I’ve seen a few people posting this graphic on Facebook, in response to a particular issue which this post is not about. I’ve been thinking about the quote itself.

Whether minds can be changed by eloquent quotes, I don’t know, but I do think President Jefferson here captures the mood (or a mood) of the nation’s founding, the pervasive optimism of the enlightenment, which was not especially religious, even if the men themselves were.

I think this idea has fallen upon hard times with a large number of people; the idea that our national story is one of discovery and development. Among some, there is distrust of science. Among others, profound unease about the changing “manners and opinions” of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Even among those who live by this myth — and it is, after all, a myth, in the broader sense that means a communal narrative of origin and destiny — even among those who live by this myth, I feel like faith in it erodes; people speak with confidence about the right and wrong side of history, projecting a jury of our descendants who have the final verdict, even while lamenting the ebbing tide of progress.

I have mixed feelings myself about this narrative… I don’t completely accept this idea of “barbarous ancestors,” or that humanity has had a childhood which it can outgrow, that we are fit for bigger britches now than we did before. It is a more compelling myth, to me, than one of divine creation and pending apocalypse, but I feel like it is ahistorical to suppose we have only recently matured, after sixty or seventy thousand years of existence.

I have grave concerns about the immediate future and little hope for the far future, for purely scientific reasons that have to do with population and ecology. Whatever our barbarous ancestors did, they lived for many millennia, adapting to climactic and other changes, without making the place uninhabitable. They were more or less leaderless and casteless. Their lives were short but the world was without end.

See No Color (Review)

See No ColorThe title of Shannon Gibney’s debut YA novel, See No Color, has a resonance for people (like me) who were around in the 1980s — “Love See No Color,” was a popular motto, often emblazoned on T shirts, and generally seen (by white people, at least) as an idealistic goal: Color didn’t matter! We could all be color blind together and put the terrible past behind us!

Gibney’s book is a critique of that trope. The protagonist, Alexandra “Little” Kirtridge, is in a perfect position to examine it, as the African American adopted daughter of a wealthy white family. Her father is a former professional baseball player and still obsesses on the game as a father and as a coach. Alex is perhaps his favorite project, a high-school girl who plays on teams of boys and excels. The shared love for baseball anchors a wonderfully described father-daughter relationship, but that relationship begins to fray at the seams when Alex discovers her biological father has been trying to contact her for years and her adopted parents have kept his letters a secret. That plus a black boyfriend have Alex doing a little soul searching.

The Kirtridges say repeatedly that race doesn’t matter, and that they (the reader winces) never “saw” Alex “as black.” But of course, Alex is black, and begins to wonder what’s wrong with that, or why her parents would refuse to see it. She begins to realize that she’s been kept from her family and cultural history.

Gibney builds sympathy for the Kirtridges while showing readers how deeply flawed their reasoning is. They are kind, generous, loving parents; they are also wrong. Young adult fiction has been called “morally simple,” but here is one of many books that challenges that pert assumption (as does any book from Carolrhoda Lab). Real parents can be both lovable and frustrating, and Gibney illustrates that beautifully. Alex is complicated herself — her resentment of her parents’ biological children is conveyed with moving honesty. As a child from a well-off family, she also struggles with judging the more working-class family of her boyfriend.

Gibney is at her best describing family relationships, and I look forward to reading more from her. I happen to know that her second book is set in Liberia — an interesting direction to take after a debut novel about baseball and adoption. ;-)




The Murdock 67 (Advice on Culture Building)

In author circles, particularly those writing fantasy and science-fiction, there’s a lot of talk about “world building,” which I visualize as writing ad-hoc descriptions of physical and political structures. (I know world building is more than that; I can’t help what I visualize.)

So I now use the expression “culture building” knowing that “world building” encompasses that, but finding that gets more at what I would want to do in a work of speculative fiction, and because it gets more to the heart of the matter. How are these humans (or animals, or aliens) human, and what shape is their humanity? I came across this incredible list, written by the anthropologist George P. Murdock (via E.O. Wilson; you might have seen that coming), who sought to create a comprehensive list of all the human cultures he’d encountered. The list follows.

