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Keith McGowan

Letters from Abroad: The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children Giveaway

Where has the time gone? This is the last letter from abroad (Vienna, Austria, to be exact). I didn’t really get a chance to talk about my book, but you can read about it on my website. [Hint: the first line is I love children. Eating them, that is.] I leave you with a small anecdote: I once asked my high school physics class in South Central Los Angeles, for extra credit, what they thought Einstein meant by his famous quote: Imagination is more important than knowledge.

And one student, Maria Reyes, wrote: A child has a lot of imagination but very little knowledge, so maybe Einstein meant that the way a child thinks is very important. Maria always was brilliant and she convinced me right there of her point. One way to rephrase Einstein’s quote is: Think like a child.

It’s time for The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children giveaway! Maybe it will bring out the child in you, or perhaps copies will end wrapped up for kids themselves (so they know what to do if they ever meet the witch who eats children!). Whatever path each may take, one thing I’m sure of is it will be an unexpected one.

Signing off from abroad… Sincerely, Keith McGowan

[Postscript:  To win, simply comment (once]

Letters from Abroad: Brought To You By The Letters K and M, and the number 40

[Photo today from Letters from Abroad is Herr Fiaker, a statue commemorating a beloved carriage driver, located a few minutes from where this blog is being written in Vienna, Austria.]

It has been 40 years…

Can a four- or five-year-old be touched by the finest techniques of literature, music, and fine arts? Yes, absolutely, and the people below knew this so well.

Once upon a time (1969), the stars aligned: there was a lot of money to research educating children via TV (before the show began it was heavily researched); there was a publicly funded television station willing to put educational programs on air, so that children could watch the show without being bombarded by ads (the show is brought to you instead by the letter C and the number 8); and there were a group of incredibly creative people who decided to dedicate themselves to teaching children, and reaching them through every artistic technique out there: comedy, theater, narrative, puppeteering, terrific music, art and drawing.

And out came Sesame Street, which, I think, reached us all in the US before we could even write.

[Thankfully, once the stars aligned, Sesame Street never went away.]

Letters from Abroad: Interview with Professor Kelly Joyce (Part 2)

We continue our Letters from Abroad interview with Professor Kelly Joyce—an old friend and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known—currently a program director at the National Science Foundation, normally a sociology prof specializing in scientific, medical, and technological issues at The College of William & Mary.  She explores in the real world what science fiction explores through fiction: follows the introduction of technology and how it is adapted into society. Perhaps books in her field explore ideas that can be applied to science fiction, and vice versa. Okay, let’s get right into the interview. [Note: Some of the interview refers to her recent book on MRI technology, Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency.] Part 1 of the interview, on MRI, Dr. House, and diagnostic dogs, is here.

Q. You study technology and the aging. Can you tell us about that?

A. Recently, I took up the issue of technogenarians. That is, I looked at how old people actively use and shape technologies that may or may not have been designed with older bodies and abilities in mind. Meika Loe and I are the co-editors of Technogenarians: Studying Health and Illness through an Aging, Science, and Technology Lens, which will be published in 2010 by Wiley-Blackwell Publishers.

In this project we also challenge the stereotype that old people are technologically illiterate and show how they creatively adjust or invent technologies to fit varied needs. The book will take a look at the rise of gerontechnologies.

Companies and academic centers are busy creating new technologies to augment changes in bodies that might occur as we age. In business worlds, people are well aware of the aging populations in Canada and the U.S, and want to capitalize on these markets.

[Prof Joyce answers questions on technogenarians and the concept of the ]

Letters from Abroad: Interview with Professor Kelly Joyce (Part 1)

I bring you now on Letters from Abroad a special two-part interview with Professor Kelly Joyce—an old friend and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known—currently a program director at the National Science Foundation, normally a sociology prof specializing in scientific, medical, and technological issues at The College of William & Mary. Egghead alert! Egghead alert! She explores in the real world what science fiction explores through fiction: follows the introduction of technology and how it is adapted into society. Let’s skip the intro and get right into the interview. [Note: Some of the interview refers to her recent book on MRI technology, Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency.]

Q. I love your stuff on sniffing dogs and diagnosing illnesses by smell, not sight/images (such as MRI, X-Ray, etc). Who are these diagnostic dogs?

A. The diagnostic dogs reported in the medical literature range from people’s pets to highly trained dogs. In one article, a women’s dog kept sniffing at the same spot on her leg until she sought out medical advice for this spot. The diagnosis was melanoma. Subsequently, lab researchers have begun investigating whether various cancers have an identifiable smell, and if so, if dogs’ sniffing abilities could be used to identify these diseases. If successful, such dogs could be transformed into diagnostic technologies—a new kind of working dog.

[More on Diagnostic Dogs, and Professor Joyce answers questions about MRI scans, Dr. House, and scientific machines as a human product]

Letters from Abroad: Sociology and History of Science

(Letters from Abroad is back with the original photo, the Witch of the Danube Canal.)

Science fiction explores science’s relationship with humanity.

A book may follow a certain technology from its invention through its inclusion into society, typically with unexpected results. A special trait of an alien civilization may affect the way that civilization uses tech. Books like His Master’s Voice by Lem stay with the scientists themselves, their disputes, the limit of the scientific method. Rivalries between scientists, the misuse of technology and science (see: Atom Bomb), these are all the obsessions of certain science fiction.

[Articles on nanoscience and technology R&D vs. green chemistry R&D, and ending the nature vs. nurture debate]

Letters from Abroad: Recommendations

I am often asked for recommendations for books for kids who enjoy my own book. Especially for nine- and ten-year-olds and avid reader eight-year-olds. It’s surprisingly a bit hard to find books for this reading level, a time when the children are already prepared for fairly rich content but aren’t quite ready for all those great books written for fifth grade and beyond. Well, obviously there is a lot of great stuff out there.

