After an early-morning game of Mafia, we set off for the Central Park Zoo. Why the zoo? Our book of the day is Black Wings Beating, by Alex London, a fantasy set in a world where everything – commerce, religion, entertainment, language, warfare – centers around birds of prey. We had arranged for a “birds of prey” tour at the zoo. However, it turned out to be a “bird of prey” tour, as they only have one bird of prey, a beautiful Eurasian Eagle Owl. Our tour guides, Elaine and Ira, took us around the rest of the zoo and gave us insider information about other birds, and other animals, which was very interesting. But I think we were all a little disappointed, not to mention HOT!
So, lunch in the cool Thalia Cafe followed by Choice: quiet reading, writing, or drawing in the Cafe or games in the Sharp, until it was time to welcome our guest author, Alex London.
Black Wings Beating is Alex’s twenty-fifth published book! And it’s the first of a trilogy. He knew he wanted to be a writer since he was about eleven. He urged the campers to take their own dreams seriously. Over the years, he has written non-fiction, realistic fiction, realistic military fiction, dystopian futuristic fiction, crazy and silly fantasy, and now serious fantasy – with a particular goal. He wanted to upend the expected tropes of traditional fantasy writing: the straight white male with a big sword killing monsters and other things in his way. As he said, he wanted to create “queer” fantasy; in other words, the opposite of the usual characters and plot line. That led him to birds of prey. The only way to gain mastery over birds of prey is with patience, gentleness, attention, care, and love, none of which traits are normally associated with conquering heroes. The result: Black Wings Beating.
Alex also shared with us that, whatever genre he is creating, his favorite thing is world building. In fantasy, he told us, you start with a fantastical fact, e.g. there are wizards among us and their kids attend a wizarding boarding school. He asked the campers to dream up a fantastical fact upon which to start building a world. As a group, the campers created a world where rich people can hire priests who work for a demon to read the minds of poor people and, thus, gain power over them in social, emotional and economic ways. The campers asked questions and added information and we soon had a complex society whose story could go in many directions.
Then campers worked individually or in groups to come up with their own fantastical fact and world. We had a world where all the gods had killed one another and, with their deaths, the resources they controlled disappeared, leaving the world barren and the inhabitants ravenous scavengers. There was another where wearing clothes was considered scandalous and body-shaming was unknown. In another, people walked unknowingly into an area of rundown shacks and came out with a random magical power that they were completely surprised by. The fantastic fact of this group of campers is that they have INCREDIBLE imaginations!
As earth time ticked inexorably toward 4:00, we sadly ended our thrilling visit with Alex by having him read the first paragraph of the next book in the trilogy, sign our books, receive the “Rise Together” pins he brought for us, and take a group picture. We were left with a million ideas for writing, as well as insights into the books we read.
A very different world awaits us tomorrow when we delve into Spill Zone during our visit with Scott Westerfeld.