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Melissa Arnold

By Melissa Arnold

The vast majority of artists will say they are influenced by the work of someone else. Whether it’s a contemporary from their own time or someone from long ago, artists blossom from appreciating and studying others.

This sentiment is held dear by members of the Smithtown Artists Group (SAG), a small network of local artists who gather for creativity and camaraderie alike.

Their friendship began at the main branch of the Smithtown Library, where artists of all backgrounds and skill levels have gathered on Tuesday afternoons to paint, some of them for decades.

“When my kids were in school I ran a lot of arts and crafts programs, and then in their later teens I took a watercolor class,” said Judy Contrino of Stony Brook, who began painting at the library 20 years ago. “Joining the library group was a wonderful experience because there were so many different mediums being used by the people there, and some of them were quite accomplished. I was a self-taught artist. And it’s wonderful to have newcomers improve and show them how they’ve grown. No one is asking you to be Rembrandt — it’s just a place to come, relax and learn from those around you.”

A few years ago, some of the library artists expressed a desire to broaden their horizons and pursue exhibitions. Roughly a dozen people came together to form what is now the Smithtown Artists Group.

With the help of a new website to showcase some of their work online, the group was able to hold exhibits in libraries around Long Island, including Harborfields, Sachem, Kings Park and East Northport. After a long hiatus during the pandemic, they are thrilled to share their work again. Their newest exhibit, A Potpourri of Art, will be on display this spring at the Port Jefferson Village Center.

Featuring more than 80 pieces from 8 artists, the exhibit will feature works done in watercolor, acrylic, oil, colored pencil and more. Each artist has a unique flair and favorite subjects, making it a great fit for art enthusiasts of all kinds.

Carol Kelly of Kings Park spent many years simply appreciating the work of others before trying her own hand at painting. “It wasn’t until I was around 45 that I started learning to paint. I would go to art exhibits and often say, ‘Wouldn’t it be marvelous to be able to create beautiful works of art for other people to enjoy?” she recalled. 

“I started taking watercolor classes, and then some time later saw a listing in my library’s newsletter about the group meeting in Smithtown. I’ve been there for 13 years and enjoy the process of critiquing and learning from one another.”  

Kelly enjoys painting landscapes and scenes from her garden, but occasionally branches out into other subjects, as with a painting of a bird she titled “Looking for Lunch.”

Lucia Alberti of Smithtown has spent the past 10 years painting at the library and was excited to participate in exhibitions with longtime friends in the group. Alberti said that the majority of her work is done in acrylics with a focus on imaginative realism.

“We have a lot of variety in our experiences and what we enjoy doing as artists. Some people teach art and have exhibited before, while others simply enjoy art and being creative,” she said. “We are friends, and we admire one another, which adds another layer of joy to our painting. Getting to do this exhibit together is a very special opportunity.”

The exhibit is a welcome source of joy for the community, too.

“We’re happy to be doing shows again — this is our second exhibit since the pandemic,” said Sue Orifici, head of graphic, archival and special projects at the Port Jefferson Village Center. “There’s a nice mix of art to enjoy in this show and we hope people will stop by and visit.”

Participating artists include Lucia Alberti, Cheryl Cass-Zampiva, Carol Ceraso, Judy Contrino, Ruth Johnson, Carol Kelly, Anita Simmons and Joanie Whalen.

A Potpourri of Art will be on display on the second floor of the Port Jefferson Village Center, 101 E. Broadway, Port Jefferson from March 1 to April 30. Viewing hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For more information about the exhibit, call the Village Center at 631-802-2160. To learn more about the Smithtown Artists Group, visit http://sagartists.wixsite.com/sagartists.

Billy Collins

By Melissa Arnold

The written word has the ability to stir up emotions in ways little else can. Whether it’s a collection of zealous love poems, a thought-provoking novel or the adrenaline rush of a favorite song on the radio, words are powerful. 

Like many Americans, essayist and novelist Roger Rosenblatt is heartbroken over the intense and sometimes even violent divisions in America today. 

“I was really concerned with how ready people are to argue and fight with one another,” said Rosenblatt, who lives on the East End. “And I started to think, ‘Can I make a difference here?’”

Alice McDermott

An idea came quickly, and Rosenblatt fired off a letter to friends, former students and colleagues, all of them writers in some fashion. His message: Let’s come together and use our talents to encourage unity and peace.

A few days later, he had dozens of enthusiastic responses. The result is Write America: A Reading for Our Country, a free, weekly online event hosted by Book Revue in Huntington. Beginning Feb. 1 and continuing through September, authors from around the country and all walks of life will read from their work, share their thoughts, and take questions from viewers.

Book Revue last partnered with Rosenblatt in the fall, when they held a celebration and comedic “roast” for his 80th birthday. Event coordinator Loren Limongelli said they were thrilled to hear from him again, especially with such a wonderful idea.

“Roger has gathered artists from all ages, races and backgrounds to bridge the divide in our nation and reach people with the reminder that we’re all human,” said Limongelli, who will emcee the series. “We’ve had unwavering support from the community during the pandemic and we want to give back to them by providing really exciting events with well-known authors.”

The growing list of participants runs the gamut from up-and-coming authors to award-winning and nationally recognized writers, including Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Major Jackson, Alan Alda, Alice McDermott, Amy Hempel, Natalie Diaz, Tyehimba Jess, Paul Auster, and many more. 

“I wanted to make sure we had representation from all parts of the country, different kinds of people, and different types of writing as well: poets, novelists, essayists, women, men, people of color,” Rosenblatt said. “They got it. Writers are generally private people and we joke that they shouldn’t let us out, but there was a unique opportunity here to do some good. We feel like we have a responsibility to reach out to the public.”

