Lately I’ve been engaged in a tragically fruitless project of decluttering my insane art room. This has given me the opportunity to listen to National Public Radio All. Day. Long. Listening to NPR is like listening to one’s friends, including the part where they repeat themselves, which, let’s face it, everyone does. Including the part where they repeat themselves, which, let’s face it, everyone does. Oh wait, what did I just do?
I am happy to say that it has increased my knowledge of public events very quickly. In fact, I feel quite brilliant. And just in case you haven’t had the opportunity of being similarly enriched, I will give you today’s news report as well as I remember it. Ready?
- Yemen’s government quit and has now been taken over by thousands or maybe tens of thousands of (Hrathis? Hathis?) who invaded the capital, Sanaa. The (Hrathis? Hathis?) hate America, but they either are part of al Qaeda or they hate al Qaeda, and they hate America, which is why we are pretty sure that we should make them allies. Now the U.S. embassy is working with a skeleton staff, so don’t you worry that nobody is going to answer the phone. We just don’t know if anybody is going to be able to man the drones. The (Hrathis?) are Zaidis? and are either Shias or Shiites, unlike the Iranians who are not Arabs but Persians and are mostly Shiite. Did I clear that up for you?
- Saudi Arabia’s king what’s-his-name, the one who once tenderly held George Bush’s hand as they celebrated their bromance in some flowery park, is dead, and his place has been taken by his spring chicken 79-year-old heir Prince Something-or-other. This is going to slow things down because this prince is in bad health—not AS bad as the former king, who had a “typically modest” Muslim funeral today (plaintive cry of “Allu Akbar” in background). New king promises to keep policies of old king, who was known as a reformer, a veryyyyy slowwww reformer. Saudi Arabia will not have a problem with this change because it’s got tons of cash in the bank. However, it may have a problem because now all these Saudis went to college and there aren’t enough good jobs for them. Unrest alert!
- Producer or director of some vampire play says that play is based on mythic themes like bullying. He says they only use blood three times in play because with blood, “Less is more. “ Play was first shown in Dundee. People who lived outside Dundee paid for poor people in Dundee to go to play. Rich people got stubs, poor people got experience of lifetime watching Vampire /mythical bully themed play. Also, it’s tragic that some people grow old and others (such as vampires) don’t.
4. Brain scientists dished about two brain study initiatives, one in U.S., one in Europe. The one in U.S. is stupid, the one in Europe is even more stupid. Not enough consultation with psychologists. Better to study mouse brains. FMRI machines are gimmicky, ineffective. “It’s like a magnifying glass when you need a microscope.”
5. After NY state politician Sheldon Silver is arrested for corruption charges, some guy asks about the “Three Men in a Room” system for negotiating. “Why three men? Why not a woman? What size of room is it anyway, that only fits three men?” 135journals editorial: Sheldon Silver is SO guilty.
6. Blah blah New England Patriots dumpty dum underinflated football doodly doo I have no idea why I should care about this.
Okay, considered yourselves schooled.
Writing prompt: What did you learn from the news today?
Recently, I reviewed a quirky and entertaining book called Infestation. (check out: https://135journals.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/135-journals-ya-and-kid-book-club-infestation-by-timothy-j-bradley/) This book made me realize just how much I didn’t know about huge mutant ants–a shameful knowledge gap, I know! Writing the review gave me the opportunity to communicate with Infestation’s author, and he kindly agreed to answer some questions about how he writes (and illustrates) and what inspires him. Read the interview below to learn more.
- It seems in the book as if each of the main characters has a weakness that turns into a strength. For example, the main character’s roommate’s love of blowing things up comes in handy. Is that true of all the characters? Will it show up in future books?
Yes, I tried to give each of the characters some kind of talent or interest that ended up being a benefit to the group of boys in some way. I think that people in real life are like that—we all have hobbies or interests, and it’s fun when we get a chance to put that part of our personalities to good use. In Pyro’s case, it’s probably the only time in his life that blowing things up could serve a constructive purpose! I definitely would want those character attributes showing up in future installments, and more as we find out more about them all. Right at this point in time, INFESTATION is a stand-alone adventure, although I certainly left the door open to possible future books (I’ve thought a lot about what would happen in those, and they’d be a blast to write and draw). INFESTATION has been nominated for the 2014-2015 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (I’m pretty sure it’s the only book with giant, mutant ants), which might spark some interest with a publisher.
- How did you get the idea for Infestation?
