A Novel Way for Young Readers to Relate to Faith?

Interior view of castle with people standing in the open gate and sunlight behind them.
What difference does faith make? Marburg’s Landgrave Castle (Landgrafenschloss). Influential religious leaders Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met here in 1529 to discuss their differences.

Last week, my husband and I visited Marburg, the town where we first met. In 2017, Marburg will join many cities in Germany in a celebration of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Belief, politics, power all mixed together to shape Europe’s history.

Events are planned all over Germany. The Playmobil company even released a tiny Martin Luther figure. (I’d like to see one for Katharina von Bora, the intrepid nun who later married Martin Luther.) Whatever your views on the Reformation or Martin Luther, it’s interesting that a toy company thought there was a market for Martin Luther Playmobil figures. Toy Noah’s Arks abound in the United States, but I’ve never seen a Mattel Pope action figure or a MatchBox Popemobile.

Living in Germany makes me wonder: if religious faith has such a strong influence in the world, isn’t it a priority to learn more? How will we (and the next generations) be able to talk about such sensitive topics without having the language, frameworks, or empathy to understand one another?

For readers and writers, a novel is an ideal way to develop empathy and practice that mantra of peace-making amidst diversity: “What might [fill in the blank] be true of?”

Natalie Lloyd’s middle grade book,  A SNICKER OF MAGIC, touches naturally and lightly on faith, as does Gary D. Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

What other recent novels would you recommend for readers who want the inside experience of a particular faith?

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Rituals for Starting Work: medieval construction, coal mining, printing presses

Detailed 3D model of castle, church, moat and outbuildings. Schloss Horst Museum, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Model of medieval construction workers building Schloss Horst.

Over the weekend, I visited a castle, the Schloss Horst Museum in Gelsenkirchen, a printing press, the Historische Druckwerkstatt that offered a trip to the age of lead, and a coal mine, Bergbaustollen Nordsternpark.

Schloss Horst turned out to be a museum that drops you into the everyday life of the past. Animal sound effects, dust, sand, realistic puddles, and holes in the fence for the medieval supervisors to judge their workers’ industriousness completed the medieval construction site. There was also slate-chipping to try, medieval clothes to try on, and a room-sized model of the village as it must have been.

We walked by the table where the workers were paid. Each worker had a split stick–one half was his receipt and the other have belonged to the paymaster. Grooves cut across the stick showed how many hours had been worked.

Our tour guide showed us how to use a wooden table as a visual adding machine and money conversion tool. He was so fast laying down coins and moving them to the next marking on the table, I couldn’t take any pictures. He said people of the time would’ve been much faster. Personally, I would find a line of construction workers holding sticks to be highly motivational.

In the print shop, there was a newspaper article about the printers’ “Gautschfest” subtitled “Freisprechung der Lehrlinge” (literally: the ceremony of speaking the apprentices free) showing a stoic apprentice being doused in a barrel of water.

After our tour of the coal mine, our group leader was invited to don “an apron for the backside.” One coal miner then held a huge shovel behind her and the other struck the shovel with a hammer so it resounded like a gong.

Not sure why rituals give us something to push against. Maybe we feel like we belong, or feel a bit more in control when we know the proper response. A little bit of ridiculousness comforts us when we are set loose in the cold, dark world.

The coal miners had a greeting ritual before they went down in the mines: “Glück auf!” In English, the word “Glück” means something between gladness and luck, which is probably what it feels like when you come up from the mines at the end of your shift.

"Glück auf!" engraved in white on a black stone. Miners pre-shift greeting and mine shaft.
Best wishes for this week, whichever mines you work.

So I wish you “Glück auf!” on this Monday morning.

 

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Past Adventures: Stories of Immigration

Double-masted sailing ship in Bremerhaven harbor
For many people, Bremerhaven was the gateway to a new life in the new world. © Laurel Decher, 2015.

Last week, my family and I visited the German Emigration Museum in northern Germany. The museum is in Bremerhaven, literally “Bremen’s harbor”, so there are ships, a complicated harbor lock, and lighthouses. From the outside, the museum is big and square, but the inside is much more like a Disney experience.

At the ticket counter, we were each given a passport with a key card and a person’s name and invited to follow that person’s story through the museum. We waited on the wharf at night, boarded the huge ship and got to see the accommodations for each era of immigration–most were pretty terrifying. Then we “arrived” at immigration and eventually at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Having made this trip many times ourselves, it was really, really easy to imagine ourselves in the plight of our relatives. Would we have cleared immigration in those days? Would we have had all the right answers to the border crossing questions?

My husband’s aunt emigrated to the U.S. and my great-grandparents on both sides did too. The museum provides laptops so you can find out what ships your own relatives traveled on, what ports they left from, and other interesting details. It’s a surprisingly fun detective activity to do with your kids.

You can research your past even if you can’t get to Bremerhaven using a free trial membership for 14 days on Ancestry.com or with the free Ellis Island passenger search.

Within the frame of a museum, their hardship looks like a grand adventure. It helped us frame our own adventure, in the opposite direction, when we immigrated to Germany three years ago. It makes me want to write a story with time-travel.

 

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An Ode to Rain Boots

Formal portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who invented rain boots.
The inventor of rain boots. Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rain boots are also called Wellies after the Duke of Wellington, a brilliant army strategist. If the rest of the Duke’s strategy was as good as his rubber rain boots, no wonder he beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

My husband got me new rain boots for my birthday. I wore them on a forest walk for the first time today. I feel so strong and invulnerable with them on. Mud, puddles, rain—I laugh at you!

