P is for Pterodactyl by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter

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Repeat after me: W is for wren. M is for mnemonic. D is for Djibouti. This book is the worst alphabet book EVER…and it’s proud of it!

Haldar, Raj and Chris Carpenter. P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever. Illus. Maria Tina Beddia. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018. Print.

Genre: picture book (ABC)

P-for-PterodactylSummary: Like any alphabet book for young readers, this text runs through all 26 letters providing a key word starting with each letter, a funny sentence incorporating that word, plus a memorable illustration to depict the action described and the letter featured. Unlike any other alphabet book, the letters here misbehave. Either they go entirely silent or they take on the sound of another letter.

Critique: When I sat on my front steps to read this book, I had no idea what an uproar it would cause. My neighbors and random strangers out walking their dogs all paused to inquire if I was okay.

I was doubled-over, face-palming, snorting, snrking, and straight up laughing out loud. Every page of this text delighted me. I adored its original concept: using silent letters to teach the alphabet and help early readers grasp the many weird and irregular spelling combinations inherent in English. So subversive!

Subversive books — those that buck or invert genre and audience expectations — are among my all-time favorites. P is for Pterodactyl soars to the top of my favorites list not only because of its irreverent play on sounds (k is for knight and h is for heir), but also because of its engaging and comprehensive glossary and for the way it fearlessly embraces and showcases big and bizarre words like eulogy, psoriasis, or bdellium, aeon, quays, and czar.

Children’s authors are trained to avoid big words because young readers won’t grasp them, which is a practice I find about as useful as blindfolding a track and field athlete every time a hurdle appears. Heaven forbid they should glimpse a challenge…

Without guidance from a skilled adult reader, this book is likely to frustrate new readers who don’t fully grasp basic spelling rules. With thoughtful conversation, however, this text can spark a rewarding dialogue about the miracle that is written and spoken communication.

 

 

Feeld by Jos Charles

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charles-jos-feeldLanguage. It’s as slippery and fluid as gender. And some of us need poetry to grasp that.

Charles, Jos. feeld. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018. Print.

Genre: poetry

Summary: Jos Charles, trans editor and poet, recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s 2016 Ruth Lily & Dorothy Sargent Rosenburg Fellowship, crafts poetry in Chaucer’s English to simulate and capture a transgender existence.

Critique: About the time I found feeld at my public library, I had just listened to a series of mind-blowing podcasts on gender; how it’s determined genetically, why it’s never fixed or chemically constant, and how modern society is coming to terms with new definitions and expectations for “female,” “male,” and everything we now realize is possible in between.

(Curious? Check out RadioLab’s “Gonads” series.)

These episodes broadened my scientific understanding of the gender spectrum; however, Jos Charles’ poetry irrevocably enlightened my internal, heartfelt sense of that spectrum.

At first, reading a contemporary text in Middle English (the version of medieval English best preserved in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) was jarring. Middle English arose after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The cultural, social, political upheavals waylaid what had been a relatively standardized language. In other words, grammar rules, punctuation patterns, and spelling conventions all went out the window. Consequently, when I read Middle English, I am reminded of my earliest attempts to spell without adult/academic supervision. Acting with only the slimmest understanding of phonetics, I (and many young children) kobbul letrs that mach the sownz uv the werds.

Under Charles’ precise, poetic influence, the Middle English spelling variations result in sparkling homonyms and heteronyms that spur new understandings, reinterpretations, and re-appropriations.

For instance, Charles’ writes:

1 drags so much alonge the bottom off the see

and..

i care so much abot the whord i cant reed/ it marks mye back wen i pass

and…

as mye hole extends it nevre entres conchesness as myne

See or sea. Whole or hole. Reed or read. Either way, these words resonate with so much fecund and versatile meaning that suddenly all the standardization rules built into modern English to produce precise, clear, unambiguous communication seem limiting and naive. To that same end, all the societal conventions we’ve built into gender definitions to prohibit the unambiguous also seem to hamper more than help.

See or sea? Hetero or homo? Male or Female? What’s the difference and who cares if I am not truly comprehending and appreciating the inherent and beautiful complexity that is humanity?

