Total solar eclipse & its influence on fiction

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The primal fear effect

A total solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the sun and earth, and blocks all or part of the sun for up to about three hours from a given location.

Today, a total solar eclipse is an astronomical rarity, an event to be recorded and studied. That was not always the case. It wasn’t all that long ago (in the grand scheme of things) that the sun and sky going dark caused mass hysteria. Which is not a totally irrational response. It triggers a primal fear, because we depend on the sun’s energy for life. Without it, our world would be uninhabitable.

It’s no surprise that a total solar eclipse continues to have a strong effect on us even now, as is evident in fiction: books, film, and television. Stories that resonate most deeply with the human psyche are primal, and survival is about as primal as it gets.

Fictional total eclipses

The earliest known fictional solar eclipse is in Homer‘s Odyssey, which scholars believe was composed near the end of the 8th century BC. There’s probably lesser known fictional references to solar eclipses between the 8th century BC and 1608, when Shakespeare’s tragic play, King Lear was first published, but let’s jump to King Lear’s famous quote:

O insupportable! O heavy hour! / Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon; and that the affrighted globe / Should yawn at alteration…

Following Shakespeare, the better known fictional works that feature solar eclipses were published in the late 19th century:

You might think that the paranormal intrigue surrounding a total solar eclipse would wane as we entered the 20th century, but no. In fiction, film, and television, it increased. The following are just a few of the works by the more prominent authors:

The list of film and television shows that include solar eclipses in their story is more extensive than in books. For a complete list of title for both fiction, film, and television, go here.

1984 eclipse in Witness

It’s interesting that while filming Witness (1985) in Pennsylvania’s Amish region, a partial solar eclipse occurred on May 30, 1984 (at his location). Director Peter Weir filmed the actors in costume, responding to the eclipse. However, these scenes never made it into the publicly released version of the film.

August 21, 2017 ~ total solar eclipse

August 21, 2017 will be the first total solar eclipse that can be seen in the United States in 38 years, the last one being in 1979. For the 2017 solar eclipse, the longest period the moon completely blocks the sun—from any given location along the path—will be about two minutes and 40 seconds.

If you’re interested in following the solar eclipse as it happens, even if you won’t be in the direct viewing path, check out the Smithsonian Solar Eclipse app from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). The app allows you to watch a live NASA stream of the eclipse as it travels across the continental United States. You can calculate your view with their interactive eclipse map, and get a virtual view in our eclipse simulator. Super cool!


Mary Poppins gets a spoonful of Google Translate!

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The Walt Disney classic film, Mary Poppins, has been translated into 20 languages. Now Google Translate makes for 21. Don’t get me wrong. Google Translate is an amazing tool! But the translation algorithms have somehow managed to develop a language all their own, that no one else quite understands.

Most everyone can recognize at least one of the Mary Poppins songs in the following medley. Many know the words by heart. But even if you’re not an MP aficionado, you’ll pick up on the oh-so unique (!) Google Translate interpretation of the lyrics.

Mary Poppins and Bert in Jolly Holiday

Compare the original lyrics to the songs (in the banner above the window) with the Google Translate version (in subtitles below), and have a jolly good time watching the brilliant video clip. In the words of Google Translate, “Oh, good night is blowing up!”

Sing it again Google Translate … or maybe not


Humor ~ the secret ingredient that keeps kids reading

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Kids laughing and readingIf something is fun, we want to repeat the experience as much as possible. Reading is no different. It’s no surprise that for young readers, the key to keeping them reading is humor.

Marvin Terban, master of children’s wordplay and author of over 35 humorous books for young readers, explained the science of reading fun to a packed house at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Terban was a school teacher for decades, learning first-hand how to capture children’s interest 3 Latino children readingand keep them engaged. He was adamant:

“It’s no laughing matter if there’s no laughing matter.”

When children were asked what books they liked to read, this is what they said:

  • My favorite books are the ones I pick myself.
  • I like books make me laugh.

Recipes for laughter

“That’s great,” you say, “but what’s the secret to making children laugh?” You’re in luck! Terban shared a few of the ingredients from his recipe for humor:

  1. Use funny names, like Ralph Puken or Bob Booggensnot.
  2. Use funny words. Apparently the funniest words for young readers are: fart, poop, and underpants. In that order.
  3. Kids (and adults) laugh the hardest at the unexpected.
  4. The funniest scenes contain an element of sorrow.

Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler are also masters of writing comedy for young readers. Kids of all ages love their Hank Zipzer: World’s Greatest Underachiever series and Ghost Buddy series. At a past SCBWI conference, this awesome writing team shared a few of their secrets for writing comedy:

  1. Write what makes you laugh. If you think something is funny, someone else will think so too. Young readers know when humor is not authentic.
  2. Write from your own “most embarrassing” moments.
  3. You have to love the character you’re putting in comedic jeopardy, or else it comes off as being mean. You want your audience to laugh with the character, not at him.
  4. Specific details are almost always funnier than generalizations. For example: Principal Zumba has a mole. Or… Principal Zumba has a mole shaped like the statue of liberty that looks like it’s doing the hula whenever he talks.

Hank Zipzer and Ghost Buddy covers


The Library Express ~ When bookmobiles had hooves

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We might think of the bus-like bookmobiles as modern inventions, but they were not the first mobile libraries…not by a long shot. The first bookmobiles were little more than carts powered by hooves. There has even been a Pony Express style book delivery program known as the Pack Horse Librarians.Pony express rider

Horse-drawn libraries

The first documented mobile libraries were carts filled with books drawn by horses. Preambulating library Warrington England 1859The perambulating libraries operated in rural England as early as 1857. Warrington, England introduced a horse-drawn van in 1858 that was operated by the Warrington Mechanics’ Institute, to increase the lending of its books. [PC: Wikipedia]

In 1890, Fairfax County, Virginia got on the mobile library wagon (literally) in the northwestern part of their county. But one of the most memorable mobile libraries was a product of the Great Depression.

The library express

Pack Horse LibrarianThe Great Depression threw the entire nation into poverty, and the already poor rural areas suffered the worst. Kentucky was one of the states hardest hit by the paralyzed economy.

We humans seem to show our best when things are at their worst. Such was the case with the first Pack Horse Library, formed by the Work Progress Administration (WPA) in Leslie county, Kentucky. This new project brought reading materials to those who lived in the remote rural areas of Eastern Kentucky, an area with little electricity and fewer roads.

Unlike most New Deal programs, the Pack Horse Plan was fueled by the support ofPack Horse Librarian local communities. The only way to get books to the people living in the remote mountain areas was on horseback, and the Kentucky women didn’t shy away from the challenge. The Pack Horse Librarians mounted mules and horses with panniers filled with books and headed out into the hills.

Each Librarian made deliveries at least twice a month, covering over 100 miles a week on horseback. The Librarians took their jobs as seriously as the mail carriers, riding miles through inclement weather, across backwoods wilderness terrain.

I could go on and on about the great work done by the Pack Horse Librarians, but you’ll enjoy watching the following mini (approx. 3 min.) documentary much more.

Pack Horse Librarians


Classical Disruption ~ Flash mob symphony

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Classic — Something of lasting worth, judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.

But is being of the highest quality enough for an art form to endure centuries, being woven through the fabric of ever-changing modern cultures? I think not. There also must be a transmutable quality that allows for adaptation again and again, so it can be made new without sacrificing quality or substance.

Disruptive transformation

The only constant is change. Without change, there’s stagnation. Presenting an art form in an incongruous manner infuses it with new life, fueling the appreciation of a broader audience.

Berkeley Contemporary Symphony Orchestra

Such is the effect of flash mob symphony. It turns a staid perception of traditional classical music on end—same great music with a fresh new image. An impromptu concert in an unexpected public setting makes the music accessible to the general masses in a provocatively inviting way.

Shakespeare’s plays have been known to disrupt classic expectations too. Such as the recent Trump-like Caesar in New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar.

Flash mob symphony

The Berkeley Contemporary Symphony Orchestra took jollity to the streets—the Prudential Center, Boston, MA, to be exact—with a spontaneous performance of Jupiter, from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. As you watch the video, look for the smiles on the faces of the musicians as well as the crowd, delighting in the beauty of the moment.



Nonfiction fun ~ When the truth is more fantastic than fiction!

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Do you have a young reader who isn’t into fiction, yet wants books that are fun? Or perhaps there’s a summer reading requirement looming, and it’d be easier to hog tie the Hulk than to get your kids to read over vacation?

Well…put away the lasso and forget about the Hulk. Your kids will be begging for more, and you’ll want to read these books too. Yes. They’re that good! Thank me later.

kids reading

I discovered Steve Sheinkin’s work at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) summer conference a few years ago. Sheinkin is a master of finding the fun in history, and narrating the facts in an engaging voice and at a thrilling pace. If there were history books like these when I was in middle school or high school, it’s all I would’ve read.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin

This may sound like a crime thriller, because it is. But trust me, it’s not fiction. Someone actually stole President Lincoln’s body, and this fast-paced recounting of the events will have you on the edge of your seat, turning the pages until you’re done.

