Sunday, December 21, 2014

O Tannenbaum, Across the Sea

Our family Christmas tree ritual was the same every year when I was growing up.

My dad, Bill Henry, and I shopped in the lot beside the grocery store. Searching for the perfect pine was always better if a light snow fell, which was highly likely in Ohio. My dad shook it to see if the needles held tight or fell. He twirled it around to discover bare spots. It had to be taller than he was. He brushed the branches downward to check for symmetry. When he finally asked, "What do you think?" I knew he'd found the winner. All I had to do was agree.

My mother always said it was too tall. He never agreed. When the angel was placed on top, it missed the ceiling by an inch or less every year.

My dad knew what he knew.

Attaching the lights was tedious. Because 1950s bulbs were large, they got hot, making it necessary to place the strings turned off. When they were lighted, invariably, too many burned in some places and none burned in others. My mother's eagle eye spotted each error. Patiently he unclipped and relocated until she was satisfied.

He sat in his rocker and called out the blank spots as she and I hung glass ornaments dusted with frosty glitter. Then she added the icicles. Because my dad and I had haphazardly tossed them onto a tree once, we were never allowed to try again. She meticulously draped each one, resulting in tiered hula skirts of shimmering tinsel.

Each year my dad announced, "That's the prettiest one yet, Betty." She assured him it was because we'd found the perfect tree.

"Karen and I just got lucky," he'd answer and wink at me.

But my dad wasn't always lucky. Fate dealt him some bad cards.

He was an amazing high school athlete, scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals to join their farm team. Playing professional baseball was his childhood dream, and just as it was in sight, a tragic accident, as he slid into second base in his senior year, left him with a broken ankle. Pieced back together with metal pins and bands, he never ran again.

But our backyard bordered a school playground where he'd take me to play baseball, hoping I'd learn to throw and catch. If a ball didn't fall into my glove, I wasn't motivated to run for it. But the neighborhood boys did. My dad drew them like flies to honey. A powerhouse hitter, each crack of his bat sent them running like rabbits. And he could pitch every kind of ball, too, making them drop and spin and loop as the hapless boys swung at thin air. And they loved him.

During World War II, he had a second chance at recognition. Because that old injury kept him off the battlefield, he was a crackerjack at running the office where he was stationed in Chicago. He knew how to manage people. He was easy-going, charming and had an endearing sense of humor. He saw nothing but the best in his staff. And they loved him. So the army scheduled him for their London office to work as an aide to General Eisenhower. My mother always said it was the honor of his life.

But the war ended before he went overseas. Another chance gone.

Instead he was sent to Camp Grant in Rockford, IL, to oversee German POWs. He never talked about it, but my mother said he had a grand time with his assigned prisoners. He didn't bark orders and stand aside as they worked on camp projects. He rolled up his sleeves and worked with them. On Saturday nights he slipped in beer and played cards in the bunkhouse with them. When he was criticized by his superiors for being too easy on them, my dad insisted they'd been through enough already and would return to very little. He knew the reality of their ravaged hometowns and scattered families. When his squad was shipped back to Germany, the men gave my dad gifts--a handkerchief and a carved wooden soldier. He kept them in his top dresser drawer all of his life.

The war had been over many years before I learned what else they gave him.

After our tree was decorated each holiday and my mother and I had gone to the kitchen to bake or wrap gifts, my father turned off the living room lamps and stood alone at the tree and sang "O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree") in German, the way his men taught him at Camp Grant.

I don't know what he was thinking, but I'd guess it had nothing to do with winning or losing a war. It had everything to do with a band of men who just happened to start out as the enemy and ended up being his friends. My dad saw them for the heroes they were. And they loved him.

Somewhere across the sea, I believe they remembered him, the kind American soldier, for the rest of their lives. And they sang "O Tannenbaum" for him.

To leave a comment (I always hope you will.), the program will ask you to "Comment as" and ask you to select a profile.  If you aren't signed up with any of the first 7 account choices, select Anonymous.  This will allow you to Publish.  If you don't, your valuable comment will not appear. 


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Clark Family Hijinx 2014

Dear Everyone,

The Chinese offer these important words: “May you be born in a time of transition.” You’re left to decide if it’s a blessing or a curse. Whichever, that’s squarely where we are at present—in transition, closing and opening doors.

After 41 years in education, Cliff retired in June. In terms of teaching and administrating, he left no stone unturned. Finally he’s free to travel every season and is never happier than when he’s got a suitcase in hand and a stretch of open highway ahead. He visited friends and former colleagues in NC in August. He learned to fly fish in CO in September. He traveled across AK in October for the trip of his life, visiting far-flung fishing villages, watching nearly 100 salmon swim idly down a roadside stream, and sailing across glacial bays filled sea lions. After Christmas, he’ll take off again. He’s worked brilliantly for a long time to have this chance. We’re repeatedly asked how we’re doing together 24/7, and I explain real estate’s LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION mantra applies. All couples continuously navigate relationships with vague borders, invisible fault lines, shifting sands. Distance is never the issue. Space is. We’re simply finding North on a new map.

For reasons unknown to science, I’ve had another amnesia episode. Frighteningly, this time I drove a car and went on about my life for several hours before realizing I wasn’t myself. I describe it as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, an apt simile for a children’s author, inside my own head. I continue to write and will study with celebrated author Jane Yolen at her MA farmhouse in March. Countless thanks to those of you who read my erratic but well-intentioned blog “For All I Can Tell.” I appreciate each comment you leave. A writer is nothing without readers.

