September 27, 2013

Words of the Month - Punctuation

        September 24 was National Punctuation Day (at least according to whomever it was who registered it.)  As someone with Opinions about punctuation, I thought I'd dedicate this month's words to the topic.  First, a brief history.  Our system of punctuation owes most of its roots to the ancient Greek dramatists, who made little marks on the scripts of their plays to help the actors know where to pause in speaking their lines.  The part of a sentence which each mark noted eventually gave its name to the mark itself.

comma -  literally "piece which is cut off", it meant a piece of a sentence in Greek and indicated the shortest pause while speaking (entered English in the 1520'2 as a Latin word, by 1590's accepted as English)

colon - entered English in the 1540's from Latin "part of a poem," from Greek "part of a verse," where it indicated a medium pause.  The Greek word meant literally "limb," from Proto-Indo-European "to bend."  It appears to be unrelated to the word for the large intestine.

period - The first meaning in English was "an extent of time," then it meant "the pause at the end of a sentence," and finally (c. 1600) the dot marking the end of a sentence.  In ancient Greece it indicated the longest pause for the actors.

        In the Middle Ages there wasn't a lot of punctuation, and what there was was not standardized.  Manuscripts were often written without even spaces between words, let alone spaces or marks between sentences or paragraphs.  However, sometimes marks such as strokes and dots of various sorts were used to indicate groupings of words, still to help with the reading aloud of text.

punctuation - from Medieval Latin "marking with points," from Latin punctus "a prick."  The meaning "system of inserting pause marks in written matter" dates from the 1660s.

pilcrow - This is the proper name for the paragraph sign: or ¶.  The word may derive either from French pelegraph, a corruption of paragraph, or it may derive from, of all things, pulled crow, on the theory that it looks like one (!?)  The form may derive from a C with a line down it, from Latin capitulum, meaning "chapter," and is really not a backwards P at all.  It was used in some medieval manuscripts to mark transition from one topic to another, but nowadays we don't see much of this sign, unless we're looking at a computer document with its "hidden characters" showing, where it marks a return.

        William Caxton, the first printer in England, used only the stroke, the colon, and the period, but not in the same ways we do.  For example, his period could indicate either a full stop or a comma-like pause.  It was the invention of printing with moveable type that standardized punctuation, however.  It also catalyzed the shift from punctuation designed to help with reading aloud, to punctuation designed to help with reading silently.  

exclamation mark - One theory as to the origin of the mark is the Latin exclamation of joy, io, written with the letters one above the other.  Exclamation mark became the standard word (or at least a standard word) in the mid seventeenth century, but there are a surprising number of terms for this particular punctuation point.  Among my favorites are note of admiration, bang, and shriekmark.  I also like shout pole, which was apparently coined by Andrew Hussie in his webcomic Homestuck.  (See this article by Megan Garber for more!)  And a final bit of trivia: although the exclamation mark was used in printing since the fifteenth century, it wasn't standard on typewriters until the 1970s.  Before that you had to type an apostrophe, backspace, and type a period below it.

eroteme - You may think you don't know this punctuation mark, but you do.  It's simply the word for question mark adopted by American grammarian Goold Brown in the first half of the nineteenth century.  It may be less straightforward, but you have to admit that it's more pleasing to say and a lot shorter to write.  Isn't it a lovely word to know?

        Let's close with some new punctuation marks that have been proposed (but will almost certainly not catch on.)

interrobang - Invented in the 1960s by ad exec Martin K. Speckter, this mashup of a note of admiration and an eroteme is, I'm sorry to say, essentially pointless.  The word is, of course, derived by blending interrogative point with bang, but other proposed names for the punctuation mark included exclarotive and exclamaquest.  At least Speckter chose the best option!  It enjoyed a brief vogue, even appearing on some typewriters (this before the plain exclamation point was standard) but in the end was merely a passing fad.