The writers were encouraged to read from works they feel are healing and inspiring for all people, regardless of differences in politics or opinion.

Alan Alda

Suffolk County local Alan Alda has spent the latest part of his career immersed in the art of communication. He has written memoirs and books exploring how we relate to one another, what’s most important in life and why it all matters.

“I think it’s great that Roger has opened a door for writers to be able to make their own special contribution to national healing through their writing,” Alda said. 

“I’m not sure what I’ll be reading yet, but I have my eye on a description I wrote in my last book of the day mortal enemies took an impromptu day off from killing each other.”

Novelist Alice McDermott recalled that in his letter, Roger said that while writers don’t make many observable changes in the world, they can make a little noise.

“Is this important? I think so. Our public discourse of late has made it so easy for us to dismiss and to vilify one another, to silence and to degrade,” she said. “Maybe we can help to restore, even temporarily — we are human, after all, and full of flaws — the way we speak about and think about and even feel about our world and one another.”

Write America kicks off on Feb. 1 and will be held live at 7 p.m. Mondays on CrowdCast, a web-based meeting platform. All events are free. Registration is required by visiting www.bookrevue.com/write-america-series. For additional information, call 631-271-1442.

WRITE AMERICA SCHEDULE:

February 1

Rita Dove

Rita Dove & Billy Collins

February 8

Francine Prose & Paul Muldoon

February 15

Russell Banks, Major Jackson and Alice McDermott

February 22

Patricia Marx & Garry Trudeau

March 1

Alan Bergman & Adam Gopnik

March 8

Alan Alda & Arlene Alda

March 15

Linda Pastan, Paul Harding and Juan Felipe Herrera

March 22

George H. Colt & Anne Fadiman

March 29

Kirsten Valdez Quade & Nick Flynn

April 5

Kurt Andersen & Amy Hempel

April 12

Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones & Julie Sheehan 

April 19

Natalie Diaz & Daniel Halpern

April 26

Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt & David Remnick

May 3

Carlos Fonseca & Rose Styron

May 10

Lloyd Schwartz & Priya Jain

May 17

Patricia McCormick & Michelle Whittaker

May 24

Grace Schulman & Lance Morrow

May 31

Bruce Weber & Molly Gaudry

More dates will be announced with authors … Adrienne Unger, Amy Cacciola, Cornelia Channing, Dar-Juinn Chou, David Lynn, Elizabeth Hawes Weinstock, Emma Walton Hamilton, Genevieve Sly Crane, Gregory Pardlo, Hilma Wolitzer, Jacqueline Leo, Jean Hanff Korelitz, Jennifer McDonald, Jill McCorkle, Jillian LaRussa, John Leo, Joyce Maynard, Jules Feiffer, Kate Lehrer, Kaylie Jones, Lora Tucker, Lou Ann Walker, Richard Ford, Robert Lipsyte, Robert Reeves, Roger Rosenblatt, Vjay Seshadri, Suchita Nayar, Susan Isaacs, Susan Minot, Tyehimba Jess, Ursula Hegi, and Vanessa Cuti. 

This article first appeared in Prime Times, a supplement of TBR News Media, on Jan. 28, 2021.

 

By Melissa Arnold

Author Lisa DeFini Lohmann with a photo of Wilson who was the inspiration for her book.

Lisa DeFini Lohmann never imagined that she would become a published author. But then her lovable dog, Wilson, changed her mind. Wilson wasn’t the best looking dog in the world, but that didn’t stop him from winning hearts with his sweet, lovable personality. Lohmann was inspired to share Wilson’s joy with others who may be struggling with self-esteem or personal trials. Her debut chapter book for children, Different Like Me, follows Wilson as he awaits his forever home, makes new friends, and goes on some incredible adventures. Along the way, he learns what it means to love yourself unconditionally, regardless of what others think.

Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?

I was born in the Bronx and moved to Long Island when I was 5 years old. I am a creative person, but my focus has always been on textiles, sewing and crafting. I’m an avid reader, though prior to this I had never written anything before. My paying job is in property management and development — I specialize in communities for people who are 55 and older.

So how did you decide to write a book?

About seven years ago, the real estate market took a hit and I was unemployed for a while. My boys are grown now, and I ended up spending a lot of that time with my dog, Wilson. He grew up to be the most precious of animals, so dear to my heart! We think he was a Shih Tzu mixed with either Brussels Griffon or Affenpinscher. He was 27 pounds but acted like a lion. He wasn’t the cutest of puppies, but he had the most wonderful personality. He was 9 months old when we brought him home.

When you’re not working, you have a lot of time to think about things in ways you may not have before. A friend of mine has a son with a pretty severe learning disability, and hearing of their day-to-day struggles gave me some perspective on what it’s like to be different. I truly believe that God put it on my heart to tell a story about the things that make us unique and different from my dog’s point of view to help kids who may be feeling self-conscious about themselves.

Why did you choose to turn the idea into a chapter book?

I didn’t necessarily set out to write a chapter book, but I knew I wanted the book to be a little deeper than an early children’s book with very few words. There was a certain depth and maturity I was looking for that made more sense as a longer book.

Tell us a bit about the plot.

Different Like Me is about a dog who lives in a pet store and doesn’t like himself because he consistently isn’t chosen to go home with a family. Through a series of events, he learns that he’s perfect just the way he is, and helps others to see that along the way.

What was the writing and publishing process like for you as a first-time author?

I truly believe that when you do something for good in this life, God helps you get it done. And that’s how it was for me. Writing was the easiest part. I didn’t know anybody else who had ever written a book, and so the Internet was a great resource. I did a lot of research online. Ultimately, I chose to work with a company called Outskirts Press. They do what’s called “semi-self-publishing,” which means they select your manuscript for publication and then offer you a number of different options to choose from, like editing. Each option is a la carte and paid for by the author. I’m not an illustrator or an editor, so that was where they came in handy for me.

