Book Review

By Melissa Arnold

One can hardly travel a half block on Long Island without seeing a bag of Tate’s Bake Shop cookies, but that’s not a bad thing. The ubiquitous green bags are a sure sign of impending happiness.

Tate’s Bake Shop founder Kathleen King opened her first bakery when she was just 21 years old. The dream began long before that, though. Young Kathleen baked her signature thin and crispy cookies from age 11 on, selling them at her father Tate’s East End farmstand and using the profits to buy new school clothes each year. Today, the multi-million-dollar business has made Tate’s a nationwide favorite. 

This summer, King released a children’s picture book called Cookie Queen: How One Girl Started Tate’s Bake Shop [Random House] co-written with Lowey Bundy Sichol and illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki. It’s King’s first book for children — she also has two cookbooks of baked goods.

Cookie Queen is an autobiographical reflection of Tate’s humble beginnings in a simple home kitchen. Young Kathleen is tired of the puffy and gooey cookies she sees everywhere — what she really wants is a thin, crispy cookie, But King’s process of trial and error shows young readers that reaching a goal isn’t always quick or easy. Kathleen makes batches and batches of cookies that she doesn’t like, experimenting and struggling to find the perfect recipe.

These important lessons of patience, hard work and following your dreams are coupled with beautiful illustrations from Kaulitzki. She captures the sprawling farm, Kathleen’s house and the family’s market with polished, detailed scenes. Little ones will enjoy pointing out farm animals, a house cat, a tractor and other thoughtful extras.

At the end of the book, older readers can learn about the real Tate’s Bake Shop with an easy to digest, single page history. Perhaps the best inclusion is Kathleen and Tate’s personal recipe for molasses cookies to make at home. Who knows, maybe a young reader in your life might discover their own love of baking.

My godchildren, ages 4 and 2, were big fans of the book when I read it to them. No surprise there — after all, what kid wouldn’t like a book about cookies? That said, the vocabulary and overall message would be better understood by elementary school readers. 

Age aside, this book is best enjoyed as a family, then immediately followed by some hands-on time together in the kitchen, especially with dessert-heavy holidays approaching. To order, visit, or your favorite online retailer.

Two Faces of the Moon: A Small Island Memoir

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Carolyn McGrath’s Two Faces of the Moon: A Small Island Memoir [Brandylane Publishers, Inc.] first presents as an idyllic echo of the natural world. And while the book touches on the bounty and splendor of nature, the work is much more. Two Faces is a rich, sometimes dark, but wholly truthful familial reflection.

Author Carolyn McGrath

While written during the pandemic, Two Faces of the Moon takes place in 2001, the year of her nonagenarian mother’s passing. McGrath establishes the tone by opening with her delivery by cesarean section—“lifted into the world unsullied by the normal push and pull.”

McGrath’s storytelling is boldly unsentimental. She was born to a mother of thirty-six and a father of forty-seven, a man who had a daughter from a marriage twenty years earlier. McGrath lost her father when she was seventeen but found herself constantly drawn to this “troubled man, an alcoholic, a heavy smoker, a war veteran, whose great talent for cussing often caused my mother to cover my ears. A father who clearly wished he had a son instead.” 

The statement paves the way for years of rumination about their thorny relationship, explored throughout this slender, powerful autobiography. While many works of this nature err towards the hagiographic, McGrath is unflinching and frank in her account.

Each summer, McGrath leaves her Long Island suburban home to drive five hundred miles north to Bob’s Lake, Ontario. There, she spends several months living in the 1926-built log cabin her father bought in 1937 for $400. Life is rustic, with an outhouse and a four-burner kerosene stove. She must drive to the nearby farm to draw drinking water from a well. She is accompanied by her dog, Blue, and is joined by the neighbor’s dog, Ring. 

While pondering the saying, “You could never go home again,” she answers: “The trick is to have two homes and never really leave either. I leave home to come home every summer and find it just the same.”

