June 29, 2020

Words of the Month - Protection

        For my family and me this is Day 109 of shelter-at-home, and although infection rates are going down here and our state is cautiously reopening (and I do appreciate that it’s cautious, here), without a vaccine there’s really no reason to think we should be going out and mixing freely any time soon.  So let’s think about some cool words for ways we try to protect ourselves from disease and other evils.

quarantine - In the case of covid-19, this is pretty much the best we’ve got, and it’s fascinating to me that we’re forced to rely on the same only method known to the days of bubonic plague.  After the Black Death killed about a third of the population of Europe in 1347-50, port cities started requiring incoming ships to remain isolated for a period before there could be any contact between the ships and the port.  The first was Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) demanding a 30-day-long trentino period (from Italian for “30”).  The practice spread to other cities, and lengthened to 40 days, which was called quarantino, from Italian for “40.”  (Why 40 days, anyway?  There are various possibilities, but no one knows for sure.)  In English there had been versions of the word quarantine since the 14th century, from Latin roots and referring to the 40 days a widow was allowed to remain in her dead husband’s house and the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert, but our modern meaning apparently came to English from Venice in the 1660s.

        In the absence of science to protect us, people fall back on magic.
amulet - We got this word from Pliny’s writings about it, and although it first appears in English in the mid-fifteenth century, it doesn’t appear to have really stuck until about 1600.

charm - (c. 1300) This began as an incantation rather than an object, and comes from a Latin root meaning “to sing.”  The OED attributes its first use as a magical object to Spenser’s Faerie Queene in 1596.  (If you would like to learn a particular incantation believed to cure disease - and a version of it in song - be sure to read my previous post Say the Magic Word.)

talisman - (1630s) We get this from French, from Arabic, from Greek, and its particular sense is that it must be made with special rites or observances that give it its power.

apotropaic - An excellent word from Greek (entering English in 1883), it means “having the power of averting evil influence.”

prophylactic - (1570s) Originally describing medicines and meaning “tending to prevent disease” from Middle French, from a Greek root meaning “to guard.”  (Its use as a noun dates to the 1640s, but it wasn’t used to mean “condom” until 1943.  Interestingly, condom itself has an unknown derivation.  The word first appears in 1706, and in 1709 the story first appears that it was named for a British doctor who presumably invented or advocated its use.  However, no evidence for such a doctor has ever been found.)
        phylactery -  (late 14th century) From the same Greek root, by a slightly different route, this can mean the tefillin of Judaism.  It was chosen as the Greek Bible translation for the Hebrew word because of its broader original meaning as another synonym of amulet, as well as its use in Latin to mean “reliquary.”  (It also has a fun, apparently unrelated meaning of the speech scrolls occasionally seen in Medieval art.  Perhaps the connection is the idea of important words written on little strips of parchment? And another fun word for a speech scroll is banderole.)

        When in the fantasy vein, I’m all in favor of amulets, charms, and talismans.  They make an excellent magical element to explore: Do they work in that universe, or are they merely superstition?  And if they do really work, how?  Can anyone get hold of them, or only the wealthy, or the magically endowed?  Is their purpose primarily protection, or do they confer other magical powers?
        In our universe, however, I’ll put my faith in the apotropaic power of quarantine, face masks, and frequent hand-washing.  Hang in there, everyone, and keep taking care of one another by keeping up the basic precautions that keep each other safe.

[Pictures: Engraving from Execitatio de amuletis by Julius Reichelt, 1676 (Image from Österreichische Nationalbibliothek);
Arabic wood block amulet,  12-13th century (Image from The University of Utah);
The Bride Nourishes the Bridegroom, wood block print from Canticum canticorum, c 1465 (Image from The Morgan Library);
Circular amuletic design, woodblock print by Pasang Tsering, 2004 (Image from The British Museum).]

June 25, 2020

10th Blogiversary!

        Congratulations to me: I have now been blogging for 10 years!  That’s a grand total of 1055 posts so far.  It’s inevitable that age is withering me, and I suspect that custom may be staling my infinite variety, but nevertheless, I hope you’re still enjoying the block prints and fantasy that I’m featuring.  I have recently been posting slightly less frequently (and on a slightly less regular schedule) but I
don’t have any expectation of stopping soon.  There’s still so much wonderful stuff to share!  Whether I’ll be going for another 10 years, of course, is certainly not guaranteed.
        Today’s block prints are just two small pieces that I’ve been saving up for some time, but hadn’t yet had an occasion to post.  First is a winged lion of Venice (from the symbol of St Mark), which I spotted in the window of an antiquarian bookstore in Venice.  It was in the evening (we were on our way to find gelato) and the shop was closed, but it seems to be the title page of a history of Venice written by Sabellicus in the late fifteenth century, although this is presumably an edition from the sixteenth century.  It’s a lovely wood block print, with lots of beautiful details, including wonderfully ruffled feathers and a nice little tower in the background.  I include a view of the bookshop where it was residing, as well.
        For contrast, I have another beast with a very different style.  This charming porcupine is by Wharton Esherick from 1925.  Its huge eye gives it a solemn look, but its cartoonish simplicity makes it seem like a children’s toy.  It illustrates an essay by D.H. Lawrence that, in my quick skim-through, does not appear to be at all charming or childlike so, just as with the winged lion, I prefer to enjoy the picture as its own creature, with its own life and personality, independent of its commercial purpose.  Works of the imagination can do that.
        So, 10 years of blogging.  You know what else I’ve been doing for the past 10 years?  Not Instagram!  However, I have finally broken down and started posting on Instagram.  My theme there is Joy and Inspiration.  I hope to post a picture a day (roughly — I’m not going to worry if I miss sometimes) of something that brings me joy or inspiration.  I imagine things
that make me happy may make others happy, as well, and the more distressing the news becomes, the more important I think it is to notice and acknowledge the joy that does still keep bubbling up in the universe, ready to surprise us if we can see it.  After all, if there weren’t any joy in life and love, why bother with the blood, sweat, and tears of keeping on working for a better world?  Some of the pictures I post will certainly be block prints, and some may be related to fantasy, but a lot will just be photos of the delightful things I see around me in my day.  If you’re curious about what cheers me up, in case it might cheer you, too, feel free to check it out: NydamPrints on Instagram.

[Pictures: Lion of Venice, wood block print from title page of Historiae rerum venetarum ab urbe condita by Sabellicus, probably c 1560;
Antiquarian bookshop in Venice, photo by AEGN, 2017;
Porcupine by Wharton Esherick from D.H. Lawrence’s Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, 1925;
April robins' nest, as posted on Instagram, photo by AEGN, 2020.]

June 21, 2020

Conversation with Christine Taylor-Butler (Part II)

        This is Part II of a conversation with Christine Taylor-Butler, author of many many books for kids, including The Lost Tribes series.  (If you need to start at the beginning, you can find Part I here.)

Anne:  You mention giving characters to readers who don’t often find themselves in the pages of the books they read.  Tell me your thoughts on representation (in your fiction) and how to make it substantive instead of just tokenism.

Christine:  That's easy (I don't know why people make it so hard.) Writers should just let them be kids. Honestly. When I got an agent and we shopped the book around to editors who "swore" they loved diversity we often got "Why are they living in the suburbs?" "Why don't they sound like (fill in the ethnic minority background)," etc.
        Here's the deal: When you grow up in a family that practices its culture, then the way you speak or the way you respond to a situation might vary from another culture. That's why there are several on the cul-de-sac. So you can see the kids trying to get through the same set of challenges but the family reactions to their behavior are both similar and different. I set the family in Southern California, but they are upper middle class and the kids go to private school. There would be a different dynamic if they were in public school. Or in Ohio. Or Boston. Or the Midwest. They'd be different if they grew up in a rural area than if they lived in the middle of a city hours away. There is no one ubiquitous minority experience to write from. So let them be human first. Emotion is often as much about biology and surroundings as it is about culture.
        If people could just focus on how would a person who was --let's say 13-- react to this situation rather than think "how would a Black kid (or White kid, or ......) that is 13 react to this situation?" you get closer to the truth of the character. It's about nuance. It was something I objected to in a recent "popular" superhero movie. The story starts with the uncle living in Oakland in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood. Fair enough. That's the director's truth. But I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood that was nothing like that and my friends and I didn't spend our time thinking about how to steal things. We walked to the library and to summer plays and to the Art Museum. Still struggling financially but not emotionally. We were in close knit communities. But the movie depiction fit the narrative that most people believe is ubiquitous. A lot of authors learn that's an easy way to sell a story to gatekeepers - "minorities in ghettos," "Latinx as migrants," "Asians as the model minority," etc.

Anne: This is such a good point.  The example that sticks out for me is that I feel like every depiction of a suburban high school in every movie or TV show I ever see is the same, with the same cliques and the same bullies and the same “cool kids” – yet this scene bears very little resemblance to the suburban public school I attended or the school my children attend, or either of the schools at which I taught.  It’s just like you say: writers use stereotypes as shortcuts, and publishers want everything to fit into the narrative they believe that people expect, even if it is not the only truth.  But characters in books, just like people in real life, should be their own unique person before being a representative of some group.

Christine:  So I put my character's families in high power jobs and set them all on the same boring upper class cul-de-sac. They all attend the same private school but keep ties to their own cultural communities. Until you find out where those ties actually go and what their common bond really is. A lot of editors objected to the wealth and the lack of familiar stereotypes. Some wanted a main character they could "cuddle." Funny - the readers get what's going on right away - something is up with the parents, something is driving the uncle's pathology, and the kids are just like them - goofy, snarky and don't always get along but do best when they're sneaking around the parental rules.  
        I write for kids. The trick is getting the narratives past gatekeepers who think all Black people live in housing projects with no A/C. True story (is the statute of limitations up yet?) I went from a stable inner-city neighborhood to a highly selective boarding school in New England. Stereotypes there were the norm. One year I got tired of the English teacher telling me that the stories we were supposed to write based on our real lives weren't realistic and I shouldn't be "ashamed" of my background. One of the seniors clued me in on how to revise. So I wrote a story about a prostitute, living in the ghetto, and I think there was a pimp in the story. None of it was true but okay - I was playing to my audience. Got an "A" on that paper and a pat on the back for my willingness to go deep and let it all show in my work. Sigh. There are still publishers who cater to gatekeepers who think that diversity means the same functional silos they've been buying for years. I think - what century are we living in? Don't answer that. The question is facetious.

Anne: It’s so frustrating because I think you’re right that kids are more than ready to accept a full range of people; it’s the adults who can’t get past their expectations.  In many cases I think they have the best of intentions, but it’s not helping the situation.
        You said, "Books that resonate operate on multiple levels so that each reader can find something of themselves in the pages.”  It has certainly been my experience as a child reading that many of my favorite books do not feature a protagonist who looks like me, therefore clearly kids can find resonances for themselves in aspects of character other than just their physical race or gender.  At the same time, I have also experienced that feeling of getting really sick and tired of “all” the protagonists being male, for example, and I know it feels really good to find someone in a book who does reflect some aspect of yourself (whether that’s sex, appearance, culture, gender identity, or whatever) that usually feels too invisible.  So how do you strive to balance those things?   What do you think goes into making a book that will resonate on those multiple levels?

Christine: That's hard. Like I said, there's this almost demented need by gatekeepers to fawn over guys and guy characters. In Tribes, the main protagonist is Ben. He just showed up that way. You can't change what will not be changed. But the book features an ensemble cast and after the "team" is assembled there are three girls and two boys. When my family was reading Harry Potter (my kids and my husband were addicted to the series) I heard my husband say the book should be called "Hermione Granger and that other guy" since she's always giving him the answers.  I laughed and thought my favorite character wasn't Harry, it was Ron Weasley. The Harry Potter series works because there are so many socially awkward kids that you don't have to love Harry to enjoy the series. You can find that person who resonates and there's enough story line for you to follow their own sub plots. Also, Hermione is a dead ringer for one of my best friends in college. 
        So in the second book of the Tribes series, Safe Harbor, I switched to multiple points of view so you could see the story unfold through multiple eyes. It also works because, in the first book, the kids work together but all of it is through Ben's eyes. In Safe Harbor, they are dealing with their new reality and how they grow as people is directly related to things happening to them off-stage. Rather than see everything through a single point of view, I wanted people who have a favorite character to get to see what happens to them and with them when the others aren't around. I think the growth of Carlos and Grace surprised me the most because their trajectory grew organically and wasn't part of the original outline. If people are watching carefully - each child has a fear or phobia that is the opposite of their parent's strengths. Carlos, for instance, will not hurt anything - not even a spider when they're on the run - despite being raised by parents who enjoy the thrill of battle and high tech weapons. So what happens when he meets the "team" and doesn't measure up? Grace is scared of the dark and scary things, but comes from a race of people who do scary things. Those were my absolute favorite plot points in Safe Harbor - when Carlos takes a stand against a brutal regime and sticks up for Ben. And when Grace is the first to go on missions but can't tell her friends that she's doing it. And the reader doesn't know what she's doing until the climax of the second book. Serise is the smartest person on the team because she's eidetic and can hack a computer better than any adult on the team. So she's assigned to mission control even though she's 13. And April, Ben's kid sister. She has a mouth on her. She's a badass you don't mess with even though she's much younger. She'll even stand up to their uncle. So she's the humor that de-escalates and says what other people are scared to say. I write smart, socially awkward girls and boys and give them equal weight in the series.

Anne: That’s one of the really cool choices we get to make as writers: whose point of view will tell the story best?  Sometimes I especially enjoy the contrast between how a particular character views the world and how that character is then viewed by others.
        Do you try to depict a world in which prejudice and discrimination exist, while still showing that not every “minority” kid has to have a life centered in or defined by that?  And if so, how do you find that balance?  Or do you tilt in one direction or the other, for example, showing a world in which the kids don’t really encounter discrimination (or at least, not based on race)?

