Please join me in welcoming new steaMG member Aimee Lucido.
When people find out that I’m a writer and a software engineer, I usually get one of two reactions. People either respond with something along the lines of “Coding and writing? They’re so different!” or “Girls in STEM is so trendy right now. You should write about it!” Both of these reactions used to drive me nuts.Read More
I don’t do much by accident, but it’s possible that I accidentally wrote a science fiction novel.
If I were forced to categorize myself as a writer, I’d say that I write humorous fantasy and adventure novels for kids. And when I sent my editor a draft of my latest book, The Door at the End of the World, I assumed I was sending her another funny fantasy adventure. But when my editor wrote back to me, she mentioned that she hadn’t worked on sci-fi in quite a while and was excited to revisit the genre as she edited my book.
I had to read that sentence twice. Had I accidentally written sci-fi? Is accidentally writing sci-fi even possible? I wouldn’t call myself a science fiction expert, or even a devoted fan; I’m not sure that reading Ray Bradbury short stories and watching a few seasons of Black Mirror makes me qualified to talk knowledgeably about the genre, let alone to write it. And I know that many readers who are passionate about sci-fi care deeply about what is science fiction and what isn’t. There are rules about this sort of thing. Rules I certainly didn’t follow.
The Door at the End of the World is about a girl named Lucy who embarks on an adventure around eight different worlds, each connected to its neighbors by doorways cut from the fabric of space and time. One of those worlds is our own; some are magical; some are full of futuristic technologies; one is mostly full of cows. Is it a fantasy novel? Sort of, I think, though there isn’t much magic on the page, and wizards and magic carpets are mentioned only in passing. Is it science fiction? I’m still not sure. A strict definition of science fiction, in my opinion, requires story elements to be scientifically plausible, even if they’re not yet possible in our current world. Is there a scientific basis for the idea that our world exists next door to a parallel world inhabited mostly by cows? Or that honeybees could be magically trained to communicate by spelling? If there is, I haven’t seen the research. (Please send it to me right away!)
But maybe a strict definition of science fiction isn’t the most useful one for us to think about, at least not all the time. Maybe it’s more helpful to think about the role that science fiction can play in young readers’ lives. Like its relatives fantasy fiction and speculative fiction, science fiction transports readers to new worlds. It considers the serious issues of our own society in a brand-new context, making those issues more accessible to young people and challenging readers with questions about ethics, morality, and human nature. It teaches readers to ask what if? and why not? It encourages them to dream about all the futures that might be possible—and warns them about the futures they might stumble into if they’re not paying attention.
If I were a librarian categorizing books by genre, I’m still not sure I’d put a Science Fiction sticker on the spine of The Door at the End of the World. But I believe it does some of the important work of science fiction, helping readers think critically, ask questions, and expand their imaginations beyond the boundaries of the known universe. Whether or not my young readers grow up to be scientists, those are tools they’ll need throughout their lives—in this world or any other.
Caroline Carlson is the author of funny and fantastical books for young readers, including The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy, The World’s Greatest Detective, and The Door at the End of the World. Her novels have won accolades from the New York Times, the American Booksellers Association, Bank Street College of Education, the American Library Association, and Junior Library Guild, among others. Caroline holds a BA from Swarthmore College and an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A Massachusetts native, she now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her family.
Malayna Evans has been a member of steaMG since launch and we were very excited to have a real life Egyptologist on board. Today we are even more excited to celebrate the day that Jagger Jones makes his big debut.
Your path has taken you from academia to kid lit. Was that always your intention, or did your life take an unexpected turn?
Well, in truth, my life has taken numerous unexpected turns. I never end up where I mean to go but I’m usually pretty happy with where I land. But I did have writing in mind when I went to grad school as an adult. I imagined I’d be the next Robert Graves, but instead of Claudius, my protagonists would be Cleopatra and Ramses. I figured being a professor would be a great plan B. (In reality, I run a small marketing firm, so that Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian history didn’t turn out to be terribly pertinent). In any event, I envisioned myself writing hard-hitting historical fiction … for adults
So what moved you to write this story specifically?
