Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesotans write about pandemics & social justice in “This Was 2020” September 8, 2021

A collection of essays and poems by Minnesotans, including me. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.


Those words describe This Was 2020: Minnesotans Write About Pandemics and Social Justice in a Historic Year. This collection of 54 poems and essays by 51 writers is a finalist for the Minnesota Author Project: Communities Create Award. Two other books are vying for this MNWrites MNReads honor supported by the Minnesota Library Foundation. The winner will be announced at the Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference in October.

The collection includes my poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic.” Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I am humbled and honored to have “Funeral During a Pandemic” selected for publication in this award-nominated book. In my poem, I share my thoughts and experiences from my father-in-law’s funeral in a small rural Minnesota town. During a pandemic.

The book features short bios on each writer. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As the title of this collection conveys, the 170 pages of writing focus on pandemics and social justice. Those who penned these pieces, solicited by the Ramsey County Library via a competition, are a diverse group. In age. In writing backgrounds, although many are seasoned writers with extensive writing credentials. In skin color and ethnicity. In perspective and experience. That said, most writers live in the metro with a few of us from other places in Minnesota, including several from my county of Rice.

Those from outside the metro include a 12-year-old from New Market. Evelyn Pierson, in “My Experience at the George Floyd Memorial,” writes of her emotional reaction to visiting the site where Floyd died at the hands of police on May 25, 2020. It’s heart-wrenching—to feel her torrent of emotions, to read her insights and thoughts, to envision her tears. But it’s important, even necessary, to hear the voice of this eighth grader.

Just like it’s necessary to read Brainerd resident Susan Smith-Grier’s essay, “Black in White.” I find her observations and experiences of a black woman living in a primarily white community to be particularly powerful. She moved with her parents/family to north central Minnesota in the early 70s to escape the violence in Chicago. One of very few black families in her new northern home. The death of George Floyd triggered childhood memories of tear gas and rubber bullets, fires and looting…and then, today, a bit of hope that things will change.

Hope weaves into many of the pieces. As does overcoming the fear, the loss, the grief and more that too often defined 2020.

In his poem, “The streets emptied out, but their lungs,” Moyosore Orimoloye reminds us that, despite lungs filling with fluid from COVID, lungs also filled with song on the balconies of Turin.

The incredible cover art features the work of Carolyn Olson, “Grocery Store Cashier and Bagger (Essential Workers Portrait Series #1). 2020, Duluth, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

So many writers detailed how the pandemic affected them—from worries about going grocery shopping to separation from loved ones to ways in which they learned to cope. I found Dave Ryan’s “Living and Dying in Memory Care” profoundly relatable given my mom lives in a long-term care center. I’ve experienced some of the same scenarios—trying to visit through a window, for example. Before he could no longer visit his mom due to COVID restrictions, Ryan installed a video camera in her room. That connected him to her. But then the unthinkable happened. As I read the conclusion of his essay, my heart broke right along with his.

On the back cover, a summary of the book and a list of the writers whose work was selected for inclusion in this collection. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

These are stories you need to read. Real. Life. Authentic. Eye-opening (especially Chee Vang’s “To Kuv Niam,” about how her mother was treated upon contracting COVID). I learned so much, particularly from those writers who have experienced social injustice. From those writers, too, who live in the Twin Cities, who are widely-traveled and who have seen and experienced much more than a farmer’s daughter from southwestern Minnesota.

But I share one commonality with poet and educator Katie Vagnino of south Minneapolis. I am, like her, a Rapunzel with overgrown hair.


FYI: I encourage each one of you to purchase This Was 2020 by clicking here or buying it elsewhere (in print or as an e-book). Besides the 54 pieces, the book includes writing prompts, a discussion guide and a short list of grief, mental health, and anti-racism resources. This truly rates as an outstanding collection of writing that documents historical events which have forever changed us.

Publication of this book was made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Thank you, Minnesota voters, for supporting the arts. And thank you, Paul Lai of the Ramsey County Library for your hard work on, and dedication to, this book project. I appreciate you and every single writer who contributed to this exceptional must-read book.


© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A heartwarming Christmas story & an interview with Northfield author Patrick Mader December 4, 2012

NORTHFIELD AUTHOR PATRICK MADER possesses a gift—a gift to create, along with illustrator Andrew Holmquist, award-winning children’s picture books.

His latest, a Christmas story, continues that winning tradition of excellence. Visiting the Visitors recently received a silver award in the holiday book category in the 2012 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards competition.

The cover of Patrick Mader's latest book, illustrated by Andrew Holmquist. The artist incorporated the wise men's heads into the tree branches.

The cover of Patrick Mader’s latest book, illustrated by Andrew Holmquist. See how Holmquist incorporated the wise men’s heads into the tree branches.

In his holiday tale, Mader takes the reader again into a rural setting, as he does in his first two books, Opa & Oma Together and Oma Finds a Miracle.

He’s reworked the story of the wise men visiting the Christ child into a contemporary story line of three siblings and their grandparents trekking across snow-covered fields to deliver gifts, but in this version to the wise men and the animals, not the Holy Family.

