Full STEAM Ahead with Jen Bryant!

Full STEAM Ahead

I am a huge fan of Jen Bryant’s books. Her prolific career includes books like The Trial, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, Ringside, 1925, and many others.  I always enjoy Jen’s books because they involve a great deal of research and often take place in my home state of NJ, or surrounding states.  When I started this blog series I immediately thought of Jen and I am thrilled that she was kind enough to contribute this week’s post.

Trial book cover 2The Trial is one of my favorite books because it follows the Lindbergh baby kidnapping from the viewpoint of a teen living through the news cycle at the time.  The Lindbergh baby kidnapping has always fascinated me.  Last year, while attending the Monmouth Junior Science Symposium, I was privileged to hear a talk by Robert Ferguson, a retired crime scene investigator.  His talk, “Real Life Crime Scene Investigation vs. TV’s CSI” focused on the science behind crime scene investigation, particularly the advances that have been made over the last 75 years or so.  The case he chose to showcase was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.  I loved that I was at a science symposium and had a student turn around and whisper, “Just like in The Trial!” a few times during the talk.

That’s why I am glad that Jen Bryant decided to write about The Trial for her guest post today.  I love learning about the STEM work behind an author’s writing!

Technology & History: Telegraphs, Transatlantic flights, and a Missing Toddler.

It’s probably not the best etiquette to begin this post by quoting a previous one, but since I was never big on etiquette anyway, I’m doing just that:

“Science and literature, math and writing—I think sometimes we focus too much on the differences between these disciplines and not enough on their beautiful cohesiveness. It’s fascinating to explore how each subject overlaps and enhances the others.” (J. Khoury, 12-13-12 post)

Thank you Jessica Khoury! I couldn’t have said it any better, and Jessica provides the perfect segue into my own discussion of how science and technology literature and writing complement and enrich one another. And I’ll even take it one step further: In the writing life they are, in fact, interdependent, and in many cases, indistinguishable.

Charles LindberghWhen I write a work of historical fiction (The Trial: my novel based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, for example) the role of science, math and technology in the course of human history becomes hyper evident. When I visit schools to talk about that book, I pause in the middle of my presentation and ask the students and teachers to consider this: in 1927, LESS than one hundred years ago (which, in the course of human history, is a half-blink), no one had yet flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean. This year, 2012, we’re retiring the Space Shuttle! Putting those two things side by side should help us realize the ever-accelerating rate of technology and how it affects everything we do.) At the time that Charles Lindbergh—a shy mechanic, a “barnstorming” 25-year old pilot who was unknown to the American public—took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field and began the 3,500-plus mile flight to Paris, many people doubted it could be done. When he landed, “astonished” and sleep-deprived at Paris’s Le Bourget air field, the era of modern transportation had begun.

NYC Lindbergh parade

NYC Lindbergh parade

But so much more happened on that day and because of that flight. Transatlantic communication had recently improved, and for the first time ever, a written message could be sent across the globe, from continent to continent, in just a few minutes. (Again, stop to think that today, we can instantly email our photo, using only our phone, to China or Ecuador.) Why is this so important? What does this have to do with writing and literature? Well, for one, Charles Lindbergh became, for all intents and purposes, our first true “celebrity.” Expecting to see no one but the airfield crew upon his landing in Paris, his “astonishment” was as much because of the thousands who gathered along the runway and stormed the plane, once he’d landed. Upon his return to the U.S., huge crowds lined the sidewalks along Broadway in NYC to see him honored in a tickertape parade.

Think about that . . . . Today, we have thousands of people whom we consider “celebrities” in fields from entertainment to politics to athletics. And yet—the concept of “celebrity” itself is based on the ability to share an image and a message widely and instantaneously. No communication capacity—no sharing of image and message—no celebrity. See what I mean?

My writer’s awareness, and hopefully my readers’ awareness, of this interdependence between technology and human events deepens as the novel progresses. Lindbergh’s life changes forever on that day. His quiet mechanic’s life is exchanged for a life in the flashbulbs of reporter’s cameras and a lack of privacy that he finds deeply disturbing. He accepts a job with the government, marries the Ambassador to Mexico’s daughter, and they have a son, Charlie Junior. Craving some sort of “normal” family life (for they are, in fact, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their time), they build a weekend home in the woods of rural Hopewell, NJ, where they escape the demands of their celebrity status as often as possible.


first ransom note

first ransom note

Then, one windy night, March 1st, 1932, the Lindbergh’s nanny goes into the child’s bedroom to check on him and finds an empty crib. Between the hours of 7:30 and 10pm, someone placed a home-made wooden ladder against the side of the Lindbergh’s house, climbed into the child’s bedroom, lifted him out of the crib, put him into a sack, climbed down the ladder holding the sack, and drove off. They left the ladder, muddy footprints, and the first in series of more than a dozen ransom notes.

