Friday, 24 August 2012

Scientists in fiction – creative or crazed geniuses?

This is a guest post by my friend and former colleague, Gordana Nesterovic:

I attended this event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22nd August. It was announced as a forum which would discuss, with its panel and audience, how scientists are portrayed in fiction, looking at young people’s literature in particular.

Panelists included: Sophie McKenzie, an author who has written about genetics in her Medusa project and Blood ties series, and whose books are aimed at teenagers, Dr Alistair Elfick, Director of the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr David Kirby, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Manchester.

The event lasted an hour during which David Kirby, who chaired it, introduced panelists to the audience and talked a little bit about their work. It was an interesting choice of panel, promising  to provide food for thought from all sides, both from the author’s point of view and the scientist’s way of looking at it, and also to give an insight into how science is communicated in the media, film and literature – how scientists see themselves portrayed and what artists are interested  in when trying to portray the scientist.

Science is perceived in school and by most people as a ‘facts and figures’ discipline which is very linear, but in fact it is a rich source of innovation and it requires a huge amount of creativity. Terms ‘day science’ (presentations of achievements) and ‘night science’ (countless unsuccessful experiments) were mentioned as well as a member of the audience pointing out ‘science of the dungeons’ (endlessly filling grant application forms).

Sophie McKenzie mentioned her research for the Medusa project on science forums. Material for her book came from debates of scientists who were all ‘for progress of the society’ and not ‘good scientists fighting evil ones’. Equally, she uses the characters and plot of her stories to explore the emotional and ethical implications of scientific experiments.

I enjoyed the event and felt that the panelists were very good, but the discussion did not go in the direction of providing answers as to why scientists are described in this way other than it being the expression of the fears and insecurities of society.

I would say that it could be described more as popularising science through talking about different aspects of scientific work, rather than answering questions and discussing how scientists were portrayed. In fairness, one hour is not enough time for a discussion that could go in so many different directions. I also hope that people will continue to think and debate how scientists are portrayed in children’s literature in particular, and search for heroic role models in fiction who are scientists.

If you would like to read Sophie McKenzie's books, they can be borrowed through your local library or, if you are a member of Strathclyde University, check what is available through SUPrimo.


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Farewell Nina Bawden

Children's author Nina Bawden died this morning at the age of 87 - just a few of the 40+ books that she wrote are shown below. Perhaps the most famous is Carrie's War which tells the story of evacuees in Wales in World War 2, based on her own childhood experiences, and was made into a great tea-time TV serial which I remember watching in my youth. RIP Nina, happy memories.

Obituaries from:

The Guardian

The Telegraph

An assessment of her contribution to children's literature from Books for Keeps.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Visiting Green Gables: Anne and Maud

Green Gables, Cavendish, PEI, Canada

I've just come back from three weeks in Canada, and one of the highlights was a visit to Prince Edward Island, home of L M Montgomery (Lucy Maud, known as Maud) and the place in which she set her books, including Anne of Green Gables.

I've always loved Anne, and if you want to read about what I learned from visiting Green Gables and see more pictures, please check out the entry in my travel blog. Read the comments too - two things emerge. One is that one of my friends reblogged it, and she later emailed to say that the link had appeared in the "LMM / Anne News from the World" section of the L M Montgomery Institute (it's not there now, but this is a site worth looking at for Anne fans). We were both thrilled!

The other comments relate to Maud's own life and how hard it was. I learned at Green Gables that her husband had suffered from depression (or religious melancholia as it was described at the time), but not that she did too, and so badly that there is some evidence that she killed herself - see this Guardian article. I suppose this is not the sort of thing that a museum aimed at families would want to dwell on, and I dare say the main impression left on me, that she was someone who loved the land of her birth and was driven to write about it, is still true. It made me think about the dangers of confusing author and character, of which I was guilty - when I wrote my travel post, I had to go through it carefully and remove all the places where I had referred to Maud as "Anne". Anne was happy and optimistic, but Maud's life was much harder. With how many other books have I assumed, wrongly, something about the authors because of what they wrote about?

It has certainly inspired me to re-read the Anne books, but also to read more about Maud. I bought a slim volume of memoirs while we were away, and I will be raiding both my local library and the University of Strathclyde's collections very soon.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Hunger Games, kick-ass heroines and the Olympics

I watched the Hunger Games film while I was on holiday. I must say I was disappointed - I didn't expect it to be as gripping as Suzanne Collins' books, which I've written about before, but having read the reviews I thought it would be more exciting. If I hadn't known about them beforehand I'd have been hard-pressed to care very much about any of the characters, they all seemed very dreary to me! Anyway, I thought about it again when I read the article Hunger Games credited with making archery cool in the Guardian - the main character, Katniss, relies on her bow and arrow to survive, and apparently, especially in the US, uptake of archery amongst young people has shot up - no pun intended. (Mind you, we have to be grateful that We need to talk about Kevin hasn't had a similar influence.) The question in the article was asked, of course, in the context of the Olympics - it was one of the US archery team who trained the actress playing Katniss.

I'm never sure how long these kind of effects last. The Olympics have been credited with providing better female role models, making us more likely to play sport and giving us an increased sense of Britishness, but I don't imagine any of it will last much longer now that the Games have finished. I doubt, for example, that they will have much influence on the Scottish referendum in a couple of years' time. Jonathan Douglas suggests another possible effect when he asks on the National Literacy Trust site, Will the Olympic Games inspire a nation of readers?, partly because: "the opening ceremony featured a fabulous children’s literature mash-up. It was wonderful to see stories for children at the heart of the celebration of our nation." Again, it would be nice to think so, but it seems a long shot to me (no pun intended again, it just comes naturally). Finally, We love this book has a piece by Sarah J Maas on kick-ass heroines, such as Katniss, in which she concludes that "the rest of the world is finally waking up to the idea that girls can be in these lead roles, that they can save the day and don’t need to wear a sexy, half-unzipped leotard to do it." Maybe not quite in tune with the Olympian role-model idea, because some of the female athletes do indeed wear sexy leotards, but anything - books, sport or whatever else - which might make girls think that they can aspire to more than being a skinny model is surely a good thing?

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Picture book Apps - literature or technology

With the development of touch screen technology for phones and tablets, Apps aimed at young children have been developed which perform a function similar to picture books, but in an animated electronic mode. There are book apps based on existing print works and more recently the cross pollination has worked in the opposite direction, with App first publications being taken up by print publishers and turned into hard copy. Children's author Moira Butterfield posted on the Picture Book Den blog on the necessity for greater collaboration between children's authors and "techies" to combine the creativity of both camps in bringing the best picture book apps to todays readers. See also the Guardian 30 July 2012.

(Guest post by Alison Forde)