March 18, 2019

C is for Cherufe

        If you came here looking for the A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal, you’d better start here!
        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which I hope will be released by the end of the year.

        “There dwell in the heart of the tall and jagged mountains of Chile in the south, creatures roughly human in form, but with scaly skin of stone, and core of fiery magma.  Cherufes are known for their fierce and angry nature, and they rattle the very mountains from within, and hurl hot rocks from their molten cores.  Their tantrums cause the mountains to smoke and flame, and their discontent shakes the earth.”

        My illustration of the cherufe is a reduction print, meaning that I first carved my block only for the areas that are white, and printed with orange.  (In this case I tried to blend a little yellow near the cherufe’s face for extra glow, although it wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped.)  I then carved the same block further, carving out the areas that would remain orange, and then I printed again with black ink atop the previous first-layer prints.  I had a lot of fun imagining the monster throwing a tantrum in the core of the mountain, personifying rage.
        But the alphabet of mythical creatures doesn’t stop there.  The other animal representing C is the capybureau.  And, as always, you have to click the link to read 


[Picture: Angry Mountain, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2018.]

March 15, 2019

B is for Bunyip

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which I hope will be released by the end of the year.

        The two creatures representing B in my bestiary are the bunyip and the baku, both of which you can learn more about by clicking the link to read 
(And clicking through again from there for a little more on the baku!)
        Today, rather than include an excerpt from the book, I want to direct you to another previous post, on the issue of Inclusivity vs Appropriation.  Both of today’s creatures belong to cultures that are not from my own background, and it’s worth giving a little thought to what that means for artists and writers.  Please feel free to add your own thoughts about this in the comments below today’s post, or the post I’ve linked.
        As for today’s block print, I was inspired by the idea of how Aboriginal art is often about diagramming stories and mythologies.  To be clear, those stories being illustrated are not necessarily intended to be shared with people like me, who are outsiders to that culture.  Indeed, it may be that a lot of the visual vocabulary that has become characteristic of Australian Aboriginal art was devised precisely to obscure the deeper meanings from outsiders.  That said, I liked the idea of placing the bunyip in its mythological context and I wanted to show it as being connected with the land and water.  So I placed my bunyip on a shape of the continent of Australia (very abstracted, admittedly), and marked the continent’s larger lakes with circles.  I was not trying to make my illustration “look Australian,” but
rather trying to let my own creativity be sparked by some of the same ideas that inspire Aboriginal Australian artists.  Modern European-Australian adaptations of the bunyip legend are reflected in my making the beast look rather less monstrous and more appealingly quirky, although descriptions of the bunyip are so numerous and widely varied that I was going to have to imagine my own version in any case.

[Picture: Bunyip’s Land, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]

March 13, 2019

A is for Amphiptere

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which I hope will be released by the end of the year.

        “The amphiptere is a winged serpent.  The ancient writer says: The trees which bear frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size, and of varied colours, a great number round each tree.  There is nothing but the smoke of bitter wood that will drive them away from the trees.
        So say ancient writers, describing how merchants of Arabia obtain the highly valued frankincense, for their chief interest is in the use humans may make of the natural world.  But what shall I say of the amphiptere, for it is the purpose of this work not only to describe the strange and wondrous creatures of the Realms of Imagination, but also to learn from them such lessons as may guide and nourish our own spirits.  The amphiptere, then, is a creature about which learned men have little to say except how to eradicate it, and yet is it not marvelous that a creature can be possessed of deadly venom yet also possessed of protecting wings?  Like the snake it sheds its skin to be born anew, and like the bird it flies free of earth in image of the soul.  Surely there must be more to understand and celebrate in a creature so remarkable.”

        Thus begins the entry for the amphiptere, the first creature in my bestiary.  (The “ancient writer” quoted is Herodotus, in his History from about 440 BCE.)  My illustration of the amphiptere doesn’t have a particular story associated with it because, to tell the truth, I made the image more as a doodle while I was running a printmaking workshop and had a bit of time while all my students were happily carving their own blocks and didn’t need me!  The other creature for the letter A has much more of a story behind it, but to read about it you’ll have to click the link to see
(And in fact, from there you’ll have to click through again to read more about the aspidochelone.  Here’s a shortcut, but I hope to lead you down some interesting and entertaining wormholes during the A to Z Challenge this year!)

[Picture: Amphiptere, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

March 11, 2019

#AtoZChallenge

        I will once again be participating in the April A to Z Blog Challenge this year, and it’s time for the Theme Revelation.  *Cue the fanfare*  For 2019 I will be featuring fantastical creatures from my upcoming bestiary, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  I’ve featured lots of these wonderful animals before, plus lots of other alphabetical mythical creatures, too.  On the one hand, it would be no fun merely to copy previous posts, but on the other, I want to make sure interested readers get the maximum alphabetical creature goodness,  so this year’s A-Z posts will be heavy on the links.  If you want to get the full content for each letter, you will have to click through to additional posts.  Of course I hope to entice you by including lots of new content, as well.
        So, what exactly is a bestiary, and what is my book all about?  From the explanation in the book:  Especially popular around the twelfth century, bestiaries were best-sellers of Medieval Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  Bestiaries are, of course, collections of beasts, but the medieval ones that the word "bestiary" usually implies include not only natural history, but also all sorts of symbolism, moral lessons, and what we now believe to be sheer fairy tale.

