Big-hearted non-profits I support!

from the Reading Village website

Hey guys,

I've been meaning to do this post for a while now!  As you might know, I donate a portion of my royalties to non-profit organizations that support indigenous rights in Latin America.  Over the past nine years, I've donated to a number of awesome groups, all of which have some thematic connection to the people and places in the books I've published.

Here are the fabulous organizations I'm currently donating to, in case you're curious!

Nija' Nu A.C.: Apoyando a Nuestros Abuelos -- I am SO excited I discovered this non-profit (thanks go to my friend in the Mixteca, Melissa Ferrin.)  It's an absolutely perfect fit with my upcoming book, THE LIGHTNING QUEEN, which is framed as a grandfather telling his grandson about his enchanted friendship with a Romani (Gypsy) girl long ago in a Mixteco village. The novel was inspired by stories told to me by my wise Oaxacan healer friend, Maria Chiquita, who lived to age 97.

 photo from the Nija'nu website

Here's the description from their website:

 "Nija’nu" means elders and those who are regarded with respect and honor in Mixteco, one of the many indigenous languages of Mexico. Born out of a small town in the Mixteca region Nija’nu A.C. is a non-profit organization remembering those elders that for various reasons live in poverty with little or no family support.

Nija’nu A.C. works to alleviate immediate needs such as hunger and unsafe living conditions for elders living in Santo Domingo Tonalá and surrounding villages. With a deep commitment to providing elders with a dignified way of life, Nija’nu A.C. provides monthly food aid, specialized healthcare visits, and works toward improving the elders' living spaces. We also help elders with paperwork and applications in order to receive government benefits. We offer social activities, but most importantly provide care and company to our elders.

Isn't this wonderful?  Years ago, I visited several of the villages they work with, and have been blessed with wisdom from many of the elders in those communities!  I'm so happy to have some way to give back...


Another amazing organization I donate to is Reading Village, which is a great fit because of the Guatemala connection in RED GLASS and the indigenous literacy triumphs in THE QUEEN OF WATER and THE LIGHTNING QUEEN.  Their work is in impoverished Mayan communities in Guatemala, but they're based in nearby Boulder, CO, which means I've had the joy of meeting some of the hard-working and passionate people in this organization.

photo from Reading Village website

From their website:

Reading Village transforms lives through literacy. Leveraging reading and education as mechanisms to end poverty, we create the conditions for youth to discover their true potential and become agents of change in the world. Through collaboration and innovation, whole communities unleash their power to flourish under their own resources and creativity.  Our mission is to empower youth to eradicate illiteracy and lead their communities out of poverty.

I've been so impressed with the results they've seen with their work-- so many people empowered through education, and in turn, empowering others in their community.


The third non-profit I'm supporting, The Tandana Foundation, works with indigenous communities in Ecuador, which is a great tie-in with THE QUEEN OF WATER and  THE INDIGO NOTEBOOK. I've donated to their scholarship program, but I also love that they facilitate cross-cultural friendships, which is a theme in many of my books, including THE LIGHTNING QUEEN and RED GLASS. I first found out about their work when members of the organization connected with me because they'd been using THE QUEEN OF WATER with their participants!

with scholarship coordinator Veronica on the left, student Susana in the middle, and me on the right

This past winter, on a trip to Ecuador, I was absolutely thrilled to meet with the scholarship student I've been supporting-- Susana, a Quichua woman and mother of several children who is committed to her education despite many obstacles.  She lives in a very remote village in the Andes, and must commute for hours to get to school.  We had lunch together, along with Maria Virginia Farinango (my Quichua co-author of THE QUEEN OF WATER), Anna Taft (founder of the non-profit), and other dedicated people.

This is from their website:

The Tandana Foundation is a non-profit organization that offers intercultural volunteer opportunities, scholarships, and support for small community projects in highland Ecuador and Mali's Dogon Country.  Tandana coordinates volunteer programs that offer visitors to Ecuador or Mali the unique opportunity to be guests rather than tourists, to form intercultural friendships, to experience a rich indigenous culture, and to make a difference in the lives of new friends.  Its scholarship program allows rural Ecuadorian students to continue their secondary and higher education.  Its community projects support villagers in Mali and Ecuador as they realize their dreams of improving their communities. 

