I had a wonderful time at the annual conference of the Virginia Association of School Librarians last weekend. It does my heart good to see so many librarians who are passionate about getting books into the hands of young readers. Troy Howell and I gave a presentation about the value of fantasy and science fiction for diverse learners. Due to several requests, I’m posting our presentation here. Here’s a shout-out to all the awesome librarians out there who do a world of good! Woo hoo!
Opening Worlds: the Gift of Fantasy
Fantasy is creeping into reality. Think of the terms or clichés that come from fantasy and science fiction that have become part of our culture speech, identifiable reference points.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Turn into a pumpkin.”
“1984. Big Brother.”
“Mordor.” (Must be said with the proper inflection.)
“42 (the answer to life, the universe, and everything). So that’s it. Any questions?”
And the quintessential “Once upon a time.”
Now change gears for a moment and think about this: Do you consider yourself a diverse learner? Was there anything about your life that affected your academic needs? Would it have helped if the teachers in your life understood what helped you, as an individual, to learn? When you think about it, we are all diverse learners. Each one of us falls on the spectrum somewhere, no matter what your cultural or religious or emotional or economic diversity is. But it’s the variety and intensity of the needs that distinguishes one individual from another. While neither of us is an expert on the needs of diverse learners, what we’re talking about today is how the genres of fantasy and science fiction, lumped together as speculative fiction, are uniquely suited to connect to the personal, individual, emotional needs of each reader. And ultimately, to society itself.
So, let’s jump right in. Fantasy is wildly popular at the moment, much like Westerns were a popular genre of the 1950’s. Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit coming out next month, Twilight, …politics… and what about anime, comic book heroes, role playing activities and multi-player online games? What is it about our day and time that makes us crave fantasy? I’m sure part of it has to do with commercialism and presenting something uniquely exciting and entertaining, but there must be something more behind it, some deeper psychological need that we are trying to fill. So what is it that fantasy and science fiction do for us?
Let’s start with CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING. One of history’s most revered geeks—that would be Einstein—said, “The gift of fantasy was more important to me than abstract thought or positive thinking.” Einstein himself, who was described by a colleague as having “a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn,” sought matters beyond self, unbiased discovery and exploration. “All my life,” he said, “I have dealt with objective matters.”
The impossible may not be as impossible as we think. Who would have imagined, on the dire end of the “fantasy/sci-fi” scale, that two of the tallest architectural wonders would melt to the ground in one day? And on the spectacular side, that a man could free-fall over 800 miles an hour from the rim of space, break the sound barrier with his body, and land safely on earth, standing up? Then hold a press conference an hour later? The line between fantasy and reality is getting thinner all the time. But perhaps it has always been so: Look at dinosaurs, the pyramids, Magellan, Isaac Newton, Joan of Arc . . .
As a society, we need young readers to be inspired to believe in the far edges of possibility, and be encouraged to pursue it . . . and be forewarned of its dire potential: Look too at the Holocaust, horribly real and almost beyond comprehension.
(Lana) Our young people are the problem-solvers of the century. My son Tim, read science fiction and fantasy like a maniac when he was a teen. Now, he is getting a PhD in Mathematics. When he tells me about projects he’s working on, it completely blows my mind. He’s mapping the folds in space—I didn’t even know space had folds and I have no idea how they might be mapped—and he’s creating models for the vibration of atoms. It takes a healthy imagination to do those things. I believe, and Tim agrees, that the books he read as a young person had something to do with that. Tim says the most helpful skill that fantasy has given him is something he calls “thought experiments.” When delving into mathematics this complex, ideas cannot be depicted in 2D or even 3D images. To explore these ideas, Tim must envision them in his head, varying the constraints and predicting the outcomes as needed. This “thought experiment” muscle was first exercised by Tim through reading speculative fiction.
In Anita Silvey’s, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, collected commentaries from leaders in the arts, sciences, business and other fields on what books influenced them in childhood, author-artist Thatcher Hurd says the message he got from Wind in the Willows was one of hope: “If things are torn apart, we can make our world right again.” That is critical for all of us, but especially, I believe, for today’s young people. Here’s from physicist Robert Mallett: “When I was ten yrs old my father died at age 33. Mourning his loss, I became increasingly isolated. Not interested in games, sports, or socializing, I escaped into books and movies, many of them science fiction and fantasy.” In the year his father died, he discovered HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and became obsessed with time travel— you can imagine why. It saved him from deep depression. In 2006 Mallett declared that time travel into the past would be possible within this century. It has something to do with the Theory of Relativity—Einstein again! Everything is connected, isn’t it?—and gravitational fields and cylinders of light and frame dragging. It’s the stuff of fantasy …
. . . and so is this 1984 Apple Macintosh Commercial. It’s almost chilling now, with the persective of nearly 30 years beyond.