Who is the illustrator, Richa Kinra? How did you decide to work with her?

The illustrator was connected to Outskirts Press. There were sample images from a number of artists I got to look through, and then I could choose who I wanted to work with. While I never got to meet her, she really captured the essence of the characters and what I was trying to convey with the book. The illustrators don’t have the time or resources to read each project they’re working on, so I needed to provide copious details about each character and image. I’m very happy [with the final product] — the illustrations are very charming.

Do you want to continue writing?

This is not an endeavor for my own financial gain at all. I have what I think are two more books in my head — there’s so much to expand on with these topics of self-acceptance, coping skills, and celebrating diversity. Ideally, I’d love to get picked up by a publisher who will support me financially so that I can focus on the writing.

What do you hope people will take away from reading this book?

Whether people are struggling with COVID, some kind of disability, not fitting in or anything else — I want them to see that the way they were put together, tall or short, fat or thin, is just fine. We were all made differently and have a unique purpose. Even thinking about my own childhood, I was sometimes perceived as stuck-up, when truthfully I was very insecure and shy. We all have an emotional battle that we’re fighting, no matter how old we are. That’s why I believe everyone can relate to this book.

Who would you say is the target audience for this book?

It’s hard to pin down, because I’ve heard that people of all ages are enjoying it — parents are reading it with their 5-year-olds, elementary kids are reading it, and there are even teenagers and college kids who have told me they liked it. So the book is for people of all ages.

Different Like Me is available at your favorite online retailer as well as several Long Island businesses including Book Revue in Huntington and the Reboli Center for Art and History in Stony Brook. Keep up with Lisa DeFini Lohmann on Instagram @wilsonhighstep and on Facebook by searching for Wilson Highstep.

Duff Goldman

By Melissa Arnold

Pastry chef Duff Goldman has risen to become one of the titans of the baking world over the past 20 years. His bakery, Charm City Cakes, has crafted incredible sweets for anything from a child’s first birthday to a presidential inauguration, and he’s a fixture on the Food Network. Since 2014, Goldman has judged the network’s Kids Baking Championship, gently encouraging the eager contestants with pro tips and a sense of humor.

This year, he released Super Good Baking for Kids (HarperCollins), an easy-to-read cookbook covering kitchen basics and unique, whimsical recipes for bakers of any skill level. Kids are encouraged to experiment and have fun in the kitchen as they whip up dessert pizzas and tacos, unicorn cupcakes, Boston creme donuts and much more. The book is also full of helpful photos and interesting facts — a great addition to any kid’s (or adult’s!) holiday haul.

Goldman took some time to chat with TBR News Media recently about the book, his early food memories, and how parents can support their kids’ culinary adventures.

Lately, you’ve been working with kids a lot. Did your own interest in baking begin as a child?

Definitely, the interest began with cooking in general. My mom is a really good cook, my grandmother was a really good cook, and my great-grandmother was a baker. So I was always around it, and some of my earliest memories are food-related. Good food is really important to our family as a “thing,” not just as something that keeps you going. It’s a part of who we are.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Well, I read cookbooks all the time, and I’ve been reading a lot of kids’ cookbooks recently. I found myself thinking, “You know, these are okay, but if I were 9 or 10 years old I probably wouldn’t be that satisfied.” So I wanted to write a book that I thought I would enjoy [at that age]. When I think about the things I like in a cookbook, I’m looking for lots of details and things to discover. A good cookbook for kids is about a lot more than using bubble letters and crazy colors. Kids love facts, lists, pictures. And that’s what I wanted to give them.

Have the kids ever taught you something new?

Oh, yeah! One of the girls on Kids Baking Championship made a cupcake that had a graham cracker crust on the bottom, which I had never heard of before. I thought it was genius. So I decided to make a cookies-and-creme cupcake for this book that uses an Oreo crust because of what she taught me. There’s also a recipe in there for rainbow brownies — my wife and I took a big road trip for our honeymoon, and we visited some of her family. I asked one of her cousins who was 8 or 9 years old what recipe she would want in a cookbook, and she immediately said she wanted rainbow brownies. I told her, “You can’t have rainbow brownies — brownies are brown!” She told me to figure it out! So I did.

How do you go about deciding which recipes go into a cookbook?

We made a list of things that I’ve made in the past that people really tend to like, or recipes that get a lot of questions. There are certain things people are always asking how to make, so a lot of the process was about answering those questions people wonder about.

Some of the recipes I’ve included because I see them as a bit aspirational — something they can work toward and tackle as they get better. For example, the Boston creme donut recipe in there is the exact donut recipe I use in my own kitchen. There’s nothing different about it — nothing is made easier or safer, and they’re still being deep-fried in oil.

But watching kids on Kids Baking Championship shows you a lot about what kids can do. They can make fried stuff. They can use yeast. They can do it, as long as someone is there to help and make sure they work safely. The same can be said for working with knives when it’s appropriate — you can teach them that a knife is not a toy, that it’s sharp and it can hurt you.

Cooking can be dangerous, but it’s important to learn that you can do it safely if you treat it with respect. I wanted to include some of those lessons in the book as well and that we didn’t shy away from it, because I think sometimes people are excessively afraid. Just because there’s a risk involved doesn’t mean it should necessarily be avoided. I’m a big believer in giving kids a sense of accomplishment — it affects them in so many positive ways.

What are a couple of your favorite recipes in the book?

