5 Steps to a Great Book Cover

A book has only seconds to capture your attention, and its attention-getter is the cover.

As an author entrepreneur, a professional book designer, and an independent publisher, I’m always looking at covers. Some catch my eye, but many more make me wince.

So let’s look at five steps to creating a great cover.

Find Good, Meaningful Art

Step 1: Hire professionals to help you find or create good art that relates to your book and your genre.

WarriorsRevenge-AmazonI design covers for nonfiction, but not fiction. So when I was working on my mystery novels, I knew I needed help.

In my books, a yoga teacher solves mysteries. For the latest in the Maya Skye series, Warrior’s Revenge, I bought the work of two professional photographers: Cathleen Tarawhiti of New Zealand and Greg Nimbs of North Carolina.

If you are looking for atmospheric and beautiful, Cathleen is a wizard. She introduced me to the model Monique Wanner, who became Maya Skye in the first book in the series, Down Dog Diary, and returned in Warrior’s Revenge. See more of Cathleen’s work here.

Greg’s photo of a church in Murphy, NC, caught my eye the first time I saw it on Pinterest and stayed with me the whole time I was writing Warrior’s Revenge. I just knew the church in Greg’s photo was the Chapel of the Forgiving Heart in my story. Check out Greg’s work here.

Note: Do not use clipart on your cover. Invest in quality art from a stock library or the library of a good photographer.

So You Have Good Visuals, Now What?

Step 2: Tell a story, not write a ransom note.

The sure sign of an unprofessional book cover is a bucket of images plastered on top of each other—with no finesse.

For finesse, I turned to digital artist Katt Amaral Quinonez. Take a peek at her work here and see why I chose her. I wanted a mystical and mysterious quality for Warrior’s Revenge, but not too dark and forbidding. Katt nailed.

Maya morphShe took the photographs by Cathleen and Greg and blended them into one coherent image that had a beautifully illustrative quality.

Take a look at the lovely Monique in the flesh and how she evolved under Katt’s artful hand into my Maya.

Note: When it comes to fonts, once again, avoid the ransom note. Use no more than two fonts on your cover.

But Will It Play as a Postage Stamp?

Step 3: Make sure your cover is readable in all sizes.

Your cover has to be intriguing—from the shelf of your local bookstore to the thumbnails displayed in online retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo.

Make sure the title is big and your name is big. Avoid fonts that are difficult to read (no matter how cool they look on the screen).

The Front Cover Catches Them, But the Back Sells Them

Step 4: Plan your back cover real estate.

The back cover is prime real estate, the penthouse of space on your book cover. It is a powerful marketing tool and should include the following:

  • Subject category at the top. This standardized heading helps bookstores shelf your book appropriately. Find a complete list of publishing categories at Book Industry Study Group.
  • Summary of your book: Tell what your book is about in 100-200 words. Remember you are selling, not writing a synopsis.
  • Endorsements from reviews.
  • About the author. Offer a brief bio with photo. Be sure to note where you are from. Local reviewers will look for that connection right away.
  • Website URL so readers can find out more about you and your books.
  • Barcode and ISBN to make the stores happy.

Here’s What the Experts Say

Step 5: Create a thing of marketing beauty by working with professionals.

As the chair of the Midwest Book Awards, I want to see covers that wow the judges (who are themselves cover designers). From the evaluations of last year’s cover entries, we can glean the basics of good cover design.

  • Make it inviting, striking, and beautifully done. Those were some of the adjectives the judges used to describe the finalists in the book awards. Quality book covers stand out from the crowd.
  • Deliver on its promise. A cover is the beginning of a contract with the reader. It makes a promise of what is going to be inside. Does a cover promise fun, thrills and chills, or romance? A pink, fluffy cover with kittens on it will not sell a dark thriller.
  • Keep it balanced and integrated. The cover makes the reader feel comfortable (another part of that invisible contract) by integrating all the visual elements and balancing the images with the fonts.

Here’s one more tip (or rather 10 of them) from the experts at Writer’s Digest: 10 Tips for Effective Book Covers.