I was a big fan of monster movies when I was a kid, especially the “giant bug” films, which were made in the 1950s and 60s. When I started writing fiction, I thought it might be fun to write a story that was an updated version of one of those 1950s “creature features”. One thing I knew I had to do is to come up with a logical method for actually making a bug really huge—in real life, bugs can’t grow beyond a certain size because their muscles wouldn’t be able to move their limbs. Muscles attached to an exoskeleton aren’t as effective as muscles attached to an internal skeleton (like we have). Once I thought of a plausible way to accomplish that, the rest of the story just fell into place.
- How long does it take you to write a book, and how do you do it? Do you have a special place where you work or a special schedule?
Typically, what I’ve done is to let things percolate in my brain for a while before I actually sit down to start writing. I also spend a couple of weeks nailing down the plot and significant story events, sketching up lots of thumbnails of things from the story. Once I actually start writing, it might take 2-3 months to generate a first draft. Then I send it out to an editor, and usually do several rounds of rewriting and revising.
I have a studio at home that I use to write and draw, but I can be creative anywhere—it’s something I had to master when I worked as a freelance artist. I don’t have a set schedule—I’ve always been pretty disciplined about taking advantage of little bits of time here and there to write. I usually spend a lot of time during the day thinking about the part of the story I’m working on so that when I am able to sit down and write, I know pretty much what I want to accomplish.
- You said you liked horror movies from the 50s. Can you tell us more about that and what they were like? What interested you about them?
My favorites were the ones that at least attempted to have a thin layer of science attached to them, along with the explosions and destruction. I also really disliked if the “monster” was obviously just a guy in a rubber suit (like “The Thing From Another World”). I really liked any kind of dinosaurian-type monster (like the original “Godzilla” movie), or stop-motion animation creatures. But my all-time favorite monster movie is “THEM!”, which was about giant ants in the New Mexico desert, mutations from the original atom-bomb tests. The creatures in the movie were life-sized “robotic” ants that looked pretty good—remember that this is waaaaay before computer graphics had been invented. Not only were the creatures great, but the story was well-written and very compelling. So when I decided to do an updated version of a monster movie, I put in plenty of nods to that movie (the setting is one of them).
- Did you study bugs in high school or college? Were they a special interest for you? Are the facts about bugs in this fictional story accurate? If so, why did you think it was important to be factual in a fictional story? If they are accurate, what kind of research did you do? And was doing research fun or was it torture?
I’ve always been fascinated by bugs—they’re so different from us, yet, if you go far enough back in time, there is an ancestral creature that gave rise to both arthropods and us. I have always found that mind-blowing. Although I never studied insects in any formal way, I did do a lot of reading on my own, and I watched the bugs that lived out in my back yard when I was a kid.
The insect information in INFESTATION is accurate—I’ve always enjoyed stories where the adventure aspect is balanced with a helping of actual science information, sort of what Michael Crichton was so good at. I had written a nonfiction book called PALEO BUGS: Survival of the Creepiest, which contained information about prehistoric insects. The research I did for that book involved traveling to the London Natural History Museum, and having a paleontologist walk me through their amazing fossil insect collection. All that information helped when I was writing INFESTATION. I also read a bunch of book from my local library, and did some research on the internet. I actually find researching a book a tremendous amount of fun—I end up learning so much about a topic as I go.
- Did you also like to read when you were a kid? What are some of the books that influenced you most? What about as an adult?
I was a voracious reader when I was a kid, and I discovered many of my favorite authors at the little library in my town. The books that influenced me most were Rendezvous With Rama and 2001: a space odyssey, both by Arthur C. Clarke, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury’s collections of short stories. I still love to read as an adult—my favorite authors now would be Connie Willis and Robert Charles Wilson, as well as Michael Crichton.
- Do you have another job outside of writing, or is that your full-time job? How did you break into publishing? I know it’s a tough field!
I do actually have a full-time job—I am the in-house illustrator for Teacher Created Materials, an educational publisher in Huntington Beach, California. I write at night and on weekends, for the most part. Getting a book published is a challenge, for sure, but I think what I have in my favor is that I’m pretty disciplined about getting things done, I’m not afraid of putting my work out there (my years spent as a freelance artist made me used to doing that), and I’m pretty tenacious. I don’t give up on something easily, which is good, because it can take a long time to break in. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, and it’s been a tremendous amount of fun. Breaking in was just a matter of continually knocking on doors—sending out queries, following up, all the nuts-and-bolts that have to be done in order to get a publisher to read your work.
- If you were to offer kids advice about how to become a writer, what would you say? What helped you?