The brown butter blondies that are in there are one of my favorite things to eat, and they’re great to make for others because they’re so good. The dessert pizza recipe was actually suggested by my editor — I don’t really like them; I always thought it was a dumb idea. But I was challenged to make a dessert pizza I would enjoy, so I asked myself what it would be like — brownie stuffed crust! Red velvet sauce!

Dessert imposters [desserts that are made to resemble other foods] are a really big thing on Kids Baking Championship. The kids really look forward to it, so I wanted to make sure I included that as well. I love tacos, so I gave a lot of thought to what ingredients you could use in a dessert that looks like a taco but is still delicious.

What would you say to a kid who wants to become a baker?

The first thing to know is that it takes practice. The first chocolate cake you ever bake might not come out so good. And that’s okay. But as you keep baking, you’ll get better and better. It’s a new experience every time — sometimes it works out great, and sometimes things come out terrible. Even for me, when I make things today there’s always this feeling of excitement, like, “Oh boy, is this going to work out? I don’t know! Let’s see!”

What advice would you give a parent who is reluctant or nervous about letting their child cook or bake?

Honestly, truly ­— get over the fear! Seriously. I’m not saying that you should just let your kid go alone into the kitchen and deep fry some donuts. Go and be a part of it, do it with them! Read the directions, Google some safety tips, talk about it together. It doesn’t have to be scary. Some recipes or techniques can look intimidating just because you’ve never tried it before, and then you do it, and boom, you’ve gained a skill.

What age group is this book best for?

We’ve seen 9-year-olds come on Kids Baking Championship and totally school the other kids. So I don’t want to set an age requirement. And these recipes are legit — these aren’t little kid recipes where everything is a variation of a sugar cookie. You’re making donuts, puff pastry, pâte à choux — it’s all real pastry technique. I think the book is appropriate for any person, kid or adult, who shows interest and is willing to learn.

Super Good Baking for Kids is available at Book Revue in Huntington, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

By Melissa Arnold

As the holiday season settles in, many people include giving to others in need as part of their annual traditions. Whether it’s food for a family struggling to make ends meet or toys for kids that might not get any gifts, sharing what we have is a big part of spreading holiday joy.

This year, more Long Islanders are facing financial difficulties than ever before thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the generous people stepping up to help is Brian Hoerger, a board member and Facilities Manager at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

Not long after the pandemic began, Hoerger, who was born and raised in the community, felt compelled to do whatever he could for his neighbors. He learned that local hospitals were searching for iPads and other devices to help connect patients with their family members who couldn’t be at their bedside.

“I donated an old one that I had at home, and then I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could raise a little extra money to donate a second one,” he said. “So I put something up on my  Facebook and that first night I had $2000 come in.”

Ultimately, Hoerger’s friends helped him donate 15 iPads to St. Charles and Mather hospitals. He later called Stony Brook University Hospital to ask how he could help them, too. Their answer: Food.

“They told me that some of the staff members were really struggling and needed help getting food on the table. They were already doing their own food drives, but they encouraged me to have one of my own,” he explained. “I put a table out in my driveway on my birthday, and people came by with all sorts of donations. It was a great way to celebrate, probably one of my best birthdays. Everyone was so into it.”

At the urging of his friends, he held a second drive a few weeks later. The response was even greater than the first.

Theatre Three’s Executive Director Jeffrey Sanzel regularly brought bags of donations to Hoerger’s food drives, and it wasn’t long before the wheels started turning again. What if the food drives were run by the theater directly? “We certainly have more space and a large audience to draw on [at the theater],” Hoerger said. “And people could just drive up and drop off their donations in a safe, contactless way. It checked all the boxes.”

Sanzel jumped at the proposal. The theater has hosted five food drives since June with the last one of the year planned this Saturday.

“We thought it was a wonderful idea, especially given the times we’re in,” he said. “We’ve had volunteers from the Theatre Three family help set up and run the drives and have had many show up with donations.  We plan on continuing for as long as we can, even after we reopen.”

In addition to helping out the hospitals, Hoerger has been donating food to Infant Jesus Parish in Port Jefferson, whose Open Cupboard Food Pantry provides food and other emergency supplies to people in the area.

In the early days of the pandemic, Infant Jesus social ministry coordinator Vicki Rybak was working curbside, doing her best to meet the needs of pantry visitors without the usual volunteer support.

“Prior to the pandemic, I would see much less than 30 families in a typical week,” said Rybak, who has spent 17 years serving the community. “Back in the spring, when things were really bad, I was seeing 60 to 65 families a week. Everyone was just trying to get by. They weren’t working, assistance was running out, and bills still needed to be paid.”

While the pantry had the funds to help, purchasing limits at grocery stores made it difficult to stay stocked. Hoerger used his connections to keep the donations coming.

As for what they need most right now, Rybak said that toiletries are always deeply appreciated by visitors.

“It’s about dignity — imagine what it would be like to go two weeks without washing your hair or not being able to brush your teeth with toothpaste, especially for kids and teens,” she added.

Rybak also hopes that volunteers might step up to help transport fresh produce and other products from farms whose excess inventory is sitting in storage, she said. “Fresh produce and dairy are like gold to us. It would be incredible if people could drive to the farms so that we can offer those items more frequently. Imagine what we could do if we had a few trucks delivering produce!”

This month, Theatre Three is also collecting unwrapped toys and gifts for ages 1 to 16. The toys will be given to children visiting the pantry.

This month’s Theatre Three Cares Holiday Food and Toy drive will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12 (rain date Dec. 13) at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson. Donations will be collected behind the theater, on the building’s south side. Donors are welcome to remain in their vehicle if they’d like to make a contactless donation. For questions, call 631-938-6464.

The Infant Jesus Open Cupboard food pantry is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon at 220 Hawkins St., Port Jefferson, behind the church. For information, please call 631-928-0447.

