Random photos

From Chicago and elsewhere.

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Friends Grace and Iris who, with my longtime college pal Steve, shared a great meal with me at Frontera Grill in Chicago.

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Art Institute of Chicago Picasso exhibit: ‘Mother and Child’, with lost-and-found Dad.

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The guy could *draw*…

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Always gotta check out the Korean celadon.

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Latest knitting project. Knitters out there will know what I’m talking about: the triumph of finding…

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…the Perfect Buttons.

And last but certainly not least: Through the efforts of librarian John Scott, I’ve skyped a couple of times with the Friends School of Baltimore. In my presentation, I talked about how Koreans celebrate Children’s Day–a national holiday–by going on a picnic and flying kites. Well, the school decided to have its own Children’s Day celebration! 🙂 Teacher Jillien Lakatta posted this photo on Twitter:

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I thank the stars for great librarians and teachers helping literature come alive for their students.


My kind of town

24+ brilliant hours in Chicago.

Thursday evening: Met dear friends Steve, Iris and Grace for dinner at Frontera Grill. Food all really good, the mushroom tamales GREAT.

Friday morning: Steve and Iris took me to the Art Institute to see the Picasso exhibit. Arranged more or less chronologically, a wonderful overview of Picasso’s career. Enjoyed it immensely. Favorite part: the “Mother and Child” painting and the story behind its excised third figure. (Least favorite part: typeface on the walls difficult to read, especially from a distance whenever there was a crowd. Note to exhibit curators: for aging boomers, the font needs to be BIGGER and DARKER. And serif, but maybe that’s just me.)

Friday dinner: with the Sutherland Lecture committee at Tesoria, an Italian restaurant on Adams St. Ann Carlson, Gillian Engburg, Janice del Negro, Lee McClain, Mary Ogilvie and Linda Ward-Callaghan were delightful company. Missing and much missed: Betsy Hearne (traveling in Ireland) and Roger Sutton (grounded in Boston). I had the burrata with caponata, and then the roast suckling pig. Food divine, conversation even better!

Friday evening: The Sutherland lecture. After Liz McChesney’s welcome and Janice Del Negro’s (terrific, humbling) introduction, I stepped to the podium and proceeded to speak for what felt like an aeon with a GIGANTIC NASTY FROG in my throat. It took approximately 75 attempts to clear it. This had never happened to me before; however, it is one of the recurring anxiety dreams which I have regularly before major speaking events. I wonder if now that it’s happened I’ll stop having that particular dream?

Anyway, the audience was very patient, and the frog finally hopped (hocked) away, and the rest of the speech (titled ‘Writer vs. Author’) went fine. The head count was nothing like it was last year (for Neil Gaiman) or will be next year (for John Green), but everyone was enthusiastic and supportive. At the reception afterwards, I got to chat with many of the folks who came.

A huge thank you to the Sutherland committee, the University of Chicago, the Horn Book, and the Chicago Public Library; to Clarion Books for sponsoring my appearance; and to everyone who attended.

And when I got back to the hotel, I found out that the Mets had won their game against the Braves in the tenth inning. 🙂

Saturday morning: A decadent breakfast at the hotel (the Sofitel, probably my favorite chain, very European). Now off to the airport.

I heart Chicago!


a 17

If my days were rated on a scale of 1-10, yesterday was a 17.

I woke in New Haven, CT, at The Study hotel, quite a nice place. (Sleek nice as opposed to cozy nice.) The Study’s ‘theme’ is books. They partnered with The Strand bookstore in Manhattan to come up with a list of 100 titles everyone should read. At The Study, you can buy any of the books on the list—or the entire set of 100. I asked the desk clerk if he’d ever sold anyone the complete set. He looked surprised and answered, “I’ve sold five or six sets today alone.”

Pretty good place to start the day.

After a little exercise and a shower, I had a long phone chat with pal Julia Durango. We discussed our upcoming trip to Peru. (Note the casual delivery of that line….) Then I set off from the hotel into the glorious spring weather. I was headed for the library, and was hopeful that I’d find a quick bite to eat along the way.

