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;
Sloth, rubber block print by AM;
Black Cat;
Kit Kat, all rubber block prints done at Arisia 2019.]