Interview about Growing Patterns on Naturally Speaking Blog

growing patterns over


Nonfiction author Nancy Castaldo invited me to visit her blog today. Head over to read an interview about Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature.

Nancy recently led an excellent session on marketing and promotion at the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference. Her books include The Story of a Seed, winner of the 2017 Green Earth Award, and Beastly Brains.

A great-great-great grandfather’s Letter

tree with starlight
Family stories have always been part of my life. One of the most dramatic involved a great-great grandmother of mine. She was a teenager living in rural Ireland who one day in the early 1870s told her family she was going out to see friends. The next time they heard from her was in a letter sent from the United States. As with any family story, the details of even this snippet changed with various tellings. In the version I remember hearing when I was a child, she left the house for a trip to town for lettuce. (Pretty far-fetched given what life was like in rural Ireland at the time.)

During a trip to Ireland in May with my mother, Patty, and her sister, Mary, I learned a lot more about our family’s roots in Ireland. Some things about our little origin story rang true to everyone we met, including genealogists and historians. But some things did not.

Aunt Mary is the family member most responsible for what we know about our family history, especially the Irish side. She started her serious work in the 1970s, writing to older family members and collecting photographs and letters, and has continued to invest time and money in the effort.

A key document in tracing our Irish foremother was a letter written by Michael Connaughton, dated July 22nd, 1875. “My dear and beloved daughter,” begins the letter to Honorah (Nora) Connaughton. Though we have no birth record for Nora, her husband reported on her death certificate that she was born in 1855 and was 58 years old when she passed away on August 10th. Since her birthday seems to have been after August 10th, she was likely 19 years old when this letter was written. Michael was about 61.

The letter contains tons of information that genealogists were able to use to trace the family, including Michael’s list of his other children and reports of where they were living and what they were doing; his notation that he was writing from Bookala; his mention of other nearby towns, one, Ballymoe, where he went to collect the 2 pounds 11 shillings and 6 pennies Nora had sent home, and two, Castlerea, where he planned to go to pay his rent “to Mr. MK,” and his signoff, which included the name of his wife, Mary.

In addition, he gives details that fit into the general picture of what was going on in Ireland at the time. “The crop is doing well up to this. The summer is very wet. My turf is not dry yet. it was late the blight is beginning to fall on the potatoes.”

He reports that Mary’s “hand is none better or worse” and that “The shortness of breath is my worse (sic) complaint which I am afraid will never part with me.” He died two years later.

We know from census records that Michael and Mary (nee Dillon) Connaugton had seven children (Sarah, Patrick, Nora, Anne, Michael, John, and Mary Kate). They rented their house and land in Bookala from Sir Thomas John Burke. They could read and write English and Micheal made at least some of his living as a tailor, a skill he passed on to at least some of his sons and daughters.

Though Michael’s letter mentions that Nora was living in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1875, we have little information on her time before she settled in Ludlow, Kentucky, and married my great-great grandfather, Richard Joseph Dillon, born in America in 1853 to Irish immigrants named Patrick Edward Dillon and Bridget Healy.

We have a boilerplate letter of introduction written by a priest to be shown to prospective employers or landlords and we have Micheal’s mention that she owns a sewing machine that she is using in part to make her living.

During the Ireland trip, Aunt Mary told me that the story she had heard had never included a trip to town for groceries, much less lettuce, but that Nora had gone out that day to visit friends. Mary had also heard that Nora had walked to a town and taken a train. Mr. William Gacquinn, a historian in County Roscommon, confirmed for us that trains were running through County Roscommon by that year and that she could have gone by train to a port city like Galway or Dublin for her trip to the United States.

It puzzled the genealogist and the historian that she would leave seemingly without notice because it would have been an expensive undertaking and the family seemed to have little money. They wondered whether some of Nora’s other siblings had emigrated prior to her leaving and had sent the money for her to come next. (The only sibling we have traced to and in the United States is the youngest girl, Mary Kate, who lived in Indianapolis, married a man named Edward Kane, and had four children, Mamie, Kathern, Edward, and Bess.)

Delving into this family history has been really interesting to me, especially since the family members I grew up knowing share lots of traits with these Irish relatives: there are a lot of letter writers, teachers (which gets more relevant in the next generation in Ireland), and sewists. Just like Micheal and Mary’s family in Bookala.