Christine: I don't believe in the kumbaya scenario. So I tried to turn prejudice on its ear. The story starts out on an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac with parents of various cultural backgrounds who are all high achieving and are best friends. It's their kids who don't get along even though they live next door to each other and attend the same school. But in a reversal, over the parent's objections, Ben's uncle gives him a challenge and a deadline. Ben can't solve it so he has to cajole the other kids into working with him so he can finish in time. As they do - they notice all the parents are blocking their efforts. So the kids work in secret to see where the challenge leads. That leads to an unexpected alliance and a growing friendship. Later, towards the end of the first book, you meet the organization the parents work for. Those adults are all working in functional silos based on race even though they report to the same mission leader. Turns out the kid's parents were the only members of the team who work across cultural boundaries. That's why they were "marooned" on a beige cul-de-sac. It's kind of a punishment for breaking mission protocols. The third book, Trials, reiterates the continued dysfunction at headquarters (known as Safe Harbor) which is why the mission is going so slow. In one scene, Ben asks one of his mentors about the vitriol between the teams and she replies, "We are superior, that does not mean we are perfect." So through most of the series, the only group working well as a team and solving clues are the kids, even as the new mentors in their lives try to keep them separated from each other. In book three, the characters continue their habit of circumventing the rules and finally point out that if people actually looked at their similarities instead of their differences, the mission might go faster. 

Anne: I believe this whole issue of what worlds we show children through our writing, and where they can find themselves in those worlds, is vitally important for helping to give those children power and vision in their own real worlds.  This is part of my whole belief that speculative fiction can make the world a better place!  It has a unique ability to entice readers to rethink their own assumptions and to hold up other possibilities in a way that they are willing to consider.  If you called it “realistic” people would say, “oh that’s impossible,” but if you call it “fantasy” they don’t immediately dismiss it, and in the end may find themselves thinking, “Well, maybe that really could be possible.”  Do you feel that SFF has a role in changing the world, or in changing people’s hearts and minds about how they see the world and live in it?  If so, how does that appear in your work?

Christine: I agree. Speculative fiction is often just an exploration about what it means to be sentient. Stories that allow us to connect with a character sometimes force us to test our belief systems as well. Using a fictional setting that is familiar and yet unfamiliar allows us to hold the reader in suspense and gives them time to know and root for the character arc. Spec fiction is also about resilience when faced with impossible choices. Maybe the net result is speculative fiction can increase empathy and equip readers with additional tools to navigate their own reality. 
        Speculative fiction can transport readers out of their own reality while the characters actually grapple with real life emotions even if the setting is fantastical. There are joys and set-backs. Feuds and reconciliations. Certainly I take risks and allow the characters to make mistakes because too many books are about finding the right answer. Tribes is about finding the right answer too, but also how to take it on the chin when things don't work. I took a risk in the second book. I allowed for a major error in judgment that results in a devastating setback for the mission. And yet - there is resilience and a path forward. So my pet peeve is when books are about perfect kids who make tiny errors but always come out with the sun shining at the end. What life is like that?
        One of the best quotes I've heard was a NASA educational specialist who said, "At NASA, failure is not an option. It is mandatory." I tell people that all the time. I don't want to read about perfect characters that all the other characters fawn over. I want to write about people who make mistakes, misinterpret clues, and course correct. 

Anne: I confess that I like to read about good people – people better than me!  I get very quickly frustrated by protagonists with consistently bad judgement, or who make mistakes so avoidable that I think they made that choice only because the author needed to get them into danger or conflict!  However, I do agree that I don’t want characters who are “always perfect” and fawned over.  What I really enjoy seeing is how basically-good people deal with bad situations, which includes resiliency and persistence and creativity in dealing with their own mistakes as well as external forces.

Christine: For years I was an MIT interviewer. In the last decade I saw more more and more students trying to show they know the "right answer." My husband was a grad school interviewer for University of Missouri and saw similarly high achieving students who didn't know how to color outside of the lines.  So we would share experiences and he told me to ask them, "If you were a superhero, which one would you be and why?" I could tell who would be most successful at MIT by how they approached the answer. At least half would melt down and complain that their counselors (or parents or tutors) didn't prep them on questions like that and I was being unfair. I pointed out that life - and research - is not about the right answer. It's about getting the wrong answer and figuring out why it didn't work. Those students had never faced adversity and therefore never learned anything about resilience. So maybe that's the point of my book. Looking at what my characters want then turning those desires on their ear and subverting expectations so they experience growth.  I've met kids who aren't encouraged to dream outside of their current boundaries. So perhaps, our books create a broader landscape to play in and introduces the idea - yes - you could be these people or do these things too.

Anne: I am saddened and disturbed by these trends toward people with a stunted ability to think and act for themselves, take creative risks, and choose what superhero to be!  It’s my hope that spec fic is one of the antidotes to that: encouraging us all to ask “What if...?”
        Let’s end with your best advice for children (or adults) who are working on writing.

Christine: The most important parts of writing as an art:
        1. Allow the story to go in a direction that you didn’t plan. Give up control to allow the characters and the landscape room to breathe. The book isn’t about the author or the author’s life. It’s about the character’s journey and their connection with the reader.
        2. What you write won’t look the same as it does in your head. But that’s okay. It’s not supposed to be perfect. You can clean it up later or recycle bits into another book. No author or artist creates a perfect draft on the first - or second - (or third) go round.
        3. Look at the world around you. Imagine what would happen if one thing (or more than one thing changed). What would that be? And how would your character’s lives be different from your own because of it?

