Last year, with my wife and co-author Robin Page, I packed camping gear, computers, cameras, drawing pads, books, and lots of trail mix in a VW camper. We took our 11-year-old son out of school and set off on a long-planned 12 months of travel (‘sabbatical’ sounds so much more professional than ‘year-long road trip’). The plan was to explore the U.S. and Canada for six months, then visit a few other parts of the world in the second part of the trip. We would home school Jamie. And think, talk,and write about children’s books. We spent almost six months on the road, driving more than 20,000 miles (I try not to contemplate that carbon footprint) and listening to something like 700 hours of audio books.
We cut our trip short due to parental health issues — such is life. Still, the trip was an amazing experience. The best part was being able to spend so much time with a curious, engaged, but almost-teenage child who would normally be preoccupied with school, friends, and soccer, just as Robin and I would normally be preoccupied with work, housekeeping, etc. By design, we explored both cities and wilderness (at least what’s left of it).
In college, I had a design professor who was my first — and best — mentor. I worked for his urban planning firm full-time in the summers and part-time during the school year. Much of the work involved figuring out the best places for homes, parks, paths, and roads on land that was to be developed. I remember him telling me that the most interesting spaces were at the edges — the place where a meadow meets a wood, or where flat land meets a hill. Often, these are the places where one finds the most diverse flora and fauna, and where the landscape possesses a certain kind of energy (I know this last bit has a new-age ring to it — something I wouldn’t normally indulge in — but it’s appropriate in this case).
In retrospect, we gravitated toward interfaces — edges — as we traveled. Not necessarily consciously, but unmistakably. We had the luxury of having no real itinerary, so we could stay in a place as long as we found it intriguing and leave when we stopped being interested. When we found ourselves in homogeneous environments, whether geological, ethnic, political, or some other flavor of vanilla, we usually moved on quickly.
The cities we found most vital — Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Miami, New Orleans — are cities in which distinctly different cultures collide and interact. The most fascinating natural environments — the coast of British Columbia; Mount Rainier, where an alpine volcano emerges from a temperate rain forest; the intersection of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains (I live in one of these places, and can walk from 300-million-year-old horizontal sea floor sediments to the upthrust basalt of the Rockies, 230 million years younger, in five minutes); the coasts of Nova Scotia and Maine; the mountains and desert of Big Bend National Park — all feature the dramatic juxtaposition of very different physical environments.
This is the place in my narrative where I take a leap. But that’s what’s great about blogs — they can be places to test an idea, to think out loud. The consequences of leaping into empty space aren’t as dire as in the world of ink-on-paper.
Somehow, this idea of edges feels like a metaphor applicable to children’s non-fiction books (I say “books” rather than “writing” because I’m thinking of the visual as well as the verbal). Scientific or historical information presented in a homogeneous way — as a encyclopedic collection of facts and data, or a linear chronological narrative — is invariably monotonous and boring.
When information is presented at the interface of two or more ways of thinking or seeing, things get interesting.
Here are a few examples, pulled literally at random from the work of I.N.K. authors:
Ant, Ant, an Insect Chant
By April Pulley Sayre
(Irresistibly rhythmic entomology)
Under the Snow
By Melissa Stewart
(Zoology seen from a unique and unexpected point of view)
An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
By Jim Murphy
(History at the intersection of science, sociology, journalism, and personal memoir, among other things).