May 27, 2020

Words of the Month - Measured Speech

        Humans seem to have been devising systems of weights and measures since the fourth millenium BCE, so clearly we’ve had a lot of practice.  Also a lot of variety over time and space.  Before the days of world-wide standards, every place and every specialty tended to have its own system, which is why history (and for our purposes, the English language specifically) is so full of obscure and seemingly-absurd units such as the
carat - unit of mass for gold and gemstones, derived from the weight of a carob seed
horse - unit of length used in horse-racing, along with neck, head, and nose
cord - unit of dry volume used for firewood, possibly derived from measuring around the stacked logs with a cord
hogshead - unit of volume used for alcoholic beverages, derivation is uncertain, although a branded icon on the wooden barrels is possible (It equals 3 kilderkins or 6 firkins.)
moment - unit of time, originally 1/40 of a solar hour as measured by the shadow on a sundial, and varying by season  (See this prior post for more words for time.)
acre - unit of area used of land, originally defined as the area of land that could be plowed in one day with a pair of oxen.  Comparable units exist wherever people practiced agriculture.  Compare, for example, with
furlong - unit of length, originally the length of furrow the team of oxen could plough before resting
barleycorn - unit of length still used in determining shoe sizes, derived from the length of a kernel of barley
tod - unit of weight used for wool; there are 9 tods in a wey and 26 tods make a sarpler.
ell - unit of length derived from the length of the forearm plus hand.  (It’s the same word for “arm” still found in elbow.)  Again, units based on arm length and other body parts have occurred around the world since the earliest days of measurement, despite the fact that people do not come with standardized body part sizes.  Other English units based on body parts include
foot - still used in the USA
finger - still used in measuring alcoholic drinks
hand - still used in measuring horses

        All of the above were perfectly serious units in their time, but humans also seem to have a predilection for lampooning their own measurements with humorous units.  Most of these are named after people, as has been the standard for naming new units since the mid nineteenth century.  These include
garn - a unit of nausea used by NASA and named for unfortunate astronaut Jake Garn.  1 Garn of nausea leaves the sufferer completely incapacitated.
millihelen - a unit of beauty needed to launch a single ship, derived from the fact that one Helen had sufficient beauty to launch 1000 ships  (There is some dispute over who coined the unit name.)
sagan - a unit of quantity defined as at least four billion (ie “billions and billions”)
smoot - a unit of length used to measure the Harvard Bridge crossing the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is the height (in 1958) of then-MIT-freshman Oliver Smoot, and is still used by local police to measure locations of incidents on the bridge.
warhol - a unit of hype representing 15 minutes of fame
        Also, a couple of humorous units not named for people:
beard-second - a unit of length supposed to be the length a beard grows in one second
wiffle - a unit of size used by marine biologists to measure coral and other underwater objects by means of comparison with a Wiffle ball  (not named after a person, of course, but instead a sort of proprietary eponym)

        What kind of unit would you most like to have named after you?

[Pictures: Detail of title page from Stadera del formento, woodcut, 1544 (Image from Universita di Modena e Reggio Emilia);
Untitled woodcut by Louis Moreau, 1919 (Image from V&A).]

May 22, 2020

Stay-at-Home Activities 3: Memory

        Many states in the US are beginning to “reopen,” but that doesn’t mean you should be abandoning your stay-at-home habits just yet.  It will still be a while before we’re back to full social mixing, and until then, here’s a quick and easy game to play at home.  If you’re bored, why not instigate a family game of Memory, aka Concentration.  It can be played with a wide age range, with varying numbers of people, and with just a small area on the corner of a table or the floor.
        Download this page and print two copies.  It’s best if you can print on thicker paper or card stock to make the cards easier to handle and to eliminate the danger of seeing through from the back. 

        Carefully cut apart all the cards along the lines.  Shuffle them together, all facing down.
1.  Lay out all the cards face down in a grid (say 6x10, or 7x8 plus a row of 4).
2.  The first player turns any two cards face up so that everyone can see.  If the two cards are identical, the player wins the pair and removes it to their own pile.  They may then try another two cards.  If the two cards are not the same, they are turned back down in place, and the next player takes a turn.
3.  Early on, it is unlikely that a matching pair will be turned up, but the object is to remember where each card lies, so that when you turn up one that you recognize, you can pick its match as your second card.
4.  The game ends when all cards have been matched and picked up.  The winner is the one with the most pairs.

