May 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Creation of Mary’s Monster | A Conversation with Lita Judge

Cover of a 1902 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Almost 20 years ago, I discovered a stack of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in my classroom. I came late to the novel, having read it just a few years earlier in graduate school, struck by the depths of the work and the horrific ways in which popular culture has reduced the Creature to simplicity. Soon, Frankenstein was a staple in 9th grade Honors English.

Teaching the novel remains one of my happiest memories of classroom life. Mary Shelley gave us so much to think about, so many parts of life to upend, to unearth, to examine closely. Our conversations about this early 19th-century novel, written by a teenager just a few years older than the students before me, centered far more on our own lives in the embryonic edges of the 21st century.

The happy memories of these deep and important conversations came back to me last November when I first held a copy of Lita Judge’s Mary’s Monster (Roaring Brook/Macmillan; Gr 8 Up) in my hand. Flying home from the National Council of Teachers of English conference, I read it cover-to-cover. When I finished reading it and the back matter, I started the book all over again. Despite my familiarity with Frankenstein, there were layers and layers to Judge’s multi-genre—or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say genre-defying?—work that I had missed.

To explore those layers, what follows is a conversation with Judge, the author and illustrator of Mary’s Monster. When responding to Frankenstein, my students gravitated toward representing their understanding in multiple modalities. Some drew, while others analyzed representations of Frankenstein’s Creature in pop culture. Some wrote their own science fiction, while others researched stem cell research or the impact of absentee fathers on children. The content of Mary Shelley’s creative work necessitated a multimodal response. Reading Mary’s Monster is also a multimodal, multi-genre experience. Writing about it should be, too. Throughout this article, use the hyperlinks to explore additional material.

Questions for Lita Judge

Mary’s Monster begins with an Introduction in your voice, a Prologue in the Creature’s, and then Mary’s voice appears. In the novel Frankenstein, three different narrators tell their own story, Robert Walton, the ship captain who discovers Victor Frankenstein wandering in the northern polar regions, Victor, and the Creature. Did you set up your book to parallel Shelley’s structure? How did you balance giving voice to Mary, the Creature, and yourself?

I did want to parallel Mary Shelley’s text. Novels previous to Frankenstein were mostly didactic and written in the third person. Shelley’s use of multiple first person accounts was an innovation. I wanted to honor her originality by telling her story with two voices: hers and her Creature’s. I also wanted to acknowledge the revolutionary nature of her work. She wrote a novel about creating life from death. But her own act of creativity resulted in the “birth” of a Creature that almost everyone has heard of, 200 years after its inception. It was another reason for giving the Creature a voice in this text. The poetry and art is where I found my voice. So many versions of Frankenstein have been told, so much misinformation about Shelley has been formed. Getting back to what I felt was the truth of her story, was a way of giving myself a voice as a writer and artist.

In Frankenstein, the Creature learns what it is to be human by watching the DeLacey family. By looking through a slit in the cottage wall, the Creature learns about religion, morality, and most importantly, relationships, family, and love. Your book opens with Shelley’s 1812 trip to Scotland, and her “Second Birth” with the Baxter family. Do you think that her time in the Baxter’s seaside cottage was pivotal in her own understanding of family, as well as her Creature’s?

I do. Shelley’s mother died 10 days after Mary was born. Her stepmother was a foul-tempered, abusive woman. Mary felt betrayed when her father sided with his new wife and agreed to send Mary away. Like the Creature she felt rejected. But she found love and kindness within the Baxter’s home, which was pivotal to her well-being. She also found Scotland to be a land of legend and lore that filled her imagination. I think the happiness she felt while staying in the Baxter’s home gave her a strength that fueled her imaginative mind. And the belief that she could become a writer grew from that experience.

Frankenstein draws upon a range of literary motifs and genres. In some ways, it reads like one of Ann Radcliff’s  gothic novels. The Creature comes alive on “a dreary night in November” while “the rain pattered dismally against the panes.” In contrast, Shelley also quotes contemporary Romantic poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Ultimately, she also creates something entirely new: the modern science fiction novel. On your webpage, you refer to the book as both historical fiction and fictionalized biography. In your multimodal Mary’s Monster time line, you say that you intended to create something new, like Shelley. How do you define the genre(s) you are working with in Mary’s Monster? How do you draw on your work as a picture book illustrator and the form of the graphic novel to create this new form of a visual novel or novel-length picture book?

