Finding the Island

People often ask me how I ended up here -- on a Hebridean island three hours by boat from the Scottish mainland. I've wanted to live on a Scottish island since I was a young teenagerand read THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, then THE SINGING SANDS by Josephine Tey, and THE CROFTER AND THE LAIRD by John McPhee.....I imagined a sunny, windswept island near the top of the world. Whenever I thought that, I told myself that if it was in Scotland, it wouldn't be sunny. But that's how I always pictured it -- and that's how it was (well, sometimes) when in 2011 I saw my first Hebridean island, Barra.

The plane landed on the beach, at low tide.

The way to the hotel had the sea on one side, the machair --

a flower-filled meadow found only on the West coast of some hebridean islands-- on the other. It was so beautiful (or something) that I started to cry. I've been to every continent except Antarctica and nothing like that has ever happened to me. There was, is, just something about that light, landscape, silence, space -- I don't know what -- that felt like home.


About a week later, I spent a night on another island (chosen almost entirely by chance--there are 50 inhabited Scottish islands). There it was sunny, both days. On the first, I went for a three hour walk and didn't see anyone -- only wind and sea and sky; wildflowers and grass and sand, and, once, a large brown hare.

When my b and b hostess brought me to the ferry the next morning, she looked at me and said:"This is going to sound really strange, but I feel like you're part of our family."That's how I felt, too.

Back in America, I looked on the island's Web site to see about renting acottage and emailed the owner of one that seemed promising. She emailed back:

"...I think I have one of your books."

She did -- the IRELAND book I did for Scholastic; she'd bought it thinking it was a book about Connemara ponies. But still. How many published books are there in the world -- ten million? What are the chances of her having mine?

I rented the cottage for five months.

Picture Book Bootcamp

Writers' workshops are risky. I've always regretted attending  the Brown Creative Writing Program in my twenties: if I'd spent the same money and time going to the island THEN I might be married to a sheep-farmer now, with children and grandchildren. Okay maybe not -- and I did find the island eventually --  but showing my work to a professor who wouldn't read children's books and borrowing thousands to do it were not a good use of time and money.

So, although I was thrilled to have been chosen, I was a little apprehensive about spending $1500 -- a lot of money to me -- on Picture Book Bootcamp: three and a half days with Jane Yolen, Heidi Stemple, and 9 other published writers, some  famous, some not  (links to the authors and their very different sites at right). I was more worried about the effect on me than the money -- at Brown, the other writers were a competitive bunch, and I left with an MFA but little else to show for my time there. (My fault, not the program's!)

What's said at Bootcamp stays at Bootcamp, that's one of the rules -- but I can say (I hope, tell me if this is breaking the rule) that before we came Jane joked that they had finished waving their magic wand over our manuscripts (we each sent two) and then "Wait, it's not that easy." But it WAS magical.

 We laughed, cried when Jane and Heidi read aloud to us -- Owl Moon, You Nest Here With Me, Miss Rumphius, Letting Swift River Go were some of the books that set me off. And some of us almost cried when we had to leave.

For three and a half days, we had listened to each other as well as to Jane and Heidi -- and made no distinctions between those whose books had sold more and those whose had sold less -- and learned. I felt that I had never really understood what a picture book WAS before this weekend. We learned from the lectures, from the group crits, from the read-alouds, from the books Jane and Heidi had picked because we would learn from them and put in labelled bins for us. And of course we learned from our individual crits with Jane & written comments from Heidi. Those were the best comment/ crits I've ever had -- but they were just one part of the learning.

Jane and Heidi had said we would be treated like family as soon as we arrived, and we were: Heidi cooked for us and took care of us -- the whole time, we were enfolded in their support and inspiration -- and each others'. The whole time, we were enfolded in magic. And it's lasted. 

 "We almost didn't get this picture--we were about to leave and Libby said to me, "can we still go take a picture with the wings?" and she and I RAN (yes, two ladies-of-a-certain-age running through the museum lobby) to get this picture.  #totallyworthit  " wrote  Heidi Stemp le and then  Lynda Mullaly Hunt  wrote "Seems metaphorical. Libby Koponen is ready to fly." We all were by the end of that weekend!

