In Escape Artist, Anna Mei and Danny decide to keep a journal of their visits to the nature center. A nature journal is a place to record your thoughts, feelings, ideas, activities and observations while in the natural world.

We can learn a lot about keeping a nature journal from John Muir (1838-1914), the founder and first president of an environmental group called the Sierra Club. Muir thought it was important to preserve wild places. He wrote in his journals about the beauty he saw around him, adding sketches of plants, animals, mountains and landscapes.

John Muir sketch
Here are some tips for observing and recording nature the way John Muir did:
  • Clear your mind so you don't rely on what you think is real or true. Be open to discovery.
  • Build on your observations, relating similar events to each other. Although nature may seem random, it's actually filled with repeating patterns and behaviors.
  • Try to observe the same setting so you can record the changes that occur there season after season.
  • Consider carrying a field guide to wildflowers, trees, birds, mammals or insects to help you identify the ones you see.
  • When you write, just let your words flow naturally, as if you were writing a letter to a friend—or even to yourself. Include your feelings and moods along with your observations.
  • Write prose or poetry or a combination of both. Complete sentences are optional.
  • Draw pictures or take photographs to include in your journal.
1    You can use any kind of notebook for your journal, as long as there is plenty of room for all your thoughts and observations. Visit the Sierra Club website to download a PDF of a make-it-yourself journal.
Adapted from an article by Bonnie Johanna Gisel, Ph.D.
    Anna Mei's Aunt Karen brings a flag cake to the family's Fourth of July picnic in Escape Artist. Try this easy recipe for a dessert that tastes as good as it looks!

    Aunt Karen's Flag Cake
    13" x 9" white cake, baked (made from scratch or box mix)
    white frosting or whipped topping
    3 cups fresh strawberries, sliced in half length-wise
    1 cup fresh blueberries
    Spread  the frosting or whipped topping on cake. Arrange the strawberry slices in stripes, as shown in the picture, leaving a square at the top left for your blueberry "stars." Serves 12. Happy 4th of July!

    During summer vacation in Escape Artist, Anna Mei’s parents visit Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. They bring their daughter a Chinese brush painting of plum blossoms as a souvenir. That’s because Anna Mei’s birth mother named her Mei Li, which means “beautiful plum blossom.”

    Paintings like this are very popular today but have their roots in Ancient China, over six thousand years ago. The distinctive style of Chinese brush painting is partly due to the brush itself. Compared to watercolor brushes commonly used in the western world, the Chinese brush has a finer tip, fine enough to be used for writing. It’s used for drawing lines, adding shading and texture, and dotting. The brush strokes chosen by each painter gives his or her work a unique rhythm and beauty.

    The type of ink used in a painting is also very important, ranging from the glossiness of a thick ink to the translucence of a thin one. Artists use both to create a balance between brightness and darkness, and density and lightness. Paintings may be done either on Chinese paper (sometimes called rice paper) or silk. Since paper absorbs ink better than silk, this choice has a strong affect on how the painting looks.

    Popular subjects for modern Chinese painting include horses, bamboo, flowers and birds. Often the paintings are not an exact representation of these items--using very simple lines paired with splashes of vibrant color, the artist simply suggests the item and fills in the rest with mood and emotion.
                                                                           Painting by Maolin Zhang

    Anna Mei got her first name from her Danish grandmother. In Cartoon Girl, she bakes a batch of her grandmother’s traditional Danish spice cookies. Next time you’re looking for a change from your usual chocolate chip or peanut butter recipes, try a batch of these (you don't have to be able to pronounce them)!

    Grandmother Anna’s Krydderikager
    ½ cup soft butter
    ½ cup sugar
    1 egg, beaten
    ¾ teaspoon baking soda
    ½ cup boiling water
    ½ cup molasses
    2½ cups flour, sifted
    ½ teaspoon salt
    ½ teaspoon cinnamon
    ½ teaspoon allspice
    ½ teaspoon cloves

    Cream butter and sugar, then add the egg. Stir baking soda into the boiling water and add molasses. Beat the water mixture into the creamed mixture.

    Sift the flour and spices together. Add flour to the mixture until you have a stiff dough. Roll some of the dough out on a lightly floured board to about ¼ inch thick. Cut into shapes. (Grandmother Anna would have used shapes from nature, such as birds, trees and stars.)

    Place shapes on greased cookie sheets and let chill at least 1 hour, up to overnight. Bake about 12-15 minutes in a preheated 375ยบ oven. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

    In Cartoon Girl, one of the items Anna Mei shares with her classmates during her heritage presentation is a costume like the one her Chinese ancestors would have worn.

    Qipao is a traditional, centuries-old style of clothing that looks like a collarless, tube-shaped gown, meant to display women's modesty and softness. Like all Chinese clothing, both beauty and simplicity are important in its design. It is typically loosely fitted, reaching from neck to foot, with two slits at either side of the hem for ease of movement. The collar is high, not only for warmth but for beauty. The buttonhole loop is an important finishing touch. The most beautiful Qipaos are made of silk with embroidered trim at the collar and sleeves.

    Today Qipaos are worn in both urban and rural areas. There is a wide variety of styles, including some that are short or that have no collars at all. Anna Mei’s adoptive parents bought hers in Changsha, China, when she was a baby. As she explains, “They wanted me to have some special things that came from the place I was born.”
                                                                                            Image from

    One of Anna Mei's new classmates in Cartoon Girl is Danny Gallagher. Danny likes to draw and is a big fan of Japanese-style art. The animated type of this art is called "anime," which sounds just like "Anna Mei." That's why he gives her the nickname "Cartoon Girl."

    Here's a short essay about anime and its non-animated partner, manga:

    "Anime" in Japan technically means any animated film, and "manga" is any printed cartoon, but people in the rest of the world take them to mean animated films or comics from Japan. Though there are many fine works of manga and anime being produced in many places around the world, its main features, such as simple lines and stylized features, are distinctly Japanese.

    The style is distinctive and fairly easy to recognize. This is not to say it is limiting. Within this broad common stylistic ground, each manga artist's technique is distinct and unique. The stereotype is of characters with huge hair and large eyes, but there are many, many variations. There is less emphasis on the "superhero" world than in the U.S. Anime and manga characters are allowed to grow and develop. Even in worlds that exist in the far future, or long ago, the reader is drawn into a 3-dimensional character, one who is far from perfect, one who has stupid little habits or major character flaws, and who has hopes and dreams that the reader can sympathize with.

    Unlike some American super heroes, who often seem to just go around defeating Evil, Japanese characters usually have other goals in life that play large themes within their lives. I heard recently the characterization that manga and anime are "character oriented." The more I think about, the more I think this is the right description. Characters aren't forced into plots, like a foot into a too-tight shoe; instead, stories grow out of the characters. The heart of manga and anime is in the hearts of the characters.

    The best manga and anime are true gems that should not be missed—little portals into other worlds that will entertain, educate, and delight.

    Adapted from Eri Izawa, copyright 1995 with revisions in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005
    Anna Mei, Cartoon Girl cover art by Wayne Alfano