“Random.” That’s how author and Little House in the Suburbs blogger Deanna Caswell describes her professional life. As a child, Caswell wanted to be a scientist and a ballerina. In college, her major shifted multiple times—from marine biology to chemistry, with several other majors in between. Her disdain for lab work ended her pursuit of a Ph.D. one semester into graduate school, but she ultimately earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy instead. Now she writes children’s books: her latest, Beach House, was released in May. Caswell—who lives in Collierville, outside Memphis—is also the homeschooling mother of four children and a twenty-first-century homesteader. In other words, she and her family make most of the things they need.
Finding time to write books and a blog is hard enough when you have four children (the youngest only a year old) and homeschool them all, never mind making your own deodorant, skipping all canned food, and tending back-yard chickens and mini-goats, but Caswell isn’t one to shy from a challenge. And life as a homesteader family, she told Chapter 16 via email, is a group effort. “Each day, we start school at ten and finish around two-thirty. The cooking and cleaning and baby care and animal care are a juggling act,” she writes, “but, thankfully, the biggest three kids are really helpful. I couldn’t do it without them. They each have chores they do before the screens come on in the morning and afternoon, and each takes a turn babysitting during the homeschool day. It’s a group effort.” As for her own work? “Writing only happens on weekends and school breaks,” she explains.
Little House in the Suburbs, which Caswell co-founded with Daisy Siskins, has been featured on msn.com and thriftyfun.com. It includes posts about farming and homesteading skills geared for those who want to learn more about a life of self-sufficiency. “My best in-town pal and I started it in 2008,” Caswell explains. “We both always had an interest in cooking from scratch and gardening, but nothing too far outside of normal. Then one day, I was in the Walmart parking lot, buckling in the kids with the cell phone on my shoulder, when I confessed to her, ‘You have no idea the depths of my weirdness. I want to make soap and grow mushrooms!’ She said, ‘Me too!’ Our kids were little, and we never really saw each other, so we decided to blog it out. We started doing all kinds of homestead-type projects together online: gardening, soaping, sewing, needlework, cheese, home-preserving, etc. Our slogan was ‘Simplicity, Creativity, Self-Sufficiency…Minivans.’ Funny thing, my mushrooms never worked out, but just this year, she got a bumper crop.”
From how to knit your own washcloths, fruit rollups, and Tobasco sauce to how not to make comfrey fertilizer, DIY is the name of the game at Little House in the Suburbs. There are recipes for condiments, breads, herbal teas, and snow ice cream. There are also tips on how to simplify your parenting, your scheduling, and your home. In 2012, Caswell and Siskins co-authored their own book, one that shares the same name as the popular blog. Published by Betterway Home, it features tips on suburban self-sufficiency, creating a life filled with food and products grown in your own back yard. “Plenty of books out there,” they write in the book’s introduction, “will tell you how to survive in the boonies. … This book is about those simple-living behaviors that fit easily into a typical suburban neighborhood.”
Beach House, Caswell’s latest children’s book, celebrates family and the best of summer fun—a trip to the beach. In spare, rhyming verse, she captures the joys of a vacation at the shore and the warmth of family members who enjoy one another’s company. It’s all here: the eager anticipation leading up to the trip, the long journey there in the family caravan, the ocean waves and scent of salt air, and even the adventure that is body surfing. The book includes artwork by Amy Junes Bates, whose buoyant watercolor and pencil illustrations radiate cheer. For Caswell, seeing Bates’s artwork for the first time was a thrill: “Her illustrations are so beautiful! Every time I write a poem, I see a big family. That’s what I know, right? She painted even more charm and affection into the book than I could have even imagined. I’m so pleased.”
Caswell’s early interest in the sciences was inspired by her childhood in Oak Ridge, a town with its fair share of physicists. She still makes time to visit East Tennessee several times a year. “My parents still live there in our family home,” she says. “We go to Clinton for Christmas, head to Pigeon Forge for Memorial Day, and my husband’s travel sometimes takes us through [the region].”
For now, she’s happy in Collierville, where she’s known around town as the “Goat Lady.” And she’s still managing to snag that weekend time to work on new manuscripts. “I have a couple of other books in the works,” she adds. “They’re different from what I’ve done before. Still poetry, but not at all the same kind.” For someone who likes to get things done—and done in her own, unique way—something tells us we’re in for a treat.
Julie Danielson, a former school librarian, blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage. Her first book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, was released last year.
Tagged: Children & YA