The Home of the Necropants

Today we visited the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery in Hólmavík, which was about an hour and a half drive from our guesthouse. We went through exactly one town on the way–it’s about a 20 minute drive from our guesthouse. After that, nothing until Holmavik.

We did see massive, eroding plateaus of ancient lava, their sides crumbled into scree. Tons of wildflowers, buckets, and baskets and bowers of flowers.

Sheep are everywhere, largely unconstrained by fences, so you have to watch out for them. And the fjords. It was an overcast day with a few spatters of rain–but not terribly cold. The fjords are like gray-blue silk beneath the ancient volcanoes, calm as mirrors.

Hólmavík is a minuscule harbor town. But it boasts the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery, which was one of the key things I wanted to see. The museum is housed in a sod-roofed building with a small cafe in front. I had zero expectations of the cafe, but it was lunchtime in Hólmavík, and there wasn’t a plethora of choices. I ordered a lamb steak, which was delivered perfectly prepared, tender and tasty, with a bearnaise sauce. A lovely roasted potato on the side with a few slices of cucumber posing as the vegetable portion of the meal. I am eating all the veggies served to me (except the beets, of which there are an abundance), because they are a bit scarce.

These are white cotton flowers. The flower looks very much like a tuft of cotton or wool. Valdis said they were used to stuff pillows and mattresses, like kapok.

To digress for a bit, Iceland started growing produce in greenhouses in about 1920. They started with–drum roll–bananas. That worked out fine until the country dropped its tariffs on importing fruit, at which point the banana business in Iceland slipped under. But they still grow a lot of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. The ground stays warm because of the volcanic heat, and they have virtually unlimited geothermal energy.

At the witch museum, I asked for a certain individual who turned out to work for another museum entirely–but hit the jackpot. The lady at the front desk sent my email address and info on what I was researching to the director of the museum, who promptly responded with THREE names of experts with their telephone numbers and email addresses. I will contact them tomorrow and hope they are willing to assist a needy author.

The museum itself was somewhat less than useful in my research. It focuses on the witch-hunts of the 16th century. Iceland, in common with many other countries at the time, went bonkers over witches. However, it was only really one region that went crazy in Iceland, Strandir in the Westfjords. Based on what we learned, one woman, Helga, married to a minister, was responsible for a disproportionate number of witch burnings. Helga kept getting sick and blaming this person or that, and these innocents were summarily executed, often without trial. Helga was a minister’s wife, and therefore beyond reproach. But Helga wasn’t the only hysteric who went after witches.

It seemed to me that the practices mentioned in the museum were degenerate remnants of the old religion–the worship of Odin, Baldur, Thor, etc. They used the old runes and sigils (“staves”) in combination with the blood of a virgin, or blood from the left nipple, or other noxious substances–if, in fact, any of these people were actually attempting to practice witchcraft, which is doubtful. During the 17th century, being burned as a witch could likely come about because people just didn’t like you–no evidence required. Nonetheless, there were lots of supposed evidence of witchcraft used to convict people–runes, sigils, charms, and so forth. I rather suspect these were planted on the victims.

There were some truly gruesome exhibits, the necropants being the worst. Here’s how it worked: the witch or sorcerer would obtain permission from a man to dig up his body after burial ( I was so relieved that they asked first). The witch would then skin the corpse from the waist down, penis, scrotum, feet, toenails and all, being careful to never puncture or tear the skin. He (Icelandic witches were almost all male) would place a coin in the penis and wear the pants over his own skin. The coin in the penis would call money to the man and his descendants for many generations–always assuming his descendants didn’t barf at the idea of wearing the gross things. I didn’t take a photo of the disgusting pants, complete with hair, but if you are attracted to the gruesome, you can see them here.

The visit was more than worth the time and effort, just for the experts’ names I was given. But I think I will set my book sometime earlier–during the transition from. Christianity (started in 1000 C.E.), and before the Lutheran Reformation.

The next stop was at the Dalir Heritage Museum. I thought we had been misled by our GPS, because we found ourselves at the end of a road with nothing but a hotel in sight. Further investigation revealed that the museum is IN the hotel. So is a pool fed by hot springs. Up the hill is a natural “hot pot,” as they call it, which is a natural hot spring, free to all. (Most hot pools charge.)

