Here There Be Dragons

At the bottom of the map in the front of the splendid new edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with illustrations by Jemima Catlin, the area devoted to Mirkwood Forest is labeled with the simple inscription, “There are spiders.”

An un-cluttered description, to be sure, but for anyone who has read The Hobbit, you know no further elaboration is really necessary. In Mirkwood, there are spiders. Large ones. Fearsome ones, straight out of Tolkien’s nightmares. There they are, and to get through Mirkwood, you have to deal with the spiders.

Along the same lines, there was a supposed – but likely apocryphal – practice in old cartography of marking uncharted territories on maps with the Latin phrase “Hic sunt dracones,” – “Here be dragons” – next to a fearsome drawing of a sea serpent or other leviathan-esque monstrosity. Supposedly it was the cartographer’s warning to mariners – “we don’t know what’s out there, so travel at your own peril.”


A myth, but a compelling one …

That phrase was likely linked to another Latin one, “terra incognito,” which, I’m sure you know, means “unknown land.” Not quite as terrifying as dragons, but still, in an age where falling off the map was a distinct possibility, scary indeed.

Is there anything like the unknown which feels quite as, well, dragon-ish?

Here we are at the doorstep of a new year, just as Bilbo himself stood on the doorstep of the Lonely Mountain, anticipating a journey into the bowels of the earth to encounter the fearsome dragon Smaug. “Dear me, what a fool I was and am!” Bilbo says, cursing himself as he ventures into terra incognito that first time. He knows what’s coming, and he fears it.

When I think about the year ahead, sometimes I feel like labeling it Hic sunt dracones. I don’t know what dragons lie in my own path, but the thought of facing them, like Bilbo anticipating his encounter with Smaug, fills me with a certain amount of dread.

What dragons lie in your own path this year?

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Neil Gaiman took this Chesterton quote and put it more succinctly: “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”


My son drew this picture of a knight battling a dragon while I was writing this post.

So here’s to a new year filled with dragons, and spiders, I am sure. In my own path lies a nearly-finished manuscript which will, Lord willing, go out into the world soon to inspire families with truth, goodness, and beauty. Some days, this dragon seems quite toothless. Others, not so much.

In The Hobbit, just before the scene I described earlier, Bilbo tells Thorin Oakenshield, “I think I will go and have a peep at once and get it over with. Now, who is coming with me?” Brave words from the Tookish part of this little hobbit.

Well, so say I.

A new year lies ahead. Take heart, friends. And take up your sword. Bogeys are real, but bogeys can be defeated. For every dragon, there’s a Saint George waiting to do the slaying.

I think I’ll go have a peep at the dragon. Who is coming with me?

Let There Be Play

playing-352115_1280-600x250This summer, thanks to a timely inquiry with the utility company, we had a large, mostly-dead pine tree in our side yard chopped down. I arrived home from work one afternoon to see the chunks of stumps and logs jumbled in the yard like oversize Jenga pieces. Well, boys being boys, it didn’t take long for the climbing to begin. Soon, my sons clambered over the fortress of logs like it was Morder itself. One day, they undertook to plot the swiftest course around, up, and over the logs in an activity they dubbed their “ninja training.”

From our kitchen window, with our adult eyes, my wife and I saw clutter in need of cleaning up; my children saw a golden opportunity for some epic play. When it was time to finally clear up the stumps, we capitulated and hauled them to an old garden plot in the backyard, where we constructed a proper ninja training ground.

A few weeks later, following the delivery of two dump trucks full of topsoil to the same side yard, a large Mound of Dirt appeared, nearly six feet high at its peak. In the period after the delivery, before we could arrange for a tractor to smooth out the Mound, my boys – you guessed it – scaled that thing like it was Mount Everest, creating routes to the summit from nearly every angle. I even looked out the window one afternoon to see a stick with a rag tied to it poking out of the top of the pile. Apparently, someone who had summited wanted all other climbers to know whose claim it was. Then there was the day after it rained and the Mound became a massive mud pit. Enough said.

I can’t tell you how many times my children’s fertile imaginations have turned ordinary objects into catalysts for play. Laundry baskets, tin cans, milk jugs, pillows – all the stuff of ordinary life becomes an opportunity to play. And I’m suspecting this isn’t unique to my household alone. You’ve probably got your own Mound of Dirt stories, too. They’re the ones for the memory books.

Read more at Story Warren

Tumbleweed Thompson and the Sharpshooter: The Conclusion!