I would say to go for it, but realize that writing, (or art, or music, or any creative endeavor) is a lifelong journey. It’s more important to enjoy the work itself (and it is a tremendous amount of work), and not worry about making it big as an author. It’s a very competitive field. Patience and perseverance are essential qualities for a writer. Also, I think it helps to read a lot, and try to figure out why a particular author’s work appeals to you.
- What are some other things that fascinate you?
Anything with a high weirdness factor. Zombie ants, parallel dimensions, black holes, prehistoric animals, other planets, future spacecraft, robots…yikes, there’s a lot of stuff. It’s all great source material for the type of stories I liked as a kid, and that I write now.
10. Why do you like writing for kids?
I think I enjoy writing for kids for 2 reasons. I think there’s a part of my brain that has never matured past the age of 8, and “8 year-old Tim” still gets excited about some crazy science story in the news. The second reason is that I remember vividly how awesome it was to discover a book that really reached me. I still enjoy finding a great book as an adult, but the sense of having these huge ideas that I had never thought about leap off the pages of a good sci fi novel was a very powerful force when I was younger.
I have the third book in my “Sci Hi” series, called TIME JUMP, coming out in November [ed. note: It just came out on November 1], and I have started working on a new middle-grade, illustrated, sci fi novel called EXPEDITION, which mixes my interest in natural history with my fascination with robots. I am very excited about it—I think it’s going to be a fun read (and I can’t wait to work on the illustrations!).
(Oh, I also forgot to ask where you live, at least in a general sense, and if you have kids, and if so, if they like reading your books). Are you familiar with the Southwestern setting because you have spent time there, for instance?)
I grew up on the East Coast, north of Boston, but I currently live in Southern California (I love the sunshine and palm trees!). I have a wife and a college-age son who is interested in a lot of the things I am, which is really fun). I use both my wife (who also writes for children) and my son as “sounding boards” for my ideas. My wife is great at spotting where I need to add description or character development, and my son has a nicely warped sense of humor, which can lead to some interesting points of view. I couldn’t have accomplished the work I’ve done so far without them.
Writing Prompt: Did you get any ideas from Tim to spur your creativity? What inspires YOU?
These lovely meat eating ants are brought to you by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, via Wikimedia Commons.
And you thought YOU had problems.
Imagine you’re trapped in a boiling hot reform school with a small group of miscreant kids and one brilliant bug scientist—and that you’re surrounded by mutant ants who are bigger than you are. Hungry ants. This is what Andy Greenwood, an orphan with a penchant for running away from foster homes faces in Infestation, the first in a series of books by Timothy J. Bradley.
This summer I have read a large and varied number of young adult and kid books. Some are deep, some are fantastical, some are so irritating I wanted to throw them against the wall. Except that they were in my Kindle.
Back to Andy. Andy gets in a cafeteria food fight, and he, his roommate, Pyro (yes, he loves to blow up things), gentle Hector, Joey the Thug, and two other boys, Reilly and Shields, are sent to windowless, prisonlike, Block Six. But, just like so many things in life, sometimes bad luck turns into good luck. And good luck turns to bad luck. A giant earthquake rips through the land, freeing them (good) yet unleashing monstrous ant creatures, some of which are 8 or 9 feet tall (possibly not so good). They meet up with Dr. Gerry Medford, a young scientist who was at the school studying its then normal sized ant problem already. When the boys and Dr. Gerry meet up, they manage to hide away and brainstorm. One suspects that Timothy Bradley lovvvvvvves bugs, because he definitely did his research. Gerry explains that these mutant ants are unlike anything he has seen in nature and why. As I, too, have long been intrigued by bugs—as a little girl I would often spend long periods watching ants purposefully carrying crumbs into their small, sandy anthills—I too was fascinated by Gerry’s musings on why these ants were different. For example, I knew that ants could not be giant-sized—their exoskeletons only work on a small scale. But I wasn’t sure why. Gerry explains how muscles attach the insect’s limbs to its exoskeleton, and if the bug were human sized, the muscles wouldn’t have the strength to carry the exoskeleton’s weight. Andy also asks about how he learned so much about bugs (reading lots of books helps kids learn about a subject, shockingly). Gerry’s passion helps them come up with ideas to battle the ants, but each kid contributes. The same qualities that made each kid trouble turn out to be useful skills in this life-and-death situation.
Do they get away? What will they try—and what solutions work and don’t work? You’ll have to read this action-packed for yourself, which shouldn’t be TOO hard as it is written at a fifth grade level. But don’t be surprised if you accidentaly find yourself ingesting a bit of knowledge about the strange and magical world of ants as you follow Andy and his adventures. And watch out for book number 2!