When you think about it, book covers have a heavy job. They have a function—to market the book—but the best ones are also works of art.

Where Ideas Come From: A Lesson from O. Henry

Unlike O. Henry, most of us are not short story factories.

We stare at blank screens and wonder if our writing lives are over. What if we never get another fresh idea? What if that last essay or story or novel was it?

Let’s look at how O. Henry defeated the blank page.

The Connection Gamehand-off

Once while dining with friends at a restaurant, O. Henry was asked by a reporter how he came up with all the plots for his hundreds of short stories. “There are stories in everything,” O. Henry said.

He then picked up the typewritten bill of fare and proceeded to outline a story of a lovesick typist reunited with her lost love all because of a typo on a restaurant menu. The conversation inspired O. Henry’s story, “Springtime à la Carte.”

Sometimes when I am stuck, I play a game inspired by O.Henry. I call it the “Connection Game”—seizing on something commonplace and letting the mind make connections. Here’s how it works: choose the first three words that pop into your head and then let your writer mind begin weaving them into a story. Don’t try to write a story. Just let the mind start making connections, pulling in things you have experienced, heard, or read. Trust it.

In one of my games, the words were: rabbit, spoon, and penny. What came when I sat down to type was just a vignette of a homeless man, a war veteran, who was camped in a woods and roasting a rabbit on a spit. In his shirt pocket was a silver spoon. He used the spoon for self-defense but also to dig out the pennies tucked into the crevasses of brick walls.

What did he do with the pennies? Eat them. Because everyone knows we stash pennies in cracks and throw them in fountains to bring us luck. Rabbit Man figured he was eating the good wishes of others when he ate the pennies.

This scene eventually became part of my novel, Book of Mercy. Runaway Ryder hooks up with Rabbit Man for the night and is changed forever.

It Wasn’t Always Easy for O. Henry Either

If you are mired in self-doubt and eating procrastination like chocolate, remember that it happens to all of us. Even O. Henry alternated “between procrastination and fits of feverish industry,” according to Harry Hansen in the foreword of The Complete Works of O. Henry.

All you have to do is stay in the game, perhaps by playing the Connection Game. As O. Henry inferred from his comment to the reporter, stories and storytelling are about connections, and connections are all around us.


Freebie: One of my favorite mystery series is all about connections. Author Estelle Ryan’s autistic art fraud investigator, Dr. Genevieve Lenard, helps solve crimes by making connections. The first book in the series, The Gauguin Connection, is free in eBook.

Surviving Book Awards

Books waiting to be shipped to judges in the Midwest Book Awards.

Books waiting to be shipped to judges in the Midwest Book Awards.

As chair of the Midwest Book Awards, I have discovered one can survive running a book awards program. It takes an immense amount of time, planning that would put most military strategists to shame, lots of contacts and friends with contacts, a patient and generous family, and a warm coat.

The Midwest Book Awards have been sponsored for 26 years by the Midwest Independent Publishing Association (MIPA). This is an organization that has dedicated more than a quarter of a century to raising the level of book publishing in the Midwest.

We still have a way to go, as I learned last year when AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) held its conference in Minneapolis. I can’t tell you how many times I heard writers claim they were surprised by how much literature is being produced here; they considered us a “flyover” between the big publishers in the East and the trendy ones on the West Coast.

The Midwest Is Not a Flyover Literary Abyss

Well, fly this: This year the book awards received 198 titles entered in 305 categories. At this very moment they are being judged by 58 independent judges all over the country. All of the books are from publishers located in MIPA’s 12-state region: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

My job is a simple one: find the judges, promote the awards, handle the entries and entry fees, keep on the good side of all delivery people, deliver the entries to the judges and field their questions, tally the results, send out the good and bad news, throw a big party in May to honor the winners and finalists, and do not, under any circumstances, screw up my Excel spreadsheet that has all these details meticulously recorded.

Is Entering a Book Awards Program Worth It?