        My take on it for this project is a beast for every letter of the alphabet (plus half the letters ended up with two), which are all fantastical creatures from mythologies and folklore all around the world.  Each animal is illustrated with an original relief block print, a description and a little vignette or story, and a moral lesson.  The whole thing is written in a deliberately old-fashioned style, but with stories and morals that I hope will resonate with modern readers.  It’s a bit quirky and doesn’t necessarily fit into any easy marketing category — it’s a picture book but it’s not really for children; it’s fantasy, but not really a story; it's an alphabetized collection of mythical creatures, but not really an encyclopedia or reference work; it’s got moralizing, but it’s not really a sermon, or a religious book, or self-help… — but nevertheless I hope it will catch your fancy!
        “Okay,” you say, “Nice Theme Reveal, but I can’t help but notice that the banner above says ‘March 18’, and this happens to be March 11.”  My, aren’t you observant!  I hope you read all my other posts so carefully.  Yes, I am officially Revealing my Theme early because, as always, I’m tweaking the official schedule the better to suit my own blogging habits.  Once again I’ll be starting the challenge early, and this year the hard-working and innovative A-Z Challenge Team have announced that there will not be a separate daily list for each letter.  That means that if you’re coming from the Challenge you’ll be using the Master List, and that means that for every day except Y and Z you will find the wrong letter when you land here.  I’ll provide yet more links to help you find your way, and I trust you can roll with it.  So, welcome back to the A to Z Challenge.  Enjoy!

[Picture: draft cover design for On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, by AEGN, 2019.]

March 8, 2019

Poetry for Worldbuilding

        At Boskone I presented a workshop on how poetry is a great tool for worldbuilding, both in the sense of helping the creator create the world and in the sense of helping the reader be more immersed in the world.  I thought I’d post my main points here today.  Let’s start with a reminder about how pervasive poetry actually is in the real world, something people often don’t seem to notice.  You can check out previous posts Poetry is Everywhere Part I and II.  Think about all the different forms poetry can take: songs (including lullabies, hymns, love songs, ballads, drinking songs, work songs), riddles, epics and historical lays, casual snippets, advertising jingles, laments, children’s games, prophesies, mnemonic lists, psalms, satires, proverbs, challenges/taunts/trash-talking…
        Now consider how all those different forms of poetic language can gives clues about culture
- by referring to gods, historical or legendary figures, or pop figures
- by showing what metaphors are meaningful
            what images are striking
- by hinting at what’s an insult, what’s a compliment, what’s amusing
- by highlighting what’s important
            what everyone recognizes and knows
            proverbs, idioms, clichés, wisdom
        Poetry is a great place to use “archaic” or untranslated words such as names of people (gods, historical or legendary figures, or pop figures, as mentioned above), strange creatures, plants, tools, etc.  Generally in writing fantasy if you lard your prose with too many of these words, it gets in the way of the story, makes things hard to understand, and seems jarring because, after all, your story may be set in another world but it’s all supposed to be “translated” into English.  On the other hand, fantasy words can be a fantastic tool for helping the reader feel that they really are in a different place and not just the everyday, ordinary world; too few strange creatures or mythic characters and the world you’ve created just doesn’t seem very magical or marvelous or different.  Poetry to the rescue, because it is a perfect place to refer to things with which the reader won’t already be familiar.  Firstly, it works because within the created world of the story, poetry is a place where archaic words and unexplained allusions really would turn up, so it doesn’t seem jarring or artificial to encounter them there.  Secondly , it works because in the meta sense it doesn’t matter if a reader doesn’t understand everything in a song or poem within the story.  The gist and purpose of the poem can be clear without understanding every word.
        Poetry can also be a great way to help establish the differences between different cultures within a world.  All the elements of poetry:
   structure – form, line length and meter, stanzas, refrains
   sound patterns – rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition, parallel structure
   meaning – simile, metaphor, allegory, symbol
   image – description, senses, emotions
   register - the varieties of language that a speaker uses in a particular social context
can vary from culture to culture or from era to era.  Of course these elements can also vary widely within a single culture, but think, for example, of how Old English poetry tends to use alliteration across two halves of each line, while Japanese poetry tends to be built around stress patterns, classic English poetry loves rhyme, while modern English poetry tends to favor blank verse.  Considering how your different invented cultures might use poetry is a great discipline to help the creator to think about what’s important in each culture, what metaphors or images will be meaningful to them (and what won’t), what gods or historical figures will people allude to, and so on.  It’s also a great way to show  these things to the reader, which gives cultures much more feeling of depth.
        And finally, poetry can be used to give clues about individual characters.
What sorts of verse would this character know?
How learned are they in the history, religion, pop culture, or literature of their own culture?
How seriously do they take it?
What’s meaningful to them?
        Ultimately, what poetry requires of you is that you truly observe the world, both the physical world and the internal landscapes of people - and that’s also exactly what you need to be doing to create new worlds and the characters within them.