     - If you live singly (or can’t get anyone in your family to play with you!) this can be played as solitaire, where the challenge is to find all the matching pairs in the fewest number of turns.
     - If playing with people of widely different abilities it can be helpful to give each player only one chance per round.  In other words, you do not get to keep going as long as you find matches.  Rather, each player gets to look at only two cards per turn, whether it’s a match or not.
     - Cards can be put out in a more random pattern instead of a neat grid, which can make it harder to keep track of what’s where.
     - You can print a third copy of all the cards and require all three matching cards to be found for a set.
     - When playing with children, every time an unmatched set of cards is turned up you can encourage everyone to try to think of some attribute that the two objects have in common.  For example, “They are both flying things” or “They are both green” or “They both start with B.”

        All of these cards are from my own original block prints, of course, which means that these are all some of my favorite things.  (If there are some you don’t recognize, try looking them up!)  If you made your own game of Memory, what things would you put on your cards?  Why not go ahead and do it: make your own family game of Memory!  The two pictures for each set don’t have to be identical as long as they are clearly recognizable as belonging together.  For example, you and a child could each draw the same 20 objects, and then parent and child dogs make a set, parent and child houses, parent and child cupcakes…  Or each member of the family could be in charge of making a certain number of sets for the game, and you could draw a sitting cat and a sleeping cat for one set, a red car and a blue car for another, and so on.
        Let me know in the comments what you’ve done, or what variations you’ve enjoyed.

[Memory game cards designed by and from original artwork by AEGN, 2020.]

May 19, 2020

Stay-at-Home Activities 2: Framing

        Today I have two projects for you to try, and both have to do with framing.  I don’t mean putting wood and glass frames around artwork; I mean the aspect of composition in which the artist determines how the elements of the picture fit into the whole, including the viewpoint, how the subject relates to the other objects, what is included, what is cropped out, distance, and so on.
        1.  Grab your digital camera and pick a subject.  You can step out your door or pick a subject inside.  You can gather an object or a collection of objects still-life style, or a person or pet, or a bed of flowers, or whatever.  Now, start snapping!  Try to come up with as wide a variety of framing options for that one subject as you can:
far distant, super close-up, or anywhere in between
with foreground objects creating a frame-within-a-frame around your subject
low point of view, medium, or high
centered, or closer to one of the four sides of the picture
        Once you have a whole bunch of pictures to work with, you can use the photo-editing program or app of your choice and experiment still further with cropping.
        Which pictures are the most interesting?  The most dramatic?  The best at enhancing the emotional impact of your subject?  Your favorite?
        Here are some I tried.  The first shows my subject: the lovely weeds where my poor lawn should be.  (The purple is ajuga.)  I think they’re pretty, but it’s not a very interesting picture.  There follow seven variations on the theme, with different angles, different distances, different placements of the dandelion in the picture, and so on.  They are generally more interesting than that first photo, although they also vary pretty widely in how much I like them.  Do you like any of them, and if so, what is it that makes it more interesting or appealing?

        2.  So you’re stuck at home.  Embrace it!  Windows are, of course, natural frames to your view of the world outside.  What’s the view out each of your windows?  Use your camera again, or better yet a pencil and paper, and sketch the view out each window in your room, or your apartment or house.  You can affect how the window frames the view depending on whether you are close or back from the window, whether you place yourself straight on or off to one side, and whether you sit on the floor, or a chair, or stand.
        What’s the view that is most iconic to you representing your sense of place?  What’s most unfamiliar to you?  Did you discover anything about your view that you never noticed before?
        Save your favorites as records of your life here in this time and place.  Share them with friends and family who aren’t able to be with you right now.
        I have room in this post to share only one little photo out my window, but here’s a prior post that features a number of sketches of views out windows that I’ve done in the past.

        I believe that this is what thinking like an artist is about: noticing what’s here around you, what beauty might be right here that you had taken for granted, what emotional impact you might find in ordinary things, how you can choose the way you depict things in order to tell a story, and how sharing those stories can connect people.

[Pictures: photos by AEGN, May 2020.]

May 15, 2020

Conversation with Sarah Jean Horwitz (Part II)

... And we’re back with Sarah Jean Horwitz, fellow author of MG fantasies.  If you’re tuning in for the first time, check back to the last post for the first half of this conversation.  And without further ado:

Anne:  Have you ever run into snobbery about writing for children being less prestigious than adult literature?

Sarah:  I’ve only ever received a handful of disparaging comments about writing for children, and the “prestige” factor has never bothered me much. I know kidlit is great, and so do most people whose opinions I’d value, anyway. ;) The only thing that bothers me lately is when people assume that I write for young adults. I get called a “young adult author” all the time, which frustrates me, because I have never written a young adult book in my life! It would be like if I had a friend who was exclusively an elementary school teacher, and I knew this, but I kept introducing her to people as a high school teacher anyway. Sometimes people forget that there is a whole world of children’s literature between “picture books” and “young adult.”

Anne: That’s interesting.  Any idea why people seem to make that assumption?  And you sound like you have no interest in ever writing YA - is that the case, and if so, why?  (What did 17-year-old Sarah like to read?)

