Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

No ordinary walk to the store, a book review January 17, 2023

Book cover credit: Beaver’s Pond Press

SHE WAS ONLY NINE YEARS OLD, too young to walk alone to the store to buy candy with the $3 clutched in her hand. Eventually, her 17-year-old cousin, Darnella Frazier, agreed to accompany Judeah Reynolds to Cup Foods. That decision on May 25, 2020, would forever change their lives. And the world.

What happened in Minneapolis that evening—the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers—is the subject of a powerful new children’s picture book, A Walk to the Store by Judeah Reynolds as told to Sheletta Brundidge and Lily Coyle.

When I learned of the book’s September 2022 release by St. Paul-based Beaver’s Pond Press, I knew immediately that I needed to read this recounting of Judeah’s witness to Floyd’s death. The cousins arrived on an unfolding scene outside Cup Foods where Floyd lay on the ground next to a squad car, a police officer pressing his knee into the 46-year-old’s neck. Judeah, Darnella and other bystanders pleaded with the police to stop while Darnella recorded the scene on her cellphone and then shared that video online. She won a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for that documentation.

While this book recounts the death of George Floyd from a child’s perspective, it is much more than a basic retelling. The story also reveals the trauma Judeah experienced. The sadness. The difficulty sleeping. The bad dreams. The replaying of Floyd’s killing in her mind.

But this is also a story of strength and hope and about being brave enough to speak up. To say something. To let your voice be heard. To effect change.

Messages like this are included in the book. I photographed this two years ago in small town Kenyon, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

I heard Judeah’s determined voice in her words. I saw it, too, in Darcy Bell-Myers’ art, which reinforces the story with strong, message-filled illustrations. This book is empowering for children who read or hear this story. And it’s equally as impactful for adults.

At the end of the book is a list—How to Help Children Process a Traumatic Event. I appreciate the inclusion of those 10 suggestions given Judeah did, indeed, experience trauma. Her family even moved out of Minnesota.

This LOVE mural by Minneapolis artist Jordyn Brennan graces a building in the heart of historic downtown Faribault. The hands are signing LOVE. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo June 2021)

As I finished reading A Walk to the Store, I considered how ironic that young Judeah wore a colorful shirt emblazoned with the word LOVE as she stood on the sidewalk outside Cup Foods, witness to George Floyd’s murder.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Learning about my Somali neighbors via a new children’s book December 7, 2022

LIVING IN A MINNESOTA community with a sizable Somali population, I was excited to read the recently-published children’s picture book Fire and Ashes—A Boy and an African Proverb co-authored by Minnesotans Ahmed Hassan and Wes Erwin. Why? It’s important for me to learn about my new neighbors, their homeland, their culture, their experiences before resettling in Faribault. Reading books is one way to gain insights.

Fire and Ashes, even though a book geared toward children, is an enlightening read for adults, too. I found myself fully-engaged in the story of young Warfa, a refugee from Somalia who experienced unimaginable trauma. His trauma flares when he works on a school assignment—creating a poster about himself. I can almost feel my tummy hurting, my head spinning, my heart racing right along with Warfa as he relives terrifying moments in Africa. That includes witnessing the violent death of a neighbor. (Because of that, children should read this story with an adult.)

Award-winning children’s book illustrator Meryl Treatner reinforces the story line with art so realistic that I felt like I stepped into Africa and then into Warfa’s American classroom. I could almost smell the flowery scent of the acacia tree, feel the threat in a shadowy figure, hear Warfa’s uneven breathing.

It is Warfa’s grandma who helps her “little lion” deal with his anxiety via an African proverb and practical visualization and breathing techniques. Proverbs are used in many cultures to effectively teach, to pass along wisdom. The co-authors of Fire and Ashes, both licensed counselors, wrote this book not only to share a proverb, to tell Warfa’s story, but also to shine a light on mental health and self-care. The book includes authors’ notes and a link to additional supportive resources.

There are so many reasons to appreciate Fire and Ashes. The book gives readers like me a glimpse into atrocities experienced by my new neighbors. This book gives insights into culture. And for those who have endured any type of trauma, whether young like Warfa or two generations older, this book opens the door to discussion and then to healing, to an understanding that memories are ashes, not fire.