The museum focused on farm life in the immediate area (next door to Leif Erickson’s place), and had a genuine turf house from around 1850. The lady who talked to us, Valdis, really knew nothing about Icelandic magic, but had a wealth of information about how the people lived. She also provided me with a contact for research.

We checked out the pool and asked about the hot pot. We had bathing suits with us, but no towels, so we decided to get some cheap towels and come back. We returned to the only village south of Holmavik (at least on that route), and discovered that there is no store in town that sells towels, cheap or otherwise. (You can, however, buy any number of hand-knitted sweaters there.) We dined at a different restaurant (there are only two), and I had lamb again, not wanting fried haddock or pizza. The lamb was not quite as good as at the Museum of Sorcery, but tasty. AND it was served with a large portion of salad with tomatoes and cucumbers. I ate that first. Veggies are not to be overlooked when you can get them here. French fries–potatoes in general–are superb. But woman cannot live on potatoes alone.

On the way back, we stopped to let me say hello to the Icelandic horses at Saudafell. I must find out why they have so many horses–what do they possibly do with so many? There must be 20 or 30 here, eating their heads off. It is interesting that these horses, introduced by Vikings, have evolved into a distinct breed capable of dealing with long, harsh winters that would kill other breeds.

My new friends.

Tomorrow: contact the experts!

Mostly Just Gorgeous Photos of Iceland

Today had a lot of highs and lows. Facebook has locked me out of my account because I was hacked, so nobody is reading these blogs. Well, hardly anybody. And there is no way to contact Facebook unless you are actually logged into Facebook, which I can’t do. This is so frustrating it makes me want to eat my head, but you definitely don’t want to hear about it–all two of you who are aware these posts are being published, at any rate. My apologies to Goodreads readers. The photos don’t seem to be uploading to Goodreads. I am trying to run my social media from an iPad and it’s just not the same.

We departed Reykjavík today, heading north. Really, I should just post the photos, because Iceland can speak for herself.

This gorgeous little waterfall was right next the Ring Road that goes around the island. It was situated near the ruins of a Norse homestead.

What looks like low rock walls are part of the remains of the Norse homestead.

Just beauty.

We visited the Thingvellir, a national park located at the site of the world’s oldest continuously-operating parliament, the Althingi. It is situated at a site where two tectonic plates meet. The people at the top of that cliff are standing at the edge of one plate, and I am taking a picture standing on the other.

Another shot at the Thingvellir.

The view from Saudafell Guesthouse, where we are staying in a 100+year-old farmhouse. Everything you see here belongs to our hosts. They raise sheep and grow hay for the sheep, and they have a few horses. The sheep, in the traditional manner, have been sent to the mountains to graze for the summer. In the old days, the dairymaid or some other woman of the household went with them to watch them, and thereby hangs many a tale. However, our hostess is still at home and the sheep are on their own in the mountains until the fall.

Why the Hell Did I Go To Iceland?

This has little to with my topic, but it is a great fantasy component—a throne of ice.

It has just occurred to me that I haven’t told you why we are here. I’m researching my fourth fantasy novel. I have finished my third, rounding out my “Gods of the New World” trilogy, and I think it is the best one yet. Sadly, Diversion Books has decided to focus on non-fiction, which means I’ll need to find a new publisher. Diversion is kindly continuing to sell my books until I do. But what does a writer do when they finish a novel? Start a new one.

Because the trilogy (“The Obsidian Mirror,” “Fire in the Ocean,” and soon (I hope) “Lords of the Night”) was based on New World mythologies, legends and folk tales, I thought I’d turn to the Old World for inspiration. But I didn’t want to recap the European fairy stories and evil creatures like vampires. I have long been intrigued with Iceland. Here’s why:

  • Iceland was very isolated from its original settlement around 850 C.E. until WWII. I don’t mean it was cut off from the rest of the world–the Icelandic Vikings were highly skilled seafarers, and Iceland was always in distant touch with the rest of the world. But it was difficult and dangerous to get to Iceland, and difficult and dangerous to go elsewhere. The language hasn’t changed since Medieval times, except for the addition of modern words like computer.
  • Around 25% of the population believes in or gives some credence to the existence of the huldefolk, the hidden people. English translates this into elves or fairies, but don’t imagine little fluffy things with butterfly wings. The huldefolk were the same size as people and earned their living doing similar things–farming and fishing. But they had powerful magic, their own religion, and lived inside the stones in magnificent palaces, wearing fine clothes and jewels–unlike the average Icelander, who lived in a single room with everyone else in the family and their children, slaves and servants, and probably a few dogs and cats and possibly a sheep or two. After the Christianization of Iceland in 1000 C.E., when it became the sanctioned religion, pagan worship became illegal. I find it hard to believe that paganism just died right then and there, however. The huldefolk lent some creativity and glamor to lives that were hard, filled with labor from dawn to dusk, and dangerous.
  • I read many of the sagas (I read them in translation. I am so glad I didn’t torture myself by trying to learn Icelandic.), and several volumes of fairy tales and related topics, I decided that the fairy tales were highly reminiscent of stories from continental Europe. But the Icelandic tradition of magicians has an entirely different flavor. They once believed there was a Black School for magicians, located “somewhere far away” and underground. There was no light, so the students studied by the fiery letters of their books. The Black School graduated its students in groups of seven, and the last student to leave the school would be claimed by the devil. Nonetheless, Iceland had several revered bishops and priests who were also magicians. And there were a number of Icelandic grimoires, books of incantations, now lost. Of course.
  • Iceland is a very different place, physically. It is full of active volcanoes, mud pots, hot pools, lava flows, and everything that goes with that. They have two kinds of volcanoes, which is unusual–cone and shield. Being so far north (nearly within the Arctic Circle), the plants and animals are quite different as well. Until the Vikings arrived, the only land mammal that made Iceland a permanent home was the Arctic fox. Polar bears still occasionally visit, but they don’t live here. Despite the dearth of any other dangerous land animals, the Icelanders filled their landscape with huldefolk, trolls, and assorted monsters. We haven’t left Reykjavík yet, but it appears a rather austere land, beautiful, awe-inspiring, but stark.

What more could a fantasy author ask for? All I need now is a story.

A red rose is frozen inside the central top finial of the icy throne.

Chasing Bookstores and Eating Great Food. That was About It.

After wrapping up my blog post at around 1:30 am last night, I listened to an audiobook for a while. It was darker than it had been at 11:30, when it was almost full daylight. By 2 am or so, it was twilight–dim, but still plenty light enough to walk around outside, if that’s what you wanted to do. I did not, and went back to bed, where I slept like the dead until 9:00 am. I probably would have slept longer, but Tom awoke me–breakfast was waiting.

Edda had really gone all out on breakfast. She had boiled eggs, skyr (Iceland’s lumpy yogurt), blueberry scones, smoked salmon, rye bread, assorted meats and cheeses, tea, coffee, orange juice, cherry tomatoes, and fruit. It was clear she was not going to permit us to depart hungry. Edda sat on the couch while we ate, occasionally chiming in on the conversation.

Edda is not the first B&B hostess that I personally think might have been better suited to another line of work. She is very uncomfortable with anything that violates her expectations. Example: I left my suitcase next to the dining area before I twigged to the fact that this was intended to be a shared space with other guests (there are none). I went back to move it after I realized–and there was Edda, glaring at my suitcase. I apologized and moved back into “our” room. She did not like it when I used a mug from the kitchen instead of the one in our room. And when I carefully washed the mug, teabag holder, and spoon I had used in making tea, laying them on a clean towel to dry, I found them in the sink when we returned. She clearly doesn’t want us in her side yard, where we went a couple of times to ask her something. She wants to be communicated with through a door in our area that is locked on her side. She walks into our area without knocking, however, at any time. It’s not that I dislike her, but she is so clearly uncomfortable with the presence of strangers in her house.

We had no fixed plans for the day, just a list of things we thought we’d like to get to. First stop was Perlan, a round, glass-domed building that houses a number of exhibits about Iceland’s natural environment. This includes an artificial ice tunnel made to look like a glacial ice tunnel. It may be manmade, but the ice was real, and it was very cold in there. kind of a cool experience, if you will excuse the pun. I have no intention whatsoever of experiencing the real thing–that’s not why I’m here.

There was a planetarium-style show of the northern lights, which gave me some good ideas, actually. And they have a 360-degree revolving restaurant on top that is not revolving at present because they are waiting for parts. The views from the restaurant over the city of Rekjavik and the ocean are spectacular. I didn’t take pictures because it is a very gray day, and I didn’t think photos would convey the experience at all.