[Pictures: Sibyl Reading, chiaroscuro woodcut by Ugo da Carpi, between 1500-1530 (Image from the Library of Congress);
Girl Reading a Book, woodcut by Weaver Hawkins, c.1926-8 (Image from Centre for Australian Art);
Ovid, woodcut from Metamorphoses by Ovid, probably 1549, although seriously, Penn Libraries, you didn’t think to give a proper source for your own picture??? (Image from Penn Libraries).]

March 5, 2019

Creature Collections: Dracopedia

        As work continues apace on my own creature collection, it’s time for another review of some of the cool books already available.  Today I’m looking at three books by the same author/illustrator.  The premise of the Dracopedia books by William O’Connor is a blend between the genres of “how to draw” guides and “field guides” to mythical creatures.  In some ways these two genres are contradictory because instructions for drawing have to mention that you’re making things up, while field guides claim that you’re reporting what has really been seen in the world.  I think O’Connor does a surprisingly good job at the uneasy balance between the two ways of presenting mythical creatures.  All the Dracopedia books follow the format of presenting a creature and the “facts” about it, followed by a break-down of the process O’Connor used to create his illustration.  Most of his illustrations are done with a pencil sketch scanned into the computer and then painted digitally.
        The first Dracopedia book is subtitled A Guide to Drawing the Dragons of the World, and is organized as thirteen families of dragon, each with its biology, habitat, history, and different species, followed by the drawing lesson.  O’Connor’s illustration are beautifully detailed and lifelike, although they tend to be a little too monochromatic for my idea of perfection.  His natural history is well thought out and includes lots of good information, and it would have pleased my mythical-field-guide-loving children very much back in the day.  My one caveat is that O’Connor does indulge in a bit of mythical revisionism, reinterpreting as dragons all sorts of creatures that, in my opinion, are their own separate families.  This includes quetzalcoatl (which has now become somewhat standard as a dragon species in field guides), sea serpent, and hydra, but also the claim that the kilin is an Arctic dragon, the salamander is a species of basilisk (which in turn is a type of dragon), and tales of fairies and will-o’-the-wisps are really based on sightings of dragons.  This irked my purist heart a bit!  On the other hand, I really enjoyed O’Connor’s inclusion of the tiny feydragons, as well as riding dragons, which he calls dragonettes.
        The second book appears to be Dracopedia: The Great Dragons, but my library system doesn’t have it, so I can’t tell you about it and we move on to…
        The third book is subtitled The Bestiary and broadens its scope to 26 mythical creatures selected, after my own heart, as one for each letter of the alphabet.  Each creature has a section on history, followed by the art demonstration.  This time the art demos include a fair amount about concept sketches, and it’s interesting to see how the artist tried out a few different ideas for the creature and the composition of the piece, before selecting one to complete.  O’Connor selects creatures from around the world, including several of the oddities from European heraldry, but he definitely gives them his own spin and interpretations.  He has a tendency to stick wings on everything, including the chimera, enfield, and manticore.  I get it - everything’s cooler with wings - and I certainly
can’t complain about his wanting to reimagine things, as I’m busily reimagining things in my own bestiary, but some of his reinterpretations go a little too far for me.  They also end up with a number of the creatures looking a little samey, with no fewer than seven winged lion-and/or-horse things.  These criticisms should not be taken as too damning, though; on the whole this is an excellent book, with loads of wonderful content to satisfy the lover of mythical creatures.  I especially love the way he’s done the questing beast and the xenobeast.  (Fun note: out of the entire alphabet, O’Connor and I share only four creatures!  Although a few of his others were on my short list.)
        The fourth book is Dracopedia: Legends, and is organized around thirteen famous dragon legends from Europe and Asia.  Each story is retold, followed by the art demonstration, which includes a nice section on “Research and Concept Design.”  O’Connor assigns each of these legendary dragons to one of the families he defined in the first Dracopedia book.  Again, don’t look to this book for faithful retellings to satisfy the scholarly purist, but take it as a rip-roaring collection of monster adventures and illustrations, and enjoy.

[Pictures: Fronstispiece from Dracopedia: Legends by William O’Connor, 2018;
Feydragon Biology, from Dracopedia by O’Connor, 2009;
Questing Beast, from Dracopedia: The Bestiary by O’Connor, 2013;
Xenobeast, from Dracopedia: The Bestiary by O’Connor, 2013.]

March 1, 2019

Stories by Rebuffo

        Here are two wood block prints by Victor Rebuffo (Italy-Argentina, 1903-1983).  Rebuffo was very interested in the use of art and printmaking specifically to offer narratives and social commentary, and his pieces often seem to tell a story.  This first piece looks almost surreal, but when combined with the title, “Music of the Village” it suggests a whole scenario of character and plot.  I imagine that people are boarding the ship to emigrate, and are listening to the song that reminds them of their home, sung to them in farewell.  The side of the ship is like a wall separating the people, but the image evoked by the song cuts right through the steel wall with its vision of the village.  Rebuffo’s style is bold and somewhat rough, but at the same time it’s quite detailed and carefully shaded.
        I can’t tell quite as clear a story about the second piece.  It’s set in a city, under looming smokestacks, but the buildings in the foreground suggest more traditional village homes.  It’s hard to see in this small version, but at the end of the little street a whole crowd of men are gathered.  Are they simply the bustle of people living life in the city, or are they an unruly, frightening mob?  Are they looking for the woman?  And then what is the connection between the woman on the street and the indistinct figure inside the building?  The image of people holding out their hands to one another is always evocative, and I imagine the woman being invited inside to take refuge.  Unlike the first piece, where the title seems to clarify the story, in this piece the title “The Comment” doesn’t offer me much explanation.
        I find Rebuffo’s work interesting and thought-provoking, and I appreciate that he seems to be offering social commentary by telling stories and evoking ideas rather than by shouting out the rather bombastic imagery so common in political art.  I’ll be looking out for more by Rebuffo.

