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.

Imagined Life by Trefil & Summers

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Among travel books, what makes a masterpiece? Sure, we love the writer who describes a location or culture in stunning, heart-flipping prose. But what debt of thanks and praise do we owe the yarner who completely transports us to places we will never ever get to visit in our lifetime? Take, for instance, outer space…

trefil-summers-ImaginedLife2Trefil, James and Michael Summers. Imagined Life: A Speculative Journey Among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures, and Supergravity Animals. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2019. Print.

Ice-tunneling merfolk. Flying dragons on Super Earths. These are only a couple of the wondrous life forms the authors speculate on in their sweeping exploration of the universe’s exoplanets. For decades, astronomers hypothesized these planets must exist. Other stars, besides our sun, must have other planets circling them.

And then a few years ago, we discovered a few.

Then a few more.

Then many more.

And more and more.

Astrophysicists now estimate hundreds of trillions of exoplanets whirl around the universe as we speak—more than the number of stars!

This book reviews what we know so far. It then shares where and how astrobiologists search for life out there. Trefil and Summers then use biology, chemistry, and physics fundamentals to speculate on what formations life could assume on water worlds, ice spheres, Super Earths, and tidally locked Red Dwarfs. And before you ask—no, Red Dwarfs aren’t sunburned garden gnomes obsessed with surfing.

My favorite feature in the text has to be NASA’s retro-styled travel posters from their Exoplanet Travel Bureau. Each poster highlights an actual exoplanet plus its must-see sights and must-do activities available to human life forms. Posters also share fascinating scientific facts about the planet and how its discovery influences the trajectory of ongoing space research. (Ehem. My birthday is coming up in October if anyone is wondering what to get…)

Rarely has my travel bug been so buzzed. Viewing each poster is like downing a shot of rocket fuel! Reading this book only doubled the effect. As a relatively new and increasingly rugged Coloradan, I mentally packed my bags and readied gear. I was (and am) ready to hike, mountain bike, and camp on any of the Kepler 186 planets or the TRAPPIST-1 system.

As travel books go, this one is a standout gem. The authors present complex data and concepts clearly. Their tone is enthusiastic and engaging. They adhere to speculation without veering off into sensationalism. And throughout, they make one vital point tantalizingly clear: when we consider how life persists nearly everywhere on Earth, it’s hard to banish the possibility of life’s existence elsewhere out there.

Write Like You Run

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Mason-research2

These index cards represent the research for 23 books and many magazine articles. Writing is for endurance athletes.

The request came late November. A children’s book packager reached out asking if I had to time outline, right, and research 6 nonfiction books. Oh, and by the by, could I get those done in 6 weeks?

It was grueling work. I rose around 5am every morning. I worked until my various day jobs required me to leave the house. I returned in the early evenings to eat a quick dinner, wash dishes, and then settle back at my desk to resume the project until midnight or 1am. I gathered research facts on index cards which I could easily shuffle into outlined chapters. I drafted crappy paragraphs. I revised them into mildly improved paragraphs.

I repeated the process day after day.

I am no soldier. I moaned and griped when glopping out of bed or trudging back to the desk with the same relative energy and personality of ear wax. I couldn’t do this! I was spent. I’d already had a long day. My brain was shot! I should just forget about it and go back to bed.

That negative, sinister, doom-and-gloom voice every person hears whispering from time to time…. It has successfully talked me out of many accomplishments, big and small, over my lifespan.

But I knew every hour I put off was an hour I could not afford inside this contractual deadline.

As the weeks passed and raw fatigue slobber-gnawed on my spirit, I delighted one evening when a different voice whispered out of the mental ether.

This one had a defiant, dauntless, take-charge edge. It was as warm and steady and confident as the light from an oil lamp. Best of all, I recognized it as the same voice that arose when I started learning how to run longer distances.

20181221_104832I am not a natural or gifted runner. Even so, I enjoy it immensely. I get hours of meditative time out on high desert and alpine trails. Time spent in the precious present moment. No past regrets to haunt me. No future events to boogey-man me. Just the sprawling, limitless now.

Joys aside, I struggled with form and pacing when I needed to attain half marathon distances. Miles short of my daily or weekly training goals, I would often putter out and walk the remainders. Then, one day, when my goal was only 1.5 miles away and my feet were aching and my leg muscles were screaming louder than Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos and I was on the verge of tears thinking I’d have to yet again quit and fail to reach a set goal…the lamplight voice emerged.

You can do this, the voice said as a matter of fact. You can keep running to that tree. It’s only a few feet away. Try it.

Its tone was so declarative. It neither mandated nor manipulated me with guilt. I couldn’t help but follow its suggestion. Just before I reached the target tree, the lamplight voice indicated another tree further ahead. You can make it to that one. And so I did.

20181223_124551Tree by tree, I hit my goal that day. On future runs, that inner coach always emerged. It was there on race days, guiding me to the finish line.

And here it was again, when all I wanted to do was cry and punish myself for taking on a ridiculous project with a ridiculous deadline.

You can do this. You can do anything for about 30 minutes, it coached me.

Yes, I thought. Yes I could.

30 minutes passed and I had more words on the page. I was also warmed up and on a roll. Now the ideas were flowing fast.

You can do 30 more minutes, the lamplight voice indicated without pomp or demand.

I sure can, I thought.

And by midnight or so, I had a yet another chapter drafted. And at last, the entire project was done. On time.

I enjoyed a brief break for the winter holidays. And then, the book packager reached out again. They had 10 books authored by others in need of a dynamic voice with supercharged language–my specialty. Could I…?

Yes, I replied. Yes I could.

Oh, and could I take on writing and researching 4 other books due in 4 weeks?

Yes, I replied. I absolutely could.

I am not advocating for extreme assignments with catastrophic deadlines. I am, however, here to say that we all have little voices in our heads. Each one tells us a particular story about what is and is not possible. Luckily, we get to choose which voice we listen to.

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.