Tandana comes from a Kichwa root meaning "to gather together" or "to unite" and represents the spirit of our work.

 with Maria Virginia and toddler Leslie on the left, Anna in the middle, me on the right


All three of these organizations are 501-C3 non-profits, which means they are tax write-offs.  If you're interested in indigenous rights issues, I encourage you to donate or volunteer, too!

 Thanks for swinging by...


Gypsy foals frolicking...


Hey guys,

Since there's a Romani (Gypsy) girl in my upcoming book THE LIGHTING QUEEN, I had an excuse to do fascinating research on this culture.... including my trip to the Irish Rose Farm on the outskirts of my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado two summers ago.  Charlie Cox showed me his gorgeous authentic vintage Romani vardos (wagons), which I wrote about in another post.

Over the past couple years, my Lil Dude and I have become friends with Charlie and Jan, who we see at the Farmer's Market every Saturday.  (They are such energetic people!  Jan sells fantastical succulents planted in creative upcycled containers like Minions, old baby doll's heads, vintage Star Wars fighter jets, Lego Darth Vader action figures, 1950s Nancy Drew books....)

So we were excited to hear about their two newborn Gypsy foals, and even more excited when they invited us out to see these impossibly adorable creatures.


Charlie and Jan actually breed this kind of horse (Irish Cobs), whose ancestors were used in Ireland to pull Gypsy vardos, and who were also well-loved, gentle members of the caravan. Jan and Charlie are an incredible wealth of information about Romani and Traveler culture in Ireland, and true experts on the Gypsy horses and vardos and dog that they treasure.

These horses are gorgeous and sweet, with distinct black and white patterning and elegant tufts of hair around their ankles. I love their luxurious manes and tails so much!

They lead extremely happy lives on the farm, staying for many months with their mothers, wandering the huge fields with a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, getting lots of love from Jan and Charlie and their Gypsy dog, Finn.  In Ireland, caravans often included this breed of dog who, like the horses, also were a useful, gentle, and well-loved part of the family.  They are expert hunters, and will go off on their own to fetch rabbits or other small animals to have for dinner. (Finn has proudly brought home rabbits and squirrels.)

So, more about these beautiful foals: The older of the two-- about three weeks old in these photos-- is named Skellig Michael (Skeilig Mhichil in Irish), which is also a rocky island in Ireland.  The 2-week-old girl is named Saoirse (pronounced Searrrsha), which means "freedom" in the Irish language, and has cool political/historical significance in Ireland.


Once the babies warmed up to Lil Dude, they enjoyed having him scratch their rump.

I honestly knew very little about horses before our trip to the farm.  The extent of my knowledge was what I'd gleaned from Lil Dude's easy reader books on the topic. ;-)

It's incredible to me that within a few hours of birth, the foals are already walking around... and within a few weeks they're already munching on grasses to supplement their mother's milk.  Supposedly Gypsy mare's milk is incredibly nutrient-rich and makes these foals grow heartier and faster than other horse breeds.

The mothers were so sweet with their babies, but generously let us close enough to touch them. We felt so fortunate!

Before I sign off, I'll give you a quick update on THE LIGHTNING QUEEN.  It's available for preorder now, and will be released on Oct. 27, 2015 in hardcover, ebook... *and audiobook*! So happy about this!

You can read more about the book here and get links to book club and educators' guides.

And if you're on Goodreads, you can add it to your "want-to-read" list here.  Review copies are out in the world now, and I've gotten a bunch of awesome early reviews from a group of elementary school kids in Half Moon Bay, CA! I'll share those blurbs with you in a post soon....

Hope you're having an enchanting summer! 


Just another day of research... at the chocolate shop!


Hey all,

So I've had the grueling task of researching the goings-ons of a chocolate shop ....


I spent a glorious morning at Nuance on Pine Street in Old Town, Fort Collins.  One of the settings in my novel-in-progress is a chocolate shop, and I felt the need to spend some quality time inside of one.  The owners are Alix and Toby, a married couple who put their hearts into running this business.  I was so grateful to Toby, who took time out of his morning (2 and a 1/2 hours!) to enthusiastically answer my many interview questions.

Toby and Alix became enchanted with chocolate-making after a trip to Costa Rica. They started making it in their home kitchen, and soon their equipment had taken over....  Their hobby bloomed into something bigger, and they decided to open a gorgeous chocolate shop!

I thought I'd give you a taste of what I learned...

The cacao pods grow on the tree trunks!

