What if life skills weren’t electives?

I walked around my brick foundation today, poking my fingers through the gaps in the mortar. My heart weighed heavy in my chest, my stomach twisting and threatening to squeeze the tamales I had for lunch back up my throat.

It was clear the foundation hasn’t been repaired in years. My fingers found spots where they could reach almost all the way through to the basement. My nail could scrape away the aged mortar.

My mind looped over the same thought, over and over: Where will we find the money for this big of a project?


I Googled episodes of “This Old House” to learn how to tuckpoint. The process looks relatively manageable, albeit time consuming: Scrape away the old mortar about 1 inch deep. Apply new mortar.

Except there are rules. Like: Don’t use mortar harder than your bricks, because the bricks need to be able to expand and contract with the temperature.

How do I know how hard my bricks are? I wondered. How do I know how hard the mortar is?

The fantasy of being a Google-taught do-it-yourselfer on this project faded quickly. A foundation is too important to risk ruining. So I called Dad, the ever-present expert and giver of advice, to plan my next steps in taking out a loan and finding the right contractor to do the work.

WHEN I WAS in high school, there were plenty of life skills and trades classes. Home economics, early child development, wood shop, agriculture, building trades, architectural drawing, computer-aided drafting, electronics, auto shop …

My husband’s high school 25 miles away had additional trades education, such as welding.

All of those were electives, though. Between English, math, and science requirements, I filled my elective slots with art, theater, creative writing, and foreign language.

I don’t regret any of those courses. Nor do I regret my college courses in sociology, philosophy, foreign language, communication, photography … but I do regret not working in a few other skills.

At 15 years old, it’s hard to visualize life 15 years down the road. When I was choosing classes for my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to sign up for the things I was interested in right now. Like art and writing. I had no interest in getting greasy in the auto shop or dusty in the wood shop or sweaty in the building trades class.

At 31 years old, I sure wish I’d replaced one art class here with basic auto shop there, and maybe swapped out a semester of theater with a semester of home economics. (Try as I might, I still can’t figure out to thread my sewing machine.)

There were two life skills classes that weren’t electives: computer skills and consumer economics. In computer skills, we learned typing, resume building, and writing cover letters. In consumer economics, we learned the basics of balancing a checkbook and basic money management.

Both classes trained in skills I’ve used daily post-high school.

But there are a lot of other skills — like changing my oil — that I didn’t learn. And I wish I had.

GROWING UP, Dad did all the maintenance around the house. He is an Eric of All Trades, Master of Most. Building a shed, rewiring the house, pouring concrete patios, foundation repair, tree trimming, sump pump installation, car oil changes and tire repair … you name it. He did it, no Google instructions required.

I never worried about learning to repair things myself. In the back of my mind, I simply accepted that there’s always someone around home to do it.

Except in my generation, that’s not typically the case. Now that I’m no longer living with my parents and head a household with my husband, who’s around to do those big and oh-so-necessary projects?

Our house is an ode to literature and music. Every room in the house — kitchen included — has books. There’s a magazine rack in the living room and a newspaper stand upstairs in the office with back issues of our most coveted periodicals. Our entertainment room — which is quickly becoming my husband’s “cave” — is home to his prized turntable, sound system, and vinyl collection.

We’re both journalists and writers. We can apply AP style with a vengeance, but balancing on a ladder or wielding a hammer for much more than hanging a frame on the wall is beyond our skill set.

Master Fleet, a maintenance provider for semitractors and trailers, cited a survey in which 61 percent of millennials said they “really didn’t know much about the skilled trades, or that they didn’t care much for the jobs the skilled trades represent.”

That number also aligns with a 2016 NBC News report that 60 percent of people (not just millennials in this case) aren’t confident they know how to change a tire. The report also included insight into the basic car knowledge of younger generations: Most Gen Xers and millennials aren’t skilled in driving manual transmissions, adding coolant, or changing oil, either. (Guilty as charged on all counts … although I’ve watched Dad rotate my tires often enough that I think I could fumble my way through changing a tire.)

That’s not to imply that all younger adults are useless. I know plenty of competent folks my age who learned trades in high school electives or from older-generation family members. They are, however, in the minority among my network.

IN MY RURAL Illinois farming area, there’s been a trend of trades classes downsizing or consolidating into cooperatives with other school districts.

