The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder
This article is one in a series linking art and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).
Bending Time, The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder by Charles and Elisheba Johnson, Booktrope, 2014.
Young Charles Johnson was a lot like Emery Jones, a whiz kid who loves creative play. A serious student aspiring to become a writer, the teenaged Charles’s play was drawing cartoons. He became so skilled at it that as an undergraduate journalism major at the University of Southern Illinois, he had his own drawing show on PBS, "Charlie’s Pad."
Unlike Emery, Charles’s childhood hobby was not a trajectory to his main career. Johnson became a celebrated author and philosopher who received the National Book Award for fiction in 1990 for his historical novel, Middle Passage, and the MacArthur Award in 1998 for his overall “genius.”
Johnson sketched intermittently over the years but Bending Time is his first, major illustration project since his formative years. His illustrations for the book grew from an intense burst of deadline-driven creative energy during the summer, after the book’s original illustrator dropped out of the project.
We know Emery Jones. Some of us are Emery. Dropping him into the hero role for the elementary school set may very well up the street cred for science geeks of a darker hue. Computer science code monkeys and hackers enjoy a special mystique now that digital technology drives most our lives from the moment we open our eyes. But scientist/inventors command an even greater respect − we depend on those brilliant dreamers to dismantle, reconfigure and design so we can live and play better. We are ever fascinated by how they create.
Brought to you by the father-daughter team of Charles Johnson and Elisheba Johnson, Bending Time is the first release in a planned series called The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder. Emery, who rocks a 188 IQ, is the fifth grader model of the genius prototype. “Boy Wonder” carries Robin's (Batman’s young sidekick) superhero punch. But sticking the word “science” in the series title will attract young readers who, while they may not suit up in white shirt, sneakers and rep tie, do quite willingly duck down the rabbit hole of scientific inquiry en route to almost anywhere. The story’s narrator, a careful, hearing-impaired, pigtailed girl nicknamed Gabby (“because that’s who [she’s] not”—at least in public), who checks our hero when he gets full of himself. Although the Johnsons sometime take her character’s voice to its boundaries (“But scientists dream like poets. Like philosophers. Like Emery”), Gabby gets the book’s best lines and does most of the trash talking. The two met cute in the hallway in fourth grade, and became fast front-row-of-the-class friends. Bending Time is told as a flashback.
In a guest entry on Elisheba’s blog, “Curating a Life,” Charles Johnson plainly says, “Everyone can understand a picture.” Johnson père’s genial, elastic and comical illustrations have their roots in his love of visual storytelling. Visual artist Elisheba Johnson, former owner of the popular Seattle multi-use arts space Faire Gallery Café, is executive and community liaison for the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. Connected through visual art, story and family (Elisheba’s son is named Emery Charles Spearman), the Emery Jones series is truly a labor of love.
The Johnsons acknowledge the influence of Ronald L. Mallett’s memoir, Time Traveler (written with Bruce Henderson). A professor of theoretical physics at University of Connecticut at Storrs, Mallett’s extensive research and work with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity have led him to conclude that time travel is possible. Exceed the speed of light—et voilà!—go backwards in time. Mallett proposes a time machine that would warp space-time by using lasers. Bending Time takes Mallett’s hypothesis through a fictional trial-and-error adventure.
It’s a good adventure, built as solidly as Emery’s rhyme-spitting robot, Cal. Bending Time is adept at teaching about how STEM, the Triassic period, present and future connect, and how compassion is something we actually can learn at school. The Johnsons’ geeky, class- and black-coded language lands with a soft smile ("Ideas weren't physical at all. Wasn't that magic, then? Nothing becoming something?") or, occasionally, a clank (Moms Mabley Elementary School). Bullying still involves snatching a book bag and dumping its contents, but the act is updated by the co-conspirator’s video of the act, uploaded to the Internet. The bullies’ names, Toughie, Pookie and Chippy, telegraph the boys’ rough edges. And the body awareness of a ten-year-old runs through the story, keeping the reader aware of those smells and excretions that are ripe for ridicule well into adolescence.
The book’s publisher, Booktrope, veers away from a traditional approach to publishing. Booktrope creates a team: a group of partners with the expertise required to publish an e-book, audiobook or physical book (made from trees). The team collaborates with the author to get the job done and market the product.
With the ascendency of the STEM nerd and computer geek, Emery is well placed to take a seat at the cafeteria table. Bullies are getting their comeuppance (and, more important, counseling). But the cool kids haven’t lost their luster, and we’ll avidly watch the next installments to see how they’re handled by the Johnsons.
Wizards & Robots Graphic Novel Next for Will.i.am
STEAM enthusiast, style setter, hip hop’s Black Eyed Peas front man and activist Will.i.am has partnered with electronics juggernaut Intel as “director of creative innovation.” He and Intel futurist Brian David Johnson are collaborating on a graphic novel. The “Wizards and Robots” project employs math and sciences, creating a reality that leads readers to view history and the future in a different way. The two presented the project at NY Comic Con in October 2013. Well over a hundred thousand comics, manga, anime and pop culture fans and impresarios flocked to Gotham City for panels, cosplay (costume play), guest appearances, screenings and what-all. “Looking for instances of the future today to learn from,” the duo will appear at MacWorld/iWorld in San Francisco in spring 2014.
On the Southern Side
Onyxcon, an Atlanta-based organization of African American, sci fi and fantasy illustrators, hosts workshops, conferences, art exhibits, community discussions throughout the year. Onyxcon producer Joseph R Wheeler III has served up the geek pantheon since 2009 and these folks have a good time. Guests such as Tananarive Due, Sheree Renee Thomas, Steven Barnes and N Steven Harris bring their latest speculative, sci fi, fantasy and futuristic work to enthusiastic fangirls and fanboys. The OnyxCon V exhibition and convention was held in August 2013 in Atlanta. The next Onyxcon Sankofa, a family event, is scheduled for March 1, 2014.
Toni Wynn is IRAAA contributing writer on all things STEAM (STEM + Art).
More on Ronald Mallet and Charles Johnson family: