Girls gone wild

I lived with my sister, now a science education specialist, while she was completing her master’s degree. Her thesis considered students’ perceptions and assumptions of scientists: their work, appearance, and setting. We had a ball examining the teenaged participants’ drawings, through which an overwhelmingly popular archetype emerged: Einsteinian hair, glasses, bow ties, lab coats, Erlenmeyer flasks, boiling liquids, explosive gases. When asked “What does a scientist look like?”, students’ answer is almost unanimously male and inside a laboratory.

The Tapir ScientistI am so pleased to see books for the young adult reader challenging the stereotype. Houghton Mifflin’s excellent Scientists in the Field series solidifies an altogether different image. Take The Tapir Scientist, by children’s nonfiction juggernauts Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop. While the cover photograph shows the captivating and rarely seen face of a tapir – trunk-like snout, curious eye and nearly smiling mouth – the first title page’s photograph reveals the book’s namesake and star: a woman wearing dirty cargo pants, t-shirt and baseball cap wades through ankle-deep wetlands, holding an instrument in the air and peering towards the horizon. Her name is Patricia Medici, a Brazilian scientist whose work may more closely resemble extreme camping than the conventional image of “doing science.” For days, she and her team (which includes Sy and Nic) make trips around the vast Pantanal Wetlands of Brazil attempting to collar and track the elusive tapirs, whose behavior is largely a mystery. She has to beware pumas, venomous snakes, and the relentless bite of ticks, but the more troublesome battles are that with faulty equipment or inconsistent results. Although the subject of The Tapir Scientist and other books within this series is an animal, the text’s content is all process from the scientist’s point of view. Montgomery and Bishop record Patricia’s frustrations and triumphs as they happen and present their work as a narrative full of suspense, empathy and joy. Yes, the reader learns the traditional creature facts – anatomy, behavior, ecosystem – but all that report fodder is discovered only through the journey the reader makes with the scientist.

PrimatesSimilarly, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks’ graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas places its readers right in the boots (or bare feet) of the title’s three scientists. Through brilliantly distinct and sometimes overlapping narration, we grow to understand the individuals: Jane’s endless curiosity, Dian’s brusque fierceness, Biruté’s patient hunger. But all are united by their commitment to primate study, more so, to study primates in the wild. Each is recruited by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, whose targeting of women feels ambiguously both progressive and sexist: he seems to respect these women for their observational intelligence, but Primates also references his womanizing with the young researchers he employs. Nevertheless, for these three women, chimps, gorillas and orangutans are the subject of all attention. The reader, too, is given a front seat to the observations; Wicks devotes pages of panels, with minimal text, just to the sequential movements and expressions of the primates: the chimps’ mysterious rain dance, gorillas’ unique noses “like big fingerprints,” an orangutan’s leisurely journey through the trees. Wicks’ style is not naturalistic; on the contrary, her brightly painted drawings are stylistically playful and simply rendered. Coupled with the type sets used for the texts, which mirror the style of each scientist’s documentation – handwritten script or typed Courier – the reader can imagine these illustrations appearing in these women’s scientific logs, a patient and enthusiastic recording of what they see in the field.

Into That ForestLastly, Louis Nowra’s fictional novel Into That Forest portrays not a willing scientist per se, but a child lost in the woods. Incredibly, young Hannah and her friend Becky survive a storm in the Tasmanian wild, only to be rescued and adopted by two Tasmanian tigers. Initially they are terrified, but as the creatures prove themselves trustworthy guardians – bringing them caught fish, leading them to their den – the girls adapt to their bizarre new family structure. Over four years in the wild, they slowly lose the things that define them as human – their manners, clothes, and eventually, language – but they gain just as much in their careful observations of their new companions. Theiri senses sharpen, words are replaced by growls and eye expressions, and affection for their new foster parents grows:

The tigers stopped being animals to me. They were Corinna and Dave… Corinna showed she liked us by licking us and curling up with us whenever we slept. Though I have to say, if she didn’t like something you did, she’d nip you to let you know.

Nowra’s story, as dense and rich as the Tasmanian forests, not only stands as an imaginative memorial to the thylacine, officially declared extinct in 1936, but as a testament to Piaget’s classic theory of development: that the child is a scientist, learning and constructing her world of knowledge through constant observation and application without any extrinsic motivation, like candy bribes or A+ grades. It is that childlike passion and curiosity that should identify grownup scientists more than the lab coats. Indeed, the women so masterfully presented in these varied stories all possess that drive for understanding the world that seems to exist outside of and above the status quo of our everyday work culture. And perhaps outside is the key: it is hard not to feel awed, inspired and motivated when you’re surrounded by the wonder of the wild.

