02 August 2013

COOL BOOK: Innocence is Still Possible

My childhood reading was almost entirely of the magical or historical sort.  The Oz books by L. Frank Baum were a mainstay as was a wonderfully old copy of Bullfinch's Mythology.

Narnia, Middle Earth, Pern, Earthsea . . . all came much later.  For me the universe of imagination was filled with early 20th-century and ancient classic mythologies.  Too young to hear the sly wit and irony within Baum's writing or see the androgynous, sexualized undertones of Neill's illustrations, and too unknowing about adult ways to think Zeus' carrying off of nymphs or Circe's entrapment of Odysseus and his men to be anything but an adventure story, I was fortunate to grow up truly innocent of heart.

Now, as Dante put it at the beginning of his Divine Comedy, "midway through the course my life", when the "dark wood" is the complexity of adulthood and the onslaught of 21st century informationage, it is less easy to retain one's innocence or find it in storytelling.  Angst, personal and global horrors, war, and violence in all manner of relationships, individual, collective, political, and whatnot, fill our many-formatted screens, our reading matter, and our lives.  We bewail the loss of innocence yet so often do nothing to foster its existence.

So I was surprised and delighted to come across artist/writer/illustrator Ursula Vernon a few months ago. The Wikipedia link just noted refers to her as a creator of web comics and children's books.  I first came upon her as none of these things.  I'd read a quote of hers somewhere which impressed me with its casual, tossed-off tone and fiercely tender insight, and which, I am embarrassed to say, I cannot now recall.  She intrigued me and I wanted to know more about this person - only to find she is quite the person, possessing a full range of wit, talent, curiosity, and humor.

Vernon describes herself on her deviantART page as a "painter and a children's book author." She is very much more than that -- human, sarcastic, fierce, whimsical, funny (really funny) -- but this post is not intended as an hagiographic advertisement.  You can 'discover' her for yourself at these various online locations:

I just want to natter on a bit about a book she published in 2008. It's called Nurk. It took me all of an hour to read the other morning and left me all hug-myself-happy and charmed.  A book that can do that simple thing is a good book indeed. Happy and charmed: a neat little pair of emotions with which to begin a day.

 Nurk. Book Cover. (c) Copyright by Ursula Vernon. Used by permission.

I've read many children's books and, as I began this post noting, many notable works of imaginative fiction.  And I am a rather angry reader as a rule.  That is, it doesn't take much for a book to lose my interest or respect.  As a former English teacher and theater major, and current information professional
(specializing in text analysis and classification) and an online librarian (specializing in research methods and building critical thinking skills), I cannot help but see the cracks in the scenery, the clunkiness of labored prose, the behind the scenes machinations of the making of a story. I've been known to throw a book to the wall (violently) when something about it irks me on any one of many levels.

Such levels encompass
  • diction that is lame, awkward, stiff, off, sing-songy precious, contrived, out-of-sync with the characters, era, setting, etc.;
  • sentences that are grammatically incorrect or overwrought in construction;
  • cliched phrasing or imagery;
  • humor that bludgeons a reader with its See, am I not hilarious? tone;
  • ditto for cultural or historical references that are positioned to show authorial cleverness rather than serve the story;
  • a tendency to tell rather than show; 
  • dialogue that reads like the author is signalling screenplay (that is, she's aiming for the big bucks - which is fine - but in the process loses sight of the need to craft a quality work in the medium at hand);
  • bad dialogue in general; 
  • messy, tossed-off illustrations;
  • illustrations that distract from the story rather than enhance it;
  • bad typeface/font that makes it hard to read and, therefore, distracts from the thing being read; 
  • poor paper quality, if print, poor formatting/layout/background, if online;
  • etc. (that is, I could go on and on). 
It takes a really good writer to get past my wall of critical defenses. (And I am not saying this is the right way to read. I would love to be able to lose myself in any book I pick up, but me being me, it just isn't possible.)

 Vernon at a book signing event.
Image source/credit

So . . . Nurk.

"Nurk is a quiet homebody of a shrew. But when a mysterious plea for help arrives in the mail, he invokes the spirit of his fearless warrior-shrew grandmother, Surka, and sets off to find the sender." [from Vernon's page on Nurk] 

 Nurk. Illustration. (c) Copyright by Ursula Vernon. Used by permission.

Immediately upon reading the first page, my hackles twitched.  I could hear hobbit and hitchhiker's guide and all manner of many coy literary allusions. But something Vernon does, and does very well, managed to deflect my inner critic.  She has the ability to make it all look and feel quite effortless.  

