Lessons in nature and history
Oct 31, 2019 10:13AM
By J. Chambless
Author Corinne Litzenberg with some of her previous books, and the manuscript for her latest, ‘Ice Cream Cones and Heart Stones: A Child’s Grief Journey.’
By John Chambless
When she was growing up on Delaware Avenue in Elkton, “right in the middle of the hill,” Corinne Litzenberg spent her days roaming the undeveloped land around her family home, Sunnycroft, building forts, swimming and catching tadpoles in the creek. That early love of nature has followed her through her long teaching career and through her many books for young readers, all of which instill a respect for the natural world.
“My mother raised six of us by herself,” Litzenberg said during an interview at the home she shares with her husband, Dale. Her mother, Dorothy, went back to school and got her BS from the University of Delaware. “She instilled in me the value of a great education,” Litzenberg said.
Litzenberg graduated from The Tome School and then the University of Delaware, Loyola College and Wilmington University with a Doctorate of Education in environmental education. She was a teacher in Elkton from 1987 to 2016. During her years at Elk Neck Elementary School, she led the way on environmental projects that made the school the first self-sustained “Maryland Green School” in Cecil County.
“For each level, we integrated a project with the science program,” she said. “At the time, I was teaching third grade, and we were learning about plants and ecosystems. So the children actually wrote the grant for materials to build bluebird boxes, and all of the parents helped. Other grade levels got involved. We wrote a grant for a bird garden and an outdoor classroom and a trail, because Elk Neck Elementary has 29 acres.
“If the class put forth their best efforts, we could all go eat lunch outside. Frankly, I would much rather eat lunch with the kids and see the butterflies and look at the sky,” she said. “And the kids were well behaved because they loved it, too.”
While her teaching duties were keeping her busy, Litzenberg found a new direction when she spotted a book about Robert G. Litzenberg Sr., her great uncle, in the window of Stanley’s NewsStand.
“We really didn’t know this part of the family, even though we lived in Elkton and they lived in Elkton,” she said. “He was a decoy carver on the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay Flats. I didn’t meet him until I was 34 years old. I went to a decoy show to meet him. I wanted to get to know him and his wife, so I would go over to his house and bring him pumpkin bread,” she said, laughing. “So he inspired me. I said, ‘You know, Uncle Bob, I am going to write a book.’ He had these stories about how he made coffee from river water, and how the sky was black with ducks, and how different it is now.”
Litzenberg delved into research, and soon realized “I couldn’t do it all in one book,” so she launched a series of books for young readers in 1995. Close Duck Calls, set in 1910, was the first of a series that focused on different eras of conservation on the Chesapeake Bay. Using ducks as the central characters, each subsequent story – set in 1930, 1950 and the present day – teaches gentle lessons and explores environmental and conservation issues.
Litzenberg went on hunting trips to absorb the sensory details for her stories, and started to carve her own decoys, which are displayed in her home, along with many made by Robert Litzenberg, Sr.
Her 2007 book, Grandpa’s Basement, is based on stories from her great uncle. “This illustration is of his workshop, down in the basement,” she said, pointing to the page. “And it looked just like that.”
Her fascination with the past sparked two books, The Sand Lady: A Cape May Tale, and The Sand Lady, an Ocean City, Maryland Tale, published in 2006 and 2007. In each, a young girl makes a sand sculpture of a woman that comes to life and takes the girl on a tour of the two beach towns at the turn of the century. Each book has a timeline, glossary and an emphasis on the natural world, in addition to the charming seaside architecture and long-gone places.
Having spent decades visiting the beaches of Delaware and the Chesapeake Bay, Litzenberg has a lifelong love of sea glass, and compiled her photos and text in S is for Sea Glass, an A to Z Book, published in 2014. Drawn to the way the softly polished glass shards are both pretty and produced by natural forces, she made crafts with sea glass and photographed them for the book. And the book has a point to make about the environment – as plastics replace glass, the oceans are holding less and less sea glass, and the crisis of plastic pollution is ever growing.
In many ways, Litzenberg’s new book, being published in November 2019, may be her most important. Ice Cream Cones and Heart Stones: A Child’s Grief Journey grew out of the loss of Litzenberg’s son, Todd, in 2017.
“My husband and I went to Griefshare, and it was very helpful,” she said. “I thought there needed to be more books for children about issues like this. They need tools to manage their grief. Everybody needs to find a place of solace, whether it’s a city park, the beach, the woods. And I thought, ‘How do you teach children about death without mentioning God?’”
The semi-fictionalized story centers on a young girl, Madison, and her beloved grandfather. “My daughter, Natalie, has two children – John and Madison,” Litzenberg said of her inspiration for the character. Set at the beach, the story follows Madison as she copes with the death of her grandfather.
“She’s thinking about the memories of the things she did with her granddad,” Litzenberg said, “and that the memories of our loved ones are a gift from God. She goes through the stages of grief and eventually sees beyond her own sorrow. She goes to the beach to talk to God and her granddad, because that’s where they spent so much time together.”
When Madison finds a white heart-shaped stone on the beach, it echoes an experience Litzenberg herself had. “When Todd died, it was the first September I didn’t have to go back to school,” she said. “I went for a walk on the beach and I found a white heart stone. I wanted to go back and show Dale what I found, but then I thought, ‘No, this was meant for me.’”
There is a section in the back of the book meant to spark discussions between a child and a parent or caregiver, asking questions such as, “How did Maddie change, and find her new normal?”
There’s a list of eight ways to help children through the loss of a loved one, such as making a memory box. “You can share the box at a family gathering, maybe,” Litzenberg said. “Everybody grieves in different ways, and there’s no time limit.”
Having taught for so long, there were several instances during her career when a student lost a parent. “Books like this are going to help children,” she said. “They need these kind of tools.”
Having processed her own grief in the form of a book that will help others, Litzenberg said she is enjoying writing again. “It’s been exciting to do this book. It was good to get back into it,” she said, smiling. Her next faith-based book will take place at a lifesaving station where the main character is a 10-year-old boy. It will focus on the biblical Fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Corinne Litzenberg’s books are available through her website, www.corinnelitzenberg.com.