Photos by Brian Hoerger

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Author Ariana Glaser

Some of us have spent 2020 learning to make sourdough bread from scratch, catching up on TV, or working on our post-quarantine figures. Fourteen-year-old Ariana Glaser, on the other hand, has been putting the finishing touches on her newest novel.

The Smithtown High School East freshman published her first major story three years ago, when she was just 11 years old. Now, she’s back with She Remembers, a compelling story for teen readers about life after death, second chances, and family ties. The book was released on Nov. 16.

What was your childhood like? Were you very creative?

I was always a very avid reader — my mom would say I’d read books in my crib. When I was in 2nd grade, I wrote a book that was around 15 or 20 pages. It was called Fairies, Fairies, Fairies, and each page was about a different fairy. Obviously my writing style has changed a lot since then, but my second grade teacher really inspired me by saying there was a [distinct literary] voice in my writing, and that made me think, “Hey, maybe I’m not too bad at this!” I also do a lot of drawing and theater on the side.

What kinds of books do you like to read? Which authors inspire you?

I love all genres of fiction, but I really enjoy dystopian stories. My favorite books right now are a series called The Selection by Kiera Cass. I’m also really inspired by Lois Lowry ­­— her book Number the Stars has been a favorite of mine for a very long time.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

In 4th or 5th grade, I completed my first novella, and I knew it was something I wanted to continue doing for as long as I could, to perfect my skills.

How did your family respond?

My parents and grandparents were always the first to hear about my ideas, and they were huge supporters from the beginning. And the reality is that none of this would have been possible without their support and encouragement, not just practically but emotionally, too.

When did you write your first book? How did you go about getting published?

It was called The World I Never Knew. I finished writing it at the end of 6th grade after working on it off and on for about two years. We waited about a year after it was finished, and then we found Kindle Direct Publishing (from Amazon). I wasn’t looking for it to be a best-seller or anything, but I wanted to be able to say that I published my first book when I was 12.

How did it feel seeing your name in print for the first time?

It was a weird feeling! We were waiting for the mailman to deliver my copy of [my first book], and when he came, we were there to meet him and everyone was excited. The mailman said to my dad, “Oh, did she get a book she wanted?” and he said, “No, she wrote this book.” It was surreal to hear that and to hold my book for the first time.

Did you publish this book the same way?

No. We submitted She Remembers to traditional publishers. I got a lot of rejections simply because of my age — most places won’t accept a manuscript if you’re under 18 — and I also didn’t have a literary agent. But I didn’t want to sit around and wait to turn 18 when I had good stories that were ready now. Someone on Facebook recommended Foundations Publishing, and when I sent it to them, they said the story had potential and they’d be happy to have me on their team.

Tell us a bit about She Remembers.

When I was younger, I was very into American Girl dolls, and I joined an online community for others who liked them. One of the girls I met through that community was named Bella, and she was very popular. She also had cancer and ended up passing away. That had a big impact on me, and in 2019 I started to write She Remembers, about a girl who dies of cancer. She gets a chance to live another life, and discovers that she still has memories of her old life and family.

How do you find the time to balance writing, school and your social life?

You know, time management is always something that I struggle with. I have a lot of extracurriculars that take a lot of work, so in the course of a week I can spend hours on stage, dancing or singing. And then there’s all of my homework, spending time with my friends, and trying to write in the middle of all that. But every student struggles with that, even when they’re not a writer. I try to take advantage of pockets of free time, even if it’s 20 minutes at lunch or at night.

Is there a message you want people to take away from reading this novel?

It’s all about hope — the main character, Amber, comes to realize that good things can come out of bad experiences. We might not know what happens after death, but it’s important to have hope and to keep the memories of the people we’ve lost alive.

Is there a recommended age group?

There’s a range, from 12-year-olds looking for a character they can look up to, all the way up to 18 or even older readers who just enjoy a unique, interesting story.

Do you have any upcoming events?

It’s been tough with the pandemic, but we’re talking with Barnes & Noble about having some kind of event, whether that’s a virtual meet-and-greet, something in person, or just a table with books and information about me.

What’s next for you? Are you planning to write more books?

I actually finished writing my third book during quarantine. I have so much more to say, and the good thing about writing is if one book doesn’t go over well, you can keep writing. You never know when you’re going to have a big moment. I’d love to make the New York Times Best Seller List!

She Remembers and other works by Ariana Glaser is available on Amazon.com or your favorite online bookseller. Keep up with Ariana on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok @ArianaNGlaser.

By Melissa Arnold

The holiday season is fast approaching, and it’s time to start thinking about that shopping list. But before you visit those online retailers and big box stores, consider supporting local businesses hit hard by this year’s closures and safety restrictions.

In the Three Village area, Gallery North has teamed up with their neighbors at The Jazz Loft and Three Village Historical Society for a festive holiday experience that has a little something for everyone on your list.

Each year, Gallery North celebrates local artists with Deck the Halls, a group exhibit and art sale. Now through Dec. 20, visitors can admire the work of more than 70 artists covering a variety of subjects and media. The sale includes over 100 pieces of art, with a range of prices making it easy to find a unique gift that fits any budget.

This year, Gallery North executive director Ned Puchner was eager to put together a larger, yet safe and festive event that could bring the community together again.

“Frankly, a lot of people are still understandably concerned about going out and shopping,” said Puchner. “We had a lot of success with the Farmers and Makers Markets over the summer, and one of our board members joked that while she didn’t do hot weather, she’d volunteer in a heartbeat for a winter event.”

The idea grew from there. Puchner reached out to Steve Healy, president of the Three Village Historical Society, and Tom Manuel, founder of The Jazz Loft, brainstorming ways they could collaborate.