The elimination of in-house offerings at the schools frequently is cited for one reason: declining enrollment. It’s more cost-effective for schools to consolidate and pool resources. In my county, one example is an Area Career Center, which is open to students from nine public  high schools and one private school.

A 2014 U.S. News report states:

A lack of qualified teachers, restricted school budgets, high operational costs and an increase in the number of academic core requirements students are required to complete for graduation have influenced career-tech education’s enrollment decline.

“There’s less room for electives and career and technical education is an elective,” [said James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education].

The report also notes demand is increasing for trade openings even as school training decreases.

That report is four years old, but still relevant today. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported as recently as last month that the Dallas-Forth Worth area is 20,000 workers short in the construction trades. Not only would high school-level career and technical education programs help the average Joe (or average Julie) do simple home maintenance, but it would also make high school graduates career-ready for entry level trades positions.

So if a school’s role is to lay the groundwork for students to be competent, contributing members of society … isn’t basic construction and maintenance education a life skill set that should be taught?

Except, according to Forbes, the aim high school curricula around the United States focuses on college prep, not life prep. So unless a student is going to a trade school, career and technical courses don’t have a place in college prep.

I don’t regret my undergraduate education — after all, it was on the student newspaper where I learned the skills needed for my career. And I don’t regret my college prep courses in high school, such as AP English. I also don’t think it would have hurt my high school career to have one more required class: Before you graduate enroll in one life skills class.

The choice of class can be left open-ended based on the school’s offerings. If the school has 10 course options, have a student pick one. Maybe even go hog wild and require two. That still gives students some autonomy to choose courses suited to their interests, but also gives them an extra applicable skill set.

At 16 years old, I probably would have opted for home economics and learned the basics in sewing, cooking, baking, and household management. But if that class got too full, maybe I would’ve been inspired to take auto shop and learned the basics of oil changes, checking tire pressure, changing a tire, and simple repairs. At the very least, I’d know the names of car parts and what they do.

SO HOW MUCH skills training is — or should be — the responsibility of the school versus the responsibility of the parent?

For schools — particularly those that are underfunded in cash-strapped Illinois — I feel the burden of administrators. How do they stretch fewer dollars to expand costly programs like building trades?

The fact is, most taxpayers cringe at the idea of property taxes going up to fund more school programs. The school funding system is broken, and that’s too big of an issue for me to tackle in this space.

The problem is, for the next generation, many of the parents won’t have those technical skill sets to pass on to their children. My husband is brilliant, but when it comes to good ol’-fashioned barn raisings (or, in our family’s case, gazebo building), he’s designated to hold up the roof or pick up fallen nails. He’s not the guy wielding the power tools. And while I mock-flex my muscles and feel proud after changing a dryer belt, I won’t be any use to our future children in terms of wiring the house or tuckpointing the foundation.

There’s always a case to be made that people should just go to the experts and pay for these services. After all, I work in a newsroom, and readers pay for my product to learn the news rather than going to city council and school board meetings to learn about it themselves. Why not just go to a licensed repairman to have your home and car fixed?

To that I’d say: There will always be a dozen skills a person won’t know how to do. In that case, pay someone else to do it. Besides, one high school course does not an expert make. A semester of auto shop won’t be enough to teach a person how to replace a transmission, but it can teach basic and emergency car maintenance. A building trades class won’t teach how to tuckpoint a foundation, but it can teach how to fix a leaky spot on the roof. A wood shop class won’t teach how to build a house from top to bottom, but it can teach how to build a nice dog house.

Just like high school math and physics doesn’t teach us to be rocket scientists, there will still be a need to call and pay professionals for the big stuff. But it would be nice to have the little skills to mend and patch.

And if students find they love a trade, they can go on to trade school or an apprenticeship. High school would be the first step toward a future career, which should be its purpose anyway.

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REVIEW: A Literary Tea Party cookbook

I was walking through the newsroom where I work two weeks ago when a reporter waved me to his desk.

“I know you like literary things,” he said. “Have you heard about this new cookbook that’s coming out?”

He gestured to his screen, where there was a cover image of “A Literary Tea Party” by Alison Walsh. He was writing a preview about the book’s June 5 release and interviewing the author.

Literary tea party

The preview article my newspaper published moved across my desk last week during the evening production shift, and I had the chance to read more about it. “A Literary Tea Party” takes inspiration from foods in classic literature — such as the Turkish delight in the Chronicles of Narnia and “Bread and Butter Flies” from Alice in Wonderland — and turns them into recipes that any do-it-yourselfer can put on the table.