Now we’re talking about UNDERSTANDING SOCIAL ISSUES. Fantasy and science fiction provide a safe lens through which to make socio-political commentary. Talking about alternate worlds, future settings, and other planets gives us a comfortable distance from which to examine difficult problems. Fantasy can peel away the familiar institutions which often have preconceived notions and prejudices attached to them. Famous leaders, or their personality types, can be parodied in fantasy stories in ways that integrate well into their plots. So can historical political movements and uprisings. Terry Pratchett does this successfully, with great humor, in his lengthy and popular Discworld series.
The tone is often serious, though stories can be light, airy, and humorous. Fantasy is perfectly suited to the thoughtful exploration of philosophical issues at a level that can be understood and appreciated by the child reader. Ursula LeGuin summed it up this way: “Science Fiction lends itself readily to the imaginative subversion of any status quo.”
Fantasy is metaphor. Lana’s book, Freakling, is a metaphor for our society, for religion, for the political, familial, and the personal. Through drama and fantasy she shows us the threat and outcome of a life lived by mind/slash/body/slash/emotion-numbing convenience. It’s a metaphor for being different. And this case, being different is NOT having and relying on a telekinetic power, which is done to the degree that the populace becomes lethargic about their own potential capabilities . . . and worse. Though children may not entirely grasp metaphor, they are intrigued by it: it stands out to them.
(Troy) My daughter at age seven, after reading a description of a stubbled cornfield, wanted to know what five-days’ growth of whiskers looked like. I told her to wait 5 days and she’ll see. She did, and she saw, and thereafter whenever we passed a cornfield, which are common where we live, she noticed it, studied it. Gregory Mcguire tells of a classroom of kids being skeptical of “squirrels looking like rolled-up pairs of socks” They didn’t have a problem accepting his tale of wolves harmonizing with him one night in Vermont. But squirrels looking like socks? No way. That was the one part of his “day in the life of an author” that stood out to them: They were intrigued by it, wanted to understand it. They wanted to believe, Yes way. “Metaphor,” he says, “connects the dots.”
The dragon in Troy’s book, The Dragon of Cripple Creek, is a metaphor for sacrificial love, the antithesis of personal and societal greed. Other metaphors in the book emphasize that theme: When Kat was an infant, for example, she “choked on a pretty penny.” In his 21st century gold rush, everyone’s out to find something for themselves, or just to find themselves. What Kat discovers is that all that glitters is not all that matters.
(Troy) Speculative fiction can draw a line between the “good” guys and the “bad.” I suppose I should mention the Brian Jacques Redwall series, since I illustrated all the American jackets for those animal fantasies. If you could ask Mr Jacques—may he rest in peace—what he sought to accomplish with his work, he’d tell you it’s about conquering the bullies of the yard, the neighborhood, the realm, the world; it’s about quietude and comfort, qualities of life that should be free to all; about sharing the simple pleasures, loving one another. He did it through high adventure, which appeals to many child readers, and by taking them to a make-believe place where the meek and the mighty, the mysterious and magical, are everyday. The ghost of Martin the Warrior appears when hope is lost or a puzzle is too puzzling to solve.
Fantasy can be the phantom to help point the way, spark hope, renew courage, give comfort, forewarn.
The dystopian craze seemed to explode onto the YA scene overnight. But think about it. Is it any wonder that so many teens are obsessed with literature that asks questions like “How does my society work and what is my role? How does the system benefit me and how does it fail me? Is it always going to be like this?” and “Will it ever get better?” Dystopian stories help young readers deal with social problems. We use books to deconstruct our lives and pinpoint those things we want to change. Books like The Hunger Games provide a safe lens to examine poverty and government control vs. individual freedom. We can look at the small steps that lead to these dystopian conditions and think about where our choices are leading us, both as individuals and as a society. Dystopian stories are cautionary tales about where we might end up if we travel too far down a certain road. And what could be more relevant to the generation who is, quite literally, about to take the wheel?
Azar Nafisi, Iranian born and now professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and whose father was incarcerated over political issues heard about The Thousand and One Nights, The Arabian Nights, when she was four. For her, the tale of Scheherazade is “simple and yet profound, opening so many windows to the luminous worlds hidden in the depth of what we call everyday reality, and helping us see and envision the world and ourselves through fresh and new eyes.” Nafisi’s literary work, Reading Lolita in Tehran, has been translated into 32 languages and was a NYTimes bestseller for nearly 3 years. WINDOWS … MIRRORS and WINDOWS …
Perhaps you are familiar with Tu books, an imprint at Lee and Low with the express mission of publishing fantasy and science fiction with characters of color or settings that reflect the diversity of the human experience. Stacy Whitman, an editor at Tu books, states: “We often talk in multicultural book circles about the idea of mirrors and windows—mirrors to see your own experience reflected back, windows to see into another world.”
