old-fashioned mad lib

Go ahead, ask my granddaughters …

I am positively mad for the madcap fun of Mad Libs.

(Did you see that I even took a stab at my own version, dubbed the “ag lib”?)


So, imagine my delight when I learned that gals like me were goofing around with “libs” long before the template took on a trademark. Leave it to Susan Odom to discover such a treasure.

Who’s Susan, you ask?

She is the brilliant proprietress of Hillside Homestead, a historic Michigan farmstay that you’ll get to visit in the Oct/Nov issue of my magazine, on newsstands now (this is one you won’t want to miss … but aren’t they all?). When Susan isn’t entertaining guests with authentic turn-of-the-twentieth-century meals and activities around her pastoral property, she blogs a bit. And in one of her posts last summer, she wrote, “Well, here we sit on the longest day of the year as we prepare for our big Farmhouse Frolic tomorrow! We are all so excited—we will be waxing eggs; bubble bowling; making rhubarb sauce; playing games; watching pigs, ducks, and chickens; and so much more. One thing we could not quite fit into the schedule was a ‘mad lib’ found in a wonderful book called The American Girls Handy Book, which was published in 1887 (read more about that here). It’s called ‘Biographical Nonsense’ … Who know that there were historic mad libs? Great fun at a party!”

Thanks to Susan, we can all access this humorous helping of history here. Print it out and present it to the attendees of your next farmgirl gathering.

Giggles are guaranteed.

Photo courtesy of SimpleInsomnia via Flickr


American Girls Handy Book

You know how one good find often leads to another? Well, I stumbled onto a trove …

First, The American Girls Handy Book, originally published in 1887, is still in print (yay!).

the american girls handy book

Second, the authors—sisters Lina and Adelia B. Beard—wrote a slew of other beguiling books for growing Janes that are also available online. Have a look:

On the Trail: An Outdoor Book for Girls

Mother Nature’s Toy-Shop

 Indoor and Outdoor Handicraft and Recreation for Girls

New Ideas for Work and Play: What a Girl Can Make and Do

 Third, these sisters were not only authors, they were gung-ho activists striving to reconnect girls with nature (read how their efforts helped to launch the Camp Fire Girls and, later, the Girl Scouts here).

According to University of Delaware historian Anne M. Boylan, who wrote the modern foreword to the American Girls Handy Book, the Beard sisters focused on girls ages 8 to 18. In their estimation, the quintessential American girl was ready for anything, and she still is.

“Healthy and spirited, she thinks nothing of taking a 10-mile ‘romp’ through woods and fields with a group of friends, and collects flowers and leaves for preservation or presentation to friends and relations,” Boyne writes. “Above all, however, the Beards’ girl is handy. She can make a hat rack, a screen, or a bookshelf; fashion a macramé hammock or a cornhusk doll; and draw, paint, sculpt, or decorate a room. The American Girls Handy Book, in short, by emphasizing what girls can do, presents a portrait of girlhood that is vigorous, active, and full of possibilities.”

Sounds like the definition of a true-blue farmgirl, doncha think? I hear tell that the book even has a chapter called “A Heap of Rubbish and What to Do With It”!

Now, pardon me for a moment while I dash off to order a copy of the book to share with Stella and Mia. If you have a little fellow in your life, you might want to check out the companion volume, the American Boy’s Handy Book, published five years earlier by the Beard sisters’ brother, Daniel Beard.






Back in October, I mentioned the Kirkus Prize and its $50,000 award to each writer in a variety of genres. I also vowed to devour the chosen book in their fiction category. And devour it I did.

Photo Apr 21, 8 56 48 AM

Lily King won the prize in the fiction category for a brilliant little novel by the name of Euphoria. It also won fistfuls of other prizes and accolades, and I am happy to report that it certainly lived up to its reputation.