My book is part biography—some illustrations show what happened in her life—but it is also part fantasy, because it reveals the interior workings of Shelley’s imaginative life and unveils how her imagination was evolving. Through her journals and writing, I felt I could understand her well enough to explore this. The illustrations of her interior, imaginative world were important to telling her full truth.

This is also fully illustrated, but not a graphic novel where the action of the story is illustrated in a series of cells. I didn’t feel a graphic novel could pull readers into the haunting inner workings of Shelley’s mind. The inherent white space around the illustrations would have broken the spell. My book is told through poems and full-bleed illustrations on each spread. Like a picture book, it is a dance between words and art, in which each medium takes a turn at telling the story and the two become inseparable.

Throughout your novel, as you discuss in your video “The Making of Mary’s Monster and demonstrate in your gallery of sketches, you are working with emotional and psychological contrasts:  light and dark, real and imagined, joy and pain, reality and madness. How do your black-and-white watercolor images connect to and contrast with James Whale’s iconic, if inaccurate, 1931 movie?

James Whale’s movie retained many of the plot aspects of her story, but transformed her Creature into a lumbering lobotomized version. He physically altered the Creature, forever changing the image of what we have in our mind. He focused on the horror and lost the deep layers of social criticism. I wanted to get back to the Creature Mary created. I also wanted readers to be very aware of the remarkable teenager behind that Creature. Originally, Shelley was forced to publish her work anonymously because she was a woman. In creating my illustrations, I show the Creature swirling around her. She is at the center of the illustrations with him. She is painted in solid black and white, while illustrations of him are distorted and muted. I am literally pointing to the girl, reminding readers who created this iconic monster, and hopefully prompting them to pause and consider what she was saying through her story, and why.

While conceptualizing, researching, writing, and illustrating this novel, you fought a debilitating autoimmune disease. You don’t shy away from Shelley’s physical and psychological agony. Mary’s Monster has a birth motif throughout. She buries several children, and gives life to her fictional Creature. You share Shelley’s ruminations on her own birth, and her mother’s death as a result. How has your perspective about her been shaped by your health challenges?

I had reread an annotated version of Frankenstein during the two-year period that my illness forced me to stay in bed. Unable to work, or have full use of my hands, or walk, I faced a lot of isolation, so the Creature’s story spoke to me. But I was even more drawn to understand the teenage girl behind the story. I had a million questions about how someone so young could have wisdom enough to write a novel so ahead of its time. When I found that Shelley kept a journal I immediately searched to find a copy. In those volumes, I found inspiration to gather the strength and resilience I needed for my own recovery. Shelley survived and overcame unbelievable sorrow, isolation, cruelty, and obstacles, in order to create her work. When I started reading her journals, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to gain remission and work again. I was fortunate that we eventually found the treatment to make that possible. It felt like my own rebirth to resume my life. And it felt as if the author had been with me every step of the way. Her life and work had fueled my imagination during a very dark time. Once I could work, I felt a debt of gratitude toward her. I also wanted others, especially young woman, to know of this remarkable girl.

When rereading Frankenstein, I was once again struck by Shelley’s brilliance. To write this novel, she had to know so much about contemporary science, alchemy, and the history of science, literature, and religion. I’m astounded when I remind myself that she was still a teenager, without benefit of a university education. What lingers with you, after living with Shelley for so many years, about Shelley’s brilliance?

What lingers was her ability to grasp the cutting edge of scientific research of her day, to understand the complexity of the social and political world around her, and to distill that into a story that was relevant and deeply poignant to her time, but remains relevant 200 years later. Shelley was able to grasp the broad ramifications of what tyrannical power, unjust wars, slavery, and neglect of the poor were doing to repress society. She was also grappling with the ethical dilemmas brewing from men pushing the envelope of scientific advancement. She believed we needed to weigh our ambitions with the needs of people. In a time when men prevented most women from being properly educated, she dared to learn and understand, and to challenge their actions. I guess I am in awe of her courage as well as the brilliance she had to turn her contempt for the corrupt and ugly world she was witnessing into a story that was so relevant it remains a touchstone today.

