Monday, September 14, 2009

We have a winner!

We have a winner for Quiz #2! Congratulations to Janet G. Messenger, the only person who answered all five questions correctly. She wins an autographed copy of It Happened in Chicago!

The answers I desired (and which Janet provided) are as follows:

1. City of the Big ____________
Answer: (b) Shoulders
Comment: Most people got this one right. The nickname "City of the Big Shoulders" originally comes from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg:

2. The ___________ City
Answer: (d) All of the above (Prairie, Windy, Second)
Comment: Six people got this right.

3. ______ of the Prairie
Answer: (c) Gem
Comment: Only one person got this right. Although "Pride of the Prairie" is a lovely nickname, to the best of my knowledge, it is not used for Chicago. I took a chance on this one because somebody, somewhere may use it -- but I'm sure it's not a commonly accepted nickname.

4. Hog Butcher to the ________
Answer: (a) World
Comment: The actual quote from Sandburg's poem "Chicago" is "Hog Butcher for -- not to -- the World." I fell prey to a common error that people make when quoting this line.

5. __________town
Answer: (d) All of the above (Chi- , Packing, My kind of...)
Comment: Yep, they're all good. Most people chose (a) Chi-, which is a correct answer but not the only correct answer. "Packingtown" historically referred to a particular Chicago neighborhood but has also been used for the city as a whole (due, of course, to the huge significance of Union Stockyards in Chicago history). For example, a literary journal of the arts out of the University of Illinois at Chicago is called Packingtown Review. "My Kind of Town" is the title of a song about Chicago composed by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, made famous by Frank Sinatra.

Thanks to everybody who participated! There will be another quiz next month.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Meet Jen Cullerton Johnson!

In addition to interviews with authors who have written about Chicago (or used Chicago as a setting for their books), I'm starting a new series which will highlight authors who call Chicago home. (Let's call the new series: "It's Happening In Chicago RIGHT NOW!")

My guest today is Jen Cullerton Johnson -- a writer, educator, and urban environmentalist who lives and works in Chicago. Cullerton's published works include Seeds of Change: The Wangari Maathai Story (Summer, Lee & Low / 2010).

On October 10, Cullerton and fellow Chicago authors Michelle Duster, Cynthea Liu, and Trina Sotira will present a writing seminar titled "Collect, Recollect, Connect!" For more information about the seminar, go to MuseWrite.

For more information about Jen Cullerton Johnson, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Jen: My mother died when I was 9 years old and in many ways ended my childhood. Since then I have always been trying to bring back those memories of her and reconstruct her on the page. After I graduated college and moved to Buenos Aires, I was teaching but while I taught I wrote. Education and writing seemed to intertwine. It was then when I decided I would write to become a better teacher and by being a better teacher, I wrote seriously.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Jen: I published many short stories for literary journals. Most of the stories centered on a character that suffered a loss of some kind—be it physical or emotional. One story called "Set the Spine Straight", published by the Coe Review is about a boy who was born with a birth defect, and after years of being neglected in a State facility, his mother comes to bring him home. Writing that story, I felt like I was working out issues of acceptance and direction.

Currently, I am working on a full-length memoir called Yoshimura’s Ghost: Two Years in Rural Japan. The book is about living and working in Japan as the mother of a young child. It weaves in different threads of culture, education, and personal experiences. I have great hopes for this book, especially since I feel it is useful for a cross-country exchange for teachers, mothers, and writers. You can read a sample chapter published on line called, Name Brand Beauties on Sale: Teenage Compensated Dating in Rural Japan.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Jen: I have many friends who are established writers. Their successes inspired me to continue. Yet, my biggest inspiration is my grandmother. She is my best reader. At 73 she became an actress and went on stage. She also has a very critical eye. I can’t pass any B.S. through her, so she keeps it real.

Of course there are writers I admire like the late Lynda Hull, Paul Celan, Toni Morrison, and political people, like Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Prize for her work with the environment. But mostly it is my grandmother and a few close friends who keep me motivated.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Jen: It is family lore that my mother’s family, the Cullertons, has been in Chicago politics for over 150 years. True or not, I grew up knowing that civil service was an important and worthy career.

I have worked for Chicago Public Schools and other educational organizations as an educator, grant writer, and curriculum developer. Currently I am a teacher at a network of charter schools in the inner city.

Q: What was easy about writing Seeds of Change? What was difficult?

Jen: Seeds of Change was not difficult to write. I knew I wanted to write a book for children where they could see a real-life person doing good for the environment. I was very lucky that the life of Wangari Maathai was so inspiring. She is an amazing woman, not only for her work with the environment and the Greenbelt Movement, but for her outstanding dedication to women and children.

Also, my editor, Jennifer Fox at Lee & Low, is exceptional, always pushing for the best in text and in the writer. I am grateful that she allowed me to tell Wangari’s story in an honest and engaging way.

Q: How did you come to be a member of the group of Chicago writers at

Jen: Last April, I posted an Off Topic Reading Opportunity. I invited SCBWI members to donate their time and read their books or talk about writing with LEARN Charter School Network, Romano-Butler Campus.

Five wonderful writers agreed to come and share their work with our students. We had a large turn out of 300 students and their families. Most of the children had never met a writer and had no idea how to connect the person to the page. It was incredible the outpourings of connections and dreams made that evening. I am and always will be grateful to Michelle Duster, Mary Jo Reinhart, Cheryl Burton, Cynthea Liu, and Trina Sotira for their generosity.

From that one evening, many good things have happened. Careers have been bolstered. Students have begun to have more interaction with the literary arts. As an educator and a writer, I could not have imagined the impact.