Sarah:  I really don't know why people make that assumption. I think that YA is such a part of the cultural consciousness now, with all the big movie and TV adaptations and bestsellers making the headlines, that maybe people jump to YA now as their first point of reference for any children's literature that's not a "classic" or very obviously for the youngest readers. The fact that I write older middle grade probably doesn't help my case much, either. 
  I won't say I'll never write YA - in fact, I just got an idea for a YA story this past week! - but it's highly unlikely. Honestly, I sometimes find the "teenaged voice" and teenaged characters annoying! Ha. Oh, that's going to come back to haunt me, I know. But I do have a bit of a grouchy "get off my lawn" attitude when it comes to teenaged characters, and the voice has never come as naturally to me as a writer. And that's pretty weird, because I LOVED YA in middle school, high school and even a little past college. I read mostly YA and was very passionate about it. As I got older, though, the bloom went off the rose, and I discovered a lot more joy in middle grade books. 
  Part of what I like about writing middle grade characters is that, in general, they're less jaded and a bit more open to new experiences. I like the inherent hopeful quality in lots of middle grade that I feel like is missing from a lot of YA (not all! but a lot). 

Anne: I tend to agree.  Sometimes I feel like YA books are “checking off all the boxes” and it feels manipulative or artificial.  Or perhaps a better way to put it is that our culture seems to have a very narrow view of what it means to be a teenager or what the teenage experience is like, and YA books seem to adhere to that narrow view all too faithfully (not all! but a lot).  Given that one of the things I like most about fantasy is that it allows you to imagine infinite scenarios instead of merely the usual “realistic” ones, I find it a little tiresome to be railroaded into checking those same old boxes all the time.  I agree that MG books often feel a little freer, more hopeful, more willing to simply imagine “what if?”  That said, I have a YA work in progress at the moment (with faeries, too), so we’ll see how that goes!
  Did you have any particular inspirations or anecdotes about The Dark Lord Clementine?
Sarah:  As strange as it sounds, I have two babies to thank for the idea for The Dark Lord Clementine. The first is my friend Brooke’s niece, whom she nicknamed “the Dark Lord.” Ha! I’m sure little Fallyn will appreciate that when she’s older. The second is my old high school English teacher’s daughter, whose name is...Clementine! Yup. A few years ago, I was playing with baby Clementine with some friends, and we were trying to get her to make the sounds of her toy farm animals. We’d say, “What sound does the pig make, Clem? Does the pig go ‘oink oink’? Does the cow go ‘moo’?” But Clementine just sat there stony-faced, not humoring us at all, which I thought was so funny. And so I put on this scary voice and said something like, “The animals say nothing. All of the animals are silent. They are always silent.” And everyone cracked up laughing, and then I remembered Brooke’s nickname for her niece, and it occurred to me that The Dark Lord Clementine and Her Silent Farm would be such a fun title for a book. So it started this sort of running joke with my friends, but then I started thinking...what if it really was a book? And the whole idea spiralled from there.

Anne:  This is a great story, and such a great illustration of how ideas connect and pop.  One of my books (not quite MG, though) started with the title “Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster,” which I had thrown out to a bunch of 4th graders as a minor joke in passing, and to my surprise they LOVED it and clamored to get the story.  So, are there any fun background stories for your other books?

Sarah:  Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster is a GREAT title. It is not surprising to me that the kids loved it. ;) 
  I don't really have fun origin stories for my other books - mostly the ideas just kind of show up in my brain - but I do have a fun research story. For the second CARMER AND GRIT book, I was doing some research on steam cars, and I needed to know the quickest way to sabotage a steam car's engine to make it explode. (Yes, my Google search history is very colorful indeed.) I managed to get in contact with a British steam car society, and I explained the information 
I needed, and they were utterly offended. They sent me an email scolding me for even entertaining such a question, because steam cars were incredibly safe, and any suggestion that their engines could explode amounted to spreading misinformation! I could unnecessarily damage the reputation of steam cars everywhere! So I got a real telling-to on that front. ;) (In the end, I mostly exploded the car with magic. Because why not? It's magic!) 

Anne: That seems legit.  You can blow up anything with magic, so no one can say it’s the steam car’s fault.  =)
  Yeah, writers’ search histories can be all over the place.  Sometimes I get some very odd ads, and I always want to tell the computer, “Just because I’m looking up Victorian tree-hanging cradles doesn’t mean I need to buy Pampers.”
  Anyway, I really enjoyed your books, and I appreciate your taking the time to have this conversation.  Best of luck on the current work-in-progress, and I look forward to seeing you next year, (always hoping that next year will be back to in-person events, of course).

        You can find info about Sarah Jean Horwitz and her books HERE, and me and my books HERE.

[Pictures: Sarah Jean Horwitz, photo from Sarah;
covers for The Dark Lord Clementine and Carmer and Grit: The Crooked Castle, from Sarah;
cover for Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster, from AEGN.]

May 12, 2020

Conversation with Sarah Jean Horwitz (Part I)

I met Sarah Jean Horwitz, author of the two Carmer and Grit books and The Dark Lord Clementine, on a panel in which we were both doing readings from our middle grade fantasy books.  I loved her books and what she had to say about them, so I invited her to join me in a conversation about writing fantasy for kids.  Read on for her special insights on fairies, Infants of Darkness, and the best way to blow up a steam car.
        (This turned out long enough that it will be posted in two parts.  Here’s Part I.  It seemed like the better part to begin with.)

Anne:  What’s special about fantasy that led you to choose this genre?

Sarah:  I love the magic and escapism of fantasy, but I also love how it can enable us to explore bigger issues, either through metaphor or with the safe bit of distance that comes with setting your story in another world. You can explore all the juicy themes and characters you like, plus with added cool sparkly bits. Who wouldn’t want more sparkly bits? 

Anne:  Me, too.  The combination of deep moral questions with fabulous cool stuff is, well, magic!  Are there any particular juicy themes you especially want to explore in your writing?  Or any sparkly bits that are particular favorites? 

Sarah:  While I don't usually make up my mind ahead of time and think, "In this work I want to explore X theme," I do notice I tend to gravitate to some of the same ideas. I love exploring deep friendships, chosen families, and letting your freak flag fly. ;)  In terms of sparkly bits, I really love fairies, and find myself returning to fairies and fairy magic in a lot of my work. There's something so tempting about the wildness and beauty of fairyland - something so alluring about these beautiful beings who don't operate with the same moral code as humans do. I'm not one of those people who yearns for any lawless/idealized wild west sort of past, but I do like to dip my toe into the waters of a stranger world for a little while. 

Anne:  My Kate and Sam books feature fairies simply because my then-six-year-old daughter asked me to put fairies in them.  And that segues into the question of What’s special about writing for children?  Why write for children, or more specifically middle grade?

Sarah:  To tell you the truth, I sort of started writing for children by accident. Before I was a children’s author, I studied screenwriting, and most of my projects were written with adults or young adults in mind. But it just so happened that the first idea I had for a book included a thirteen year-old boy protagonist and a heaping dose of fairy magic, so writing it for kids seemed like the best option! Fortunately, that voice came naturally to me, and I’ve never looked back.

Anne:  I assume the screen-writing background must have an influence on the way you envision stories and lay them out, both in the large scale and scene-by-scene.  Are there any particular tricks or hold-overs from screenwriting that influence your book writing?

Sarah:  Screenwriting is very structured and, at least for lots of mainstream stories, very plot-driven, and I definitely think my screenwriting education helped me get a handle on writing for children specifically, because that also tends to be more plot-driven. Kid readers aren't going to stick around while you wax poetic about the landscape or don't have your characters actually do anything until fifty pages in! I use a three act structure-based outline that I learned in my feature film screenwriting class in college to outline many of my projects to this day. I also had a writing mentor in college who always encouraged me to make my writing as "sexy" as possible. Ha! He didn't mean sexy sexy, but he did mean dynamic and rich and exciting. Pump up the visual imagery, the stakes, or whatever you can, in every scene. That's definitely stayed with me, especially when it comes to writing fantasy. 

Anne:  In other words, crank up the sparkle!

Sarah:  I tend to write books with my past younger self in mind. I ask myself what kinds of stories and characters twelve year-old Sarah would have wanted to read about (and what twenty-eight year-old Sarah wants to read about now!) and then I try to write them.

Anne:  I also definitely write largely for myself, although as you imply, I’m not sure there’s always too much difference between child me and adult me.  We both like adventure, and magic, and trying to do the best you can in the world, and wonder, and curiosity and...  

        Here endeth Part I.  Tune in next time (on Friday) for the rest of the conversation.  (You can find more info about Sarah and her books HERE.)

[Picture: Sarah as Clementine, photo from Sarah Jean Horwitz, 2019;
Cover of Carmer and Grit: The Wingsnatchers.]

