Archive for November 18, 2016

POETRY FRIDAY: “Revolutionary Letter #51” by Diane di Prima

The righteously indignant poet Diane Di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

The righteously indignant poet Diane di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

It’s hard to say why we pluck one book from the shelf, a slim volume surrounded by so many others. In this case, for me, it was a book I hadn’t read in at least 20 years. A book I’d purchased new for $3.50, back in my college days, when that’s how I spent my available book-money: poetry, poetry, poetry. Building a collection.

A year ago, I was moved to post Wendell Berry’s fine poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Last week my blog blew up because somebody, somewhere, linked to that page on my blog. Berry’s poem expressed something that helps me in troubling times. I go back to it, as a reminder, time and again. And, oh yes, we are in troubling times, with irksome, fearful days ahead.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

During the week of the election, I took Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters off the shelf. Because as much as I needed solace and surcease, I also needed fire and gasoline. I needed the righteous indignation of di Prima’s shambolic, vexed, idealistic voice. While I don’t think of her as a supreme poet, or of this as a perfect poem, her spirit strikes chords in me, resounding and reverberating like a clanged bell. But I’m here today mostly for that good line: “We have the right to make the universe we dream.”

So keep dreaming, dreamers.

We have that right, and that mission. Be strong.

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Today’s Word: Portemanteau

This is a portemanteau:

 

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That is, a large suitcase or trunk that usually opens into two separate parts.

However, the word “mansplaining” is also a portemanteau:

Ironic businessman boss. Business concept professional at work retro style pop art

According the Merriam-Webster, 1: a large suitcase; 2: a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms. 

Our language has many portemanteaus, including: brunch, dramedy, carjack, Reaganomics, motel, snowmageddon, threepeat, gaydar, Brexit, sharknado, etc.

FUN FACT: “Chortle” is a portemanteau invented by Lewis Carroll, combining “chuckle” and “snort.

Carry on!

5 QUESTIONS with JESSICA OLIEN, author/illustrator of “THE BLOBFISH BOOK”

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Are we all good? Everybody set for another installment of our weekly “5 Questions” interview series? Because here’s Jessica Olien. Maybe she’ll stop signing books long enough for a friendly chat. Her blobfish book just might surprise you.

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Jessica, hey. There’s a great scene in “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, where Uncle Willy explains that “Words with k in it are funny.” He lists: pickle, chicken, Alka-seltzer. Uncle Willy adds, “’L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny, tomatoes is not funny, lettuce is not funny, cucumber is funny . . . Cockroach is funny — not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.” The idea is that certain words are inherently funny. Which leads me to Blobfish. How do you not smile when you hear that word?

Indeed. Poor lettuce, what a terrible dinner party guest. Blobfish is most definitely funny, but as with most comedians is also seriously misunderstood!

There’s a deeper layer to your book, slowly revealed, that leads the reader to an unexpected place. First, on the surface, there’s straight-forward science. From what I understand, there’s been significant advances deep ocean research, where we’re now getting glimpses of these incredibly weird fish. My favorite is Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”). It all gets pretty bizarre down in the Hadalpelagic Zone. All of that information in your book is conveyed in a fairly conventional photographic manner. Then we meet your illustrated Blobfish character. Which came first?

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Definitely Blobfish came first. I had this idea kind of whole — an attention-seeking fish looking to recognize himself in the pages of a dry textbook. To get the photos (which are mostly of the deep deep sea) I had to contact different scientists around the world, which was fun but challenging when they were off searching for Japanese Spider Crabs or whatever and couldn’t get back to me for permissions.

What I love about your book -– and there’s so much to love –- is that moment when it pivots about halfway through. We are yucking it up with an interrupting blobfish, thinking we’ve got this book figured out, when we learn, “The blobfish was once voted the world’s ugliest animal.”

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At that moment, you start tugging, ever so gently, on emotions. The book quietly sends signals from the deep about kindness and how we treat each other. Even blobfish have feelings! And words can hurt. I imagine you coming across that factoid and thinking, “Hmmmm.” Is that when you knew you had a book? Because that’s a real thing, isn’t it? We all have folders of half-baked ideas, snippets and notions and unfinished manuscripts, but not many books. Then there’s a moment when, yes, this is a book. Or as my friend Matthew McElligott puts it, “You know you can land the plane.”

Well thank you! I think I actually read that the Blobfish was voted the ugliest animal on BBC or something and that’s where the idea for this book came from. That and a bunch of really weird sketches of Blobfish — you should see one of the early ones, he looks kind of like Danny DeVito.

DeVito should play him in the movie. I can totally see that. He has the range. But continue.