What I found was three street-food carts in a row, all selling South American food. Talk about serendipity! I had an arepa (sweet corn & mozzarella) with pork, fresh salsa, rice & beans and fried plantains.

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Really delicious. Five bucks.

Then I went into Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. I’ve been reading books set in Peru (see above casual statement) and learned only last week that Hiram Bingham’s archives are held at the Sterling. Bingham was (probably… arguably) the first explorer to lay eyes on Machu Picchu. In the Sterling reading room, three boxes awaited me; they contained Bingham’s letters and journals for the Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911.

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The frontispiece is written in ink, quite legible, but the entries themselves are in pencil.

Much as I loved seeing and holding the actual small red leather-bound journal with which Bingham traveled, it was almost impossible to read the very faded pencil scrawl. Thankfully, Bingham had also produced a typescript in which he expanded into narrative the brief notes in the journal.

I started right at the beginning, with Bingham’s departure from New York in June. I already knew that the date he first saw the ruins at Machu Picchu was July 24. As I read through the typescript, I had to laugh inwardly at myself: I was leaning forward on the chair as the date crept closer to July 24. Even though I already knew what would happen, I couldn’t wait to read about it.

July 21 . . . 22 . . . 23 . . . and then—

July 25!?? What the freak—

There were SEVEN pages missing! The exact pages for the July 24 entry!

I almost knocked over my chair in my haste to find a librarian. Three of them examined the file. All were bemused. They apologized and said they had no idea where the missing pages were but would attempt to trace them.

Then I really had to laugh. I mean, what else can you do?

The mostly-blissful session in the Sterling Reading Room was followed by an event at the Beinecke Library across the street. The current exhibit being displayed on the mezzanine of the Beinecke, “By Hand,” http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/hand-celebrating-manuscript-collections was curated by Dr. Kathryn James. Readers of The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers series might recognize her name: She’s a character in the title I wrote for the series, TRUST NO ONE.

The ‘By Hand’ exhibit is breathtaking–a selection of the most famous and/or intriguing items in the Beinecke collections. And one of the display cases holds the Voynich manuscript–which is the linchpin of TRUST NO ONE.

To my surprise and delight, Kathryn decided to include a copy of TRUST NO ONE in the display case, as well as a couple of my manuscript pages! I sent her before-and-after pages for which my Scholastic editor, Rachel Griffiths, had made a suggestion for a change. Rachel’s comments are printed out in the margins in bright neon colors, using the MS Word program–a rather jarring contrast to the vellum and parchment in many of the other cases!

Kathryn also invited me to do a presentation about my book and the research I had done, which included a previous visit to the Beinecke to look through the Voynich as well as to case the joint and figure out a way for Dan & Amy to steal the manuscript. (To find out if they succeeded, you’ll have to read the book.) She did a lovely introduction, and after my presentation there was a wine-and-yummy-nibbles reception.

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With Kathryn James in front of the display case. Over my shoulder, a copy of TRUST NO ONE, and next to it, the Voynich itself!

Then Kathryn took a small group to dinner: Three librarians, editor Mallory Kass from Scholastic (standing in for Rachel, who is on vacation–Mallory did A LOT of the work on The 39 Clues), and a young reader (the son of one of the librarians. And I do mean READER). We had one of the best dinner conversations ever…and the food was good too. (Zinc restaurant in New Haven. I had a lentil salad and scallops.)

I can’t thank Kathryn enough–for her help with the book, AND for the opportunity to present at Yale!

But the magical day wasn’t over yet. When I got back to The Study, I listened to the last few innings of the Mets-Dodgers game…

…which the Mets won on Jordany Valdespin’s walk-off grand slam.

WOW. What a day.


E.L. Konigsburg

My four favorite Konigsburg titles, in no particular order:

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FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER.

