Thoughtful Thursday: School Days

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsFirst, congratulations to erysimum for winning our cover art contest last week. Please contact us to let us know which book you would like from our stacks.

Now, on to the main business of the day.

Next Thursday I am guest lecturing in a college class on YA literature. I’ve been asked to speak about the state of the YA Fantasy market. The class is designed for people who are planning to teach at the junior high or high school level, and I’m turning to you for some advice. I got my list of classics every kid should read, and some of the hot new books, but I want your help here. If you had a captive audience of prospective junior high teachers, what would you tell them about fantasy literature? If you could go back and make your reading experience better, what would it take?

And also, when are we going to see an end to the vampire trend? Is steampunk as big among the YA audience as it is becoming amongst the adults?

Thanks for your help. I’ll pick a random commenter to win a book of their choice from our stacks.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. I’d tell people not to discount fantasy literature, for one thing, and also encourage the students not to discount fantasy literature. Some people may look down on it as escapist or nothing but a trumped-up fairy tale, but fantasy has so much more to offer, and especially when it comes to YA fiction, exposes younger people to many issues that people may not feel comfortable dealing with when it’s set in a modern real-world setting. It opens doors, so don’t let others close them before you at least get to peek through.

    I was lucky to have teachers who either didn’t care if I read fantasy or else supported me in it because they were fantasy fans themselves. But I know plenty of people aren’t so lucky, and hear from the same people that kids aren’t reading but also that they shouldn’t read [insert genre here]. It’s foolish to encourage kids to be less diverse in their reading tastes.

    I know I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but it still bears repeating, I think.

  2. SandyG265 /

    I’d tell teachers to include fantasy in their required reading lists. Classics are great but I know that when I was in school a lot of the kids didn’t read the assigned books. They’d either watch the movie or get the Cliff Notes version. If you want kids to read and enjoy books then you have to include books that they will want to read.

  3. Good points. And, along with what Bibliotropic said, I think speculative fiction expands the imagination in a way that other studies don’t. If we want today’s children to be tomorrow’s inventors, we want them to learn to think creatively about their world and its future.

  4. I would be sure to stress that fantasy is not a dying/dead genre in children’s and YA literature. If possible, I would provide references to current discussions on fantasy literature among educators and librarians (assuming, of course, that positive stuff can be found). Book and author lists are both good ideas, and a discussion of sub-genres would not be amiss. But that first point about fantasy not being dead is an absolute must-have.

    Admittedly, things have probably changed in the last seven or eight years (I would hope!), but when I took a children’s/YA literature class in around 2004 my professor was convinced that fantasy was a dying genre (if not already dead). She had sources to back up her claims too…except all of them were from email discussion forums that happened in 1997. You know, before Harry Potter was published to worldwide acclaim, followed by the increase in new fantasy authors publishing for the younger demographic.

  5. I want to see the list :)
    Fantasy Literature is not dead, and if my local bookstore is anything to go by, the Teen Fantasy section is 2/3 of the Teen section. Steampunk is going great, and zombies are taking over the vampires. They really are on their way out. Steampunk is even making it’s way into the younger readers shelves.

    The best part about reading when I was in school, was having a huge list of books we could choose from, and as long as we were reading, it didn’t matter what we read. That way everyone could find something they liked. We did have assigned reading as well, but even there, the teacher mixed things up pretty well.

  6. I would stress to encourage reading just for the fun of it, regardless of the genre. But fantasy can appeal to teen-agers more so than other fiction because most of them still know how to enjoy make-believe. Maybe if teachers or parents can encorage a kid to read by giving her or him something fun to read, it will become their own personal thing that they will always have, no matter where life takes them.

    It may be different now, but when I was a kid, we got the literature side of reading slammed down our throats. I now understand the importance of that, but face-it, how many of the old classics have any appeal to the average teen-ager? If you can’t get a kid to enjoy reading to start with, how are they ever going to appreciate literature? I think that’s why so few adults are readers. Many still associate reading with the boring and difficult stuff they were forced to read in school, never knowing how a good book can enrich their lives.

    From my own personal experience, I spent the first couple grades of elementary school in the special reading lab because they thought I was a “slow” reader. The truth of it was, I was already reading comic books daily. Compared to Tarzan, Batman, and Western gun-slingers, Dick, Jane, and dogs called Spot, bored me so horribly that not only would I just stop reading whatever I supposed to, I would also get unruly when I got into trouble over not completing assignments. Needless to say, this didn’t help me get “started off on the right foot” with school.

  7. I’d be the first to tell them that the fantasy genre is so broad, and that teens are reading more of it than ever.

    Granted, the PNR/Urban Fantasy makes up a good bulk of it, but teens are interested in it. It can be a great way to get people reading. A friend of mine had a really bad home life while she lived here. When I encouraged her to read the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld – which isn’t a supreme fantasy read, granted – she started eating up the vampires and the zombies and the pixies and…it made things better.

    Teachers have a really good position to help kids out. There are unfortunately a lot of people like my friend in the world. Reading gave her the courage to get out, and it made her life change for the better. A good fantasy book can allow so much escapism in someone’s life. The best can also address problems in the narrative that the reader can learn and relate from without breaking that fantasy.

