Friday, December 2, 2016

Why Fantasy?

Today Calumet Editions published my young adult novel, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE. Some might ask why after seven books focused on science (both fiction and nonfiction) I decided to return to writing fantasy.

The easy answer is that I finished a first draft of this book six or seven years ago, before Tumblehome Learning, before the Galactic Academy of Science series or my books of biographies of women in science. When I started FLUTE I had just completed LOST IN LEXICON. Maybe my head was just in fantasy mode.

But it’s really more complicated than that. I never aspired to write a traditional fantasy with dragons and curses and magic spells. In LOST IN LEXICON, I set myself a specific challenge, to build a quest adventure around common topics in middle school mathematics and English language arts, to make them teasing and fun for brainy readers. Now, in the new book about a flute boy who wants to be a soldier, I wanted to explore certain questions of psychology and identity. To do so, I needed a society that highlighted issues of bravery and justice in a way that would be clear to young readers.

Ursula LeGuin is the paramount artisan of this kind of fiction. She sets up a world in which she can ask a set of questions to challenge us. What would life be like in an anarchist utopia? What if we were not always the same sex, but changed from one to the other periodically and unexpectedly throughout life? Kiran’s world is neither as unfamiliar nor as unexpected as those LeGuin has created, but an ability to create my own parameters allowed me to make his dilemmas and decisions more stark and clear.

After drafting THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE I put it away for several years. I had to know that it would still seem authentic to me after a wait. I moved back to the world of Lexicon, where I could ask myself a much more playful question: What would life be like in a place where the most important thing was how well a person sings? This was my nod to the theory of multiple intelligences and my rueful admission that in such a world (Lexicon’s Land of Winter) I would definitely occupy the lowest social class. That was my motivation in writing THE ICE CASTLE, which is a more developed though less-known tale than the first Lexicon book.

Eventually I returned to THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, rethought it and deepened it. I hope you get a chance to read it and let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

It's so long since I've posted on this blog that I've practically forgotten how.

Still, here I go.

Today, British Member of Parliament Jo Cox was attacked and murdered as she met with constituents in West Yorkshire. Bystanders reportedly heard the attacker, a middle-aged white man, shout "Britain First!" as he attacked her first with a knife (as a man from a nearby dry cleaners fought to stop him) and then with a gun. He then also attacked a 77-year-old man, who was taken to hospital but is reportedly not severely injured. Jo Cox died at the scene.

Several thoughts come to mind.

1) Political violence has come to the West. If early reports are correct, then the attacker justified himself with his cry of "Britain First!"  Britain First is the name of a right-wing party, Christian and nationalist, that holds demonstrations around or even invades mosques. Party leader Paul Golding  condemned the attack, releasing a video statement calling it a "damned right despicable act of criminality," according to the Guardian.

Of course, we don't know yet whether the shooter actually believed he was making a political statement. Jo Cox was known as an advocate of Syrian civilians, and the shooter may have considered her worthy of assassination on those grounds, but we don't know yet. If so, is he a representative of radical Christian extremism? Was Robert Lewis Dear, who shot twelve people outside a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs last fall, also a representative of radical Christian extremism?

2) Even strong gun laws didn't prevent this gun murder. On the other hand, with his gun, which according to a bystander looked "old-fashioned," even "home-made," the shooter only managed to kill one person, not the six Jared Loughner shot with a semi-automatic pistol when attacking Gabby Giffords in 2011, or the 49 killed by Omar Mateen with a semi-automatic pistol and semi-automatic rifle in the Pulse nightclub.

3) There's plenty of hatred to go around. A self-styled pastor from Sacramento preached to his congregation on Saturday that no Christian should feel sad about the deaths of the "sodomites" in Orlando. "I think it's great," he said. "I think it helps society. . . . The tragedy is that more of them didn't die." This from a man who considers himself Christian.

What's my point? I believe the line that divides us from the anarchy and horror of people routinely murdering one another for their beliefs and words is thinner than we think. We can't have armed guards for every situation, nor can we reasonably hope or advocate (with the NRA) that every person will be armed and trained for self-defense. No, we have to ratchet down our rhetoric by speaking with respect of our opponents, make violence less efficient by rendering semi-automatic weapons harder to get, and assure every would-be shooter that their name will be forgotten and their cause harmed by any violent action they take.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tumblehome Talks

Most readers of this blog know that a year and a half ago I joined with three friends to start Tumblehome Learning, a company that seeks to inspire kids about science and engineering through adventure stories, mysteries, and associated activity kits and games.  And what a ride it's been.

