Leonardo da Vinci loves STEAM and You Should, Too

April 15 not only usually marks Tax Day, it also is the birthday of one of history’s great inventors: Leonardo da Vinci.

A pioneer in many fields, Leonardo da Vinci is a great lens through which to view a popular debate — is STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or STEAM (those emphases with the inclusion of arts) the more important emphasis in school?

If da Vinci’s status as not only a great painter but also as a polymath and the grandfather of paleontology along with a dozen other accomplishments. He reiterated this feeling in a famous quote: “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

Wellesley College did a study and found a double-digit percentage decline in humanities enrollment and 8 percent decline in social sciences next to a nearly 30 percent jump in math and sciences. But they also found that interdisciplinary courses enrollments went up 18 percent.

When asked what many students regret, Ann Velenchik, the dean of academic affairs there said: “I wouldn’t say it was students’ biggest regret, but when they looked at their academic programs, they wished they had done more arts and humanities.”

In fact, Scientific American reported that interdisciplinary scientists are far more likely to become Nobel Laureates than their more focused counterparts. In fact, Laureate scientists are “seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.”

Today’s STEM leaders feel the same. Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland, College Park professor and leading researcher in human-computer interaction said: “Leonardo da Vinci combined art and science and aesthetics and engineering, that kind of unity is needed once again.”

If you agree, find out more about supporting STEAM education either through supporting a local STEAM nonprofit like Uplift D.C. or through exposing kids to diverse stories of people in STE(A)M fields, whether a small book like mine, Edge of Yesterday with an interactive website, or a big motion picture like Hidden Figures.

Just remember Leonardo’s words: “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

STEM Friday

Stalking Leonardo in America

On the hunt for Leonardo da Vinci ever since starting on the novelization of my time travel novel, but it seems, instead, he’s been stalking me.

The genius is very much alive. A few of the most notable Leo sightings, up-close-and-personal. The Da Vinci Machines exhibit, currently on display in Bradenton, Florida. Artisans from Florence, Italy, have constructed life-sized models of a series of Leonardo’s inventions found in his writings and jottings and sketches found in more than 13,000-known pages of Leonardo’s codices (definition: notebooks; singular, codex. From the Latin. Think Renaissance blog). There are an additional 20,000 or so pages from codices that scholars suspect lay hidden and molding in unsuspecting people’s attics and musty shoe boxes throughout Europe.

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Da Vinci Museums Exhibit

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Da Vinci’s glider

Here is material evidence of Leonardo’s genius in plain sight for the throngs of kids, teachers and adults visiting the exhibition. A creative thinker who could design a modern tank from observing turtles, whose glider emerged from hundreds of hours watching and sketching hawks in flight, the first working robot, and myriad seemingly modern inventions–all from the mind of a 15th-century man.

Of course, there is another, perhaps more famous side to Leonardo: his art. Which took me to Williamsburg, Virginia, recently, to see an exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty,” at the Muscarelle Museum of Art on the campus of William and Mary. While, still today, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper get most of the press, observing the master’s drawing skills at close hand is a thrill.

Leonardo and Beauty

Leonardo and the Idea of Beauty

I felt the hand of the artist on my shoulder as I stepped up to each new piece on display. On display: attributes of left-handedness — shadowing and drawing lines diagonally from up left to down right to avoid smudging and see the trajectory of each line — that make him unique among Renaissance masters. To breathe in the antiquity emanating from these 500-year-old papers and parchments. To feel the aura of the artist in the room, looking out from the shadows and into my eyes even as my eyes took him in.

In the introduction to the exhibition, in a book of the same title, Dr. Aaron H. De Groft, the museum’s director and CEO, writes, “Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with quick short notes on what he saw, how he felt, things to remember to do and many other pronouncements, statements, and fully worked out thoughts…and so much of it was illustrated. We see him living his life literally day by day and week by week documented on the page in many ways like the modern day equivalents of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. […]…he wrote in one of his last recorded lines, ‘I must go now…because the soup is getting cold.'”

How  fitting to see this inveterate doodler through the eyes of twenty-first century technology. And how like Charley, the protagonist of Out of Time, to want to record what she sees, things to remember and the many other pronouncements of her own curious, creative and inventive mind in a blog and on social media.