When I was small, my brother and I wore yellow slickers, rain helmets and boots and nothing could touch us. On August afternoons in Vermont, we went out in the pouring rain, into the quiet, magical world. Everyone and everything else was in hiding but we were out in it.

Snow is quiet. Your breath in your ears is the noisiest part and the clouds of breath coming out make you feel like a dragon.

But the sound of rain covers the everyday sounds up. The cars sound different and all their motion is accented by swishing, splashing, rushing water. Water gurgles in the drain pipes and into the storm drains. We hear and see its power everywhere, but we are invincible in our rubber rain boots.

The tall grass is still wet in the meadows near my house. The horses stand patient in the meadows, heads level, droplets on their eyelashes. Do they wish for rain boots? They don’t run away from the rain. Do they stay drier standing still?

Rain boots make up for not being a horse. I’m not bothered by the water either. I walk through puddles and mud and am at home wherever I find myself.

Are you a fan of rain boots? What helps you explore and enjoy the world around you?

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Exploring: Hatzenport to Eltz Castle on the Path of Dreams

Grassy trail above Germany's Mosel river valley in a little bit of characteristic mist
Grassy trail above Mosel river valley in Germany.

One morning, in early spring, my husband and I decided to walk to Burg Eltz (Eltz castle) from the tiny village of Hatzenport. We had asked the innkeeper if he thought Burg Eltz was do-able and he said, “Why shouldn’t it be? It’s only 2 1/2 hours.” Oddly enough, that reassured me.

It was an unexpectedly sunny day with a cool breeze, miraculous after weeks of rain and gray skies. We set out on little goat trails and followed the course of the Mosel river, far below. We barely needed our topographic map because everything was so well labeled. That’s how many people live in this part of the world. The trail was called “Traumpfad”, the path of dreams.
We traversed the vineyards on a tractor-wide track, feeling like Heidi and Peter. A sign said goats were used to clear out overgrown vineyards when someone wanted to begin again. Abandoned, overgrown vineyards were called “Brazils” after their owners left for Brazil to start a new life.

In earlier times, wagons must have collected the grapes from the rows of vines. A rusty winch in one village must have been used to pull heavy loads of grapes up and down the steep slopes. In another, a tower near the Mosel supported the cables to run a ferry across. The ferry needed no power other than the river current.

At some point, we left the Mosel to turn into another valley. The path climbed gently until we found ourselves on a high plain. The Mosel cut a valley into the plain, so that the river bed was actually in a canyon. The broad meadow was just as inviting as the earlier paths and the sun was just as delightful. There was a ring of standing stones, either old or modern, in the distance. It was almost unreal.

A group of eight deer leapt across the meadow in front of us to cross a road in the distance. Seven made it across but the last one was spooked by a car and couldn’t find his way. He bounded back to the safety of the forest. The others didn’t come back for him, so maybe that was the beginning of his own adventure.

An older pair of hikers passed us. They didn’t seem to be going fast but they were soon in the distance ahead of us. We saw them much later, having a picnic by the trail side, just before we got to a lot of boring pavement. Experience must help people pick out picnic spots. Role models for adventure pop up in surprising places.

By the time we had walked a few hours, we had gotten less tired or had found our stride or felt virtuous because we didn’t need parking, because we felt we could walk forever. When I was 10, I used to explore with my brother in the same way. A peanut butter sandwich in a backpack, a walking stick, and eyes to see what is in front of you.

Burg Eltz actually has a longish–by American standards–hiking trail from the parking lot to the castle. On the trail, three miniature knights came toward us brandishing wooden swords and painted wooden shields. A baby in a stroller was teething on a wooden sword. We were getting close.

Stone castle on a hill surrounded by the river Eltz and more hills near the Mosel valley in Germany.
The Eltz castle

The castle gift shop was full of swords and shields and castle-related memorabilia. A hearty soup lunch at the castle and we were ready to continue down the valley. Here the trail looks down on the river Eltz below—a gray, green, glacier-colored river—but I think the color comes from algae, but not in a bad way.

We hiked down to the village and took the train back to the tiny village of Hatzenport. It was a dreamy day of talking, walking, taking things in, and spending time together becoming whole.

The next morning, I took a walk in our own neighborhood. At the far meadow, a black and white horse whinnied and trotted, then pounded the grass with his hooves and galloped the perimeters of electric fence. Was he going to leap over it? Did the sunny, cool weather make him long for wide spaces and adventure?

Then a shaggy, brown horse appeared on the trail and the black and white nodded his big black head up and down emphatically. He had been calling this friend.

My day with my husband was perfect for me. The weather and the availability of food made it a very convenient adventure, but not one I will forget. A perfect life is an adventure with a friend.

Blast from the past in the National Park

Wear a hat and long-sleeved shirt against ticks and sunburn and cover your skin against frostbite. Don’t leave your toothpaste or bacon out where the black bears can smell it. Leaves of three, let me be. Stinging nettle. Geothermal activity–stay on the boardwalks. These are the dangers and adventures I associate with wilderness.

This sign in the Dreiborn area of the Eifel National Park made me think.

This sign says: "Risk of loss of life! Walking outside of the marked trails is absolutely forbidden. Vogelsang was used for military exercises until 2005.
This sign says: “Risk of loss of life! Walking outside of the marked trails is absolutely forbidden! This area was used for military exercises until 2005.

My husband’s parents played in the forest in Germany as children and found old tank parts and unexploded grenades. It felt very different to find one myself. I never understood what war on your own soil means.

An unexploded grenade lying on leaves in the forest in Eifel National Park