Sky Blue Water writers’ favorite places to read, write (or not write), and get inspired. (Part 1 of 2)

Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers is a one-of-a-kind collection of short stories that celebrate Minnesota’s vibrant storytelling tradition. A rich and often under-appreciated part of this tradition is youth storytelling. This collection celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota’s most beloved authors, emerging talents, and many more. In this two-part series, we feature short, diverse, meaningful reflections on various places and traditions, within and beyond Minnesota, by Sky Blue Water‘s contributors. Here are writers’ favorite places to write, read, and get inspired, whether outdoors, at home, or at the library. See also Part 2: Food and seasons.


I was stuck. I was desperate. I had some serious revisions to do but couldn’t see my way through the tangle of words. I longed to get away from the computer to a place of seclusion, peace, and beauty; but where? I was in the city and couldn’t go far. Without much hope, I googled “waterfall, path, Minneapolis, secret,” and up popped “Hidden Falls Park.” It looked like just the thing, so I packed up lawn chair, snacks, and manuscript and headed out. Half an hour later I was comfortably wedged between a rock wall and a tree growing on the edge of a cliff. With an enchanting view over the cliff, to my right, the gurgling waterfall a few feet ahead, and a shifting, leafy, light-filled green all around, I sat for a full hour just listening and watching, the pen slack in my hand. The tangle started to relax. After a time the thread of an idea came clear, and I wrote it down. Then another came, and another. A few minutes into the second hour I was scribbling page after page, and by the time I had to leave, many hours later, the writing was in a completely new place.

Lynne Jonell’s writing space.


I have loved two libraries, one like a husband and the other like a lover. The Arlington Hills (St. Paul) branch in the old Carnegie building was solid and strong and it was close to our house so it was where our father usually took us in the old, maroon Chevrolet Caprice—a former cop car he had found for cheap. The other: the Rice Street Public Library, its building younger, its brick newer, its contents more mysterious because we only went there once in a long while. At one library, I was myself, a thin Hmong kid with straight bangs and arms full of books that I was interested in. At the other, I dressed up in some cleaner version of myself, my moves more hesitant toward the shelves, my selections limited to only the books that I knew I would read. I grew up with a husband library and a lover library and they both were good to me.


I grew up going to the Carnegie library in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and my favorite library today is the Carnegie library in St. Anthony Park in St. Paul. Like many Carnegie libraries, it’s a beautiful, symmetric building, and this one’s even more stunning as it sits on an angle to the street. Like many Carnegie libraries, it became too small and in 1999 an addition was put on. This was the marvelous round children’s room that was placed behind the building in order to preserve the architectural integrity of the original library. Pay a visit to this extraordinary building. Check out the beautiful gardens in front in the summer. Ascend the stairs and walk into this peaceful space. Notice the big windows that allow light to stream in. It’s a temple of books, of words, of the world. I feel fortunate to live in the land of Sky Blue Water, a place that values libraries and has so many beautiful ones for us to use.


Of course, the Hopkins Library on 11th Avenue had books. I remember the spinners of paperbacks from which my mother always found the most interesting novels to read aloud to me. I remember low bins at waist height where you could flip through the picture books in the same way adults looked for albums at the record store. There were shelves of fiction alphabetized by author’s last name (Aiken, Cleary, Cooper, London, Paulsen, Wilder). Yes, there were books.

But there was also the bathtub. Tucked into the children’s area, this old-fashioned (even in the 1970s and 1980s) cast iron tub was prime real estate for curling up in while your mother finished browsing in the mysteries. Lined with orange shag carpeting, the tub was often filled with other kids waiting for their own mothers and fighting over the few flattened pillows (or maybe it’s ratty stuffed animals I’m remembering). When you were small you had to figure out how to scale the tub’s tall sides with a book tucked under your arm. Once your legs were longer, it was easy to maneuver in with a stack of Anne of Green Gables. Eventually, the bathtub fell victim to what I can only guess were bureaucratic choices or liability fears (head lice, anyone?), and the children’s area no longer includes an orange-carpeted tub.

Luckily, the books are still there.


Alhambra Civic Center Library (California) was the very first library I visited in America. It was there where I learned and was fond of the English learning language collection. It was there that I dreamed to become someday the Lady in Square Glasses and White Ruffled Blouse sitting at the circulation desk. I don’t know why she always looked serious. Two decades later, I became the first Vietnamese librarian in Minnesota and currently work at the Augsburg Park Library, my hometown and favorite library, where I meet library users from all walks of life. It is there that I have dedicated my time to helping new immigrants transition into life in America. I believe that my work has inspired others to also pursue their dreams and a good education. It is there when I hear kids unexpectedly say the darnedest things that make grownups around them laugh or be embarrassed, from Do you fix cars? to Why do you have an extra long tooth? to Why is there a portable toilet on the library roof? to Why does the snapping turtle visit the library? Believe it or not, all these questions have been asked and I have answered them all accordingly. Most of all, our library staff have refined and learned new skills to meet new needs and expectations. Boys and girls, go ask Librarian Phước Trần for the recipe of her birthday cake baked in the refugee camp and the instructions how to make a lucky charm. Augsburg Park Library is located at 7100 Nicollet Ave S, Richfield, MN 55423.


