About jenmichellemason

Jenny is a story hunter. She has explored foreign countries, canyon mazes, and burial crypts to gather the facts that make good stories. Once, she sniffed a 200-year-old skull...for research purposes. Jenny received an M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. She has authored nearly 20 STEM books for young readers. Her inquisitive, funny nonfiction articles have appeared in Mountain Flyer, Cobblestone, and Muse magazines. Jenny also works as a freelance copy writer for nonprofits and small businesses.

Lakpa’s Lucky Day

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“It must have been my lucky day,” Lakpa Sherpa says, encapsulating the miracle his family performed to secure his exit from Nepal during its recent, bloody civil war.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, a Maoist communist insurgency faction fought to topple Nepal’s 240-year-old monarchy. Most members of the royal family were massacred and the ensuing decade-long conflict witnessed summary executions, purges, kidnappings, and other war crimes.

Eventually, the monarchy abdicated and the Maoists established a people’s republic; however, governance has stagnated amidst infighting and widespread corruption. Officials struggle to bring prosperity where a strict caste system determines every aspect of a person’s life. Each of Nepal’s 134 castes mandate particular clothes, customs, family names, plus occupation and marriage restrictions. Each caste also speaks its own language.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, although his last name is Sherpa, Lakpa was never a mountaineering guide hauling gear up and down the Himalayas for Western adventurers. “Sherpa” only recently acquired that connotation. Historically in Nepal, Sherpa designated a particular ethnic group living primarily in the remote, high mountain regions.

Children born into the Sherpa caste are commonly named for days of the week—more accurately, for the deity protecting that day. For example, Pasang translates to Friday. Lakpa’s day is Wednesday.

Lakpa’s family suffered persecution because they…[keep reading]

***

This excerpt is from a recent article I wrote for the Durango Adult Education Center, a 501c3 devoted to filling educational gaps to help people achieve social and economic mobility. It represents a body of work that I am very proud of. One of the most rewarding aspects I find in being a freelance writer comes from my collaborations with fantastic organizations filling deep, societal needs.

The DAEC is exactly that kind of group! I am always so honored to lend my writing to their cause. Relating these stories helps donors and grantors personally witness the benefits stemming from their contributions. Plus, as an added bonus, I get to spend time with amazing individuals like Lakpa!

As a writer for hire, I also team up with local businesses who are passionate about sustainable, ethical entrepreneurship. I love going on assignment for a company, to investigate what makes their clients, products, and customers unique and incredible. Whether that content winds up in a brochure, a marketing presentation, or company newsletter, I feel gratified having helped consumers or investors understand the impact their dollars exert.

Stay tuned. I’ll be sure to share more excellent stories in the months ahead.

As always, thanks for your readership.

Lakpa Sherpa’s family temple where his grandfather serves as a Buddhist monk and guru.

The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben

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Wohlleben_secretnatureHe who writes about nature’s intricate webs needs a quick tutorial from he who writes about Charlotte’s web.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things; Stories from Science and Observation. Trans. Jane Billinghurst. Vancouver, CAN: Greystone Books, 2017. Print.

 

Genre: nonfiction (nature)

 

Summary: Wolves impact river levels. Beavers influences where trees grow. Earthworms control wild boar populations. Forest trees eat salmon, which helps the trees grow faster and healthier. Wohlleben illuminates and explains all of these curious, unexpected, seemingly impossible connections scientists are discovering between organisms and nature.

More than merely fascinating, these organic bonds and interactions are crucial. Once disrupted, the broken relationships lead to ever more cataclysmic ruptures. When any one population disappears or booms beyond the balance, all other organisms across a natural system are threatened. As one example, Wohlleben looks at how a proliferating elk population mows down soft, sweet riparian trees that beavers eat and build with. If beavers can’t dam rivers, then other water-dependent plants go thirsty and die. The animals relying on those plans for food must relocate or else also die.

The consequences intensify when we stop to consider the mass extinctions of entire animal species over the last several hundred years. Human activities have largely divested the planet of some 8,000 plant and animal species, according to the Smithsonian Institute. Add to that another 15,000 species under threat.

Our booming cities and suburban sprawls erase entire habitats. Our lifestyles chew through fossil fuels which rapidly alter the planet’s temperatures, further disrupting ancient cycles and the mysterious relationships Wohlleben chronicles.

Spoiler alert: Wohlleben proffers slender hope. He advises readers to join a local forestry class or outdoors survival group. Perhaps get more time outdoors in order to cultivate a passion for the spaces we need to preserve.

 

Critique: I am not certain this text adopts the most effective structure for an international translation. In nearly every chapter, Wohlleben’s examples begin with a global context, then narrow down to a specific instance isolated to his native Germany. No doubt, this structure appealed to German readers who could conceptualize a world problem through a familiar lens. But an American readership can’t really relate to Berlin’s wild boar dilemmas. And wouldn’t all readers everywhere feel more compelled if a chapter’s scenario began with an isolated, local predicament that mirrors or micro-illustrates a broader, global crisis?

Besides structural setbacks, the text also suffers from translation hiccups.

Wohlleben is a natural storyteller. His tone feels as cozy as A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and as animal-loving as E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Goshawk). Unfortunately, the translation to English corrodes this intrinsic style. As I read the opening chapters, I found my attention continually sliding off the page. Paragraphs bogged down with the clause-y, conditional verbs that I continually tell my students to beware.

For example:

“Forest agencies are offering to step in and help…”

“Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.”

“In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…”

This passage goes on to describe how the elk “were retreating…”or else “were constantly scanning” and so on.

For writers, the poor writing red flags are not just rising, they’re blasting out of bazookas in these examples. Anytime a sentence involves a “to be” verb phrase (there is/was/were/are…), that sentence has veered into passive voice territory. Passive voice describes when the typical order of operations in a sentence inverts. Usually, a sentence lines up the subject and verb. A someone or something does something. The cat sleeps. The boulder fell. A change occurred.

 Passive voice use a “to be” phrase and puts the doing before the thing. There was a change.

What’s the big deal? As E.B. White (same as above and of the classic Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style) notes, that inverted structure creates a wordier sentence which bogs down the reading experience. Thus why my attention slid off the page.

Another tell-tale sign of passive voice are diluted, weak, clause-y verbs. Were retreating. Began avoiding. Are offering. Was being used. “To be” verb clauses barnacle themselves to perfectly good verbs. Why waste ink on were retreating when you could say the elk retreated?

I have my students find and fix these problems in the news articles and ad brochures I bring to class or tutoring sessions. Below are the problematic passive sentences and a quick, concise fix:

Forest agencies are offering to step in and help.
Forest agencies help.

Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.
Timber became scarce…

(That’s ok, but if I choose better verbs, the whole sentence improves by leaps and bounds.)

Timber dwindled as people relied on it for fuel and building material; trees lacked essential time to grow old.

In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…
In Yellowstone, other anomalies unfolded. Elk behavior changed. Fear triggered new habits as the elk avoided open areas…
They retreated…
They scanned…

I’d love to recommend this book to all the world’s would-be Greta Thunbergs and passionate climate change fighters; however, I’ll most likely recommend it to writing coaches who are passionate about fighting writing change.

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.”