The organically-grown cacao pods are harvested at one of the small-scale, environmentally and socially respectful co-ops that they work with in Latin America or Africa. Alix and Toby try to cut out as many middlemen as possible, so that the maximum amount of money possible can go directly to the community of growers.  The plantations aren't necessarily formal rectangles of land-- they can be in the middle of the jungle, which is best because the cacao plants love a good tree canopy.

There, onsite, people crack open the nerf-football sized pod and take out the beans coated with goopy stuff (mucilage) and let them sit for a few days, covered in leaves and fermenting.

This fermentation stage is essential to developing the chocolate's complex flavors and notes.


 Then, after it's spread out and dried in the sunshine, the cacao is shipped in burlap or plastic or hemp sacks by boat and then by truck to Nuance, where it's roasted in Toby and Alix's own little chocolate factory here in Old Town, Fort Collins.

The beans are roasted at between 240 and 350 degrees Farenheight for about 15 to 40 minutes, in small batches.  Some people use convection ovens or coffee roasters, but Nuance has their own top-secret roasting technique.... so mysterious!

Toby and Alix love experimenting with different techniques and flavors... an intriguing mix of art and science.

Machines crack the cacao beans and vacuum and winnow off the husks.  So you get these cute little cacao nibs....

The cacao is then ground into chocolate that has the consistency of peanut butter.  This is called chocolate liquor or cocoa mass, and it's not alcoholic, but it is thick and greasy.  With exposure to air, it turns into hard chocolate chunks.  This process releases aromatic and volatile compounds. 

Next it goes into the melanger machine.  Melanger is French for "mix."  It's a big stainless steel drum, whose base and wheels are granite.  For 80 hours, the stone grinds, granite against granite, mixing the cocoa mass with sugar.  There's a noisy rumble as the machines mix, four of them mixing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The goal is to get the particle size to 20 microns or less so that your tongue feels only a super-smooth texture.  (Note that this is not melting with heat, but actual grinding.)  In this stage the volatile acids and compounds are blown off and dissipate with exposure to air.
If the chocolate is destined to become milk chocolate, they'll add high-quality whole fat dried milk to the melanger.

Refining is the process of reducing the particle size, and conching is the process of releasing volatile compounds by stirring.  So by the time the mixing is done, the sharp acidity is reduced and the flavor is more mellow.

You're left with giant chunks of chocolate, which are part of the "geology phase" of chocolate making.  You can see the mottling and striated patterns in the chocolate chunk, a result of the "blooming" process.  This happens because the cocoa butter parts of the chocolate crystallize at room temperature.

Then they temper the chocolate-- this is a process of controlled melting and cooling to get the structure to Beta 5, which means the cocoa butter is smoothly integrated.

To make white chocolate, they use the cocoa butter with high quality Madagascar vanilla and whole fat dried milk.

We also talked quite a bit about the horrible chemical processes that big chocolate companies use in making chocolate.  It's awful, and I won't get into it here, but trust me, what the giant, soul-less businesses do to chocolate is an atrocity, and once you learn about it, you'll never want to eat cheapo, mass-produced chocolate again! Single source, bean to bar chocolate is definitely the way to go, though there are just a handful of small companies in the U.S. that produce chocolate this way. (I might tell you about all that in another post, if you're curious...)

So after Toby and Alix and their several employees make the chocolate, they form it into bars, from different countries, with different concentrations of cacao, and different cultivars of cacao (forestero, criollo, or trinitario)...


They also use some of the chocolate for hand-rolled truffles.  They have fun inventing different truffle recipes, using local and artisanal ingredients from the Fort Collins area.

I was thrilled when Toby offered me this beautiful flight of chocolate after our interview!

He instructed me to eat a piece of chocolate (all in a particular order designed to maximize the tasting experience.)  I was supposed to chew it a little, but also let it melt in my mouth and move it around to different parts of my mouth.  After I finished each chocolate sample, I drank some water and chewed a water cracker.  This process was not only delicious, and endorphin-releasing, but lots of fun!

I loved reading Toby's descriptions of each kind of chocolate and seeing if I could notice those flavors in the chocolate as I tasted.  Because I love words, especially words describing taste, I'll share with you some terms used to evoke chocolate flavors:  floral, fruity, nutty, metallic, earthy, woody, vanilla, oaky, coffee, strawberries, acidity/brightness, herbal, minty, astringent, tobacco...