Right now, Tumblehome Learning is preparing for our first visit to the New York Toy Fair in February.  There we'll display our first five books, four kits full of related science experiments, and two Mixing in Math products for math games at home.  We'll also showcase a brand-new product, Dr. Tan's Supergrams, which combines an ancient Chinese puzzle, Tangrams, with a cutting-edge new technology, Augmented Reality.  Supergrams will be the first demonstration of our concept of transmedia--in this case, motivating kids to work on a puzzle in the real world in order to unlock a 3D image online.

(If you want to learn more about Dr. Tan's Supergrams, please visit our Kickstarter project.  Maybe you can even help us reach our fundraising goal.

Tumblehome's flagship product series is the Galactic Academy of Science, or G.A.S., series.  These combine short books (they average less than 25,000 words and are written for kids ages 8-13) with kits of hands-on science activities.  In each book, a pair of middle school students prepping for a science fair stumble across a scientific mystery. A teenager from the future appears and challenges them to travel back in time and interview scientists and engineers of the past.  These encounters give the kids the tools they need to solve the mystery and ace the science fair.

Two GAS books are available now, and the third will be available by mid-February.  They are:

The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip
The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil,
The Vicious Case of the Viral Vaccine

Coming soon will be:

The Horrible Case of the Hackensack Hacker
The Baffling Case of the Battered Brain, and
The Curious Case of the Climate Caper.

I could go on about Tumblehome Learning, but what I really wanted to do was to tell you that as I'm growing busier with the company, I have less time for personal blogging.  Instead, I'm contribution ideas and some wording to Tumblehome Learning's own blog, Tumblehome Talks.  If you're a parent interested in science education, quick updates on education policy, and general parenting tips, Tumblehome Talks is a good blog to follow.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gun control and gun rights: Can we find a middle ground?

Another week, another mass shooting in America. This time it was children who were slaughtered.  Another disturbed young male, suicidal, decided to go out with a bang. Some people slit their wrists or hang themselves, some get roaring drunk and drive into a tree, and some load up the guns and ammunition and drive to a crowded place to shoot strangers.  In this case, children.

How can we stop this?

We can increase school security. We can push to diminish the number and violence of first-person shooter video games. We can advocate for more effective mental health screening and treatment. But at some point we have to also talk about the role of guns in these episodes of mass murder.

Sometimes, given our Second Amendment and the tremendous political influence of the National Rifle Association, it seems that the gun conversation is one we can't have in America. Both sides are strident. Both sides argue through the veil of hyperbole and emotion. But I think in fact there is more agreement than we know.  A look at recent polls on gun control suggests that this is so.

In an August CNN poll, thirteen percent of respondents said there should be no restrictions at all on gun ownership, and ten percent said guns should be illegal for anyone except police and "authorized personnel."  76% of people fell in between.

On the one hand, there are people who believe that guns, including semiautomatic weapons with large weapon clips, are needed to protect us against government tyranny.  On the other hand, there are people who believe that widespread gun ownership makes us less safe, even those of us who own guns and know how to use them. In between are people who cherish traditions of hunting or who keep a handgun at home, feeling more secure at the thought of bing able to protect themselves in a gun-heavy world.

So where is the middle ground?  What could a majority of Americans support?

96% of Americans support the notion of requiring a criminal background check before purchasing weapons.  That's more than the number who support any restrictions at all, which is odd.  Maybe when people are asked about "some restrictions," they immediately assume the worst.

We already have background checks, of course, and waiting periods -- but only for those in the gun business.  These restrictions have prevented 1.8 million sales of guns to felons.  But they don't apply to the 40% of sales that occur between private individuals.  The "gunshow loophole" is one that can and should be closed.

 A majority of Americans --57% to 42%-- support "a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47.  For ten years, from 2994 to 2004, we had such a ban, but it expired, and efforts to renew the bill have not made it to the House or Senate floor. This is something the people want, and voters should press their representatives to let the debate out into the open.

A larger majority, 60% to 40%, want to see a ban on the sale of high-capacity or extended ammunition clips that allow multiple bullets to be fired before reloading.

These two limits make urgent sense.  No matter how mad or vicious a killer, it's easier to kill lots of people with semi-automatic weapons and extended application kits than it is with a weapon that takes longer to fire and load.  This is about the body count.  Without these weapons and supplies, mass killings would still occur, but the numbers killed would be lower.  And nobody needs assault weapons and extended ammunition clips for hunting.  Or if they do, they're pretty terrible hunters.

76% support requiring owners to register their guns with local government. This is good, but we've seen time and again that registered gun belonging to a qualified owner can still be used by family members to commit horrible crimes.  What liability does a gun owner have for crimes committed with a poorly-secured gun?  Of course, sometimes the liability question is moot, as the gun owner is the first one killed. Epidemiological studies show that a person with a gun in the home is almost 2 times as likely to die from homicide and 10 times as likely to die from suicide as a person without.