While the book delves into the history of the island, the house, and the lake, Two Faces of the Moon is, first and foremost, a tale of family. McGrath’s vivid, distinctly raw prose recalls the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” She alternates between the 2001 narrative in present tense and musings on her parents’ lives. The intersection creates friction that leads to constant sparks of insight. 

She celebrates her isolation. “The delicious feeling I have of being alone here is nothing like loneliness.” She examines the motivations for these journeys: “I discovered my craving for solitude when I realized that I was losing myself. There must be many wives like me who feel their lives were commandeered by the demands of marriage and family.” While directly referencing her parents, family, and friends, she never speaks of her husband by name. 

For all the things she admired about her father, she was afraid of him and felt “as a role model, my dad was terrible.” The outdoorsman focused on fishing, hunting, and frogging. “Guns were like wallpaper while I was growing up.” She aimed to please him but was also aware of the complexity of their bond.

In the present, she details visiting her elderly, ailing mother in the nursing home located an hour from the cabin. She paints one of the most vivid and heart-breaking portraits of aging, with a painfully accurate depiction of dementia. Her reaction to her mother’s passing and its aftermath is one of the most insightful moments in the book.

“While I’m here in the cabin, I feel I’m with both of my parents. My dad’s presence is everywhere […] my mother’s apron still hangs behind the kitchen door…” She shares her parents’ histories, scrutinizing their paths as a tool to reflect on her own choices. She accomplishes this without judgment but with a keen self-awareness. “It seems to me that children are born to be conflicted,” asking the questions: “Which parent do you love more? Fear more? Respect more?”

Living on the island is meditative, her own Walden Pond. And while she examines her life, she never loses the chance to be at one with her surroundings. “I wake up to the sound of Ervin’s cattle lowing lazily across the bay, where they’ve come down to drink. Through the window, I watch seven young ducklings following their momma […] all moving as one large duck atom, no sound. Song sparrows have hatchlings in a tree cavity …” 

Her world is a strange mix of stillness and teeming activity, allowing her to think, wonder, and, above all, feel. McGrath imparts wisdom and fallibility in equal measures. In short, she movingly presents a human being in all her dimensions. McGrath knows a long life comes with “pleasures and rewards, its booby traps and tortures.” She shares her experiences, trials, triumphs, and perspectives in the honest, sometimes lyrical, and always memorable Two Faces of the Moon.


Carolyn McGrath has a degree in classics from the University of Iowa and an MA in creative writing from Stony Brook University in New York where she taught for years in the Department of English and directed the Stony Brook $1000 Short Fiction Prize. She now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Two Faces of the Moon is available on, and at Barnes & Noble.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport presents Storytime Under the Stars in the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium on Sunday, Aug. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. Sponsored by Bank of America, Storytime evenings feature a live narrator at the front of the theater who reads from selected picture books, with pages projected onto the Planetarium dome so families can enjoy the illustrations and follow along. Between stories, an astronomy educator explores seasonal constellations visible from here on Long Island.

Author Ellen Mason will read her book, Patches and Stripes, one of four scheduled that evening. In it, she and co-author—and Vanderbilt Museum colleague—Ed Clampitt, tell the true story of a family that lost an heirloom during a Museum visit. That tale, in which the heirloom eventually “turned up,” is one the authors call “Vanderbilt magic.” 

Mason, a Museum tour guide, and Clampitt, a member of the security staff, will do a book signing in the Planetarium lobby after the show.

All children are invited to wear their comfiest pajamas and bring their favorite stuffed animal. The admission fee is $8 per person and $6 for members. To reserve your spot, visit or pay at the door. For more information, call 631-864-5532.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Sarah Beth Durst’s over two dozen books include writings for children, teenagers, and adults, many in the fantasy genre. Among the prolific author’s works are The Bone Maker, The Deepest Blue, The Stone Girl’s Story, and Even and Odd (all reviewed in this paper). With The Lake House (HarperTeen), Durst has crafted a first-rate young adult thriller.

