My Story. What's Yours?

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My passion is children's and young adult books, and I teach courses in both. My favourite genre is fantasy. Raising two daughters has given me my appreciation for story and helped me to foster my passion for kid's books. I love to read as I walk, as it lets me combine two of my favourite passtimes.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Visit to Hadrian's Wall





If you love stories of King Arthur, or any books about Roman-Britain, you are likely to encounter a reference to Hadrian’s Wall. This is the wall the Romans built after Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 CE, to mark the northern border of the Empire. It ran nearly eighty miles, east to west, stood fifteen feet high—not including the parapet wall—and  marked by guard posts every mile or so.
We drove down from Glasgow to Carlyle, following the signs until we found the wall. We were in the middle of fields of grazing sheep, bordered by stone fences, and we parked by an after school care. Kids were running and playing games, and there was the wall—right across the road.
We crossed over and clambered onto the wall. It was only a couple of feet high at that point, and we walked along the broken stones of the top until it began to get higher. Farther along, we stopped to look at a squared-off section that was clearly one of the guard-posts punctuating the wall. We kept going and found a higher section where we could climb. We sat about ten feet up, talked and wondered about the soldiers who sat and watched on the wall. It must have been intensely boring for those men, standing and staring out over hills and woods, day and night, in wind and sun and rain, and wondering if the barbarians would ever come out of the north.
Much of the wall is now gone, and I wondered at first about the lack of fallen stones. It’s built of roughly squared stones, mudded together with a mixture of clay and who knows what. This wall has stood for nearly two thousand years, and you can imagine what the people thought who lived beside the wall ever since the Romans left. If they wanted to build a house, a pen for cattle or sheep, or even a church, they had a supply of building stones ready to hand.


After a while, we got back in the car and headed for the museum nearby. We  saw a couple of short videos about life as a Roman soldier on the frontier, and checked out the gear that was part of a Roman soldier’s kit: knives, spears, short swords, cooking pots, and the wooden frame to carry it all. We then drove farther on to see the fort at Vindolanda, a working archeological site with another museum attached. It was fascinating to learn about the fort and its history. Getting a close look at the range of artifacts from the site was fascinating as well, especially the alter to the weather god, Jupiter Dolichenus,, a four-foot carven stone alter, discovered at the site in 2009.


Visiting both the museum and Vindolanda was an education, but climbing over the ruins of Hadrian’s wall itself fired my imagination in a different way. More than the history of the fort and the wall, I thought about the people this wall was meant to keep out—the northern tribes, those people who occupied all of what we now know as Scotland. They must have come here, hunting parties on foot or horseback, only to see a wall being built across their land by the Latin-speaking intruders who would block the way into the south for the next two centuries.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Summer Solstice and National Aboriginal Day





As a kid, I remember looking at the calendar on June 21, and it always said, “First Day of Summer.” That always confused me. Summer was already happening, and I wondered why the calendar people always got it wrong. For us kids who lived on 89 street, the last week of June meant the end of school—long evenings of playing hide-and-seek and reveling in our new found freedom
I first became aware of the solstice while watching The Wonderful Stories of Professor Kitzel, voiced by Paul Soles (I’m sure that reference dates me). It was the Stonehenge episode; I was eight years-old, and just beginning to realize that the world was much larger than I’d ever imagined.


Stonehenge has fascinated me ever since, and I was fortunate enough to visit the monument last August with my daughter. It’s a strange and wonderful place, a ruined circle of standing stones, now circled with a walkway for the innumerable tourists who visit the site every year. If the fence wasn’t in place, the site would suffer—but I still wish I could have walked inside that ancient circle.
June 21 marks the Summer Solstice, but in Canada, it also marks National Aboriginal Day, a celebration of Canada’s First Peoples. If you are living in Edmonton, you can take part in events all week that feature the culture and art of Canada’s First People—more reason to celebrate this time of year.
If you live far enough north, you will understand why people around the world have always celebrated this day. It’s a time of light and growing things—the polar opposite of the long days of winter. However you spend your time this June, enjoy the days: take the time to walk, cycle, work in the garden, or just be outside with kids, friends, and those you love.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Travels in Scotland and Encountering the Literary



As you travel through Scotland, it’s hard not to encounter literary types from the past. This last May, my daughter and I drove from Glasgow down to Dumfries. We wanted to see the Robbie Burns House. In spite of teaching English for a living—not to mention my Scottish heritage—I found I knew surprisingly little about Burns. I knew he was a poet, of course, but I didn’t realize he died so young—at the age of thirty-seven.


We found the house, a small two-story place just off a busy road in Dumfries. It had a large room downstairs, with a wide fireplace and alcove for possibly preparing food. Upstairs had two rooms, one with a small space, big enough to hold a desk where Burns wrote and worked. The man clearly loved women, as he had several illegitimate children, as well as a family with Jean Armour. The last few years of his life was spent working as an Excise Officer in Dumfries to support his family. Not quite the romantic picture of the Plowman Poet—save for maybe the illegitimate children. You can read more about his life here.



We walked up the street to the church where Burns is buried. It’s a mausoleum, a structure about the size of a garden shed, where Burns and Jean Armour are buried. Apparently, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy visited Burns grave, which at that time was a simple stone, not befitting the romantic life and legacy of Burns. The mausoleum came later.
After leaving Dumfries, we looked for a place to picnic. We found a lovely spot in the Forest of Ae, a grassy spot beneath a tree, right next to a burn. We sat, had our lunch, listened to the cows across the road, and watched the dog-walkers and cyclists pass by.
We drove north the next day towards Inverness, passing through lovely countryside, open and hilly, with heather and gorse purpling the fields—the perfect place for romantically minded, heartbroken young men to wander in despair as they thought of their lost loves.
We made one longer stop on the way north—a place called The Hermitage, which is a park in Craigvinean Forest. The walk takes you through tall trees and down to the River Braan, a shallow, fast-flowing stream. Again, Wordsworth and Dorothy got there before us. As we wandered along the path, I thought about what it meant for me to walk such a path in the footsteps of people like Wordsworth and Dorothy, who saw these same sights nearly two hundred years before.