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Charley’s Notebooks: Tweet Storytelling Out of Time

Next stop on my quest to discover Leonardo in America? The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Salvador Dali draws on the inspiration of Freud’s meanderings on the great Renaissance master to celebrate “Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet.”

Dali Museum Leo

Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet.

Seeing yet another side of Leonardo’s genius up-close-and-personal? Can’t wait!

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Mona and me

Asian Gerbils Carry Black Plague to Europe

Smoking gun: Asian gerbils, not European rats, caused the plague.

Uffizzi plague victims

Roman-era Plague Victims Photo: Maurizio Degl’Innocenti/EPA, via Landov

No doubt if such news had appeared in the broadsheets of, say, 14th century Italy (and did the have anything even remotely resembling a newspaper for informing citizens in those largely illiterate days?), trade with Asia would have been banned, and the traders themselves shipped back to their home port.

Today, it’s forensic archeology informing history–and our understanding of the progress of civilization. Medical detectives sniffing into the corners of history and civilization to determine how diseases start, why they spread, and how tree rings offer the smoking gun tracking shifts in climate.

You may have guessed by now that the true purpose of this blog, under the guise of Leonardo’s fabulous and inventive mind (so emulated by the heroine of Out of Time, Charley) is to explore what’s on my own mind. What’s got me thinking right now? Would I might have known–way back in the ancient history of my formative years–that biology + archeology + anthropology + history = a way to figure out how disease spreads through history and affects the story of the world, how different my own history might be!

What triggers this revisionist thinking of career potential from my younger self? I recently ran across a story of archeologists digging up a mass grave containing human remains more than 1,500 years old under the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy–the beautiful museum where some of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces are on permanent display–these skeletons now thought to be victims  of an early plague.

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Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Amid growing national concern about the trickle of qualified candidates to fill a growing number of jobs in technical fields requiring strong skills in science, math and engineering, the question is increasingly important: how to entice young people into pursuing STEM careers that may not crop up in the normal course of Middle School Career Day? We live in times where how we define work, and what occupations are available, are in vast flux. The doctor-lawyer-teacher professional triad is still viable, but the world is changing. Doctors are not the only health workers. Law is narrowing for newly-minted JDs. Teachers are not revered, much less adequately compensated.

The careers of the future open up vastly different opportunities for young people today–and exposure to those possibilities can open vistas and ignite curiosity and the imagination.

As usual, Leonardo da Vinci’s example, a passion for learning and seeing in new ways–leads us to new insight. He let his nose–and eyes and chalk–lead in his passion to understand the world around him. His fascination with human anatomy led him to grave robbing and even using the underground morgues in the Vatican itself to gain access to skeletons that would allow him to study human skeletal structures and the undergirding of the face that allowed him to draw and paint such lifelike, living humans in those masterpieces that come down to us today. In fact, had Leo known of the destruction beneath a gallery that displayed his masterpieces, he might have even been tempted to exhume the bodies himself, in his constant search to portray the human form in all its guises.

There was also the fascination with life, death, age, youth and nature–so present in Leonardo’s age and, paradoxically, so remote and isolated in our own. The contrast between beauty and death is one that captured Leonardo’s attention throughout his prolific career and revealed itself in his painting, sketching and sculpture.

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Of course, in 1492 and beyond, Europeans were not the only victims of disease-carrying ships. Historians have documented the link between Europeans arriving in the New World and the subsequent spreading of disease among Native American populations, peoples who had no immunity to diseases carried by their conquerors, and the germs they carried with them. But until fairly recently, understanding how conquest went viral–and often deadly–was not a meme of history.

Could modern medicine, with its vaccines, antibiotics and advanced treatments for infectious disease–if known back in the days when barbers were surgeons–have eradicated the Black Death and changed history? Do we even know what the picture might have looked like if millions of lives that were erased due to plague, cholera, and other epidemics, had been controlled by better sanitation, isolation against the spread of disease and contemporary public health practices had been available back in the day?