Author Sarah Beth Durst

The novel follows three teenagers sent to an “enrichment retreat” in Maine, a place to “learn new skills, have new experiences, make new friends.” Claire Dreyer is the center: “Claire excelled at three things: ballet, homework, and identifying all the ways there were to die in any given situation.” Claire’s self-awareness is both insightful and crippling. “[She] thought longingly of her bedroom with all her books and a door that closed everyone out.” Ultimately, she hopes the opportunity to be “a new Claire here, a never-before-seen version of herself who made friends easily and didn’t freak out about every little thing.”

Two contemporaries join Claire. The pessimistic Reyva Chaudhari doesn’t “do performative emotions.” But, after some prodding, she discloses her passion: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting—an endeavor that turns out to be of great value. Reyva’s wry humor and tendency to find amusement in the darker possibilities contrasts with Claire’s need for constant order. Mariana Ortiz-Rodriguez, a Californian transplant, is the perkiest of the three. Fascinated by cars and engines, her skills become vital in the climax. 

All three share complex backgrounds with various parental pressures and complicated home lives. Their parents make choices they perceive as good for their offspring but often fail consideration of their children’s emotional needs. As they venture forward, the girls reveal secrets, voicing fears they have never previously shared. Their vulnerability strengthens their bond, allowing for a genuine evolution of well-placed trust. 

Insightfully—and with no malice—Mariana evaluates Reyva: “My guess: your parents have opinions on what you’re allowed to feel, as well as what you do, and so you respond by controlling what you show the world. Do you want us to think nothing phases you? Fact is, you care a lot, and you’re terrified that someone will realize it and use it against you. Like, you know, I’m doing right now.”

The girls arrive at the end of June, planning to remain through the end of August. A young man, Jack, takes them to the island on his boat, leaving them on the shore. They hike the short distance up a trail to discover the Lake House burned, with the charred remains still smoking. With no cell service or communication with the outside world, the trio contemplates their short- and long-term fates. They discover a dead body in the surrounding woods: a woman dead from a gunshot from an unknown assailant. 

Secluded in a national forest, miles from civilization, they face natural trials: dehydration, starvation, insects, and weather. Additionally, they must accept that they are not alone and are targets of one or even two dangerous island inhabitants. 

Eventually, Durst introduces a fascinating supernatural element. The malevolence merges a camp ghost legend and the concept of “the sins of the father.” Their struggle combines “the strain of the lack of food, and the constant supply of fear.” 

Durst quickly ratchets up the tension, plunging into a face-paced narrative fraught with challenges and revelations. Fortunately, she writes about people, not tropes. As in all her work, the characters have dimension and texture—recognizable but individual. 

While The Lake House is a thriller, it portrays perseverance and rising to extraordinary circumstances. The story lives not in the isolation of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or the savagery of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. It avoids the world of Mean Girls and Robinson Crusoe. Instead, the book celebrates the ability to thrive on mutual reliance. The mantra is “stick together, and we’ll survive,” and Claire, Reyva, and Mariana grow because they see themselves through the eyes of others—companions who value their potential.

The Lake House offers three strong young women facing a range of demons, both personal and real, in a location that is both doom and destiny. Finally, they learn, “I am enough exactly as I am.” Durst, a gifted storyteller, neatly balances thrills and introspection in this entertaining and engaging story.


Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of over twenty books for kids, teens, and adults. She lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat. Pick up a copy of The Lake House online at or For more information, visit

Noted Poet-Farmer reflects on ‘Soil and Spirit’
On Thursday, June 1, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centeport  will host Scott Chaskey, poet-farmer and pioneer of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, for a presentation of his latest memoir, Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life (Milkweed Editions, 2023).
Scott Chaskey. Photo by Lindsay Morris

As a farmer with decades spent working in the fields, Chaskey’s worldview has been shaped by daily attention to the earth. His career as a writer has been influenced by these experiences, showing a profound commitment to the promotion of food sovereignty and organic agriculture. In both writing and farming, his efforts have been animated by a central conviction—namely, that humble attention to microbial life provides us with invaluable lessons for building healthy human communities.