Odd Duck

Odd DuckOdd Duck
by Cecil Castellucci & Sara Varon
First Second, 2013

The phrase feels like a relic from an older generation, like bee’s knees. Indeed, when I occasionally say it, I can feel the echo of my parents’ voices in my lungs. “She’s a bit of an odd duck, isn’t she?” It’s almost – almost – an endearing phrase – not quite as nice as “marches to the beat of a different drummer” but a similar notion. Just enough of a raised-eyebrow judgment to acknowledge a differentness in another.

The title’s slightly nostalgic phrase makes me not at all surprised its artist is the quirky, kooky Sara Varon, whose Bake Sale was a deliciously different cookie of a book as well. In Odd Duck, she brings her signature omnisciently-bemused labeling to the endearing details of Cecil Castellucci’s story and character, including duck-protagonist Theodora’s morning rituals (“Quaking exercises, for perfect pitch and tone”), her occasional unorthodox shopping choices (“Duck food, just like all the other ducks…but also…mango salsa! Huh!”), and her eventual disapproval of the new neighbor Chad (“Feathers ASKEW!” and “Violent dancing!”). Details including rotary phones and Theodora’s lavender cloche-like bonnet (complete with a decorative, metaphorically-foreshadowing bee) insist the story is set in some bygone era. The ducks’ wide-eyed expressions and wiggly, spaghetti-like limbs (again, “Violent dancing!”) call to mind the Steamboat Willie days of early cartooning, or perhaps today’s decidedly-retro hit “Adventure Time” on Cartoon Network.

Early in the story, Theodora wishes on a star “that nothing in her happy life would ever change.” She is clearly as sentimental and vintage as her artist’s style suggests. And of course the new neighbor throws a bit of a wrench (nearly literally, as he is a builder of strange modern sculpture) into her life. She is initially offended by his unrefined mannerisms and disheveled appearance until they find some common ground on the ground: both decide not to fly south for winter. Bonded by this quiet rebellion against the birds-of-a-feather rule – a glimmer of the uncompromising nature of each of their odd-duck-ness to be fully revealed and reveled in by the book’s end – Theodora and Chad become fast not-so-fair-weather friends.

The odd-duck odd-couple’s charm lies in their utter contentment with themselves. Up until a critical plot point in which they overhear a stranger’s comments, it never occurs to either party that he or she holds the title of oddest duck. Their mostly unencumbered sense of self and gentle stubbornness to be anything else is such a delightful match to Castellucci’s story and Varon’s artwork. It’s a reading experience so well done and delightful it’s sure to inspire its readers to embrace the odd in themselves.

Tommysaurus Rex

Tommysaurus RexTommysaurus Rex
by Doug TenNapel
Graphix, 2013

Opening the pages of one of Doug TenNapel’s book is a bit like pressing play for a David Lynch film: you feel the certainty in your gut that it’s going to be a surprising and unique experience, an hour or two of bizarre, sometimes even disturbing images you’ll never forget seeing. The difference is, with Lynch’s work, I’d usually prefer to look away; with TenNapel, I can’t tear my eyes from the page.

Before the warped worlds of Bad Island and Ghostopolis, before the philosophical minefield of Cardboard, Doug TenNapel wrote Tommysaurus Rex, now beautifully republished in full color (contributed by Katherine Garner). In this middle grade graphic novel, a boy named Ely loses a pet dog and gains a pet dinosaur. Ely knows in his heart that the tyrannosaurus – playful, good-natured, and in need of training – is some manifestation of his old dog Tommy, despite its also having memories of Cretaceous life (and death). The mechanisms for the dinosaur’s rebirth and reincarnation are largely unstated, and blissfully so; TenNapel’s masterful storytelling presents a confident, fantastical logic that shrugs off the dull necessities of reality. The reader is happy to shrug them off, too.

In Tommysaurus Rex, TenNapel nods to fellow monster creators: Ray Harryhausen, visual effects artist who innovated new stop-motion animation techniques in the 1950s and ‘60s, makes a cameo appearance in Ely’s story. Bill Watterson was a clear influence on the artist; like Calvin and Hobbes, Ely and his fellow humans are drawn with occasionally zany stylistic expressions, while Tommysaurus is almost frighteningly realistic. Yet despite its allusions and tributes, the style and story stand alone. Calvin and Hobbes cuts with wit and cynicism, but through its perfectly messy imagery and fantastical conceit, Tommysaurus Rex rings loudly and truly with heart. One moment you might recoil from the image of a tyrannosaurus digging into a bloody feast of a cow carcass; the next, you’re holding back tears as a bully expresses regret or a friend says good-bye forever. TenNapel always surprises me somehow, except I always know I need to hold on for dear life (and keep the tissues within reach).