Not to say we don’t have uncontrollable scourges today taking lives, Ebola being only the latest example. But today a new form of virus, proving just as infectious, is carried through ether of the World Wide Web and delivered electronically into our homes. As yet, the consequences of computer viruses are still being tested–ranging from terrorists recruiting members with their chilling videos extolling killing in the name of God, to warnings about spying from supposedly preventive and benevolent sources such as the US National Security Agency. Will the spread of such viruses will impact our future story for good or ill? History–and future digital forensic anthropologists–may someday uncover evidence that these have alternatively helped or hurt our world.

Had such an example of sleuthing research and discovery been available to me in my own formative years, I might have honed my love of writing, my aptitude for explaining science through story to then dive into biology, anatomy, environmental science, medical history and tracking the global trail of infectious disease to pursue a much different, but highly satisfying career path.

Growing up, my daughter had a pet gerbil. Scribbles seemed innocent enough–and certainly no great threat to the health of our family, except when it came to cleaning his cage, a task which would have been neglected completely were it not for the smell, and a good bit of nagging on the part of the parents. [So much for children promising to take responsibility!] A gerbil in the wild, stealing on a sailing ship for a three week journey in less-than-optimal conditions is undoubtedly a different beast than his domestic ancestors in the neighborhood pet store.

Who knew? And what young person today, cleaning her gerbil’s cage and wondering about her pet’s family history, might awaken a new interest in how such things work that takes her out of the classroom, into the lab, and onto the road of discovery in other yet-to-be-imagined ways?

Smoking guns may define the history of our past. But, for now, my bet is on the gerbil to sniff out the future history of health.

Et tu, Scribbles?

What do we really know after all?

Charley has just begun to plot her next adventure, a journey forward from Leonardo’s time to a period where the world was unevenly wakening to what it means to be fully alive, fully human. In the early to mid-17s, most of humanity (at least in the Western world) was still firmly in the grips of the Inquisition, superstition. This was pre-Revolutionary America or France, where the Rights of Man (but not Woman) had yet to be enunciated.

But hope and change were in the air.  The thrill of examining another moment in time where brilliance and genius could bubble up, where scientific thought,  and debate were leading us to new innovations that would help define our own post-modern world, is about to draw our girl Charley back into adventure like a moth drawn into flame.

As we start to look at the time of Voltaire, Diderot and the kings of Divine Right in France, there is another pioneer and “brainiac” of the period whose flame has been dimmed by history because–gasp–she is a woman. If Charley has any say about it, la Marquise Emilie du Chatelet is about to get her due.

Meanwhile, a look at the satirical brilliance of Voltaire, Emilie’s consort and intellectual partner, from a modern musical theater performance adapted from his novel, Candide, ou l’Optimist, from a 2011 blog post on my Pass the Talking Stick blog.

What do we really know, after all?

I went to see Candide last night – a musical opera based on Voltaire’s famous satirical novel (“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”) set to Leonard Bernstein’s music. It was a fabulous production by The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Bernstein decided to undertake the adaptation in 1953 upon the advice of his friend, playwright Lillian Hellman. At the time, Hellman was one of many artists, scientists and intellectuals under investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, the noted McCarthy hearings against alleged Communists. Hellman was one of many artist victims of this modern day witch hunt. Voltaire’s 1758 satire of the institutions that held enormous sway over public opinion in his time – from the Catholic Church to the emperors, from physicians to philosophers – were intent on trying to impose their dogma, and control on the public. Even when the facts didn’t line up with teachings – the inconvenience of the Inquisition being a notable breach of Christian spirit, for example – it was all for the best!In a contemporary parallel, some politicians of our day insist that our country’s Founders had God and right on their side in the original framing of the U.S. Constitution — and that they are the special people who can read he Founders intentions correctly and prune our laws of anything that the framers and their successors didn’t really intend, except those parts that don’t suit their current ideology. No hypocrisy there!

As the French themselves are fond of saying, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
What struck me about the “philosophy” behind Voltaire’s mocking words was how the best knowledge of his day had much of the science wrong. The best medicine then promoted bleeding (leeches) to cure disease, the auto-da-fe to “purify” religion, and Optimism as a philosophical explanation for every Job-like tragedy that befell the world and poor Candide, including earthquake, war, plague. What do we “know” today that will lead the scientists and philosophers 300 years from now to conclude that our best practices are equally misinformed?