Writing prompt: What is something you loved as a kid that turned out to be useful to you as an adult?
Caption: Random page from Alexandra’s Art Journal, using collage, paint, yarn, glitter, and way too much Mod Podge. There is actually a picture of a girl with a caption that says, “It Stays With You,” and I hoped it would get across the idea of wonder. But it actually got across the idea of Shiny.
“Will your hands EVER be a normal color again?” Mr. Me asks as I use my fingers smush watercolor paint around the borders of a great classic formerly known as College Physics, circa 1957, that I found in a free book pile at a church in Montclair, NJ. (Now it is known as College Physics As Improved By Being Alexandra’s First Art Journal). No, I am not going to tell you EXACTLY what church because first, I forget its name, and second, I don’t want anyone else getting any big ideas in case another classic of this sort gets tossed out again. This book is amazing because it is written so beautifully and in such a measured way. As it so happens, I am very interested in physics. Not in the math equations—oh snore—but the big ideas. This book was published in 1957, the same year I was gestating in my mother’s womb. It was an amazing moment in science. On October 4 of that year, I, or rather, my mother’s Baby Bump, got a new nickname. That nickname was Sputnik. The small metal globe with its spikey antennae, a device that actually orbited the earth, sending signals back. What would that mean? It meant many things over the years, but the first thing it meant was that the Soviet Union had a message for the United States: Wake. Up. Something new was about to happen. And there I was, floating in utero just as Sputnik was floating in space. So I feel a deep kinship with Sputnik and all the scientific wonders that have flowered from that moment.
Now, you may wonder, why are YOU so interested in physics, Miss Alexandra? I do believe that you got a “Mercy D” in physics, and that you were taking physics at that snotty age when you thought you were above it all, and that science and math were like, all meaningless and shallow and dorky, while you were all art and poetry and bohemian magic (and scraping through high school with more than one Mercy D and Well Deserved F to show for it—I DID perk up in college, but that’s another story). Well, as I may or may not have mentioned, I have spent most of my long career writing for children. Some people think that is an easy job—just as somehow they think preschool teachers are actually preschoolers, and that they are more concerned with naps and playing at the sand table than in the development of young children and their awareness. Well, let people think what they want. I am in no position to judge. But I have and always have had a profound respect for those who write for children and teens. Because books for kids change their lives. I promise I will write more on that subject. But I want to thank the writers of fiction and nonfiction who gave my hungry, sad young mind the good food it needed to grow, and I am trying to return the favor as an adult.
ANYWAY, as I said, I have worked in publishing for about 175 years, most of them in publishing for young people. The last full-time regular job I had was one that definitely fed my hungry adult mind—working as an editor putting together books using material from a famous encyclopaedia. It was a great job because I literally got a “encyclopaedic” knowledge of many different subjects that would not be natural for me to read. And one of them was physics.
Okay, I can see that this post is getting to be like a town with many interesting streets down which one could wander. Let me just take one path for now. Suffice it to say, I am in awe of this book and yet I am trying to treat it as roughly and experimentally as I can. I am ripping out random pages, gluing others together, making collages that may or may not come together and have meaning. I’m writing with markers, drawing with tempera, acrylic, watercolor, I’m gessoing pages white, I’m using homemade stamps, and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of this collaboration between the authors, Robert T. Beyer and A. O. Williams, Jr., both of Brown University, and my still airy bohemian but humbled, science-loving self.
Writing Prompt: Is there some subject you have respect for that you despised as a child or teen?
Of all the posts that I have written for this blog, the two most popular have been about Japanese atrocities during World War II. I wrote these posts to explain to a member of my book group why the Chinese had negative feelings toward the Japanese during the war. She was curious because we had just read the book At the Corner of Sweet and Sour, which is about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl during that time in San Francisco.
If you live in the United States, as I do, it is easy to feel shame at the role Americans took in imprisoning thousands of innocent Japanese-American civilians and residents during the war in dusty, inhumane “camps” such as Manzanar. Many Americans feel shame at the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claiming that unleashing nuclear power was unnecessary and that the war would have ended anyway. I do not share that opinion, but will debate it at a later time. However, the fact is that many innocent people were murdered by these bombs, either right at that moment or through radiation sickness. John Hershey’s Hiroshima and the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes helped to popularize the cruelty of the bombs. The behavior of the Japanese after the war—their willingness to put it behind them and become peaceable members of the world community—also helped to give them a good reputation. However, the resurgence of Japanese nationalism in recent months and Japan’s attitude toward the war, from the way it is presented in textbooks to its unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions, has, in my opinion, led Japan to become a nation lacking in the moral gravity that it should have. If it had followed the model of Germany, which has truly, deeply, and painfully struggled with its shame and its moral failings, it would be, frankly, a better country than it is now.