When my son was nine years old, he asked me what ancient Egyptians looked like. I told my beautiful, biracial son he’d fit in well in ancient Egypt. And he told me someone should write a book about a kid who looked like him lost in the past. At the time, my life was pretty topsy-turvy, as was his, unfortunately. So it started out as a fun thing to do together. I was trying to be a good mom, not fulfill my writing dreams. But it didn’t take long for the idea of sharing my passion for ancient Egypt with today’s middle school readers to sink into my imagination. Of course, that nine year old is now 16 and 6’2” (because kids grow faster than books) but his influence is still alive and well.
If you could share one thing about ancient Egypt with kids and teachers, what would it be?
Unfortunately, our education system tends to be a bit Eurocentric, so I don’t think most people realize how many aspects of our day-to-day lives are inherited from ancient Egypt. Our calendar is based on the ancient Egyptian calendar. Our writing system is heavily influenced by theirs as are our writing instruments. They fleshed out math concepts we still use. I could go on. There are many fantastical things about ancient Egypt, and my story zooms in on the most bizarre period in Egyptian history and highlights things like their beliefs about magic and the afterlife—the fun stuff. But when I talk to kids about the past, I emphasize the systems they established that we still benefit from.
Your story blends time-travel and fantasy with real historical places, people and artifacts. Was there some specific tactic that helped you achieve this merger?
That was a challenge for me. I knew I wanted to write a time travel series as soon as my son shared his idea—I wanted to blend past and present. Sadly, my first draft was a snoozer. I loaded it up with arcane history … because I’m an historian and that’s what I do. I had to figure out how to let the storyteller lead, and reign in the historian part of my brain. There were a few things that helped me accomplish this after some fits and starts.
For a start, I chose a theme that reflects a very Egyptian worldview. There’s an ancient blessing, ankh, wedja, seneb, which means (may you have) life, prosperity, and health. Since it’s a three book series, book one considers the Egyptian view of life, contrasting it with ours. So it’s not the princess’s life Jagger is tasked with saving, but her afterlife.
Another tactic that helped me blend fantasy and history was to focus on artifacts, aka things. Everyone has things—modern teenagers and ancient princesses. The bits of the book I’m most proud of are the spots where my characters sort of blend ancient and modern, using chewing gum in an ancient spell, for example. There are so many amazing artifacts from the past—things like amulets ancient Egyptians believed were magical—so giving them a central role helped me beef up the fantasy while staying true to the spirit of the culture.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?
Book two is with my publisher and I’m really happy with how it came together. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that readers who like Aria, the little sister character, will enjoy book two. I’m busy with book three now. And yes, there’s more time travel. But I’m also playing around with a new middle grade idea and a young adult manuscript. I find editing is easier when I shift my mind back from a totally different project, so I tend to have various works in progress moving forward simultaneously. At the moment, my number one wish is that kids will enjoy Jagger’s adventure and learn a bit about ancient Egypt along the way.
Malayna Evans was raised in the mountains of Utah and spent her childhood climbing, skiing, reading Sci-Fi, and finding trouble. Many years later, she earned her Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian history from the University of Chicago. She's used her education to craft a middle grade, time-travel series set in ancient Egypt. Jagger Jones and the Mummy's Ankh is book one. Malayna spends her time writing, sharing her passion for ancient history with kids, and haunting Chicago’s best coffee shops. She lives in Oak Park, Il, with her two kids and a rescue dog. You can visit Malayna on her site (www.malaynaevans.com), Twitter, or Instagram.
Whenever putting something new together, especially something big that you hope others will join you in the creation of, a wink and a nod from the universe can mean everything. Carl Jung referred to those wink and a nod moments as synchronicity. In building steaMG, I encountered a very big moment of synchronicity.