I know NRA members who support the restrictions and safeguards listed here, even though they are represented by a lobbying group that adamantly opposes any restriction.  The NRA tends to consider any restriction as an attempt to undermine a fundamental Constitutional right to self-protection.  If we can convince a broad base of the 50% of Americans who live in gun-owning households that the vast majority of us do not support the idea of taking away their guns but merely want to decrease the frequency and extent of mass murder, maybe there is common ground.  Maybe the membership can convince the NRA that such extremism in the name of liberty is no virtue, not when it comes at the cost of the lives of our children.

How about you?  Hunters, gun owners, those of you who have never fired a gun... where would you draw the line?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Remembering Kit Ward

I met Kit Ward when she was an acquiring editor at Little, Brown.  She had just read the manuscript of my novel Tulku, and through my agent she asked me to come in and talk about it.  Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.

I arrived in Kit's cozy Boston office to find a kind, soft-spoken woman only a couple of years older than I.  She liked the novel, she said, and she thought it had promise, but it needed more work.  She spent an hour going through the manuscript with me, showing where she needed more character development, sharper description, braver confrontation of the book's themes.  She spoke in a lovely, soothing voice.  I agreed with her suggestions and promised to work on them.  On my way out, Kit gave me a book.

Three months later, I sent her the revised manuscript.  She liked it and took it to the Acquisitions Committee.  On the day of their meeting, I sat anxiously by the phone, waiting for my agent to call.  I already felt bruised and raw.  Two days before, my father had died suddenly at the age of 62, and my husband and I were about to fly to Texas for his memorial service.

My agent called. "I'm sorry. They said no." He told me he had nowhere else to send my novel. It was over.

The next week, after I was home from Texas, Kit called me.  She had fought for the book, she said.  The sales team had turned it down because they didn't know how to describe it in a single phrase.  It used to be, she told me, that a publishing house like Little, Brown would take on a young author who seemed promising but not a sure bet.  An editor would work with that author over time, helping to grow her talent.  Now those days were gone.  But, Kit said, she still believed in my novel.  Soon she would be leaving Little, Brown to start her own literary agency.  She'd love to represent me. But that would take a few months, and in the meantime, she'd refer me to her friend Millie Marmur.

Millie tried to sell the book, but without success. By the time Kit became my agent, there was really no place else to send it. Kit tried to be encouraging. She suggested I write a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley as my father started Intel. I wasn't ready for that. I tried to write a few stories, but my heart wasn't in it.  I took the creativity I had poured into my writing and applied it to helping establish the Noyce Foundation instead. I threw myself into math and science education. Kit and I lost touch.

Years later, when I had written Lost in Lexicon and couldn't find an agent for it, I stumbled across Kit's phone number.  Holding my breath, I dialed the number from fifteen years earlier. "Hello, this is Penny Noyce," I said, hoping she would remember me.

"Penny, I was just thinking about you!" Kit exclaimed.

I sent her Lost in Lexicon, a brainy fantasy adventure in a world of words and numbers.  Kit loved it, and though it had been years since she'd last represented a children's book, she took it on.

The year dragged on.  Kit forwarded rejection notices. She told me the editors she had carefully selected, thinking they would love the book as she did, found it too old-fashioned and didactic.  Finally, after a year, her voice full of regret, she told me she couldn't sell the book.  "I think it's a wonderful book," she said. "But I've decided not to take on any more children's books. I don't understand the children's market anymore." And then she asked, "What are you going to do?"

I was going to publish the book myself, I said. And I was going to do it right, with proper editing, design, and art. Kit offered to help me navigate the process.  She introduced me to a friend, Karen Klockner, who served as art director and guided me through the publishing process.

Lost in Lexicon won awards and succeeded in the marketplace so well that Scarletta Press decided to publish a second edition to make it the cornerstone of their new children's line.  George Ward, Kit's husband, supplied the mathematical drawings for both Lost in Lexicon and its sequel, The Ice Castle.

As one small way of thanking Kit for her faith in me during the stuttering years of my writing career, I named a character in The Ice Castle after her. The Kit of the book is a kitchen servant, loyal and industrious and brave. She has a beautiful speaking voice.

Just after Thanksgiving, Kit Ward died suddenly after a brief and catastrophic illness. I'll miss her.  Her voice at the other end of the phone line always left me feeling comforted, encouraged, and uplifted.  I felt a strange guilt when I learned Kit had died of pancreatic cancer, the same disease I gave Great Aunt adelaide at the start of The Ice Castle.

