Tag Archive for Liza Gardner Walsh

Fairy Houses & Creative Learning at Home: A Conversation with Author and Children’s Librarian, Liza Gardner Walsh

 

 

“I miss my students.

I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands.

I am heartbroken

that we don’t get to finish the year together.” 

Liza Gardner Walsh

 

Liza Gardner Walsh embodies two of my favorite things in one person: no, she’s not peanut butter and jelly. She’s even better. Liza is an author and a children’s librarian. She’s also a certified, fully-authorized, bonafide expert on all things fairies. Liza visits today with some insights about getting kids outdoors, interacting with nature, using their creativity and imaginations, to make learning fun. Let’s meet her.

 

 

Liza, it’s nice to connect with you again! Usually we only see each other at the glorious Warwick Children’s Book Festival. I was very happy to come across an article featuring you, “How to Build a Fairy House.” The reporter, Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News, did an excellent job. It inspired me and I hope it might inspire parents, too. Let me quote the intro:

Fairy house building is a creative outdoor activity that can expand the imagination and bring to life the small things in nature that are easy to overlook. All you need is a small outdoor space and a few natural materials. Then — taking as much time as you want — construct a small home, fit for a fairy, frog or any other small creature that comes to mind.

This zero-cost activity is great for kids, families and even adults who are looking for ways to have fun in their own backyards. And right now, as people stay at home and practice social distancing during this stressful time, fairy house building may be just the thing to take people’s minds off the pandemic — even if it’s just for a few minutes.

 

Why do you think some children are so fascinated by the fairy world? 

This is the hardest question of all but I think this fascination with fairies taps into our innate “sense of wonder” as Rachel Carson coined it.  There is this immediate flood of curiosity that informs the magic of this hobby. Will the fairies come? Will they leave a surprise? What do they look like? Will they like my house? Do they take care of the world? Are they watching us as we build? Seeing the wide-eyed wonder and amazing willingness of children to take the leap into the imagination and the unknown is so incredibly rejuvenating. It celebrates that part of childhood that we as children’s book writers are so connected to and work so hard to intuit in our writing. And it reinforces all the good, trust, wonder, curiosity, consideration, persistence, patience, and laughter!

I love the idea for that activity, particularly in relation to these times, when schools are closed and the focus has shifted to online learning.

I have been watching kids and families make these little houses and worlds for years now and I am always amazed at how much creativity is unleashed. Every single creation is different. One of the premiere benefits is this sense of open-ended play because there are no step-by-step instructions like Lego kits. The materials that kids collect set the parameters. Another benefit is that it completely captures kids’ imaginations and it isn’t a one and done kind of a thing. You can wake up and check on your house and then go back and add another room or a playground. The next day, you can leave a note for the fairies or make a pathway to your sibling’s house. The possibilities are endless. I also like that kids can do this completely on their own and it becomes a way that they can be engaged safely and create a whole world of their own making.

 

I like how so many learning opportunities open up naturally. It’s a perfect jumping-off point for interdisciplinary activities: cooking, writing, reading, science (nature studies), engineering . . . 

I would say, though, that my all time favorite benefit is patience and perseverance. There are always problems to solve when building things out of materials that aren’t all the same or made with straight lines. Things fall apart when the wind blows or your dog might knock the whole thing down in one fell swoop. But a true fairy house builder will pick up the pieces and start again.

You work as a school librarian. How have you been adjusting to our “lockdown” reality in that capacity?

It’s been way harder than I ever imagined. I miss my students. I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands. I am heartbroken that we don’t get to finish the year together. Thank goodness for technology but zoom meetings are not the same. I do appreciate the creativity that distance learning is forcing on us and I have had some really fun connections with kids through video and zoom but I do spend a lot of my time worrying about our families and the isolation and economic challenges they are facing.

       

 

I had a friend complain about her disappointment with “learning-from-home-time” so far, the pile up of schoolwork her girls have received from each class. I’m certainly not here to criticize teachers, who are working very hard to figure out this brave new world. I do feel that our current situation presents new opportunities for creative, explorative, interdisciplinary learning. The idea isn’t so much to recreate what happens in the classroom — we can’t do that, especially on the social level — but maybe in some respects we can do something even better. 

