Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

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Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!

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Spots in a Box by Helen Ward

spots-in-boxI spotted this book a while back and have never forgotten its superb blend of crisp rhymes and powerful theme. Add this to your holiday shopping list as the perfect read-together book for little ones learning to embrace their own spots or not-so-spots.

Ward, Helen. Spots in a Box. Somerville, MA: Templar Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: rhyming picture book

Summary: What’s to be done when you’re the only guinea fowl without any spots? Well you write a letter and order some!

Critique: The rhyme schemes throughout this story are “spot on.” No, really, I’m not just waxing punnetic. War never overreaches or forces the meter with flimflam syntax or nonsensical words. (Just to be clear, syntactical gymnastics and mishmash words are allowed in creative writing, however, only a few authors have succeeded in deploying these tactics with any real skill. Seuss…Dahl…Twain…etc.) Instead, Ward keeps her language tuned up and the story drives itself!

And throughout all the guinea fowl fun had with clots, blots, inky-font dots, and i-topping spots, readers of any age imbibe a subtly conveyed powerful message about how self-expression can be the root of self-fulfillment when it is not designed to merely meet public expectation.

(Guinea fowl fun fact: a group of guinea fowl is called a confusion!)

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty

Is our identity—defining it and embracing it—an avenue to an enriching existence or is it merely an evolutionary survival strategy?

Petty, Dev. I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. Illus Mike Boldt. New York: Doubleday for Young Readers, 2015. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young frog wants to be anything other than wet, slimy, and full of bugs. He wants to be a warm and cuddly kind of creature until a wise wolf shows him the perks of warts and all.

Critique: Boldt’s illustrations are wacky…or, more accurately, out-of-wacky. He uses bold strokes, bright colors stretched into dramatic disproportion. The text on the page is similarly stretched. It wasn’t clear if this style was used perfunctory (to cover more of the page) or thematically (to enhance the text with subliminal visual meanings/implications/symbols).

The narrative follows a dialogue between the young frog and his dad, whose standard answer is: You can’t be this or that; you’re a frog. Around the midpoint, poppa frog switches up the response and asks what his son does not like about being a frog. They then encounter a wolf who points out that he would never eat a wet, slimy, fly-filled frog. Bunnies on the other hand…

In general, the story felt shy of essential substance and worldbuilding. For example: wouldn’t a young frog be a tadpole/polliwog? Based on the resolution, the theme for young readers to adopt seemed to be: to become yourself or accept yourself is only an evolutionary survival strategy. Your intrinsic identity keeps you alive. I suspect it does do that, but it also does so much more.

Freckleface Strawberry by Julianne Moore

Can too much curiosity spur accidental bullying?

Moore, Julianne. Freckleface Strawberry. Illustrations by LeUyen Pham. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: An exuberant little girl tries everything to hide her red hair and freckles. She quickly uncovers a difficult choice: either go through life alone and uncomfortable or accept her own oddities.

Critique: First off, Pham’s vigorous, lively illustrations bring the entire book to life. She crafts distinct postures rich with emotion and expression.

And if you are wondering whether the Julianne Moore who authored this book is the same Julianne Moore who played Maude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the answer is yes!

For me, the most interesting facet of Moore’s text is the way she uses excessive curiosity as a vehicle for unintended persecution. Unlike the hobgoblins I evidently grew up among, the children in this book are not outright mean. Rather than bully and tease the protagonist about the features that make her unique, they pepper her with questions.

Do freckles hurt? What do they smell like?

To be fair, they do nickname her Freckleface Strawberry and at least one kid makes a lame joke. But on the whole, Moore’s depiction of the child tribe is utterly civilized. Of course, all that may change when freckles and red hair combine with glasses, braces, boobs, and zits. Hang in there, Freckleface!

Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.