 "We almost didn't get this picture--we were about to leave and Libby said to me, "can we still go take a picture with the wings?" and she and I RAN (yes, two ladies-of-a-certain-age running through the museum lobby) to get this picture. #totallyworthit " wrote Heidi Stemple and then Lynda Mullaly Hunt wrote "Seems metaphorical. Libby Koponen is ready to fly." We all were by the end of that weekend!

If you don't believe in magic: being there was just plain FUN and everyone was nice to everyone else the whole time.  As long as it's fun for them, Jane and Heidi will choose published writers to join them at the aptly named (except for the food)

BOOTCAMP: You start at 7 a.m. (or 6 if you want to walk with Jane!) and go until bedtime: talk about books and writing and publishing -- the art, the business; get and give crits; listen to lectures and picture books  and read more picture books  to yourself (from labeled  bins of books Jane and Heidi have picked out for you). We were all exhausted by the end. But there is nothing bootcampy about the food -- Heidi and her helper Laura cooked meals from scratch (and local ingredients) which we ate all together at one long table, talking, talking, talking. Heidi asked questions beforehand about what we liked and didn't and even provided gluten-free alternatives for people like me.

Her only food rule was "Don't come on a diet!" 

I'd go again if they'd let us -- next year it may cost a little more, but  Picture Book Bootcamp is worth every penny. I came home feeling a new confidence, energy, and inspiration....and I think that -- like the support of my fellow-bootcampers -- will last. Thank you all! 

Dark skies & morning eggs

It's hard to explain how far away and foreign and cut off the island feels in winter. It's just a little island at the far edge of Europe -- in summer with boats every day and tourists it doesn't feel that way, but now when the boats are scheduled to arrive only 5 days a week, and in practice so far have only come twice a week, and so few people are here it does feel far away. 

The isolation strengthens the community, though -- there is so much darkness around the (few) houses.  I've mostly been here when the days were so long that I was asleep by the time it got dark -- but now it's dark early and dark here really IS dark. There aren't even any street lights on the island. In fact it is the only official "dark sky" island in Britain!

When I look out my kitchen (I call it "my kitchen," but this really means the counter and sink) window at night, I know every light -- whose house it is, I mean -- and everyone else does too and I think we all take comfort in seeing each others' lights. Several people, at least, have said how nice it is to see mine again  -- and *I* like looking across at the other two hills above the village and thinking things like, "Heather and Tom are still up." 

And you can not imagine how quiet it is. That's nice, too -- but again, it feels strange, to feel that there is nothing around you for miles and miles but the Atlantic.  Sometimes -- on really windy nights -- I can hear the Atlantic; and the hut shudders and shakes as though it's on it. The other night when I came in from my byre (as I perhaps somewhat pretentiously call the stone shed) I saw a shooting star.

But then in the morning the twenty-somethings in the Manse next door walk to their ride at the foot of the hill, and the kids start arriving at school -- and I make tea and, sometimes, morning eggs.

The easiest (no pots to get out and wash and put away) in a tiny house is to boil the eggs in the electric kettle. This method of cooking them keeps the whites light and fluffy, too.

electric kettle

2 fresh, free-range eggs (can you taste the difference? Yes, I can! And in Stonington, the eggs are not only free-range but forage for their own food ''pasture-fed" is what the farmers call it, which means they get no grain and eat mainly bugs and have more protein and less bad cholesterol than grain-fed eggs)

cold water

1. Fill your kettle with as much cold water as you think you will need to completely cover the eggs, and then put them in gently. 


2. Close the lid, let the water come to the boil and the kettle shut itself off.

3.  Leave the lid closed. After 6 minutes, if you like your whites solid and set but your yolks just in-between hard and soft, the eggs are ready to eat. If you like the yolks firm, wait 8 minutes -- you may need to fiddle with this a few times to see how long your eggs take.

Betting on the right horse

Lately I've been writing book proposals for other people, and when one went out, two publishers responded right away. One offered a decent advance; the other wanted the book, but didn't want to pay for it.

"I've never sold a book for nothing," the agent wrote.

The editor was indignant; wanted the book and whined about uncertainty. The agent said that acquiring mss. ought not to be going for certainty (buying mss. that are like other best-selling books etc.) but "betting on the right horse."