They were inspired by the beautiful, timeless holiday markets in New York City, and decided to transform the historical society grounds into a marketplace of their own. The outdoor marketplace will open for four Saturdays after Thanksgiving, allowing local artists and vendors to set up shop in a festively decorated atmosphere.

Browse the gallery store for paintings, photography and sculptures, then shop outdoors for handcrafted pottery, jewelry, wood and metal creations, clothing, glassware, spice blends and much more.

Along the way, grab a bite to eat and some dessert or warm up with a hot drink from local food trucks.

“Throughout the pandemic we’ve been encouraging people to shop local and support local businesses as much as possible, because everyone is struggling. We can’t help everyone, but we all have ways we can chip in,” said Healy. “[The local organizations] have a great rapport, and we’re always looking for new ways that we can support one another.”

The Jazz Loft’s Equity Brass Band will perform a wide selection of New Orleans jazz standards along with jazzed-up versions of holiday classics. You’ll find them playing in their tent and parading through the grounds on market days as weather permits.

Over the summer, you may have seen the band marching through the streets on one of their Spirit Tours — musical appearances meant to uplift the community and provide cultural enrichment in a time where entertainment has been difficult, if not impossible.

“There’s been a blessing in all this — because we [musicians] are all out of work, people that normally don’t have the time to come and work with us are suddenly free. We’ve had great camaraderie develop from this experience,” Manuel said. “Jazz has always been the soundtrack of America. People have come up to us extremely moved to hear music after being cut off from art for nearly a year.”

At the core of the exhibit and holiday market is the desire to bring a little normalcy and good cheer to the season.

“It’ll give you a little taste of the holiday season while keeping people safe and socially distanced. It also supports local artists, musicians, chefs and entrepreneurs during a time that has been devastating for people who earn their livelihoods performing and creating,” Puchner said. “We want to renew our connection with the community and restore a spirit of togetherness. We’re all still here.”

The Deck the Halls exhibit is on display through Dec. 20 at Gallery North, 90 North Country Road, Setauket. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. A virtual reception will be held via Zoom on Nov. 19 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Participating artists for the Deck the Halls exhibit include:

Lucia Alberti, Kelynn Alder, Andrea Baatz, Fred Badalamenti, Steve Behler, John Benevento, Joan Branca, Sheila Breck, Nancy Bueti Randall, Natalie Butkevich, Esther Marie Caponigro, Donna Carey-Zucker, Joseph Cooke, Jody Cukier, Linda Davidson-Mathues, Julie Doczi, Daniel Donato, Michael Drakopoulos, Paul Edelson, Patty Eljaiek, Lily Farah, Meagan Flaherty, Kimberly Gerber, Ray Germann, Helaine Goldberg, Holly Gordon, Larissa Grass, Jan Guarino, Anne Katz, Marceil Kazickas, Flo Kemp, Karen Kemp, Julianna Kirk, Randy Kraft, Barron Krody, Jillian Kron, Charles Lembo, LOVID, Mary Lor, Kathleen Massi, Michael McLaughlin, Meagan Meehan, Eleanor Meier, Olivia Menghini, Jim Molloy, Riley Mulligan, Annette Napolitano, Rhoda Needlman PSA, Gail Neuman, Susan Oliverio, Cynthia Parry, Mel Pekarsky, Alicia R. Peterson, Doug Reina, Brianna Sander, Oscar Santiago, Lori Scarlatos, Kate Schwarting, James Slezak, Judith Stone, Angela Stratton, Schery Markee Sullivan, Paul Thomas, Joanne Touch, Joe Ventimiglia, Mary Waka, Marlene Weinstein, Gil Yang, Patricia Yantz, Nicole Zinerco, and Stanley Zucker.

The Holiday Market will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Nov. 28, Dec. 5, Dec. 12 and Dec. 19 on the grounds of the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket and Gallery North. Please note: Masks and social distancing will be required, and there will be no public restrooms.

For questions about the market or to register as a vendor, call 631-751-2676 or visit www.gallerynorth.org/holiday-market.

 

Ava Della Pietra
Three Village teen talks Broadway experiences, new music release

By Melissa Arnold

Ava Della Pietra

Fifteen-year-old Ava Della Pietra says she started singing as soon as she could speak. She loves performing no matter what form it takes, and her talents in music and theater have already given her incredible platforms. The Three Village local has toured with national theater productions and made her Broadway debut in School of Rock in 2015. These days Ava is focusing on her own music. Her new lyric video featuring her current single, ‘Optimist’, showcases her bright spirit and catchy songwriting skills, along with natural, powerful vocals. While she’s not quite sure yet what she’ll do after high school, one thing’s for sure: Ava’s future is a bright one.

Were you interested in music from an early age?

Yes, definitely. Everyone in my family played an instrument at some point -— I play piano, violin, guitar, bass and ukulele. My mom is also very musical, and I got involved in theater when I was very young. People would come up to my parents when I was 4 years old during a community theater production and they would say, “You need to get an agent, you need to try to get on Broadway.” After hearing it a couple of times, my parents started to take it more seriously, and my mom reached out to an agent. Eventually I got my first audition when I was six, and then when I was seven I got my first professional role as Little Cosette in the national tour of Les Miserables. Things kind of skyrocketed from there.

Where did you get your start? What local groups did you perform with?

My first performance was with a local community theater company called Performing Arts Studio in Port Jefferson (PAS), and then with Productions Over the Rainbow.

Why do you enjoy performing?

I really love seeing people’s reactions in the audience. As a songwriter, I appreciate being able to interact with the audience and look straight at them. I also love meeting people after shows and hearing what they have to say about my music. It inspires me to keep writing.

