The Story behind Pony Summer

                For years I watched a lovely young girl struggle to overcome the burden of being overweight. It damped her enthusiasm for all the fun things she did. I could see that her diet was part of the problem. She continued to “eat like a horse” as the saying goes. Then a dear friend had a horse that got into a feed barrel full of a highly nutritious mix of grains and ate her way into a severe bloat. The poor animal was down for the count. I watched while a determined veterinarian struggled to save its life. From these experiences, PONY SUMMER was born.

              Being overweight can be solved; the love of horses helps. In my story, the heroine’s name is Kelly. She grew up being overweight and always feeling too big. To make matters worse, her younger sister, Rae, was a petite ballet dancer. But Kelly loved horses and remembered the first time she got to ride horseback and experienced the delicious feeling of being little. From then on, horses were a dream she never forgot.

             One morning she woke up and heard the sound of neighing. She rushed out to see where the sound came from and discovered that the vacant lot next door was being turned into a fenced pasture. Just like that, horses were back in Kelly’s life. Not just one horse, but two, Charlie Brown and Thunder. She got a job keeping their water barrel full and slowly learned to care for her two magnificent charges. She worked hard to earn the trust of the owners and eventually was allowed to manage the feed barrel. One night there was a big storm and a fallen tree branch knocked the lid off the feed barrel.  With the lid gone, Thunder “ate like a horse” and soon floundered from severe bloat. Kelly was awakened by Charley Brown’s terrified neighing and was able to get help for Thunder’s dramatic rescue. Her dual reward, a pony of her very own and the motivation to master her weight problem, gives the story a satisfying ending.