I loved thinking about a lumpy fish with this child-like enthusiasm about his own worth. Blobfish craves validation and belonging and while he looks for it he finds out that some people have not very nice views of him. I think this is a defining moment for many kids too. When they realize people aren’t all on their side. It feels so unfair (it is unfair). Different versions of this happen our entire lives and it is up to the kindness of others and our own ability to recognize and embrace that kindness (as well as to forgive our own flaws) that keeps us going.

I see that you live in Brooklyn, as required by law for children’s authors and illustrators (I think it’s a five-year minimum, then you are free to move to Connecticut). Yet you are a native Midwesterner. Where’s that?

I was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. All I wanted to do was explore the world and be a writer, an artist, an actor. Being from the Midwest you are taught to keep your expectations low and your ambition in check. I couldn’t wait to leave. I moved to Chicago to study photography, then dropped out of school and moved to Thailand where I worked as a journalist. I finished my degree remotely while studying Arabic in Egypt.

Right. Given that progression, writing and illustrating a children’s book about a blobfish makes perfect sense. Because: inevitable. Your voice strikes me as something new. How did you arrive at children’s books? It’s like you climbed in a window or something.

It does sometimes feel that way — “This is not my beautiful house.” I always say I didn’t do this until a few years ago, but recently I looked back at some of my sketchbooks that I kept while traveling and mixed in with these serious sketches of urban decay and poverty were these funny cartoon animals and people. I am so glad I didn’t pursue picture books right out of school though. Something about not caring as much what people think when I did start out made it easier to have an authentic voice. Also, I was lucky to have Alessandra Balzer buy my first book (and four after). If she hadn’t taken it I might not even know there was a window for me to climb into.

Thanks for visiting, Jessica. Keep up the great work.

wceggdunlca8rphoz66abhhs4ri12vqgoobrgbrkx2plcphekar3aiznsrpughkiodzcs4glrs3lnnbucm2t9tndb06zszzgaib6wpypvq5idkycbwtzawmsmq7pk-1JESSICA OLIEN is also the author/illustrator of Shark Detective! and Adrift. She has several books in pre-publication, but the one I’m most excited about it titled Right Now (2018). I guess we’ll have to wait for it. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. Jessica keeps a fancy website that you can visit. Google’ll get you there.

 

Coming soon: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker,  Matthew Phelan, and more. You can look up previous interviews in this series by clicking on the “5 Questions” icon under the “categories” on the right sidebar.

Talking: Writing Process, Roald Dahl, Works In Progress, Lewis & Clark, and the Danger of the “Info Dump.”

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD -- a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD — a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Deborah Kalb runs a cool website where she interviews a staggering number of authors and illustrators . . . and she finally worked her way down to me.

Please check it out by stomping on this link here.

Here’s a quick sample:

Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?

A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.

In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.

I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .

5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW McELLIGOTT, author/illustrator of “MAD SCIENTIST ACADEMY: THE WEATHER DISASTER”

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Here we are, oh sunny day, the latest installment of my “5 Questions” interview series with luminaries of the children’s book world. Here comes my friend, Matt McElligott!

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Matt, I’m looking at the second book in your “Mad Scientist Academy” series, The Weather Disaster. And all I can think is, Boy that looks like a lot of work! Seriously, I’m exhausted. So I’m just going to take a brief nap and, yawn, we’ll pick this up later. Zzzzzzzzzz.

You’re not the first person to tell me my books put them to sleep! 

Okay, I’m up! For readers who might be unfamiliar with this science series, you are essentially taking a nonfiction topic and giving it a fresh, contemporary spin. All told in an appealing format that’s a hybrid between the graphic novel and traditional picture book. As someone who has admired your work for many years, it strikes me that this series –- which is spectacular in every way — represents a culmination for you, a distillation of your many and varied talents. I don’t think you could have done this ten years ago. All of your past work informs this one book: your intellectual curiosity, your love of comic books and old Hollywood movies, your silliness, your experience with book design and storytelling, plus the signature McElligott sense of what kids genuinely like. How did this series begin?

The sentiment is much, much appreciated. And I agree completely -– I don’t think I could have done this ten years ago, and I’m not sure I could even do it now without the tremendous help of my wife Christy. It really is a lot of work. Not only does the story have to be compelling, but it also has to deliver a lot of real science along the way, hopefully while still captivating the reader. Finding that balance has been, by far, the trickiest part of putting these together, but I can honestly say I enjoy every part of it.

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The idea began with a suggestion from my longtime editor, Emily Easton, who felt that there was a real opportunity for a new series that could make science accessible for kids. We spent about a year and a half trying out various ideas and approaches until it finally started to gel. The graphic novel format came from both my love of classic comics and a practical need to fit all the information into thirty-two pages.

There must have been a point, early on, when you thought to yourself, “Uh-oh.” Just that pure terror of, What have I gotten myself into? Can I actually do it?