Who are some of your favorite singers?

I love Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran. Lately I’ve also been enjoying Conan Gray.

What was it like being on Broadway and touring nationally at such a young age?

It was a great experience to have early on because it gave me a big boost of confidence in my abilities and taught me you can do anything you put your mind to. One of my favorite parts of that time was that celebrities would often come to see the show, then come backstage to meet the cast. I’ve gotten to meet Barbra Streisand, Stevie Nicks, and Jack Black. They each had their own perspectives to share. On Broadway, I played a swing in School of Rock, which meant I needed to study several roles and be ready to go on with sometimes a minute’s notice, even in the middle of the show. It’s really exciting and gives you such a rush of adrenaline.

You’ve written dozens of songs. Is it an easy process for you? Do you have a songwriting routine?

Songs tend to come to me at random moments, or when I’m feeling a strong emotion. Sometimes a melody or verse will come to me while I’m out writing my bike, and finish it up when I come home.

Where do you get your ideas from?

I like to write on themes that people can relate to — friendship, self-confidence, supporting one another, positivity, looking on the bright side. A lot of pop music today is negative, and I’m looking to make the kind of music that will make people feel good, and want to get up and dance.

What inspired you to write ‘Optimist’?

I wrote “Optimist” because there are a lot of problems that face society today. Optimism is about realizing that we are one community, and together, we can have hope for a better future. With everything going on in the world, we all need a little optimism right now.

What is your favorite line from the song?

My favorite line from my song is “Every cloud has a silver lining; look up, and we will find it.” This line captures the essence of my song since it talks about how we must take action, rise above, and know that we will be alright.

What type of response is the song getting?

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback! A bunch of radio stations are playing my song, and I’m getting notes from fans on social media or through my website talking about how much my song means to them. One guy sent me an audio recording of himself crying. He told me how my song brought him to tears because he really needed to hear some positivity. I love it when people reach out to me because songwriting is about spreading a message. Seeing how much my music impacts people’s lives makes me really happy!

How did you get to work with producers who have also worked with Ed Sheeran, Avril Lavigne, and other celebrity musicians?

Honestly, I just looked up who produced songs I really loved and reached out to them with a demo. It’s been very successful so far and I feel very fortunate to have gotten to collaborate with them.

Do you enjoy writing songs with others?

Yes, I really enjoy the collaborative process. It’s important for me to work with people who truly value my thoughts and opinions about where I want my music to go, and are willing to ask, “What do you think?” instead of changing a song into something that doesn’t fit with who I am.

How do you juggle school with your music ambitions?

It’s important to remember that it’s supposed to be fun and not get overwhelmed or stressed out about the opportunities that come. Before the pandemic, I would travel over my school breaks to where a producer was located and we would record a song over the course of a few days. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of songwriting from home by Facetiming producers and recording in my bedroom studio. The only difference is I’m not actually there with them!

What are you working on now?

My latest project has been reviewing popular songs. They are featured on a website called Teen Kid News and I also post the reviews on my socials. Also, I appear on a new cast album called “Secondhand Lions” — I sing several songs, including “You Have To See It To Believe It.”

Is music something you’d like to pursue for a career?

Music will always be a part of my life — I’m looking forward to releasing an album soon. I’m also very interested in science and medicine, so I can totally see myself being some kind of doctor or a surgeon. My hope is to continue releasing music to connect with others even if I pursue a different career.

To learn more about Ava Della Pietra, visit her website at www.avadellapietra.com. Follow her on Instagram @avadellapietra, on Facebook @avadellapietraofficial, and check out her latest videos on YouTube.

By Melissa Arnold

With cooler weather on the horizon and a bit of normalcy returning to Long Island, there’s no better time to get out and enjoy some fresh air. If you’re looking for a fun and safe outdoor activity that’s out of the ordinary, a trip to Rottkamp’s Fox Hollow Farm in Baiting Hollow is just the ticket.

This year, the farm has planted a sunflower maze for the first time. Following the success of sunflower mazes grown earlier this summer, co-owner Jeff Rottkamp has planted a new series of mazes that will bloom in the fall.

The family-owned farm has been in business for more than 50 years now, with centuries of agriculture in their blood. Fox Hollow is currently run by Jeff, his parents and brother, with help from other relatives.

In recent years, people have flocked to the farm to enjoy the season’s bounty along with hayrides and corn mazes, but this year, the Rottkamps were excited to try something new.

“I’ve been seeing sunflower mazes popping up online from places all over the country, and I liked the way they looked,” Rottkamp said. “I knew it was something we could do and I thought people would find it fun. We did a brief trial run last summer and the feedback was extremely positive, so we were happy to do it again officially.”

Photo courtesy of
Rottkamp’s Fox Hollow Farm

Setting up any kind of crop maze is a process that requires an imagination and a lot of planning in advance, Rottkamp said. First, you have to select the right field — not too large, not too small, and in just the right spot on the sprawling grounds. Planting begins two months ahead of when they want the maze to be ready.

“Sunflowers need a lot of maintenance and careful watering,” he added. “I come up with the pathways at random each time we plant a field, so it’s a new experience every time.”

There are several varieties of sunflowers in different colors and sizes. In addition to the familiar golden petals, you’ll see sunflowers in shades of pink, maroon and white. Most of the sunflowers will grow to be 4 to 6 feet tall, but there will also be scattered sunflowers around 10 feet tall.

Of course, a maze made of living things can only last so long — sunflowers are only in bloom for about two weeks. To counter this, the farm is planting three different fields of sunflowers at staggered times. When one dies out, the next will be ready to go, and each one is different from the last.