(Lana) I remember when I was about 7 or 8, I realized that there was only one point of view through which I would ever experience the world—mine. I would never know what it was like to be anyone else. This, it seemed to me, was a serious shortcoming in the design of the universe. Seriously, what was God thinking? Shortly after that, my reading ability improved and I discovered novels. I devoured books like Stuart Little, Trumpet of the Swan, and A Wrinkle in Time. Aaah, I thought. This is the answer. This is how you experience life through someone else’s eyes. I had found my window. As an adult, I became a fan of this saying from the hispanic culture: ” En cada cabeza es un mundo,” which translates into “In every head there is a world.” I’ve come to believe that. Every mind is a universe unto itself. Every form of communication, every preference, every opinion, and every experience can be qualified by the simple fact that each of us sees from a unique perspective. And literature is a vital link to all those universes we interact with each day.
R.L. LaFevers, author of the Theodosia series and others, said: “Imagination is a key component of empathy. How can you empathize with someone, if you can’t imagine what they must be feeling?”
(Troy) Recently at a presentation I gave at a public rural elementary school, an African-American girl came to me and said my book was like her life. She connected with the main character, who is white. Race is not an issue in the book, and personal, familial, and societal conflicts are. Another student said he connected with the dragon, Ye, who has a mild, if not shy, temperament, and just wants to be left alone. But Ye also wants connection, and welcomes the simple joy of camaraderie on a personal level. Children need to know they’re not alone in their struggles and sufferings, wonderings and wanderings, and need to know they can chase their dreams and can makes things happen.
(Troy) My great childhood literary influence was The Red Balloon. Its magic realism stunned me, and showed me a wide window view into a place halfway across the globe where a boy felt and experienced the same isolation and loneliness I felt at times. At times I felt rejection from not only peers but grownups, some of whom did not believe I was the creator of the art works and stories I brought to school. I consequently isolated myself. I was accused of plagiarism by a teacher in front of an entire class, and there were other similar incidents, even into college, unusual as that may sound. I doubt that happens much today—I hope it doesn’t—we’ve come a good way in recognizing the various learning types and gifts children have. The capacity to wonder is fundamental, and speculative fiction nurtures that.
Windows and mirrors–and sometimes both, just as a reflection of yourself in a window pane sometimes overlies the view of the scenery outside.
Jane Yolen writes, “A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult,” that young people who have accepted the many different races, cultures, and languages of the worlds encountered in fantasy have an easy time accepting such things in life.
This brings us to our last point, that fantasy and science fiction INSPIRE HOPE.
From R.L. LaFevers again: “If we only expose kids to what actually exists, only the basic realities of the world, we have for all intents and purposes limited the world they live in. How will they know to look beyond the next horizon, to reach past the stars and planets we see today, to approach a problem in a completely new and unfamiliar way?”
But it’s not just about their career choices and their ability to shape the world they live in. It is also critical in their personal lives. By helping kids to exercise their imaginations, we help them expand their internal and external worlds. How can you dream big if you have no imagination? How can you strive beyond the everyday if you have no idea what the fantastical might look like? If you’ve never seen a hero embark on a quest for the impossible—and achieve it, where will you find the courage to try? If no one has ever told you stories of someone reaching for the unreachable, how will you ever know to reach for the stars? Or the moon? Or to launch yourself from the stratosphere, as Felix Baumgartner did? Or even to lauch yourself beyond your current socio-economic circumstance? If we don’t help kids develop their imaginations, we have in effect, limited their ability to dream big.
And limited the future.
Donna Shalala, born of Lebanese immigrant parents, former Secretary of Health and Human Services during Clinton’s administration and now president of Miami University, found “a kindred spirit in the little engine that could, whose ‘I think I can I think I can’ attitude, resembled my own experiences. For most of my professional career I have taken on positions for which the general consensus has been that I was not qualified. That little book is a metaphor about the power of optimism and determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and even more meaningful to Shalala, “it was about stepping up to the plate when you’re needed and helping others for the greater good.”
With its unique ability to address universal truths, fantasy nurtures the human spirit in any circumstance or impairment. Inspiring hope, fostering creative problem-solving, exploring social issues, nourishing the sense of wonder, offering reflection into a reader’s own experience and opening windows of empathy for others—these are the great gifts of fantasy.
(Lana) I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my mother, who took me to feast at the library each week, and to the librarians who laid the table with delectable stories. All of that grew into a desire to tell my stories to the next generation of readers.
(Troy) And I to my father, who had an imaginative mind, and gave me reason to delight. He got rid of the TV after it died one day when I was 10, and never bought another. He replaced it with puppet shows, and things like this—a door knob plate painted with an exasperated expression. The knob is now missing, but I remember it well: it was painted bright red; naturally, if you squeeze and turn someone’s nose time and again, which I did every time I went through that door, it would be. And thanks to my elementary school librarian, who had a bungalow for her space, and who would welcome me in and guide me toward the kind of books she noticed I noticed. That bungalow full of books became a treasure trove to draw from and those books an inspiration to do what I’m doing today.
From J.R.R. Tolkien: “. . . It is one of the lessons of fairy stories . . . that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth, peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.”
We’d like to close with one of the most beloved sayings from science fiction: “May the force be with you!”
Or, as writers like to say, “Metaphors be with you!”