Boy, you nailed it with that question. The feeling of terror hit me a couple weeks into the first book and has lingered ever since. There are roughly a hundred illustrations in each book, and the thought of how long it will take to draw the next book keeps me up at night. I’ll spend about a year, maybe a little more, researching, plotting, sketching, and illustrating pretty intensely until it’s finished. But the good thing is that I’m not in it alone. I happen to be married to a very talented woman who’s a whiz at both researching and drawing (we met thirty years ago in art school) and we can divide up many of the tasks to keep everything manageable. Three books in, and we’re still married!

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Now correct me if I’m wrong, but your cruel editors don’t allow you to just make up stuff for this book? Is that true? So you’ve actually got to know what you are talking about? What’s the research process like? In this book you thank an actual weatherman, Jason Gough. Otherwise known as a, cough-cough, “stratospheric meteorologist.”

Oh, no. I make most of it up. (That part about how rain forms? That totally came to me in a dream.) Seriously, there’s a ton of research for each book, and meeting real scientists has been one of my favorite parts. For The Weather Disaster I worked with Jason Gough, and for the Dinosaur Disaster I worked with a man named Carl Mehling, a paleontologist who’s in charge of all 32,000 fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. For the upcoming Space Disaster, I worked with the astronomer Bob Berman, who you may know from his work on the radio station WAMC.

All of these scientists were so helpful, patient, and fully willing to engage my strange questions. (“Say, Jason, if you needed to create a tornado from scratch, how would you do it?”) Best of all, they embodied a perfect combination of science and imagination, and I was really lucky to find them. I’ve posted interviews with Carl and Jason on my website, and will be posting more soon.

Matt, you and I are both active with school visits. And I always recommend you to media specialists. The funny thing is, they usually say, “Yeah, he was already here.” At which point I figure out that I’ve been invited because they are working their way down, down, down the list. Not that I mind playing second fiddle –- I’m happy to be in the orchestra! But talk to me a little about your experience in schools. I mean, there you are at home, slaving away on these impossible books. Then you get out of the house! What do you hope to achieve when you visit a school? And also, if you don’t mind me cobbling questions together, what do you think that you get out of your school visits?

Don’t sell yourself short –- you have quite a reputation in the schools! I suspect you’re there because the teachers are actually working their way up the list. (Preller? Why not? Anyone’s got to be better than McElligott.)

I get paid in Ramen Noodles and old Lotto tickets. I think that’s a big part of my appeal.

I love your questions about author visits. The first is pretty straightforward: I hope the kids see that authors are real people, that making books is a thing that real grownups do, and that the writing and illustrating process can be hard, but is totally worth it. (Authors, after all, get to control the world.)

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

As for what I get out of the visits, I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that. I know I get to share my love of books –- that’s a big part –- and get to meet future authors and illustrators, as well as terrific librarians and teachers. But I also get to represent something bigger than myself, a duty I take very seriously. When a school hosts an author, and when they present the author/illustrator as someone of importance, the school is sending a message about the value of the arts that kids are almost certainly not getting anywhere else. I’m honored to be that representative, if even for just a day.

I like that, we are ambassadors from a distant land. I’ve never been comfortable with the “rock star” aspect of being a visiting author. Sometimes we get put on a pedestal. But when you view it as beyond the self, that we are representing something bigger than “Jimmy” or “Matt,” then it makes more sense.

Ambassadors is such a great word for it. We may be the only authors some of those kids will ever meet. If we’re funny, if we’re engaging, if it shows that we love our jobs, they’ll assume that all authors are that way. Those kids will come away with the idea that reading and making books is something they want to do too.

I recall Tedd Arnold telling me in an interview that he enjoyed checking in with their “squirmy reality.” That phrase always stuck with me. You get to look at those faces, and interact, and reconnect with the fact that, hey, a second grader in October is still really, really young. The visits land us in their world. You know what? It’s like going on a safari! You drive the jeep, Matt. I’ll grab the pith helmets!

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Exactly! It’s field research, and we can learn so much from studying the indigenous population of the elementary school.

You’ve tackled dinosaurs, you’ve wrestled with weather. What’s your next topic?

I can tell you that next up is The Solar System Disaster, out next summer. After that, maybe the ocean? Or maybe the science of belly-button lint. It’s probably between those two.

Well, I think we’ve all learned something today. Every book in this series is a disaster.

In more ways than one!

 

MATT McELLIGOTT keeps a terrific website which you can visit by clicking, madly, here

 

AND IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ PREVIOUS “5 Questions” interviews, thank you — just click on the names below. Coming next week: Jessica Olien and her blobfish! And after that: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Matthew Phelan, and more (but not necessarily in that order).

* Hudson Talbott

* Hazel Mitchell

* Ann Hood