The Story behind Pemba Sherpa

         A book like Pemba Sherpa didn’t just happen. It took a lofty vision of a real Shangri-La, a burning desire to experience the Himalayan mountains up close and in person, and the good fortune of finding a Publisher like Barbara Ciletti whose odyssey is to “dream big”. Eventually, all these elements came together when I trekked the foothills of Everest a few years ago. A series of mishaps plagued the experience, but they also led me to discover the children of Khumjung. Above all, they taught me the importance of learning to turn life’s lemons into lemonade.
         So, let me begin at the beginning.  
         I have always had an inclination to be adventurous. When I was eleven, I started stealing cars. In those days, people never took the keys out of the ignition when they parked downtown at night in St Helena, my hometown in California’s Napa Valley. Every evening, Main Street was lined with automobiles the drivers left unattended while they socialized in the bars.  To a preteen like me, an unattended automobile was an open invitation to hop into the driver’s seat and go for a spin. That’s how I learned to drive, stick-shift and all.
         As an adult, the Himalayan range of mountains topped by Everest was also an open invitation I dared to dream about. When the chance came to go trekking on the Everest foothills, I never hesitated. I was one of an independent group of three women who boarded the plane to Kathmandu with a slim budget, a wealth of enthusiasm, and our own agenda. We packed lightly, carrying only the bare necessities for a three week adventure.
         The first mishap happened the day we took off.  I came down with a cold. By the time we landed in Kathmandu two days later, I was so congested that it felt as if had a yak sitting on my chest. Then came the second mishap; we learned that our flight to Lukla, the only airstrip part way up to Namche Bazaar, had been accidentally cancelled. That meant we had to walk all the way from Kathmandu. By walk, I mean twelve hours a day, from 6 am to 6 pm, as fast as we could manage, with no rest breaks. The real trekking began after Namche Bazaar, which is the village where everyone stops to acclimate themselves before heading for the higher elevations of Everest.
         The next mishap was to learn that most of the food offered at the guest houses along the trail was made with yak fat, and I am a vegetarian. None of the books we read about trekking in the Himalays had mentioned yak fat. So my daily diet for those three weeks, with few exceptions, was a choice of boiled garlic or boiled tomatoes.  About three days into our trek, I was coughing so severely that I had to stop to catch my breath every ten steps. Obviously, I couldn’t go on. My two companions very reluctantly left me at a small guest house in the care of a guide with strict orders to walk no more than four hours a day to reach Lukla where we could catch a plane to fly back to Kathmandu. Meanwhile, my companions continued up to Namche Bazaar and beyond without me.
         The owner of the guest house where they left me had two little daughters about seven to nine years old, both very eager to practice the few words of English they knew. They were quite concerned with my constant coughing. Using mostly sign language, they told me that their father would make a special medicine for me if I was willing to try it. It was made from a root that grew in the mountains and would make me well. Of course I said yes. At that point I was willing to try anything. The little girls took off, and two hours later came back with their father holding a tall glass of what looked like Pepto Bismol. (I named it “Pepto Dismal”!) He handed the glass to me, then he and the little girls sat on the empty cot in my room and waited for me to start drinking.
         The first sip puckered my mouth so firmly-shut that I couldn’t pry it open it.  The concoction wasn’t just bitter. It was vile, acrid, and astringent all at the same time. With three pairs of eyes focused on me, I managed to take a few more swallows. Then the telephone rang and my audience hurried off, leaving me free to empty the glass in the pee-pot under my bed.
         I know it sounds it sounds totally unbelievable, but when I woke up the next morning, I was well, absolutely well. No cough, no congestion, no debility. It was as if I had never been sick.  From then on, I walked the legs off my guide. I insisted on bypassing Lukla and continued at top speed all the way to Namche Bazaar. I arrived in time to greet my two companions coming back from the base camp they had managed to reach.
         They were in dire need of help.  One of them had suffered a severe handicap. She had contacted an intestinal disease and was too weak to walk. We found lodging for the night and the next morning I took off by myself to find the small hospital located somewhere up beyond the village of Khumjung to get some medicine. Of course, there was no trail for me to follow, no markers, no exact directions. Just go up, keep going up, I was told.  I had no choice. As soon as possible, our bed-ridden companion had to be able to walk down to Lukla so she could be flown to the hospital in Kathmandu. There is no way off the Himalayan mountain  except by walking or flying. So while I started walking up in search of the hospital, the other member of our group started walking down  to Lukla in hopes of catching a plane and eventually meet us in Kathmandu.
         It was when I was hurrying uphill toward Khumjung that I met the school children carrying their basket loads of wood. They were so happy, so cheerful, and so young. With their lilting voices they welcomed me to their world.  “Namaste! Namaste!”  They were not being forced to carry out a burdensome chore. They were on a joyful mission! They were on the road to Shangri-La.  In their eyes, they were in training to become Sherpas. This was their special privilege. The cost of hauling wood day after day was a fair price to pay for it. Sure, they were born in an isolated village on this daunting mountain range, but that was the lemon life had handed them. And when life hands you a lemon, if you are a Tibetan child, you make lemonade.
         The village of Khumjung now has a web page, but when I found it, it was an impossible settlement in an impossible setting.  The children were impossibly innocent. The daily responsibility of gathering wood for the stove in that classroom was also impossible.  Nevertheless, to the Tibetan children living in exile in Nepal, it was simply what you did in order to go to school. 
         Your one hope in life was to become a Sherpa. Those early morning trips down the trail past Jorsale and up again with your load of wood gave you a chance to develop the physical stamina you would need to reach the summit.  It gave you the opportunity to learn to speak other languages, especially English which was a must. It was only on the trails that you met the climbers and their entourage heading for Everest.  You could engage them in conversation. They were your introduction to the outer world you knew so little about. Being a Sherpa made you somebody. It gave the Tibetan people an added level of world-wide recognition. No matter who you were or where you came from, without the help of Sherpas, neither the ascent nor the ultimate goal to summit Everest was even remotely possible.  
         Can you imagine being a girl-child in that setting? It’s hard enough to rise above a glass ceiling, but Everest is much more than a glass ceiling…. or even a class ceiling! It is all the reasons girls are expected to be subservient rolled into one. The reasons can be real or imaginary; both are equally debilitating. They mean that you are “only a woman”. Yang Ki was only a girl. She wasn’t trying to take from Pemba his glorious opportunity to become somebody. She was just asking to share it. Equally!
         Inspired by the school children heading for Khumjung, I managed to find the hospital where yet another mishap occurred. The one doctor on duty did not have enough medicine on hand to give me more than a very small amount, much too small to help my companion get well.  He was not sure when he would get a new supply. I had no choice but to run back down to Namche Bazaar empty handed.
         I told our gentle Tibetan host what had happened. His name was Anu. I will never forget Anu. Without hesitation, he made a quick decision that he needed supplies from Kathmandu and promptly telephoned for the order to be flown in that very day. Then he arranged for a young man who owned a horse to take my companion via horseback up to a makeshift air strip part way up the trail I had just descended.  
         When we got there, we waited on that barren hillside for about an hour while I paced back and forth. Then suddenly we heard the sound of a plane coming in for a landing.  It was the small plane delivering Anu’s supplies which were quickly unloaded leaving just enough room for my companion and me to climb aboard.      
         That flight back from Namche Bazaar in a small plane was the sweetest lemonade I have ever tasted. The sky was clear and bright. The view was beyond words, beyond description, beyond imagining. The pilot flew just above the peaks, naming each one as we passed so close we were surrounded on all sides. I can’t recall the order in which the massive peaks appeared, but the sight of each one is as unforgettable as the children of Khumjung. Talk about a treat! It was almost too sweet to be true.
         So that is my “story behind the story” of Pemba Sherpa.
         It is my privilege to having been able to climb high enough to see what I saw, and to have survived.  Being a girl-child, I knew I had to write about Pemba and his little sister, Yang Ki. Being an author, I knew it would be an uphill climb, one I would face many times. That process took ten years to realize.  I wrote it, and re-wrote it.  Eventually, I met Barbara at Odyssey Books and began writing it again.  It evolved into the story you can read today, illustrated so gloriously by Gary Bernard.  I offer it to you as librarians, and teachers, and readers, and entrust it to you to share with children everywhere, children in desperate need of a recipe for turning life’s lemons into lemonade. 