Remembering Kit, I still seek good solid editing for my own writing. At the same time, I've become an editor myself, working with authors over time to polish their work and hone their skills as they write for Tumblehome Learning.  And oddly, after all this time, as I work on adapting for children a biography about my father, I find myself making the book half biography, half memoir. The book is going to be called Do Something Wonderful.  I wish I could show it to Kit.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fun with Malapropisms

What is a malapropism?  It's a form of speech error named after the comic character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan's 18th century play The Rivals.  Here she is:  a talkative woman with intellectual pretensions, using words whose meanings she doesn't really know.

Celia Imrie as Mrs. Malaprop

For example, Mrs. Malaprop says of an acquaintance that "she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile."  She advises another character, "Illiterate him from your memory." She replaces "alligator" and "obliterate" with other, similar-sounding words.

These examples illustrate several important points about malapropisms.

1) A proper malapropism is always a real word.

2) The mistaken word is almost always the same part of speech as the word meant.

3) The mistaken word is usually the same number of syllables as the word meant.

4) The pattern of stresses laid on the syllables is usually the same, as in "alligator" and "allegory" or "obliterate" and "illiterate."

For comic effect, it's good if both the words replaced and the words used to replace them are rather uppity words.

In my novel The Ice Castle, the nomad chief Kanzat fancies himself master of a large vocabulary. He uses big words whenever he can, and often as not he misuses them.  Some of his mistakes are malapropisms; others are neologisms, where he makes up a word that sounds right.

When Kanzat first meets Ivan and Daphne, he uses a number of made-up words:
And envoyed from which commune, shall I ask?
You haven't journaled far, not without tents nor furs nor weapons.
Mute, eh? Speakless but spoke for, I take it?

At other times, he uses real words incorrectly.  These are the true malapropisms. In the middle of the story, Kanzat says of a message he is delivering:
It discerns the little singer.
One of [the Diva's] courtiers, the Lord High Chamberpot or whoever, gave me this and disclaimed it most urchin to deliver. 
Tell me what the missile says. 
In literature, malapropisms are used for comic effect, usually to poke fun at a pretentious person posing as more educated than he is. That's a good description of Kanzat. For me, including him in the second Lexicon book (whose subtitle is An Adventure in Music) provides a way of returning briefly to the kind of wordplay that make the first Lexicon adventure, Lost in Lexicon, such fun to write.

Part of the fun of malapropisms involves introducing ridiculous images in the reader's mind.  In writing these malapropisms, I couldn't help but picture a royal official squatting over his chamberpot and an unwashed, ragged child delivering a missive that shoots out of her hand.

Have you ever  uttered a malapropism?  Have you heard others use them?  Do you have a favorite you've read or heard?  Send them in!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Six more cool facts about water ice and dry ice

For my first ten cool facts about ice, visit this post. And now, on to six more!

1. There are a couple of places in the world-- Quebec City and Jukasjaarvi, Sweden among them, where you can stay in a hotel made of ice.  These hotels are a little fancier than the ice castle occupied overnight by the Diva in my novel The Ice Castle.

My sister-in-law has stayed in an ice hotel and slept in an ice bed.  Her verdict?  "It was cold."

2. Carbon dioxide exists in liquid form only at high pressure, above 5 atmospheres.  This is the pressure you would feel 132 feet below the ocean surface.

3.  How to make dry ice: Take a carbon dioxide-rich mixture of gases, and pressurize it until it turns to liquid.  Then release the pressure.  This allows some of the liquid to vaporize, which cools the remaining carbon dioxide liquid enough to transform it into the solid known as dry ice.

4. Dry ice, as it sublimates (vaporizes), can attract mosquitoes or bedbugs, which are drawn to carbon dioxide. How about a dry ice mosquito trap? Or placing an open thermos of dry ice beside that old couch your friend is lending you, before you lie down?

5. Mars has polar snowstorms of dry ice snowflakes.  The snowflakes are very small, about the size of human red blood cells.  Paul Doherty showed that carbon dioxide snowflakes will not have the beautiful crystalline structure of H2O snowflakes.  Instead, they'll be cubes, octahedrons, and cuboctahedrons, which are basically cubes with the corners sawed off.  For more about dry ice on Mars, read Paul Doherty's blog post on the topic.

6. If all the floating sea ice of the Arctic melted, how much would sea level rise?  Not at all.  Floating ice already displaces the same volume of water it would occupy if it melted into water.  For the same reason, the water level in a glass filled with water and floating ice will not rise as the ice melts.  (If the ice cubes are packed in to the glass and not actually floating, the result may be different.)

Note, however, that if all the sea ice of the Arctic melted, that would reflect a warming of the oceans.  Warmer water expands, so we would sea some sea level rise - not because of the melting, but because of the expansion that comes with warming.

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