On October 20, 1875 Secret Service raid the Illinois workshop of master counterfeiter Benjamin Boyd and arrest him. Soon after Boyd is hauled off to prison, members of his counterfeiting ring gather and devise a plan to get Boyd back: steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from its tomb, stash it in a secret location, and demand as ransom, the release of Boyd—and $200,000.00 in cash. 

The action of this true crime thriller alternates among the conspirators, the Secret Service agents on their trail, and the undercover double agent moving back and forth between the two groups. Along the way, we get a glimpse into the inner workings of counterfeiting, grave robbing, detective work, and the early days of the Secret Service. The story races toward a wild climax as robbers and lawmen converge at Lincoln’s tomb on election night, 1876. [Jacket flap]

Bomb, by Steve Sheinkin

This story is close to my heart, because I graduated from a university that played an important—top-secret—part in the race to develop America’s atomic bomb. I didn’t find this out until long after I graduated, and I can’t say I’m proud of the fact. However, this book helped me to reconcile some of my feelings about the United States’ development and use of this deadly weapon. If not us, someone else would have done the same and with potentially more horrific results.

BombNo matter your viewpoint, this telling of the events leading to the creation of the first atomic bomb will keep you spellbound until the last page is turned.

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a uranium atom split in two.

That simple discovery, dealing with the tiniest of particles, launched a cut-throat race that would span three continents. The players were the greatest scientists, the most expert spies, hardened military commandos, and some of the most ruthless dictators who ever lived. The prize: military dominance over the entire world. 

This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world’s most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb. [Jacket flap]


Making Magic Out of Life’s Predicaments

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Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

I love it when people take an irritating predicament and turn it into a moment of pure magic.

Most of us have been stranded in an airport at least once. For the members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra the experience was no different…except in how they handled the inconvenience. No moaning, pouting, or complaining. They turned an unpleasant situation into a joyful encounter for all. I hope their solution to an unfortunate event makes you smile too.

What happens when an orchestra is stranded at an airport?


Mark Twain and the Kitten that Played Pool

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Twain’s softer side

Mark TwainThe name Mark Twain is synonymous with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—rough and tumble boys full of adventure, daring pranksters who were afraid of nothing.

In many ways, the characters an author creates are their reflection. But like Hemingway, Mark Twain had a softer side he hid from the world.

Like so many creative people, Mark Twain was sensitive and more than a little reclusive. People who knew him said he was most comfortable around animals, with a particular love of cats. According the Mark Twain’s daughter, Suzy…

The difference between papa and mama is that mama loves morals and papa loves cats.

Twain loved cats so much he had up to 19 living in his house at one time, according to one source. And that was just at his Connecticut home.

Mark Twain biographer, Albert Biglow Paine, revealed that Mark Twain even traveled with cats. Once on his travels, he missed his cats so much he rented a few local kittens for the summer. “He didn’t wish to own them, for then he would have to leave them behind uncared for,” Paine explained, “so he preferred to rent them and pay sufficiently to ensure their subsequent care.”

The kitten that played pool

It’s odd to think that an author as accomplished as Mark Twain suffered from nervousness about his writing. But he did. His cats helped calm him, as did playing billiards. Amazingly enough, there was one special kitten who did double duty by playing pool with Twain. For real. I am not making this up.

Kitten on pool table

When Twain took a break from his writing to blow off nervous energy, he’d pick up the kitten and tuck him into one of the pockets of the billiard table and the game began. The kitten swiped at the balls as they darted by, amusing Twain to no end. Rejuvenated by the kitten’s antics, Twain could then return to his writing.

Twain’s love of animals lives on

Generations of cats have called Nook Farm home—the famous author’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. Dozens of cats still live on the grounds of The Mark Twain House & Museum today, much as they did during the famous author’s lifetime.

When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction. ~ Mark Twain

Many of the staff members at The Mark Twain House are proud owners of Nook Farm cats, continuing Twain’s legacy.

Mark Twain’s love of cats lives on in his writing, as well. Cats stalk, slink, pad, and play their way through many of his best-known books, including The Innocents Aboard, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Puddn’head Wilson. If that’s not reason enough to read Twain, I don’t know what is. But I’m a hopeless animal lover too. What can i say?


Get that Half-Baked Story Out of the Oven!

