Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Bilbo-Catcher: A Missed Opportunity

When I was writing The Riddle of Penncroft Farm, I needed to come up with a toy from the 18th century that could have survived as a family heirloom into the 20th century.

I remembered that Jane Austen (my favorite author) was an expert at playing with a wooden cup and ball. She is reputed to have been able to get the ball into the cup 100 times in succession.  (Anyone who has tried to do this even one time knows how hard this is!) Jane Austen was born just before the American Revolution began, and doubtless learned to excel with this toy as a child. Therefore it seemed to me that the cup and ball would work as the 18th century toy I needed.

It was only well after Riddle was published that I found out that the cup and ball was also called a "bilbo-catcher". Evoking as it did the whole Lord of the Rings saga, I would have loved to have used it in Riddle. 

Too late.  : (

Here is one reference I made to this toy in Riddle:

    Father’s expression softened. He looked at me and smiled. “Poor Geordie. Seems only yesterday you were playing with gewgaws. Remember the toy soldier from England that I bought in Philadelphia when you were still in leading strings?”
   I nodded. Next to the cup and ball that Will had carved of apple wood from our trees, that lead
soldier had been my favorite toy. How Mother had protested when Father had given the small grenadier to me! With her Quaker beliefs, she didn’t think it fit for child’s play.    

-The Riddle of Penncroft Farm © 1989 by Dorothea Jensen

Saturday, October 24, 2015


The City Tavern, Philadelphia
I wrote two scenes in The Riddle of Penncroft Farm  that are set in the City Tavern, an 18th century eating place that was a favorite with the Founding Fathers. It was also where Washington and Lafayette met for the first time.

The original building was torn down in the 19th century, and re-built just in time for the Bicentennial celebration in 1976.  This also happened to be exactly when we moved to the Philadelphia area. We used to take our kids there to enjoy the authentic 18th century food, the costumed wait staff, and the period setting.

You may imagine my delight when I looked City Tavern up on Wikipedia many years later and found this:

City Tavern sign from the street,
City Tavern Dining Room
Of course, the Wiki writer got a few details wrong (Will is working as a servant, not an apprentice as such) but it is still thrilling!

Here is the street sign for the City Tavern, which is located at 2nd and Walnut in downtown Philadelphia. BTW, I have not been there since taking these pictures in 1992, and it might have changed a bit since then.

The next picture is of a City Tavern dining room.  The dish I usually ordered was the Tavern Pasty, as I recall.  I had a fondness for this dish, as I had used it in Riddle. (The following scene actually takes place at a different tavern, Welch's Tavern, just before the battle begins at the Brandywine).

I thanked the tavern keeper, then ran outside and hitched up my father’s slugfooted team, Daisy and Buttercup. A morning fog was rising, but I could clearly see the vedettes’ horses tied nearby. When I returned to the common room, Mr. Welsh handed me a small leather pouch full of coins and a bundle that smelt of spicy apple tart and savory beef pasty. 
                                                            -The Riddle of Penncroft Farm ©1989 by Dorothea Jensen

City Tavern Hallway
The final picture is the hallway inside the City Tavern, with a couple of costumed waiters who obligingly posed for me. In the background to the right is the door I imagined would lead to the basement stairs. I have no idea where it really leads.

Here's how I used it in Riddle, when Geordie goes to the City Tavern during the British occupation of Philadelphia to try and sell fruit and perry, a kind of hard cider, to the manager, "Little" Smith:

The situation was quite different at the elegant City Tavern, where a great blazing fire warmed the patrons to a nicety. Threading my way through the crowd of periwigged merchants and elegant officers to the Bar Room, I soon found the manager, Daniel Smith.   Much to my relief, he jumped at my shy offer of fruit and drink.
  “Of course, lad, I’ll take everything you’ve got—and whatever else you can bring me. Our
supplies are in a sorry state, and the British officers are like to drink my cellar dry. Here, I’ll get
someone to help you unload. Billy?”
   At his summons, a man poked his head out from the hallway door—a man dressed in
servant’s livery, who leaned on a hand-whittled cane and looked at me with eyes full of
  ’Twas Will. As if in a dream, I followed him outside. “Will, what in blazes are you . . .”
   Will looked about furtively. “Shhh. Billy, if you please,” he whispered out of the side of his
mouth in a way that, under ordinary circumstances, would have made me laugh. “And don’t
stand about like a ninnyhammer! Help me with these barrels.”

                                                      -The Riddle of Penncroft Farm ©1989 by Dorothea Jensen

Friday, October 23, 2015


Here is another picture I took when visiting the sites I used in THE RIDDLE OF PENNCROFT FARM a couple of years after it was published. The little girl in the picture is my daughter, who is now 35, has four sons, and a PhD. How tempus fugit!

Those of you who have read this story know that Lars first meets the mysterious Geordie on a covered bridge near Penncroft Farm.