Three of the writers, Michelle, Trina, and Cynthea decided to work together and bring this writing experience to others. We have been very blessed to see such an awesome response. You would not believe how many people want to tell their stories but need a little help getting down a game plan. I think it is all about connection.

Q: The group will conduct a seminar in Chicago on October 10, 2009. Is there anything you’d like to say to the people who are thinking about attending?

Jen: I would suggest watching the Channel 7 television show, Chicagoing. We talked about the seminars and bringing writing back into our lives and our communities. I think anyone who is interested in developing their story be it fiction or nonfiction will find a place at our seminar. Cliché as it sounds, writing is a journey and those we meet along the way help us.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Valya Dudycz Lupescu

Be sure to read this interview with Chicagoan Valya Dudycz Lupescu at Kevin Neilson's blog, Between the Lines! Check out the rest of the blog while you're at it. Kevin Neilson rocks!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Chicago Nicknames Quiz!

This is the second in a series of quizzes about Chicago that I will post from time to time. Everyone who answers all five questions correctly will be entered in a drawing to win a free, autographed copy of It Happened in Chicago!

The deadline for entering this contest is Sunday, September 13. Just post your answers to the Quiz in a Comment and make sure you provide a way for me to contact you. If you prefer not to post contact info publicly, you'll have to check back here next week to find out if you won. If you win, you can email me privately with your snail mail address.

A couple of these might be considered "trick questions." That's just to make it more fun! Don't worry. I'm a lenient grader.

There is no penalty for guessing! So go on and give it a whirl. You know you want to. Good luck to all! Ready? Set? GO!

Chicago Nicknames Quiz

1. City of the Big ____________
(a) Crooks
(b) Shoulders
(c) Restaurants
(d) All of the above

2. The ___________ City
(a) Prairie
(b) Windy
(c) Second
(d) All of the above

3. ______ of the Prairie
(a) Pride
(b) Cesspool
(c) Gem
(d) All of the above

4. Hog Butcher to the ________
(a) World
(b) President
(c) Illinois Pork Festival
(d) All of the above

5. __________town
(a) Chi- (pronounced chai or shai)
(b) Packing
(c) My kind of
(d) All of the above

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Meet Carmela Martino!

Today's guest is Carmela Martino, author of the middle-grade novel Rosa Sola (Candlewick Press, 2005), which is set in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune described Rosa Sola as "a lucid and quiet telling that respects its characters’ historical perspectives."

Carmela is one of six children's authors who offer great ideas and insights in the blog Teaching Authors. To learn more about Carmela and to read an excerpt from Rosa Sola, visit Carmela's web site.

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Carmela: As best I can recall, I was in sixth or seventh grade. That’s when I started keeping a journal and writing poetry. I still have a few journal pages and poems from back then. I wish I’d saved them all, though.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Carmela: My first poems were pretty angst-filled, struggling with deep issues ranging from “What is the meaning of life?” to “Will I get asked to prom?” Several were published in my high school yearbook, and one called “My Sanctuary” was published in an anthology of writings by Chicago public school students.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Carmela: Interestingly, the person who gave me the most encouragement was a history teacher. While I always did well in English, I don’t recall my English teachers as being particularly encouraging. On the other hand, my Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher gave me wonderful feedback about how clear and insightful my essays were. His positive comments meant so much to me that I saved those papers and still have them.

Q: The setting always plays an important role in a book. Can you tell us one thing about Rosa Sola that really says "Chicago"?

Carmela: The most obvious Chicago feature is Wrigley Field. Rosa and her family are all Cubs fans—the story mentions that Rosa’s godfather takes her to a game at Wrigley Field every June to celebrate the end of the school year. There’s also a scene early in the novel set at Fullerton Avenue Beach.

Q: Your book is set in Chicago. What other ties do you have to the city?

Carmela: Like my main character, I was born and raised in Chicago. The first home I remember was in the Austin area. I attended Our Lady Help of Christians elementary school, which used to be on Leamington Ave. Later, we moved farther north and west, near the intersection of Grand and Austin, and I attended Steinmetz High School. I also graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Although I live in the suburbs now, I still enjoy coming into the city periodically (as long as I don’t have to drive in the terrible traffic!).

Q: What was easy about writing Rosa Sola? What was difficult?

Carmela: I don’t recall any of it as being particularly “easy.” The novel began as a short story called “Rosa’s Prayer,” which I wrote while working on my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. The story was in response to an assignment to write about an event from my childhood that still aroused emotion in me. I chose to write about the fear I’d felt at age ten, after my mother nearly died in childbirth. Basing the story on real events helped make it more authentic, but it forced me to relive a painful time in life. In the end, though, the process was very cathartic, and the book turned out to be about finding hope and healing after living through a tragedy.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Rosa Sola, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Carmela: I think I’d most like to meet Uncle Sal. Both my grandfathers died long before I was born. When I wrote Rosa, Sola, Uncle Sal became the epitome of the grandfather I never had.

Q: Of the real-life places mentioned in Rosa Sola, what is one of your favorites?

Carmela: I’d have to say, Wrigley Field. It has so much history and exudes a special atmosphere. While there’s no actual scene in the novel set there, Rosa loves the tradition of going there every summer. I certainly enjoyed all the times I’ve attended games there.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Carmela: I have a short story about another Cubs fan (this time a boy) that will be published next spring in an anthology called I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes and Switcheroos, edited by Johanna Hurwitz. The story is called “Big Z, Cammi, and Me.”

Also, I’d like to say that my other passion, besides writing, is teaching writing. I teach workshops for children and adults at several locations in the Chicago area. For details, see the “Programs and Classes” page of my website,

And thank you, Scotti, for spotlighting books about (or set in) Chicago.