great variance in these girls, and this one general way that all tomboys are the same, it’s perhaps understandable  that the only term we’ve come up with to describe them includes the word boy! But can we not at least put some girl word in there? Girlboy? Boygirl?

I also think most tomboys are rather independent, because in order to be tomboys, they have to rebel a bit against the cultural norms. Rebelgirl? Wildgirl? There are many rebellious girls who are not at all tomboyish, though…

And terms such as Tree-climber, Nature-girl, and Sporty-girl, they’re too specific. We need a blanket term to replace tomboy, something girl-power-ish, but the whole notion of Girl Power always kind of turned me off, too, sounded too much like we were being cheerleaders for ourselves. It sounds puffed-up and braggy to me, makes me think girls-against-the-boys, girls-are-better-than-boys, and that isn’t true either.

I kind of like Wildgirl but it has the same problem as Rebelgirl… How about Wildergirl? Wondergirl. Freespirit, Freespirette. Freefilly. Indylass. SheKid…

Any ideas, anyone?

The Birchbark House Series

I love this middle grade series by Louise Erdich–The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, and The Year of the Porcupine. It’s the Native American equivalent of The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In fact, I may like this series better than the Little House stories, and that’s high praise. Even if the stories weren’t set not far from where I grew up in Michigan (and even nearer to where I just was this past weekend for a family funeral, by coincidence), I would still love them. They are so sweet, have so much heart, great characters, wonderful setting. Louise Erdich did her own charming black-and-white sketch illustrations, too.

I read each new book as soon as it came out, and it was hard to wait because a couple years went by in between books. They are the kind of stories you never want to end, and yet you care so much about the characters that you just have to keep going to see what happens to them, …but then you kick yourself because you don’t want to leave them, or their place, their island home.

Just tonight I discovered that there’s a fourth book in the series (Chickadee) that came out in August of this year! A book I knew nothing about (which is just as well because then I wasn’t impatient for it). But now that I know about it, I can’t wait to read it, too.

I also saw tonight that Louise Erdrich has a new adult novel that came out October 2, called The Round House,  another National Book Award finalist (as The Birchbark House was) and it’s getting rave reviews. Amazon.com Review says, “Likely to be dubbed the Native American To Kill a Mockingbird…” Can’t wait to read this one either!

Whirlwind Bittersweet Weekend

I was planning on spending the weekend in Cary, NC, watching the UVA women’s soccer team play in the ACC tournament there on Friday and then hopefully again on Sunday, but got a call Thursday morning with the sad news that my Uncle Gary had died, so I immediately tried to figure out how to get all the way up to Ontonagon, Michigan for his funeral. After much arranging, it all worked out; I was able to watch the Friday night game in Cary and then catch a flight out of Raleigh to Milwaukee, where I would drive 6 hours north with my brother to Ontonagon (Ontonagon is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on Lake Superior, way up north. Yes, it snowed.).

It was great to be able to be with family, many of whom I haven’t seen in a while. My Uncle Gary was my dad’s brother, the 4th out of the six Polakowski brothers. They were a tight bunch. Growing up I saw all those uncles and aunts and cousins (and that grandma) a couple times a year–at least. Read the rest of this entry »