Thursday, November 4, 2010

On the Edge(s)

Last year, with my wife and co-author Robin Page, I packed camping gear, computers, cameras, drawing pads, books, and lots of trail mix in a VW camper. We took our 11-year-old son out of school and set off on a long-planned 12 months of travel (‘sabbatical’ sounds so much more professional than ‘year-long road trip’). The plan was to explore the U.S. and Canada for six months, then visit a few other parts of the world in the second part of the trip. We would home school Jamie. And think, talk,and write about children’s books. We spent almost six months on the road, driving more than 20,000 miles (I try not to contemplate that carbon footprint) and listening to something like 700 hours of audio books.

We cut our trip short due to parental health issues — such is life. Still, the trip was an amazing experience. The best part was being able to spend so much time with a curious, engaged, but almost-teenage child who would normally be preoccupied with school, friends, and soccer, just as Robin and I would normally be preoccupied with work, housekeeping, etc. By design, we explored both cities and wilderness (at least what’s left of it).

In college, I had a design professor who was my first — and best — mentor. I worked for his urban planning firm full-time in the summers and part-time during the school year. Much of the work involved figuring out the best places for homes, parks, paths, and roads on land that was to be developed. I remember him telling me that the most interesting spaces were at the edges — the place where a meadow meets a wood, or where flat land meets a hill. Often, these are the places where one finds the most diverse flora and fauna, and where the landscape possesses a certain kind of energy (I know this last bit has a new-age ring to it — something I wouldn’t normally indulge in — but it’s appropriate in this case).

In retrospect, we gravitated toward interfaces — edges — as we traveled. Not necessarily consciously, but unmistakably. We had the luxury of having no real itinerary, so we could stay in a place as long as we found it intriguing and leave when we stopped being interested. When we found ourselves in homogeneous environments, whether geological, ethnic, political, or some other flavor of vanilla, we usually moved on quickly.

The cities we found most vital — Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Miami, New Orleans — are cities in which distinctly different cultures collide and interact. The most fascinating natural environments — the coast of British Columbia; Mount Rainier, where an alpine volcano emerges from a temperate rain forest; the intersection of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains (I live in one of these places, and can walk from 300-million-year-old horizontal sea floor sediments to the upthrust basalt of the Rockies, 230 million years younger, in five minutes); the coasts of Nova Scotia and Maine; the mountains and desert of Big Bend National Park — all feature the dramatic juxtaposition of very different physical environments.

This is the place in my narrative where I take a leap. But that’s what’s great about blogs — they can be places to test an idea, to think out loud. The consequences of leaping into empty space aren’t as dire as in the world of ink-on-paper.

Somehow, this idea of edges feels like a metaphor applicable to children’s non-fiction books (I say “books” rather than “writing” because I’m thinking of the visual as well as the verbal). Scientific or historical information presented in a homogeneous way — as a encyclopedic collection of facts and data, or a linear chronological narrative — is invariably monotonous and boring.

When information is presented at the interface of two or more ways of thinking or seeing, things get interesting.

Here are a few examples, pulled literally at random from the work of I.N.K. authors:

Ant, Ant, an Insect Chant

By April Pulley Sayre

(Irresistibly rhythmic entomology)

Under the Snow

By Melissa Stewart

(Zoology seen from a unique and unexpected point of view)

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

By Jim Murphy

(History at the intersection of science, sociology, journalism, and personal memoir, among other things).


rebeccahirsch said...

Great post, Steve. I write about biology and the natural world, and I'm also a bit of an amateur landscaper, so I know all about edge effects in the natural world and in landscaping, but I had never considered the edges in nonfiction writing. Interesting, very interesting. I'll be musing this one over for a few days.

Caroline McAlister said...

Excellent, cool post. I like the leap from the edges of the natural world to the edges of disciplines.

Caroline McAlister
Author of Holy Mole! and Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief

Christina Wilsdon said...

What a wonderful way to spend the better part of a year. We managed to do such a thing for one month--taking our then-preK child out of school in early spring and exploring the southwest. That trip's informed my writing ever since.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Great top have you back, and thanks for this post! I'm writing and illustrating a verrry edgy book about cultural collision as we speak, so your words hit home for me. Here's hoping this crash doesn't push me over the edge - or maybe that's a good thing.........

Jim Murphy said...

Very interesting and, to me, enlightening post. I did An American Plague because I thought the subject matter might grab kids' attention and because I thought the issues were both important and immediate. But you're right: the main players (the heroes of the plague) -- the African-Americans who volunteered to take care of their white neighbors, the French doctors, and Matthew Clarkson and his committee of ordinary folk who kept the city going during the epidemic -- were decidedly on the edge of Philadelphia society and its power brokers. It's one of the reasons they were all attacked so senselessly and unfairly when it was safe enough for the old guard to return. Thanks for pointing this out.

Susan said...

A friend and his brothers were taken on a similar trip by their parents when he was your son's age. Forty years later, he's still talking about it. You gave your son an invaluable gift. And you gave us a terrific post. Thanks Steve

Michelle Cusolito said...

Did you know part of this post was quoted in the March/April 2011 Horn Book? (See page 17-18)I remembered it as soon as I read it. A little PR for I.N.K. would have been nice!

Thanks for your excellent comments in Horn Book, as well. Some of the facts you cited are hard to wrap my head around.