Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shelly Shapiro

I read a lot of fantasy books when I was growing up. Like, hundreds. Thousands? Surely it must be thousands. One of my favorite things in them was that they had maps. I loved maps growing up, I was in fact a Maphead. There were good maps and bad, maps that showed the places in the book only, that showed places not in the book in addition (and could tease you with what might come later) and maps that showed nothing of any use at all. For a time, though, say from 1982 to 1995 or so, there were an almost unlimited number of maps by one person, and that person was Shelly Shapiro.

You probably don't know the name. Even if you read fantasy published in those years, even if you, like me, enjoyed looking at maps, even if you realized all the maps you were looking at were in the same style, you might not have noticed her name, in rounded letters, that was in some corner of virtually every map. I did, of course, because I wondered at first if it was a place on the map (that seemed unlikely) and then the second time I saw it knew it was the person who'd made it. An actual, honest to god cartographer.

She had her peculiarities. Rivers were never simply lines, they were always provided with actual width, even when that rendered her maps into strange things almost like cut out snowflakes from a child's art class. Coasts were always rounded and blobby. Text she fit in wherever she could manage, as needed. But the maps were complete: they showed what you needed to see, in essentially the positions that the places should be at, and with a pretty decent suggestion of how far one thing was from some other thing.

I loved her maps. I looked forward to them. For a while I'm guessing publishers must have realized people like me existed: people who enjoyed the maps in the front of the book (or joy of joys, within the book, as with the Belgariad, a series littered with Shelly Shapiro work), and they played up to us. Shelly had steady work, for probably not much pay, and less recognition.

But, well, I recognized her. Ignoring the flaws, embracing the good, I was always happy to see her. Like an old friend, she would turn up every few weeks or months, and I'd get to see what she had been up to.

The map market slowed down in the nineties, and more so in the aughts. And not only were there fewer maps, but they weren't by Shelly anymore. She quit appearing in books, vanished from my literary life. Not long after I started reading much more ordinary fiction, much less fantasy. The two weren't connected, of course. I just branched out. Working in a bookstore will tend to do that for you.

There's not a lot of information about Shelly Shapiro online, which is kind of odd for someone who shaped the images people had of a good number of very popular series. Apparently she ended up as an editor in the late nineties, and perhaps is still doing that work. I don't know.

I wonder if there's a drawer, or a filing cabinet perhaps, in her house, one filled with the drafts of her maps. They would have almost all been hand drawn; no other way to do it, really, back in the eighties. So there must be originals. I'd like to imagine she pulls them out every so often and looks them over, like a traveler going over her old photos and remembering back when. And then she picks up the pile of them, taps them back into order, and tucks them back into their drawer, among the dust and old memories, and forgets about them for another few years.

Thank you, Shelly, for charting out my childhood.

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