Markéta Baňková’s The Magpie in the Empire of Entropy

Last week saw the awarding of the annual Magnesia Litera awards for 2010 recognising excellence in Czech literature. The main award for book of the year went to the Jan Balabán for Zeptej se táty, who died only a few months after its completion at the age of just 49. Other winners included Martin Ryšavý and Josef Hrubý in prose and poetry while the literary discovery of the year went to artist and debuting author Markéta Baňková for a beautiful little book called Straka v Říši Entropie. We look at that debut in this week’s Arts.

Straka v Říši Entropie in English means The Magpie in the Empire of Entropy a small but fascinating book of modern children’s fairy tales (or fables) written by Markéta Baňková. The well-known visual artist, who graduated from Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts and specialises in New Media, wrote the fables for her children as a means of introducing them to the larger world around them, including the fascinating world of physics, from basic concepts such as Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy to simplified explanations of the most complex of theories: Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics!

Like in the classic fables of Aesop or LaFontaine, Baňková introduces the world through animals’ eyes, a hippo, monkey, gopher and magpie of the book’s title, with a great deal of humour as they grapple to understand their curious surroundings. The author came to our studio this week and asked her how tough it was to write about physics.

“Of course it wasn’t an easy task and at first I wasn’t sure I would even publish it. But I do know something about science and I wanted to share my experience with others and of course with my children. So I approached it as a layman or amateur enthusiast writing for other laymen. Maybe in a way it was good that I, as an amateur wrote for others with only a basic knowledge of physics, to introduce the physical laws in a way that is easier to understand. Basically I understand the logic of it, if not the math!”

Markéta BaňkováMarkéta Baňková What are some of the concepts in the fables?

“Some are easier, like Archimedes and others are much more difficult, like the general theory of relativity or quantum mechanics which is probably the most difficult but most exciting. So some of the fables are specifically for adults, others for children and still others for both. In the book it is described for readers which is which.”

Thematically also some of the stories are more difficult too…

“Yes. It may sound like a strange combination but I think there should be modern fairy tales, that children should know about the real world and it’s good for them to be prepared. Classical fairy tales are fairly unreal, with the princess always getting the prince and so on. In real life this can happen but it is rare. So there are some themes, which I debate in my own life with friends: love and men and dreams and relationship complications, divorce and other things. These things too can be topic for fairy tales I think.”

So on the one hand you have these fascinating areas of physics, on the other a mix of childlike but also adult themes; do you think that kids can handle it? Sometimes we give them less credit than they deserve.

Illustration from the bookIllustration from the book “When I was small I used to tell myself there were a couple things I didn’t want to forget when I grew up. Of course, I forgot many things I told myself but this I remember: not to underestimate children. Because they understand more than they let on and sometimes they purposely pretend not to understand something and so on. I thought about this when I was working on this and this book is something in between. I think children can read it…”

And perhaps not get everything right away but come back to it later?

“Yes, exactly. They don’t have to get everything, it’s more important to have fun with it. Some sentences are just for adults… I think its best for parents read it to their children. Both can enjoy it.”

You said that when you set about writing the book you thought about your daughter; you now also have a small son, but have you read any of the book to your daughter?

“She is still small so I read her only the very easiest story and she liked it. I also tried a second one, but it was too difficult. So I am going to save it for later, when she is old enough. I don’t want to spoil it: the first time you read something is the strongest impression.”

So the book is intended for say the age of ten and up?

Illustration from the bookIllustration from the book “Yes. I have gotten the most reactions from adults and this age group.”

What have been some of the reactions?

“They have generally been good, in any case this is not a book people would hate for any reason. At least I hope not.”

I was thinking more in the sense that people might still be initially surprised by the inclusion of physics, for many people physics can be ‘scary’ because they don’t understand it… but at the same time it’s also a very magical world which you tap into as well. My idea is that someone might say ‘Oh, I always though physics was something that wasn’t interesting but I see now that isn’t the case’.

“It’s true I have gotten some emails of this kind as well as people finding themselves in the stories or their spouse or so on.”

Because they are fables animals play a strong role; they are also to a strong degree the source of much of the humour. For example, a gopher attempts to ‘pay’ for drink bottles with droppings, so humour is important for you.

Illustration from the bookIllustration from the book “Well I also use humour in my other previous work, projects I’ve done. It’s not intended, it’s just the way I write. I didn’t have to use humour but I think if nothing else it makes it easier for the reader to grapple with the physics. It makes the science easier.”

You’ve had support from the Czech scientific community and generally it has been supportive, right, of your aim to make science more accessible to younger children?

“There were some at first who wondered why I should try and tackle such difficult themes but others liked it very much and were supportive.”

You are first-and-foremost a visual artist and I have to say this is a beautifully published book; those are your illustrations inside as well. Could you tell me a little about that? There are collages, some pen drawings…

“First I did the collages and I spent quite a long time working on those to find the right look. The text was the most important but as an artist I wanted the book to be visually nice. I wanted it to be a book I’d want to own. Nice paper and so on. So there were the collages but then but then I was also persuaded by the graphic designer who did the layout to add some drawings as well. It was a very good idea and I did the drawings the way you would do them in your notebook in school.”

Illustration from the bookIllustration from the book Doodles.

“Doodles, exactly!”

I like this device very much and it made me laugh: there are little scribbles you have to investigate.

“Some are readable and some you can’t quite tell what is written and it’s funny and you can try to decipher what it is. And of course you can also add scribbles of your own.”

Learn more about Straka v Říši Entropie at www.bankova.cz