Entering award programs are important for authors and publishers. I’m not saying awards will sell a million books, but they have value. It is a way to get feedback on your work. All the entries in the Midwest Book Awards (not just finalists and winners) receive copies of the judges’ scoring sheets with their comments. This is part of MIPA’s mission—to help educate publishers and authors about best practices so they can produce better books.

From a promotion standpoint, finalists and winners can send out press releases, announce their glory on their websites, add this honor to their portfolio, and purchase gold (for winner) and silver (for finalist) seals to decorate the covers of their books. One winning author called me while on a book tour: “Please send me more gold seals. The readers and buyers love them.” I mailed a fresh supply to her hotel.

When publishers ask me about entering book awards, I say go for it with one caveat: Spend your time and money on the good ones. Not all award programs are the same in terms of prestige and return on investment. For example, if an award requires you to send just one book, that means there is only one judge in your category. What if that judge is having a bad day when she reads your book or your writing style just isn’t her cup of tea despite your memorable characters and clever plot. The Midwest Book Awards has three judges for each category; that’s three opinions to balance out the bad day and three times the feedback.

Is Coordinating a Book Award Program Worth It?

As for me, has it been valuable to coordinate this program? Think about what I’ve learned (about Excel alone), the books I’ve seen, the people I’ve met. When those judges open their boxes of books, it is like Christmas morning. They are excited and grateful and proud to be part of this grand adventure. One judge told me she is learning about ways to improve her own writing skills by evaluating scenes and pacing in the work of others. Some judges have asked to judge this competition year after year, and their only recompense is our undying gratitude, free books, and tickets to the awards gala.

The awards gala will be truly special. I know because I’ve emceed the last two galas. The books of all the finalists will be displayed for everyone to thumb through and to generate buzz before the ceremony. The authors and publishers will be giddy, cheering for their favorites, and taking pictures of everyone with their cell phones. The wine will flow and the appetizers will disappear.

But what about the generosity of family and that puffy parka? You need family to help you with the logistics of an awards program sponsored by a volunteer organization; someone has to box and deliver hundreds of books of varying sizes and weights.

The parka is a personal preference. When I was sorting and moving books on a daily basis, I was doing it in my three-season porch, the only space available in my home to store that many books. It was December in Minnesota, and some days it was not much more than six degrees on my porch. So, yes, a good coat is the book awards chair’s best friend.

Lessons from Kids on Destressing

Stressed? Go buy a coloring book and the biggest box of Crayolas you can find. Or sit down in that fancy landscaping you paid a bundle for and play with the rocks. Yes, it is that easy.

I’ve read two articles recently about adults finding calm by remembering what it was like to be a child.

Coloring Book Clubs

ist2_3570575_3d_pebbles_cropColoring book clubs are cropping up all over the country in  cafes, libraries, and private homes. People are seeking a few moments of uncomplication where they can shed all the tough decisions, the crazy people at work, and the problems awaiting them at home. Remember how relaxing it was to hunch over a picture and just color? The only questions we had to face were: 1) what color should I choose, and 2) can I stay in the lines (or not).

In fact, I have been counting the days when I can give my 16-month-old granddaughter a new red crayon without her eating it. I can’t wait to share those moments of peace with her, sitting at a table, the waxy smell of crayons wafting around our heads.

Rock Balancing

Rock balancing on the shore of a mountain lake in Glacier National Park in Montana.

Rock balancing on the shore of a mountain lake in Glacier National Park in Montana.

Another path to inner calm is stacking or balancing rocks. Minnesotan Peter Juhl, author of Center of Gravity: A Guide to the Practice of Rock Balancing, said in a recent article in the Star Tribune, “There is ease in tension.” He admits that pursuing the tension between stones and gravity is actually calming. This art form is called by many names including “equilibria.” By balancing other things, we find balance ourselves.

I have personal proof that it works. On a recent trip to the playground with my granddaughter, two older boys were roughhousing, throwing rocks and sand, until I suggested that they stack rocks instead of throwing them. Their focus became defying gravity instead of annihilating each other (and my granddaughter in the crossfire). Peace—or equilibria—reigned on the playground (much to my grandmotherly relief).