FYI: Fire and Ashes—A Boy and an African Proverb is available for check-out at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault and the Lanesboro Public Library, local requests only. I hope other libraries in the 11-county Southeastern Libraries Cooperating system add this book to their collections. This book, published by The Little Fig, is the first in a series focusing on African proverbs. I’d recommend purchasing Fire and Ashes for your personal library or as a gift.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fleeting fall thoughts from Faribault November 4, 2022

Colorful trees photographed from my backyard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2022)

WE KNOW IT’S COMING. Winter. Yet, we Minnesotans hope for one more glorious autumn day. One more day of warm temps. One more day of no snow. The reality, though, is that this is November and the weather can shift just like that to cold, grey and, well, seasonal.

A maple on my lawn in all its fall glory. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2022)

With the exception of minimal rain in an already drought-stricken state, this fall in southern Minnesota has been exceptional with many sunny, warm days and lovely fall colors.

Autumn brings lots of yard work (like raking leaves) in preparation for winter. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2022)

Minnesota fully embraces autumn with unbridled enthusiasm. It’s as if we need to pack in as much as we can, outdoors especially, before we settle mostly inside for the winter.

The restored clock on the historic Security Bank Building in downtown Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2015)

The end of daylight savings time this weekend signals that seasonal shift. It will get darker earlier and that, psychologically, triggers an awareness of winter’s impending arrival. I find myself just wanting to stay home in the evening, snuggled under a fleece throw reading a good book.

A page from “Count Down to Fall” in the current StoryWalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Sometimes that may be a children’s book. Picture books aren’t just for kids. I find the stories and illustrations therein inspiring, entertaining, informative, poetic. In Faribault, Buckham Memorial Library even brings picture books right into the community via a StoryWalk. Pages from a selected picture book are posted in protective casings along several blocks of Central Avenue to the library. The currently featured book is Count Down to Fall written by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Sherry Neidigh.

Book cover source: Goodreads

Recently I listened to Children’s Librarian Deni Buendorf read the book online. I love her enthusiasm as she reads page after page of this rhyming story focused on different leaves—painted maple, oval birch, craggy oak… It’s a perfect autumn read.

Book cover source: Goodreads

Soon this season ends and we enter the long, hard winter months. Interestingly enough, I am currently reading Cindy Wilson’s award-winning The Beautiful Snow—The Ingalls Family, the Railroads, and the Hard Winter of 1880-81. Lest I think winters now are sometimes difficult, I need only reference this book of nonfiction to understand that I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to complain about in the year 2022. Remind me of that come March.

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NOTE: In a project similar to Faribault’s StoryWalk, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport features a Minnesota-authored children’s picture book on panels placed between gates C18 and C19 in Terminal 1. Each book is in place for two months in this Picture Book Parade.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When We Say Black Lives Matter February 8, 2022

A must-read book.

WHEN I STOPPED at Buckham Memorial Library on Saturday morning to pick up Valentine’s Day-themed books for a visit with the grandchildren, I left with a more important book. I discovered When We Say Black Lives Matter, written and illustrated by Maxine Beneba Clarke, among the new children’s picture books.

The award-winning Australian writer, poet and artist has crafted a story from the perspective of a Black child’s parents explaining why Black Lives Matter. It’s a powerful telling written in words kids can understand, yet with a depth that touches the adults who read this book. The illustrations in watercolor pencil and collage enhance/complement the text in ways that strengthen the message, as all book art should.

The love-filled words reflect on past and present injustices, on strength and song, on Black voices that matter. Just like Black Lives Matter.

I encourage you to read this picture book. The insights it offers are important. Especially now, as protests continue in Minnesota over yet another fatal shooting of a young Black man by police. Simultaneously, the federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating the rights of George Floyd during his May 2020 arrest (and subsequent death) continues. February also marks Black History Month.

Another must-read book.

I encourage you to read a second book, which I also found at my library. I’m about a third of the way into We Are Each Other’s Harvest—Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy. It’s a collection of stories by Natalie Baszile, author of award-winning Queen Sugar (which I now must read). The book is exactly as its title states, about Black farmers, their past and present connection to the land and the challenges they face. I’m learning a lot. As someone who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota surrounded only by other White people, I need to read books like these to broaden my understanding about the challenges of being Black in America. Past and present. Because I grew up with a strong connection to the land, these stories really resonate.