–The *plausible* adventure story. A HUGE influence on my work. Even when writing my titles for The 39 Clues series, I wanted to Dan and Amy’s escapades to be plausible (which is not the same as realistic), within the realm of true possibility for two kids traveling with an au pair. MIXED-UP FILES taught me that.

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A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER.

–Historical fiction can be FUN, and funny, without having to be slapstick.

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JENNIFER, HECATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY AND ME, ELIZABETH

–Friendship is *complicated*. At any age. Tell it true, even to the very young. (Hello, Frog & Toad, and Elephant & Piggy!)

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FATHER’S ARCANE DAUGHTER.

–IMHO, the most sophisticated mystery ever published for young people.

I got to meet E.L. Konigsburg once. It was surely one of the highlights of my life as a children’s writer.

I’ll miss knowing that she was in our world…but will find comfort by re-reading those four books over and over.


Roger Ebert, in memoriam

I never met Roger Ebert. But I feel connected to him on quite an intimate level, just one degree of separation.

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http://www.anitasilvey.com/books/bk_everything.html

Several years ago, I submitted a short piece for an anthology edited by the indefatigable Anita Silvey. (If you don’t know her amazing Book-A-Day blog, get thee hence immediately. http://childrensbookalmanac.com/ ) The anthology is titled EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK. Along with more than one hundred other people (from Jay Leno and Julianne Moore to Deval Patrick and Steve Wozniak), I was asked to respond to the question, “What children’s book changed the way you see the world?”

I had a terrible time deciding on which book to write about. (ROOSEVELT GRADY, by Louisa Shotwell; WHAT THEN, RAMAN? by Shirley Arora; A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, by Betty Smith…were three other candidates among the many I considered.) Finally, I ended up writing about THE SATURDAYS, by Elizabeth Enright. Here’s how I ended my essay:

The book was one of several that made me want to live in New York–and when I grew up, I did.

When I received my author copy of the finished book, one of the things that most interested me was the handful of instances where more than one person had selected the same book. HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, by Crockett Johnson, was chosen by both Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg. Tiki Barber, Donna Shalala, and Edward Villella had all written about Watty Piper’s THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD. Beatrix Potter’s animal stories were the choice of Ken Follett and Beverly Clearly.

I’m sure by now you’ve guessed where this is going.

One other person chose THE SATURDAYS. Roger Ebert wrote about how much he loved Enright’s Melendy family adventures–THE SATURDAYS is the first in the series.

Those books were the first real ones I ever read. They taught me that stories could be wonderful…

I wish I’d had the chance to meet Mr. Ebert. I know we would have had a terrific conversation about our beloved mutual friends, the Melendys.


Final post, Dhaka

My final day in Dhaka was a boat trip on the flood plain, arranged by librarian Colleen Boerner. It was a wonderful way to finish a terrific trip. A few last impressions…

Women in Bangladesh wear both saris and salwar kameez (tunic & trousers).

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Library assistant Shuborna in one of her beautiful salwar kameez.

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Colleen in salwar kameez.

I enjoyed these fanciful fruit carvings on the hotel’s breakfast buffet:

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Melon boat…

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Watermelon rose…

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Honeydew bunny!

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Gecko, spotted in the school’s gymnasium area during the conference badminton tournament.

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The boat for our trip on the flood plain.

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Delicious potluck lunch on the boat!

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Only an hour outside Dhaka, foreigners are a rare enough sight that the village children never fail to wave, often calling to summon their friends to wave too.

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Reflection.

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Cricket, wherever there’s space enough.

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Riding on top of the trains is free.

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With AISD’s Middle and High School librarian Colleen Boerner…

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…and Taipei American School’s lower-school librarian Barb Middleton.

Both Colleen and Barb bent over backwards to make my visits memorable. Many thanks to them and everyone else at their schools who made the trip such a special one for me!