Tumbleweed Thompson and the Sharpshooter: The Conclusion

by Glenn McCarty, illustrated by Joe Sutphin


Illustration by Joe Sutphin

Illustration by Joe Sutphin

The sun broke over the Rocky Mountains with grace and glory that Saturday morning, and everything – juniper, columbine, even the scraggly sagebrush – seemed to glow with promise. Bursting out of bed, I darted to my chest of drawers, where I had laid out the costume I had acquired the night before at the Thompson’s room in Cutler’s boarding house. Neither of the room’s two occupants was home, but fortunately, one raccoon was. I found the rest of what I needed in a pile on the floor in the corner.

First, I donned the white checked shirt, pulled on the corduroy overalls, and tightened the skinny string tie. I was pleased to find everything fit fairly well, even though they were meant for someone taller and leaner. Then, it came time for the hair.

With a glance in the mirror, I bid a fond goodbye to my carefully-arranged straight locks. Then, I went to work with the pomade. Working up a generous palm-full of the thick, greasy goop, I pushed my hair back from my face and up in some sort of ridiculous pompadour. With a few more adjustments to height and angle, I believed I had finally found a look that would render me completely unrecognizable, or, even better, recognizable as someone else. It wasn’t red, like Tumbleweed’s hair, but I was betting he had disguised his hair when masquerading as me. I yanked the borrowed boots out from behind my door and pulled them on. They were much too big, but the clomping actually added to the picture of a gangly frontier drifter. Which was exactly who I needed to be.

For the final touch, I slipped into the kitchen, pulled a bottle of molasses from the cabinet, and dotted my cheeks, careful to fade the freckles into something resembling a sandy brown color. With one more glance into the mirror, I was satisfied. It was time for Tumbleweed Thompson masquerading as Eugene Teitsworth – I was calling him TumbleGene for short – to claim his prize.

Read the rest at Story Warren

New Tumbleweed Story!

Tumbleweed Thompson and the Sharpshooter

by Glenn McCarty, illustrated by Joe Sutphin


Illustration by Joe Sutphin

“You’re aimin’ too high. Gonna blast a hole clean through my window. And I like that window. Lower your arm a touch.”

“High? Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

I turned to where Wendell Jenkins, graying barber of Rattlesnake Junction, sat dispensing wisdom from a slat-backed rocking chair on his front porch, eyes half-shut as his mouth opened in a yawn.

“You’re not even looking at me. How can you tell?”

Wendell’s eyes popped open, wide and gray below a mass of stringy black hair flecked with silver. “Don’t need to see you. I can tell. Your aim’s off.”

I shook my head, but something in his quiet confidence told me to heed his advice. Besides, as my boss for a few hours a week, he was something of a benefactor for my brand new slingshot, purchased a few hours earlier at the general store. Squeezing my left eye shut and tightening my grip on the handle, I lowered my arm, pulled back the strap, and let go.


As if yanked by a string, my tin can target leaped off the fence post and tumbled to the ground. It had happened so fast I hadn’t even seen the rock fly. I grinned and looked at Wendell.

“Hmph,” he grunted. “Guess I still got the ole’ eagle eye, don’t I?”

His voice was as quiet and gravelly as ever, but I could read surprise on his face. Heck, I was a bit surprised. Five out of five cans in a row isn’t something to sneeze at. I must have been all those Dead-Eye Dan novels I had been reading. My brain had been soaking up information while my hands were waiting to be filled with the small, mighty power of a slingshot.

Read the full story at Story Warren

And while you’re at it, catch up on all the Tumbleweed adventures:

#1: Tumbleweed Thompson’s Youth Tonic

#2: Tumbleweed Thompson and the Popping Pepper (Part 1)

Tumbleweed Thompson and the Popping Pepper (The Conclusion)

#3: Tumbleweed Thompson and the Fiddler’s Daughter (Part 1)

Tumbleweed Thompson and the Fiddler’s Daughter (The Conclusion)

Horace and Oscar – The Story Behind the Story

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” That’s what they say, right? Today, I have a brand new story up over at Story Warren called “Oscar and Horace Visit the Lake” that’s a good example of that saying. Because I love to hear about the creative process and how stories emerge and evolve, I thought I’d share a little about how this particular story was born. Here goes:

A few months back, my friend Jon posted this photo on his Facebook feed: a whimsical shot of his newborn baby Henry’s stuffed giraffe looking wistfully out the window during a rainy afternoon.


Something about the photo was instantly compelling. I thought – and told Jon – “There’s a story in there!” Wheels started turning. The summer rolled on.

Then, Jon posted this second photo, introducing a second character, the stuffed bunny in the blue coat.