You may have already read in our very first post why I created steaMG. In a large part, my love for sci-fi and science inspired fiction began with being obsessed with time travel books after losing my father in middle school. Those books helped me grieve by balancing the overwhelming sadness with a healthy dose of awe.
As I was pulling together the design and images for this site last January, I went through hundreds of stock images. I kept coming back to several that caught my eye and realized rather quickly that they were all from the same contributing artist, Bruce Rolff. I quickly bought the rights and ran the images by the group. We all agreed they evoked the kind of imaginative obsession with wonder and awe that we were hoping to convey. We made sure to credit his work in a visible way.
I put the site into beta mode and asked friends and family members to take a look at it. My mother promptly texted me and said, “It looks lovely. Who put you in touch with Bruce Rolff?”
It was an odd question. No one did.
I gave her a call. What did she mean? I just found a bunch of images I liked on a stock site and purchased rights. She laughed and told me a story.
It turns out that Bruce and I had met. Only I was in grade school at the time and he was a young man. You see, his sister lived behind my house where I grew up and her husband was my father’s best friend. We have been at family BBQs and holiday parties together. I babysat his niece. In fact, we likely spoke while I was first reading those time travel books.
Synchronicity. A wink and a nod that I was in fact going in the right direction.
And without further ado. Please welcome the very talented and awe-inspiring Bruce Rolff.
First and foremost, do you believe in universal synchronicity? 🙂
Absolutely, I have seen often in my life that things seem to line up. Personally, it happens everywhere, from thinking about someone and suddenly they call, to elements of an image I'm working on seeming to fall into place. I have found that if I pay attention it will happen to a degree that it can even be disconcerting. It's not like it happens every hour of every day, but it does happen often enough. Strange stuff.
As you now know, your work really spoke to both me and the team when we were looking at images that evoked science fiction and awe. What inspires you?
Science, Sci fi, Space, Art, Spirituality, Dreams. I love to experiment and play with image elements, concepts and different software too.
Has this always been an inspiration? How has your work changed over the years?
Hmm, not sure if all of these things inspired me always, at least not artistically. Some did. I think when I was younger I was inspired more by other artists. Although I still do look at a lot of other artists' works. My work has changed dramatically over time. For one, its gotten better and more consistent in quality. There are always some that rise to the top though. I moved from mostly abstracts to more surreal images over time. Digital lends itself very nicely to surrealism. I think that may be why there is somewhat of a resurgence of surrealism these days.
Has digital art always been your medium?
I've done a lot of different things artistically over the years. I started with sculpting, mostly clay, then abstracts on paper with pastels and spray paint mostly, also some paintings on canvas, mostly abstract. I was involved in photography for a long time. At some point I started doing digital art, eventually it became almost exclusively the way I create images. I have gotten back into painting on canvas a tiny bit recently, but I very very rarely work that way.
Your work lends itself to story so well. In what ways has your work been used in the literary world?
My works have been used for covers, as interior art too. There have been sci-fi and spiritual or self help, but other genres too, including color theory, science, many different subjects.
There’s a sense of optimism and beauty to a lot of your sci-fi work. At least, it’s not all doom and gloom. How do you see the future?
For me I think my sci-fi, space and spiritual images are often more hopeful. Although I am venturing into some more weighty, tinged with darkness spiritual images now.
Some of my images may be hopes for humanity, and some for me personally. Things I would like to see and know and feel.
But also in a sizable portion of my work I feel as if I am just showing an interpretation of what I have already seen and experienced. I have a desire to touch an eternal force, to experience God. Perhaps some of these images are an attempt to get back there, to experience God and eternity.
Some of my work also speaks of another such place, a profoundly lonely place, but not a place entirely absent of peace either. A place of longing, a purgatory where loneliness, contemplation and great stretches of time, emptiness and a near acceptance of ones fate combine. A resignation to this not quite comfortable place. A muted acceptance.