Here's what I wrote:

* * *

   I gave a tentative kick to a good-size stone on the shoulder of the road. It skittered nicely across the blacktop, so I kicked it down the narrow, winding road. I was so intent on what I was
doing that I didn’t pay attention to anything else. I suppose that’s why, when I came to the old covered bridge, I didn’t notice anybody standing inside, until my rock disappeared under the
roof of the bridge, and I looked up. Someone about my age or a little older stood facing the other direction. Even in the shadows, I could tell it was a girl—the ponytail and puffy sleeves
made that obvious.
  I was determined not to get off on the wrong foot with this girl. “Hi,” I said shyly. “I didn’t see you there. Hope I didn’t hit you with my rock.”
   She turned around. There was nothing female about the face that grinned at me, or the gruff
voice. “Nay, you missed me by a furlong.”
   I was astonished. This was a boy all right, but he was wearing the weirdest clothes I’d ever
seen. Besides the white shirt with billowy sleeves, he had on pants that ended at his knees,
long white socks, and black shoes with big buckles. In his hand was a hat—a three-cornered
   Boy, Pennsylvania kids really go all out for Halloween, I thought. And do they talk funny.
   “Furlong?” I echoed, wondering if it meant far or long or whatever.

- The Riddle of Penncroft Farm © 1989 by Dorothea Jensen

BUSS is a KOBO book, too!

Ok, I admit it.  I didn't know anything about Kobo books until today.

When A Buss From Lafayette showed up as pre-orderable on the Kobo website.

Here's the link:

Pre-order a Kobo book of A BUSS FROM LAFAYETTE

A Nook for BUSS!!

This has been an exciting morning. 

The online Barnes and Noble store just posted this:

A Pre-order Link for A BUSS FROM LAFAYETTE Nook Book

A BUSS FROM LAFAYETTE has been Kindled!

Woo Hoo!

Amazon just posted a pre-order button for the Kindle edition of my new historical novel for young readers, A Buss From Lafayette!

Check it out!


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The REAL Penncroft Farm (sort of)

In the 1970s, we lived for five years in Wayne, PA, outside Philadelphia. (Wayne, BTW, was named after "Mad" Anthony Wayne, a Pennsylvanian who served in the Revolution War with distinction and was quite a colorful character, apparently.) Our sons learned to ride bikes at Valley Forge, and our family often visited Brandywine Battlefield and historic sites in Philadelphia. We especially liked eating lunch at the City Tavern.  (More about that later.) 

A couple we knew while we lived there had a horse farm they named "Penncroft Farm".  Their house was built in the antique Pennsylvania style, with different sections that had differing exterior finishes.

After we moved to Minnesota in 1981, I did not want my kids to forget the history we had experienced while living in Pennsylvania.  Very soon after that, I started writing a story about a boy who moved from Minnesota to Pennsylvania.  I needed a name for the farm where he and his family were to make their new home.  I wanted it to sound a bit exotic to the Minnesota boy, and reflect the Pennsylvania location. Then I remembered the name of our friends' place and borrowed its name: "Penncroft Farm". It took me a long time to write (and to find a publisher) but The Riddle of Penncroft Farm was released in 1989 by Harcourt.

After we moved to New Hampshire in 1991, my then 11 year-old daughter and I went back to Pennsylvania to see some old friends. We took the opportunity to visit some of the places that I had put into The Riddle of Penncroft Farm when I was living a thousand miles away.

Here is the "original" Penncroft Farm. (I wouldn't be able to find it today. Our friends moved away from there just after we did in the early 80s, and now I don't remember where it was.)

 Here is how I described the fictional Penncroft Farm in the book:

      The headlights picked out a crooked wooden fence and a post with a sign in spiky, old fashioned
letters. “‘Penncroft Farm,’” I read out loud. “‘Established 1760.’”
      Dad eased the car around the corner and started up the driveway. “Don’t even think of
skateboarding down this, Lars,” he said. “There’s quite a drop-off on the other side of the pike.
You’d break a leg if you went off it, and maybe your neck.”
     “It’s too rutted for skateboarding anyway, Dad,” I replied. Then, as we jounced up the long,
steep driveway, I stuck my head out the window to check out my new home.
     Even by moonlight I could tell that it was different from any house I’d ever seen. It looked as if
someone hadn’t been able to decide what sort of house he wanted, so he’d hooked several
kinds together. There were dark, bumpy stones on the middle part, but the left section was
shingled like our old Minnesota house; the right was covered with white stuff."

-The Riddle of Penncroft Farm  © 1989 Dorothea G. Jensen

Here is the cover art done by Gary Lippincott for the back of the original hardcover edition of The Riddle of Penncroft Farm. As he apparently grew up near the location of my story, he knew exactly what colonial houses of that region looked like. I've always liked this picture, except for the fact that  the driveway goes UPHILL. 

Lars would have had a hard time skateboarding "down" it except by pretty tricky maneuvering!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

THE RIDDLE OF PENNCROFT FARM: Historical Fiction Squared??