Anne: Thanks so much for joining me, Christine.  I hope to see you again when in-person conventions are possible once again, and in the meantime, Congratulations on Lost Tribes: Trials coming out quite soon now.

You can find info about Christine Taylor-Butler and her books HERE (and me and my books HERE).  Plus, here’s some additional reading alluded to during the conversation...
My post on Heroic Heroes

[Pictures: Christine Taylor-Butler, picture from Christine;
Ben, from video trailer for The Lost Tribes;
Covers of The Lost Tribes: Safe Haven and The Lost Tribes: Trials.]

June 17, 2020

Conversation with Christine Taylor-Butler (Part I)

        I met author Christine Taylor-Butler a couple of years ago when we participated together in a reading of middle grade sci fi and fantasy books.  When I set about recruiting a few authors to join me in a conversation about working on SFF (Sci Fi/Fantasy) for kids, Christine was one of the first people I thought of.  She has written more than 80 books including lots of science and history titles for kids, as well as the first two books in The Lost Tribes series.  (Once again, I’ve broken this up into two posts because of length.)

Anne: You write such a broad variety of books on such a wide array of subjects that I’m especially curious about your inspirations.  Let’s start with your process for non-fiction...  

Christine: I have relationships with a number of publishers who call and ask if I'd be interested in writing about "x" and suggest a fee. The industry name for that is "work for hire." Sometimes I'll get a subject and think, "I am not even remotely interested in that." But the wonderful thing about researching subjects I'm not familiar with is that I have to immerse in the subject until something about it clicks with me. That way I can distill the information down to make it interesting to a reader. For example, I remembered American History as being the most dull academic subject to get through as a child. I cringed when asked to write a series. But I like a challenge. So it became fascinating to learn how dysfunctional our founding fathers were and the lengths it took to come up with a coherent Constitution (there was an early one that didn't work), and a national government that functioned. The publisher gave me wide latitude to build the narrative which included a sidebar on how constantly paying ransoms to pirates played a role in getting Congress to act on building a navy. A well-known reviewer said I found a way to present the Bill of Rights, for example, as a living, breathing document.

Anne: I, too, love researching and discovering the little tid-bits that grab my imagination.  When I talk to kids about writing, I tell them that it’s the things that make them curious that are likely to make a reader curious, too.
        Where does your sci fi/fantasy fall in this?  Of all genres, what is it about science fiction that makes you choose to work with it?

Christine: I focused on science fiction because it’s my wheelhouse. I’m fascinated by stories of untapped potential and how science can enhance or override our innate abilities (or common sense). I grew up looking at stars in the night sky and imagining that a truly infinite universe might hold an infinite number of species living millions of light years away. Science fiction dreams of what isn’t a reality yet, but could be in the future.

Anne: Did you have to push to add SFF to the non-fiction line-up, or did the publisher ask you if it was something you were interested in, or what was the dynamic there?

Christine: It was nearly impossible to sell children's science fiction as a woman when I first started. There was a lot of preference in the industry for male authors, early on. Women could write fantasy as long as they were not an ethnic minority. I don't say that to be racist. It was just a reality. If you tried, the editors wouldn't understand the rhythms or the nuances. So ultimately the books would die a short death on the shelf and the industry would say "see, told you that stuff doesn't have an audience."  I considered self-publishing but that's a long story for another time. In an industry dominated by female editors and librarians, the gushing always seemed to be over mostly males. I wrote an essay on it during Women's month two years ago that got a lot of attention. [You can read Christine’s essay here.]  I did a statistical analysis of two American Library Awards and the skew towards men (in some cases the same men winning the same awards over and over again) was stunning.

Anne: As someone who did go the self-publishing route and therefore doesn’t have much experience with the mainstream publishing industry, I’m fascinated (and depressed!) to hear about this aspect of things.  I do hope things are shifting.

Christine: I also ran across the problem of publishers wanting me to stay in my "lane."  One of my favorite editors who made sure I had a steady diet of fun science topics to write, also knew I was working on a speculative series. After she started her own publishing house, she called and asked if she could publish Tribes. I think that was fate. Move Books is a small indie publisher but the founder has a long history in commercial children's publishing (and once worked in the music industry) so she has a great eye and her staff are sticklers for finding amazing illustrators and printers. They were also really sensitive to maintaining my voice and vision throughout the process.

Anne: That sounds like a happily-ever-after for the Lost Tribes!  Can you tell me about the inspiration for Tribes?  There’s the over-all plot idea, there are all the different characters, and there are the individual puzzles and mysteries along the way… Can you point to particular inspirations for any of those?  Or broader influences in the sort of story or the sort of world you wanted to create?