percontation point - With the rise of on-line communication there's been a lot of discussion of the need for punctuation to indicate irony and sarcasm.  But the English written language has been toying with this idea for quite a while.  The percontation mark, simply a backwards question mark, was invented in the 1580s to mark a rhetorical question, but it didn't make it past the seventeenth century.  In 1841 Belgian lithographer Marcellin Jobard used that same backwards question mark symbol as an irony mark.  In 1966 a Frenchman indicated the point d'ironie with a symbol like a psi: ψ.  In 2007 a Dutch type foundry
unveiled another design, the ironieteken, like a lightning-bolt-shaped exclamation point.  In 2010 an American company invented the SarcMark, which can be downloaded (for a fee, naturally) for use on electronic devices.  And does the use of emoticons such as ;) and :P count as punctuation?  It will be interesting to see whether we ever do end up with another punctuation mark.  And if we do, what will it be called?  Snark mark?

        Just remember, whatever punctuation you use, for pity's sake, please use it correctly!  Consider the difference between
Let's eat, Grandma! and
Let's eat grandma!
    Punctuation saves lives.

[Pictures: Tails magazine cover, image found here;
Commafail sign, image from The Snarky Student's Guide to Grammar;
Selection of irony marks, from here, here, and here;
Cartoon unattributed, image found here.]

September 24, 2013

Illustrations by Lawrence

        Browsing in the library last week I came upon a book illustrated by John Lawrence (b. 1933, UK), so I looked up a few more.  I'm always happy to see block printed illustrations, and I like Lawrence's a lot.  Like the vast majority of modern books, the illustrations are in full color, and Lawrence does paint in his prints in places to give them color, as most other block print illustrators do.  However, he also makes use of a couple other techniques, including an interesting one I haven't seen before.
        First, however, Lawrence's basic block medium is vinyl.  Vinyl is a substitute for the end grain wood blocks used for wood engraving, and one advantage is that it can be made in bigger pieces.  Lawrence clearly goes for big and bold in these illustrations, but you can still see the use of engraving techniques, for example the use of the multiple line tool especially evident in the rabbit's fur.  In addition to the carved vinyl blocks, Lawrence also uses background texture blocks in some pieces, such as the duck, where the background is wood texture, and the dandelions, where the background texture looks less like wood.  I wonder if it's another vinyl block instead.
        As for color, Lawrence uses two main techniques.  First, there's some watercolor painting within the lines, but more interestingly, he makes lots of use of different colored inks on the blocks, so that the outlines and main shapes of his pictures are often not black.  In the ship below, for example, he's used three different colors of green ink, just a tiny area of yellow watercolor wash, and no black at all.
        As I've noted before, it's not easy to ink different areas of a block with different inks and manage to get the colors exactly lined up to different elements in the picture.  Lawrence has solved that difficulty with an interesting technique that I dabbled with on one piece once, but abandoned.  Lawrence is much more successful with it.  It appears that he prints his block separately on separate paper for each color he wants, then cuts out the elements from the different
sheets of paper and glues them back together into a single multi-colored image.  You can see how the brown-inked rabbit is really collaged onto the blue-inked background.  If you look very closely you can see that he's used this technique in lots of places.  Indeed, in the dandelion piece he's used all sorts of layering: dandelion stems glued down over background, yellow-inked flowers glued down over stems, and even the green-leafed plant glued down over the rest of the plants.
        Finally, the books note that Lawrence used a computer to bring elements together.  He also brings the text into the design in the two children's picture books, using a hand carved font, and arranging text and text blocks to make a cohesive part of the images.
        I might have to fool around a little more with this whole collage idea, now that I see how appealing it can be.

[Pictures: Rabbit, vinyl engraving by John Lawrence from Tiny's Big Adventure by Martin Waddell, 2004;
Duck, vinyl engraving from This Little Chick by Lawrence, 2002;
Bristol, vinyl engraving by Lawrence from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 2009;
The Hispaniola, vinyl engraving by Lawrence from Treasure Island, 2009;
Two little mice, vinyl engraving by John Lawrence from Tiny's Big Adventure, 2004.
(All images except Hispaniola are cropped due to my scanner.)]

