Barrowmaze Cover Art!

Kiltedyaksman over at Discourse & Dragons has just done the ‘reveal’ on his latest publication, so now I can show off the cover art I did:

The publication is ‘The Barrowmaze,” an old school dungeon filled with loads of creepy shit and monsters.
I also did a lot of illustrations for the interior in black and white, including pictures of various foolhardy adventurers about to get their comeuppance and several new monsters. No final word on release date, but the details of printing are being worked out right now so it should hit the boards any day now — head on over to the Yaksman’s and buy two copies! (one for the game table and one for the coffee table)

Sadly, before too long this and all the rest of the artwork gets packed up and shipped to Canada to decorate the domicile of the author. Glad it’s finding a good home but (sniff) they grow up and leave the nest so soon!


Are “bad books” good for young brains?

I put the poster from the movie in here because, unless I miss my guess, over half the kids assigned to read the book will have watched the DVD instead.

There is a big flap here in Michigan about whether or not high school students in advanced placement English in the Plymouth/Cantor School district should be allowed to read books like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”  Apparently some members of the local Tea Party in Plymouth have seized upon the issue as emblematic of “what is wrong with America” and want Morrison’s “Beloved” out of the schools.  “Beloved” apparently has some salty language and some racy scenes, including rape, incest, bestiality, etc., but it is apparently set in the time when Americans owned slaves so I would argue that it can’t all be rainbows and unicorns or “Gone with the Wind.”

The controversy got me thinking about some of the books I read in high school that really interested me and helped turn me into a life-long reader.  I was in an ‘advanced’ reading group in high school and many of the books I remember best were ones that challenged me in terms of the content.  I made a list of some of my favorites from high school that I am now promising myself I will pick up again.  I think if I still remember a book so many years after having read it, it is probably worth reading again.

Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: This book blew my mind, not only due to all the sex and violence (of which there was plenty), but also because of the ‘Nadsat’ language (look it up).  Yes, there was rape, lots of drug use, lots and lots of violence, etc., but there was a point to all of that ‘bad’ content and even as a teenager I understood that Burgess wasn’t really encouraging us to want to be like Alex and his ‘droogies.’ I was told that when the movie version was released in 1971, it was given an X rating.

The Tenants by Bernard Malmud: Racism, violence, sex and mutually assured destruction follow when two very different writers (one, a liberal educated Jew, the other a militant and angry black nationalist) become friends after they discover that they are neighbors in this story. I remember that the level of hate that the two principle characters developed for the other was the most frightening thing of the book.  The two men are both sleeping with the same woman and there is lots of ‘hate speech,’ sex, bad language, drug use, drinking, etc.  It ends with one of the principles getting castrated and the other one getting killed.  I just found out that it was made into a film starring Snoop Dogg, but the film was only screened once.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Yeah, I don’t think it should be controversial either, but there is (if I remember right) some sex and betrayal, drug use and suicide.  Plus the the main character in the book, eventually rejects everything that his society stands for and becomes a traitor and an outcast.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Sex, violence, insanity, more violence, more sex, sex while aliens are watching, masturbation, pornography, infidelity, a picture of a woman fucking a pony, lust, etc., are all in this book so I guess it belongs on the moral majority’s “this ought to be banned” list. It was one weird (and interesting) book — the film does not do it justice (but gets good marks for effort IMO). Definitely in my “Books you MUST read.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: I still can’t believe we read this book in high school.  Yes, it is a book about a child molester that tells the story from his point of view (put it in the ‘disturbing but meant to be that way’ category).  The book has great literary merit and reading it will not turn you into a child molester. Goes on the ‘Must read’ list.

Johnny got his Gun by Dalton Trumbo: The main character is a deaf, dumb and blind quadruple amputee war veteran without a face who survived an exploding artillery shell and now lays in his hospital bed thinking about the events that led to his current condition.  When a nurse finally figures out that the amputee is attempting to communicate by tapping his head against his pillow, his communication with the world outside his own skull is briefly re-established.  The patient wants to be allowed to die, but when the doctors don’t allow that, he asks to be shown to the public so they can see the true horrors of war.  It was written between the two World Wars and is perhaps the most disturbing book of fiction I have ever read.


The Day Job

A while ago I started a new job helping tutoring students in remedial reading at a Metro-Detroit high school.   I don’t work for the school itself; I work for a not-for-profit that has been running reading programs in the Detroit area for a few years now and has recently added a high school to the list of K-8 schools they serve.  Working in a high school is a new experience for this organization, and I am a part of the experiment.  At this point, though, I’ve spent more time at the school than at the not-for-profit and the majority of my dealings have been with the students and the teachers at the school; I identify more with the school than the not-for-profit that I work for.

The building where I work is a beautiful late 19th/early 20th American translation on the neoclassical Italian villa (see picture) with yellow brick and limestone.  Unfortunately, the area surrounding it has been ravaged by neglect — there are more vacant lots than houses, and, of the houses that remain, many are abandoned ruins.  Forty years ago, this was a solidly middle-class area, with a mix of elaborate and more modest wood-frame and brick houses and small businesses.  Then Detroit changed; the whites moved in droves to the other side of eight mile, the manufacturing jobs left the area, tax revenues dried up, stores closed or moved to the suburban malls and this is what is left.  Our school has between400 and 500 students.  Of those, only 3 are not African-American.  According to the city of Detroit, only 4 students in my school do not qualify for the free lunch program (so over 99% of our students live at or below what the state defines as the “poverty level”).  According to my co-workers, many of the students come from homes where there is not enough heat or food; one of the big motivations for attendance is lunch and a warm, safe place to spend the day.

When the students arrive in the morning, they have to pass through metal detectors and have their bags inspected by security guards.  The interior of the school is extremely shabby — broken windows patched with tape, crumbling plaster, leaking roofs, peeling paint, etc., are commonplace.  Perhaps the cash-strapped school district has held off on maintenance because next year the students at this school will be combined with another school and they will be going to a new school building that is under construction right now.   However, education, money, politics, corruption and tax issues have been  conspiring together for so long in Detroit that most of the teachers and coaches at the school I talk to seem skeptical of the promises that the city has been making for so long.  And these students are caught in this endless cycle: they are poor because they are badly educated and they are badly educated because they are poor.

I am impressed by most of the teachers I have met; they seem to accept the facts of the situation and have not all given up.  But the political climate in Detroit and Michigan does not look good for them.  In every election cycle, the teacher’s unions come under fire for the abuses and excesses of some of their members and many Detroiters seem to accept the idea that if a few people at a few Detroit schools are corrupt or lazy, well, then they must all be and the only way to “solve” the problem is to punish everyone for the sins of the few.  And this seems to result in telling the schools, again and again, that they have to do more with less every year.  After decades of this, the schools are, in some ways, barely functional… a result that seems to surprise no one who actually works there.

My organization has a small classroom with 4-5 tutors in it.  These tutors each work with as many students as we can in a day, spending an hour with each student for one-on-one training.  We work with magnetic letter-boards that have letters and word parts (including common letter combinations like “ing,” “sh,” “ch,” “pro,” ect.) and try to illustrate the principles of how words are composed of parts, that the letter “e” makes a different sound in different words, etc., and then we usually do some reading together.  Most of my students are boys and most of them are in the 11th grade, but they read at around a 7th – 8th grade level.  From working with them, I can tell that these kids are not stupid, they have just never been properly taught the basics of reading and probably have never spent any time reading outside of school.  In contrast, in my own childhood I was constantly inspired to read and given books.  I suspect that being raised in homes where books are always available and someone is reading stories to the very young children every night is the difference.  I want to believe that it is never too late, but trying to help a teenager gain the skills that he or she should have gained seven or eight years earlier is hard work for both the student and the tutor.

One of the biggest problems for my students seems to be reading comprehension.  We will sit down to read a short chapter of 800 – 1000 words written at a 7th grade level, and, after we are done, I will ask the student to ‘sum it up in your own words.’  One of the chapters is about Leonidas and the Spartans fighting the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae.  The students will usually say that the chapter was about the Spartans fighting someone, but won’t be able to tell me much beyond that.  If  the student has seen the movie, “The 300,” they will do a little better at the summary, but most of the students are working so hard at actually reading the words aloud (and trying to work out unfamiliar words like ‘Thermopylae’), that extracting the bigger picture of the story contained in the words slips away.  All of them seem to have good memories (i.e.: if I ask them what they read they day before, they will remember it), and some details always seem to stick in their minds (i.e.: in one story about an Egyptian scribe who conspires to rob the tomb of a king, the scribe mentions wrapping rags around the end of a stick to make an improvised torch to light his way and every student seems to remember that bit, perhaps because it is a very specific image that they can easily imagine doing), but the greater meaning of a story is not caught by the unskilled reader.  From talking and working with the students, I know that remembering a story is not beyond their ability; the problem seems to be extracting the story from the text as they go along.  I suspect that a) the task of reading is harder for these students, so they put most of the ‘processing power’ into that, and, b) reading and understanding are two related tasks — these students have been taught the rudiments of reading, but understanding written texts is more than just correctly identifying a series of words on the page and these students have never been taught how to do that.  And this makes me worry about how these kids will be able to fill out a job application or read a contract (tasks that I, with my university education, sometimes find hard).

