Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, part 29: Eileen Gunn


The Pleasures of Picture Books
Eileen Gunn 

 The artist Jerry Pinkney, whose work I’ve admired for more than half a century, illustrated over a hundred books, mostly large-format, beautifully printed picture-books for youngsters. Over the years, I’ve bought, for deserving children, a small stack of these very thin books, but I’ve bought none for myself. I now have a basket-ball team’s worth of grand-nieces and -nephews, so I’ve been indulging my fondness for giant Pinkney picture-books, because, after all, they’re presents for the kids, right? Until the beginning of the pandemic, I would go to the children’s section of the University of Washington Book Store and buy pretty much whatever Jerry Pinkney books they had. In isolation, I started buying the books online, at first delivering them in person, and then, due to the onset of virus variants, holding them for later delivery. They’re big, beautiful books, and of course I couldn’t resist taking a little read. What harm could that do? Eye-tracks are invisible, I thought.

 Well, reader, it was a mistake. I’ve had a hard time giving these books up. I did give my six-year-old niece Jerry Pinkney’s recent retelling of The Little Mermaid, in which the mermaid child befriends a human girl and pines not for a handsome prince.  But I had also bought, as a companion volume, Strange Animals of the Sea, a pop-up book that Mr. Pinkney did in 1987, the heyday of pop-ups. The book is no longer in print, so it’s used. (All the pop-ups work!) I am sorry to tell you that I have delayed giving my niece that book, telling myself that pop-ups are fragile, is she old enough, blah, blah, blah. Reader, wtf? Pop-ups are the most glorious kids’ books in the world, and this Pinkney pop-up book is ideal for a six-year-old. This could be the book that inspires her to become an oceanographer like her grandfather. In fifteen-twenty years, she could be the woman who saves the oceans.


 Okay, reader, you’ve convinced me. I must give this funny, intelligent, careful child that book. I will order another copy of Strange Animals of the Sea for myself. (PS: I have just done so.)


One of the hallmarks of Mr. Pinkney’s work is the way color dominates. He uses watercolor, which  you might think of as a meepish medium, all washes and seascapes. Not in Jerry Pinkney’s hands. He builds up layers of color to convey depth and texture, and to place fine details in art that can be startlingly realistic. (Moray eels! Octopuses! Huge, open-mouthed goosefish!) The most wonderful thing about watercolor, of course, is its transparency, its ability to allow light to hit the bright white paper underneath the paint and bounce back out. If the pigment is thinly laid, this can light up the colors like gemstones. In addition, watercolor has the ability, when allowed to flow at its own direction, to offer the artist serendipity and inspiration. Jerry Pinkney has worked in watercolor all his professional life: he understands it so well, and deploys it so creatively, that much of his work just fills me with awe.

 Mr. Pinkney’s métier is fine traditional portraiture of people, animals, and animal-people, in detailed settings, in pencil and watercolor. He blocks out the overall design in pencil, and uses pencil or graphite to delineate details that express character and humor. The people and animals he draws are surprisingly real individuals, because he uses live models to set up the scenes. The illustrations often include details that enhance or expand the story, and they reward the reader who spends time exploring them.


My favorite Jerry Pinkney work is a set of four books, The Tales of Uncle Remus, retold by the estimable Julius Lester in a conversational voice much one like he’d use telling stories to his grandchildren––say, about the time Br’er Rabbit got caught in a snare trap.

“Good morning, Br’er Bear,” he sang out, merry as Santa Claus.

Br’er Bear looked all around.

“Up here!”

Br’er Bear looked up and saw Br’er Rabbit hanging upside down. “Br’er Rabbit. How you do this morning?”

“Just fine, Br’er Bear. Couldn’t be better.”

“Don’t look like it to me. What you doing up there?”

“Making a dollar a minute,” said Br’er Rabbit.

Mr. Lester’s lively retelling releases the stories from the clutch of Disney and the condescension of dialect spelling. These tales were created by Black storytellers to amuse Black people, and the drawings reflect the lives of country people in wonderfully surrealistic ways: Farmer Rabbit and his wife milking a cow, for instance, or Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, fully dressed, walking upright past a small scampering rabbit chased by an appropriately sized fox. Pinkney draws Br’er Rabbit and his friends as actual animals, not cartoons, and dresses them in realistic period dress, wearing vests and trousers, skirts and sweaters, kerchiefs and beat-up hats, clothing appropriate to the time and place and people the stories came from. Pinkney himself posed for photos wearing period costume, then drew illustrations from the photos. It would not be amiss to call the books profusely illustrated, with three complex full-color spreads and dozens of black and white pencil drawings in each volume. The dust jackets are wrap-around, full-color works of art: they would make wonderful murals. Ideally, this series should have been published in the same format as the picture books, instead of as a small trade hardcover. That would make a nice project for a billionaire who loves fantasy….


For the first half of his career, Mr. Pinkney illustrated stories that someone else was telling. Somewhere in the 1990s, though, he started telling the stories himself in his books, using few words and conveying the story almost entirely in pictures. This is very much like what he was already doing: he has often said that he saw his job as an illustrator to include adding something to the picture that wasn’t in the writing. In The Lion & the Mouse, a magnificent visual retelling of the Aesop fable about power and reciprocity, the art rules so completely that the book has dispensed with words entirely: even the dust jacket has no title or credit on the front, just on the spine. The lion, yellow and fierce, fully occupies his pages, and leafing through them is like walking in the African sun. The mouse is small and modest, but boldly seizes her share of the book, and her transition from victim to savior is accomplished without a word, just a squeak. This is a book that begs to be read out loud to a small child, and yet there are no words, just sounds. How can it be read? Just open it up: the book silently persuades you to tell the story yourself, in your own words, pointing out to your listeners all the wit in the illustrations––which, of course, is the most fun way to read books to kids. A few more of Mr. Pinkney’s books––The Grasshopper and the Ants, The Tortoise and the Hare, some of the fables––also have very little text, and detailed, hilarious illustrations. Puss in Boots has a few more words, but features the most adorable silver tabby shorthair wearing boots in all of children’s literature, and that’s a highly competitive genre niche.

 Although much of Mr. Pinckney’s work is glorious picture-books for children, he has illustrated a few classic adult novels as well. In the Seventies and Eighties, he illustrated a series of reprints of modernist literary novels for the Franklin Library, including Updike’s Rabbit, Run,  and Nabokov’s Lolita. (The drawings for Lolita are very charming Pinkney-esque pencil drawings with spot color, and perfectly SFW.) In 1991, he created ten delicate and evocative pencil-and-wash works for a new edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s masterwork Their Eyes Were Watching God.  


Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations have commanded attention since the very first book he illustrated, The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales, published in 1964, when he was just 25. A  book for young children, this early work is design-driven, with swaths of bright color and bold detail, with the design itself carrying much of the emotional weight. He was awarded a Gold Medal at the 1964 Boston Art Directors Club, I believe for the Spider illustrations, which encouraged him to become a full-time illustrator, rather than a designer, which was potentially a far more lucrative career. His continued interest in design, as he developed his personal artistic style, means that his illustrations dominate the pages in a very sophisticated way: they are interesting on both the large scale of design and the more intimate scale of illustration. His work is readily recognizable as his, and I’ve often been surprised to find it in publications far outside children’s literature.

 Re-reading Mr. Pinkney’s work has been a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, and maybe that’s why I’ve enjoyed revisiting it so much. He first came to my attention in the mid-1960s, when he was just starting to receive awards for his work. I was working part-time for my father in his Boston graphic design studio, which handled a lot of illustration then. It was a transitional time in commercial art: photography was displacing illustration, and it was getting harder for illustrators to make a living. Mr. Pinkney chose to work in traditional illustration at a time when the market for it was declining. Working in both commercial art and book illustration, he managed to make a living at it and support a growing family, and he continued to create both personal and artistic challenges for himself. He was a Black man, and he made a point of illustrating books of African tales or by African-American writers. He actively addressed Black issues and portrayed Black adults and children in much of his work, at a time when the white publishing industry considered that a very risky venture, especially in children’s books. There was a time, and it lasted into the twenty-first century, when it was a surprise to see Black characters in books telling European fairy tales. Inclusive kids’ books, like Sesame Street, featured animal characters because it was assumed (and probably a fact) that while readers were reluctant to buy kids’ books with Black protagonists, they were happy to buy books that featured talking animals. (And Mr. Pinkney, as I’ve said, can draw a very convincing community of talking animals.) Jerry Pinkney not only drew Little Red Riding Hood as a Black child, he marketed that book and many others to mainstream white audiences and became one of the most celebrated illustrators of children’s literature of the last fifty years. His most recent book, The Welcome Chair, was published in 2021, shortly before he passed away in October at the age of 81. There is a rewarding exhibit at the Normal Rockwell Museum, Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings, that offers a marvelous tour of his illustrations, including videos of Mr. Pinkney talking about his work and explaining his creative process.


I’m grateful to my nieces, and to their kids, for helping me stay in touch with Jerry Pinkney and his work over all these years, and to Ambling Along the Aqueduct for the chance to wallow in nostalgia and buy all these lovely books for myself.  Yes, I’ve stopped hoarding the copies I bought for the kids. At least thirty of the hundred-plus titles Mr. Pinkney illustrated are still in print, and can be ordered from bookstores. More than fifty are available used or new, and you can find them in pretty much every public library. Check ’em out.


Note: The links I’ve provided above were chosen because they show off the books well and may allow you to explore the interiors. I’m not necessarily endorsing the sellers.


Eileen Gunn is the author of two story collections: Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon Publications, 2004 and Hayakawa, 2007) and Questionable Practices (Small Beer Press, 2014). Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Her non-fiction has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Locus, Paradoxa, Science Fiction Eye, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and other magazines covering science fiction, technology, and culture. She is the author of The Difference Dictionary, a guide to and analysis of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine. Gunn serves on the board of directors of the Locus Foundation, which publishes the genre newsmagazine Locus, and served for 22 years on the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. After leaving the board, Gunn has served as instructor at Clarion West. 


Saturday, January 15, 2022

Can't Find My Way Home by Gwynne Garfinkle


 I'm pleased to announce the release of Can't Find My Way Home, the debut novel by Gwynne Garfinkle, in both print and e-book editions. It's available now from and other venues. 

Young actress Joanna Bergman has been guilt-ridden for four years. Her best friend Cynthia Foster died in a firebombing meant to protest a New York draft board near their college in 1971. Jo was supposed to accompany the charismatic Cyn on the night of the bombing but backed out at the last minute. Jo’s new life is complicated enough: she’s falling for her soap opera costar, the philandering Martin Yates, and trying to regain the sense of connection she lost when Cyn died. But then Cyn’s ghost appears, furious with Jo for bailing on her that fateful night and, worse, for going on living without her. As Jo tries to figure out what her friend’s ghost wants from her, she is hurled again and again back to the night of Cyn’s death. 

 Read a sample from the book.


Advance Praise

"Garfinkle catches exactly the passionate and reckless moods of the anti-Vietnam War movement among young people in those years, the deadly naiveté, delight in rebellion, and idealistic misunderstanding of where events just had to go from there…. Writing a really good ghost story is a lot harder than it looks. But Garfinkle pulls it off with élan and produces a wonderful story about lives unlived, for one reason or another, shifting perspectives, what (if anything) we owe our dead, and how we reflect each other, hold each other back, and provide the take-off for others’ sprints into maturity."
 —Suzy McKee Charnas, author of The Vampire Tapestry and The Holdfast Chronicles

"All of us have questions and regrets about things we’ve done, but Jo Bergman is literally haunted by her past. This remarkable novel kept me on tenterhooks as I watched Jo seesaw among the different lives she would have experienced had she made different decisions. Gwynne Garfinkle has nailed both the fraught nature of the 1960s and early 70s and the difficult path of a woman struggling to be her whole self despite the ghosts of her past and the challenges of her present."  — Nancy Jane Moore, author of For the Good of the Realm and The Weave

"Here is a book that took me back in the same way a ghost of her past takes Joanna back, again and again. Gwynne Garfinkle’s ghost story realistically recreates a traumatic moment in America’s past. I was more than impressed with the realism of a period that I personally lived through. Garfinkle asks the reader what would happen if you could go to a pivotal moment in your past and relive it, searching for a different outcome? Would you, could you? In the end would it make it any better? Garfinkle’s deft prose takes you on this journey with suspense and gentleness, tackling both regret and hope with equal sincerity. This book lives not only in the softer side of the horror genre, but as a work that instructs us to confront our own choices and how they irrevocably impact others. If you want a thoughtful and intriguing journey, buy this book."  —Beth Plutchak, author of Liminal Spaces



"Garfinkle (People Change) delivers a fascinating, disorienting ghost story set in the 1970s. Actor Joanna Bergman has carried shame and remorse over her friend Cynthia Foster’s death since it happened four years ago. As protestors against the Vietnam War, the duo would have done anything to stop the bloodshed—but when Cynthia and Joanna plotted to blow up a New York City draft board, Joanna backed out at the last minute. Her hesitance spared her life, and Cynthia died in the explosion. Now, the war is over, and Joanna has her first stable acting gig on the daytime soap Hope Springs Eternal and is developing feelings for her costar, Martin Yates. She’s guiltily moving on with her life, until Cynthia’s angry ghost appears to her and forces Joanna to relive that fateful night, turning over alternate choices she could have made and how things might have gone differently. The tale moves swiftly between reality and the paranormal, successfully making the reader question if Cynthia’s ghost is just a projection of Jo’s psyche or something more concrete. Fans of counterculture narratives and ghost stories will want to take a look."   —Publishers Weekly, 09/13/2021


"I am a total sucker for explorations of mid-twentieth century women’s work lives and choices, and I don’t mind a bit if the speculative element of something takes awhile to unfold, so I was absolutely the target audience for this book. Jo’s soap opera work was not something I’d really thought about before, but Garfinkle clearly did her research into the details of that field and treats it with respect but not reverence–just the right balance. Jo’s reconsideration of what was needed, what was useful, what was right, in regards to her past activism is well-situated in the ’70s–she is close enough to our own attitudes to be engaging but not unduly contemporary, and some of the questions she grapples with are still of interest today. This one is frankly feminist and takes its time with some very worthwhile questions, and it allows its humans to be human rather than insisting on Good Guys and Bad Guys. I’m so glad I got this copy."--Marissa Lingen, Novel Gazing Redux  (read the whole review here)


Monday, January 10, 2022

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, pt. 28: Arrate Hidalgo


My Mother's Year in Books
by Arrate Hidalgo

This is not my year in books, but my mother’s. And it covers not only 2021, but also 2020. Why? Because these past two years have seen a radical change in my mother’s reading habits. And if there wasn’t already enough to blame on the pandemic, this is too.

Ever since I became absorbed by fantasy and science fiction in my early teens (the former came some years before the latter), and especially as I turned twenty and discovered feminist genre fiction, my mother has regularly asked me if I would ever read anything “real” again. Anything “without aliens and robots in it.” Down-to-earth fiction. I suspect that she thought, as Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out years before, that fantasy was useless, that it would teach me nothing worth keeping in my head if I was ever to get a job. It so happens that it has allowed me to find work in my own way, but that’s another story. Back then, as now, I read sff because I love it.

She didn’t. Or she thought she didn’t. Fast forward to 2020, my parents and I, fortunately healthy, confined together in the first wave of Covid that hit Spain. My mother is running out of stuff to read. My childhood room is full of it, since this is where most of my books live (as I’m moving places all the time due to the current housing market). She comes in casually, wondering what I’m up to. And she starts pointing at books and asking me about them. They’re science fiction books.

I guess, come to think of it, she had read some sff before, but since it was translated by me she probably thought it didn’t count. Ha! It does. “New mother” by Eugene Fischer and “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon, both published in my translation in book format by Spanish press Cerbero, are two excellent ways to be lured into the genre.

The first sff book I can remember giving her was Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I thought it would be a safe bet. When I picked it up I did not put it down until I finished it. And time travel in this novel was an excuse for Butler to tell a story that otherwise did away with science fictional tropes. I was right. She also was glued to it and gave it back the day after.

I normally give my mother books to read by piles, though. She goes through them at a speed I definitely did not inherit. Anyway, next came the first sff pile I gave her: anthologies of Spanish genre authors, thinking she would appreciate the variety and short format. One was Distópicas y poshumanas, a two-volume anthology of science fiction written by Spanish women covering from the 19th century to the present day. Edited by experts Teresa López Pellisa and Lola Robles (herself an Aqueductian), and published twice in two years by different presses, it features authors known to the mainstream as classics beyond speculative writing, such as Emilia Pardo Bazán and Ángeles Vicente, who wrote Zezé, the first novel written in Spanish featuring a lesbian protagonist. The rest of the pile were volumes of the Alucinadas series, which was created in 2014 by Cristina Macía and Cristina Jurado and collects contemporary science fiction by Spanish and Latin American women. Five volumes exist to date, and especially the first two marked a milestone in the visibility of women genre authors writing in Spanish. It certainly opened up an entire world to me back when the first volume was published. A lot has changed for the better in the eight years (already!) that have passed since, and it is to be celebrated that such anthologies are no longer as necessary as before.

Next came the pile of novels written by authors that were featured in those anthologies and were therefore known to her: Uno by Nieves Delgado, La moderna Atenea by Conchi Regueiro, El informe Monteverde by Lola Robles (trans. by Lawrence Schimel as Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist for Aqueduct), and Consecuencias naturales by Elia Barceló, all of which are science fiction. Uno explores Delgado’s always favored subject of artificial intelligence, intersected by gender identity; La moderna Atenea is a partially epistolary novel, representative of Regueiro’s seamless blending of costumbrist and speculative fiction; Monteverde echoes Le Guin’s anthropological vein in a linguistic science fiction story that challenges preconceptions on disability; and Consecuencias naturales is a sharp critique and total inversion of the male hero as conqueror of space.

My mother loved them all. At this point she was already coming to terms with the fact that aliens and robots were compatible with good literature. Since then she has read more Butler, Ken Liu’s selection and translation of Chinese sf titled Planetas invisibles, Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and Le Guin’s “The Wild Girls.” But the rest of my Le Guin books are in English, so I’m planning to get her a bunch more, as well as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. Its Spanish translation, after spending many years out of print, has been recently published again– a direct result of the work done by feminist fandom collectives such as the website La nave invisible.

Speaking of out-of-print, the last book I’ve given her was Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. “Quite timely,” she commented. And how not to agree. In this Christmas-time time-travel story set in a future pandemic-ridden world, Dunworthy, the Oxford historian worried about the pupil they have sent to the Middle Ages in the middle of a new virus outbreak, comes across a flyer:

“In boldface type it said: ‘FIGHT INFLUENZA, VOTE TO SECEDE FROM THE EC.’ Underneath was a paragraph: ‘Why will you be separated from your loved ones this Christmas? Why are you forced to stay in Oxford? Why are you in danger of getting ill and dying? Because the EC allows infected foreigners to enter England, and England doesn’t have a thing to say about it. An Indian immigrant carrying a deadly virus–’ Dunworthy didn’t read the rest. He turned it over. It read, ‘A Vote for Secession is a Vote for Health. Committee for an Independent Great Britain.”

I remember perfectly well pro-Brexit party UKIP’s lies about the NHS being under pressure by refugees taking all the healthcare away from the British. The one thing Willis didn’t get right was how soon the “secession” would actually happen.

At this point I’ve stopped worrying about what to give my mother to read, whether it will be too much, too imaginative. “They’re just so imaginative” is the one thing she always says after every read. Apparently that isn’t a problem anymore.



Among other things,  Arrate Hidalgo is Associate Editor at Aqueduct Press. She is also an English to Spanish translator, an founder and organizer of a feminist sf con, and an amateur singer. Visit her website at Her translation of the Basque science fiction classic, Memories of Tomorrow, by Mayi Pelot, is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press in spring 2022 as a volume in Aqueduct's Heirloom Book series.