The Story behind FIRE MATE

     When I was a young girl, my sister and I decided to pick prunes to earn money to buy bicycles. The foreman in the orchard was a Pomo Indian, a wonderful storyteller named Unkazula. I listened to Unkazula's stories about the Great One, and even though I did not know what was happening, my soul fire was kindled by his words. By the end of the summer, my sister had her bike and I had a lifelong feeling for the ancient spirit of Native American People. Their suffering became my suffering. Their lost dreams became my lost dreams.
     Years later, when "Island of the Blue Dolphins" was filmed at our campground in Anchor Bay, I worked as an Indian "extra" and joined the Pomo Indian tribe who portrayed the Native American people rescued from the Channel Islands off the coast of California. For weeks, I spent hours with Mamie Laiwa, the matriarch of the Pomos and a very spiritual woman. She wove stories with the same delicate skill with which she wove Indian baskets. Perhaps it was she who told me the legend of the Great One who leads seekers to find their fire mate. Perhaps I heard it in the circle of my own all-oneness. I do know that listening to her Pomo storytelling kindled my soul-fire, and I lived the legend that became the basis for my book, Fire Mate.
    Who are the Pomo Indian who lived in harmony with this land
for at least 10,000 years before the white man came? They are small clusters of people who spoke similar languages and shared the same geographic locations. They roamed freely through most of what is now Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino and Glenn Counties,  from Clear Lake to Colusa. They are the only really native Californians. Today the Pomo live per force on "reservations” such as the Manchester Point Arena Rancheria where Mamie Laiwa lived. Conditions on this Rancheria are not ideal. I feel great pain for our Native Americans, not only for what we did to them years ago, but for what we are still doing to them. The way of life they are forced into is foreign to their heritage, their culture, their spirit. Their native instincts are confused by the white man's moral standards, or lack of them. Somehow they must find the trail that leads to the circle of their all-oneness. It is my hope that Walakea's story will guide their footsteps as it has guided mine.

The Story behind 'ORLANDA'

My father was full of life, full of hell, fun-lovinq and a workaholic. Papa was also a flamboyant chef and a talented storyteller. In a word, he was Italian.
Even when we were teenagers, my older sister and I would climb in bed with my parents every morning and listen to Papa tell stories. He had a repertoire which we insisted he tell over and over. He didn't just tell stories. He acted them bed! Mama listened and laughed with us.
One of my favorites was the tale of a contest held in Naples to choose the Champion Thief of the World. Papa's name was Orlando, so when I re-wrote the story for publication I made the main character a girl named Orlanda. Of course, she came from Porcari, just like Papa. I think he would have liked that.

The manuscript for ORLANDA AND THE CONTEST OF THIEVES was accepted by Barbara Ciletti, the editor-in-chief at Bookmakers Guild. Barbara is Italian and a fine editor. She loved the daring deeds of the contestants, and the wit of Zarmida, the mayor's wife, whose name came from my two beloved aunts, Armida and Zelmira.
Barbara chose Tom Sarmo to illustrate the story, knowing he was a sensitive artist and would capture the ethnic flavor of the characters. To ensure this, she gave him an Italian family album. All the faces he drew came from that album.
I couldn't tell Papa’s story without weaving Mama into the plot just as she was woven into the fabric of their marriage and my life. So, enter Filomena on paqe six. I know Papa would have liked that.
When Bookmakers closed its doors, ORLANDA AND THE CONTEST OF THIEVES became the property of Pelican Publishers where it lived happily for several years. Now I have the pleasure of offering the book at author's cost. Each copy I autograph gives me the chance to affirm my Italian connection.


all rights reserved 2011 - Olga Cossi