September 21, 2013

Birthday Hobbits

        Tomorrow is a special day in Middle-earth: the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  This is an important day because it was on Bilbo's 111th birthday that he disappeared at the climax of his gala party, left the Shire, and left the One Ring to his cousin Frodo.  It was also Frodo's 33rd birthday, and his coming of age.  Tolkien must have had a special affection for birthdays (or maybe it's just that Hobbits do) because the One Ring came to another Hobbit on his birthday, too: Sméagol, who was to become Gollum.  Sméagol murdered his friend who refused to give him the Ring for a birthday gift, and ever after Sméagol/Gollum referred to the Ring as his "birthday present."  (As far as I know, Sméagol's birthday is not recorded, and Bilbo found the One Ring near Gollum's lair in July, so not all Ring transfers take place on birthdays.)
        Of course, nothing involving calendars is ever simple, and Tolkien explains discrepancies between the Shire calendar and the Gregorian calendar in his voluminous appendices.  Therefore the actual birthday would be between September 12 and 14.  But that's not important.  The important thing is to have an excuse to celebrate, and tomorrow is the day on which we take advantage of this excuse.
        Some birthdays become holidays, such as Martin Luther King, Jr's, and in Middle-earth September 22 is declared a festival in honor of Frodo and Bilbo.  In our earth some people apparently go barefoot to celebrate Hobbit Day, but I think a much more fitting way to commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of the hobbits would
be to perform a noble act of heroism.  Now I just need to figure out what noble act of heroism I can manage tomorrow.  You try to think of one, too!

[Pictures: Bilbo and Gollum, illustration by Tove Jansson for a Swedish edition of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1962;
Bilbo, Gandalf, and Beorn, woodcut by Maret Kernumees for Estonian edition of The Hobbit, 1977;
Bilbo, illustration by Jan Mlodozeniec for Polish edition of The Hobbit, 1960.
(All images from Babel Hobbits.)]

September 17, 2013

Fisher's Factories

        Leonard Everett Fisher (USA, 1924) is a man who writes books and illustrates them with block prints, so he must be pretty cool, right?  Actually, he's an artist who illustrated many books in a variety of media, but I ran into his work in a series of books about nineteenth century America.  The pieces I have for you today come from his book about the history of factories.
        There are some interesting textures in these pieces.  The use of curves in the background shading is somewhat unusual, as straight lines are easier to carve than curves.  I'm also interested in the texture of the mill's foundation, which looks more scraped than carved.  Both those techniques are characteristic of engraving tools.  In any case, I like the way Fisher has given the clapboard a look of handmade irregularity and the water a look of controlled current.
        The street scene shows a skillful use of lines and textures to suggest a vast amount of detail without really being very precisely detailed.  I love how efficiently the people are sketched.  That takes a surety that I don't have.  I never trust my images to show
what I want them to show unless I really spell everything out.  I like the architectural details on the different tenements, and the laundry flapping on lines and railings.
        One of the things that interests me about this third piece is the composition of the objects laid against a partial background.  The black block behind the objects provides the background for the white outlines of cart wheels and horses and the side of the building, but it doesn't surround the picture entirely, and it fades away at its edges.  The picture reminds me, too, how attractive many of those old factory buildings are, designed and built with care and attention to decorative detail rather than just slapped-together boxes of concrete.  (The other thing I like is the name of the company: Mr Ovens's Bakery.  That man was born to bake.)
        I suppose nowadays publishers want full color illustrations, and non-fiction books are usually illustrated with photographs.  I certainly like full color and photography, too, but in my opinion block prints never go out of style.

[Pictures: The Almy, Brown & Slater Company, wood engraving by Leonard Everett Fisher;
Tenements, wood engraving by Fisher;
A bakery, wood engraving by Fisher (all images from The Factories, written and illustrated by Fisher, Holiday House, 1979).]