Every place is a good place to write when you’ve got something that needs to be written. That being said, I do have two favorite writing places. In Duluth it is my “little house in the backyard,” a 10-by-12 shed outfitted with a little woodstove, a little desk, and a big window overlooking Tischer Creek. My other favorite place is the screen porch of my cabin, which is where I am now. It overlooks a north woods lake and the surrounding woods.

Probably the reason I love these places so much is that they offer so much in the way of distraction. Really, they are both wonderful places to not write. There’s so much else going on: a ballet school of mergansers come clattering across the lake, executing chassé in their underwater toe shoes; a pileated woodpecker instructs Junior how to jackhammer beetles out of a rotten log; a red squirrel scolds everyone in French (I presume, given the way he rolls his r’s) . . . there are hummingbirds on surveillance missions, chattering kingfishers, and this morning three baby raccoons that trundled up the wrong tree, causing no end of parental consternation. And every day there is the lake itself, undergoing constant scene changes.

Really! How’s a person to get any writing done?


Birds of a Feather

In late August loons flock up on northern Minnesota lakes before heading south for the winter. Similarly, I meet about the same time of year for a weeklong island retreat with other writers of children’s and YA literature. Incredibly, this ritual has been going on for the past 25 years.

Many of these retreats have taken place on Mallard Island, also known as “Ober’s Island,” so named after the early environmentalist Ernest Oberholtzer. More recently, we’ve been meeting on nearby Atsokan Island, with an occasional cruise on the island’s restored yacht, Virginia. (Islands and boats find their way into my YA novels, Frozen and Ice-Out, though I rename them.)

An island retreat is the perfect way to shut out the daily patter of life and sink wholly into one’s own work. Temps on the last retreat dropped close to 34 degrees one night, yet the sun warmed the sand beach and rocky shore to the mid-70s during the days. Along with taking saunas, jumping into brisk water, napping, and hiking, our retreats are built around writing on our own, usually in separate cabins, and gathering toward evening to share what we’re working on. In a semi-circle beside a fire in the lodge’s stone hearth, we read from our work-in-progress. Over the years, we’ve left our light fingerprints on each others’ works through critique questions, but always, we respect the work-in-progress as the author’s to revise as she must.

Now I must wait for our next retreat, but I’m grateful it’s on my calendar. I wouldn’t be where I am as a writer today or have published nearly as many books without these annual retreats and the nurturing friendships of other dedicated, amazing writers.

We writers are pretty solitary, but like the Minnesota state bird, there are times when we need to flock up again before setting off toward our next destination.


When I write, my dog just stares at me. His face is filled with despair, like he’s pretty sure I won’t come up with anything worthwhile today or ever. I should just give up, close my computer, and rub him behind his soft, sweet ears. “I’ll prove you wrong, Bruce Valentine!” I tell him. It’s very inspiring.

Bruce Valentine.


I am so proud and just tickled to pieces that for two years in a row my children’s books Powwow Summer (Minnesota Historical Society Press) and The Farmers Market: Families Working Together (CarolRhoda) have been chosen for the Floating Library project on Twin Cities-area lakes. Sarah Peters, artist, writer, and arts administrator, is the creator of this public art event. “This project draws on the common past time of beach reading and the inventive thinking of artists working with the form of the book to provide context-appropriate and uncommon reading material to people who are already gathered on the water.”

Part 2: Ruminations on place, tradition, and uniquely Minnesota dining experiences.

The writers here are contributors to Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers, a collection that embodies passion for fostering literacy in young readers. Sky Blue Water celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota’s most beloved and award-winning authors to emerging talents and many more. Featuring primarily never-published stories, this anthology beautifully captures the essence of Minnesota adolescence in twenty short stories and poems. A portion of the proceeds from Sky Blue Water will go to the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, a Twin Cities organization offering free tutoring and writing assistance for students ages six to eighteen.

“This mother lode of short stories by talented Minnesota writers offers vivid glimpses into the cultural life of the state through the eyes of its youth. The authors get into the heads of their young characters through their spot-on use of dialogue and genuine senses of innocence and wonder.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A high-quality anthology full of classroom potential, sure to inspire budding writers and hook casual readers, too.”—School Library Journal

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