May 8, 2020

Stay-at-Home Activities 1: Coloring

        In this world of sheltering at home, some people are finding themselves sapped of energy by stress, anxiety, and having to juggle too many things all happening at home, while others are finding themselves (or their children) bored and bouncing off the walls in the absence of their usual activities.  For the sake of both those groups I would like to offer some easy do-at-home art projects to provide entertainment and/or stress-relief and creative refreshment.  There will be several in the next few weeks.
        First in the series, today I give you a selection of coloring pages.  Whether these will be for your own use, or given to your children in the hope of keeping them constructively occupied for a while, they can be downloaded and printed, and colored with the art supplies of your choice.  The buttons to download are at the bottom of the post.  Some are straight-up coloring, such as the pinwheel “mandala” and the dragon, and some - the hedge of thorns and the city - invite you to add a little creativity of your own if you’re the type who rejects merely “coloring inside the lines.”  (Of course you’re more than welcome to add whatever extra creativity you wish to any of these designs!)  They are all based on
my block prints, and if you’re curious to see the originals you can find links down below near the download buttons.  The exception is number 5, which is based on a paper collage that I made as part of a unit on Matisse, years ago (1994!) while teaching middle school art.  I am currently working on turning the design into a stencil print.  This is an experimental technique I have devised which, if it is successful, I will link later when it’s finished.
        I hope that you and/or your kids can spend a little Happy Time chilling out with the markers or colored pencils.  Let me know in the comments if you’ve enjoyed these coloring pages.

Cities coloring page: DOWNLOAD HERE, based on City I and City II, rubber block prints by AEGN, 2019;
Pinwheel Mandala coloring page: DOWNLOAD HERE, based on Pinwheel I, rubber block print by AEGN, 2020;
Dragon coloring page: DOWNLOAD HERE, based on Dracophytum Folium, rubber block print by AEGN, 2020;
Beyond the Thorns coloring page: DOWNLOAD HERE, based on Beyond the Thorns, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Matisse coloring page: DOWNLOAD HERE, based on Dancing, stencil print by AEGN, 2020.

May 4, 2020

#AtoZChallenge 2020 Reflections

        The April A to Z Blog Challenge is over for 2020, and that means it’s time for the quiz.  That’s right; had you forgotten that I told you to keep your eyes open for various things through the course of the Challenge?
     1. How many Jacks were featured?
     2. How many “Old” people were mentioned?
     3. How many mice appeared in illustrations?
     Extra Credit.  Stuart mentioned in a comment the prevalence of threes.  How many sets of three did you notice?
        I had a great time this year.  I worked very hard to have all my posts completely finished before the Theme Revelation, so that during the month I could spend my time visiting other blogs instead of writing my own.  Unfortunately, I had a difficult time with comments not taking on other blogs, which I’m sure depressed the total number of comments for my blog as well as for those I was visiting.  Eventually I figured out that on some blogs I could leave comments as long as I did not include my own blog web site.  Annoying, but oh well.
        Today I have for you the illustrations to a few more favorite nursery rhymes that didn’t make it into the A-Z.  First, Little Jack Horner.  The essence of Little Jack Horner is, in my opinion, how pleased he is with himself for the simple (if not very genteel) act of fishing a plum out of his pie.  Neither of these illustrations really captures his self-satisfaction.  In the first he looks more surprised than anything else, and in the second the little dog looks more pleased than Jack.  I do like the contrast of the two wood block styles, though: color vs black and white, and bold shapes vs outlines and details.  They’re both very much of their respective time periods.
        Next are three illustrations of the old woman tossed up in a basket (to sweep the cobwebs from the sky, in case you’re not familiar with this one).  In my opinion any illustration of this nursery rhyme should include all the important elements: old woman, basket, moon, broom, cobwebs.  Surprisingly few of them include all five.  Many give her a broom but no basket, which makes her look like a witch, and most leave out the cobwebs, which I think are a delightful fantasy image.  But between these three illustrations we’ve got everything.  (Remember that you can always click the pictures to see them a bit bigger.)
        And finally, Three Blind Mice, which is another rhyme that appears too recently to be represented in the older wood block illustrated books.  It’s also one of those rhymes with unpleasant content, if you think about it too hard, and yet children love it.  The top two illustrations are details from the same large page on which the song is written out with mice for all the musical notes.  It includes both basic approaches to depicting the mice: anthropomorphizing them, or leaving them as nature intended.  The final illustration nicely captures the little bit of paradox or ambiguity in the rhyme: it isn’t clear who’s the aggressor or who’s the victim here.  The mice chased the farmer’s wife, and the farmer’s wife cut off their tails, but we can’t tell from the textual evidence which came first or whether one was the cause of the other.  I think it’s safe to say that all four characters lost their self-control and reacted impetuously, but what do you think?  Who started it?
        (My apologies to Deborah that her favorite nursery rhyme One is for sorrow didn’t make the list!)
        One additional nursery rhyme trick that everyone should know: the Defenestration Song.  The tune is like that of “Polly Wolly Doodle.”  You start singing the nursery rhyme of your choice for the first 3 lines (or one and a half, depending how you make line breaks), and then… Well, allow me to demonstrate.
Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie.
He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and threw it out the window!
The window, the window, the second story window,
He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and threw it out the window!
        Here’s another:
Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, and he threw them out the window!
The window, the window, the second story window,
He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, and he threw them out the window!
        It never fails to produce high comedy of the most sophisticated variety.  (Although admittedly it won’t work with rhymes too short to reach the window, or those with too radically different a rhythm.)  You now have it within your power to spend hours of easy self-entertainment at home.  You’re welcome!
        And now for the answers to the quiz.
        Jacks - Three were mentioned explicitly during the Challenge (see the Theme Reveal, and the letters J, and L), plus another today = 4.  In addition, however, the Knave of Hearts (under Q) could be considered a Jack if you use the American name for the playing card, and the Zany (under Z) is a sort of Jack, as explained in that post, for a total of 6.
        Old people - 6: Old Mother Hubbard (Theme Reveal), Old King Cole (F), Old Woman in a shoe (O), Old Woman who ate victuals (V), Grand Old Duke of York (Y), Old Woman tossed up in a basket (today).
        Mice - 8 (of which 6 were in my block prints), plus 2 rats (of which one was in an illustration of mine).  You can find them 2 at C, E, J, 2 at K, 3 at M, and W.  However, I’ve given you 9 more today, which makes a grand total of 19!  (There were also 34 domestic cats plus a tiger, and only 8 dogs.)
        Threes - 6 sets of 3.  Look for them at B, F, G, K, T, and today.
        How did you score?
        And finally, the shameless plug: if you enjoyed my illustrations, I do have a book available here.  (It does not contain all the commentary in this blog or the illustrations by other artists - just a dozen of the nursery rhymes and my own illustrations, and a single parenthetical comment for each.)
         To everyone who came by and commented for the A to Z Challenge, thank you!  I very much enjoyed hearing from you.  Feel free to stick around now that April is over.  I have some fun art activities to post in the coming weeks, plus some cool conversations with other writers and artists that I’ve been working on.  Until next time, stay well!