It’s refreshing to see signs like this in small town Minnesota. I photographed this in October 2020 in Kenyon, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

Although I never got around to reading Clarke’s picture book to my grandchildren (we ran out of time), I will tell you that Isabelle and Isaac are growing up in a diverse neighborhood. Izzy’s kindergarten class also includes classmates of assorted skin tones and backgrounds. Not just White, Lutheran/Catholic, German/Scandinavian like her maternal grandparents. I appreciate that diversity in the lives of these little people whom I love beyond measure. When they see their classmates and/or playmates, they don’t see color. They see friends.

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TELL ME: Have you read either of these books? What similar books do you recommend I read? I’d love to hear.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Make way for goslings (and ducklings) May 11, 2021

Goslings huddle near pond’s edge at the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

EVERY SPRING, I FIND myself drawn to pond or river’s edge to watch the goslings, the newborn offspring of Canadian geese navigating the shoreline and water.

Geese are fierce protectors of their young. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

They are just so darned cute. Downy yellow. Sometimes huddling in a circle of sibling closeness.

Swimming into the pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Still in the protective care of their parents. And, yes, geese can prove fierce when safeguarding their young. I steer clear of these young families, preferring to frame family photos from afar.

Prairie Pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
I love how the goslings are bookended in a protective line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A goose is barely visible in the dried grasses of Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The ponds of River Bend Nature Center (especially the one along Rustad Road) are good spots to spot geese and ducks. When I see young waterfowl, I am reminded of Robert McCloskey’s children’s picture book, Make Way for Ducklings. It won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book and tells the story of a duck family in Boston.

A duck pair in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While River Bend lies a long ways from McCloskey’s Boston Public Gardens pond setting, the universal appeal of ducklings spans the miles between Massachusetts and Minnesota.

A duck emerges among the grasses in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Whether in a city, rural area or nature center, downy babies in the care of their parents create, at least for me, a sense that all is well in the world. That no matter the worldwide challenges—especially during a pandemic—no matter the community and personal challenges, the cycle of life continues.

Geese nesting at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Every spring I make way for ducklings and goslings, celebrating their arrival by documenting their arrival. With my camera. But even more, by framing them in my memory during this season of spring.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Take a (story) walk along Central in Faribault September 2, 2020

 

A page from Eric Carle’s book, From Head to Toe, photographed inside a StoryWalk display case.

 

“I can do it!” What an empowering statement, especially for young children. Those four words refrain in an installment of pages from the children’s picture book, From Head to Toe, now posted on street corners in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

 

Posted next to Burkhartzmeyer Shoes and looking down a side street off Central.

 

I love this latest addition to my community as part of a StoryWalk® CENTRAL project coordinated locally by Buckham Memorial Library. The idea is rooted in Vermont and seems to be a trend right now in the library world. River Bend Nature Center in Faribault and the public library in neighboring Northfield are hosting similar story walks.

 

Looking north on Central Avenue, you can see one of the StoryWalk pages posted next to an historic-themed bench.

 

Last week one evening, Randy and I walked Central Avenue with our four-year-old granddaughter, viewing the colorful story crafted by noted author and illustrator Eric Carle. He is perhaps best-known for his children’s picture book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I’ve long been a fan of Carle’s creativity. He understands how to connect with the littlest of people through colorful illustrations and simple, repetitive and engaging language.

 

Historic Central Avenue provides the backdrop for StoryWalk CENTRAL.

 

Bold colors and strong shapes define Carle’s art.

 

The book engages.

 

It took Isabelle a bit to get into From Head to Toe. But when she observed Grandma and Grandpa wriggling their hips like crocodiles, bending their necks like giraffes and stomping their feet like elephants, she joined in. Carle’s book calls for the reader and listener to actively participate in the book by doing the actions associated with each animal. It’s a great way to get kids up and moving. Adults, too.

 

The thoughts behind StoryWalk.

 

And that, according to information posted on one of the 12 signs, is part of the motivation behind the interactive StoryWalk® concept. The book “combines early literacy learning, family engagement and physical activity.” And promotes brain growth and physical health through exercise.

 

The animals lead the action.

 

The book also highlights diversity in the different ethnicities of the children and in the different animals Carle has created in his story. I especially appreciate that in our diverse community of Faribault. Buckham Memorial Library Director Delane James echoes my thoughts, praising From Head to Toe as a book that “resonates with everybody in the community…anyone can enjoy it no matter who they are.” And that means even those who can’t read or whose native language is one other than English. Like me, she calls Carle’s book “empowering.”