It would seem that skepticism – questioning what is generally accepted as fact – is actually a healthy approach to counter the conventional wisdom. Candide’s teacher, Professor Pangloss, tenaciously holds to his optimistic philosophy (“All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”) despite suffering these personal trials and tribulations: war, poverty, beatings, earthquakes, Auto-da-fe (the Inquisition’s infamous public heretics “trials” which inevitably ended up in conviction and public execution), hanging and, finally, destitution. Equally, today, we might be skeptical of the absolutists who claim to “know” what is best for our country, for our children and for our future.

Fortunately, technology, communication, transportation and a healthy public debate in our democracy promote ever greater tools to engage in public skepticism. Through the Internet, television, social media, ever-more transparent government and the free press, Americans now have more power than ever to question, debate, learn and challenge the status quo.

Still, it is tempting to stay out of the debate and “cultivate one’s garden”, as Candide concludes at the bitter end of his story. By this time, Candide’s one true love, the Lady Cunegonde, has lost her station, her beauty, her youth and her wealth. To engage in the conversation – to challenge conventional wisdom publicly – may leave one subject to ridicule or worse. But, as in Voltaire’s time, satire can be a biting tool that, on the face of it, seems to endorse the authorities whose knowledge is “beyond question” while mocking their hypocrisy.

A musical highlight of Candide is the lovely Cunegonde’s famous comic soliloquy, “Glitter and Be Gay”, lamenting that a lady of high nobility stripped of her title, wealth and family should become the sexual object for everyone from Catholic Cardinals, to the City of Lisbon’s wealthiest and most influential men in exchange for baubles and expensive clothes. True to the teachings of Professor Pangloss even in the most horrific circumstances, Cunegonde searches for the best in the situation.

 The aria is here performed by the incomparably gifted actress Kristen Chenoweth. Her high E-flat is a Wicked feat!

Quiet…Teens Writing

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Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands) in the Santa Cruz province in Argentina

Telling stories is timeless, though the ways we do it have changed. I imagine the original storytellers speaking to tribe, family, friends under a million stars twinkling in the night sky. These ancient stories were as evanescent as the flames of the fire that warmed the gathered listeners, except for the tradition of oral transmission: parent to child to grandchild across generations.

The oral tradition survives today, but heiroglyphics, the alphabet, and writing gave those who had the power to create words and pictures a way to have their stories preserved forever–or at least until the next technological advance removed the storyteller’s advantage. Coal and chalk giving way to chisel, quill and ink giving way Gutenberg’s press, reel-to-reel tape recorders, television and, finally, our digital age giving way to an ever-evolving array of apps, platforms and tools.

Teens Write

But the constant, despite ever-evolving recording technologies, is the storytellers voice. So it was nice, in our soundbite and social media-dominated era, to engage with a group of teens learning and practicing the writer’s craft.

YA author Carolee Noury facilitated the group, offering a creative way to invite the group to think about perspective, setting and scene as key elements in constructing narratives. Setting out a diorama of seemingly random objects on a table that everyone could examine at length, the writers then picked out “mood rings” – small scraps of paper with the names of an emotion or mood on them cut out and formed into a link on which she had pre-prepared. The moods ranged from joyous to cranky. The challenge: to create a story that integrated this setting according to your mood.

After seven minutes of time in which everyone got down to the business of writing, teens were invited to read their stories. Some read aloud. Others, maybe too shy to share, passed. But all seemed intent on recording their stories.

As these teen writers grow in craft and confidence, I will be curious to see where their writing leads them. In another teen writing group, led by writer Mark Willen, one young writer has already published her first book, surely an amazing accomplishment.

Can We Hear You Now?

I came away inspired: we need to hear these voices.

I am now thinking about leading a writing group myself. Wondering if there are any young and aspiring writers out there who might offer their advice: What are the best ways to encourage, engage teens to share their stories with us?

What’s Worth More — the Story or the Merchandise?