September 13, 2013


        In honor of Seamus Heaney, I was skimming through his translation of Beowulf the other day, and thought the time had come for a few words on Grendel.  I have to say that Beowulf's culture is really not my thing, and in many ways I think it's a fairly stupid story - just a bunch of brainless macho men (and monsters) running around tearing each other's limbs off for no good reason and calling it honor and prowess.  Not exactly my cup of mead.  For example, after Grendel's mother kills one of the warriors in revenge for her son's death, Beowulf tells the distraught king, "Wise sir, do not grieve.  It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge mourning."  Isn't that exactly what Grendel's mother just did?  And for that she's called a monster while Beowulf's called a hero?  Stupid.
        That said, you can certainly see in Beowulf the roots of so much of our fantasy vocabulary that it's fascinating to look at what's changed, and what's stayed the same after all this time.  Beowulf had disappeared from view for centuries, so it didn't directly influence anyone before Tolkien, but I think it's pretty clear that it represents some of the roots of our ideas of culture and literature, heroes and quests.
        In some ways, the most interesting characters are not Beowulf and all the other drunken, smack-talking heroes, but Grendel and his mother.  (I think she needs a name.  Grendelina?  Madam Grendel?  Pam?)  Scholars and critics continue to debate their nature.  Are they human or monster?  And if monster, are they humanoid or completely monstrous, of earth or hell?  Heaney's translation calls Grendel demon, fiend, monster, God-cursed brute, shadow-stalker, terror-monger, hell-serf…
     …they have seen two such creatures
     prowling the moors, huge marauders
     from some other world. One of these things,
     as far as anyone ever can discern,
     looks like a woman; the other, warped
     in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale
     bigger than any man, an unnatural birth
     called Grendel by country people
     in former days. They are fatherless creatures,
     and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past
     of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart…

        This seems to me like a rather pro forma litany of insults, and very little to go by if you're trying to picture their physical appearance.  Would they be scaly or slimy, furry or smooth-skinned?  Who knows?  (Though I do feel fairly certain that no swamp-dweller would have high-heeled feet as Madam Grendel does in the 2007 movie.  Anyone with half a brain knows that swamp creatures have wide flat feet so they don't sink in.)
        The description of their lair, by contrast, is more interesting, conjuring up images of a specific, fantastical place.

     a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
     above a mere; the overhanging bank
     is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
     At night there, something uncanny happens:
     the water burns. And the mere bottom
     has never been sounded by the sons of men.
     On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
     the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
     will turn to face them with firm-set horns
     and die in the wood rather than dive
     beneath its surface. That is no good place.
I like that.
        As for my own small spin on the Grendel story, it appears as an aside in Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster.  The toad Grimm explains, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Grendel family?  One of Grendelkin’s great-great-grandpas had a disagreement with some human folks in Denmark.  There was a big fight, an arm got ripped right off, his mother had to step in… It was just a mess.  You’d think swamp-dwellers wouldn’t have to worry about rowdy neighbors all the time, but eventually the family emigrated to North America in hopes of some peace and quiet.  That was hundreds of years ago, of course, but these monsters can live a long time when warriors with magic swords don’t get involved.  Anyway, the thing to remember if you ever meet Grendelkin is that he hates a ruckus, so no hollering.”

[Pictures: Beowulf and Grendel, wood engraving by Jonathan Day (Image from Mad Pencil on Flickr);
Grendel in His Pit, linoleum block print by Jacob Sharpe (Image from his Etsy shop thehangingbadger).]
Quotations from Beowulf, verse translation by Seamus Heaney, 2000 (on-line here.  And for good measure you can also see the original Old English manuscript courtesy of the British Library, although it's mixed with other manuscripts.)