Soil and Spirit is a collection of personal essays, mapping the evolution of Chaskey’s thoughts on ecology, agriculture, and society through decisive moments in his biography. In its pages, he takes readers to his original homestead in Maine; the rugged Irish countryside, complete with blackberries, heather, and Nobel-Prize-winning poets; the ancient granite cliffs of the Cornwall coastline; Santa Clara, New Mexico, where he harvested amaranth seeds alongside a group of indigenous women; and finally, to Amagansett, in Suffolk County, where he recalls planting Redwood saplings and writing poetry beneath a centuries-old beech tree.

The lecture will take place at 7:00 pm in the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium. Tickets are available here. Support for the lecture series is generously provided by a grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation.

About the lecturer:

Scott Chaskey is the author of Soil and Spirit. He is also the author of a memoir, This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm, and a book of nonfiction, Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics, and Promise of Seeds. His poetry, first printed in literary journals in the early seventies, has been widely published over four decades.

A pioneer of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, for thirty years he cultivated more than sixty crops for the Peconic Land Trust at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, New York, one of the original CSAs in the country. He is the past president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York and was honored as Farmer of the Year in 2013.

Chaskey was a founding board member for both the Center for Whole Communities, in Vermont, and Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, in Shelter Island, New York. He taught as a poet-in-the-schools for over two decades and as an instructor for Antioch International and Friends World College in Southampton. He lives and works on the east end of Long Island, New York.


'Shadows We Carry'

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Meryl Ain’s debut novel, The Takeaway Men (2020), focused on immigrants Aron and Edyta (Judy) Lubinksi and their twin daughters, Bronka and Johanna. Refugees from Hitler’s Europe, the family settles with Aron’s cousins in Bellerose, Queens. 

Author Meryl Ain

The absorbing story traced their struggles with adjusting to the new world and the burdens and guilt related to survival. Dealing with both the aftermath of the Nazi genocide and the rising Red Scare during the Cold War, The Takeaway Men offered a vivid portrait of a family in transition and ends in 1962.

Ain’s sequel, Shadows We Carry (SparkPress) picks up a year later for a brief prologue on the day of President Kennedy’s assignation. As the teenage Bronka states: “This is the end of the world … Nothing will ever be the same again.” 

In Shadows We Carry, Ain focuses on Bronka, the more serious of the twins. The narrative follows the young woman’s journey from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Ain once again displays her deft gift for presenting the intersection of historical events and cultural awareness. 

The sisters are a portrait in contrast. Bronka studies history and political science, aspiring to a career in journalism. Johanna (called “JoJo”) studies music education but has no desire to teach. However, her musical theatre dreams are derailed by a pregnancy, leading to an alternately fulfilling and frustrating married life.

Bronka’s odyssey takes her through a range of personal and professional obstacles. A well-drawn character, complicated yet likable, she is a good but flawed individual, often getting in her own way—a case of wrong for the right reasons. Even with her strong Jewish identity, she tends to seek romance with unavailable men. The first is Ned, the Queen’s College newspaper editor-in-chief and a graduating senior. Later, she falls for a priest, the charismatic Father Stan. Even more importantly, Bronka represents the pull between career and homemaking: her passion for making a life in the news world versus her desire for a traditional family constantly battles. 

Shadows We Carry also emphasizes the age of rebellion, reflecting an era of burgeoning self-discovery. Bronka’s neighbor and lifelong friend, Mindy, a middle-class version of anti-establishment, confronts Bronka with a hard truth: “Look, my mother and Tina Rosen and her sisters will all end up in boxes. It’s up to you whether you do or not. I think both of you could go either way. But I sure as hell will not. I’m going to find a different path. But first, I have to find out who I really am.”

In search of self, Bronka is unsure of her niche. Too intellectually curious to accept a narrow conservative marriage, she is conversely uncomfortable with the free-love, drug-taking hippie element. She constantly faces less than thinly veiled chauvinism and misogyny. 