  1. age-grading
  2. athletic sports
  3. bodily adornment
  4. calendar
  5. cleanliness training
  6. community organization
  7. cooking
  8. cooperative labor
  9. cosmology
  10. courtship
  11. dancing
  12. decorative art
  13. divination
  14. division of labor
  15. dream interpretation
  16. education
  17. eschatology
  18. ethics
  19. ethnobotany*
  20. etiquette
  21. faith healing
  22. family feasting
  23. fire making
  24. folklore
  25. food taboos
  26. funeral rites
  27. games
  28. gestures
  29. gift giving
  30. government
  31. greetings
  32. hair styles
  33. hospitality
  34. housing
  35. hygiene**
  36. incest taboos
  37. inheritance rules
  38. joking
  39. kin groups
  40. kinship nomenclature
  41. language
  42. law
  43. luck superstitions
  44. magic
  45. marriage
  46. mealtimes
  47. medicine
  48. obstetrics
  49. penal sanctions
  50. personal names
  51. population policy
  52. postnatal care
  53. pregnancy usages
  54. property rights
  55. propitiation of supernatural beings
  56. puberty customs
  57. religious ritual
  58. residence rules
  59. sexual restrictions
  60. soul concepts
  61. status differentiation
  62. surgery
  63. tool making
  64. trade
  65. visiting
  66. weaving
  67. weather control

It’s meant to be descriptive, but I think it could be to creative writers — like Joseph Campbell’s work — prescriptive, a means of planning. Murdock’s list is a series of hints and suggestions to creators of imagined and imaginary cultures the many things they might consider working into their book. As I prepare myself to delve into a project that would require full-scale world/culture building, and wondering if I am up to the task, I find this list is extremely helpful. Each item is a question to answer, a challenge that leads me to fully develop my world… and some could lead to passages, with key plot points and character development, that might not have occurred to me otherwise. I don’t think I’ll need to plod people through ALL 67, but I know I would return to this list again and again for ideas.  I also see those points that other authors covered, that made their books rich and wonderful, whether or not they actually read anthropology books: Rowling and 2, Jacques and 22, Richard Adams and 15. They might have had muses whispering in their ear, but for me this list will help me fake it.



* Because I had to look it up: the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses.

** If, like me, much of your career has been charting the lives of middle-school-aged boys, this one is optional.

Way Back When

Photo by Kris Williams/Flickr

Use only… stones left by matri-descendant patri-tribalists

– Heid Erdrich, “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects

I’ve recently become fascinated by prehistoric people. I’m intrigued by how much of human history is in the 50,000-60,000 years between migrating out Africa and founding the first cities. Even taking a conservative view, and eliminating the human-like creatures that preceded homo sapiens in the two-odd million years after the proto-chimp swung that decisive bone tool and the whole process began, the vast part of human history is before we even had writing to record it.

In any of those untold centuries, all the way back to the beginning, ancestors of mine and of yours hunted and gathered, mastered fire, fought off predators, found faith and created art. It was a slow process. Entire centuries were apparently devoted to improvements in stone-flaking techniques, to developing pigments or stone circles. I don’t doubt that lives were more rich and interesting than can be conveyed by artifacts, but very little else is known, or can be learned by excavating the middens and mounds they left behind.

Their stories are usually told with allegorical compression that emphasizes technological advancement; the weapons were made like this until they were made like that, along came agriculture and notions of home. Upon their art, archaeologists seem over-eager to endow their ancestors with high brows. A busty statue must be a goddess and not a bawdy amusement or even stone-aged pornography. Cave paintings of men turning into animals must be evidence of shamanism and not a whimsy before bedtime. Celestial observatories were built to watch the Gods, not simply for the wonders of the stars.

I feel like the opposite of the usual history text prelude is the more interesting truth. These were people for whom time and the world were endless. They must have felt somewhat static, as a kind, and had little regard for haste or progress. Surely they wanted leisure and entertainment, even if it serves the grand narrative arc of human achievement less than, well, less than situating themselves in a grand narrative of human achievement. They were hardly queuing up the Stone store for Projectile Point 5 because it’s one step closer to their civilized destiny.

If I find a story to tell, that’s what it will be. Not savages wrestling with saber-toothed cats, staving off Neanderthals and long ice-age winters, culminating in the climactic invention of NEW TOOL or BIG IDEA that makes them the rightful heirs to the earth. I feel more narrative longing for lives led without much history or purpose, which is to say, gloriously.

How Much Magic?

All of my books to date have one thing in common: some aspect of the fantastic which, if looked at from the right angle, might not be fantastic at all. I’m using the “removed from reality” meaning of the fantastic: those things which, by definition, do not exist (because if they do, they are not fantastic). A decades-long rain, a kindred serpentine spirit, a fungus run amok, and even the fate-changing baseball cards could have both supernatural and natural explanations. The magical is usually a human interpretation of what’s going on. They are improbable but not impossible events.

When I am second guessing myself, I wonder if I should inject more fantasy in my books, to be a bigger hit with readers, and their insatiable appetite for superheroes and mythic beasts. Or, conversely, if I should abandon the fantastic all together and write strictly realistic books, and be a bigger hit with tastemakers. Either road would be better than wandering aimlessly between them, I figure.

Why not write both, some well meaning person will suggest. And some writers do, but I don’t work that way. It takes quite a bit of effort to finish a book, and the ones I see through are the ones that reflect the deep indecisiveness of my soul.

And I really don’t know, at least as far as fiction goes. There are uses for enchantment but also epistemology. Personally, I feel like the real world has plenty of miracles that surpass the imaginations of our most fanciful authors, but these miracles take patience, pondering and closer observation to appreciate.

I’m thinking about it now as I look into the abyss of “what’s next,” with one manuscript (which has the least magic of any book yet, but not quite none) almost ready to send out into the world. I have a ghost story that needs revising, an utterly fantastic/fairy tale kind of book I started in a fit of excitement, and a gritty magical-realistic book written in draft form that is probably inappropriate for children. I’ve also considered writing nonfiction, but kind of like the way I’ve considered marathons.

I’ll have to pick one project and see it through, or (more in line with past experience), one of them will pick me.



Goodbye Stranger

51IiW2FCopL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Rebecca Stead is one of the finest authors of middle grade fiction currently working, writing with precision about the palpable pain of growing up. She has an ear for dialogue and an eye for detail, but the sense she captures best is the vestibular: that is, the feeling of being in motion and off-balance.

Her latest book is about three friends who belong to a club (or rather, a “set”) that is falling apart in middle school. Goodbye Stranger is, for content, practically YA. The children are thirteen, and much of the book courses with the kind of anxious hormonal energy of teenagers. We feel the threats and the heartbreaks of girls who feel pressured to be sexy, to wear suggestive Halloween costumes and text intimate images of themselves to boys they barely know, while they are children at heart. But the deepest sadness and sharpest pain is not the risks girls take for boys (if that’s who it is for); it is the splintering of their own friendships.

Books like this were stock-in-trade of YA in my own teen years, epitomized by Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, and Paul Zindel. But as YA characters have gotten older and savvier, and the awkward early teen years forgotten, middle grade books have gradually picked up the slack. Aaron Starmer’s Riverman pushed at the same envelope, and I’m hopeful that these two books portend a new wave of upper middle grade that replaces what YA used to be.

Still, it’s risky territory for middle-grade authors, since our books are generally considered appropriate for fourth graders. Even a Newbery-award-winning author might feel a ripple of discontent from parents and educators. But there is a gap in the publishing paradigm. We need books about coming of age and sexual awakening, books that help twelve- and thirteen-year-olds navigate the choppy waters of early adolescence and assure them that they will reach the other shore.

This isn’t to say Goodbye Stranger is important because it fills a niche. Goodbye Stranger is important because it’s written by Rebecca Stead. But I love that she is testing herself, feeling out new territory and filling a real need, while delivering once again on the excellent characterizations and concise writing that make her one of the most respected middle grade authors among other middle grade authors. 

Goodbye Stranger is also one of the best books I’ve read showing modern children in their technological milieu, without over-stressing the novelty or gimmickry. But Stead does this with more depth and deftness than lesser authors would. She shows, for example, the over-theatrical friendships splashed across social network profiles, or the lost-a-limb feeling of a teen without a phone, with utter verisimilitude, but neither of these are major plot points. She does not let the technology become the center of the story.

That center is the frayed friendships in the wake of puberty, and the new friendships that form. These will be heartbreakingly familiar to anyone who has survived adolescence in any decade.