September 10, 2013

What's New in the Studio

        I finally finished my ten turtle pile up that sat partially carved for pretty much the entire summer.  I began it as a demonstration block at an artist talk in June, carved a bit more as I sat at the farmer's market a week later, and then barely looked at it for two months.  But as I've slowed down on work on the writing, I've been able to pull out the block and get back to carving.
        These are our Eastern painted turtles, the ones we see in ponds around here, the ones that sometimes come up onto our lawn to lay eggs.  They're tastefully handsome, mellow neighbors, and always a treat to see.  You might think that there wouldn't be anything very exciting about watching a dark oval just sitting there like a smooth rock, but there's something benevolent about these painted turtles so that it feels like a privilege and a blessing just to be allowed to watch them sunning.  They don't seem to care whether they're on top of someone else, or someone else is on top of them.  It's all good.
        These days my son P claims turtles as his favorite animal, so he's been agitating for me to finish this block.  I chose to do the logful of them rather than a more detailed portrait of just one animal, because this is how we usually experience them - at a small distance across the water, in clusters of three or four, though sometimes more.  But I put 10 turtles in my picture partly because, well, the more the merrier, and partly because I wanted something to represent the number ten.  See, in idle moments I've been amusing myself with thoughts of a follow-up to Amazing, Beguiling, Curious, that would be a counting book, and I had nothing at all for ten.  I don't know whether I'll ever move forward with that idea, but even if I don't, I think these ten turtles will continue to be happy just hanging out together on their log.  Perhaps we could all take a lesson from them.

[Picture: Ten Turtles, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013 (sold out).]

September 6, 2013

Kids vs Editors

        Our current read-aloud is a draft of The Extraordinary Book of Doors, my work in progress due to be released, I hope, in early spring of 2014.  Reading aloud is a great way to proofread and find errors and awkwardnesses that the eye skims silently over, but even more importantly, P and T are serving as my first critics/guinea pigs, letting me know when things are unclear or unsatisfactory.  Their reactions are always helpful, but sometimes they're also quite illuminating about the way children (or at least these particular children) think.  Sometimes they think very differently from adult editors.
        The example that prompted these observations was P's very first comment on my story.  The character Chen Connelly was looking at the magical Book of Doors in his parents' office, and P piped up, "You need to describe the office more.  I can't picture where the tables are, and the windows and stuff."  Now, anyone who's read my books (especially the Otherworld series!) knows that I do not stint on description, so I had already included a few clues about this office, blended in with the unfolding actions of the characters.  I looked at the passage in question and couldn't really see where I could add any more description without slowing down the narrative.  Elmore Leonard's rules of writing include "Don't go into great detail describing places…" and every advice guide for writers you'll ever see these days admonishes against description, adjectives of all sorts, and info dumps.  This tells us that editors these days dislike description.  It implies that at least some adult readers (particularly the ones who also have jobs as editors) dislike description.  What it doesn't tell us is what children like to read.  At least one child, my son, clearly feels strongly that you need to be given enough description to be able to picture the scene quite specifically.
        This reminds me of the first book I wrote for P and T, Kate and Sam to the Rescue.  In this story Kate and Sam's parents are unexpectedly carried off by a dragon and the children set off to rescue them.  Children and parents eventually meet up and are happily reunited, the conflicts have their climactic resolution, and I as the writer figured I needed a paragraph or two of wrap-up and my job was done.  T and P, then six years old, had other ideas.  They were aghast that I could even contemplate wrapping up the story at that point.  Our heroes were away from home, and the story couldn't be over until they'd gotten all the way back home.  But it wouldn't be enough for me to write blithely, "Three days later they were back at their own front door," or anything easy like that.  Oh no, I was to narrate every step of the journey back, with further adventures along the way.
        Sometimes adult editors and critics have different taste from the children who are the target audience.  That editors and parents are the gatekeepers of what children get to read has always been an issue, the more so the younger the child.  It's a simple fact that if I want my books to sell (and I do!) then to be economically realistic it's more important that I appeal to book buyers than book readers.  But at the same time, much as I want to sell books, what I want even more is to write stories that children enjoy reading - enjoy and find satisfying in that deep way that characterizes the best books.  So when adults and children find satisfaction in opposing styles, what's a writer to do?  Well, as usual, I kiss economic considerations goodbye and fall back on my own judgement.  In the case of Kate and Sam, I decided to honor T and P's demands and include a few more chapters for the journey home.  Think of "The Scouring of the Shire" in The Return of the King, which some Tolkien readers hate while others love.  I'll admit that even though I happen to like "The Scouring," parts of my final chapters of Kate and Sam to the Rescue are weaker than I'd like, and I know writing instructors everywhere would label them anticlimactic.  And yet that's what T and P wanted; that's what the story needed to give them satisfaction.
        As for the description of that office in The Extraordinary Book of Doors, I'll go over those passages as I continue to work on rewriting.  I'll try to figure out whether additional description makes it better or worse, and eventually I'll follow my own judgement and call it done.  But I think this dilemma should serve as a reminder for writers for children to keep in the back of their minds - that children don't always think like adults, and what seems Right to them may not be what conforms to the rules we adults have been told to follow.

[Pictures: St Salvator's Door, photoshop by AEGN, 2013;
Galleria Door, photoshop by AEGN, 2013, both from The Extraordinary Book of Doors by AEGN.]

September 3, 2013

Back to School

        P and T are back to school this morning, so this is a perfect time to look at some fascinating prints of classrooms of yore.  It's not my intention to give a history of education - interesting as that is, it's too much of a tangent for me this morning.  Nevertheless, I like the glimpses into the past that these block prints provide.
        Going chronologically, my first wood block print probably dates from the end of the sixteenth century, although unfortunately, like so much on the internet, it doesn't include much information with it.  I had thought it might be an illustration from Roger Ascham's 1570 The Scholemaster, but I can't confirm that.  In any case, it looks like a nice little seminar, although you have to wonder about the long object lying across the table.  Is it something the students are
studying, or something the schoolmaster will use for corporal punishment?
        Next up are woodcuts from two editions of Orbis Pictus by John Comenius.  I introduced the work here - it's a fascinating resource for historical reference, and many of its woodcuts are rather charming in their own right.  I have to admit, though, that I don't much care for this particular image.  It's got way too many same-y black lines making the whole image into a barely differentiated jumble.
        I prefer the illustration of the schoolroom from the 1777 English edition.  You may also be interested in the explanation that goes with the image.  A School, 1. is a Shop, in which Young Wits are fashion'd to Virtue, and it is distinguish'd into Forms.  The Master, 2. sitteth in a Chair, 3. the Scholars, 4. in Forms, 5.  he teacheth, they learn.  Some things are writ down before them with Chalk on a Table, 6.  Some sit at a Table, and write, 7. he mendeth their Faults, 8.  Some stand and rehearse things committed to memory, 9.  Some talk together, 10. and behave themselves wantonly and carelessly; these are chastised with a Ferula, 11. and a Rod, 12.
        About fifty years later we get this coed classroom.  You can see that the students don't even have writing desks, but they do have books to share.  I'm struck by how bare the walls are.  No chalk board, no alphabet charts, no patriotic or moral pictures.  I wonder whether that's an accurate reflection of a typical schoolroom of the time, or whether the artist just didn't want to include all that clutter in his picture.
        Finally, here's a Victorian classroom, from around 1874.  It's also pretty darn bare, and I can't imagine that those gas lamps would provide much light on a gloomy morning.  The straight rows of desks all facing the teacher at the front of the room represent the traditional model that many of us grew up with.
        P and T's classrooms won't look much like any of these models, with their comfortable groupings of tables, their utter lack of birches, switches, ferules, rods, or paddles, their colorful posters, their computers and smart boards…  But no doubt in another century someone will be posting pictures of their quaint old-fashioned school!        

[Pictures: Schoolmaster and class, wood block print without any attribution, late sixteenth century? (Image from Shakespeare's England);
Schul, wood block print from Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Comenius, 1658 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
A School, wood block print from Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Comenius, translated by Hoole and printed for S. Leacroft, 1777 (Image from Google ebooks);
Schoolroom, woodcut without any attribution, 1826-27 (Image from the Smithsonian);
Double Class-room, woodcut or engraving from School Architecture by E. R. Robson, 1874 (Image from Pete Medway).]