This idea of inner peace and how we find it is a big part of my Maya Skye mystery series. Maya, a yoga teacher who attracts mayhem like I attract mosquitoes in summer, still works to find inner peace—even when chasing a killer. Maya believes answers and peace are found in living “in the moment” and isn’t that what we are doing when we color pictures or balance rocks? When our focus is on the here and now, we not only create art but we reset to calm.


What kid activity brings you calm? Drop a comment.

What’s next for Maya Skye? Book 2 of the series is available: Warrior’s Revenge.

Crazy about Numbers

How to Build Cathedrals

How to Build Cathedrals

I can’t balance my checkbook, but I am crazy about numbers. You can suck me into any tourist trap with the word “biggest.” I once drove out of my way to see the largest frying pan in Iowa (just off I-380 in Brandon). It weighs 1200 pounds and is 9 feet 3 inches in diameter. Think of the Paul Bunyan-size pancake that can be made in it. It’s not the largest in the world, but you can fry 44 dozen eggs in it at one time. Bon appetit.

On a recent trip to Austin, Texas, I visited the presidential library of Lyndon Baines Johnson. I’d never been to a presidential library before and have to admit it was much cooler than I expected. You walk in the door and the first thing you see is LBJ’s custom-built black stretch limousine, his town car for tooling back and forth from the ranch. Weighing 5,100 pounds, the limousine is equipped with a TV, telephone, and reserve gas tank. There is a specially designed communication system within the car for contact with the Secret Service. This vehicle, however, is not armored, bullet-proof, or bomb-proof. Imagine how much weight the presidential rides must carry.

At the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, I count myself lucky to have seen another amazing number spectacle. It was a piece of artwork named “How to Build Cathedrals” by Cildo Meireles. It was made up of 600,000 shiny copper pennies, 800 communion wafers, 2000 cattle bones, and 80 paving stones. A critique of Jesuit missions built in colonial times, Meireles’s work suggests that the conquest of the Americas was as much about economics as saving souls. (By the way, Cildo, great title. I dearly love artwork that has a name.)

Some might say I should just keep a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records on my night table, but I don’t like being bombarded. I like being surprised, happening upon a number frenzy in an art museum or down an Iowa country road.

Perhaps I like all those crazy numbers because they are proof of the human spirit pushing the envelope. Some man or woman sat there in a studio, a garage, a basement and thought: How can I make a better this or a bigger version of that?


For a book about art and the creative spirit, but not numbers, check out Maud’s House.

Holiday Stories for Sharing

HOLIDAYstoriesTake a break from all the shopping craziness and preparations, put your feet up, and enjoy a holiday story, a sweet remembrance, a peek into someone else’s celebrations. This is the season for sharing. We hope you enjoy this small collection. Happy Holidays!

3 Things That Remind Me of Christmas: keeping the holiday spirit on a deserted island.

Christmas Shopping by Twilight: when shopping was quieter and sweeter.

7 Tips for Making Your Christmas Cookie Party Merry: it’s not all about the baking.

Christmas Unplugged: a short story about rivalry amid the holiday decorations.

How to Make Your Own Holiday: to all the children born in December.

Let There Be Light: the gift of illumination.

Christmas Pajamas: a cozy holiday tradition.

Christmas Cookies at the Peacock Bra Bar on the Planet of the Kings: disappearing kings, the box that won’t go away, and cookies with a high PITA factor.

Christmas Pajamas

I welcome friend and fellow writer Janet Lunder Hanafin to share the memories that evoke the holidays in her heart.

Janet-pj-01I’ve heard of families who spend all of Christmas day sitting around in their pajamas. That wouldn’t be my family, but sometimes I have wished it so. I am a grandmother now, and pajamas take up more of my Christmas effort than my five grandchildren would ever imagine.

My own grandmother had a dozen grandchildren, and every Christmas I can remember, each of us got a new pair of pajamas—flannel pajamas, that wonderful, soft, comfortable, comforting, cozy, cuddly fabric that seems nonexistent these days. Nobody worried about whether we would come in contact with a Christmas candle and immolate ourselves, so our pajamas didn’t have to fit like a second skin or be treated with some death-inducing chemical that was guaranteed to give at least our parents nightmares. The little kids who got pajamas with feet didn’t have rubber treads on the bottom. They took their chances with slipping on linoleum or pine wood floors, and learned to walk carefully.