I’m a dabbler at cooking and baking — I love homemade meals, but I would be stretching the truth to say I cook at home more than twice a week. It’s a lucky week when I put homemade meals or treats on the table three to four times.

Even so, I knew I had to have this book.

One Amazon order later, it showed up my doorstep on Saturday. Unfortunately, it arrived after I pulled a loaf of spiced banana bread out of the oven. (There goes half my homemade quota for the week.) We had four extremely overripe bananas in the fruit basket that needed to be used, so I Frankenstein’ed a surprisingly tasty recipe from a handful I found online. When the book turned up on my doorstep later that afternoon, it turns out there was a banana bread recipe inside — Beorn’s Honey Nut Banana Bread, inspired by “The Hobbit.”

I was more than a little disappointed at the timing. If only I could’ve tested a recipe the first day!

From a literary standpoint (and especially a kid lit standpoint), the choice of literary links in this book is Turkishly delightful. Titles and series represented include:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • The Borrowers
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  • Redwall
  • King Arthur
  • The Phantom of the Opera
  • Little Women
  • Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot mysteries
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • White Fang
  • The Hobbit
  • A Little Princess
  • The Secret Garden
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Treasure Island
  • Peter Pan
  • A Christmas Carol
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe

Parents, teachers, librarians, and lovers of kid lit, do you see the number of children’s titles on that list? There are even more kid-friendly titles if you’re a believer in sharing Illustrated Classics with the kiddos. (Be a believer in sharing Illustrated Classics … they’re an amazing introduction to classic literature at a young age.)

Even better, almost all of the titles on the list have multiple recipes associated with them. That makes it easy to build a themed party. Want to host a mystery-themed book club meeting or movie night? Serve up Sherlock’s Steak Sandwiches with an Agatha Christie-inspired Delicious Death Chocolate Cake for dessert.

Or how about an Alice in Wonderland birthday party for your curiouser and curiouser young reader? Bread and Butterflies and Stuffed Button Mushrooms make good finger foods, and you can stick some birthday candles in the Queen of Hearts’ Painted Rose Cupcakes.

Each recipe includes either a passage from its related book or an explanation of the recipes link to its literature.

As the title suggests, the theme of the book revolves around a tea party. Naturally, that means a hefty portion of the recipes are tea recipes, and it’s supplemented by a decently lengthy list of savory bites and desserts. As I initially fanned through the pages, I was disappointed at the long list of tea recipes for the simple reason that I’m not a tea drinker. I haven’t found a blend yet that doesn’t make me feel like


I’m tempted to try the Anne of Green Gables-inspired Raspberry Cordial Tea, though. And honestly, I’m easily won over by names like Second Star to the Right tea, so I’m willing to give a few recipes a try.

But Walsh must have anticipated picky drinkers like me (and may even have had young tastebuds in mind), because she included a list of five tea alternatives:

  • Autumn Harvest Cider (Redwall)
  • Hundred Acre Hot Chocolate (Winnie-the-Pooh)
  • London Fog Lattes (Sherlock Holmes)
  • Raspberry Cordial (Anne of Green Gables)
  • White Witch Hot Chocolate (The Chronicles of Narnia)

The range of offerings is good, from buns and breads to cookies and eclairs, to cake and cupcakes, to doughnuts and eclairs. There’s something for multiple skill levels inside.

20180611_025222Now, I have no doubt when I try some of these recipes, mine will look like spectacular Pinterest fails. After all, I can’t make it through a loaf of simple banana bread without texting Mom to ask how long I have to let it cool before adding the icing. (Spoiler: I didn’t let it cool enough and the icing melted down the sides. Although it looked nice after, so I pretended I meant to do that.) When I try to make something technical like these Cyclone Cookies (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), I’m sure Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry would be appalled at my spiral and layers. But Walsh makes her recipes clear and accessible to baking beginners like me, so there’s hope.

I’ll post photos and updates as I disappear into Narnia … er, my kitchen … later this week and test a few of the recipes. (And even better … taste-test them!) I’ll also post what the recipe is supposed to look like, since I don’t want to do Alison Walsh the disservice of representing her recipes solely by my (lack of) culinary skills.

My initial review: If you love books and like food, get this cookbook. I’m not much of a host, but I’m already plotting a bookish get-together for fellow readers and writers that will revolve around these recipes. I hope she releases another volume in the future with even more literary references.