[Pictures: Little Jack Horner, color woodcut on fabric by Federal Art Project (Wisconsin), 1937-8 (Image from National Gallery of Art);
Little Jack Horner, wood block print from Nursery Rhymes published by W. Walker and Son, 1830 (Image from Internet Archive);
There was an old woman tossed up in a basket…, color wood engraving by Philip Reed from Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes, 1963;
Detail from Old woman tossed up, color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Bouquet, cut and printed by Edmund Evans, c 1879 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Old Woman tossed up, wood block print from Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, published by Allen Brothers, 1869 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Two details from Three Blind Mice, wood engraving by Winslow Homer, 1871 (Image from Minneapolis Institute of Art);
Three Blind Mice, wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library).]

April 30, 2020

Z is for Zany

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  It’s also not too late to check out the Master List of participating A-Z Blogs, and find more alphabetic fun.)

Z was a zany, a poor harmless fool.

        This is obviously not a full nursery rhyme.  It’s one line from an alphabet poem that is often included in nursery rhyme books, which is why I’m counting it.  It begins “A was an Archer, who shot at a frog,” and you can see one version in its entirety here.  Our single line for Z rhymes with “Y was a youth that did not love school.”  Yes, this is a very weak way to end the A-Z Challenge, but Z words just don’t seem to show up in the older nursery rhymes.  The only place we ever see a Z word is in an alphabet, and half the time even the alphabets lump X, Y, Z and & together at the end without words of their own.  Those alphabets that do give Z a proper treatment seem to have considered few options.  Many of the earlier primers, especially those from Puritan New England, use Zaccheus from the New Testament.  At least he gets  a pleasing little rhyme of his own: 
   Zaccheus he
   Did climb the tree
   His Lord to see.
One free-spirited alphabet from 1800 uses zebu, one from the 1850’s uses Zenobia “the queen of the east,” one of Walter Crane’s alphabets from 1874 uses zodiac, and a number of illustrated alphabets use the zebra you might expect.  But the most common, especially in those versions of the alphabet that include rhyming verses and thus can squeak themselves into the category of nursery rhymes, use zany.
        So what is a zany anyway?  Now that we really are at the last post of April, here’s some more Word-of-the-Month fun.
Zany as a noun, meaning a clown, comes from a Venetian dialect version of Gianni, which is a nickname for Giovanni, which is the Italian equivalent of John; thus Zany is really yet another Jack.  The character was a stock clown from the Commedia dell-arte, sometimes stupid and sometimes cunning.  Clearly by the nineteenth century in English there was no cunning left, only stupidity.  Nowadays the noun version is no longer in common use, but you’ll still encounter the word zany as an adjective meaning crazy, absurd, eccentric.  Although the adjectival form had entered English in the seventeenth century, it seems that these childrens’ alphabets still considered the noun to be in current use and a word suitable for basic nursery vocabulary.  Or at least no less suitable than zebu or Zenobia.
        Some of the letters of the alphabet, like the A shooting at, of all things, a frog, seem to hint at some sort of story, but Z gives us nothing.  There he is, just being a fool.  Perhaps he’s a friend of some of our other nursery rhyme fools, joining the wise men of Gotham in their bowl, or Simple Simon looking for plums.  I like to think that our Zany will be able to steer clear of the less pleasant letters in his alphabet, including the Drunkard, the Gamester, the Miser (of some versions), the Robber, and the Userer, and, like the crooked man, find some friends who understand him.  Which nursery rhyme character do you think would be the best friend for a Zany?
        A final note for impressionable children: Congratulations on making it to the end of the alphabet!  Learn to read, and the world can be yours.