AISD assembly

Yesterday I attended the American International School of Dhaka’s elementary-school assembly. These take place first thing in the morning once or twice a month. Part of the assembly was a thank-you for my visit; two students presented me with a beautiful gift: a triple strand of white and gray pearls with matching earrings! More pearls, hurrah! (My Korean name, ‘Myung-gin’, roughly translates to ‘precious pearl’ or ‘shining jewel’, so I’ve always been partial to pearls.)

But it was the rest of the assembly that most impressed me. As students filed in, the student rock band Checkmates played (electric guitar, bass, drums). The cast of the school play ‘Alice in Wonderland’ sang a song (they sounded great, and I hope they break a leg when they perform next week!). This was followed by the regular features of the assembly:

–Students whose birthday is in March came to the stage. The whole school sang a lively rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, with ‘cha-cha-chas’ and dancing interspersed. Each birthday boy or girl got a pencil.

–One class was recognized for their good behavior (or performance or sportsmanship etc). They took possession of the school mascot, a huge stuffed tiger:

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Elementary school principal Lara Manasfi waiting to present the tiger…

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…to representatives of Mr. Taylor’s first-grade class, this month’s winners.

–And finally, my favorite part of the assembly. Because of the nature of the school’s population, with parents who work for NGOs and embassies, students at AISD come and go more often than at local schools. When students leave, they are honored at the assembly. Classmates prepare a scrapbook of letters and memories, and some of the letters are read aloud to the whole school. Yesterday three students were recognized, and their classmates’ remarks were simple and heartfelt.

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The girl in red at far left; the boy in yellow, center (who’s looking at his scrapbook); and the boy in white at right are the students leaving the school; they listen while their classmates honor them.

This assembly helps create a wonderful sense of community. I’m so glad I got to attend.

Today, last day in Dhaka. Flying out tonight…getting ready for the thirty hours to be spent in transit. Please send good-travel-karma vibes my way…


Souvenirs?

I have a hard time buying souvenirs.

I’m a terrible housekeeper, so I almost never buy tchotchkes that require dusting. Sometimes I try to get something that can be hung on the wall, but those items usually aren’t luggage-friendly. Often I get back home dismayed to realize that my ‘souvenirs’ are several crumpled airline ticket stubs and a half-empty hotel-sized bottle of body lotion.

On this trip I’ve done better! Besides the delightful pieces of pearl jewelry (see previous post), I’ll be bringing back a little kaleidescope from the shop of the Palace Museum in Taipei. (I love kaleidescopes.) And I’m very excited about the item that’s being purchased for me today…

I’m Korean-American, right? I grew up eating rice. The japonica variety–short-grained sticky Asian rice. Rice-love must be encoded in my DNA, because for years now I’ve been on a mission to sample as wide a range as possible of the world’s rices. Indian basmati and Thai jasmine: yummmm. I can eat unseemly amounts of the arborio and carnaroli risotto rices of Italy. Paella, pilaf, fried rice, rice and beans, yes please. I’ve chowed my way through all those fancy little Lotus-brand bags, Bhutan red rice, Forbidden black rice, etc. My favorite dish on the dim sum cart is the ‘treasure rice’–sticky rice steamed in a lotus leaf, with surprise goodies in each bite.

Here in Dhaka, to my surprise and utter delight, I found MY rice. The ‘if-forced-to-choose-only-one-kind-to-eat-for-the-rest-of-my-life’ rice. I ate it on my third day here; it was part of the hotel’s buffet. The waiter said it was ‘lemon rice,’ but of course what I wanted to know was the type, not the name of the dish. It wasn’t until the next day that I found out: It was Kalijira, known to the Bangla as ‘The Prince of Rice.’

It’s reminiscent of basmati, but with tiny exquisite grains–smaller than short-grain rice, and slender, not stubby. I realized that I’d eaten this rice before–the Lotus product, several years ago. But obviously I hadn’t cooked it right, because it left no strong impression.

The Kalijira on the hotel buffet was remarkable. I’m finding it difficult to explain exactly how or why. It was aromatic, like basmati, but more than that, the texture, the mouth-feel, was simply perfect. It was the Platonic ideal of rice. I got to eat it again at Joya’s house, which is where I learned what it was.