I have been re-reading The Riddle of Penncroft Farm, my historical novel about the American Revolution for young readers, in order to write "bubbles", i.e. author insights, about it on my Bublish page.

I am happy to report that it is still quite a good story. (I feel I can say that because I wrote it so long ago it seems as if somebody else is the author.) It is really two stories, however: one set in "modern" times and the other set during the American Revolution.

As the School Library Journal said about Riddle:

"This is an entertaining mystery involving a missing will that could stand alone, but combined with Geordie's enthralling tales of Valley Forge during the American Revolution, Jensen gives readers two terrific stories that are intertwined nicely and come together in a satisfying conclusion." 

As I have a new historical novel for kids (middle graders and young adults) coming out in the spring, (A Buss From Lafayette), I have been thinking lately about what historical fiction is, exactly.  There are a number of  definitions out there, as this Wikipedia article shows:

When I read these definitions, I realized that it has been more than 25 years since Riddle was published, and more than 30 years since I started to write it.  That could mean, according to the last definition, that the "modern" part of the book might be regarded as "historical" now. (Although it all gets a bit convoluted because obviously it was not set 25 years before it was written.) But young readers of today could certainly read the "modern" part of my story as if it were also "historical." 

The "modern" setting of Riddle took place in the 1980s, which in some ways is as distant from today as the American Revolution. No cell phones.  No internet. No e-mail.  No streaming videos. No texting. No video games. (Pong doesn't count.) 

Let's face it, in a way, America has been through another Revolution in the last 25 years. So my book is actually portraying TWO eras that are well and truly "bygone".

Besides, since thinking of it this way would put my book in the same category as Jane Austen's, I am more than happy to do so!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

I'm not USUALLY a braggart, but. . .

Take a gander at this lovely number! That's the number of times people have read one of my "author insights" (called "bubbles") since I started writing them on my author page in late July.  (

I've been having great fun re-visiting books I've written, both recent and not-so-recent, and reminiscing about how I came up with ideas for these stories.

In the case of The Riddle of Penncroft Farm, this means remembering bits from many years ago, as  I started writing that story in the early 80s!  I am amazed to find that when I read it now, I still recall why I put certain things into Riddle, and where many of my ideas originated. 

Sometimes, I make a Bubble that simply directs readers to other sites to see pictures of objects mentioned in the story (stake-and-rider fences, pudding caps, riddles, etc.), to watch a book trailer, or video blog, or to hear a song that is sung by a character in the book.

I have also been writing bits about two of my four Izzy Elf books, Dizzy, the Stowaway Elf, and Frizzy, the S.A.D. Elf. (FYI: a fifth is in the works, Bizzy, the Know-It-All Elf.) Of course, these are fantasy story poems, so it's harder to refer readers to places where they can see the imagined items mentioned in these stories, such as Virtual Reins, Elfascopes etc. However, I do direct readers to sites where they can watch book trailers, video blogs etc.  

I guess anyone who wants to see these interesting elfin devices will just have to buy the Santa's Izzy Elves books. (Now there's a thought!)

As you might suspect from the devices cited above, the Izzy Elves (and Santa himself) are quite 21st century in the way they approach their age old tasks.

Anyway, you are cordially invited to visit my Bublish page to join in the fun.(

P.S. I can hardly wait to start writing "insights" about my new historical novel for young readers,  A Buss From Lafayette. I've got a manuscript all marked up ready to go, but I can't post anything until the book is 100% finalized. With any luck, that will happen in about a month. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Big News! A BUSS FROM LAFAYETTE is available for pre-order!

Woo hoo!

My new historical novel for young readers, A Buss from Lafayette,  can now be pre-ordered.

It will be released on April 22, 2016.

Here's the link from the publisher, BQB, where it can be purchased at a discount at this time.  Eventually there will also be pre-order/order links on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Books,  iBooks, and Kobo.  Buss will also be available from Ingram and Baker & Taylor.



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Cross Blogging with the Izzy Elves

Yes, yes, I know I'm supposed to keep my Izzy Elves confined to their own blog, but I just had to share this Elf-Oriented video blog here.

Dorothea Jensen Video Blog #5: Elf Origin

Monday, October 12, 2015

Tough to Keep the Two Parts of My Writing Life Straight!

So, as you may know, I write two TOTALLY different kinds of stories for kids: historical fiction and rhyming modern Christmas stories (illustrated).

Sometimes it gets a bit confusing for me.  But I keep trudging away.

For example, the Izzy Elves love to use social media. (Through which they often complain about me). They especially hate it when something about my historical fiction is accidentally posted on their IzzyElfBlog or on their twitter account.  They apparently resent that I have been spending so much time lately working on my latest work of historical fiction, A Buss from Lafayette. 

I try my best to stay out of their way, but I have found that if I write a "bubble" on my Bublish account) and click on "share", it gets posted on whichever twitter or Facebook account is open.

And because it is officially posted by Bublish, I can't delete it.

The Izzy Elves get really steamed when this happens.

Sorry, Izzies.

I'm Doing My Best!