Our principle has said the whole time that we are building the plane as we are flying it but I do appreciate the model we are using. We are offering activities, enrichment, and support but not requiring it. We have to keep in mind equity. Sometimes, worksheets are a benign way of making things accessible and easily transmissible through digital means. But I completely agree that this can be an opportunity for a paradigm shift. Kids are always learning. Literacy, math, science, art, movement are all so enmeshed in our everyday lives. I’m hoping that kids are building forts, planting gardens, watching birds, writing letters, and working on engines. Fairy House building is another way that kids can create, engineer, and collaborate. You can write a story about what happens in that house after you leave it. The key is following the curiosity and seeing what emerges. That is something that we don’t often have time to do in the public school day schedule and now is the perfect time to make it happen.

Can you give us a few quick tips? No one wants to build a house that displeases the fairies.

Of course! First, you need to find a good spot that will be safe from dogs, protected from wind, and that has some support. Bases of trees, stumps, and rock walls are all great. Next, grab a bag or a box and gather your materials. Fairy houses should be made from all natural materials. There are so many good things to collect like acorn caps, bark that has fallen off a tree, sticks, rocks, shells, dried beans, dried milkweed husks, the list goes on.

Once you have all your materials, you can begin to assemble your structure. People usually opt for a lean-to or a teepee type structure but the sky is the limit. And once you have a good house built, you can then work on adding some furniture to welcome your small guests. Fairies are very fond of naps so a bed is an essential. Tables and chairs with acorn cap bowls are also a nice way to welcome fairies. The final touches can include pathways, playgrounds, pools, and whatever else you can dream up. After you have built your house, pay attention for signs that the fairies have visited by looking for tiny footprints, fairy dust, and bent or torn leaves. But the most important advice of all is to have fun!

By the way, how tall are fairies, exactly?

I have “heard” they are about 2-3 inches tall, roughly. But some people describe it as a shimmer of light , almost like an orb, or a little puffball hovering by a flower.

So you’ve never . . . ?

No, I have never seen one. And I’m okay with that!

Well, I’m ready to build a fairy house right now. I only wish I still had a six-year-old at home with me. My Maggie, now 19, used to make them long ago. I wonder if she encountered any, I’ll have to ask. Do you have a new book in the works?

I have the last in the seasonal fairy series illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, The Fall Fairy Gathering, which is due out this summer. And I am working on a historical fiction novel but at a snail’s pace!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Liza. Be safe, stay home, and protect the vulnerable.

Thank you, James, for all that you are doing for kids, teachers, and families and for continuing to write such great stories.

 

Liza Gardner Walsh is a school librarian and an author of more than a dozen books. She’s worked as a preschool teacher and a high school English teacher, writing tutor, and museum educator. Liza lives with her family in Camden, Maine. And, obviously, she’s terrific.

 

 

 

 

 

One Question, Five Authors #9: “How do you cultivate creativity?”

It lives! We’ve eased into a monthly schedule for the “One Question” series. It takes me that long to come up with a question. Then I rest for three weeks, exhausted. Today comes with an embarrassment of riches, thanks for thoughtful replies from Laurie Keller, Nikki Grimes, Jordan Sonnenblick, Liza Gardner Walsh, and Steve Sheinkin. 

Today’s area of inquiry is difficult for me to summarize. I basically asked about fallow periods, that quiet time between inspirations, and how our artists dealt with that “between ideas” phase. Did they do anything special to cultivate creativity?

In other words, how does one invite ideas into an empty room?

 

Laurie Keller

UGGGH!!! Okay, that being said, it’s a tricky thing sometimes, getting those creative juices flowing. I’m inspired by absurd, silly (but clever!) things so when I’m starting a new project or am stuck in writers’ mud, there are favorite movies or songs or books I go to that will sometimes help me out. But the really elusive thing for me, it seems, is finding the right “voice” to get things rolling.

When I get an idea I’m excited about (which usually pops in my head or unexpectedly crosses my path; I don’t often use the ideas I write down and save), I’ll sometimes write for weeks or months and not get anything I like. It drives me BONKERS! But then, out of the blue, I’ll hear or see some ridiculous, zany, completely STOOPID thing that catches me so off-guard, it somehow turns everything around. I love when that happens! I had hoped after all these years of writing that I could summon that “voice” to show up just when I need it. But it’s all right. I’ve found that there are plenty of Gummi Bears and peanut M&M’s in this world to get me through the long, rough patches.