Ain’s gift is the ability to veer from domestic drama to social and political issues. Whether addressing the mother’s Catholic heritage but embracement of Judaism (or the priest’s mirrored journey), she delves into the psychological turmoil of her characters. 

Mother Judy clings to an outdated vision of what women can be, subsuming her dreams to the needs of her often taciturn and haunted husband, Aron. Residuals of the Communist Witch Hunt and the search for Nazi War criminals play out against the age of the Viet Nam War. 

Canvassing for Eugene McCarthy, along with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, are affecting milestones. The beginning of the AIDS crisis is touched upon in a subtle but powerful stroke.

An interesting event occurs in 1973 when Bronka covers the renaming of the Nazi streets in Yaphank’s Fatherland Gardens. She is accompanied by a photographer unaware of his father’s direct connection to Auschwitz. 

If The Takeaway Men focuses on the immigrant experience in the post-1945 world, then Shadows We Carry highlights the assimilating America of the 1960s and early 1970s. Its quick, taut chapters reflect the peripatetic and energetic pacing of the latter part of the 20th century. A book of identity, it asks the twin questions “Can you ever escape history?” and “Can you ever escape your history?” 

A smart and welcome coming-of-age novel, Shadows We Carry is available on

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Honor the past. Embrace the present. Look to the future.

Beverly C. Tyler is the author of multiple works focusing on local history. These include Founders Day, Down the Ways—The Wooden Ship Era, and Setauket and Brookhaven History (all reviewed in this paper). Tyler now turns his eye to a detailed history of Setauket’s Caroline Episcopal Church, which is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year.

Front cover of book

The book is an excellent blend of the historical and the personal. In one- and two-page sections, Tyler covers everything from the church’s construction to its pastoral care ministry. Sunday school, past and present, and the church’s choir are presented. Tyler traverses the many milestones centered around religious, societal life: baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals. The many facets of the church—Bible study, eucharist, caregiver and grief support groups—are all mentioned. Caroline Church is a rich resource for those connected to the church and may also serve as a model for those looking to preserve a civic organization. Detailed lists and a plethora of dates are neatly organized throughout the entire volume. 

The book shares letters from clergy alongside personal reflections. In his message, Reverend Canon Richard Visconti expresses his gratitude for his connection to Caroline Church: “Your faithfulness in worship, your extension of Christ’s healing touch to a broken world within the community, year after, is a testimony to the goodness and blessing of God … May Caroline Church continue to grow in its mission to help all live transformed lives for Christ.” The Rev. Nickolas Clay Griffith suggests to have “one foot planted in the Anglican tradition and the other foot working to … reach for the opportunities where we can be people of Christ in the world today.”  

Parishioners tell of what drew them to the church (or, in some cases, back to it). The theme of family is often celebrated. Given two full pages is “Caroline During COVID.” This chronicle shows how the church adapted and persevered in a challenging and difficult time where streaming and social distancing became the necessary norm. 

Back cover of book

Rev. Sharon Sheridan Hausman strikes a gardening metaphor in her piece, referencing growth in “vines,” “seeds,” and “root.” Colleen Cash-Madeira opens with the Swedish saying, “Even the devil gets religion in old age.” The twenty-nine-year-old then discusses church attendance as “exposure to a set of tools: faith, hope, compassion, community.” 

Tyler gives an in-depth but concise history of the inception of Caroline Church. In “How It All Began,” he starts at the end of the seventeenth century and continues through 1730.

Cleverly, the author has inserted a timeline ribbon across the top of each page. He begins on April 14, 1655, with the English settlement of the town of Setauket. The entries culminate in 2021, with the installation of Rev. Griffith; Camp DeWolfe’s celebration of its seventy-fifth anniversary (2022); and the church’s marking of its third century (2023).

And like with all of Tyler’s previous works, the book is replete with hundreds of photos as well as historical paintings and sketches. The images alone carry much of the church’s story. The last page is particularly fascinating: a re-imagined eighteenth-century prayer service, shown in six photos, including video projections.