[Pictures: Musica de la Aldea (Music of the Village), woodcut by Victor Rebuffo, 1943;
El Comentario (The Comment), woodcut by Rebuffo, 1947 (Images from the Davis Museum at Wellesley College).]

February 26, 2019

Words of the Month - Undisobeyable?

        Obviously there are times during writing when I can’t think of exactly the right word.  Rather than stop and break the flow by trying too hard to come up with the perfect word in that moment, I use the nearest approximation and keep on writing.  However, my system is that I put that not-quite-right word in brackets to remind myself that it does need fixing.  A few weeks ago I was toying with my changeling story, in a section in which the human boy has been taken on the Faeries’ hunt.  There is a line: The king’s voice was [undisobeyable].  “Kill it.”
        I reached for my thesaurus to figure out the right word to replace that not-quite-right “undisobeyable,” and was dismayed to find no such word for exactly what I meant.  What I am trying to express is a sense that the boy felt that disobeying was simply not a physically, emotionally, humanly possible option.  He was not capable of refusing the king’s order, no matter how much he wanted to.

You’d think that the double negative “undis-“could be simplified to give us the positive obeyable.  But obeyable, besides being clunky, means you can obey, but not that you must obey.  Obeying is wholly optional.

The words that should mean you have to obey include mandatory, obligatory, and compulsory.  But these really just mean that the law says you must obey, but not that you are actually unable to break the law.  Plus, they would apply more to the action than the order, as in the killing being mandatory, rather than the king’s voice being mandatory.

The king’s voice might be commanding, authoritative, imperative, imperious, peremptory.  But these tell more about the attitude of the speaker than the effect that his voice has on the hearer.  We already know the king of the Faeries is issuing a command, and these adjectives don’t really explain the additional power of his voice that I’m trying to express.

Irresistible and compelling have the right sense of being unable to be resisted, but they make it sound like the boy is convinced rather than forced, and irresistible is much too positive, anyway.

Overpowering and inescapable, when describing a voice, just sound loud or penetrating.

Relentless and inexorable are close, but I already used them both in the preceding lines!

Of course I could just leave undisobeyable - other authors have used it.  But it sounds awfully clunky, and if my readers get thrown out of the flow to wonder whether that’s even a real word, that defeats my purpose altogether.

        I think what I’ll have to do is rewrite the sentence completely, or simply leave it out.  But I feel quite aggrieved that in a language with insane numbers of synonyms, we don’t seem to have a word for just this particular usage.  English doesn’t fail me often, but it’s interesting (if frustrating!) to examine those cases when it does.  Of course, if anyone does think of the perfect word I’m missing, please let me know!

[Picture: Richard I, woodcut from The Pastyme of people by John Rastell, 1530 (Image from University of Glasgow).]

February 22, 2019

Brown's Alphabet

        Here’s another block printed alphabet, and this time of a very different style.  James Brown’s alphabet doesn’t depict animals or people or anything starting with each letter, as my other featured alphabet books and collections have done.  Rather it’s simply a graphic representation of each letter itself.  Each of Brown’s letters is a linoleum block print in two colors, and the interesting thing is that they are actually the same block printed twice in different colors and at different orientations.  The way the letters are designed almost to tesselate, as the F, or to set up interesting secondary patterns, as the A, is clever and fun.  In some, such as the K, the letter would probably be clearer (if less graphically interesting) if it were printed only once, but in others, such as the Z, the double printing helps make the letter pop.  Still others, including the U, require both orientations of printing to be combined in order to form the letter completely.  In many cases I’m not crazy about the color combinations, but in some, such as the H, the layering of the two inks adds an interestingly different third color to the image.
        Another interesting feature of Brown’s printing is its imperfection.  There are areas of lighter ink, lines where the edge of the brayer isn’t smoothly blended, and even little bits and blotches where scraps of linoleum or dust got caught in the ink.  Normally these would be considered to have ruined the print, but Brown obviously embraces them as part of the graphic quality of hand-printed pieces.
        Naturally I don’t love these as much as my favorite black and white animal alphabets, but I do think they’re very cleverly designed.  I also think they must have been fun to play around with!  And of course they certainly make for some interesting variety, and variety, as we all know, is the spice of life.

[Pictures: Alpha, linocut by James Brown;
Foxtrot, linocut by Brown;
Hotel, linocut by Brown;
Zulu, linocut by Brown;
Kilo, linocut by Brown;
Uniform, linocut by Brown (Images from James Brown).]

February 19, 2019

Boskone 56 Report

        I spent this weekend at Boskone 56, the convention of the New England Science Fiction Association.  I had a great time and thought I’d share a few of the highlights.
        Right off the bat on Friday I did a reading from The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  There were five of us reading from our mostly middle grade works, and all the excerpts were thoroughly enjoyable to hear.  My fellow authors were Sarah Beth Durst, Sarah Jean Horwitz, Christine Taylor-Butler, and Justin Key, and I was honored to be in such excellent company.  I recommend checking out any of their books.  (Horwitz’s new book even features Jenny Haniver monsters!)
        On Saturday I was on a panel “Is Escaping Reality Good For Kids,” and while I certainly have lots of Opinions about this (click the Label for the panel in the sidebar to see my previous posts related to the subject), it was cool to hear other authors’ takes on the idea.  But of course we all agreed that reading SFF, whether it serves as “escapism” or “engaging more fully with the world” (and those are not necessarily contradictory), is a Good Thing.  Later I ran a printmaking project and, as usual, was impressed with the cool images people were able to come up with in a short time.  (Our time slot was only 50 minutes, so we used stamp pads instead of printing ink.)
        On Sunday I gave a workshop on using poetry as a tool in world-building, and spent some time making treasure maps with the kids’ program, and of course throughout the weekend I attended other panels and workshops, mostly on writing, and I enjoyed the entire art show.  I closed out the art show with excellent sales, including the last “Capybureau”!  It was a very small edition (only 6), but even so it’s set a record for selling out, and this from a critter I had thought no one would actually want to buy.  And to cap it all off (Ta DUM!) I received a Judge’s Choice ribbon for my “body of work” on display.  I am thoroughly honored and feeling very encouraged as I plug away pretty steadily at my mythical bestiary.  It may even be ready to bring to Boskone 57, which would be very exciting.  So I send out great big thanks to everyone!

February 12, 2019

Hearts and Flowers... and Birds and Hares

        Here are some sweet block prints for Valentine’s Day by British artist Celia Hart.  This first piece, featuring not only heart and flowers, but a love offerring, is the perfect Valentine.  I like the detail on the primrose at the bottom center, and the use of the striped background to accent the heart.  You can’t go wrong with this image of Valentine’s sentiment.   Hart is inspired by the Suffolk countryside where she lives and includes lots of natural details in her work.
        Still, where I live the only flowers outside of the florist in mid-February are a few snowdrops, so I particularly appreciate the bare-branched garlands of these next two pieces.  Yes, they still have a few flowers and butterflies, which we won’t be seeing here for a while yet, but they have much more of a vibe of the bare landscape.  There’s something particularly lovely about the birds and hares delighting in their partners while the world is still cold and not yet woken from its winter rest.  Add its title, “My Heart Leaps,” to the print of
the two hares regarding one another with delight, and it’s impossible not to catch the romance.
        A final piece, just to round out the collection, entitled “A Song in My Heart.”  There’s only the one robin here, but he’s singing a heart of flowers right out of the air.  This one is carved a little more smoothly, with a little more detail, and I like the composition with a blending of natural background - earth, twigs, grasses - and graphic layout - heart just floating on the page.
        So, if you, like the first few images here, have a beloved partner this Valentine’s Day, be sure to let them know how happy you are to be with them.  And if you don’t, then be like the robin in the final piece and keep spreading love all around you from the song in your heart.

[Pictures: The Birds’ Wedding Day, linocut by Celia Hart, 2012?;
Love Song, woodcut by Hart, 2013;
My Heart Leaps, woodcut by Hart, 2013;
A Song in My Heart, linocut by Hart, 2014 (Images from CeliaHart.co.uk).]

February 8, 2019

Kentucky Alligator-Horse

        The Kentucky alligator-horse is a fabulous mythical creature, as magnificently illustrated in this wood block print from a ballad broadside.  I like the use of the gouged wood texture for the ground.  I suspect that the two little British soldiers are separate blocks, probably ones the printer already had on hand rather than carved for this purpose.  They certainly make the alligator-horse look big.
        The origin of the creature, alas, is not quite as exciting as its appearance.  “Half horse half alligator” was a common description of Ohio and Mississippi riverboatmen in the tall tales of the early nineteenth century, and it was used in a song written to commemorate Andrew Jackson’s 1815 victory in the Battle of New Orleans.  The lyrics include:
And if a daring foe annoys,
Whate’er his strength and forces,
We’ll show him that Kentucky boys
Are alligator horses.
          …
Behind it stood our little force,
None wished it to be greater,
For ev’ry man was half a horse,
And half an alligator.
        So while the song was apparently enormously popular, that’s a little disappointing compared to the enormous ramping beast of the woodcut, which you’d think would at least lurk in swamps and do something fantastical.  Nevertheless, I think this creature is ripe for new life in legend.

[Picture: The Hunters of Kentucky, or Half Horse and Half Alligator, wood block print c.1815 (Image from Wikimedia Commons.  See another version from the Library of Congress).]

February 5, 2019

Ultima Thule

        Ultima Thule is in the news this year as the nickname of Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69, which the New Horizons spacecraft has just flown by, sending back a stream of photos and other data.  So now’s a good time to look at where that nickname comes from and the mythology behind it.
        Thule is the name given by ancient Greek writers to the farthest north inhabited land.  It was apparently first mentioned by Pytheas in the fourth century BCE, in a work known only from references in other authors.  One said that in the region of Thule “there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish in which one can neither walk nor sail.”  Pliny the Elder said “it is day and night continually for six months by turns.”  On the other hand, other authors wrote that the land was fertile and the inhabitants could grow abundant crops.  The fact is that they were probably not all talking about the same place, since the real-world location of Thule has been identified as anything from Ireland to Greenland to northern Scandinavia to Estonia.  I don’t care about possible real-world locations, though.  I’m interested in Ultima Thule as a mythical location.
        The phrase Ultima Thule, meaning “farthermost Thule” came to have a more metaphorical sense of a land beyond the edges of the known world, or even an unattainable goal.  In the middle ages it became linked with other mythical islands beyond Ireland.  As a metaphor or symbol of the unknown areas beyond exploration, Ultima Thule has had great resonance for explorers from the time of St Brendan, and Columbus, through to the New Horizons spacecraft.  (Nazi occultists also found resonance with the name, but I agree with New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern’s statement, “Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”)  It’s a characteristic of humans that we look to the edges of our known world, and it’s nice to have a name for whatever it is that might lie beyond.
        I leave you with Edgar Allen Poe’s reference from the poem Dream-Land (1844).
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidelon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule -
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
          Out of SPACE - out of TIME.

[Pictures: Photo of Ultima Thule by New Horizons spacecraft, 2019 (Image from NASA/Johns Hopkins);
Tile (Thule), detail from the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus, 1539 (Image from Open Edition).]

February 1, 2019

Woodcuts by Phyllis


      Phyllis Gardner (England, 1890-1939) specialized in wood carving at the Slade School, and obviously included wood block printing in that category, as well as sculpture.  She later became a breeder of Irish wolfhounds and clearly loved dogs.  I love this woodcut of a dog, and although the British Museum describes it as a St Bernard, Gardner doesn’t seem to have titled the piece, and it looks more like a border collie to me.  Still, I’m no dog expert, so I’ll stick to block printing: I like the boldness of the design, without sacrificing sensitivity, and I like the three swaths of background area, sweeping sky, solid black, and beautifully patterned lawn.  Gardner signs all her pieces with her first name only, in Greek.
        This second piece is interesting because it has so little white.  The entire image is composed of thin and even thinner white lines on black.  Nevertheless, it shows the arches in the shadowy interior, the suspended model ship common in coastal churches, and the sprinkle of light through the leaded windows.  The composition is interesting because you’d think the focal point would be the votive ship or maybe the window, and instead the most striking part of the piece is the framing arches.
        Gardner has used thin lines again, but for a very different effect in this third piece.  The lines right across all the background buildings of the town give the impression of one huge building rather than a jumble of smaller ones, but it also allows the ships’ rigging to show up interestingly.  She does manage the width of the lines so as to make the steeple show up behind the chimneys on the left, though.  The water, by contrast, is curvy instead of straight, with larger areas of black and white instead of even “grey” texture.  I like the punch of the different texture of the stone wall, as well.
        I enjoy Gardner’s use of line and darkness.  She’s taking advantage of what makes block printing different and special.

[Pictures: Dog, woodcut by Phyllis Gardner, 1913-24;
Church at Yarmouth, woodcut by Gardner, 1913-24;
Yarmouth Harbour, woodcut  by Gardner, 1913-24 (All images from The British Museum).]

January 29, 2019

Words of the Month - Roget's Thesaurus

        Peter Mark Roget was born on January 18, 1779, so I thought it was appropriate to honor (observe, celebrate, commemorate)  his 240th birthday.  Roget’s personal story is rather sad (unfortunate, piteous, doleful) - he lost several close family members and suffered from depression for much of his life.  Indeed, his lifelong habit of collecting words and making lists sprang from his struggles (endeavors, travails, sufferings) as a coping mechanism.  But I always find it inspirational when someone makes something positive out of negative circumstances, and not only can I relate to Roget’s love of collecting words, but I love (adore, cherish, treasure) my thesaurus deeply.
        I can’t remember when I was first introduced to the thesaurus, but it’s been a book I wouldn’t want to live without since at least junior high school.  Specifically, I favor the original format that Roget devised, rather than the newer “dictionary form” thesauruses.  Yes, sometimes it’s handy just to type a quick computer search, but if you really want to find the perfect word, nothing beats Roget’s system organized by categories of meaning.  It may seem ungainly that you have to look up your word in the index first, but already there’s an advantage: if that word has a couple of different meanings, it helps you clarify your thinking, and then go straight to the sense you’re looking for.  Then, once you turn to the correct section, you get more advantages.  All the different parts of speech are together.  Other similar words are nearby.  Antonyms are usually right next door.  This makes it much easier to sift through all the possibilities and really find that perfect word, instead of settling for some random synonym that may or may not actually have the exact shade of meaning I crave.  The only improvements to my thesaurus that I would make if I could would be hyperlinks in my book to go straight from the index to the entries, and to go from any listed word to its dictionary entry.  (Pro tip: never use a synonym - or indeed any word with which you’re not familiar - without checking in the dictionary first.)
        If you, like Roget and I, are a word collector, there are plenty of books (in addition to the thesaurus and the dictionary, of course) to keep you company.  Here are just a few.
        The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet - A picture book biography of Roget, noting how the making of lists of words comforted young Peter, and emphasizing how important and satisfying it is to find the right word.  The mixed-media illustrations by Sweet are a lot of fun, too, incorporating all kinds of extra word lists.  This is a Caldecott Honor book.  I definitely recommend it for any kids who love words.
        The Word Collector, by Sonja Wimmer - About a girl who lives high in the sky and collects "funny words that tickle your palate when you say them, words so beautiful that they make you cry, friendly words that embrace your soul."  When she hears that people are forgetting all the beautiful words, she sets out to give her words away to everyone who needs them, and by the time her words are gone, people have begun making and sharing new words.  It's a nice story, but my main complaint is in the book design.  The letters and words are so mixed up on the page, so mixed in with the exaggerated illustrations, that there is actually a script at the end of the book to tell you what each page is supposed to say. I would have liked the story better if I could have read it more easily.
        A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd - A lovely middle grade novel whose main character is a girl who sees words wherever she goes, “shining above strangers, tucked into church eaves, and tangled up in her dog’s floppy ears.”  The words aren’t really what the book is about, but they’re a fun element.  We loved this one as a read-aloud.
        The Word Collector, by Peter Reynolds - About a boy who collects words on slips of paper and puts them in albums: “Short and sweet words.  Two-syllable treats.  And multi-syllable words that sounded like little songs.”  When he accidentally drops his collection and the words get mixed, he starts making poetry, and finally “emptied his collection of words into the wind.”  Curmudgeonly complaints about littering aside, I wanted to love this one, but didn’t quite.  I can’t put my finger on why, so chances are that you may well adore it.  It’s certainly worth a look.
        I leave you with a handful of delicious words that I’ve collected over the years.  Feel free to look them up yourself, in the dictionary or the thesaurus.
     borborygmus, viridian, cachinnate, squamulous, fid

[Picture: Fine, illustration by Melissa Sweet from The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant, 2014.]

January 25, 2019

Multicultural Children's Book Day

        Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day.  Why?  I like the phrase “windows and mirrors.”  When children read (and probably the rest of us, too) they need to find windows through which to understand and empathize with people who are unlike them, and they need to find mirrors in which to see reflections of their own lives affirmed.  This includes axes of diversity such as race, ethnic background, [dis]abilities, language, religion, family structure, gender identity, and all sorts of other elements of culture.  (Just to clarify, I’m talking about more than one axis, not a bunch of hatchets.)  This multiculturalism can be explicit, as in a book that specifically references an abuela’s traditional cooking, for example, or it can be in the background, as a picture book in which families are shown with a wide range of skin tones despite it never being mentioned in the text.  Both modes are valuable.
        I can certainly attest that as a child I was happy enough to read about boy heroes, but I definitely also craved books with girl heroes.  Yes; it mattered.  So today is a good day to remember how much it matters that all children find themselves reflected in books, and that all children see that other people of other cultural backgrounds are also present in the world of books, where their shoes can be borrowed for a mile or so.  Here’s Charlotte’s Library’s excellent list of Reviews of Multicultural Speculative Fiction for Kids and Teens, and I’m sure a quick search would get you lots of other recommendations, especially for picture books.  So let’s celebrate the wonderful books that are already out, and keep pushing for more!

[Picture: The Family Who Lived in a Shoe, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003.]

January 22, 2019

Award-Winning Artist

        Toot toot!  This is me tooting my own horn: this past weekend at the Arisia con I won the Directors’ Choice Art Show Award for my series of mythical creatures from the in-progress On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  I’m honored because there is so much amazing art in the Arisia art show, and I’m delighted because I think this makes me an “award-winning artist” for the first time.  My daughter said, “You must have won some prize in middle school or something,” but I can’t think of anything.  I’ve been an “award-winning writer” since elementary school, but I didn’t enter art shows as a child, and I wasn’t even an art student after ninth grade, so I think this is the first.  It’s a very nice pat on the back, and much appreciated.  (I hope it is also an indication that there may actually be some interest in this somewhat strange bestiary project upon which I’ve embarked.)
        Of course Arisia also means block printing workshops, and once again I’m really impressed by the blocks people were able to design, carve, and print in only an hour and a quarter.  I would love to be able to give people two hours to work, but the Arisia schedule is built in 75-minute sessions, so people have to work fast.  They still do an amazing job, though, so I’ve shared a few of them here, and expect to share a few more in later posts.  (I can’t tell you the names of the artists, although if anyone wants to claim their work and be credited, just let me know!)
        Finally, for anyone making their way to this blog from Arisia, I will just remind you that I’ve put the names of the panels on which I participated as Labels in the sidebar to the right.  Click to find the references, links, and my own brilliant insights into the topics.  Also, in four weeks I’ll be at Boskone, another sci fi/fantasy convention, and as they’ve now made their schedule public, I will start adding those panels to the Labels list, as well.
        Thanks to all the authors and artists with whom I shared panels, the art show co-directors and fellow artists there, and audience members with great questions and insights of their own.  See you next year!