Christine: You know, I initially wanted to write picture books. I read a lot of novels, but writing picture books seemed less intimidating. I wrote a story about siblings who suspected their mother had a secret and set out to test their hypothesis. Of course their plan didn't work, and the mother had a logical explanation for everything she did. But on the last page it is revealed that their suspicions were correct - something I revealed only to the reader. The siblings remained oblivious.  I sent it to a large publisher and the editor thought the story was too scary for little children. I was perplexed since the story was written with humor. He suggested I turn it into a novel. That took some thinking. One day I was playing with a hieroglyphic font and thinking about one of my uncles who never thought anything I did was good enough. And suddenly the first puzzle and the first plot point of an uncle who never approved of the protagonist came into being. After that I couldn't stop thinking of the dynamics of that relationship, parents who are desperately trying to hide a family secret, and friends on the block who help the protagonist work through a challenge all the while circumventing their own distaste for each other. That is probably the only time I had a story that wouldn't let go. But I also wanted to showcase readers who don't often find themselves in the pages or who are the "side kick" friend with no speaking parts except to tell the hero how great he is. Since my hero isn't that great, I have smart snarky characters who take pleasure in reminding him and it becomes the basis for something fun.

Anne: I love your illustration of how so many elements in our lives come together into a story idea: our own lives and backgrounds, our false starts, and our serendipities.  This also touches on the question of what’s special about working for children?  Why do you choose to write stories for children as opposed to adults?

Christine: My family consumes a steady diet of books because we were raised that way. But when I was a college interviewer, many high school seniors reported not having the time, or the patience to read for pleasure. They were focused on content required to pass an academic or admissions test. But those students who did read for pleasure seemed almost embarrassed to admit it. It was science fiction and fantasy that had captured their imaginations.  I wanted to write stories that helped children become voluntary lifelong readers and to fuel the needs of those older “closet” readers. And honestly - a lot of adults are also readers of our work. So perhaps there’s something about writing for children that feels accessible and hopeful.

Anne: I think it’s also the case that the ever-present instant gratification of all our phones and computers makes reading seem like too much work sometimes -- there’s always going to be a path of less resistance.  This really upsets me!  But I agree that I want to write books that will tap that love of reading that I know is still there and/or could be there for so many.  For myself, I enjoy reading the books written for kids because I find that at its best juvenile SFF really wrestles with the deep questions without feeling the need to throw in gratuitous sex and violence to keep our attention!
        I assume your science background must influence the sorts of stories you’re interested in telling.  How does your background inform your stories?  And do you think it also affects the way you imagine and build a story?

Christine: I think it does. I can't detach the science background from the writing. I'm always trying to figure something out. Life is kind of a puzzle so it stands to reason I would include them. I grew up without a lot of money but I could afford to spend my allowance on puzzle magazines at the drugstore. So that was my entertainment - cryptograms, crossword puzzles, word searches, etc. And I have really nerdy friends. One is an investigative reporter who is always sending me odd facts she digs up in her own research that she thinks might be interesting. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with bog bodies, for instance.  Although I love pure fantasy, there are such weird unsolved mysteries on Earth, as well as quirky facts, I thought - why not use them and increase a reader's working vocabulary of life outside of their city or state? So I research and discover more than I bargained for. For instance, discovering that Islas Ballestas, an island off the coast of Peru, is filled with Humboldt penguins, massive sea lions, and birds. It was once a principle source of bird droppings which was then sold as fertilizer. So I thought, "I have to get the characters there!" It was just so gross but an awesome scene with them having to find a clean place to step while searching for an artifact and trying not to antagonize the massive sea lions. Another place I explore is the Devils Triangle off the coast of Japan. It has similar unexplained phenomena as the Bermuda Triangle. And compasses do weird things in that region. So I hid a secret base there. My editor indulges me because I send her fun facts to digest when the books go in for editing. Really - the whole book is about problem solving when you have little to go on for clues. Life, a mission, a friendship going sour. Those are the puzzles that get unpacked in the series.

Anne: I actually know a lot about bog bodies, but your other examples are new to me!

        We’ll stop here for now, but tune in next time (on Sunday) as we dig more deeply into questions of representation, making the world a better place, and Christine’s writing advice!

[Pictures: Christine Taylor-Butler, picture from Christine;
Cover for The Lost Tribes.]

June 10, 2020

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

        Written by John Keats in 1819, this is one of the most famous, most referenced fantasy poems to come out of the Romantic movement.  (There are two versions, by the way.  I give you  here the original.)  It is written in ballad form, and uses a question and response format to set the scene and then allow the knight to tell his tragic tale.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 
       Alone and palely loitering? 
The sedge has withered from the lake, 
       And no birds sing. 

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 
       So haggard and so woe-begone? 
The squirrel’s granary is full, 
       And the harvest’s done. 

I see a lily on thy brow, 
       With anguish moist and fever-dew, 
And on thy cheeks a fading rose 
       Fast withereth too. 

I met a lady in the meads, 
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child, 
Her hair was long, her foot was light, 
       And her eyes were wild. 