Perhaps the best summation is in Henry Hull’s final couplets of An Ode to Caroline Church:

So here’s to the Clergy and Vestries, too

They have led all the flocks of communicants who

Have passed through the portal of dear Caroline

And have lived, loved and learned in a way most divine.

Copies of the book are available for sale at the Caroline Episcopal Church office, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. For more information, please call 631-941-4245. 

A creative writing and drawing contest that started back in 2014 at Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket is still going strong in 2023. 

Each year, those in grades 7 to 12 who reside in the Three Village Central School District let their imaginations flow and create an original picture book for children in hopes of winning this esteemed prize. 

On April 24, Emma Clark Library board members and staff, the family of the late Helen Stein Shack, local elected officials, representatives from the Three Village Central School District and The Stony Brook School, and guests from the community gathered at the Library to honor the winners of the ninth annual Helen Stein Shack Picture Book Awards.

First prize in the Grades 7 to 9 category was awarded to Julia Hou, a 9th grader at  Gelinas Junior High School for her children’s book titled Boston Santa while Celia Gordon, a homeschooled 11th grader, captured first prize in the Grades 10 to 12 category for her book Sleeping Till Spring.

Caroline Qian, an 8th grader at Gelinas Junior High School, won second prize for her children’s book Cutie the Duck in the Grades 7 to 9 category and Amelia Grant, a 12th grader at The Stony Brook School, snagged second prize in the Grades 10 to 12 category for her book Lily’s Snowman.

Library Director Ted Gutmann, along with the family of the late Helen Stein Shack, presented all of the winners’ books, bound and added to the Library’s Local Focus Collection, along with $400 checks to first prize winners and $100 checks for second prize winners.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, Brookhaven Town Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich, Brookhaven Town Clerk Kevin LaValle (representing Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine), and staff members from NYS Senator Anthony Palumbo and NYS Assemblyman Ed Flood’s office were all in attendance to present certificates to the four authors.

Addressing the winners, Leg. Hahn remarked, “You clearly have talent and that’s what storytelling is…it’s sharing what’s in your heart for others to enjoy and learn from.” 

Councilmember Kornreich told all of the authors what he enjoyed the most about each book and added, “Art is a powerful language … I’m sure all of you will one day have the power to change people’s hearts and change people’s minds and to change the world.”

Town Clerk LaValle added, “It’s amazing what you did. You should be so proud of yourselves.”

Library Board President Christopher Fletcher, Vice President Carol Leister, Treasurer David Douglas, and Trustee Deborah Blair along with Three Village Central School District Trustee Jennifer Solomon, Superintendent Kevin Scanlon, Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services Brian Biscari, Gelinas Junior High School Principal Corinne Keane, Gelinas Junior High English Chair Michelle Hanczor and the Assistant Head of School at The Stony Brook School, Will Lingle were in attendance to congratulate the winners.

Guests enjoyed special treats donated by The Bite Size Bake Shop, a local Three Village-owned business.  Library teen volunteer Jack Dennehy photographed the event.

Library Director Gutmann expressed gratitude to the children of the late Mrs. Shack, who cover the cost of the awards as a tribute to their mother and her commitment to passing along the importance and joy of reading for generations to come. “We appreciate the support of all the family [of Helen Stein Shack] for their generosity in establishing this endowment and for their encouragement of literacy in our community,” he said.

In light of the fact that all of the winners were female this year, Sherry Cleary, one of the daughters of the late Helen Stein Shack, spoke of her mother, not just a mom, grandmother, or teacher, but as a woman:

“She was an amazing woman when being an amazing woman was not encouraged and not acknowledged and not a thing, she came up in an era where women had a lack of opportunities. She was brave, gutsy and really looked convention in the eye, in the face, and decided to do what was in her heart and in her soul. I leave you with that. Be brave. Be gutsy. You already are because you put yourselves out there and did this amazing work.”

See more photos from the event online at

Beef with a copy of Charles Armstrong's book

By Melissa Arnold

Author Charles Armstrong

A few years ago, Smithtown resident Charles Armstrong was looking forward to a long, lazy summer break from high school. Then, everything changed when doctors found a tumor in his brain. He was only 15 years old.