The gift shop in the museum had some really unique things. Which included taxidermied puffins, making my skin crawl. Puffins, whales, and Greenland sharks are all endangered, and tourists eat most of them, not Icelanders. The Greenland shark is more than worth a mention here.

We visited the Reykjavík Cathedral, which is a Church of Iceland (Lutheran) edifice. It’s quite unique, but I have mixed feelings about it. It is a towering icon, dwarfing other buildings in a city that has very few tall buildings, and no skyscrapers. Its architecture combines the Gothic with… I dunno. The interior is the most austere and severe I have ever see.

The Iceland National Cathedral. The gentleman sculptured in front is Leif Erickson, natch.

Interior of the cathedral.. Gothic, but no stained glass or furbelows of any description.

Then it was another lunch at Snaps, every bit as wonderful as the previous day. I had moules frites and Tom had duck confit, both as good as I have ever had in my life. Then we set out in search of a book store.

Icelanders prize books. They have a Christmas tradition of giving books and spending Christmas in reading and eating chocolate, which is pretty much my idea of heaven. I wanted to find a bookstore owned by the Icelandic publisher Ferlagid. I bought several books from them previously, and was hopeful they might have a larger selection of the topics I am researching.

It turns out there are several Ferlagid stores in Reykjavik, and we went to the wrong one. The woman in the shop gave us the address for the main store, which turned out to be located in a strange industrial section of town that seems to be in the process of gentrification. I found a few books, but not quite what I was looking for. The nice ladies there sent me to another bookstore located right downtown, so we went there. This one, Eymunsson, had four stories of books and a cafe. I found another book or two there, and regretfully turned down a book about the role of Icelandic dwarves in mythology. You have to draw the line somewhere when you know you have to haul it all home is your suitcase.

The counter at the main Forlagid store is held up by books.

Then on to check out the geothermal beach. I had heard that the beach had warm water, even in winter. I was tempted to go, but wanted to check it out first. Reykjavik is under a huge amount of construction that makes it difficult to get around, but we found it. Nauthólsvík is an artificially-created beach of golden sand with hot pools. People were out in the water of the harbor, too, so it must also be warm, if not hot. There are changing rooms, but I needed to know if you had to bring your own towels. Every place is different, and I didn’t want to emerge from a warm pool into 60 degree weather with no towel. Three teenaged boys were drinking beer on the steps and watching girls, so I asked them about towels. They said best to bring your own, and helpfully directed me to a place I could buy towels and maybe a bikini. I told them my bikini days were long past.

Wild lupine near the geothermal beach. Masses of these can be seen on the way from the airport.

Off to the mall next to pick up some wine. They had California wines at astronomical prices. We bought Spanish and Argentinian. I noticed that their liquor section was tiny. The majority of tipples on offer were gin. And they were all in plastic bottles (not the wine, just the booze).

Then we headed back to the sleepy town of Harfnarfjordur where our guesthouse is. We were heading back at rush hour. There were a few cars on the road, but not many. It was almost eerie to be on a sleek freeway, in a capitol city, at rush hour, with what we would call no traffic.

We ate dinner at a restaurant in Harfnafjordur, not wanting to drive back to Reykjavík. (Not that it’s very far.) We found a restaurant on the harbor in a kind of odd little collection of businesses. I ordered Arctic char, and Tom had mussels and also lamb’s neck–not a dish we had ever seen before. Everything was wonderful. I really was not prepared for the level of excellence we have encountered with the food here. And the portions are reasonable–I hate it when I have to decline a doggy bag because I have no place to reheat or prepare the food I have not been able to eat. The prices are about what you would find in any city, although many other prices are much higher, like fuel. And, to be frank, books.

During the day, I came up with a lot of interesting stuff to tell you all. But I’m afraid jet lag is still affecting my ability to do more than attempt to appear normal–although I’ve had worse. Still, time to sign off and go to bed. It’s 11:50 pm, overcast, so not so bright as yesterday–but still light. Maybe I’ll remember those fascinating details in the morning!

The House-Munching Lava Boulder, & Miscellaneous Musings of the Tired Traveler

Beware the house-munching boulder!