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Writing Recipe for Success

Toddler chefIt happens to every writer. At least once. We start a project, excited and inspired by the sparkly new idea. We run with it, fleshing out characters, working magic with dialog, setting, and plot. Then something happens. Our inspiration dissipates, like air from a hot air balloon. We’re slugging forward through molasses, when once we soared.

It’s easy to get discouraged, or possibly even give up on that great idea at this point. I’m here to tell you…

DO NOT GIVE UP!

Writing a novel is a lot like baking a cake. You carefully organize and mix the ingredients, select and prepare the pan, then put it in the oven to bake at the right temperature for the perfect amount of time. Unlike the cake, a creative oven requires our input for the heat, and the time it takes to fully bake is not always in our favor. Deadliness be damned. Unfortunately, half-baked is only half there.

The good news is that you got the story into the oven. Here’s a few strategies on how you can get it out…fully baked.

Turning Up the Heat

We get stuck in our writing for lots of reasons. The best way to get unstuck is to shake things up, take a new approach, do something totally different. The unexpected has a way of jump starting creativity. Here’s few suggestions:

  • Go someplace you’ve always wanted to, but haven’t. A change of scenery, especially a place that elicits intrigue, works wonders.
  • Watch A LOT of movies and TV shows. Joss Whedon would watch four or five movies in a row (in one day) to study story. You never know what will provide the boost you need for your story.
  • Read A LOT of different things, both magazines and books. Read outside your comfort zone. Change is good. Embrace it.
  • Talk to people who have cool jobs, or who’ve had very different life experiences than your own. This is one of the things Amie Kauffman, co-author of Illuminae and Gemina, does to get new ideas.
  • Go to a public place and people watch. Imagine where they’re going and what they’ll do when they get there. Have fun creating stories without the pressure of an outcome.
  • Start a totally different project in a completely different genre, just for you. Published authors confess to doing this when they’ve been paralyzed under a deadline. TheFemail chef illustration story they started “for themselves” got them excited about writing again and they made their deadline. Those stories later became wildly popular books too. A win-win.
  • Brainstorm with other writers. Especially if you’re under deadline. Screenwriters work this way a lot.
  • Write stuff. Then write more stuff.
  • Fire your internal editor and keep going until you reach The End.

You’re doing great!

 

Hooking Reluctant Readers with Poetry & Picture Books

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Words have power. Words open doors and change the world. Your world. Which is why reading is so important. Frederick Douglass said it best:

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.

Boy's imagination while reading

Those who acquire the love of reading revel in the freedom it brings every time we open a book.

Girl reading a bookWhat about those who have yet to discover the wonder of reading, how can we get them hooked?

I’m sure dissertations have been written on this topic,Boy reading a book backed with data from scientific studies.

I’m no expert. But the following suggestions have worked well for hooking reluctant readers.

Hook ‘Em with Poetry … Yes, Poetry

I didn’t realize poetry was a significant gateway for reluctant readers until I heard Kwame Alexander speak at Kepler’s Books. He was there to promote The Playbook: 52 Crossover coverRules To Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life.

During the course of the evening, Kwame related his winning experiences at getting “at risk” youth excited about reading … using poetry. He explained that poetry hooks reluctant readers, because it’s short and easy to read. Once youngsters feel the satisfaction of finishing a book, they are quicker to pick up the next one.

Kwame Alexander’s Newberry Award winning book, The Crossover, is written entirely in verse and has hooked hundreds (if not thousands) of kids on reading. Kwame followed that success with Booked, a novel in verse about a star soccer player who is also a reluctant reader. Another winner for converting real-life reluctant readers.

Ellen Hopkins‘ immensely popular Crank Series is written entirely in verse, as well. Crank, the first book of the series, is required reading in many high schools. However, this series is for a more mature audience due to its focus on drug addiction.

The Power of Picture Books … Read Aloud

Reading to children when they are young is the best way to hook them on reading. Picture books provide a wonderful interactive forum for storytelling. For children that are too young to read, they can be engaged in the story, which inspires the desire to be able to read on their own one day.

As Emilie Buchwald said:

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.

However, reading in blanket forts works its own special magic.

The magic factor for reading is “fun”. Make story time a fun activity and children will fall in love with reading…for life. If you don’t know “what” to read for a particular age group, ask your local librarian. Librarians have a wealth of knowledge they are happy to share.

Kwame Alexander supersized the fun with audience participation and musical accompaniment (by Randy Preston) as he read from his picture book Surf’s Up at Kepler’s Books. Appropriately enough, Surf’s Up is a delightful story about two frogs, an adventure, and falling in love with reading.