I love that idea! And not just because it reminds me of John Steinbeck saying, "Publishing makes horse-racing look like a stable, secure business."

Betting on the right horse is a good way to think about my own books, too -- though for me it's like owning a horse as well as betting on one. If you muck out the stalls etc. yourself, owning a horse is a lot of work. And so is writing a book. You have to really love the creature to make all that work worthwhile, whether it wins the race or not.

Hallowe'en on the island

Here, children must say a poem, sing a song, or tell a joke before they get their sweets. I offered a choice -- sweets OR three tiny, but very strong, magnets. The older boys chose the magnets ("Or can we have 2 magnets 1 sweet?"); the younger children and most, but not all, of the girls chose sweets.

This is my friend Cairistiona, as (her idea) "a witch's daughter."

A "witch's daughter" -- she said she was "too young" to be a witch.

A "witch's daughter" -- she said she was "too young" to be a witch.

All the children who were trick or treating (they call it "guying" here) on their own came by -- I heard some shouting eagerly:

"Let's go to Libby's!"

It was raining hard, and windy, but I didn't hear any of them talking about THAT. They just seemed excited and proud of their costumes.

"I'm a glampire," one boy said, spreading his arms proudly and opening his bin bag cape so his princess dress  showed:

Another boy -- Frankenstein's monster -- made the little magnets into ear-rings, one column on each side of his earlobes. They are so strong that they stayed on. (Pictures of the boys posted if I see their parents to ask permission before I leave.)

The island children are a creative, and charming, bunch. Here are some of the girls -- including Cupid (also her own idea):


Wild weather

People said I would come to hate the wind, but I love it -- even when a gale makes the hut shudder and rattle. When it's windy, or raining hard (as it does more and more now that winter is coming), the hut feels even more snug than usual. Here is the wind outside, blowing the poppies I planted --  a mild breeze, really, not wind.

I'll video the next gale, from inside and out. "Gale" means winds of over 50mph, and we've had two so far this year.

Before the first, someone said, laughing,

"Libby's the only one on the island who's looking forward to it."

Most people don't: they can go on for days (or even weeks), and during really bad ones the boat from the mainland doesn't come in and the shop has no fresh food.

But most of this autumn has been mild and sunny -- so mild that I can keep my door open. Here -- just for fun -- is how the hut l ooks when I do that.  I will make another video when the school holidays are over and Cairistiona can open the door -- and give you HER guided tour, with commentary.

That's what I see when I look out the window most of the time -- the loch, though there are views of the ocean from two other windows.

Other than the wind, most of the time there is no sound at all -- in some places on the island, you can stand and feel the stillness. But when the wind blows, it shakes the hut -- walking is hard (you are either pushing against it or being blown along by it); rain and clouds scud by -- sometimes the sun flashes out for a few minutes, making everything sparkle, and then rain pelts into the windows again.

It's good weather for writing!

Returning in July

I had to go to America at the end of May and was away for six weeks. When I came back

I was amazed by how overgrown my garden was. I shouldn't have been: in June,  the sun rises at 4 and sets at ten something.

I was amazed by how overgrown my garden was. I shouldn't have been: in June,  the sun rises at 4 and sets at ten something.

I have always wanted to live in a house surrounded by a wildflower meadow -- I did get the meadow, though none of the flowers I planted came up, Only the lettuces and my herb garden, both of which I weeded carefully before I left,  survived. Here are the lettuces;

I have always wanted to live in a house surrounded by a wildflower meadow -- I did get the meadow, though none of the flowers I planted came up, Only the lettuces and my herb garden, both of which I weeded carefully before I left,  survived. Here are the lettuces;


I planted lots more: artichokes, poppies, nasturtium, ranunculus,  lillies, sweet peas. People on the island say it takes a few years to learn how to grow things here -- and, "If you don't get your weeds under control by the first of June, you're doomed." I was in America from the end of May until the now; and people have also said June is the worst month to be away from your garden.

Next year I'll know better -- but in the meantime, at least I have lettuces and who knows, once I clear the weeds away may find that more survived than I thought at first. Maybe it will turn out to be quite a lot like writing a first draft -- get it all in and  see what works. Diana Wynn Jones says she never even knows what her books are really about until the second draft.  Maybe it will be the same with my garden.

I've already ordered more seeds.