Well, those are two of the subjects I cover. Sorry I seem to be partly leaning toward the darker side a little bit here at the moment. Not all of my work is that serious. I have several images that are quite humorous.
In regards to the future I think that the human race has a lot of potential for things to go well. However, we often choose things like war and greed over more enlightened values.
One of the future events that I think could be amazingly wonderful or could be incredibly bad is when we reach the artificial intelligence singularity. If we apply AI to developing more advanced AI and each iteration advances the next in a short period of time we could be going to the stars or learn how humans can live for thousands of years or maybe eternally. So many possibilities! If we apply these advanced AI to dominating the world militarily, which I hate to say will be likely by some, if not many countries, it could end very badly for many people. If one country is applying this to gain dominance, could the others afford to not try to do the same? Or perhaps there would never be a shot fired, but we would have to live under the govt of whatever country then dominates the world. Let's hope if this happens it is a good one! I don't think the terminator thing is likely, but maybe. Most likely at least some of us will be there to find out. The AI singularity could turn our world upside down when and if it does come.
Before the singularity happens though, perhaps long before, AI will probably be doing many of our jobs, including mine. One of the ways my art is used is as stock images. I could fore see AI being used to create an image in any style, from photorealistic to any artistic style or a completely unique style being built pixel by pixel by AI. The images could contain any objects or elements of any kind in any configurations. The AI would create the image to the customers specifications. This would be the end of artists creating stock images, be they illustrations, or art, or photos. No need for artists in the current sense in this field any longer. Perhaps artists will still be needed but in a different capacity. Perhaps the stock image company would hire image creationists that act as an expert to interface between the client and the AI to create an image that is suitable for the clients. Of course, perhaps by then we may not be using 2 dimensional images so AI might be creating 3D images instead. It’s fun to think about.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, Bruce. If you want to see more of Bruce’s art you can visit him at his website http://rolffimages.squarespace.com/
Please welcome our special guest Holly Schofield who has agreed to talk about the importance of short fiction for today’s young sci-fi reader.
At age eleven, I routinely hung out in the adult section of the public library, shifting from foot-to-foot, reading back issues of Analog magazine until stern librarians enforced the "no children allowed" rule, chasing me back to the bland safety of the children's section. Short stories always appealed to me, even back when I didn't understand half of what I read and when MG and YA weren't yet marketing labels. I loved--and still love--the quick, sharp encapsulation of an idea, a world, a moment--that prismatic effect of a small idea expanding into a large rainbow of thoughts.
Although the act of sneaking my fiction may have added slightly to my enjoyment, I'd prefer that today's kids don't have to sample their fiction that way, but are offered instead a smorgasbord of delights. And delights there are! You just have to find them. Most adult science fiction magazines do crossover into YA territory: Apex, Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Asimov's all publish YA short stories sometimes. Tor.com's 2018 list of best YA SFF includes three short story collections. Of the 70+ stories I've had published, 23 are YA-themed but only nine are in solely-YA publications. Several YA anthology series are worth noting for their double focus on science and diversity:
Issues in Earth Science is "dedicated to raising awareness of the science of our world and our place in it. It provides essays, challenges, a forum for discussion, and fictional stories related to the Earth and Space Sciences." As well as various tools for teachers, the website provides a dozen free online STEM stories intended for classroom use, each featuring a YA protagonist.
Dreaming Robot's Young Explorer's Adventure Guide contains science fiction stories aimed at middle grade readers with a focus on diversity and representation. "One of the qualities that makes this yearly anthology such a treat to read is the wide range of futuristic possibilities that planet Earth and its occupants may encounter, realities that will keep readers wondering long after the book is closed" according to the starred Kirkus review. The fourth volume was just released and the fifth volume will be out in early 2020.