In the meantime, for more literary and pop culture recipes not included in the book, you can follow Alison Walsh on her blog, Alison’s Wonderland Recipes.

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A book’s surprise literary connection to home

It’s no surprise that Richard Peck is connected to the house my husband and I bought last year.

(At least, it isn’t if you caught my story of a visit from one of the home’s former occupants and my recent ode to Richard Peck.)

I learned in August 2017 that the family from whom we bought our house hosted acclaimed children’s and young adult author Richard Peck, thus christening the guest room as the Peck Room forever after. Because of Peck’s influence on my own reading and writing life, my husband and I carried on the tradition. A plaque outside the bedroom door — gifted to us from the home’s decades-long former family — hangs there today.

Peck Room

You can see from the date that Peck stayed here Oct. 5-6, 2004, during a round of visits to Streator schools and our gorgeous Carnegie library.

That was nearly 14 years ago. Sadly, a week ago today, I read the announcement on Peck’s Facebook page that the 84-year-old author died on May 23 after living with cancer.

20544019_683420473705_927578940396919256_oIn his honor, I decided last week to search my shelves for one of his books I hadn’t yet read. Last summer, during the annual Riverfest used book sale in downtown Ottawa, I stumbled on a copy of “Fair Weather,” a gently worn copy that had been removed from circulation at Streator High School’s library and donated to the sale. (It’s the pale blue spine, eighth from the bottom, just under “Water for Elephants.”)

The title wasn’t even on my radar when I stumbled upon it at the book sale last year. I added it to my stack merely for the sake of the author’s name — I’ve never been let down yet by a Richard Peck book, and like the others, this one didn’t disappoint.

In fact, it came with a bonus surprise.

When I opened to the title page, I found Peck’s blue-inked penmanship:


The note reads, “For Streator H.S. readers – Richard Peck Oct. 6, ’04”

This book was signed for the local high school during Peck’s two-day stay at my home.

I never had the opportunity to meet Richard Peck, and his visit to Streator only accounted for two days out of his 84-year life. But I am endlessly overjoyed every time his visit ripples into my life.

20180531_174513.jpgThis book — particular this specific copy of this book — felt like the appropriate farewell to a beloved writer. It was a fitting conclusion to my brief, distant connection to Peck.

But there will always be a bond between writer and reader when a book is in hand. Every time I crack the well-loved spine of “A Long Way From Chicago,” the divide is closed, because he’ll be right here in the home he visited for two days in 2004, telling me a story.


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Thank you for the stories, Richard Peck

I met Richard Peck through Grandma Dowdel.

She’s not my grandmother. In fact, she’s his. Not in the way you might expect, though.

Grandma Dowdel is a character in Richard Peck’s novels “A Long Way From Chicago,” “A Year Down Yonder,” and “A Season of Gifts.”

I first met Grandma Dowdel when my Aunt Robin — a children’s librarian — gifted “A Long Way From Chicago” to my parents, sisters, and I. The fearless, confident, mischief-making old woman won me over from the first pages. Her spirit of mischief has stuck with me for well over a decade, and I’ve revisited those books numerous times to meet her again.

Grandma Dowdel’s spirit of mischief has heavily influenced all of the Molehill children in my next novel, “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill.” I keep a copy of Peck’s books close at hand in my writing room.

Peck’s influence on my life as both a reader and a writer made the news of his death this week particularly saddening to me.


Richard Peck has another small influence on my home. When we purchased our house last year, we learned from the previous owners — one of them an English teacher and longtime supporter of the local library — that Peck stayed in their home during his visit to Streator in 2004.

They were honored and overjoyed by having Peck as a guest — so much so that they displayed a plaque in the house and dubbed the guest room as the Peck Room.

They were generous enough to pass the plaque on to us, and it is proudly displayed outside the bedroom door.

Peck Room

After my parents learned of Peck’s connection to my new home, my family became especially devoted fans. Although it’s a small connection, our love of his books made it feel like a bond. One of the housewarming gifts from my parents was Peck’s only picture book, “Monster Night at Grandma’s House.”

Over a 45-year writing career, Peck produced 43 books — nearly a book a year, and the majority of those for children and young adults.

He gave us an extraordinary gift in his stories and writing. I’ll miss seeing his name on newly released titles. But I’m grateful for the literary legacy he left behind.

Thank for the stories, Mr. Peck. Your pen may rest now, as may you.