I thought parents reading might be interested in this short list of books. Possibly your child has read most of these but missed one:  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (an old book but still exciting for many kids, this is the “wilderness survival” story for kids), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (tell them it’s better than the Depp movie), The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert O’Brien. For slightly older kids who enjoyed Joey PigzaThe Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, I recommend the Joey Pigza books, they are favorites of mine, starting with  Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Joey has a serious type of attention deficit disorder and you have to love him and the challenges he faces, written with humour and with real insight. (As his parents and grandmother are flawed, there is a dysfunctional family element to these books too, handled with humanity.)

Goggle Eyes by Anne Fine is a really great, intelligent, non-sentimental book about a girl trying to live with a new stepparent. Although its strong British setting may require the right frame of mind from the child reader. I sometimes also mention Black Beauty for a reader who can manage the challenging 19th century language. It was a favorite of mine when I was young. It is probably at least a middle school book, though, young adult, unlike the others I mention here. Finally, I am sure everyone here remembers The Wizard of Earthsea!

Keith McGowan is the debut author of The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, which was named an “inspired recommendation for children” by independent bookstores nationwide. He is published by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Company.

Letters from Abroad: Two More Hugely Influential Fantasy Authors

In a previous Letters from Abroad, I wrote about Dr. Seuss and his connection to science fiction. Read it here. I wanted to talk about two other authors that sit at the nexus of children’s books and sff, in this case fantasy. Namely, the Brothers Grimm. The Brothers Grimm are, to make an analogy, something like an early literary species that evolved into both branches of literature, fantasy and children’s books.

And it’s possible they have reached more children even than Dr. Seuss if only because Dr. Seuss, beloved so much by native English speakers, is very hard to translate. While the folktales told by the Brothers Grimm have been translated, I am sure, into almost every language on Earth and read by children (or to children) everywhere. Although whose stories spoke to you more when you were young, that would be a different measure.

“Little Red Riding Hood” (the actual title in German is “Rotkäppchen”, which translates more accurately as “Little Red Cap”), “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Bremen Town Musicians,” and “Cinderella” (called “Aschenputtel” in German, we often forget that the cinder part of Cinderella is meant literally as the cinders in the fireplace which she sleeps besides and which cover her—in German, Aschen for ashes), all are stories written down by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

[Discussion of Hansel and Gretel and the Grimm folktales]

Letters from Abroad: Illustrator Yoko Tanaka

One thing science fiction and fantasy and children’s literature have in common is a very strong fine arts, illustration component. I wanted to write today, then, about what it is like, as an author, to have one’s novel illustrated, and also to talk about illustrator Yoko Tanaka.

Collaboration is very central to children’s books. An author like me doesn’t work alone—no, I take that back, I do work alone (see below). What I mean is that my debut novel (The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children) is the creation of two minds: the words mine; the illustrations—and although it is a novel, with chapters, it has quite a lot of illustrations—are drawn by Yoko Tanaka.

[More on illustrator Yoko Tanaka and illustrations in children]

Letters from Abroad: Doctor Who?

I’m going to have a little fun today with Letters from Abroad and throw out a literary idea from left field. (Our photo today for Letters from Abroad is Herr Fiaker, a statue I pass on my walks commemorating a beloved carriage driver.)

I want to look at an author—incredibly influential, fantastically talented, one with deep insight into humanity—whom I never would have thought of as connected to science fiction or fantasy until I conceived these blogs. I don’t think anyone here would think of the name of this author either. This author is arguably as influential as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Bram Stoker, and others in that vein.

I was pondering science fiction, fantasy, and children’s books on one of my long walks, and it occurred to me there was a link not normally considered. An author whose voice we all heard telling us stories when we hardly understood the world beyond the steps of our family’s apartment, or the yard outside of our house—which seemed so large at the time, and so unknown.

[Doctor Who? No, Dr. Seu…]

Letters from Abroad: The Golden Compass & The Ruby in the Smoke

I am rereading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

Actually, the book I am reading is titled Northern Lights, the original UK title. Here in Vienna, where I am blogging from, almost all the English books at libraries and bookstores are UK editions. (Note today we have a photo of a street sign a few blocks from where this blog is being written. Bratislava is one hour away). 

So I wanted to say a little about Northern Lights/Golden Compass, specifically, to mention a lesser known book by Pullman that I always saw as closely related to his incredibly successful (and awesome) Northern Lights. It is called The Ruby in the Smoke and was published ten years previous. 

[Roots of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, plus the Billie Piper connection]

Letters from Abroad: READ THAT BOOK, OR ELSE?

[Intro to the first Letters from Abroad: Thanks, Megan! I was thrilled to receive the invitation to blog as a guest author at and have been working on a short series of blogs that I hope will interest you all. Since my first book (The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children) is for younger children, my blog posts will include thoughts on writing for children and how sci-fi and fantasy relate to children’s books for 3rd to 5th graders. But I also hope to bring you a few interesting posts that simply relate to my varied scientific and sci-fi/fantasy interests,  and some interviews too. Also, a book giveaway! Note: The Witch of the Danube Canal (photo right) is graffiti art from downtown Vienna, Austria, where I am blogging now.] So, onwards with the first letter!

I must write first about this New York Times article on whether middle school students should each read their own book in class—a book they choose—and then discuss all the books they are reading, or if they should all read the same book—chosen by the teacher—and discuss the single book.

Now, before we leap to one side of the argument, there are things to be said for both sides. Maybe the most important thing to remember is that each teacher should be allowed to develop his or her own style and if they can pull off a good lesson, then great.

Still, I must say something about this crazy reading workshop style of teaching English literature where each student reads a book they pick themselves.

[Pick your own book in class or read a classic?]

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