Beyawned Earth: Pillownauts and the Downside of Space Travel by Yours Truly

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This Saturday, July 20, 2019 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The feat cemented humankind’s toehold on the final frontier’s doorstep. In the coming year, engineers and scientists are poised to establish a permanently inhabited base on the lunar surface. From this launch pad, cosmic explorers and entrepreneurs hope to dive ever deeper into space.

Heather Archuletta blazed the path that today’s intrepid explorers will pursue. Over a decade ago, she was a frequent flyer to the Moon and Mars.

Er…sort of. Archuletta participated in NASA’s Pillownaut program. One among many analog missions, the Pillownaut simulation mimics the microgravity of space travel by restricting volunteers to a tilted bed for many months at time.

In so doing, NASA is able to study and mitigate space travel’s destruction on human tissues and bones.

Read all about Archuletta’s adventures in Muse magazine’s Bodies in Space issue featuring my interview with the famous Pillownaut in “Beyawned Earth: Pillownauts and the Downside of Space Travel.”

Choose Your Challenge by Yours Truly

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I am so pleased to announce that Mountain Flyer‘s Issue No. 61 features my in-depth profile on the teens whose lives have cycled from average to amazing thanks to mountain biking.

“Choose Your Challenge: Durango Devo’s Winning Formula” trails a wildly popular local 501c3 organization in my community that gets young people ell beyond their normal comfort zones, riding bikes not just over mountains, but also over life’s larger challenges.

Durango Devo kindly let me follow their butt-kickin’ State Championship team on a thrashing ride through the local Star Wars trail system!

Get your copy of Mountain Flyer and shift your expectations of what’s possible.

A Wilder Time by William Glassley

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When taught to love this Earth like a geologist, we appreciate and crave even the smell of rocks.

Glassley, William. A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Two geologist colleagues invite Glassley on a return visit to Greenland because a newly published research paper accuses them of misinterpreting data they published years ago. Their thesis: Greenland is but geologic scar tissue; the site of colossal tectonic subduction; a place where the earth slowly swallowed a mountain range that would have shadowed the Himalayas. Unless Glassley and the team go back to reassess their data, the scientific community may think them imbeciles.

Critique: As a writer dealing with a somewhat obscure topic, Glassley is a patient teacher. Readers steadily acquire complex geologic concepts and terminology as the book progresses.

My favorites: foehn (a strong warm wind forming on the downslope side of a geologic feature), palsa (a round mound of soil many feet across, rising out of a watery region), and pingo (a larger palsa, measuring hundreds of feet across).

As a writer brokering in passions on the page, Glassley is a master. He is to science prose what Byron is to poetry. Quite often, Glassley wallops readers with revelations like, “In Greenland, water and rock are consanguineous.” He is so deft at describing the grand, cyclical conversations between atoms, chemicals, gravity, and molecules which form not only continents, but also life.

Like the handsome Indiana Jones lecturing about archaeology, Glassley gets us swooning over a topic we didn’t know we could crush on so hard. He convinces us not just to study rocks, but to go so far as to smell them! Why? Because one day their atomic makeup will fold into our atomic makeup and feed our very thoughts, ideas, and dreams.

His superpower is to make the study of rocks something intimate, delicate; something blush-worthy to read about. Take, for example, Glassley’s nearly erotic description of the way foamy waves coax and massage all the pebbles on a beach to align. The bubbles charm the small stones to flatten together and form the kind of slope which water prefers to slide along. One pebble sits askew until the waves tickle it with foam. “One wave, one pebble, and the metronome of process registers one more click,” says Glassley.

This book, at its core, is a love poem to science. Glassley explains, “When Kai, John, and I return to our laboratories, we will describe much of what we have seen through equations that honor the observations and data we have collected.”

Wait–wait–wait! You mean equations aren’t just devious and maniacal forms of mathematical torture? They are devotional and even a tad spiritual?

Could somebody please get me a fresh college registration form? I think need another degree…in geology.

“Earth,” Glassley writes, “is the construct of wandering stardust, accreted from the atomic debris of supernovae and the elemental winds of unknown starts. The gentle fall of interstellar particles, the collisions of comets and meteors and frozen water, gave rise to our planet in a rush of cosmic artistry just over four-and-a-half billion years ago.”

In other words, our world derives from galactic erosion! Our home is but space tallus recombined!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to fill all my spiral notebooks with the equation: me+rocks=<3.