There are plans for more, and longer, book installations, all funded by a federal grant and coordinated with multiple city departments, James says. She noted the joint efforts of library, economic development, engineering and public works staff in getting the first StoryWalk® CENTRAL in place. From Head to Toe will remain posted for several months. This will be an ongoing and evolving public art and literacy project with five years worth of books included in the funding. The library buys multiple copies of the featured books, then removes and laminates the pages for posting in the weather-proof display cases.

 

The 12th, and final, story board is located outside the entry to Buckham Memorial Library. This is looking north toward Central Avenue. The final board is designed to get kids and others inside the library, although the library is currently open by appointment only.

 

I appreciate, in this time of a global pandemic, a safe activity I can do with my granddaughter when she’s visiting. Only after we arrived home did Izzy share, “That’s Isaac’s favorite book.” That means we’ll be back on Central with her 20-month-old brother, wriggling our hips, bending our necks, stomping our feet and repeating, “I can do it!”

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hunting for teddy bears March 31, 2020

The 30th anniversary edition of Michael Rosen’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, published in 2019.

 

WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT. We’re going to catch a big one.

Those words from the 1989 children’s picture book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, are inspiring the latest global movement unifying the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teddy Bear Hunts.

Worldwide, families are searching for teddy bears in windows during walks about their neighborhoods and communities. Minnesota Public Radio reports in its March 30 Daily Dose of Sweetness series that Rochester, home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, is already heavily involved in the Teddy Bear Hunts. My friend Jackie, a nurse at Mayo, confirms that.

 

A teddy bear sighting in the window of a house at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Division Street in Faribault.

 

Here in Faribault, I haven’t searched much for bears, only watched for them while out and about on Saturday to pick up groceries and to later walk a city trail. Randy spotted one bear, in a house window at the corner of Division Street and Fourth Avenue.

 

A close-up of the Fourth Avenue teddy bear with a cross above it.

 

I find these hunts a great idea to distract kids, and grown-ups, from the scary realities of the current health crisis. Shifting our focus onto something fun seems vital to our mental health. I often wonder how much our kids are picking up on our concerns, on the seriousness of the situation. When I asked my eldest awhile ago what she’s told her 4-year-old about COVID-19, my daughter said only that “a lot of people are sick.” Isabelle can understand that. I’m thankful my grandson, at a year old, is too young to comprehend any of this.

For us grown-ups, movements like Teddy Bear Hunts help us cope by shifting our attention to engaging the youngest among us. Kids have always held that ability to refocus our minds, to make us smile, to remind us of life’s simple joys. Like reading a book and going on a bear hunt in the middle of a global pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A bedtime story from the Kenyon Police Department January 9, 2017

my-daddy-snores

 

I’VE WRITTEN HERE before about the Kenyon Police Department Facebook page. It’s a feel-good innovative use of social media. Truly positive and refreshing.

Now there’s one more reason to love this Facebook page. Officer Goodman (a puppet) has joined the KPD family. He makes his debut this evening by reading a children’s picture book, My Daddy Snores written by Nancy Rothstein and illustrated by Stephen Gilpin.

This might just be a new bed-time routine for you and your kids. Or you. There’s something comforting about a police officer puppet reading a story as if he’s a schooled children’s librarian. Or simply a police chief who continues to care deeply for others. That would be Kenyon Police Chief Lee Sjolander.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Kenyon native turns to writing children’s books after MS diagnosis December 4, 2015

WRITER DEBBIE ESTREM’S childhood parallels mine. We both grew up on farms—she near Kenyon in southeastern Minnesota and me 150 miles to the west in Redwood County. She, though, moved into town, unlike me.

 

It's Summertime Book Cover

 

Because of our similar upbringings, I understand her connection to and appreciation for the simple things in life. I see that focus and a strong rural Minnesota influence in her children’s picture books, especially in It’s Summertime, the first volume in a seasonal-themed series. An autumn book, A Time for Fall Fun, just published with the remaining two seasonal titles due to release in 2016.

 

Firefly book cover

 

Her other self-published picture books include Have you ever seen a firefly? and Sights at the Zoo.

Of the three books Debbie sent for possible review, I am focusing here on It’s Summertime. I feel most connected, memory-wise, to the content. Debbie writes from a child’s perspective, showcasing outdoor summer activities such as picnicking, swimming, biking, jumping rope, blowing bubbles and attending the county fair.

It’s refreshing to read a book like this that emphasizes mostly unstructured play and family togetherness. I’m all for kids playing on their own, using their imaginations in unscheduled, unorganized free time.

