Hartland Writer Offers Adventurous Kids’ Book
Author Sarah Stewart Taylor, of Hartland, collaborated with illustrator Katherine Roy on the book The Expeditioners after they met at the Center for Cartoon Studies. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Sarah Stewart Taylor and her son, Judson Dunne, 7, in their backyard in Hartland. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
“It’s funny how a book develops,” said Sarah Stewart Taylor, the author of mysteries featuring art historian and detective Sweeney St. George, a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart and now, writing as S.S. Taylor, her first book for children, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon (McSweeney’s McMullens).
Incorporating such classic elements of children’s book literature as orphaned children, treasure maps and undiscovered realms, The Expeditioners also belongs to the current crop of novels with a dystopian vision of an America in the not-so-distant future: it’s still recognizable as this country but tweaked enough in ways small and large to be slightly disorienting, and so a formidable and exciting place in which to set out on an adventure.
Taylor, who also teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies, is sitting at a small table in the Tuckerbox Cafe in White River Junction where, as a regular, she is greeted familiarly by people wandering through. Taylor, who has three children ages 2 and 1/2 to 7 with her husband and former Vermont state representative, Matt Dunne, had long thought about writing a book for kids but just hadn’t quite gotten around to doing it.
The inspiration for The Expeditioners came partially, she recalled, from a trip she made when she was in high school to the Havasupai reservation in the Grand Canyon. “It was an incredibly magical place,” she said, describing the blue pools of water (from which the Havasupai took their name: the Blue Water People), the multihued canyon walls and the deep caves that she explored with her parents and younger brother. While hiking, she said, there was a flash flood and they had to climb quickly up out of the canyon to escape it.
What struck her about the bottom of the canyon, she said, was that “anything could be down there. It was magical, remote and it fired my imagination.”
Now some 25 years later, that time in the Grand Canyon has wound its way into her novel. Without giving away spoilers, let’s say that canyons, rivers and the legend of El Dorado, the mythic city of gold, play important roles in the story of the three West children: the two boys, Kit and Zander, and the youngest child and only daughter, M.K., who follow an enigmatic map left them by their explorer father Alexander West, who is missing and presumed dead.
Why do the West children have only one half of the map? Why does the map seem to make no sense? And why is the monolithic Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands prepared to go to almost any lengths to get it?
This isn’t an Old Glory, apple pie and motherhood U.S. of A. The agents from the Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands might remind you of the Stasi or J. Edgar Hoover on a really bad day. “I wanted it to feel very bureaucratic, I wanted it to feel very dictatorial. This is a government going toward fascism,” Taylor said.
In an America where the electronic infrastructure has failed, the machines of the past have become the machines of the future and there’s an international race to find and exploit what’s left of the earth’s natural resources. “Without wanting to be heavy-handed about it,” Taylor said, “if we keep going farther and farther to explore these resources, where will it end up?” The book is a blend of Treasure Island and the steampunk genre of science fiction, which depicts a post-apocalyptic future that relies on the industry of the 19th and early 20th century. As such, The Expeditioners may seem far removed from Taylor’s four New England mysteries, which take place in the present day, and her history of Amelia Earhart. Except that it’s not, really.
“People will say, this seems like an odd career departure, but I always liked writing about ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances ... and that’s what mysteries are,” Taylor said.
And it’s just a hop, skip and jump from the derring-do of Amelia Earhart to the fantasy of both exploring unknown lands and discovering new species of flora and fauna that the West children are able to live out in The Expeditioners.
Asked if she would or could have written this book before having children, Taylor thought for a moment. Yes, she said, she would have written something for kids, but it probably would have been very different. “The book was enriched by my expanded reading in this genre,” she said. “I’ve read so much great kids’ literature. It’s so interesting to see what they respond to, or what they don’t. You know right away if a kid is responding.”
Her own children didn’t serve as a test audience, but she did show drafts of the book to other kids, including two boys from the Upper Valley who were frank in the way only kids can be frank. This is great! This is boring! I don’t get it! “They gave me the greatest feedback,” Taylor said.
Now Taylor is about to begin reading the book to her own kids, and she’s found, as have most other parents, that that what strikes adults as potentially alarming or harmful material is rarely regarded in the same way by children. Adults can forget how eagerly they once looked forward to reading books in which it was easy to believe in six impossible things before breakfast. Children are at once more sophisticated and fearless than adults imagine them to be.
“They’re ready for so much more than you think they’re ready for. Things you think are scary interest them. They’re excited by idea of being orphaned, being on your own, being in danger, having bad guys chasing you,” Taylor observed. “They need to explore those ideas and those experiences.”
∎ Sarah Stewart Taylor will sign copies of The Expeditioners at a Holiday Open House from 5 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Center for Cartoon Studies at 46 South Main Street. Also signing books and drawings will be Harry Bliss, Jon Chad, James Kochalka, Katherine Roy and James Sturm. For information, go to www.teachingcomics.org.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.