Pen and inkAs I toil away on the second draft of my novel, Out of Time, thinking of the time, care, creative energy and effort I have put forth on this epic adventure, beginning with the seed of a story in 1997 through the prodigious output resulting in today’s (2014) screenplay-novel-tweet storytelling, Web-based learning platform, I wonder what it’s all worth. Not in the sense of the value in my life to serve this purpose of Creator-in-Chief of Charley’s adventures in Leonardo’s World, but in the marketplace.

As I learn more about the publishing industry today, and how much of the take on book sales flows back to authors–and compare that to the perceived benefits of self-publishing where, once the initial investment in the print process is recouped, 100 percent of the returns go to the author, the results even for bestselling authors look discouraging. For a $14.95 paperback, the author receives–wait for it–95 cents a book. Not much of an ROI, is it? How does anyone with less of a runaway success than Harry Potter ever hope to earn a respectable living.

Then there’s this: today’s Washington Post runs a story on this season’s Christmas must-haves for all little girls: the Princesses Elsa and Anna dolls from the Disney movie “Frozen.” These mass-produced molded dolls retail for $75.99 and $49.99, respectively, outfits sold separately.

By my reckoning, that’s $125.00 for dolls that will be left in the dust as soon as the NEXT BIG THING hits the shelves. Granted, the doll merch grows out of storytelling–and there’s nothing to say that a Charley superhero action figure couldn’t hit the shelves in a big way. But the marketplace again rewards the stuff and not the value that a book, a movie, a story can confer to nurture a child’s lifelong growth.

Barbie dollsBecause, honestly, I remember getting my first Barbie doll at my fifth birthday party at The Pee Wee Valley amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio. After riding the rides, and having cake and milk at the picnic tables, it was that Barbie, with her frozen expression and her stiffly moving limbs and neck, that captured my attention for the rest of the party. This doll, and the Ken doll I later got (along with a Barbie wedding dress–in those days, my mom wanted to ensure Barbie would be married before she could play with Ken!) were the phenom du jour.  A certain amount of role-playing and rehearsal for growing up went along with these teenaged dolls of ridiculous proportions. But in the end, Barbie lost her hair in a swimming accident in the bathroom sink, her wardrobe in a garage sale, and her Dream House to the little girl down the street.

The Secret Garden, Fances Hodgson Burnett's classic

The Secret Garden, Fances Hodgson Burnett’s classic

But it is within the pages of kid and teen lit that I remember finding myself. A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie…and later, Gone with the Wind, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, To Kill a Mockingbird–these were stories where I could identify aspects of myself, engage in pretend, and take on the problems of the world within a safe context as rehearsal for who I wanted to become.

But maybe I wasn’t the ordinary kid. I was more interested in creating worlds than living through someone else’s version.

I think every child has the creative capacity to become who they are meant to be, if only we know how to nurture, provoke, engage and further that superpower. Which is the genesis for all things Out of Time.

As an author, this is my 95 cents worth. Though I am hoping it is actually worth more to the children with the power to become. Impossible dream?

I like to think not. Let me know what you think.

Out of Time to be showcased on TV talk show “Think About It”

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Taping for “Think About It” to air Dec. 9 at 10 pm, Ch. 16 Montgomery Cable TV and online http://mmctv.org/video.html

Had a blast doing a half-hour interview with Sylvia Henderson, host of “Talk About It’, a biweekly community affairs program on MMCTV, here in Montgomery County, Maryland. We talked about the STEM to STEAM to MASTERY link that is becoming fundamental to student learning in K-12 education. MASTERY, here, includes learning across multiple disciplines, but with purpose: math, arts, science, technology, engineering, reflection (think social and emotional learning!)–for me, this happens through the “yarns of storytelling.”

In the interview, Sylvia asked me how to make that accessible to young people who might not otherwise be drawn to science, technology, engineering or math–the four pillars of STEM learning. The theory behind “Out of Time” in its many incarnations–novel, screenplay, Tweet storytelling adventure and flipped learning platform–is that young people can explore through whatever their own personal passions are and be drawn into the world of the Renaissance learner to explore further.Davinci_formula

In an “Aha!” moment, Sylvia revealed that, while she is not necessarily a “math person” (not sure there is such a thing, by the way!), she loves building dollhouses–scale models of life-sized homes. To create them, she uses architectural design principles based on mathematics: fractions, geometry, perspective and more.