We’re in Hafnarfjordur, south of the “big” city of Reykjavík. It’s a little harbor town, and our guesthouse is just a few blocks from the water.

As soon as we left the airport, it was clear we were in a very different place. The highway from the airport to Rekjavik drives straight across a vast, flat, ancient lava flow. The black volcanic rock pokes through everywhere. I didn’t get a photo, but there were masses of purple lupine, yellow daisy-like things, some sort of low, creeping plant with bright purple flowers, orangey-red flowers I didn’t recognize–all growing on ground disturbed by construction or roadwork. The lava itself was largely covered by low grasses and gray-green arctic moss. We drove past one mighty mountain in the distance spewing enormous clouds of steam into the cool air–from its base, not its summit. I don’t know what the explanation is.

The architecture here is quite different from the US. Lots of concrete and glass, and in common with New Zealand, many of the buildings and houses are covered in corrugated steel. Roofs are often steel as well. Our guesthouse, pictured below, is one such steel-clad building.

Edda’s Guest House

Edda’s side yard. Bunnies are in bed, I guess.

Edda’s Guesthouse is our temporary residence. When we arrived, we just walked right into the living quarters because the doors are never locked. We were given a skeleton key for our bedroom that wouldn’t foil a child. (I gather this is not a high-crime neighborhood.) We share the quarters with others, as yet unknown, which includes a kitchen we aren’t allowed to cook in, a bathroom, and a dining-living room area, all of which sounds much grander than it is. The side yard boasts five bunnies, one chicken, and some dogs and cats. The entire package, including Edda, is a somewhat ramshackle affair, but I am NOT complaining. I am enjoying. Different from the usual is a good thing, and refreshes the soul.

The lava is everywhere, sometimes in enormous boulders, like the one apparently threatening the house above. The Icelanders just build around it or use it in the building. I saw some really creative decorative bricks made with lava embedded in them, and you see all kinds of constructs, walls, fences, etc., utilizing this ubiquitous material.

After getting organized, we drove into Reykjavík in search of lunch. There was barely any traffic, by our standards. And there weren’t a lot of people on the streets, which seemed odd for a city. Some of the buildings are painted with fanciful designs, including one store that was completed covered in painted tropical foliage. It must look strange when it snows.

It turns out Iceland isn’t all that cold–not as I’d imagined. Iceland is warmer than New York in the winter due to the Gulf Stream. (I imagine they are talking about upstate NY, though!) it’s been in the sixties today, which is the same as at home on the California Central Coast.

We ate at a restaurant called Snaps!, and I rate our first meal here an A+. Everything was wonderful. I started getting incredibly tired during the meal, having been awake for nearly 24 hours. I had a cup of coffee–and that is why I am blogging right now. I think Tom went to sleep, despite our talking about staying awake to get acclimated. I’d like to make it to at least five o’ clock, local time.

Tomorrow, more Rekjavik. I may look for sea glass, and we want to go to the National Museum and Culture House. I think we’re going to skip the Phallological Museum, though. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

The Saga of the Pink Bunny


It’s been a lo-o-o-ng time since I blogged (March 22!). I could say that I’ve been busy, but that isn’t really true. I finished my third novel, “Lords of the Night,” the third book in my trilogy, in February. I sent it in to my publisher. My publisher informed me that they have decided to focus on non-fiction books. That leaves a fantasy writer right out in the cold. The good news: they will continue to stock and sell my books until I find a new publisher.

I decided to look for a literary agent. I’ve never had one, but I hope that an agent can secure a better deal—with more book promotion, ideally. So I am sending out pitches to agents. Fun.

But that doesn’t keep me busy enough to justify my failure to blog for almost three months. Well, there’s always the looking-after-the-grandkids excuse. Or the volunteering-for-voter-registration excuse. Or I could blame the pink bunny.

My youngest granddaughter, Jessamyn, thinks I am a master seamstress because I once sewed something together. The truth is that I am a person who owns a sewing machine. The machine, a sturdy old Kenmore, was once the property of someone who really knew how to sew, judging by all the bells and whistles I don’t use.

So one day Jessamyn asked me, “Nana, would you make me a pink bunny?”

I was stricken with terror. I had never made a stuffed animal before. I had no idea in the world how to make a stuffed animal, or even if patterns for such things existed. I was strictly a two-dimensional kind of gal. But I thought, “How hard could it really be?” Experience answered this question.