I made a garland for her head, 
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone; 
She looked at me as she did love, 
       And made sweet moan 

I set her on my pacing steed, 
       And nothing else saw all day long, 
For sidelong would she bend, and sing 
       A faery’s song. 

She found me roots of relish sweet, 
       And honey wild, and manna-dew, 
And sure in language strange she said— 
       ‘I love thee true’. 

She took me to her Elfin grot, 
       And there she wept and sighed full sore, 
And there I shut her wild wild eyes 
       With kisses four. 

And there she lullèd me asleep, 
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!— 
The latest dream I ever dreamt 
       On the cold hill side. 

I saw pale kings and princes too, 
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; 
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci 
       Thee hath in thrall!’ 

I saw their starved lips in the gloam, 
       With horrid warning gapèd wide, 
And I awoke and found me here, 
       On the cold hill’s side. 

And this is why I sojourn here, 
       Alone and palely loitering, 
Though the sedge is withered from the lake, 
       And no birds sing.

        The plot is pretty straightforward: the noble knight is destroyed by the femme fatale.  (A little more background depth is added by the biographical note that at the time of writing this poem, Keats was himself madly in love.  It was requited by the lady, but he was by then dying of tuberculosis.)  Keats took the phrase “la belle dame sans merci” from a fifteenth century French poem in the courtly love genre, and for those who don’t know the French, it means “the beautiful woman without mercy.”
        As I mentioned, this poem gets quoted and alluded to a lot, and needless to say, artists have loved portraying it.  Mostly it seems to be an excuse to show a beautiful woman, with relatively little emphasis on the subsequent misery of the knight.  Feel free to do a search for all the paintings on the theme, too.
        From a feminist point of view, there’s plenty we could say about the trope of the belle dame sans merci: the demonization of any woman deemed too promiscuous, and the simultaneous demonization of any woman who refuses the advances of the man telling the story.  But I’m here to look at things from the fantasy point of view, and I find this poem interesting as a portrayal of fairy.  This fairy is not cute and sparkly and good.  Keats is describing a being that is very non-human: beautiful, seductive, addictive, strange, other…  One could debate whether she is actively cruel or merely utterly amoral, but certainly she does not care what becomes of all the humans with whom she has dallied.  She belongs to the tradition in which fairies are creatures without souls.  This is the version of fairies that I am working with in my current work in progress, by the way, and this poem is one that I’m quoting in chapter headings.

[Pictures: Illustration by R. Gardner from Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, & c by John Keats, 1900(?) (Image from MrMorodo);
A Woman Embracing a Man (for La Belle Dame Sans Merci), wood engraving by Michael Renton, 1986 (Image from Roe + Moore);
Illustration by Lancelot Speed from The Blue Poetry Book, 1891 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Illustration by Robert Anning Bell from Poems by John Keats, 1897 (Image from Internet Archive).]

June 5, 2020

Stay-at-Home Activities 4: Fingerprinting

        This project is inspired by a series of portraits made by Chuck Close in the 1980s, in which he “painted” with fingerprints.  Of course, I would say that this could count as a sort of printmaking technique, so that’s why I’m including it as a project in this blog.  This first fingerprint portrait is, like most of Closes’s work, incredibly large and detailed: 8.5 by 7 feet in size, so yeah, he could fit a lot of detail into that.  However, here is also a much smaller, rougher one (16x11.5 inches) that’s representative of the project I’m actually proposing for you to try, since not too many of us have the wherewithal to make 8 foot art.  (And if you want to see more of Close’s printmaking, here’s a previous post on some of his other art.)
        Back in the 1990s I adapted Close’s finger printing idea into a project with seventh graders.  Each student made a portrait of themself, which they then shaded using their own fingerprints.  Unlike Close’s portraits of friends, my students made double self-portraits: both their likeness and their fingerprints represented their identity.
        Here’s my own double self-portrait, which was the demonstration sample I made at the time.  My students and I drew our portraits from life, looking in mirrors, but you could certainly use a photograph.  You could copy from a photograph, or even trace from one.  The important thing is just to get down the outlines and guide marks for your fingerprint shading.  Then start in with an ordinary black stamp pad.