The three fields are also different sizes. In order of growth, they are 1 acre, 4 acres, and 3 acres. But don’t worry about getting lost. “It’s not that kind of maze, it’s not a puzzle. It’s more of a wandering path that you can take your time going through, to take pictures and have a little bit of fun,” Rottkamp explained. “No one will get lost, and this is appropriate for all ages to enjoy.”

Before or after your trip through the maze, be sure to stop by the farmstand and pick up fresh, seasonal produce. Autumn will bring in the last of the sweet corn and tomatoes, as well as pumpkins, winter squash and zucchini, among others.

There are treats for sale as well, including local honey, Tate’s Bake Shop cookies, and fresh pies and donuts from the Jericho Cider Mill.

The mazes will be open for wandering throughout September and into October if the crop and weather permit.

Admission to the Rottkamp’s Fox Hollow Farm sunflower maze is $5 per person. Children ages 5 and under are free. The farm is located at 2287 Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow. For further information, please call 631-727-1786.

This article first appeared in Harvest Times 2020, a supplement from TBR News Media.

All photos by Heidi Sutton

Johnny Cuomo

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Johnny Cuomo has worn a lot of hats over the years. He’s a musician, storyteller, nature lover, teacher, husband, father, and each role has had a profound impact on his life. The 46-year-old Mount Sinai resident is full of stories and lessons he’s learned while working with all kinds of children.

Most recently, he’s been focused on how important it is to treat others with compassion in his new book, Katy Didn’t. When a new bug arrives at school, the other bugs won’t accept him — that is, except for Katy the katydid, whose kindness makes all the difference. The book shares a powerful message within an easy-to-grasp and vividly illustrated story. It’s also a great read for young bug lovers, who will be thrilled with the variety of insect characters.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Cuomo about his latest venture.

Did you grow up on Long Island? What was your childhood like?

Yes, I grew up in Stony Brook. Interestingly, when I was a kid I was more interested in sports, like skateboarding, wrestling, and martial arts. I was also very interested in making music, which is a major part of my life today. My artistic interests were focused mainly on singing and playing instruments.

Did you always dream of being a writer?

Not quite. I’ve been able to do a lot of traveling throughout my life, and one of my favorite things is to learn about the folk tales of different places and cultures. I also got to work closely with Native American children on a reservation in California for two summers when I was in my early twenties, and that was very formative for me. Working with those children was what led me to go back to school.

What did you choose to study?

I got my undergraduate degree in education from Dowling College, and then I went on to do a Master’s in history at Stony Brook University.

So how did you start writing?

As a songwriter, I tend to write a tune and then think about lyrics that could go with it. That process forces me to write mini stories. Many years ago, I actually wrote a short story called Moonglow, something I’m still proud of. It gave me a foray into the publishing world. I also put together a CD sharing some original folk tales that I had written, based on the stories and cultures of the people I’d lived with.

Where did the idea for ‘Katy Didn’t’ come from?

Even after I began teaching, I was still really grounded in nature. I’m an avid birdwatcher and the natural world is a daily part of my life. If you’ve ever seen or heard a katydid during the summers here on Long Island, you know they have a very rhythmic chirping. Some people even say it sounds like a repetition of, “katy-did, katy-didn’t, katy-did, katy-didn’t.” I always thought that was clever, and one day I started to wonder if I could work that into a story for kids — that Katy didn’t do something hurtful, even when everyone else was doing it. I ended up having a dream about some of the characters and storyline. I created about 95% of the framework for the story within a week of that dream.

Tell me a bit about the illustrator. How did you find one another?

A good friend of mine has a brother named Benjamin Lowery who is an artist. We became friendly about 10 years ago. I got lucky — it turned out that Ben was working on his portfolio and was looking for stories to illustrate. He heard that I was putting this new story together and asked if he could be a part of it. It was really exciting that we both found something we needed in each other and the timing was perfect. I gave him general themes, and then he sent me sketches. He had an amazing sense of knowing what we needed. When I saw the first full-color picture he created, I said, “This is fantastic — just go for it!” We’ve really enjoyed this process and looking out for each other.

How did you publish the book? Did you pursue self-publishing or find an agent?

It was a touch-and-go process. We had an agent for a while, but it didn’t work out, and we sent it to some publishers, but that didn’t work out either. They gave great feedback, but it wasn’t quite what they were looking for. Finally, we connected with Peter Pauper Press, and they said they were going to share the book at their board meeting because they had a great feeling about it. A few days later, they sent us an email that said, “Katy did it!” It was great. They’ve been a really wonderful, straightforward company to work with. The deadline was just before all the pandemic shutdowns began, so we were very fortunate to get it published when we did.

What message do you want kids to take away from reading your book?

I want kids to know that whenever they go somewhere new, there will always be a person out there ready to welcome them. You may face struggles and tough times, but there will always be at least one person willing to help you through it and support you with a positive outlook, even if everyone else is ignoring or teasing you. It’s also an encouragement to be that person for others, whether you’re visiting the park, at someone’s house or meeting someone from a different town.

Is there a recommended age group?

Kids from age 3 to age 8 will get different things from the book, whether that’s their interest in bugs, early reading, or the message about how to treat people. It’s worth noting that the bugs in the book are drawn in a cute, but scientifically correct way, so there are so many things you can teach and do with it.

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Katy Didn’t is available at many online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Target. For more about the book, visit www.facebook.com/katydidntbook or www.johnnycuomo.com. Teachers and librarians are welcome to contact Cuomo for information about online or in-person educational events by emailing [email protected]

Book Revue in Huntington will welcome Johnny Cuomo and Benjamin Lowery at 7 p.m. on Oct. 15 for a free, online event featuring readings, music, conversation and more. Registration is required by visiting www.bookrevue.com or by calling 631-271-1442.