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One of Jandy's most vivid memories is of Iranians jumping over bonfires on the eve of the last Wednesday before the new year.

"Give me your beautiful red color. Take back my sickly pallor!" they shout to the flames. The short, dark days are filled with hope for spring's return and a brighter future.

This custom, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, had been part of Persian culture for 4,000 years, long before the rise of Islam. During the reign of Darius I, the prophet Zoroaster had a vision of an uncreated Spirit named Ashura (Light) Mazda (Wisdom), who alone should be worshiped.

"Red Wednesday" celebrations in Shekarabard combined old and new traditions. By the light of bonfires, kids ran through the streets dressed as ancestral spirits, banging pots and pans to ward off bad luck, and knocking on doors for treats. Special foods were prepared to make wishes come true. After serving noodle soup, the Grahams' neighbors had passed out a mix of pistachios, almonds, apricots, and figs.

Through stories of Esther and Daniel, Jandy knows how the fortunes of the Persians intertwined with those of the Jews and Babylonians. Her home-church group had visited the palace ruins at Susa ("Shushan" in the Bible) with its museum full of animal carvings and ceremonial relief sculptures. While history is not her forte, the sense of being steeped in a land of ancient legends was quite intoxicating.

Texas has its own folklore--of pioneer women in covered wagons, cattle drives, and indigenous tribes pre-dating Columbus. But Jandy's soul remains in Central Asia. Above all she misses Maryam, her closest friend. So begins RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. Read More 

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YOU, THE AUTHOR, bring to your work all the events of your life. To some extent, whether intended or not, these will shape your characters’ emotions and actions. They add colorful details that breathe life on to the page. Harry Potter fans are delighted to learn that the flying car of the second book was modeled on a battered Ford Anglia owned by her friend Sean. During school and library visits, I tell kids about my jealousy of a classmate, Shirley Bateman, and how I gave that feeling to Craig in ARROWHEAD’S LOST HOARD in scenes with his stepbrother. I let them taste baklava and sip hot tea with sugar cubes, the way Jandy did in SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE, based on memories of my year in Iran.

YOU, THE READER, experience a story through the lens of your own experiences. The consequences of a character’s decisions as you live in his or her skin influence your outlook on the world. You have opinions about a protagonist’s behavior that differ from those if another reader. You may re-read the same book years later and see things in a new light, according to the cards life has dealt you. Hence the popularity of book club discussions! Read More 

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Does every alphabet have to use a xylophone for X? Not necessarily. In my picture book, X means ten on the face of Big Ben. But for the purposes of this blog about RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR, it fits quite well.

The musical accompaniment to the original songs for ALICE IN TUMBLEWEED LAND will incorporate instruments for any children in Hickory Bend who want to take part, at any level, according to their talent shown in try-outs. There may be a simple quartet, or a full orchestra. I don't want to complicate the plot, but Grant (Jandy's crush) plays the trumpet, and Heidi (her cousin) the flute. A simple tune may be played on xylophones (metal) or glockenspiels (wood).

Like Jandy and Cal, I'm getting excited about this show, as if it's really going to take place! I've been looking up the scores from the Disney movie, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and humming the songs my class sang in our 1975 program at Ludlow Middle School. I directed the drama; my colleague Ian played the piano in that golden afternoon.

How do you get to Wonderland, anyway? In 1973, I had painted the set for another ALICE production, at Forelands Middle School. The book was one of my favorites as a child. Is that why the story and music haunt my waking dreams? I can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel it all in my imagination. Let's hope the readers will, too. Read More 
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The Hickory Bend production of “Alice” is a new interpretation with a Texas twist by a local writer. Wonderland is re-named Tumbleweed Land. The play mixes events and characters from cowboy history with those of Lewis Carroll’s two books.

Jandy‘s encounters at her new/old school parallel those of Alice down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. She gets lost in the warren of hallways joining the buildings. A good student made to feel stupid, she can recite Persian poetry, but has missed out on American classics. Friends leave her behind with their chit-chat about fashions and film stars.

Down is up, and up is down. People talk in riddles. Nothing makes sense. Jandy must find her own ways to navigate the landscape. After a weird and wonderful adventure, she will emerge at Tamam Shud (the Very End in Farsi), with renewed confidence and relief that it is over. Read More 

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How do authors come up with names for characters? Their own lives? The telephone directory? The sound of a name, or its meaning/connotation? All of the above?

Jandy’s favorite teacher at the International school in Iran got her last name from Vandergriff Park in Arlington, Texas. It had a special association for me. My SCBWI chapter held workshops and conferences in a building there, before we outgrew it. As with many of my own teachers, I don’t even know Miss Vandergriff’s first name! Presumably I gave her one. It must be in the bio sheet I drafted when I began to plot SECRET OT THE SEVENTH GATE. So I can look it up if needed.

Miss Vandergriff wears her hair In a French knot, paints her fingernails pearly pink, and wears a jasmine fragrance. That much I rememember. She may not appear physically in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. I’m not ruling it out, as most Americans have left Iran by 1979, or soon will. Maryam heard a rumor that she was engaged to an Iranian pilot, so she may choose to stay. But her influence over Jandy’s life continues.

Admiring her set for the Ali Baba show, Miss Vandergriff had pronounced her the “best little artist this side of the Dez River!” This gives Jandy confidence to pursue art when she returns to Hickory Bend. Might she become the "best little artist this side of the Red River"? Unable to fit art into her class schedule, she volunteers to paint scenery for a local production of Alice in Wonderland.

Jandy had also been in Miss Vandergriff's class for 8th grade English, but Maryam attended a separate class with students whose second language was English. For the lesson featured in SEVENTH GATE, Jandy created an Arabian Nights tale (number 1,002) while listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" - absorbing Persian and Russian culture at the same time.

A teacher's approach to life and work affects kids' lives in big and small ways, for better or for worse. His or her words are imprinted on minds and report cards for decades to come. Read More 

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