This heartwarming spin on the timeless and enduring biblical record of the wise men journeying to Bethlehem is especially memorable when told from the perspective of children. That coupled with animals as an integral part of the plot—we all know how much most kids love animals—makes this an especially appealing book.

Illustrator Andrew Holmquist, a Northfield native now living and working as an artist in Chicago.

Illustrator Andrew Holmquist, a Northfield native now living and working as an artist in Chicago.

Illustrator Holmquist’s artwork, created via pencil, charcoal, graphite washes, colored pencil and markers combined with digital coloring in the computer, sets a peaceful and inviting mood that reminds me so much of my childhood winter nights on the star-studded Minnesota prairie, warm light spilling from barn and house windows onto the snow.

Yes, this book evokes nostalgia, at least for me.

But it also evokes a sense of wonderment and thankfulness, of understanding and simplicity, of treasuring the real gift of Christmas, of reclaiming that special magic we adults felt as children.

I promise, Visiting the Visitors will hold your heart and those of the children you love.

THAT SAID, HOW DID PATRICK MADER, an elementary school teacher in Morristown (about 10 miles west of my Faribault home in southeastern Minnesota), create this story?

How does he continue to reap awards (Writer’s Digest honorable mention for Opa & Oma Together and the bronze medal for Big Brother Has Wheels from the Independent Publisher Books Awards in 2010) and the accolades of well-known Minnesota writers?

I posed those questions, and more, to Mader and here’s what he had to say:

Q: What inspires you in your writing?

A: My objective is to write books with positive messages—I refer to them as “Heartwarming Stories of the Heartland.” They are based on what I have seen, what I have heard, what I remember, and what I have felt as I witness life. Family members and friends have had some fascinating events in their lifetime and I simply try to make the stories come to life with a bit of creativity and Andrew Holmquist’s stunning artwork.

Patrick Mader with his wife, Karen, and children, Karl and Ellen, by the family's nativity set. the wood stable was crafted of wood from the barn on the childhood farm (home of his parents, George and Mary Margaret Mader) near St. Bonifacius where Mader grew up.

Patrick Mader with his wife, Karen, and children, Karl and Ellen, by the family’s nativity set. The stable was crafted of wood from the barn on Mader’s childhood farm (home of his parents, George and Mary Margaret Mader) near St. Bonifacius.

Q: What specifically inspired Visiting the Visitors?

A: When our children were very young, they would ask whether we could go to a neighbor’s very large outdoor nativity set. We would sing songs, they would hug the statues of the nativity characters, and then we would return home for hot chocolate and cookies. They were very tender and memorable moments that you don’t forget as a parent. It was stored in my memory until I felt confident that I could write and market a Christmas book.

Q: Is there a message you’re attempting to convey via this story?

A: Yes, it is that the origin of the Christmas holiday is still of interest and can have a quiet majesty to children.

Q: Two of the names you chose for the three children in this story are unusual. Can you explain the significance of the names Malik and Balta?

A: Actually, the names of all three children took a few hours to finalize. The names are Malik, Cassie, and Balta. They are multicultural children and in my research I learned the name Malik has been a popular African-American name. Cassie is the girl in the story and that is not an uncommon name. The name Balta was chosen because some ethnic groups have an a or o as a last letter. When you put the three names together, they are derivations from the supposed names of the three wise men who are characters in the book: Melchior, Casper, and Balthazar. While most children will not grasp the significance, adults who question the names will often figure it out and it can become a teachable moment.

Q: You’ve garnered three awards and also accolades from well-known Minnesota authors. How do you explain such success?

A: I am thrilled that our books have won awards. The success is due to many professional and talented people at Beaver’s Pond Press, the editors, the layout design artist, and, most significantly, the illustrator, Andrew Holmquist.

The success in obtaining endorsements from Tom Hegg, Catherine Friend, Doug Wood, and Jim Gilbert probably are more due to them being gracious and thoughtful people than it is of my writing. Combined they have probably sold over five million books, yet they are very approachable and quietly candid.

Q: Are you working on, or do you have plans for, a fourth book?

A: Yes, it worries my wife! I have begun to co-author a non-fiction book about Minnesota athletes with a former StarTribune sportswriter. I like sports and thought that some of the lesser known athletes had intriguing stories to tell. They do. It may take us two to four years to get it published because it requires lots of travel since we decided to have personal interviews with each of the athletes that will be profiled.

Meanwhile, I have drafts for two more children’s picture books: one is a story that revolves around Halloween, the other is about a young girl who mixes up sounds of words—it will be my first attempt at a book that will have lots of humor yet have a tender ending.

Q: Why do you write?

A: I have found writing enjoyable, but I really thrive on sharing our books through presentations. I like engaging an audience, providing teachable moments, and encouraging attendees to follow their own aspirations. So writing is the vehicle that allows me not only to do programs, but it also leaves its own small legacy. It has been very rewarding to read letters or listen to people say that our books have touched them. Those conversations and messages touch me and bring great joy.

FYI: To learn more about Patrick Mader and Andrew Holmquist and their books, and how to purchase them, click here to reach Mader’s website.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Visiting the Visitors for purposes of reviewing this book. Patrick also donated copies of his first three books to the Little Free Library in my hometown of Vesta.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork and photos courtesy of Patrick Mader and Andrew Holmquist.