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Writing a World to Explore

Friday, September 26, 2014
When readers pick up S.S. Taylor’s latest book, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair, she has a few goals in mind for them: To be engaged, to have fun and to sympathize with the characters.

But her greatest goal is the same for Taylor as an author and a reader: To experience falling into another world.

In this second novel of The Expeditioners series, readers follow the three West kids as they attempt to unlock the secrets of a mysterious map left for them by their father, a legendary explorer who is missing and presumed dead.

The map takes them to a famously unexplored section of the Caribbean. Many before them have tried to discover what treasures and secrets lie in the deep trench known as King Triton’s Lair, and many have died in their attempts.

Kit, M.K. and Zander West do not know why their father wants them to risk their lives below the ocean’s waves, but they know they have to try.

Taylor was inspired to write about kid explorers while researching the script for a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart, the American aviation pioneer. While the adventurous woman provided plenty of material on independence, persistence and courage, it was the childhood nickname of Earhart’s husband, George P. Putnam, that set off Taylor’s imagination.

Known as “the boy explorer,” Putnam led Arctic expeditions in 1926 and 1927 and a trek to Greenland in 1925, experiences still relevant to kids today, Taylor said.

“Kids are so curious and so interested in going out and being able to discover things for themselves,” Taylor said.

In her own childhood, Taylor read a lot of books that inspired her to explore the woods and mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, notably the works of Jules Verne, and such titles as Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson. Taylor’s father grew up in Plainfield, and each summer, Taylor’s family would leave behind their Long Island home and live in the Upper Valley.

Now, Taylor is raising her own three children in the same area that she fell in love with as a kid.

“I feel like the Upper Valley is in me,” Taylor said.

In creating the world of The Expeditioners, Taylor made sure to include some of the places that were so special and pivotal to her childhood explorations.

The West kids attend the Academy for Exploratory Sciences in the White Mountains, a location Taylor chose in order to situate the students in a landscape that would train them to feel at home in the wilderness, while still being close to New York City, the capital of Exploration.

“I suppose I could have chosen the Adirondacks, but there’s something about the White Mountains,” Taylor said. “They’re vast and remote and you really get the sense of being away from everything.”

The first installment of the series, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon , was released in 2012. Taylor said she was happy with the reviews and reception, but the most gratifying part was the honor of being a part of her reader’s lives.

“It is such a privilege to be there in the years when kids are really learning how fun reading can be,” Taylor said. “Even if a kid isn’t the hardest worker in their writing class, if you can get them reading a book they’re excited about you have such a chance to get them hooked on books and literature.”

After a stint as a staff writer at the Valley News, Taylor spent most of the 2000s writing a four-book mystery series for adults, books published under the name Sarah Stewart Taylor. Making the switch to children’s literature was both challenging and natural for Taylor.

“One of the things that made me want to write for kids was reading to my own,” said Taylor, who has three young children. “It brought me back to the books I read as a kid and got my mind moving in that direction.”

But as ingrained as the children’s stories were, writing for children turned out to be no less difficult than writing for grownups.

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” Taylor said. “It’s not easy at all. It’s fun, but just as hard as writing for adults.”

Just because she writes for kids does not mean she can write down to them or leave the characters and text flat, she said.

Taylor tries to remember what it was like to be a kid and what was important to her then, she said.

For The Expeditioners, she tries to bring in her personal love of travel and maps, a fascination

that started at age 10. In the book, the West kids follow maps made by their father. In her youth, Taylor spent many hours studying maps, which piqued her interest in different parts of the world.

“I try to bring that lure of travel and discovery to the books through the maps,” Taylor said. “I want the kids who read the books to experience the feeling of discovering something for the first time.”

But Taylor did not create the visual world of The Expeditioners alone, she said. Illustrator Katherine Roy played a vital part in telling the story.

Roy was able to take Taylor’s ideas about the post-computer, steam-powered world of The Expeditioners and create versions that rival Taylor’s own imagination, she said.

Roy also has an Upper Valley connection. It was during Roy’s courses at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, that the two originally met. Roy graduated from the cartoon school in 2010 and now lives in New York City.

The books have a Steampunk flavor with the characters using “SteamCycles,” “airships” and “IronSteeds” for travel. Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam powered machinery. Authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne inspired the genre.

In The Expeditioners, oil never took off as the predominant source of energy.

Roy was able to incorporate the Steampunk sub-theme into the illustrations subtly, Taylor said, which is just what she wanted.

“She brought in the Steampunk feel in a not-overwhelming way,” Taylor. “The art still feels old-fashioned, and that balance is great.”

The children in The Expeditioners are growing up in a world with a lot of conflict between countries. While some of the story lines might sound like they’re mimicking current events, they are all loosely based on historical conflicts, Taylor said.

“I did a lot of reading on both World Wars and the Cold War,” Taylor said. “I am interested in how country lines are drawn during and after conflict, and I tried to bring that into the books.”

Taylor hopes to explore the effects of colonization on native populations throughout the rest of the series, which will include four more books.

Ultimately, Taylor hopes her readers are inspired to get outside and do some exploring on their own, she said.

“I had some really fun adventures as a kid that were key moments in my development,” Taylor said. “Kids lead such structured and protected lives and even a little time in the outdoors can be so valuable.”

Stephanie Reighart is a freelance writer. She can be reached at sreighart@gmail.com.




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