This is human tragedy at its most intense—and yet all of it is true. And all of it, the kidnapping and the way the criminal investigation unfolds in the months to come (I would argue,) happens because of the presence–and the lack of–technology. Lindbergh’s historic flight, his immediate and ubiquitous fame, and the hunger of the American public for news of any kind to distract them from their daily worries during the Great Depression, combine to create a media frenzy around this event. That’s one view. You can say, I think, that Lindbergh’s fame (unwelcomed and unwanted as it was) made his first-born son the target of a heinous crime.


And yet . . . it took more than two years for the local, state, and federal investigators to locate and apprehend a suspect. Today, with advanced methods of fingerprinting, chemical testing, and DNA analysis, a detective could send a stray hair from the

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

baby’s nursery floor to the crime lab in Trenton, and be knocking on the suspect’s door in less than a day. Period. End of case. But because there existed very few reliable scientific methods of doing criminal investigation at that time (especially because the crime scene was not immediately quarantined and members of the household trafficked through the room and the house for hours after the kidnapping occurred) based on physical evidence, and because no one actually SAW who climbed into that window on that windy night in 1932, this case, and the subsequent execution of the suspect Bruno R. Hauptmann, the German carpenter accused of kidnapping and murdering “Little Charlie,” continues to be the subject of fierce debate.

This is just one example of how human history and technology are enmeshed, intertwined and interdependent. I could cite dozens more, just from my own novels and biographies. As Sarah pointed out in her initial post for this blog, many of us who write or who teach writing for a living, do not consider the humanities and the sciences as separate entities; on the contrary, as we research our topics and create characters, settings, and dialogue for stories spanning the decades and centuries, we’re constantly made aware of their interdependent nature. In doing my research, I cross back and forth over innumerable imaginary boundaries between disciplines that our educational system classifies as either an art/ humanity or a science. In reality, however, these boundaries are blurry waves of light— moveable, overlapping, and often indistinguishable.




profilephotoJen Bryant writes biographies, poetry, picture books, and fiction, including the novels Pieces of Georgia and Kaleidoscope Eyes and the picture book biography A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and awarded a Caldecott Honor. Jen and Melissa have recently collaborated on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, about the self-taught African American painter who was also a wounded WWI veteran. A graduate of Gettysburg College, Jen grew up in Flemington, NJ but now lives in Pennsylvania with her family. To learn more: jenbryant.com


The Fortune of Carmen Navarro by Jen Bryant

The Fortune of Carmen Navarro by Jen Bryant is a retelling of Carmen, best know for its gorgeous opera adaptation.  I admit that my familiarity with the story is only surface-deep, so I was not sure what to expect when I picked this one up.  However, I was not disappointed!

Carmen Navarro is a high school dropout.  She works at a convenience store with her best friend and plays in a band at night.  But Carmen isn’t your typical “loser” dropout.  First of all, she is extremely talented in the musical department.  She writes songs, and her voice is like honey.  Her band, Gypsy Lovers, actually has a good chance of being discovered one of these days and she focuses all her energy on her music. Music is her passion.

Carmen is also gorgeous. As in, stops-traffic-guys-can’t-look-away-stunning beauty.  And her magnetic personality charms them even more.  Carmen doesn’t even have to try and every guy she meets is falling all over themselves to be her boyfriend.  But the relationships never last very long. They are minor dalliances on the road to fulfilling her musical passion.

When Ryan Sweeney, a cadet at the local military academy,  comes into the convenience one day for lunch with his friend Will, he is immediately smitten with Carmen. When she deigns to flirt with him, he is on cloud nine.  Suddenly, the perfect student and perfect cadet is thrown off-course.  He skips assignments, messes up his cadet squad leader duties. You know- all the symptoms of a guy in love and lust.

But this doesn’t work for Carmen.  While Ryan is cute and sweet, he starts interfering with her life.  The Gypsy Lovers have a chance at a record deal and Ryan is all.over.her. He constantly texts, calls, texts again, calls her best friend, and shows up at her job.  This is not how Carmen operates. So she tells Ryan it’s over. And that’s when the real problems start.

This is a fantastic retelling of a story that a lot of teens are not familiar with.  However, the story will seem familiar because Carmen describes a lot of over-the-top teenage whirlwind romances.  And the story is told in four viewpoints- brilliantly, I might add- so the reader doesn’t know who to support.  At the end of the book, I could agree with each character, even through I did not like the choices they might have made.  I especially love love love Carmen.  She is gutsy, not afraid to go after her dreams, and the ultimate feminist teenage girl (at least in my mind).  I know a few teen girls who would do well to emulate Carmen’s best traits!

Everything about this book is well-done.  And it’s a short book, which I love.  As a rabid reader, I love thick tomes. But they can be a turnoff for a lot of young readers.  Jen Bryant has masterfully recreated the magic of Carmen in a way that will attract middle school and high school readers.  I hope it will lead them to learn more about the classic novella and the opera, too.

Highly recommended.  (Middle school/YA)

*review copy courtesy of the publisher