I see that you became interested in Henry David Thoreau in high school, having read “Civil Disobedience” and Walden. What was it about Thoreau that attracted you?
First of all, I admired his spirit of independence. I had a good and quiet suburban childhood. But I was an only child with a very domineering mother. Her word was the law in our household, and my introverted father and I generally bowed to her will. So when I read in “Civil Disobedience” that we all had internal higher laws that we could call upon and follow, this was a revelation to me. You mean, I could think for myself? I didn’t have to be like everyone else? And I could be RIGHT? Wow! I want more of this.
And then there was the connection to nature. I had been a Girl Scout since second grade (thanks to my mother), and I loved being outside. I spent time exploring the various corners of our own large yard. I used to climb a tall sugar maple behind our house and sit on a high branch and sing. I spent two summers in the mid-1970s working as a counselor at a residential Girl Scout camp. As I read Walden and Thoreau’s journals, I was also listening to the songs of John Denver. Both men seemed to me to have the same messages about the power of the individual and the importance of nature. The opening lines of “Rocky Mountain High” are: “He was born in the summer of his 27th year / Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before.” John was talking about landing in Aspen, Colorado. But you could apply the same lines to Henry Thoreau. He was 27 years old when he moved to Walden Pond. I could list more of their similarities. At my core, I’m a child of the 1970s, and I still consider both men to be my mentors.
As a former elementary school teacher and nature counselor, I was fascinated by your twenty-one activities. What led you to do a book aimed at middle school students? What did you think they could take away from experiencing the life of Thoreau?
I’m a former librarian with an outdoor education degree. As a librarian, I was familiar with the For Kids series that was published by Chicago Review Press. I bought Mark Twain for Kids (by R. Kent Rasmussen, 2004) on one of my visits to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, some years ago. I very much liked the idea of weaving easy hands-on activities into a biography. It’s a way of making a person from the past become more real to young readers today: it offers them a chance to kind of “be” someone they know about only from books. And it doesn’t matter what age you are. We continually seek these kinds of connections.
Eventually, as I followed my own explorations of Henry Thoreau’s life, I realized that he would make a good subject for a book in this series. I looked at the publisher’s web site and saw that none had yet been written. I debated over this deficiency for at least a year with some friends and fellow Thoreau fans, and they all encouraged me to submit a proposal to write the book. Fortunately, the folks at CRP agreed! And when it came time to figure out 21 activities that could relate to Thoreau’s life, I called most upon my love of nature and my outdoor ed training. More than half of the activities in this book either lead the reader outside or have them interact with natural elements. Thoreau spent a lot of his time exploring the environment of his hometown. I think it’s important for young people – and adults — to do the same. How can you care about your place if you don’t know anything about it? Thoreau provides us with the ultimate example of how to do this.
How did your time as a tour guide at Thoreau Farm inform your writing of the book?
One fall morning in 2012, a family of four visited the house. The young daughter carried the paperback book The Fledgling, by Jane Langton, one of the episodes of The Hall Family Chronicles for middle-grade readers. In the series, members of an eccentric family live in an equally eccentric house on Walden Street in Concord, Massachusetts. They own and talk to their marble busts of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott. The Halls do their best to live according to their heroes’ philosophies. This daughter must have convinced her family to come to Concord to see if the people, the places, and the magic in the stories were real. They had stopped at Thoreau’s birthplace to find some answers. I could see that the usual house tour wouldn’t be enough. As her father nodded his approval, I took the girl aside and chatted about Thoreau’s advice to be awake and aware, to be true to oneself, and more. We looked at each other eye-to-eye, and she seemed to absorb every word. I think Thoreau’s ideas made an impression on her that day. At the same time, I was frustrated. I couldn’t tell her everything in ten or fifteen minutes. And I had nothing I could hand to her so she could discover more on her own about who Henry Thoreau was and what he did. This book would have helped both of us that day. As I wrote it, I pictured her big brown eyes once again.
Although I am well past school age, I too want to try some of the exercises. What can adults gain from imitating the life of Thoreau by engaging in these exercises?
I’m pleased that you want to do some of the activities! I had hoped that adults would be attracted to them, too. Obviously, I care most about the ones that connect us with nearby nature. Anything we can do to get folks outside and to be more aware of their surroundings is good work.
I think the core lesson we can learn from Henry Thoreau is to pay attention. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” because people tend to just float along with whatever is happening around them. They skim the surface of life. Thoreau was the kind of person who would stop and say, “Wait a minute. Why are we doing this? Does it really make sense?” And the process begins with yourself. Henry kept a daily journal, and this is one of the first activities suggested in the book. Knowing what you think and who you are is a key first step to understanding where you fit into the universe. Then you can branch out to discovering nature and to exploring the history of your town. I’m sure older readers and adults will figure out extra complexities to add to each activity, too.
What was it like to trace the steps of Thoreau and Horace Mann on their last journey together? What prompted you to actually follow the trail and what did you learn?
I was living in northern Illinois in the late 1990s, when I was shown a copy of the March 1981 issue of National Geographic. It contained an article written by longtime Thoreau scholar Will Howarth, “In the Tracks of Thoreau,” which outlined all of the major trips that Henry had taken in his life. Suddenly I saw a map whose route circled into the Midwest, right through where I was sitting! I thought I had known a lot about Thoreau by then, but I had never heard of him traveling so far west. I wanted to know more. I dug around – and the details were difficult to come by, because Thoreau didn’t have a chance to write much about the “Journey West” himself – and I discovered that I crossed his path four times a day. In northern Illinois, and not anywhere near Concord, Massachusetts! The railroad tracks he had ridden on led right through our county. This was the beginning of the end for me. I had to know it all. And again, I was encouraged in the research by a friend who was a Thoreau scholar himself, Edmund A. Schofield. Unfortunately, Ed didn’t live to see the finished book published. He read all but two of the chapter drafts, though.
I learned quite a lot as I retraced the journey – about Thoreau, about the North American landscape, about our history, and about myself. It may seem trite to want to stand exactly where someone else once did, more than a century apart, just to see what he saw and to feel what he felt. And to follow a whole two-month excursion across 10 U.S. states and one Canadian province may seem a bit extreme. But even when you choose at first to follow in someone else’s footsteps, eventually the adventure becomes your own. It has to. This was the biggest lesson I learned with the project. The rest of my encounters I filled in the more than 400 pages of Westward I Go Free.
What do you see as Thoreau’s relevance to individuals today besides the obvious connections to the environmental movement and the civil rights movement?
The prod to pay attention, as I mentioned before. Question something when it doesn’t seem right to you, even if everyone else is passively going along with it. Don’t be negative just to be negative. But really think about what you are doing. Live deliberately.
Also: Find the extraordinary in the ordinary. If you read Thoreau’s journals, you’ll see that he could write at length about the smallest discoveries he made: tiny plants or creatures or scenes that other people just passed by or dismissed. We are surrounded by wonderfulness at every turn. It should be celebrated, even in small ways.
I see on your website that you have written reviews, stories and poetry. What role has writing played in your life and how does it connect with your lifelong profession as a librarian?
I decided in fourth grade that I wanted to be a librarian. I loved books and I loved to read. Then in fifth grade, I started to write stories based on the words in our weekly spelling assignments. Soon after this, I expressed my interest in being a writer to my parents. And one of them told me that it would be a tough way to earn a living. I didn’t think I was tough, so I assumed working as a professional writer was out for me. I still wanted to be a librarian, so I kept to this plan. At least I would be surrounded by books and words. So I got the degree and began working in a variety of libraries.
But the writer inside of me started popping out in the 1990s. At first, it was through video and book reviews. Then longer articles came about. Around this time, my interest in Thoreau perked back up, too. On the evening of September 11, 2001, when it seemed as though we were all doomed to disaster by some unknown outside force, I said to myself, “I can’t die yet. I haven’t finished writing my novel!” I spent the next five months writing “Watching Henry,” a novel that brings Henry Thoreau as a short-term time traveler to the year 1999. An agent later pitched it to a few publishers, but no one was interested. It’s back in my desk drawer now. But once you write one book, the next one comes a little easier.
It has been a terrific experience to see all of the sides of the publishing business: from reader and librarian, to casual writer and published author. Now I work part-time in a used bookstore, which brings the process full circle. Each one of these volumes and authors went through the same kinds of dilemmas and decisions that I faced. Each book is its own story, separate from the one it tells on the page. I appreciate them even more now.
I do have moments when I question my original choice. Should I have let someone talk me out of becoming a writer, long ago? What books could I have written between then and now? And yet: all of the professional and personal turns I’ve taken have led me to this moment. I wouldn’t have written about Thoreau’s “Journey West” if I hadn’t been working as a librarian in northern Illinois. I wouldn’t have written Thoreau for Kids if I hadn’t been familiar with the series as a librarian first and gotten the idea from the Mark Twain book. Everything is connected. (And I do write about more subjects than just Mr. Thoreau, too.)
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