Artists, musicians and craftspeople all employ STEM skills in their play–thus STEM becomes STEAM as arts integrates nicely into the equation.

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Sylvia is now an experienced time traveler. Shown here wearing Out of Time cap.

What’s your passion? Share with us in comments below how you get from STEM to STEAM to MASTERY and beyond.

And watch “Out of Time” interview here, or on Channel 16 on Montgomery Cable TV on Monday, December 8 at 10 p.m.: http://mmctv.org/video.html – scroll down to “Talk About It” and click on the link with my name, Robin Stevens Payes.

Is Reading the Goal, or a Means to an End?

How can story get their attention?

How to hold their attention?

As the creator of Out of Time, I work across media. My novel is in its second draft now, drawn from the original screenplay. I started tweeting the story–line-by-line as is the most conventional practice in #TwitterFiction–until our heroine, Charley, took over the narrative. Her solution to tweet storytelling was to ask questions of the experts, to invite others to help advance the story, and to ask a lot of questions. In fact, it is her curiosity is one of her most  ingratiating character traits.

As a transmedia storyteller, I recognize that reading is not every teen’s cup-of-tea. Interestingly, there is a hot debate going on about this right now. it seems that boys are reading less-and-less. There is some argument to be made over what stories boys are most likely attracted to, and how those different from girls’ interests. Some would say that boys a more likely to engage in action-oriented narrative nonfiction, while girls are attracted to stories about relationships–whether in fiction or nonfiction. And if more YA fiction features female protagonists, does that automatically deter close to 50 percent of the teen universe from reading?

In my world Out of Time, I encounter a paradoxical problem: girls are far less likely than boys to pursue the studies in science, math, engineering and technology–the so-called STEM fields–that will prepare and qualify them for the best, highest paying and most in-demand careers. Whether the STEM application is for engineering bridges in repairing our infrastructure or building apps that run the next Uber, or design the first successful SpaceX rockets, girls are less likely to pursue studies that will launch them into career orbit.

Naturally, my protagonist Charley is a girl. Her interest in building Leonardo’s time machine–and acquiring the skills and knowledge to make it happen–is, apparently, a rarity in girls but, through the story, perhaps she will inspire the next generation of girls to pursue their own passions to create, discover, design, build and make work…in whatever their passion might be.

So I hope to test if story, and a smart, sassy girl as a role model, can’t inspire some girls to follow Charley’s lead. BUT, since this is a story, I am also hoping that boys will be interested enough to read and follow her adventures–in whatever medium most engages their interest.

If this passion is ignited through reading a novel, so be it. If film is the more engaging medium, I say, let’s go for it. For today’s young people, if you’re not on social media, you practically don’t exist. Video games? Plans for a video game and an app are in the cards. Underlying the whole narrative is a personalized learning platform, where young people can engage, through the story, in following their own interests to learn more across disciplines.

If Leonardo da Vinci could dream it, kids engaging with learning on Out of Time Media can pursue it.

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Snapshots of Life, FASEB Exhibit, National Institutes of Health; Credit: Bo Wang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

For an artist, this transdisciplinary learning might mean combining art and anatomy. A kid inspired to be a doctor could, likewise, come to appreciate art through the study of biology. For a musician, hearing the music of the cosmos. When it comes to a politics buff…well, one could glean a lot about present-day governing and politics from Machiavelli or Lorenzo di Medici.

Did you know they burned books in Leonardo’s day? The original bonfires of the vanities were supposed to “purge” society of the evils of worshiping material possessions. They were really intended to keep people ignorant of wide advances in art, culture and science. While the printed page was still a newfangled invention in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and railed against as leading to the downfall of civilization!), knowledge and human advancement could not be stopped. The world could not go back into darkness. Similarly, today’s plethora of new media can be expected to lead to a Renaissance of learning to open new worlds of discovery that we can only imagine.