Every year the pajamas were all different. Even my twin cousins, boys almost a year older than I, got the same style in different colors, the only time I can ever remember them not being dressed identically. The pajamas came often from the JC Penney catalog, sometimes from the local Amundson’s Dry Goods store. We may have seen them, and wondered where Grandma would shop, may even have longed for exactly the pair we received, but we never hinted or suggested, and certainly never asked.

The year that I was in seventh grade, a “big, grown-up girl” if you know what I mean, Grandma decided that I was old enough for a robe. I wish I had never worn it out, or outgrown it. It was the most elegant garment I had ever owned—soft, cozy flannel in an exotic pink, gray and white print. The mandarin collar and cuffs on the three-quarter sleeves were trimmed in hot pink corduroy. It had patch pockets with corduroy piping, and square pink buttons. I wore it when I went to slumber parties (the precursor of sleepovers). We seldom slept, so I could wear my robe from 10:00 p.m. popcorn until pancakes in the morning served by a bleary-eyed mother who, if she was really lucky, had managed to doze off between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.

And after that, Grandma always gave me a nightgown, still flannel, but meant for a mature young lady, until the year that Grandpa died. I was in high school, my sisters still in junior high and not grown up enough for either robes or nightgowns. That year my grandma knitted mittens for all of us, and watched us open her gifts with tears in her eyes.

I hugged her and she whispered, “Oh, sweetheart, I couldn’t afford so many pajamas this year.” We all understood and were only a little disappointed.

Years later when our son came home and brought along a young woman whom he thought he would marry, I had to do some fast Christmas shopping. What was a little personal but not too personal, expensive enough but not too, showed some thought but didn’t look as if I’d shopped the entire mall or lain awake all night thinking about it? Something that didn’t read more into the relationship than might already be there? Pajamas, of course, flannel pajamas. Comfortable, warm, but not seductive. Pale blue with white snowflakes for a girl with blue eyes and blond hair. They were perfect.

And some more years later when he brought home the young woman whom he really would marry, I zipped out again and bought flannel pajamas, this time red ones with white snowflakes. Perfect again! She still has them.

Our granddaughter was born six weeks before Christmas. Her first Christmas present from Grandpa and Grandma was a little red sleeper with feet and a tiny reindeer on the chest.
We’ve added three grandsons and a very special great niece to the mix, and I start shopping for pajamas in September, guessing at sizes, and wondering what will go on sale a week after I spend an exorbitant amount for the cutest ones yet. One year Granddaughter #1 got Hannah Andersson snowman pajamas (on sale) that were such a hit she threw a two-year-old tantrum whenever they were in the laundry. Over the years Spiderman, Angry Birds, Hello Kitty, and the girls from “Frozen” have found their way into toddler-sized beds. Flannel has fallen from fashion, and the chosen fabrics are fleece and thermal weave. The kids are fussier now. One likes feet, another wants the legs to fit tight around the ankle. One doesn’t like buttons because they catch in her hair.

This year the chosen themes are polar bears, reindeer, a snowboarder, and a mouse for the littlest dancer in the Nutcracker. Merry Christmas, my little sweethearts. Sleep tight! And no, you can’t sit around in your pajamas all of Christmas Day.


Janet Lunder Hanafin grew up on a South Dakota farm, transplanted herself to St. Paul, MN for college, and grew deep roots. Her writing has appeared in local and metro-wide publications including the St. Paul Almanac. She and her husband have two children and four grandchildren (all above average) and enjoy the companionship of two very fine cats. The cats do not have pajamas.

Christmas Cookies at the Peacock Bra Bar on the Planet of the Kings

Ann Woodbeck's wall hanging

Ann Woodbeck’s wall hanging

This holiday blog post is brought to you by Ann Woodbeck. I am happy to have my writer friend as a guest. We have been writing about things that evoke the spirit of Christmas in our lives.