Of course, the book seems to say, of course you are going to think of Bilbo Baggins when you read of a tiny little homebody shrew who loves all manner of food and comforts and whose legendary grandmother, the hero Surka, echoes Bilbo's mother, Belladonna Took, "the 'remarkable' ninth child, and eldest daughter, of the Old Took and his wife Adamanta." Stories about heroes, even those about tiny hobbits or even tinier shrews, should echo each other. That sensibility of hero as an historic constant is why we love these stories in the first place. 

Nurk. (c) Copyright by Ursula Vernon. Used by permission.
[One of the preliminary works that inspired the story.]

What Vernon does is reduce the Great Hero Drama to the matter-of-fact, wee universe of shrews, dragonflies, and mushrooms. And does so in a way that rekindles the emotions of what it is to be heroic via very small and simple actions.  Nurk, unlike Mr. Baggins, has suffered tragedy, and his existence as a small mammal in a large world of predators makes timidity a logical act of self preservation. Yet within this timid heart is an heroic longing to do something grand. And this grand act begins as the momentous decision to return a mis-delivered letter.

 Nurk. Illustration. (c) Copyright by Ursula Vernon. Used by permission.

I cannot tell much more of the tale without giving it way altogether, so I will let you explore it yourself.  But I can say much about Vernon's writing style, which is simultaneously simplistic in presentation and slightly tilted. Her humor is sly and modern.  On the one hand there is a kind of knowing wink towards the reader about these little funny creatures and their small worries and greater fears, while at the same time there is a genuine affection for them all, even the villainous mole.  There is a breezy flow to her storytelling. And although one pretty much knows all will be be well, it's not a given.  What tickled me is that I found I really was in suspense about not just how it would end, but how it all would play out.

 Nurk. (c) Copyright by Ursula Vernon. Used by permission. 
[One of the preliminary works created during the writing of the book.]

I haven't read a "kid's book" that had me actually caring about "things" since I was, well, a kid! 

The illustrations are a delight as well.  Inked in black on a flat white background, the line of her art is strong and easy in appearance.  Whimsy abounds while cutesy is avoided (though cute isn't).  The creatures in this world are familiar and, in the case of the dragonflies, also very much not.  Vernon's sense of humor in relation to the representation of animals manifests the absurd blended with the deeply funny, even tender. And all are terrifically and confidently executed. 

Ursula Vernon
Image source/credit
It must needs be mentioned that while Vernon refers to herself as a children's book author and illustrator, she is a great deal more.  Her genre is not herself. She is, in all the best ways, an Explorer who adventures out into imagined places and reports like a proper anthropologist. 

WikiFUR writes this about her: "Ursula's work uses a range of styles, sometimes realistic, sometimes humorous and cute. One of her recurring themes is Gearworld, a world that juxtaposes the organic and the inorganic. Gearworld is a recurring theme in the work of Ursula Vernon. It is typified by eroded concrete, iron, gears, and the melding of organic and inorganic - Steam pipe tree, for instance, or fish that live in glass tubes bolted to the walls. Gearworld is vast and changeable - the normal rules of the world do not apply consistently, or in some cases at all. It is inhabited by a range of peoples, some fantastic, others mundane, all of whom remain to be explored. Ursula has created a LiveJournal that is ostensibly the translated journals of Eland, an anthropomorphic antelope who, with the help of his assistant Heinrich (a bear and a chef) and their pack mule, intends to explore this world.

In addition to several other books (see her website for more on these), Vernon has done two other things worth mentioning.  First, she and her partner Kevin  host a weekly podcast titled Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap. Each week they review a range of pre-packaged foods and then rate them. Archives and updates to the show are available at http://kuec.libsyn.com or through iTunes and Miro. 

Second, she posted a very important piece on her blog about the sexual harassment that took place at a recent Con. Titled "On Con Sexual Harassment – Being An Ally Is Freaky As Hell", she reported on something that happened and what she tried to do about it and what the folks running the Con did in positive response.  Her post set off an extended conversation in many venues.  I thank her and laud her for what she did and that she made it all public.

"Keeping it real" is a corny cliche, but this is just what Vernon does.  She reminds me of another Ursula who is noted for her realness and her bravery and deep imagination in writing, in opinionating, and in world-making: Ursula K. Le Guin. Their respective works are, in many ways, quite different, but in their quality of imagination and excellence of expression and execution, they are very much alike.  

Seasock. (c) Copyright by Ursula Vernon. Used by permission.

UPDATE: And a  nice exchange with Ms. Vernon!




  1. Very nice. I really like old children's books and even though our youngest is 34 one may still catch me reading a children's book, even the new ones.

  2. I think you'd enjoy NURK . . . it harkens back to the fun kind of kids' books - not the more modern type in which the authors are more interested in being clever or 'teaching a lesson.'


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