Maggie races through her senior year. In the fall play, a British farce, she was a woman disguised as her dead brother but returned to her female self by the end. (Is that range or what?) She’ll apply to colleges from Ohio to the Pacific NW. Her senior speech was “The 5 Things You Don’t Know about Adoption,” delivered to an auditorium of 400 deeply attentive people. I cried silently through it. While I know her story, I’d never heard her tell how she began life on a doorstep in China. So this is the perfect picture for our card. Standing in that doorway, she is uniquely herself: beautiful, bright, and brave. She’s spent 18 years getting to that door, supported by the devotion and faith and love from people on opposite sides of the world. Now she will step through alone. On her own merit. Recently she bought herself a necklace engraved with “Be Calm. Be Strong. Be Grateful.” Too Oprah for Cliff, he muttered, “Be careful.”

Good advice whenever you find yourself at a new door.

To leave a comment (I always hope you will.), the program will ask you to "Comment as" and ask you to select a profile.  If you aren't signed up with any of the first 7 account choices, select Anonymous.  This will allow you to Publish.  If you don't, your valuable comment will not appear.  


Sunday, December 7, 2014


Tara Lazar invited me to write a post for her 2014 Picture Book  Idea Month Challenge in November. Typically authors and illustrators offer helpful, encouraging strategies or as Maggie might explain: "magical-rainbow-universe stuff."

I told my hard truth. An overwhelming 500+ people commented. So I turned out to have been helpful and encouraging after all. Copy and paste this link to read their interesting remarks.

By Karen Henry Clark

PiBoIdMo readers arrived today with packed suitcases, believing I had the inspirational ticket for guaranteed passage on the gleaming picture book express.

This is not that train.

Once upon a time I thought I had the golden ticket, but it turned out to be a day pass. Here’s the story.

By the time I was four, I wanted three things: a husband, a daughter, and a book that I wrote myself. I was sketchy about how to accomplish the first two, so I tackled the book. In purple crayon, a popcorn ball rolled through perilous adventures across our living room walls. My mother patiently explained that books belonged on paper, and my father wrote my story on a notepad as I recited it.  

I kept writing (on paper) and eventually received a master’s degree in English. I had official jobs, but secretly I wrote picture books.

Then I found my husband, an elementary teacher who believed my stories were wonderful. He read them to his classes and asked students to draw their favorite part. He believed I had promise.

In a twist of fate, I met Florence Parry Heide, a successful children’s author who told me to join SCBW, long before they had added the I to their name. Early newsletters had pages of editors and addresses. I submitted manuscripts for almost seven years. When I complained about my rejections, Florence said, “Do you want to see mine? I have boxes of them.” So I kept trying. An editor finally called because she loved my story, but the project ended when a new publisher was hired. The editor told me not to stop writing, but I did. It seemed pointless.

Then we adopted our daughter Maggie from China. Her government document said: Baby found forsaking. I realized eleven months of her life would always be a blank page. When her first English word was moon, I imagined it had been the magic in her orphanage nights. Perhaps her favorite toys represented animals she had seen in China. I invented naptime tales about her adventures with them. [Insert picture of toys.]

When Maggie was five, she asked what I had wanted to be when I grew up. I read her the manuscript that had come close to publication. She liked it and said, “You should write more, Mama.” How could I expect her to believe in dreams if I gave up on mine? So I put her on my lap and began to type a story called Sweet Moon Baby. 

Rejections arrived, but Maggie’s faith in me never wavered. In second grade, she wrote to me as Editor at Clark House Printing and Loving Company. Not only did she love Sweet Moon Baby, she asked if I had others as “wonderful and enchanting.” [Insert picture of Maggie’s letter.]

Then one day I received the long-awaited yes I had waited for almost my entire life. Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, illustrated by Patrice Barton, was published by Knopf in 2010. [Insert picture of Maggie and me at book launch.]

The three-point dream of my four-year-old self came true. Entering the Random House Lobby to visit my editor was my Homecoming Queen moment. At author events when parents announced: “This is our Sweet Moon Baby,” I was proud to have given a lovely name to adopted Chinese children.

But things change. Now my book is out of print. None of my other manuscripts have worked for an editor. My agent search is unsuccessful. I’ve derailed at the station. My engine flew over the edge, crashed at the bottom of the canyon, and someone spray-painted loser on my caboose.

Still, I can’t quit. And for that I thank my mother and the picture books she read to me constantly. Because she grew up on a farm with no electricity or running water, she favored stories about hard work. Wispy princesses and their vain wishes did not interest her. The Little Engine that Could was her favorite. Through chores, we chanted: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

My mother (and Watty Piper) gave me the metaphor for my life.

Determined little engine that I was, my first story was about a journey.

Sweet Moon Baby was about a journey.

What I’ve come to understand is that success requires more than writing a great story. You have to understand your writing journey. Whether you’re published or not, your writing can derail. Sometimes you land in the canyon, but you can write down there, too. I am.

My adventure is mine, stop by stop. And that’s not failure. It’s just my track.   

Karen Henry Clark has been a high school teacher, college administrator, advertising copywriter, newspaper essayist, and book reviewer. Earning ISBN 978-0-375-95709-3 for Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale was her proudest professional achievement. She chugs on, hoping to earn another one. Meanwhile, she blogs erratically (but with good intentions) on “For All I Can Tell” at  

To leave a comment (I always hope you will.), the program will ask you to "Comment as" and ask you to select a profile.  If you aren't signed up with any of the first 7 account choices, select Anonymous.  This will allow you to Publish.  If you don't, your valuable comment will not appear.