Throughout the course of his intense treatment regimen, Armstrong was comforted and entertained by his family’s sweet new dog, Beef. In fact, Beef had such a special personality that someone suggested he write a book about her.

And that’s exactly what he did. Now 18 and thankfully cancer-free, Armstrong decided to share his story to help other kids with cancer feel a little less alone. His debut book, The Dog Named Beef and Her Superpower, focuses on Beef’s relationship with Charlie as she works to help him feel better. It’s light and approachable for young kids, and includes a note from Armstrong in the back that goes into more detail for older readers. The book has cute illustrations throughout and some real pictures of Beef and her family at the end. Kids stuck in bed will enjoy the activity pages that were wisely included as well.

Did you ever consider writing a book prior to your illness?

I wasn’t much of a creative kid. In fact, I had to take extended English classes because I struggled with it. I always told my parents I hated reading. But then in my junior and senior year of high school, I had a few teachers tell me that they really liked my writing. After my treatment, I realized I actually liked to read and started writing things on my own.

Charles Armstrong and Beef

Did you have any warning signs that something was wrong prior to your diagnosis?

I was out riding my bike with some friends right after school got out for the summer in 2020. It was a hot day, and my head really started to hurt. I had lots of pressure in my head, along with black spots in my vision and nausea. I came home and told my parents, and they figured it was heat exhaustion, but decided to be on the safe side and take me to the doctor. Not long after that, results of the scans came back to show a ping pong ball sized tumor in the center of my brain. It flipped our whole world upside down.

It was a type of tumor called a pineoblastoma. The tumor was causing spinal fluid to build up and I developed hydrocephalus, so I had surgery to address that, and then the biopsy confirmed it was cancer. During a second surgery, they were able to remove 99 percent of the tumor. After that, I had six weeks of radiation and six months of chemo infusions at Stony Brook.

It’s hard for anyone to face cancer, but it’s even rarer for young people to be in that position. Were you lonely?

It was tough because the COVID pandemic was also going on at the time, so there were a lot of restrictions on hospital visitors. But the staff did whatever they could to keep me connected to people while I was in the hospital. I would stay there for four or five days every month as part of my treatment routine. But my mom was able to take time off of work to stay with me, and I was able to use my phone to text with friends.

Did you have pets growing up?

Yes! We had both a cat and a dog when I was younger. My brother has a ferret, and we also have a bird. 

Whose idea was it to get a dog?

It was a family decision. After our first dog passed away, we took some time to grieve and after a while we decided to go to an adoption event at Last Chance Animal Rescue in June of 2020. That’s where we met Beef. My brother and I volunteered there when we were younger.

What drew you to Beef?

She was so timid and hiding in the back of the area, but when we approached her she got so excited and licked our faces. We all fell in love with her right away. Other people were looking at her, but we said, “No way, this is our dog now!” As it happens, she had been up for adoption for several months before we met her. I guess she was waiting for us.

Many animals are known to be very caring, especially when a family member is sick. Did Beef treat you differently?

We hadn’t had her for that long when I got sick, but she could tell that something was wrong in the house. She knew we were distraught, and at night she would always snuggle with me.

How did she help you? Did she affect your family too?

She just always knew what to do to lift me up, whether it was putting her head on my shoulder or chasing her tail to snap me out of a rut. On days when I was feeling okay we would play together. She makes all of us laugh. There’s a scene in the book where she does a handstand, and something very similar to that actually happened. She’s so emotionally intelligent and funny.

Why did you decide to write a book about your experience?

Going through all of the treatment associated with cancer, I had support from so many different directions. I wanted to find a way to provide that support in some way to other kids My cousin’s girlfriend joked that I should write about Beef, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it could help other kids that were going through an illness. Beef is a funny dog, and the story could help them feel some of the love she showed me in that time.

Did you self-publish or use a traditional publisher?

I self-published through Amazon KDP. They made it very simple. It’s a lot of work, but the process was pretty streamlined and it was a great experience overall.