We are living through the “Me, Too” moment right now. Throughout her life, Mary was abused by her father and her husband. In your Author’s Note, you state that “[it] may be difficult for readers of Mary’s story to understand why she continually made the choice to stay in what any modern person would deem to have been an extremely abusive relationship.” What do you hope 21st-century teenage readers take away from the novel?

Shelley’s life, strength, and resilience have been a constant inspiration to me. In my own life, I’ve faced abuse. I stayed far too long in a relationship that was physically and emotionally abusive when I was young because I wasn’t secure enough in my own value as a human being to walk away. Then I walked away from a career (geology) because I didn’t know how to fight against the chronic sexual harassment I faced, made more extreme due to the isolation and remote nature of the work. By the time I discovered Mary Shelley, I had my own partially healed wounds from these events. But learning how Shelley continued the work of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (who was the founder of the feminist movement), and fought to change people’s beliefs—and didn’t back down when she was vilified for her actions has helped me speak out more for myself and others. I hope young readers gain this perspective as well. I hope, too, that they realize how hard women have had to work to gain equality, and are inspired to continue the work.

Teaching Mary’s Monster

Like the diversity within the pages of the Mary’s Monster, there are many roles that the book can play in classroom life. Here are some ideas:

Visual Metaphors and Motifs. As students read the novel, have them jot down where they see recurring visual images. How does Judge create metaphors with images rather than words?

Research and Creativity. Research does not always have to result in a research paper. There are so many ways to show what you have learned. Have students create a multi-genre research portfolio on a topic of their choice. After reading Mary’s Monster and watching Lita’s video  The Making of Mary’s Monster, have students research a topic of their choice and demonstrate their learning through the various genres at work in the novel: poetry, paintings, expository writing, personal narrative, mini-biographies, and/or a time line.

Paired Texts. After reading Mary’s Monster, read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What are the connections that students observe between the text and Judge’s book? Specifically, students might consider the motif of birth, absent fathers, and the quest for love and community.

Public Figures, Private Lives. After reading Mary’s Monster, students might be confused about the outward persona of Mary’s father and the reality of his private life. Can students reconcile the man who Mary Wollstonecraft married and the man who was Mary’s father? Have students consider other “thought leaders” who may put one “face” forward publicly, and another privately.

Exploring the Gothic. At the time of Frankenstein’s publication, the novel was a relatively new art form. Mary’s Monster, like Frankenstein, offers a window into some motifs of “the Gothic” in literature and art. Have students explore these connections by looking at other art produced at the time.

Me, Too. If Mary Shelley were participating in the “Me, Too” movement, what might she have to say? She didn’t have access to social media. But if she did, what might she say? Use this novel as an entry into conversations about power dynamics in romantic relationships, power dynamics in parent-child relationships, women’s choices, public shaming, and the brilliant potential of teenage girls.

Mary, Who? After reading Mary’s Monsters, have students read portions of her mother’s work and writing. To what extent has the world changed for girls and women? To what extent are we still facing many of the same challenges about which Wollstonecraft wrote?

Oversimplification. After reading Mary’s Monster, have students watch the 1931 movie. What themes do they see across both works?  To what extent do they view the 1931 movie as an oversimplification of her concept? Compare and contrast the 1931 movie with Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version.

Mary’s Monster was published by Roaring Brook Press on January 30, 2018. A teacher’s guide is also available.

Dr. Mary Ann Cappiello is a Professor of Language and Literacy in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University, chairs the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction committee, and blogs on The Classroom Bookshelf.

 

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Comments

  1. Cindi Ortiz says:

    I can’t wait to read this book. It sounds like it would also be great to pair it with The lady and her monsters : a tale of dissections, real-life Frankensteins, and the creation of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo.

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