     • My portrait is about 12x17, and you don’t want to work too much smaller than that or it will be really hard to get enough detail.  After all, your “brush” can’t be any smaller than your fingertip.
     • Use more than one finger, and different parts and amounts of the finger surface to make different sizes of mark, from the tiniest tip of your pinky to rolling the broadest flat of your thumb.  You can even experiment with using the side of a finger to make longer lines .  (That’s what I did for the bangs on my forehead.)
     • Use the variable of pressure to change the value (lightness or darkness) of your marks.  How hard you press into the stamp pad determines how much ink gets on your finger, and how hard you press on the paper determines how much of that ink transfers onto your image.
     • It helps not to have terribly long fingernails.
     • Yes, your fingers will get inky.  Be careful not to touch your face or clothes or furniture while you’re covered in ink.  Depending on the ink pad you use, the ink may or may not be considered “washable.”  Even after you wash your hands with soap your fingertips may well be stained.  I always told my students that the ink would come off when they washed their hair or washed the dishes.
     • There is no reason that you have to do a self-portrait, of course.  Feel free to fingerprint any  kind of picture you like.
        For younger children (or, of course, any age!) you can use fingerprints as the basis for all sorts of fun little doodles.  Ed Emberley is the master of fingerprint fun.  You can find his books in libraries if your local library, like ours, is offering curb-side pickup, but you can also find plenty of stuff posted on-line.  His techniques are more fun if you have multiple colors.  If you don’t have multiple stamp pads, you could try coloring your fingertips with broad-tipped markers.
        Whether you’re aiming for fine art or funny doodles, it’s always good for the spirit to take a little time to try something that allows you to get messy and get creative.

[Pictures: Fanny/Fingerpainting, oil-based ink on canvas by Chuck Close, 1985;
Phil, stamp-pad ink on paper by Close, 1980 (Images from ChuckClose.com);
Double Self-Portrait, Anne, stamp-pad ink on paper by AEGN, c 1993-5;
Fingerlings, illustrations from Ed Emberley’s Fingerprint Drawing Book, c 2000.]

June 1, 2020

Summer Vacation: Italian Edition

        Lots of us will not be travelling much this summer, so I thought I’d help you do a little armchair travelling with block prints.  First, I’ll share some block prints that I have made on my past travels… (or at least, pieces I’ve made based on photos taken during my travels, because of course I don’t do the actual carving and printing while away from home).  And our first destination is Italy.
        We start in Venice, with the famous Ca’ d’Oro, an iconic palazzo on the Grand Canal.  Built around 1430, it represents the Venetian Gothic style.  As a subject for a block print, there were a number of elements that attracted me.  1. Between the white marble and the heavily shadowed openings of windows and doors, it is very graphically black and white.  2. Its architecture is ornate and geometric almost to the point of abstraction, which makes for an interesting visual design.  3. It is opulent and ethereal as a fairy tale palace, and seems to float on the canal like magic.  This piece is
currently on display at Gallery Twist in Lexington.  You can see it in the Living Room (in the video tour, or the 360° exploration), where they’ve paired it with a more abstract print using lace, which makes a fun combination.
        While the grand palaces of the Grand Canal are certainly worthy of their fame, however, the truly amazing thing about Venice is that it isn’t just scenic in spots, like most cities, but everywhere.  This is reflected in my second piece, a view of a random little footbridge over a random little canal near the narrow house we stayed in.  I chose this view precisely because it wasn’t famous or particularly recognizable, but represented for me the fact that every corner you turn reveals a beautiful, if shabby, surprise.
        I have featured quite a few other block prints of Venice before.  You can find them in these posts:  Venice in Relief (I) and Venice in Relief (II), (with links from there to yet a couple of other pieces.)
        We travel now to Milan, for a piece that I have never shared before because I consider it pretty much a failure.  It was an attempt at a multi-block print with five blocks, one for each
color, and the big problem was that the different colors of ink did not build on top of each other as I’d envisioned.  In particular, the  yellow was too opaque, (which is sort of ironic since I’ve done other pieces in which I was disappointed that the yellow wasn’t opaque enough).  Because of the colors being too garishly yellow, I tried watercoloring the sky slightly with blue to cool things down, but that didn’t work particularly well, either.  Also, being my first effort in printing multiple colors, I didn’t do very well with registration.  Maybe I should dig out the blocks and experiment with it again some day?  But in any case, it is here today because it is the courtyard of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which is where Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper resides.  When I was there, just for a few hours between trains, no one was allowed in to see the mural, to my disappointment, but at least it was a lovely courtyard.
        And while we’re in Milan, why not stop in to see an interesting diagram of the Duomo di Milano, here.
        Next we head to Rome, where I did a block print of the interior of the Pantheon.  You can read more about my piece, as well as seeing several other block prints of churches of Rome at the previous post Three Ways to Look at Churches of Rome.  Plus, you can see Escher’s view of the interior of St Peter’s here.
        I have a couple of photographs of the Amalfi coast that I’ve been mulling as block prints, but I haven’t got around to them yet.  But no fear; there are still plenty of other views of Italy on this blog.  Escher’s got one of the Amalfi coast here, and you can see Ethelbert White’s view of Recco (on the northwest coast), here.  Plus
some Italian landscapes which may or may not represent actual places
        Have you ever been to any of these places?  Where would you love to go?  I hope that someday soon travel will once again be safe, and you’ll be able to indulge in a trip of your dreams.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this itinerary of relief block prints.

[Pictures: Venetian Gothic, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Ponte Michiel, Venice, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Italian Courtyard, color rubber block print by AEGN, 1997;
Pantheon, Rome, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017 (sold out).]