[Award-winning Artist AEGN at Arisia Art Show, photo by TPN, 2019;
Octopus;
Butterfly;
Sloth, rubber block print by AM;
Black Cat;
Kit Kat, all rubber block prints done at Arisia 2019.]

January 18, 2019

Writing the Future

        Later this afternoon I will be at the Arisia convention, on a panel with four other writers to talk about “Stories to Change the World.”  As any regular reader of this blog knows, this is a topic I get pretty excited about, so I thought I’d slip in one more post before the panel.  This is to direct you to an article by Walidah Imarisha.  Imarisha says “When I tell people I am a prison abolitionist and that I believe in ending all prisons, they often look at me like I rode in on a unicorn sliding down a rainbow.”  That’s understandable, because a world without prisons would be very different from the world we know, and it’s a little hard to get our heads around what that might actually mean.  And that’s exactly Imarisha’s point and mine: speculative fiction is one of the best tools we have for helping us get our heads around ways of being that are different from the ways we currently know.  Imarisha can write stories depicting a world without prisons, showing me what she envisions that might look like, and then I can start to imagine it, too.
        Of course, if Imarisha writes a story in which a prison-less society is a great thing, someone else can write a story depicting all the worst case scenarios of why they imagine this would be a terrible idea.  Neither of these stories would be a True and Accurate Prophecy of what would happen, but that isn’t the point.  Imarisha’s coeditor adrienne maree brown “calls science fiction ‘an exploring ground,’ a laboratory to try new tactics, strategies, and visions without real-world costs.”  The point is simply to break us out of the myth of “realism” to see that other possibilities are possible.  Once we start to imagine what might happen if we made different choices, and what a world could look like if we took other paths, then we are better able to decide which world we want, and what the steps might be that could move us toward it… and what steps we may want to avoid.
        Read Imarisha’s article, Rewriting the Future, and then look to the right of this post in the list of Labels in the sidebar, and click on the Label “Arisia’19: Stories to Change the World” for a selection of other posts that explore this aspect of speculative fiction.

[Picture: Der Gefangene (The Prisoner), woodcut by Christian Rohlfs, 1918 (Image from moma).]

January 15, 2019

Two By Marcks

        What a fun block print this is, by Gerhard Marcks (Germany, 1889-1981).  I just love the simplicity of it: the necks are just lines, the heads are almost hieroglyphic, and the background is such an interesting contrast of very simple geometric pattern.  Four of the ostriches are male, which is a natural for a black and white block print, with one speckled female for variety.  (I’m also appreciating ostriches right now because the block I just designed to be carved next weekend includes an ostrich-inspired alien creature - or struthioform, to coin(?) a fancier word to describe it.)
        Here’s another piece by Marcks with a very different vibe, although you can certainly see a commonality in the extensive use of simple striping.  Instead of being humorous, this is dramatic and quite serious.  One interesting detail is that you can see a bit of wood grain on the under edges of the cloud, which contributes to the shading.  I wonder whether this was a happy accident, or whether Marcks deliberately created the effect, perhaps by sanding the grain slightly in those places, or by inking more lightly there.
        I really like both these pieces, and their different moods.

[Pictures: Laufende Strauße (Running Ostriches), woodcut by Gerhard Marcks, 1956 (Image from Galerie Nierendorf);
Einsame Pappel (Lone Poplar), woodcut by Marcks, 1960 (Image from Luther College).

January 12, 2019

They Run Again

Beyond the black and naked wood
In frosty gold has set the sun,
And dusk glides forth in cobweb hood...
Sister, tonight the werewolves run!

With white teeth gleaming and eyes aflame
The werewolves gather upon the howe!
Country churl and village dame,
They have forgotten the wheel and plow.

They have forgotten the speech of men;
Their throats are dry with a dreadful thirst;
And woe to the traveler in the glen
Who meets tonight with that band accurst!

Now from the hollows creeps the dark;
The moon like a yellow owl takes flight;
Good people on their house-doors mark
A cross, and hug their hearths in fright.

Sister, listen! . . . The King-Wolf howls!
The pack is running! . . . Drink down the brew,
Don the unearthly, shaggy cowls, —
We must be running too!

        This poem, from 1939, is by Leah Bodine Drake (USA, 1904-1964), who made a name for herself specializing in macabre poetry, winning awards and lots of publication in the mid twentieth century.  I don’t normally get very excited about werewolves, but Drake does some interesting things here.  For one thing, the last verse implies that turning to a wolf is a choice, not an involuntary transformation.  For another, I like the way she simultaneously depicts the werewolves as the horrible, terrifying monsters they are, yet also gives a view of what they feel like from the inside.  As for the specifics of her language, she’s a little freer with exclamation marks than I would be, but I very much like some of her phrases, especially “their throats are dry with a dreadful thirst” and “the moon like a yellow owl takes flight.”

[Picture: Detail from W is for Wolf, wood block print with multiple blocks by C.B. Falls, from ABC Book, 1923.]