Whether boys–and girls–read from books would seem to be besides the point. They will–we will–always engage with stories, in any medium, because they allow us to connect to each other, to explore new worlds, and to reach for the stars.

 

Finding cliche and going beyond, or The Art of Writing for Tweens

Listen-Shel Silverstein

“Listen to the Mustn’ts by Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends (credit: A Mighty Girl)

Excited that my intrepid new story editor Mari Lou is an expert on Middle Grades (MG) fiction. That, for the uninitiated (and me, among them!) is how publishers categorize novels geared towards 8-12 year olds, in particular. Notable classics in this genre: A Wrinkle in Time, Matilda, and The Giver, which was recently released as a feature film. Some would also place Harry Potter in this category–at least for the early books in the series.

Quite a category, and one where my own kids–and I, quite frankly–have spent many happy hours fully absorbed in story.

Where to place Out of Time in the pantheon of publishing for children has been an active matter of debate for months now, since before competing in the When Words Count Retreat Pitch Week competition. Originally, I felt the story was for teens and solidly within the Young Adults (YA) category. This matters vastly for publishers, parents and readers for widely varying reasons–from what section of a bookstore (real or virtual) displays the book, to whether parents find it appropriate reading for their kids (especially at younger ages where parents pick out and pay for the books), to how readers identify with the protagonist.

Because Out of Time is told across genres–book, screenplay, social media and, notably, Web site–the picture is far from clear. As one very obvious example, kids under 13 cannot have Twitter accounts or Facebook pages of their own, and these are places where I hope to spur social storytelling adventures. Is there a workaround in the realm of gated social media gardens that mimic Facebook without subjecting younger children to what can feel like the wild, wild West of Instagram and its like?

Of course, God-and-the-market willing, Out of Time can grow into a series. Now that Charley has unlocked the secrets of time travel, there is nothing to keep her from fulfilling her wish: to meet the “superheroes of history,” as she calls them. Like many such series, there is the potential for readers and fans to grow up with the book’s heroes, much like kids who mature alongside Harry, Ron, Hermoine and friends.

What’s Cliche about Kid-Lit?

Cliche is, perhaps, the wrong word here. It is more like defining the set of circumstances that launches a character on the journey that will lead her to her destiny. What Joseph Campbell calls “The Mythic Journey.” Think of Harry’s magic-wielding adventures in vanquishing the monsters that arise along the path of growing up. Or the obstacles Katniss must face to protect her sister, her friends, and her District from the machinations of The Capitol.

For Charley, I have identified these two qualities that force her out of the relative safety of her conventional upbringing and out of time and into the dangerous unknown:

  1.  Listen to your heart.
  2. Believe anything is possible.

As I work on redrafting this story, these are themes to revisit over-and-over. Interesting to strip down the story again to its skeleton and rebuild on a stronger foundation.

Ultimately, Charley must find a world where she is free to be herself, and supported in her quests.

And after all, isn’t that a dream we should vision into being for all children, everywhere, and throughout time?

Calling all readers to ponder. Do you have a favorite story of childhood where you could see your own hopes and dreams take wing? What were these, and what impact did they have on you?

Eager to read your stories in comments below.

 

 

The Out of Time Media Web site can

Leo

OOT_music_icon[1]In the time travel adventure story Out of Time, our heroine Charley plays violin–taught and encouraged by her professional violinist mom, Gwen. Charley and Gwen even compose what Charley calls a “sound poem” together–the song “Out of Time” that ends up connecting mother and daughter across centuries.  Practicing the violin is not Charley’s favorite thing to do: Gwen has to nag alot. What Charley really wants to concentrate on building Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for a time machine to win the school science fair.

But the music proves key to time travel–an energy that knows no bounds–in ways neither mother nor daughter would ever have guessed. The song gives the story an energy all its own. But Out of Time needed a real melody, not just ClonesofClones-31the tune in my imagination! I had long begged my musician son Ben (a rocker and lead singer for Clones of Clones) to compose the theme song. Now, after much doing, Ben’s obliged, with “Leo, ” a sweet ballad that gives air to Charley’s longing to find her own time and place, no matter what her parents or anyone else thinks is right for her.

Give a listen! Let us know in comments what you think.