(I took a bite of the rice at Joya’s feast with a little trepidation, thinking that it couldn’t possibly be as good as I’d thought–that I’d been hungry at the hotel or whatever. Nope–it was EVEN BETTER.)

AISD’s upper-school librarian Colleen Boerner, my lovely host for this visit, consulted with her cook Paul, who knows the neighborhood markets intimately. Paul has kindly agreed to purchase two kilos of Kalijira for me today.

Now THAT’S a great souvenir.

What do you buy for souvenirs when you travel?


A great day in Dhaka

1st, 3rd, and 7th graders at AISD: All were attentive and enthusiastic. The older students had great questions! Today I'll be seeing fifth grade, and then doing two more presentations–to teachers in the afternoon and parents in the evening.

After the 7th-grade session, I went back to the hotel and had a nice lunch: cream of tomato soup and a tandoori-chicken sandwich on beautifully flaky naan-style bread. The food at the hotel is really good. Then, a special treat: Marina, who teaches Bangla language and culture, picked me up to go pearl shopping!

Marina took me to two shops. With her help, I chose the size, color, and shape of the pearls I wanted, then the length and type of clasp. Most of the pieces will be delivered today, but a couple were made right then and there:

Dhaka pearl

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Small white pearls, right, and larger gray ones, both strung on clear 'fishing line' so they look like they're floating.

Marina did the haggling on my behalf. She's an impressively accomplished bargainer, and I was truly grateful–I'm terrible at haggling.

A quick swim in the hotel pool, then it was off to a very special dinner. Joya is an administrative assistant at the school. She and her family welcomed me and several teachers into their home for a feast of Bangla food!

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Phuchka: a crisp, paper-thin shell of fried lentil paste holds a stuffing of mashed potato, chick peas and chilis. I ate two, and had to physically restrain myself from gobbling the whole lot.

After phuchkas and lovely bite-sized samosas (filled with ground beef, Bengali style), we went in to the dining room where the long table was loaded with food: rice and naan; chicken, beef, coconut shrimp, several vegetable dishes, homemade pickles…every dish beautifully presented and so aromatic!

Dhaka eggplant
Two kinds of eggplant: fried crisp in rounds, sweet and silky in strips.

"The riverbank was lined with men selling freshly cooked hilsha fish; the smell was almost unendurably delicious. More than anything, I longed for my mother to augment her already lavish picnic with a pair of hot bought hilsha fish."
–from SCENES FROM EARLY LIFE, by Philip Hensher.

I had read this passage just a few days ago, and immediately wanted to try hilsha (or hilsa) fish. I was taken to a seafood restaurant my first night here; alas, no hilsa. But there on Joya's table…

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A pair of hot hilsha fish! Joya explained that it had been cooked in a pressure cooker, which softened the small bones and made them completely edible.

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With the gracious hostess. I was also delighted to meet Joya's husband and parents.

A final note, literally: When I got back to the hotel, I found this letter in my room:

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So far this morning I have not had a laundry emergency.


Dhaka: a few photos

I haven’t had much of a chance to take photos yet, but Dhaka is so interesting that even my feeble attempts seemed worth posting. Those rickshaws I mentioned earlier? They’re decorated all over:

Dhaka rickshaw
The canopy…

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…the seat and the floorboard. The back too, but I couldn’t get a shot of it, as this one is permanently parked in a corner of the school library.

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The Lakeshore hotel has a rooftop swimming pool. I spotted this bird there and was quite taken by its long tail…

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Anyone know what kind of bird it is?

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Sculpture in the lobby of the Lakeshore.

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Orchid plant blooming at the American club (ARA) in Dhaka.

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Spotted in traffic: a pedal-cart transporting bamboo rods…

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…that were at least 25 feet long!

Finished first day of presentations: kindergarten, 8th grade, and the whole high school, all great audiences. Tomorrow: 1st, 3rd, & 7th grade. Looking forward to meeting more readers!