I tasted chocolate made with beans from Ghana (rich, deep, notes of vanilla, cherries, and honey), Ecuador (earthy, mysterious, subtle), Nicaragua (smooth and creamy with notes of tobacco leaf, nuts, molasses), Venezuela (beautifully balanced, notes of cashews and dairy cream), and Madagascar (fascinating, sophisticated layers of flavor like plum and apricot.)  Not surprisingly, Toby  has a creative writing background. :-)

Also not surprisingly, he has a design background.... which leads me to the decor of Nuance... gorgeous! Their retail space is owned by my dear creator friend Les Sunde, who put a lot of effort into making it architecturally beautiful, and then, Toby and Alix beautified it further...

I really love what they did with this antique skylight, to filter the bright sunlight....

And that wraps up my blissful morning of chocolate research! Thanks for coming by...


The happy new life of my old theatre seats...

Hello dear readers!

Would you like a peek at Ian's and my holiday project?  Here's the final product!

They add soft and comfy and compact extra seating in our little living room... and give you the festive urge to make buttery popcorn and eat it in paper bags.


My good friend Les Sunde, who makes beautiful story-filled creations from rusty old things (you can read an article I wrote about him here-- and note that it takes a few seconds to load), gave me three red art deco theatre seats a couple years ago.

They came from the local old Bas Bleu theatre on Pine street here in Fort Collins, before the theatre moved.  (We think that they're from the 1940's-- their original home was a theatre in small town eastern Colorado.)  I had big dreams for these seats, but they sat in my garage collecting dust for three years....

... and then, a cute little reupholstery shop called Sparrow House of Designs opened up just blocks from my house.  So I consulted with the lovely owner, Gayle, and we made a plan to give these seats another life.


The fabric (velvet and vinyl and some kind of scratchy old material on the sides) was in bad shape, stained and a little torn and threadbare in places.


 We pried the cushions from the metal base with a screwdriver and got rid of the stuffing....

They were full of dust and stuffed with hay and burlap and ancient cotton padding. (Sadly, I'm extremely allergic to dust and hay, so these were an allergy nightmare. I wore a dust mask while removing that stuff.)


 I re-stuffed and reupholstered the seat and back cushions, with Gayle's help. (That's the cotton padding on the right, below.)


It was so fascinating to see the way these seats were originally assembled... there's this narrow, slinky-like spring that's holding the seat back fabric into place.



The metal back of the seats are kind of rusted from decades of spilled Cokes, I'm guessing.  I like the way the old metal looks, though, so we're keeping it intact.


I found some gorgeous, silky-smooth velvet fabric remnants super-on-sale at  Gayle did a beautiful job sewing the velvet for the seat, which I couldn't do with my limited sewing skills and non-upholstery-grade sewing machine.  Then she provided the foam and Dacron wrap for me and guided me through reassembling the seats.  (I think the foam was about 4 inches thick-- I glued a layer of Dacron to it with spray fabric adhesive.)


Ian helped me, too, since he's well-muscled and mechanically-minded.  There was an issue with one of the seat's springs, but he fixed it. (He always tells me from the get-go that he's not going to get involved with my latest creative dream-project, but then he gets sucked in for one reason or another and saves the day.)

I glued two layers of Dacron to the metal back (and glued them together, too.)  Then Ian and I wrapped the new velvet around the metal and cushion, which was a bit challenging because we had to wedge it in with that tiny, long slinky. We accomplished this with a hammer, mallet, clamps, and Ian's brute force. 

He built a sturdy hickory frame for the base, made from leftover, pre-finished wood flooring from our remodel.  Once again, I feel I owe thanks to the young boy Ian of the 1980s who obsessively played with Legos, thereby mastering the basics of construction... and it has served our whole family well!

Et voila! The end result...

One charming thing about these seats is that there's an ancient chewed-up piece of gum stuck under one of the arms.  We're keeping it there for posterity's sake. It's probably decades old-- any germs are long gone, replaced by the charming patina of the years. (Right?)  So if you come over to try out the chairs, be warned!  And, as we instructed Lil Dude, don't you dare remove that piece of gum...

We're trying to keep Wilma and her potential doggy-grime off the seats... we don't want to have to reupholster them again for at least a few years. :-)

That's it!  I wish you happiness in your own creative projects....