I knew it was time. I rolled up my sleeves and went in search of the whole story about these two characters. I started with the obvious question. “Who is this giraffe, and why is he looking so forlornly out the window?” Couple that question with the follow-up – “What’s with the conspiracy to escape the crib?” and I began to form the basic outline of the story. These little stuffed animals began to take on personalities. One – the giraffe – became Oscar, a nervous homebody who loves comfortable chairs, his blanket, and the company of good friends. The other – the rabbit – became Horace, the dreamer, eyes on the sky. Naturally, Horace persuades Oscar to break out of the nursery and visit the lake across the lane. Then there was a goose, some especially anxious moments dangling from a door handle, and the story was off and running (Like Oscar and Horace).

Thanks to Jon Hartt ( for a couple of gorgeous, evocative photos! I hope you and your family enjoy the story, and a little peek behind the curtain.

Batman and Bach

IMG_1727-600x250At his suggestion request, my younger son received two beloved items for his fifth birthday earlier this year. One was a strikingly authentic, midnight-black Batman costume, cape to cowl, everything a little boy needs to patrol the streets of Gotham on the lookout for evildoers. Did he like it? Let’s see – beginning with our traditional birthday breakfast at Peppermint’s restaurant, he was costumed for roughly three-quarters of his waking day, drawing some interesting looks while he tried to manage the challenging job of eating pancakes while wearing a plastic mask.

The other gift was a CD of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Though he hadn’t requested Bach specifically, the album was part of a line of radio theater-style programs which weave the music of classical composers into the story. Like his Batman costume, the CD went over like gangbusters. He listened to the CD in its entirety three times a day – that’s a safe estimate, mind you – for the next two weeks, gulping down the music of Bach like he had done with similar recordings featuring Beethoven, Handel, and Tchaikovsky.

Batman and Bach. Go figure. Could you have picked more contradictory interests? But that’s my son. Both of my boys, in fact. They’re walking contradictions. They love action figures, lightsabers, and … the Moonlight Sonata. There was actually a moment when the strains of a Bach cantata drifted out of the stereo speakers while my son leaped from the couch at his older brother yelling, “Come and face justice, Bane!”

So what do we do with these seemingly dichotomous elements of our children’s personalities?

Read more at Story


Book Review: The Green Ember

GreenEmberChildren need – no, deserve – stories which feed their spirits. This has been a foundational belief of mine for the better part of a decade, as long as I’ve been writing stories for children. The story of how all of that originated – thanks to Bruce Coville and my friend Cyndy – is better told at another time.

But it wasn’t until I met S.D. Smith that I acquired a term for the kind of spiritual development which stories can nourish in children. Smith calls this concept “holy imagination.” It’s the idea that stories on this side of eternity should exist to heighten children’s awareness and understanding of the Kingdom awaiting us on the other side. Stories should be celebrations of the true virtues – beauty, abundance, order – so as to image them into the lives of young minds still seeking a true conception of these weighty, abstract ideas. They enflesh them, so to speak.

Smith has built a whole website called Story Warren providing resources for families looking for ways to provide beauty and holy imagination for their children. And it’s a doozy. I’ve even been fortunate enough to contribute some pieces there now and then.

But that’s not why I’ve called you all here today. This is about a fantastic children’s book, which just happens to be written by Smith. Based on the above remarks, it makes sense, then, that The Green Ember, which released in December, is both a story with rabbits in it (which is pretty awesome on its own), and a story which presents a world in which a hunger for the Kingdom – Smith refers to it in the novel as the Mended Wood – so saturates the world of the story that it trickles down to characters’ casual conversations with each other.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I should first be talking about how this is an “instant classic.” That is to say, it shares the same spirit of derring-do involving small characters cast into big adventure against long odds with so many of the stories I’ve loved through the years, from Treasure Island to Watership Down. (There we go with rabbits again.)

The Green Ember is about two rabbits, sister Heather and brother Pickett, who find themselves caught up in the struggle at the fabric of their world and seek to right some pretty dreadful wrongs. Along the way, they wrestle with their own weaknesses and encounter dastardly deeds, danger, and double-crosses. (Thankfully, no terrifying over-use of alliteration.) It’s entertaining, thought-provoking, beautifully-written, and I’m sure will challenge its young readers to dig deep by inspiring them with both the successes and failures of its lapine protagonists.

I’ve already been thrilled to share stories like Stuart Little and The Gallant Pig with my first-grader, and I can’t wait until I can introduce him to Heather and Pickett. They’re just the kind of story-friends I think he’ll love spending time with.