Today I will share just one of Japan’s more brutal war actions, the medical experiments carried on by the notorious Unit 731. This medical unit (along with others) experimented on prisoners of war, civilians, and others by infecting them with deadly diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and bubonic plague. They tested out weapons of biological warfare such as anthrax. And they committed vivisection—operating on live victims without anesthesia, removing organs or amputating limbs. Unit 731 was based in northeastern China, and was led by “mad scientist” Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, who specialized in testing germs on prisoners and in dropping infected rats and fleas on Chinese villages. According to Globalsecurity.org, “slightly less than 1,000 human autopsies apparently were carried out at Unit 731, most on victims exposed to aerosolized anthrax.”
But experiments took place in other occupied territories as well, and even at one Japanese university. The 2002 International Symposium on the Crimes of Bacteriological Warfare claims that the Japanese Army killed as many as 580,000 people through its use of human experimentation and germ warfare.
One of the few who was willing to speak out about Japan’s atrocities was a former soldier named Akira Makino. He was so ashamed that it took him ten years to marry the woman he loved, and even then, he never told her what happened. “According to an article in the Brunei Times, Makino, was so haunted by his experiences in the Philippines during the war that he could not speak about them until after his wife’s death. “It was cruel, too cruel to talk about it to a woman. My wife might have thought I was such a cruel person. That’s what was in my mind,” he said.
At the time, Makino was a beginning medic. He said his superior commanding doctor used prisoners to teach the medics about human anatomy. He said that “These were nothing but living-body experiments.” Makino said, “My captain combat-surgeon often showed us human intestines, and said this was the liver and that was that and so on” he added. Afterwards, the prisoners were thrown into pits they had been forced to dig themselves. Until his death in 2007, Makino spoke up and also went on at least ten trips to the Philippines to bring needed supplies to poor people in an attempt to apologize for what he had seen.
It could be argued that cruel and inhumane behavior such as Dr. Ishii’s should be punished in some way. Instead, Ishii and his medical team managed to bargain for their freedom f by sharing the information they learned about germ warfare for their experiments with the Allies. US microbiologist Dr. Edwin Hill wrote a report saying that the information was “absolutely invaluable”, that it “could never have been obtained in the United States because of scruples attached to experiments on humans”, and “the information was obtained fairly cheaply”.(BBC Horizon “Biology at War: A Plague in the Wind” (29 Oct. 1984).
Sources and resources:
Unit 731 – Nightmare in Manchuria (History Channel)
Biography: Shiro Ishii
Writing Prompt: If you can get valuable information in an unethical way, and the information is already available, is it worth the price of overlooking the atrocity of a few perpetrators?
I just wrote a book about matter for third graders. And even though it should have been easy, because it’s for third graders, I was amazed at what I don’t know. Like, what the relationship is between an element and an atom. And what matter actually is. And what makes a solid a solid. I haven’t heard back from the editor (and I sure hope she’s enjoying her winter holiday by NOT reading it right now), but I definitely overresearched this topic because it completely fascinated me. In fact, one of the things that fascinated me the most was the magical world of quantum physics, which I could not fit at all into the book, sad to say. Quantum physics was discovered by a number of scientists, most of whom were terrified, confused and amazed by their discovery that basically, beyond the subatomic particles we know as protons and neutrons (the particles that are the nucleus of an atom, except for the hydrogen atom, which has only a proton) or the electrons that dance around it, there is a whole other world of smaller particles—the quarks (the word comes from the writings of James Joyce), for instance, which are forever changing between waves and particles—to put it in the most simplistic terms possible.
However, that is not the purpose of this series. I just want to take this slow, and help other people, like me, who are fascinated by science, but have a lot of other things on their plate. So, my friends, the question is, What IS matter? The short answer is matter is everything in the universe that has mass (which is similar to weight but not exactly). It is everything that is made of atoms. It is your favorite socks, the gas molecules blowing through your hair, your diet coke, Jupiter, etc. Matter takes up space. Sometimes it’s dense, like iron. Sometimes it’s loosely packed, like the gases that make up our whole atmosphere. Think of climbers on Mount Everest who have to use oxygen tanks. There are many fewer atoms of oxygen and nitrogen up at that great height than there are at sea level. But they still have mass. So if anybody asks you, what’s the matter, you know what to tell them.
Writing Prompt: What are some of your favorite forms of matter? And what burning scientific questions do you have?