*This is a first installment in my attempt to pull together some of what we’ve learned into a narrative that can be followed and can serve as a springboard for further inquiry.

Poindexter Park Comes to Purple Word

Last Saturday, the Poindexter Park After School Club came to the Purple Word to make their own fractal pop-up books, as well as to learn more about the book- and print-making processes.

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The group first learned about fractals after reading Mysterious Patterns.

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The students finally unfold their fractals.

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Even group leaders Mr. Brad and Ms. Keyana had fun making the fractals!


After learning what a fractal is and how to make their own, the group moved to the back room of Purple Word to make their own monotype prints.  Suzanne, a staff member at Millsaps College, taught the kids about reductionist prints — that is, prints in which the design is made by taking away ink rather than adding ink.

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Suzanne helps the students spread their ink — a task that is certainly much harder than it looks.
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Here I am helping a student roll out her ink —  a very big task for small arms!

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Like I mentioned earlier, this form of print-making is a form of reductionism.  The students used Q-tips to remove ink from their plates to be printed on paper.

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The group eagerly watches as Suzanne runs a test print under the roller.

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Keyana, Sarah, Suzanne, and I with the kids after a fun morning.

Visit to New York

Next week Sarah will be traveling to New York to make a few school visits.  The first visit she’ll be making will be to The Dalton School, where she will be speaking to first graders about Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator.  The First Graders at The Dalton School are actually familiar with Sarah’s work already because Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature is a part of their curriculum! Last year, some first graders did the Fibonacci Folding Book project.

Sarah will then be at the Girls Prep Charter School in the Bronx. She’ll be spending a few days there working with second graders on writing non-fiction books.  They will be exploring the work of an author, specifically tying in how authors and illustrators choose their topics, how to write with a purpose in mind, and how to put one’s research into their own words. For this presentation Sarah will be highlighting Wolfsnail. Also at Girls Prep, Sarah will also be working with the fourth grade writing club, doing the fractal pop-up book project we taught at St. Luke’s in Baton Rouge.

We’ll certainly miss Sarah here down South, but it will be exciting to hear about her time in New York!

School Visits to Prentiss Christian and Lawrence County High School

Prentiss Christian and Lawrence County-

This past Thursday Sarah visited Prentiss Christian School and Lawrence County High School to promote teen writing contest, the theme for which is “Animals and/or Nature.”  Students are encouraged to write either a short story about nature or a nonfiction essay about the theme. This contest is a partnership between The New Walden Writers Retreat and Environmental Arts Center and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality with support from the Jefferson Davis and Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Central MS RC&D Council.  While at Prentiss Christian School Sarah gave a brief presentation on her books to introduce the students to the process of writing nature-focused non-fiction.  She shared both Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator and Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature, both of which are non-fiction books.  Although her work is non-fiction, I noticed that while we were at St. Luke’s in Baton Rouge that her work seemed to unanimously inspire fiction work from the students. I wonder what it is about these scientific and mathematical concepts in nature that inspires us to write creatively?

Prentiss Christian and Lawrence County--5


Special thanks to Hope Daley of the Jefferson Davis County Soil & Water Conservation District and Mandy Callaway of the Lawrence County SWCD for organizing these visits, and another thanks to Chuck Jepsen and Laura Beiser of the Central MS Resource Conservation and Development Council for facilitating them! Hopefully the wonderful weather (and Sarah’s wonderful presentations) will inspire the students to get out and start writing about nature!

Finding Fractals in the Classroom

St. Lukes Fractal Pop up Books--16Hello! My name is Mary Schmidt, and I’m Sarah’s intern for the Spring. I’m a senior at Millsaps College, and while I don’t know much about children’s literature I’ve enjoyed my first month learning about it!

On February 5 Sarah and I left for Baton Rouge, LA to make a visit to St. Luke’s Episcopal School. While there Sarah presented her newest book, Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature, to Mrs. McIlwain’s fifth grade classes. The classes were both very welcoming and enjoyed learning about fractals (as well as some side facts about the wolfsnail!).

We arrived in Baton Rouge late Wednesday afternoon, just in time for a great dinner prepared by Julie Owen. After dinner Sarah showed me the ins and outs of the cameras that I would be using to film and take pictures with the next day. I’ve always appreciated photography, but I honestly did not know how much work went into the process (not to mention just setting the cameras up!). Thanks to Sarah’s husband Richard’s notes, though, I was able to set the camera up and even get a few good shots.