The kings travelled far, coming to rest in Nonnie’s living room, high up on the wall over the sofa where the painting of the ships used to be. Even without the camels, they were tall, regal with jeweled crowns that sparkled against the velvet sky. Nestled into their opulent robes of purple and gold, small treasure chests held the gifts they carried to the baby Jesus, my grandmother said, for he would bring joy to the world. Fashioned by my grandmother and her spooky old sisters, The Kings were passed along to my mother and hung for many years on the barn wood wall of the house at the river, watching over the piles of coats, boots, and snow pants in the entry way. More Christmas than the tree, the candles, the mystery of mass at midnight. It was a shock to realize that no one knows what became of them.

Years later, I set to work on a wall hanging that would appear like magic every Christmas to stir up wonder in the children. We’d travelled far from the beliefs of our own childhoods and Peace on Earth was more impossible than ever. My boys wanted telescopes to gaze up at that starry sky, impressed by images of a blue planet sent back by astronauts in spaceships. A sequined branch was easy enough to applique on the big square of burgundy velvet. The challenge was the earth—stuffed and silvered, the continents shining beneath a big gold bow. With every stitch around its circumference, I remembered Christmas past: carols around the piano, the flicker of candles in the dark sanctuary of the church, the rush of affection that enfolded us when we came through Nonnie’s door.

When our children were young, we all came “home” for Christmas, shuttling back and forth between the river and the airport, filling the house to the rafters with joy. Stacks of presents grew around the tree, stirring up a frenzy of excitement in the growing collection of little ones with wide eyes and chapped cheeks. But the biggest prize under the tree never went to the little ones. The howl went up the moment the wrapping paper was torn enough to reveal the pale aqua Peacock Bra Bar box. Initially, the box held the most hideous peignoir—kelly green and white flowers on a robe that put the Kings’ to shame. Now, year after year, someone got the box, usually filled with underwear of a more practical variety. No one can remember who was the first man in the family to don a pair of ladies’ underwear on his head. But like the box from the Peacock Bra Bar, it became a treasured family tradition.

Much like our Christmas cookies. I remember the dog-eared cookie cookbook with buttery stains on the page with the recipe for Aunt Ella’s Sugar Cookies. Whose aunt Ella remains a mystery. In my earliest memory, Nonnie makes them in my mother’s kitchen on Prairie Street, sending us off to wait for the dough to chill in the refrigerator until it was firm enough to roll out on a flour sack towel. We’d hand her the cookie cutters—a mitten, a small Santa with a pack on his back, a Christmas tree, a leaping deer—and Nonnie would transfer the fragile cutouts onto the pan and into the oven. A whisper of almond signaled that they were perfectly golden around the edges, ready to slide off the pan and onto a tea towel on the counter where they cooled and waited for a thin glaze of icing. We picked numbers to see who would be first to stand on the kitchen chair to behold the rows of delicate golden cookies, shiny with glaze, awaiting our artistry with colored sugars, the silver balls that looked so cool but broke your teeth, or tiny candy stars.

The Rintelmann family Christmas cookie has a very high PITA (Pain-in-the-ass) factor. And we still bake them. Every year.

Ann Woodbeck takes words seriously in Excelsior, MN.

3 Things That Remind Me of Christmas

IMAG0433It was not a parlor game. You know, what would you take if you were stranded on a deserted island? I really was here, alone, a drip of humanity in an unending sea. Usually, in the parlor game, someone says they would bring a book and not just any book. It has to be Ulysses. Right. Like I want to spend the rest of my days in a loop with Leopold Bloom.

So when the unbelievable actually did happen and I found myself shouting on a beach in who knows where, I was grateful that I was wearing my holiday backpack. Because if I wanted to bring anything to the rest of my life, it was the spirit of Christmas.