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012

For a dog owner, it’s always a fascinating exercise to see what your pet notices. You pick up the house keys and she’s at the door; simply raise your eyebrows and her ears are pricked up in anticipation. A dog’s job is above all observing her humans, and we’re amazed by what she notices.

Yet nothing tops our own species as the reigning champions of observation. When we’re paying attention, we see everything: the slight tightness in a boss’s face, or the averted eyes of a suspicious stranger. The key is the paying attention part. In psychology experiments, a subject might be “primed” for a test by viewing significant words or images. In life, our past experiences teach us what to look out for.

One for the Murphys is a story about seeing. Twelve-year-old Carley Connors keeps much to herself, but the reader sees she’s a pro at observation, especially of her foster family:

“Michael Eric comes in with his hand tucked into his armpit. His mother drops to the floor like someone has kicked her behind the knees, but she lands gently, holding out her arms, and he melts into them.”

From smiling photos, neatly arranged pantry supplies, and especially the warm gestures and touches exchanged between the Murphys, Carley sees she doesn’t belong. She sees other things, too: moments of tension, worry, and anger. To another’s eyes, these might be normal moments of stress for a family, especially a new foster family. But to Carley, every frown is evidence that she is unwanted. Every hand reaching out is a potential slap, and she reflexively flinches. Although she has a keen eye for observation, her perception is skewed.

Through fragments of memory, the reader starts to see why: the last thing Carley saw before she woke up in the hospital was her stepfather raising his fists to beat her, and her mother holding her down. Carley, believing strength and emotion are mutually exclusive, doesn’t share this information readily with the people she encounters. Without all the facts, these other characters make their own judgments: a police officer sees her as an instigator; a classmate, seeing only the new clothes Mrs. Murphy has purchase for Carley, thinks she’s a mindless clone of any other kid. But the reader is granted the most accurate view. In seeing each person’s mistakes in perception, including Carley’s, we start to wonder about the people we see and the judgments we make. There’s almost always more to the story – in One for the Murphys and in life – and it isn’t always something that we great observers can clearly see.

Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things

“Emily Dickinson is the perfect thing to hand to a 16-year old girl,” advised fellow blogger lynchlibrarian recently. What is it about Emily? Indeed, I was 16 when I purchased my paperback copy of her complete works (at the local Borders bookstore, my idea of the cool hangout spot), and I vividly remember discussing “Success is counted sweetest” in my high school’s U.S. Literature class. Certainly I considered her words earlier and later in life, though not by much: an eager seventh grade teacher chalked “I never saw a moor” on the board for the daily quote; in my second year of college, fellow English majors and I spent the better part of a class dissecting the differences between her 1859 and 1861 versions of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” (the power — of a dash!).

So what is it about Emily that resonates during young adulthood? While increasingly introspective teens may be intrigued by her famously reclusive habits, it’s her words that truly inspire. At a time when teenagers feel pulled between their past and future selves, her voice simultaneously offers innocence and wisdom. As they encounter the terribly great problems of the world and personal decisions to make, her subject matter rings with the impossible brightness and darkness of life’s great questions. Through succinct, tender verses, Emily provides young people with a “nugget of pure truth” to grasp in their hands and hearts. (My Virginia Woolf obsession came later in life.)

  Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson   Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things

If young people miss out on enthusiastic teachers reading Emily’s poetry aloud, I’m happy to know they may also discover her in the pages of fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s beloved Feathers (Putnam, 2007) perfectly pairs “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” with a story that examines the power of friendship over divisions and discrimination during the 1970s, a fragile, precariously hopeful time in our nation’s history. What a perfect story for a 12-year-old.

For older readers, Kathryn Burak’s novel Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things (Roaring Book Press, 2012) explores Emily’s darker side. After experiencing personal tragedy, Claire and her father attempt to start fresh by moving to Amherst, Massachusetts, the home of Emily Dickinson. Claire is a poet herself  and finds herself drawn to Emily’s words, rich with poignant examinations of death, and to Emily’s house, now of course a museum where Emily’s personal belongings are artfully arranged for tourists to view. As if in a creative trance, she breaks in, night after night, to write while wearing Emily’s white dress — until the day the college-aged student teacher Tate discovers her. Instantly linked by this strangely intimate crime, they run, stealing the dress in the process. Burak’s poetry is the star of this novel, both in the actual verses Claire writes — the portals by which she gradually shares the tragic details of her past — and in the crisp, shimmering prose of Claire’s narration:

The smell of snow on the winter air fades. I take a deep breath. I smell paper. Here I have the cool, clean feeling of paper, too.