Brave New Girls features brainy young female protagonists who use their smarts to save the day. Proceeds from sales are donated to the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. The fourth volume will be out July 2019.
What's the appeal of such anthologies? Short stories are more than just a palatable way for kids to increase their science literacy. If the science is accurate, the learning is better retained and meta-cognition is improved. (Note: the science must be accurate!). There is a fallacy that kids are uncomfortable with the idea that a book might teach them something but kids love to learn! With short stories, a wide variety of topics can be presented quickly and, importantly, serve to pique their interest. A quick flash piece about a black hole may encourage them to learn more when they see a "picture" of a black hole spread across the news.
Audio is another great way for kids to absorb both science and fiction. Cast of Wonders has several hundred free YA podcasts, most of which are about half an hour long (about 3,000 words). Perfect for that bus ride to school or that lazy Saturday morning in bed, without the investment of time and focus that a novel requires.
Although traditionally-published novels will always have a strong influence on young minds, short stories (and self-published novels) are able to react more quickly to societal changes. (I've had a story go from submission to publication within just a few hours). That allows short stories to incorporate social justice movements much faster. Traditional publishing can get there too, but it requires more time. In one inspiring example, the International Publishers Association has partnered with the United Nations to launch a book club for children ages six to twelve, focusing on the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, releasing a selection of new titles each month in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Those first set of books will come out in 2021--certainly a laudable achievement in only two years; however, Brave New Girls and Young Explorer's Adventure Guide will have published a total of over eighty new stories during that time, each one attuned specifically to today's young adults.
Female protagonists are one example of where short stories can have a hugely positive influence. In the classic 1983 study where kids were asked to draw pictures of scientists, less than one percent drew females. Currently, that figure is up to a heartening 28 percent -- better, but still not great. Short stories can help reshape those persistent stereotypes: if a child reads ten stories of 5,000 words each about female scientists, they've been exposed to ten examples of scientists, rather than the single one they would meet in a 50,000-word novel. Such stories may inspire them to seek out Her Stem Story for anecdotes about real scientists or A Mighty Girl for list of books, such as this one about female environmentalists .
“While play-acting grim scenarios day in and day out may sound like a good recipe for clinical depression, it’s actually weirdly uplifting. Rehearsing for catastrophe has made me positive that I have the problem-solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling." ― Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
The turbulence of the 1960s meant I needed those stolen moments in the library in order to cope. Today's kids, born into a world of climate change and political turmoil, are no different. They need tools. Tools to help them grow, solve problems logically, and give them positive action plans. Tools like optimism. In the afterword to the Nevertheless anthology, Greg Bechtel says it well: "Optimism, at its best, is a weaponized form of hope….<it offers> counter-narratives to our own persistent stories of fear: of change, of deterioration and loss of stability, of chaos, of death…" STEM-based short stories can present that reality to kids, give them those tools, and instill that optimism--a large outcome for such a small input.
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her stories of skiffy hopepunk have appeared in such publications as Analog, Lightspeed, Cast of Wonders, Brave New Girls, and Young Explorer's Adventure Guide, are used in university curricula, and have been translated into several languages. She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes. Find a complete list of her stories at hollyschofield.wordpress.com.
 Diana C. Rice. "Using Trade Books in Teaching Elementary Science: Facts and Fallacies". The Reading Teacher Vol. 55, No. 6 (Mar., 2002), pp. 552-565
 Marsh, E.J., Butler, A.C. & Umanath, S. "Using Fictional Sources in the Classroom: Applications from Cognitive Psychology". Educational Psychology Review (2012) 24: 449
 Farah Mendlesohn. 2009. The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction (Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy). McFarland. 50.
 The SDGs include poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, clean water, sanitation, affordable energy, decent work, inequality, urbanization, global warming, environment, social justice and peace. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/4538pressowg13.pdf
 Rhonda Parrish and Greg Bechtel. 2018. Nevertheless (Tesseracts 21). Edge. 243