I sat down in the sand, the tide trying to calm me with its whispers, the breeze patting my face. There, there, what do you have in the bag? the curious wind asked. I unzipped the pack and pulled out: music. My phone had no bars, and Pandora was far away, but when I pressed a button, tunes magically lifted from the speakers and danced on the air. Carolers from Mariah Carey to Bing Crosby sang of mistletoe and sleds and wished me a Merry Christmas. Monks chanted in ancient cathedrals, and cellos and violins crashed with uncontained joy. The wind liked the music.

It tugged at my hair. What else do you have? the wind asked. I entered my pack once again and brought out: light. Strings of lights that stayed on perpetually even though I had no power grid on my island. There were my favorites, the twinkling white ones that smooshed together in my vision when I took off my glasses. But I’d also brought the multicolored variety because if you are birthing a whole new society, you don’t want to start off setting a policy of discrimination.

The mercurial wind demanded, “More, more.” I rummaged at the bottom of my pack and found: the smell of pine forest. Spruce deliciousness flowed into the wind’s arms, and it laughed. How wonderful, it cried. The wind played with the evergreen aroma like a ball of energy, spinning it, tossing it, lifting it then letting it shower down on me like rain.

Finally, in a wistful voice, the wind asked, “More?”

I shook my head. “That is all,” I said.

“That is enough,” said the wind.


Some friends and I challenged each other to write about three things that evoke the holiday season. What about you?

For more holiday reading, try “How to Make Your Own Holiday” or “Let There Be Light.”

In the Save the Butterflies Business

When I am tagging Monarch butterflies, I feel like the klutzy nature lover Elaine May in the cult classic A New Leaf. In the movie, she is a rich professor pursuing botanical discoveries while her gold digger husband Walter Matthau tries to dispose of her on a crazy camping trip. He ends up falling for his brilliant yet bumbling new wife, of course.

Just as I have fallen for Monarchs. In August and September in Minnesota, the Monarchs shed their green chrysalis and hit the fields of goldenrod, chowing down for the long trek to Mexico to winter. That is when my partner and I, net and tags in hand, try to capture them—for the good of science. We are volunteers for Monarch Watch, which tags and

Happy caterpillars.

Happy caterpillars.

monitors Monarch butterflies in hopes of learning more about how they navigate, migrate, and survive. The more we learn about Monarchs, the more we are able to help keep the species alive.

But as I said, I am not a natural in nature. In three years of doing this, I have discovered a few things:

1. Monarchs do not stick to the hiking trails. They drag me into places full of nature “things” such as tall grasses, thorny bushes, hidden holes that eat ankles, and other insects. I do not like any of these things to be touching my legs or ankles (the creepy crawly factor).

2. Monarchs are fast. And I am not.

3. Monarchs love hot afternoons in hot, buggy fields. And I do not.

Monarch habitat.

Monarch habitat.

4. Monarchs enjoy teasing humans, fluttering by when you are sans net—when you are driving the car, biking, or sipping margaritas on the patio.

Still, I love placing a tiny tag on a beautiful orange-and-black wing, feeling the butterfly’s sticky legs hanging on to me for a moment in some quiet interspecies communication before I place it on a flower and wish it safe travels to Mexico.

So this year, in addition to tagging the wild ones, we are rearing our own Monarchs. We bought a habitat at the local bird seed store, found four caterpillars in the wild, kept them supplied with fresh milkweed (their only food source), and watched them spin their chrysalises. Any day now they will come out, dry their wings, and be ready to travel. That’s when I will tag them (without wading into the creepy tall grasses).

If this is cheating, I don’t care. After all, those little caterpillars could have been eaten by birds

Safe in their chrysalis, the butterflies are forming.

Safe in their chrysalis, the butterflies are forming. Stay tuned.

and never reached this point, without my assistance.

Please do what you can to help the Monarchs:

  • Restore milkweed; it is the only plant where Monarchs lay their eggs and the only food they eat in their early stages. Milkweed is always under attack by development, the spraying of herbicides, and roadside mowing.
  • Contribute to and become involved in programs researching the Monarchs and trying to boost their numbers: Monarch Watch; Save Our Monarchs, which seeks to plant more milkweed; and the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, whose volunteers monitor milkweed for larva at more than 900 sites across the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
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