I am so glad to get away. To be in Emily Dickinson’s house.

With a frigate like this book, the reader will certainly agree.


Oliver by Birgitta Sif


by Birgitta Sif

Candlewick, 2012

From Ferdinand to Frederick, children have wonderful (often animal) picture book role models who express the value in accepting yourself. And of course that message is all well and good. Yet in reality, the self satisfaction found in cherishing your uniqueness sometimes fails to eclipse the loneliness that so often accompanies it. Take Oliver. Here’s a young person who doesn’t seem particularly plagued by the burden of his differentness. He’s not cursing a defect or suffering from taunts; he’s not asking a parent why he is the way he is. He rather enjoys his quiet, imaginative life. His playmates are his toys, plush animals whom he carts around the library and yard. Even surrounded by his boisterous family, Oliver prefers to retreat into his own world with these soft-hearted friends.

And with these playful illustrations, the reader may retreat with him. Notice the subtle glances of otherwise button eyes, the teasing suggestion of life from what reason would inform are inanimate objects: a tiny glimpse for us into the everyday magic Oliver experiences.

Until one day, it’s not enough for Oliver. His animal friends, heaped in a pile, don’t respond like they used to. Yes, Oliver likes the way he is, and isn’t purposefully ostracized for it. There’s no doubting of self here. What Oliver lacks is someone who sees the world like he sees it; someone who can appreciate him and share his fantastical world and adventures. By the book’s end and through a fateful moment, Oliver finds his someone: a someone who’s more than plush stuffing and button eyes. And as the reader turns back to pore over the warmly detailed illustrations, she discovers that Oliver’s new friend has been with him all along, present but unseen. More magic lives on these pages, and in Oliver’s world, than first meets the eye. And as Oliver discovers, magic begs to be shared.


Bluefish by Pat SchmatzRecently during some pretend-play time, my two-year-old niece tucked me into bed and read me a bedtime story.

Of course she didn’t really read it to me. With each illustration, her memory triggered from the countless times Daddy read Olivier Dunrea’s Ollie aloud, and she recited each word flawlessly. A kind of decoding, it could be argued, but not true reading.

Yet for a blissful moment as I snuggled under a doll-sized blanket, I could imagine it. Reading is so commonplace, so easy for most people in my life, I could momentarily believe that this tiny person, so recently a baby, was reading me a story. It felt natural. Normal.

Yet it’s a remarkable feat, isn’t it? Gorillas can learn some basic sign, and dogs can apparently be trained to recognize words, but no other species comes close to the incredible things we can do in speaking, reading and writing. Phonemes come together to represent ideas, and then those sounds are further represented by these symbols on the page. It’s decoding that’s two abstract layers deep, yet somehow we all manage to master this skill by the time we’re still young children.

Well, most of us do.

In Bluefish we meet a 14-year-old protagonist who cannot read. We aren’t aware of that information at first. Like the parents and teachers who know him marginally, we might see Travis as indifferent. Guarded. Maybe a little rebellious or even lazy. A typical teenager, no? If only he would try harder. If only he would apply himself.

But then we learn of his problem, and we think of how little we know anyone. How much we can assume. And how mountainous of a task it would be to catch up to peers ahead of you by 10 years of reading.

Thank goodness he’s not alone. One wise teacher catches on, and with pointed references to The Book Thief, he has him start circling words just as Liesel did. An eccentric classmate, Velveeta, eventually figures it out as well, and offers her help. But there’s no romantic eureka moment in this process. It’s slow, often frustrating work. Velveeta, eager to see results, makes a painful mistake after a failed tutoring attempt:

“Travis, come on. You didn’t even try.”

Try. That word torched fire-hot.

Of course he’s trying; it’s the single most important skill in society. He can’t read, but he’s not a fool.

How many of us fervent readers might ask him to try harder? How easy it seems now, our linguistic synapses established so long ago. I see myself in Velveeta, eager to help and a bit clueless how to do so. Here’s something she’s good at, something she perhaps can fix – a marked difference from her own problems hidden beneath her exuberant exterior. Though Velveeta can’t fix Travis’ reading problem, she can be his friend, with all the trust and acceptance (and, yes, mistakes) that come with the job. And he can be hers right back.