Sarah read the book from the F&Gs (folded and gathered, meaning the pages of the book without binding or a spine) to explain fractals to the classes. Each class had great questions about fractals — they were certainly a smart group of students. After reading the book Sarah led them through a fractal activity, one that she and Julie Owen will be presenting at the Fay B Kaigler Children’s Book Festival in Hattiesburg, MS on April 10. The classes had great fun with the project, and we found that it was a great way for them to express their creativity and use their imaginations while engaging in math and science.mysterious patterns cover

Sarah also showed the classes some of the different drafts of the book, starting with the very first draft (see photo above). The classes were perhaps most interested in the process of writing a book, as they just finished a unit in which they wrote their own books. Based on their fractal projects I would not be surprised if there were a few potential authors in the class!

The visit was a huge hit (according to Julie’s son, Hobson), and Sarah, Julie, and I are all grateful to Mrs. McIlwain’s class for allowing us to visit! And a huge thanks to Julie and her family for hosting Sarah and me (an even bigger thanks for the delicious meals). We certainly appreciated it!


Behind-the-Scenes of a Self-Portrait

As promised, here is a short film Richard created from my self-portrait session. I hope you enjoy this window into my creative process.

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

New Material for Website

amaryllis close up variegated-4054My website was created using Joomla!, which has a very blog-like user interface. I find it easy to update my site because Joomla! stores content in ways that make sense to me. Rather than creating individual pages that remain static and must be changed individually, Joomla! creates pages on the fly by pulling the blocks of information you tell it to. A block of information could be an article, a document for download, a menu, a photograph, etc.

The other great thing about Joomla! is that it is free. Richard did the set-up but, by and large, I keep it maintained. Since Joomla! is an open source program, there are a lot of add-ons available. This means we can choose from several types of photo galleries, search functions, etc.

I spent several hours yesterday and today updating my website. I didn’t do any major overhauls, but I added new pictures to the galleries, updated the information on my appearances page, and added some new teaching materials in the photography section. Please let me know what you think. Also, if there is content you’d like to see that’s missing, please let me know.

Richard took this close-up of an amaryllis. I love the detail.

Lyre-leaved Sage

light purple long-5263I think I’ve got it: Lyre-leaved sage. I found it on pp. 56-57 of George H. Dukes, Jr.’s The Gardener’s Guide to Mississippi Wildflowers. Then I confirmed by surfing the web for more pictures and descriptions. The scientific name is Salvia lyrata. A common name is cancer weed. Salvia is from Latin salveo, meaning to save  or heal.


-5255Here is the photo we are considering for the book.

This flower has a funnel-shaped corolla with lobes. Corolla is a collective term for petals, which may be arranged in a regular or irregular way. When regular, all the same parts of a flower are alike in size or shape and may be cut along more than one line to obtain mirror images. When irregular, the flower is either totally asymmetrical or, if cut along only one axis, will reveal bilateral symmetry. So, it seems to me that this Lyre-leaved sage is an irregular funnel-shaped corolla with two lobes on the lower part.

_-2This is a flower from a wild potato vine. Its corolla has five fused petals and there is purple at the center of the funnel. I love these delicate flowers. I see them on my daily walk. The vines grown wild near the bridge over our neighborhood creek.


_Here is another view.

Does any one of these images say one to you?

As in one petal?


gecko container 1-0617Here’s our gecko in its habitat. It’s a crafty little critter. We’ve found that it stays still for a few moments, but it moves with lightning speed when it decides to move. Richard took these. We watched its tongue moving in and out as it seemed to be lapping up water droplets, but by the time Richard had repositioned the camera, it was gone. We have a few blurry images of its head and its legs.

gecko container 1-0649I love seeing its coloring up close. I also like its little toes. I’ve been dousing its habitat with spring water and I moved it off of the screened porch and onto the deck so it’d have access to flying insects. Since we took these, however, I haven’t caught a glimpse of it. One of the boys found a small toad and I added it to the habitat. We haven’t seen the toad either.

I spent much of the day locating, editing, and transferring photos, and doing more research on flowers and petals. I have a few more botanical words for you: spathe, spidex, bilabiate. I think we’ll be adding a note to our definition of petal or adding another note to the notes page. The title might be “when is a petal not a petal?”