[Pictures: Hand-colored woodcut from Pictured Alphabet published by Fisher & Brother, c 1857 (Image from University of Washington);
Hand-colored woodcut from The Ladder to Learning, Marks’ Edition, 1852 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Wood block print from The Silver Penny, printed by J. Kendrew, 1810 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from The Royal Primer, printed for J. Newbery, c 1776 (Image from Internet Archive);
Woodcut probably by Orlando Jewitt from The Picture Alphabet published by T. Richardson, c 1834 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book);
Hand-colored wood block print from The Funny Alphabet, published by McLoughlin Bro’s,  between 1850-1864 (Image from Internet Archive);
Hand-colored woodcut from The Hobby-Horse published by J. Harris, 1820 (Image from Opie, A Nursery Companion).]

April 29, 2020

Y is for York

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again.
Oh, when they’re up, they’re up, and when they’re down, they’re down,
And when they’re only halfway up, they’re neither up nor down.

        They paused halfway up in order to enjoy a picnic.
        No one knows which Duke of York we’re referring to here.  As usual there are various candidates, and no particular evidence to connect the song to any one of them.  The earliest variation of the rhyme attributes the going up and down again to the King of France, but doesn’t include the halfway up at all.  For most children the fun part is the actions that go along with the singing: standing at “up”s and sitting at “down”s.  It’s also fun to sing it with a lot of oomph and verve.
        Taking it as a story in its own right, one could consider it a meditation on the futility of war, but I prefer to think of it as more akin to the “truism” rhymes, telling us something so delightfully obvious that I can’t help feeling a certain affection for the poor, pompous fellow — he thought he was so dang important, but really it’s no different for him than for anyone else in the world.
        The first illustration has lots of dramatic movement in the composition, with the big diagonal of the commanding arm forming the slope of the hill, and the commander on horseback urging the men ahead.  The very rough printing with uneven ink adds to its impetuous feel.  The second illustration, by contrast, is much more staid.  These men are not charging vigorously, but trudging along, left-right left-right.  The end of the line is even
standing around waiting for the forward movement to reach them.  But at least they have a destination in the castle atop the hill.  (The first illustration makes me think that the men may all tumble lemming-like over the fingertip, like one of Monty Python’s animations.  The piece slightly predates Gilliam’s animations for the show, but it’s from the same general era.)
        The final illustration is from the early days of the United States of America.  You can see that the commander is holding an American flag.  The lyrics have been changed to replace the Duke of York, whom we don’t want to talk about right now, to a “Serjeant Hero.”  The illustration contains no hill, however, which makes it pretty weak.  They’re neither up nor down all the time.
        Why do you think the Duke of York and his men were marching up and down the hill, anyway?
        A final note for impressionable children: Running up and down hills is an excellent way
to get exercise and improve health and fitness.

[Pictures: Woodcut by Seymour Chwast, 1961 (Image from Seymour Chwast Archive);
Wood block print by Joan Hassall, c 1955 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book);
Wood block print from A Little Pretty Pocket-Book printed by Isaiah Thomas, 1787 (Image from Library of Congress).]

April 28, 2020

X is for Cross

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  Be sure to visit my fellow A-Z Bloggers, who can be found on the Master List.)

Hot X buns!  Hot X buns!
One-a-penny, two-a-penny,
Hot X buns!