Lily King pays homage to Margaret Mead through a re-imagined tale of a true-to-life meeting of the revolutionary anthropologist and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. Using this as a point of departure, the story depicts a tragic love triangle between three rival anthropologists working along the Sepik River in Papau, New Guinea, in the early 1930s. When the novel opens, our protagonist, Nell, has just published a brilliant and controversial book about natives of the Solomon Islands that has made her very famous. She and her jealous and competitive husband, Fen, are about to set sail for Australia after a stint of disappointing field work in New Guinea when they happen upon a colleague and competitor, the desperately lonely Andrew.

King’s descriptions of the three characters’ collaborative yet colliding journeys in the hot and muggy air of the jungle, the stolen glances of hidden love, and the background throbbing of tribal drums was beautifully done. I will most definitely read the Kirkus Prize fiction winner for 2015.

Monet’s gardens

Talking about Emily Dickinson’s love of flower gardens led me down the garden path to remember another story about a famous artist who’s known for his paintings, but not especially for the passion that drove him: his gardens.

I’m talking about Monet.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is one of the great French Impressionists. In 1883, he moved to a property along the Seine in the French countryside called Giverny. While he was already an established artist, painting both landscapes and portraits …

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, (right section), with Gustave Courbet, Frédéric Bazille and Camille Doncieux, first wife of the artist

Woman in a Garden, 1867, Hermitage, St. Petersburg

the property at Giverny inspired him to undertake a huge landscaping project, including lily ponds that would become the subjects of his most famous paintings.

“With the help of his family and six gardeners,” reports NPR, “Monet planted, nurtured and composed his garden—a world of flowers made up of yellow, pink and red roses arrayed on the ground and draping over metal arches; patches of bright red geraniums; pale purple lavender; deep purple pansies; irises; impatiens; peonies and more.” He composed his paintings by first planting exactly what he wanted to capture on canvas.

Claude Monet, Irises In Monet’s Garden, 1900

For the next 20 years, Monet painted his gardens. He focused mainly on the water lilies, painting 250 canvases of them, some of which were multiple panels, each as wide as 14 feet.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, c. 1915

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies – Setting Sun, 1920–1926

Today, Monet’s property at Giverny operates as a living museum, where you can experience the beauty of both Monet’s passions yearly from the end of March until November 1st. Find out more at

Gardening with Emily

Here’s a fact every lit-loving farmgirl should know: In her day, Emily Dickinson was better known for crafting flower gardens than poems.

Daguerreotype courtesy of the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers (Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut) via Wikimedia Commons

She looks so prim sitting there, doesn’t she? But there’s just a little something in her almost-smile and steadfast gaze that suggest a wilder side to “Daisy,” as she was nicknamed. Little would the casual viewer realize that the dainty bouquet she holds is a symbol of scarcely restrained affection … for her garden.

Photo by Donarreiskoffer via Wikimedia Commons

“Dickinson once called herself a ‘a Lunatic on Bulbs,’ referring to her passion for daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring perennials, which she raised indoors in winter in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, ” revealed Holland Cotter of The New York Times. “And a lunatic she probably seemed to neighbors who spied her gardening by moonlight on summer evenings in the flower beds behind the house.”

Photo of Emily Dickinson’s garden by Julie Jordan Scott via Flickr

The above photo is a flower’s-eye peek at the Dickinson Homestead (now a museum) where Emily lived throughout most of her life. Her father built a 1.5-acre garden and conservatory on the grounds, which was widely admired by townspeople and deeply inspirational to young Emily. From the age of 9, she studied botany, collecting and pressing hundreds of flowers. She and her younger sister, Lavinia, loved working in the garden as well. Emily was particularly fond of scented exotic flowers, writing that she “could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets.”

A Basket of Flowers by Augusta Innes Withers, 1870, via Wikimedia Commons

Emily would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached, but “they valued the posy more than the poetry.” Despite her prolific writing, only a handful of Emily’s poems were published during her lifetime. It wasn’t until Lavinia discovered a collection of nearly 1,800 poems after Emily’s death that the first volume was published. Her work has survived extensive editing and has been continuously in print since 1890.

Photo by Alejandra Palés via Flickr

If you would like to learn more about the secretive poet’s garden affairs, pick up a copy of Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A Celebration of a Poet and Gardener by Marta McDowell.