Debbie’s writing, paired with the art of New Jersey illustrator Kim Sponaugle, makes It’s Summertime a delightful book that is visually and nostalgically appealing. The artist, according to her website, “is known for her bright, colorful style and lovable character expressions that give her illustrations warmth and delight.” Her drawings of happy children transport me to the carefree days of my childhood, back to memories of playing hopscotch at Vesta Elementary School and savoring sugary mini donuts at the Redwood County Fair.

While Kim holds an art degree, Debbie’s educational background is in business. However, she started writing poetry in 2003 and turned to penning children’s picture books after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2010. Unable to continue working and volunteering, Debbie decided to focus on something positive. And for her, that was writing children’s picture books.

Kevin and Debbie Estrem in 2013. Photo courtesy of Debbie Estrem.

Kevin and Debbie Estrem in 2013. Photo courtesy of Debbie Estrem.

Ten percent of each book sale goes toward researching MS, specifically to the Colorado-Wyoming Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Debbie lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and childhood sweetheart, Kevin Estrem, who is retired from an Air Force career.

 

book cover

 

In Sights at the Zoo, Debbie weaves the topic of disabilities into the storyline, helping children to understand why someone uses a wheelchair, walker or other assistive device. The couple’s daughter, Cassi, whose first job out of college focused on researching the cause of MS, suggested her mother write the book. Having once used a cane and walker myself following hip replacement surgery, I appreciate this addition to the story. Debbie currently uses a wheelchair or motorized chair to get around.

This author is hoping, she says, that “discoveries are made for both the cause (of MS) and a cure in my lifetime.”

 

Fall book cover

 

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED in purchasing one of Debbie’s picture books, visit the Halo Publishing International website by clicking here.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book cover images courtesy of Debbie Estrem. Cover art by Kim Sponaugle.

 

A Farm Country Thanksgiving November 24, 2010

The third book in the Farm Country series.

WHENEVER I OPEN one of Lakeville author Gordon Fredrickson’s books, I feel like I’m stepping back in time to my childhood on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm.

I’m thankful for Fredrickson, who understands the value in preserving the history of small family farms. Because he was raised on a Scott County dairy farm and farmed for awhile as an adult with his wife, Nancy, Fredrickson gets his 1950s era farm stories right.

Last night I snuggled up in the recliner with his latest children’s picture book, A Farm Country Thanksgiving. I thought it would be a fairly quick read, but I was wrong.

I didn’t whiz through this story told from the viewpoint of 10-year-old farm boy Jimmy. Rather, I savored every rhyming word by Fredrickson and every detailed illustration by Michaelin Otis.

I was the one sledding down the hill. I was the one with snow stuffed down my neck by my older brother. I was pitching silage down the silo chute, eating banana-filled Jell-O, sitting at the kids’ table on Thanksgiving…

If you grew up on a farm in the 1950s and 1960s, you absolutely must read this book and Fredrickson’s other Farm Country series stories about Halloween and Christmas. He’s also published three If I Were a Farmer books.

I guarantee that you will feel all warm and fuzzy and nostalgic and want to dig out the old photo albums or reminisce with your siblings.

I noticed the ear flapper caps, the buckle overshoes, the checkerboard ringed silo (just like the one on my childhood farm), the old runner sled—book illustrations that are as accurate as photographs. The only difference: My albums hold black-and-white snapshots.

Fredrickson captures the essence of family, of hard work, of rural life. He understands that these are worth preserving. But his efforts to save our rural heritage extend beyond his books. This writer travels across Minnesota, and sometimes out of state, presenting his message to school children, senior citizens and others. He dresses the part of a 1950s farmer in bib overalls, brings farm props, talks and reads from his books.

I will tell you too that Fredrickson and his wife, Nancy, are as genuine and kind-hearted and as down-to-earth good as they come. My husband and I lunched with the couple this past summer. Although we had never met before then, having corresponded only via e-mail, I felt as comfortable with the Fredricksons as if I had known them for years. They are truly my kind of without pretenses folks.

 

I snapped this image of the Fredricksons after lunching with them in August.

I must also point out to you that Fredrickson gives me a plug on the back cover of his Thanksgiving book. He has pulled a quote from a book review I wrote. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the praise I am directing toward him here. He has earned his praise by writing these books, complete with glossaries (after I suggested a glossary), that forever preserve life on the family farm.

I thank him for taking on this project with a passion rooted deep in the land.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book cover image courtesy of Gordon Fredrickson