    I’d also encourage them to be large with their fantasy library. Throw in Dianna Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, and Robin McKinley with the currently popular authors like Rachel Vincent and Julie Kagawa. Teens/pre-teens can be very picky readers, but if you put a variety of books in front of them and make sure they cover a wide range…you can really get a lot out of them. The good thing is that fantasy of all kinds – especially in Middle Grade, from what I’m seeing lately – can be really appealing and provide teens with a great gateway to books and a new form of entertainment.

  8. Well, first of all I’d tell them that everything negative they hear about the genre is probably complete rubbish.
    Fantasy has such a bad name, and it’s so undeserved! Tell them that Latin America had to invent an “alibi-genre” (Magical Realism) so that their writers would get recognition. And sure enough, as soon as it wasn’t labelled “fantasy” anymore, it won them Nobel Prizes.
    There are a whole bunch of “greatest writers in history” out there, that didn’t shy away from fantasy elements. It just makes for a really great, entertaining story to make stuff up. Sure, Homer was/were Greek and he/they probably thought that there were all these really horny drunk gods, but they also knew that a story doesn’t spread unless it’s fun to listen to/read it. You can see fantasy elements everywhere throughout literary history.
    Sometimes it’s “fairy tales” or “folk tales” or “mythology” or “horror” or “magical realism” or “comic books” or.. whatever you want to call it that Kafka wrote, but in the end it’s all fantasy.
    And I think it’s important to make people who aren’t familiar with the genre yet understand that it’s not just a story about something that happens “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” even if the “world” is down the rabbit hole. Fantasy is a powerful genre. Probably more powerful than any other. Because it disguises itself. The story pretends to be somewhere where we can only go in our imagination, when in fact it’s right in front of our noses most of the time.
    I think that’s why other genres are afraid of fantasy and therefore ridicule it. You can see it every time a fantasy or sci-fi story actually does get recognition. LOTR, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight… you may think whatever you want of these works, but they’re so much more powerful than any “reality” they put in front of us, that it should be scary!
    And again, it’s highly entertaining as well :D

  9. I’d tell them that

    the state of YA fantasy is probably stronger than it has ever been. There is much more of it, and therefore a lot more quality stuff (there is, of course, therefore a lot more poor quality stuff as well).

    fantasy will let them discuss more weighty topics from the safety of distance, having an intermediary, non-real or contemporary world can sometimes allow for more comfortable discussion.

    they don’t have to make the false choice between well-written books they can use as exemplars of language and literature (rich vocab, sharp imagery, evocative metaphors/similes, foreshadowing, etc.) and books “I know kids will like.” There are more than enough out there that fulfill both needs

    I’d caution them not to select based on popularity (kids love Twilight, they’re horribly written) or on an old list of “classics” but to talk to people who know, read blogs that deal with YA fantasy, and then read them themselves–they’re YA after all; they don’t take a lot of time to get through (especially since like any editor will tell you, one rarely needs to read far to tell if a book is good or not).

    I’d tell them try to choose books that stand independently but offer a door into multiple book sets, so students who respond will have a place to go immediately. For instance, Leguin’s Earthsea, Alexander’s Prydain, Collin’s Hunger Games, or Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series in which all the books stand alone but have larger arcs to them.

    I’d tell them to not go through the books chapter by chapter, not have study guide questions every five pages

    I’d tell them to not dismiss a duology or trilogy–kids tend to read fantasy more quickly than a lot of other books, especially school books

    to perhaps pair YA fantasy with a unit on mythology and/or folk-fairy tales

    I’d tell them to do one book as a whole class and then pick four or five to have kids read in small groups (and then maybe switch) and discuss tropes and common elements and perhaps the hero’s journey

    I’d have kids brainstorm a list of portals from stories and then come up with their own (portals being the vehicle into fantasy: rabbit holes, tornadoes, wardrobes, etc.)

    I’d have kids worldbuild in groups or alone and require visuals of some sort

    I’d give them a list to start with and tell them if they do not teach/introduce middle-schoolers to fantasy they are ignoring a huge segment of readers

    and maybe I’ll add a list later . . .


  10. Bill, I totally agree with not stopping every chapter for questions. It ends up penalizing the kids who are really engrossed in the story. If I had a nickel for every time I had an English quiz where the question was, oh, “who died in this chapter,” and I put whoever had just died in my reading…but the quiz was about chapter 4 and I’d been reading chapter 12…LOL.

    I slightly disagree on knowing if a book is good from a small sample. You can tell if the prose craft is competent, true, but I’ve seen too many beautifully written books jump the shark plotwise in the later chapters!

    Oh, and don’t give just one random chapter without context. In grade school we had excerpts from some fantasy novels (and other novels) interspersed with short stories in our reading textbooks. I always hated the excerpts. They either wouldn’t give enough context about what had come before, so I was lost, or else they cut off before the story really got interesting so we got a chapter of buildup but no plot.

  11. Shadrach, if you live in the USA, please choose a book from our stacks and send me (Kat) your address. Thanks for the comments!

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