        Okay, I had to cheat a bit, as one so often does for X.  They are really “hot cross buns,” of course, but what is the cross in question but an X across the top of each bun?
        This is one of the class of nursery rhymes that began as street cries: the songs or calls of street vendors or market stall owners trying to advertise their businesses.  Illustrated collections of street cries were quite popular nursery fare in the nineteenth century.  Hot cross buns are traditionally to be eaten on Good Friday at the end of Lent, but during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I there were
decrees to restrict the sale of hot cross buns to Good Friday, Christmas, and funerals.  The fact that the decrees were made of course betrays that people were selling them at other times.  Nowadays they are often available year round.
        All well and good, but there simply isn’t any story here.  It’s a pleasant, catchy little rhyme to sing, but there’s not much there to make for an interesting illustration.  And sure enough, the illustrations I have for you today aren’t very interesting.  Walter Crane tries to produce some drama by implying that while the boy eats his avidly, the girl is not so keen.  This may have been suggested by the occasionally-heard second verse:
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons.
One-a-penny, two-a-penny, Hot cross buns.
It’s still not much of a plot.
        My second illustration simply shows the vendor with her basket of hot cross buns on her head.  You can’t even see the buns under the cloth, although I do think it’s very attractively carved with nice shading, and interesting texture on the wall.  The third shows the boy reaching into his pocket for the penny that will buy him his bun, which is hardly thrilling action. Oh well, you can’t expect top-notch entertainment when you have to find an X.  (Insert joke here, if you’re so inclined, about X-rated entertainment.)
        What’s your favorite food associated with a holiday?
        A final note for impressionable children: Don’t spend all your pennies on snacks.

[Pictures: Color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Absurd A.B.C., engraved and printed by Edmund Evans, c 1874 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from The Cries of London published by J. Kendrew, 1820 (Image from Internet Archive);
Hand-colored wood block print from Sam Syntax’s Description of the Cries of London, published by J. Harris and Son, 1820 (Image from Opie, A Nursery Companion.]

April 27, 2020

W is for Whey

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider, and sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

        Normally she made a special point of carrying spiders outside in a glass.
        We start with another of my own illustrations (and the last one for this year’s challenge).  I didn’t want to portray senseless arachnophobia, so I tried to imagine a scenario in which even the most tolerant child might find herself running away from a spider.  I pictured her reading scary books in the attic when the spider suddenly startled her.  I show the moment just before Miss Muffet notices the spider.  Miss Muffet also
remains oblivious in the second illustration, but with the third she has become aware of her neighbor and is looking marvelously apprehensive.  And so she should, with a spider nearly as big as a cat!  Many illustrations make the spider truly monstrous, enough to frighten even the most stalwart arachnologist.  And our final illustrations complete the story as Miss Muffet runs away screaming.
        We’re not quite at the end of the month, but nevertheless I give you a Word of the Month today, and it is tuffet.  What is a tuffet, anyway?  In the 1550s tuffet was a diminutive variant of tuft (by way of Old French touffe).  As such it meant “a small grassy mound or clump of grass.”  The illustrations that place Miss Muffet outdoors are thus more etymologically accurate.  However, over the years the word tuffet disappeared from common usage, remaining nowhere in the language except in the nursery rhyme, where it was anchored by the necessity of rhyming with Muffet.  But no one really remembered what it meant.  In 1902 the essayist Samuel M. Crothers wrote, “Perhaps some of you would like to know what a tuffet is. I have thought of that myself, and have taken the trouble to ask several learned persons. They assure me that the most complete and satisfactory definition is,—a tuffet is the kind of thing that Miss Muffet sat on.”  Clearly it’s something you sit on, and perhaps because of the sound, lots of people interpret it as 
some sort of low stool or pouffe.  Some dictionaries now include this definition - after all, if that’s what people mean when they say it, then that’s what it means.  (See Humpty Dumpty.  You can also compare with the very parallel history of the word weird.)  Although I am usually the complete pedant about this sort of thing, I went with the footstool definition in my illustration because I wanted to place Miss Muffet in a dark and cobwebby attic, and not on a sunshiney meadow knoll.
        Given the current state of the word tuffet, there actually is a good definition, though.  A tuffet is a hassock.  This works because hassock, too, can mean both an upholstered footstool or ottoman, and a clump or tussock of grass or vegetation (although usually hassock refers to tufts of grass in marshy areas, where possibly Miss Muffet was unlikely to be sitting).  Hassock, too, began as a clump of grass or sedge, but by the early 1500s had acquired the meaning of “thick cushion for kneeling, or sitting, or feet.”  So I really don’t see any problem with letting a tuffet be a stool!
        On a final linguistic note, curds and whey is basically cottage cheese.  The primary difference is that cottage cheese tends to be more drained (more curds and less whey) and more salted than Miss Muffet’s snack probably was.
        So, what do you think Miss Muffet was sitting on?  And how do you feel about spiders?  Or cottage cheese?
        A final note for impressionable children: Be kind to spiders and they will eat the mosquitos that want to eat you.

[Pictures: Little Miss Muffet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002 (Image from my book);
Illustration from The Book of Nursery Rhymes, Tales, and Fables edited by Lawrence Lovechild, 1858 (Image from Internet Archive);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, published by Allen Brothers, 1869 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House);
Color woodcut on cotton fabric by the Federal Art Project (Wisconsin), 1937-8 (Image from National Gallery of Art).]