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Dear Opossums, I owe you an apology

In June 2017, I came home from a late-night shift in the newsroom and found a surprise waiting for me in the garage.

Somehow, a baby opossum Houdini’ed its way inside and was perched on the hood of my husband’s car.

Baby Possum

It took some work to shoo this guy out of the garage. Particularly since it adopted an “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” method of hiding and tucked its nose in the corner farthest from the door to cower. Some gentle nudging with a broom eventually steered it out the door.

Having grown up in rural soybean-and-cornfield Illinois, ‘possums and I are no stranger to each other. They were frequent visitors to my childhood home year-round, often displacing our barn cats from their warm pet houses in the winter and forcing us to regularly evict them from the straw-and-blanket-lined pet homes.

In fact, they’re still frequent visitors to my parents’ home. That’s where my niece, Katy, first encountered them … and was terrified by them and “their ugly triangle heads,” as she put it.

Katy’s fear of opossums is what inspired the opossum army in “Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets.” In the imaginary land of Katarah, opossums are the antagonist who are trying to take over the kingdom.

Possum Army

The Sarah & Katy books were written for my nieces Sarah and Katy, so the incorporation of fearsome opossums was a nod to the real Katy’s fear — and the book gave her a chance to see read about herself overcoming them in the story. Unfortunately, I’ve also done opossums a disservice by reinforcing the scary stereotype.

Even though opossums are fierce on the surface (I have to confess it’s a little off-putting when you’re in close quarters with a hissing ‘possum who seems to unhinge its entire face when it opens its mouth), they get an unnecessarily bad reputation.

The National Opossum Society reports this North American marsupial keeps a clean environment from which we benefit, calling them “nature’s little sanitation engineers.” They eat insects, carrion, and overripe fruit, plus catch and consume small rodents around the  yard. They also eat 90 percent of ticks they encounter, consuming as many as 5,000 in a season, according to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. If there’s one critter I consider my mortal enemy, it’s a tick … so the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

Like most wildlife, they can carry fleas, but they don’t carry rabies and are impervious to Lyme disease. And they’re not likely to bite you, anyway. The Cary Institute reports their first line of defense is drooling and hissing as a bluff. The big-bad-possum act works … especially on Katy. But when it fails, the opossum’s next line of defense is fainting and … well, playing possum.

Sure, possums aren’t cute and cuddly looking like cats, rabbits, and raccoons. At best, they’re just so ugly they’re almost cute. But they’re largely harmless, beneficial, and pretty interesting fellows. (Did you know opossum ancestors were alive while dinosaurs roamed the earth? Read more here.)

A few more tidbits, courtesy of the Opossum Awareness & Advocacy blog:

  • Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, carrying their newborns in a pouch. (Fun fact: They can have around 25 babies, or joeys, in one litter. Not so fun fact: Only about a dozen survive.)
  • Female opossums are called jills. Males are called jacks.
  • They’re nomadic and nocturnal.
  • The O at the beginning of their name is important. The possum is a mammal native to Australia; the opossum is native to North America.

Making Amends

As an apology to making out opossums as a vicious army, I’m taking two steps. The first is a donation to the Opossum Awareness & Advocacy nonprofit based in Vermont, which shares the following mission statement:

Our mission is to spread awareness about opossums’ many attributes, including the fact they kill ticks and mice that carry Lyme and other infectious diseases, and in doing so to improve the public’s regard and treatment of this very undervalued marsupial.

We also seek to complement other awareness and advocacy efforts, including but not limited to, the appreciation and preservation of wildlife, and the awareness and amelioration of Lyme Disease.

The second step is sharing opossum education and advocacy groups, including:

  • Opossum Awareness & Advocacy: An opossum advocacy group launched in May 2017. www.opossumpower.org Follow on Facebook at fb.com/opossumawarenessandadvocacy.
  • The National Opossum Society is full of trivia and information to help you learn about our marsupial friends at opossum.org.
  • Opossum Society of the United States: Under the General Information tab on this group’s website, there’s information about what to do for orphaned or injured opossums, tips for coexisting with them, and information for wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians. Follow at opossumsocietyus.org.
  • See the cute and loveable side of opossums at fb.com/possumcore. You’ll find photos and memes galore.

A final note

You’ll be happy to know my niece no longer finds opossums terrifying. In fact, the last one Katy found wandering around my parents’ property was christened Louise. Who could be afraid of a critter named Louise?

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