I went online, of course, searching for bunny patterns. It soon became apparent that there are tons of bunny patterns online. Some are even free, but I chose a pattern for sale on Etsy because it was modeled after “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a childhood favorite. I paid a small fee for the PDF download.

I then searched for suitable fabric online as well, and found an inexpensive remnant of light pink “minky” fabric, which is that impossibly soft and cuddly fabric used a lot these days in baby blankets. I also purchased crushed walnut shells for the weighting called for in the instructions. So far, so good. I settled in to wait for my purchases.

That was when Jessamyn, dear little creature that she is, began saying things like, “Have you given up on making my pink bunny, Nana?” Or “Is my pink bunny ready yet?” At five, I don’t expect her to understand that these things take time, but the heat was definitely on.

When the fabric arrived, I read the instructions more closely. Uh-oh—the instructions said if using a stretchy fabric (minky fabric is stretchy), to buy fusible interfacing to give it stability. Okay, off to the nearest fabric store to buy fusible interfacing. (Interfacing is one of those advanced mysteries of sewing that I never bothered with before.)

At the fabric store, there were many bolts of white netted stuff in various weights that were clearly marked “fusible,” but none were marked “interfacing.” I selected one of them, bought a half a yard, and carried it home.

By the time i realized that what I had purchased was not interfacing but actually adhesive designed to glue one fabric to another, my iron was covered with melted plastic. (Come on—I said I wasn’t very good at this, right?)

Okay. Clean iron (not very successfully). Back to the store. This time, I asked a sales associate to identify interfacing for me. Home again. Iron interfacing onto fabric. It didn’t stick very well, but I decided to plow onward regardless.

Laying out the pieces for cutting, I realized that the instructions had skipped a few steps. Because the PDF was downloaded and printed onto regular letter-size paper, the head and body had been split into smaller pieces that needed to be assembled, taped, and then used as the pattern. Not only did the instructions never mention this, the pattern pieces required for this operation were unlabeled. No worries, I figured it out. But then I had three unlabeled pieces that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Plus, the main body piece didn’t have any paws, and none of the random unlabeled pieces fit as far as I could tell.

I contacted the creator/seller of the pattern to ask about this, but received no reply. So I improvised the paws myself. Then I cut out all the pieces, including the unlabeled ones.

Now that the tedious setup portion of the project was over (by this time I was at least three weeks into the bunny), I began to sew. I really think it would have been a lot easier if the instructions had been correct. For example, in making the ears, I was instructed to place two pieces “right side to right side.” No problem. Except when the ears were finished, the wrong side of the fabric showed along the sides. I got out the thread picker and picked all those tiny little stitches out and did it all over again. The parts of the interfacing that hadn’t stuck properly slipped and slid across the fabric, making sewing more difficult.

Have I mentioned that my husband would remark at least once a day that I should have purchased a white bunny and dyed it pink? Really, if I were going to succumb to defeat like that, I would buy a pink bunny and save some time.

Not that I wasn’t tempted. The pattern pieces fitted together awkwardly at best, and I did a lot more improvisation before I was done. There were still three unlabeled pieces that never fit anywhere. And there was also a lot of hand-sewing as I tried to make up for both my lack of expertise and the shortcomings of the pattern and instructions.

Despite the setbacks, yesterday I finished the pink bunny! The kids were out all day with their parents, so I set up the bunny on a child’s chair in the front hallway to greet Jessamyn on her return. I was waiting to see her expression when she came through the door.

She walked in, stared at the bunny, then ran past me, giggling hysterically. Her parents called her back and told her that it was the pink bunny that Nana had made for her. She picked it up and buried her little face in the soft pink fur, and slept with it last night.

That made it all worthwhile, of course. Except that now she wants a rainbow unicorn sloth. If there is a rainbow unicorn sloth pattern online, it is safe from me.

The Tale of How a Little Book for Kids Grew Up and Became a Little Book for Kids


Once upon a time, many years ago (many, MANY years ago), I was a college student at Beloit College (it’s in Wisconsin and that’s all you need to know about it). I was earning a Master’s Degree in Teaching, and one of the courses I took was Children’s Literature. Much of our grade was based on two essays the professor had assigned. Two essays that I am sure the professor had selected carefully for their learning potential, but which I thought were incredibly boring.

So without any notion of what I was really doing, I asked my prof if instead of writing two essays, I could write two children’s books instead. He agreed.

I spent the better part of the next several weeks holed up in the house trailer where my husband and I lived at the time, writing a little book called “I Am Not a Bear,” and illustrating it in pen and ink and watercolor. I painted the scenes and then pasted the typewritten text onto the watercolor paper. Lacking any sort of binding option, I punched the pages with three holes and fastened them with binder rings. It was a crude production, but the best I had to hand.

The original illustration of Paul picking up his room.


The new illustration of Paul picking up his room.

The story is about Paul, a little boy who wants to live with the bears because bears don’t have to do math, pick up their rooms, or eat oatmeal. He winds up trading places with a bear cub, Growf, who wants to live with people. Both discover there really is no place like home, but they do meet each other in the end and have a good laugh about it. It’s a simple story with a sweet message about family and home—and whether or not the grass is really greener elsewhere.

My prof liked the book and read it to his kids, who also liked it. I got an A+ in the class. End of story.

Except it wasn’t the end. I kept this opus in a file drawer for many years. When my kids hit the right age (around four years old), I pulled out my “book” and read it to them. They seemed to enjoy it, even if it didn’t become a favorite like “The Cat in the Hat.” But then, my book didn’t rhyme.

The decades passed. The grandchildren came along. I read “I Am Not a Bear” to them, too. But as I was reading it, I noticed a few things with embarrassment. It was too long and wordy for the target age. The illustrations were crude, and I had learned how to paint in oils by this time and had paintings hanging in galleries. Even more important, print-on-demand had been invented, so I could create a genuine book for my grandchildren—something they could keep if they wanted.

I rewrote the book, trying to cut verbiage and page count. Then I re-illustrated it in pastels. I wanted a soft, fuzzy look, and pastels seemed ideal. I had never used pastels before, but I didn’t let that stop me. It turned out pastels weren’t that much different from painting in oils, just…drier. Then I formatted it for lulu.com and printed a few copies for the grandchildren and sundry other kids belonging to friends and family.

I thought that was the end of this little story. But no.

I became distraught over the separation of families at the border and the imprisonment of immigrant children. I lay awake at night, agonizing over those poor kids and their families, frustrated because there was nothing I could do to help.

Then it occurred to me I could help. If I could find an appropriate organization aimed at helping immigrant families at the border, I could self-publish “I Am Not a Bear” as a bilingual English-Spanish book and donate all the proceeds to that organization to help them be more effective.

I approached only two refugee assistance organizations. The first one never replied to me. The second, the National Network for Refugee & Immigrant Rights (NNIR), responded immediately and enthusiastically that they would love to work with me on this. They have been an appreciative partner.

Just one problem. I don’t speak or write Spanish. I can find my way around a Spanish-speaking country by dint of speaking only in the present tense and waving my hands around a lot, but I didn’t even know the Spanish word for “bear cub.” (It turns out a lot of people who speak Spanish don’t know that either, which made me feel better.)

Fortunately, I have a Spanish-speaking friend who grew up in Mexico, Clod Barrera. I asked Clod if he would translate my book, for the magnificent compensation of nothing but my eternal gratitude. Clod, being a wonderful person, did so. And then I passed the translation around to a few other people to make sure all was copacetic—because I sure wouldn’t have known if there were a problem!

Finally, everything was ready to go. Except for formatting the new version of the book on lulu.com. For some reason, this took forever, and I have no intention of boring you with why, but it is finally ready to sell.

I don’t usually ask people straight out to buy my books, but I’m making an exception. If you care about the plight of children and families at the border—and know a child (around four to seven years of age) who would enjoy the book, or know of a school that could use bilingual books for young children—I’m asking you to buy “I Am Not a Bear/Yo no soy oso.” One hundred percent of the profits will be donated to the NNIR for at least two years. Here’s where to get it: http://www.lulu.com/shop/kd-keenan/i-am-not-a-bearyo-no-soy-oso/paperback/product-23979188.html

I thank you in advance. Every book that sells sends more money to help immigrants and their families.

This illustration didn’t make it into the book for purely technical reasons. but I kind of like it anyway.