Who is the illustrator?

The illustrator is Inga Buccella. My mom found Inga on Etsy, and she was so enthusiastic about being a part of the book when I told her my story.

What was it like for you when the book arrived?

It felt so surreal to hold it in my hands. It still doesn’t feel real to think of myself as a published author, but it’s great.

How are you doing now? What are you up to?

I had my most recent scans a few months ago, and they showed that I am still cancer free. I work a couple different jobs and am interested in getting into marketing. I’ve been working out a lot and just did my first Spartan race! I also got a chance to be a part of a short student film in New York City.

What is the target age for the book? 

I wanted it to be accessible to as many kids as possible. I think it would be right up the alley of kids between the ages of 3 and 7, though other age groups might find it relatable, too.


The Dog Named Beef and Her Superpower is available now at Keep up with Charles on Instagram @charlesparmstrong, and follow Beef’s antics on TikTok @the_dog_named_beef.

Beyond the Book club members discuss 'In the Heart of the Sea' on March 23

The Whaling Museum & Education Center, 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor  hosted its first session of Beyond the Book club on March 23. This month’s club read the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathanial Philbrick; however anyone that read this book, or anything related to the topic of the Essex including Moby Dick were invited to attend and participate.

Book club members gather around the museum’s whaleboat The Daisy

The club session hosted an audience of over a dozen people from the community including patrons of the Huntington and South Huntington Libraries who attend the club sessions for free through the book club’s partnership program. Upon registration, participants received a short video introducing the book and offering a discussion question to consider while reading.

Beyond the Book is more than a book club in that participants are invited to read the monthly text and then meet at the museum to dive deeper into the stories through connections with the museum’s collection. Book club meetings are led by museum educators to facilitate talks and share about museum artifacts that enhance discussions on the selected topic in literature and/or film. 

Brenna McCormick-Thompson, Curator of Education, The Whaling Museum & Education Center, shared feedback on the museum’s March book club session. “We used our collection to bring the past to life in a completely new and fun way. We got to gather around our historic whaleboat and imagine ourselves in the heart of the story. It was a great group discussion with everyone sharing different perspectives and highlighting parts of the book in new ways,” she said.

Members were invited to try hard tack crackers.

In addition to engaging with the museum’s artifacts, club goers were invited to taste test an authentic recipe for hard tack crackers, the whalers only food supply for months. The taste test table displayed the daily allotment of water and hard tack that the Essex crew needed to make their provisions last as long as possible.

The museum received positive comments from attendees through anonymous survey responses. One survey responder said their favorite part of the session was “… the combination of viewing of the whaleboat and other artifacts, along with the discussion of the book. The facilitator was great!” Another survey responder commented “Get the word out! You are a hidden gem!”

There are two sessions left— on April 27 and May 25—before the club breaks for the summer and then returns in the fall. Book club sessions are scheduled monthly on Thursday evenings at 6:30pm. Each meeting is approximately 1 hour long, and participants will enjoy coffee or tea and cookies while they chat about the text and make meaningful connections with the guidance of  the museum’s education staff.

On April 27 the book club will feature Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly which explores the golden age of piracy and the truth behind many pirate legends. The educator-led talk and discussion will highlight the life of Huntingtonian Enoch Conklin (1763-ca.1815) a privateer during the War of 1812 as well as a ship builder, sailor and captain. Artifacts relating to Conklin’s life will be showcased for participants to see and explore.

On May 25, the book club will feature Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson who unearths the incredible history of whales, from their small four-legged land ancestors to the ocean-dwelling giants we know today. In this session, the group will explore the biology of these creatures first-hand through the museum’s collection of bones and fossils. Discover the amazing adaptations that helps whales navigate their marine environment, while learning about modern threats to the future of these animals.

Beyond the Book club sessions are free for museum members and patrons of  the museum’s partner libraries. All others may attend for $15 per session. Registration is online at For more information, call 631-367-3418.

Photos courtesy of The Whaling Museum