California Hills--Landscape of My Childhood

August 23, 2019

When I read this poem I had to share it, because it so perfectly captures for me the look and feel of the area in which I spent my growing-up summers, an area that I love deeply and find beautiful, in ways that may seem puzzling to those who come from more well-watered areas.

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Let’s hope that by the time this column appears all fires in California have been extinguished. I wanted to offer you a poem that shows us what that beautiful but arid state can look like before it’s caught fire. The poet, Dana Gioia, served as Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and has been a friend to, and advocate for, poetry for many years. This poem appeared in the anthology, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, from Scarlet Tanager Books.

California Hills in August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain—
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1986 by Dana Gioia, “California Hills in August,” from Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, (Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan, Eds., Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018). Poem reprinted by permission of Dana Gioia and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2019 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


In Front of Grandma's House

June 11, 2014

Me (and Pedro), in front of Grandma's house

There are many fine poems in which the poet looks deeply into a photograph and tries to touch the lives caught there. Here’s one by Tami Haaland, who lives in Montana. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Little Girl

She’s with Grandma in front
of Grandma’s house, backed
by a willow tree, gladiola and roses.

Who did she ever want
to please? But Grandma
seems half-pleased and annoyed.

No doubt Mother frowns
behind the lens, wants
to straighten this sassy face.

Maybe laughs, too.
Little girl with her mouth wide,
tongue out, yelling

at the camera. See her little
white purse full of treasure,
her white sandals?

She has things to do,
you can tell. Places to explore
beyond the frame,

and these women picking flowers
and taking pictures.
Why won’t they let her go?

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “Little Girl” from When We Wake in the Night, by Tami Haaland, ©2012 WordTech Editions, Cincinnati, Ohio. Poem reprinted by permission of Tami Haaland and the publisher. Introduction copyright 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


I Blame It On Nancy

March 16, 2012

My favorite reading genre is the mystery. This is my mom’s favorite genre also, and while I could blame my literary predilection on her, I choose to blame Nancy Drew.

Nancy came into my life as soon as I could read well enough to tackle her books. I don’t remember who introduced me to my first Nancy Drew book; perhaps my mom, or maybe a sympathetic teacher or librarian. No matter, I devoured as many of the books in the series as I could get my hands on, spending many happy hours following clues with Nancy and her friends.

As a quiet and shy child, I deeply admired Nancy, and would have loved to be more like her. Nancy, the motherless daughter of an attorney named Carson Drew, was spunky, fearless, intelligent and compassionate—a fine, and somewhat unusual role model for girls at the time the books first came out (see below). She solved mysteries in her fictional hometown of River Heights with the help of her friends, cousins Bess and George (a girl).

The story of Nancy Drew is an interesting one. She first made her appearance in 1930 in The Secret of the Old Clock. The first 34 volumes were published between 1930 and 1956. Eventually, 175 volumes were published in the “classic” Nancy Drew series (there are several “spin-off” series that bear her name). Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, created Nancy, wrote many of the plotlines and hired ghostwriters to complete the books. All the Nancy Drew mysteries have been published under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, but were ghostwritten by a number of different people, including Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the original 30 mysteries. Stratemeyer’s daughter, Harriet Adams, edited and wrote many of the Nancy Drews until her death in 1982. She also revised the original 34 stories beginning in 1959, to eliminate racist stereotypes. In the process, she also shortened the books slightly and toned down Nancy’s independent personality.

Beautiful endpapers
According to Wikipedia, more than 80 million copies of the various Nancy Drew series’ books have been sold. The books have been translated into 45 languages and Nancy has been featured in five movies, two TV shows and numerous computer games.

One of my happiest childhood memories revolves around Nancy. When I was about 8 or 9, one morning when I came to the breakfast table, there was a pile of books sitting next to my place. While I ate my cereal, I cast wondering glances at the stack of perhaps 10 to 15 Nancy Drew books. Where did they come from? We didn’t have the money to buy many books, certainly not this many at one time. My mom was rushing around getting ready for work so it took me a few moments to get her attention to find out what this unlooked for treasure was all about. She found the books, she said, when she went to the apartment complex’s dumpster to throw out our trash. The books, though not brand new, were in good condition, though most were missing their dust jackets, exposing their tweedy blue covers.

A windfall of books like this seemed like a miracle to me. I still remember the amazed reverence I felt when those books appeared on the breakfast table. Through many years and many moves, I’ve managed to keep a small selection of these treasured books, and I have them displayed in my office. After researching Nancy for this blog post, I pulled down several of my remaining volumes. To my delight, most are the original, unrevised copies from the 1930s. Only one still has a dust cover. The rest retain their tweedy blue glory.

Through the years I moved on to other authors—Erle Stanley Gardner and his Perry Mason mysteries, everything Agatha Christie ever wrote, and eventually many, many more mystery authors like Patricia Wentworth, Rex Stout, and Marjory Allingham. (I do read more “modern” mysteries, but they aren’t quite as cozy and comforting as the vintage authors I keep returning to.) But my heart will always have a special soft spot for Nancy, the teenage girl who chased villains in her blue roadster.

What were your favorite books from childhood?

My proudly scrawled name
For more information on Nancy Drew, click here.


I Hear He Was Great in Toy Story 3

March 11, 2011

Originally from Willows, WI, he’s been a photographer, an Olympic gold medalist, a pizza delivery guy and a member of the military. He’s turning 50 today, and has recently reconciled with his long-time love after being apart for six years. He is…

Ken Carson. You know, Ken—Barbie’s main man!*

When I was a child, Ken was part of my Barbie family. He had brown molded plastic hair and a head that, disturbingly, popped off without warning. If I had needed a doll for regular decapitations, he would have been my go-to guy. When his head stayed on, and there was always some doubt about that, he was the perfect companion for Barbie in all her adventures.

Poor Ken had few wardrobe choices. I seem to recall some flowered bathing trunks, but I can’t remember what else he wore. (Maybe he was really Cabana Boy Ken?) My Barbie had a whole wardrobe, including shoes. I am not as well-dressed today as my Barbie was when I was 7. My most treasured items were handmade, 50s-style doll clothes someone had given to me.

Barbie and Ken traveled in a chic yellow and orange Country Camper, with Skipper, Barbie’s sister, and their daughter, a non-Mattel toddler-size doll who had miraculously come into being well before I had any idea of the actual process involved. I spent many happy hours playing with Barbie & Co. (when I wasn’t creating elaborate storylines for my Breyer model horses—that’s a story for another day), and I packed them carefully away when I left for college. I believe I would still have them if it weren’t for The Incident. On returning from college, all my Barbie stuff had “disappeared” from our garage. Frankly, I’m still suspicious about the circumstances of that disappearance. My mom swears she didn’t get rid of them, but, really, that’s the only thing the thieves took?! Come on. I could have had a real investment there: a quick check of eBay shows the camper alone selling for more than $200!

I still pine for Barbie and her pretty wardrobe, Decapitation Ken and, especially, the Country Camper. Never mind that my life (and my house) is filled with more grown-up toys, like laptops and piles of books and art supplies, not to mention I now have a real horse to replace my models. If I still had Barbie and Ken they'd likely be stored in the attic with the Christmas decorations and the silverfish—a sad comedown from their days as a free-wheeling, camper-driving team.

What was your favorite childhood toy? Do you still have it? What’s your favorite toy now?

*For more information on Ken, see