Nikki Grimes

I rarely experience truly fallow periods in my writing life, these days. I generally move from one contracted project to the next, working on multiple manuscripts over the course of a year. However, I do hit a creative wall, now and again, either because I’m burnt out from the previous project, as I was following completion of my forthcoming memoir, Ordinary Hazards, or because, uncharacteristically, I have no follow-up project. In either case, the solution to the problem is always the same for me: I read.

Reading always stirs my creative embers. I have to be selective about what genre I reach for, though. If I wish to work on a collection of poetry next, I had better not dive into a luscious anthology of personal essays, for example. If I do, in short order, I’ll find myself drafting personal essays. If, on the other hand, my intention is to work on a piece of prose, non-fiction or otherwise, I’d better beware novels in verse or volumes of poetry or that’s precisely what I’ll end up writing. I’d blame this literary misdirection on my muse, if I could, but it’s my own fault.   Whatever genre I feed on is invariably the genre that comes out of me. It happens every time! I suppose that’s the risk of writing across genres, as I am inclined to do. Ah, well. Nobody’s perfect!

 

Jordan Sonnenblick

I am an all-or-nothing writer.  I have published eleven middle-grade and YA novels since 2005, which sounds like the track record of someone who plugs away consistently.  In reality, though, I spend three-quarters of my time trying to think of something to write, and then when the idea finally hits, I crank out a book with blazing speed.  The longest it has ever taken me to write a first draft is four months, and I once wrote two complete novels and a short story in just eighteen feverish weeks.  (Then I got bronchitis and the flu in quick succession.  Don’t try this writing schedule at home.)

As you might imagine, I have put a whole lot of thought and effort into the battle against writer’s block — or, more specifically, initial-idea block.  I have never come up with a foolproof, one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some strategies that seem to make getting an idea more likely.  Anything that engages either my artistic faculties or the language center of my brain, but in a different way, is particularly useful.  As an example, this summer, I started taking Spanish refresher courses at night, reading the Harry Potter books in Spanish, and watching Spanish movies during my daily exercise routine.  Somehow, this freed up my thinking in a whole new way, and I started getting picture book ideas for the first time ever.  I also got a great idea for a memoir aimed toward adults.  This triggered a creative outburst, and I wrote the memoir, followed by two picture book manuscripts.  Right now, I am co-writing a play with an old friend from high school.  I don’t know which, if any, of these projects will sell.  However, I do know that spending a couple of hours a day immersed in another language got me out of a rut, and for that, I am grateful.

Next year: Russian!  Thanks for reading, comrades.

 

Liza Gardner Walsh 

I am currently in one of those fallow periods post deadline and past the chaotic aftermath. I’m dancing around a few projects but I’m also on the hunt. Luckily, I have a day job that provides me with endless daily inspiration. As a school librarian, I’m surrounded by books and children. I also have the good fortune to have recess duty everyday because I happen to believe that the best place to invite creativity is during recess.

So as I find myself on this current “writing recess,” I am noticing everything. I’m trying to follow the Mary Oliver method of living a life, “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” This recess also allows me to stretch and to play. Challenges like Story Storm and a self-directed one hundred days of writing poetry prime the well. I also snuck away to a kidlit retreat in Vermont that oozed inspiration.

But perhaps the most fail-safe method of cultivating inspiration is walking my 10 month old puppy. We walk all over our small town. She doesn’t miss a thing. She makes me slow down, notice, and process all those ideas that percolate on the playground.

So my inspiration recipe is this; pay attention, play, challenge yourself, escape if you can, and walk. I think when all this combines, things start to happen. The light turns on again.

 

 

Steve Sheinkin

To me, the time in between ideas is all about trial and error, trying out different potential stories, just mentally at first, when I’m walking, cooking, shaving, whatever. I’ll take an idea and just play with it, just start somewhere and see how far I can take it. If it seems promising, I’ll write out really rough sketches of how the plot might be structured. With nonfiction, I obviously can’t make stuff up, but I find there’s still a lot of creativity, a lot of questions to be answered before I know if a book will work. So I’ll a pick a possible opening scene and watch it. And then I try to get from there to a logical next scene, and to another one, and so on. I’ve thrown out some of my best ideas for opening sequences (or my editor has forced me to) just because they didn’t lead smoothly into the heart of the story. It’s a good system for me, if not an efficient one, and I’d say the only drawback is that I’ll find myself “watching” my scenes when I’m supposed to be listening to people who are talking to me.

 

JP: I’M SORRY, STEVE, DID YOU SAY SOMETHING?