I suspect that there was a time that semi-literate people could have found good jobs in manufacturing, but those times are gone. When there were more manufacturing jobs in the Detroit area, the schools in these areas of the East Side were better funded and the kids who were going to work the line at GM or Ford got a better education… even though they probably didn’t need to be able to read and comprehend the story of the Battle of Thermopylae to get that manufacturing job.  These days a high school diploma is unlikely to get you anything other than a minimum wage; to get one of the few manufacturing jobs that are left, you are likely going to need at least a two-year post secondary degree… but now that education has become more important in getting a job, there are fewer means by which these kids can get the education that they need to get that job.  So they are falling further and further behind.


Another shameless bit of self promotion…

I did some art a little while ago for Chaotic Henchmen Productions; the adventure is not out yet but a preview is up here.  Anyway, here is the image: a party of dungeoneers about to get reamed by some morlocks and their pet lizard…

And this is what it looks like on the cover:


Update

I haven’t spent much time on the blog (or even on the computer), so I’ve been out of touch with the whole online thing.  I’ve finished my 2nd week at the new job (which has taken a lot out of me — there is a lot of stuff to learn) and I have been working on some private commissions (some of which are due today, so, J., if you are reading this, they are almost done and you should have scans in your inbox by tonight).

Someone wrote to tell me that my Etsy store is empty, which reminds me of one of the rather annoying things about Etsy.  If you put stuff in the store and it doesn’t sell, the listing expires and it disappears. I don’t regret Etsy’s need to charge sellers a listing fee, but I wish they would send me a notice telling me that my listings are about to expire so I can renew them.  The only way I find out that my listings have expired is if someone writes to me to tell me the store is empty or I check the store myself (and one of the reasons I use Etsy is because I don’t have the time to manage an online store right now).  Maybe Etsy does send notices but they get snagged by my spam filter. (BTW, I renewed the current listings in the store to the tune of 0.20 cents each… which erodes my profit margin even more (frown). When things slow down I hope to list new stuff in the store, but putting in the original listings take a lot of time since I need to enter all sorts of info, provide scans, etc., and I don’t have much time right now).

Scuttlebut is that A) Wizards is working on a 5th edition of D&D and B) Wizards is doing a limited run reprint of first edition books.  I know this is something that a lot of people are very excited about, but I don’t see how it will have much impact on me or my interests.


C. A. Smith’s “Ultimate Weird Tales”

I had today (Monday) off because of Reverend MLK’s birthday (observed).  Unfortunately, I have a touch of flu I picked up from my co-workers (thanks!) and felt like crap.  I got some drawing done in the morning, but definitely felt off my game. After walking the dogs for about 45 minutes, I had to go back to bed.

About the only good thing that happened is I found a huge collection of 133 C.A. Smith stories for the e-reader at $1.99 via Amazon.

I’ve also been enjoying this online collection of C.A.S’s artworks.

"Lemurian Ghost" by C.A. Smith


Good News / Bad News

The good news is that I have a new job working for a not-for-profit that helps young adults with literacy. Since reading has really enriched my own life, I welcome the chance to try to share my love of books with others.  In addition, I have a number of art commissions keeping me busy in my free time.

The bad news is that this means that I will not be posting much to this site for the foreseeable future.  Maybe that is ‘good news’ if you think the blog is stupid or lame (but, then, why you would read it remains a mystery).  It is bad news for me because I enjoy writing the blog and reading other people’s stuff, but such is life.

One of the recent things I have been doing some artwork for is “The Barrowmaze” which is being authored by kiltedyaksman of Discourse and Dragons.  This is a HUGE old school dungeon with custom monsters and many deadly encounter areas — the perfect place to test the mettle of your old school dungeoncrawlers.  I don’t know if he has announced a release date yet, but it will be soon.  As of right now, he has more than a dozen illustrations from me and a few other artists (including Toren Atkinson, Zhu, and  Trevor Hammond, so I feel like I am in great company). Kiltedyaksman is going out of his way to make a nice product; I’m pleased to have been asked to participate.  Here are a few sneak peeks at some of the artwork I provided: