Confessions of a Speculative Fiction Reader

If you’re around children’s books as a librarian, parent, publisher or teacher for any amount of time, you’re bound to encounter the idea of biblio-therapy.  The notion of helping individuals cope with any number of situations through the power of books and story is an admirable one.  I’m not here to contest the general idea in any way.

But let me tell you a story of my own.  I was the kid who got picked on and teased in school.  Bullied? Definitely.  I was an outcast in the classroom who responded to taunts with frequent tears.  I used to wonder just what was wrong with me and why kids hated me.  My mother, bless her, tried to help me.  First with advice (point of fact, that old “sticks and stones . . .” rhyme is a bunch of bologna) and then, after talking to some teachers and librarians, with books.  She brought home Blubber by Judy Blume and placed it on my abundant pile of reading.  Now, I’d read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing about a year earlier and liked it, so I didn’t really question picking up another book by the author.  I read the story.

This was the copy I had.

After I finished it,  I threw the book across the room (I’m not recommending this).  Because the story dealt with teasing and bullies and school. Situations that were not mine but were similar enough to hit on a lot of common ground.  I cannot tell you how much back then I hated the book.  I can’t really express how angry it made me to have my one safe haven–reading– invaded by the same stuff I dealt with every day.  Not only was I bombarded with more of the same, but it was in a form where I was the passive reader, where I couldn’t even act.

This is in no way meant to be a blow to the book in general (I love Judy Blume), nor to the fact that there are other readers who probably got a lot from the depiction of bullying in school.  But not every reader needs the same kind of book.  If I’d had the words to say so at the time, I would have explained to my mother that the last thing I wanted was to relive the situations that were making me unhappy.

I came to stories to give me other options, other worlds . . . things only imagined.  I needed Nita, running away from bullies and hiding out in the library where she finds a book called So You Want to Be a Wizard, and takes up a calling that sets her against the Lone Power in a wizardly quest.  I needed Harry who doesn’t fit in at all, feeling awkward and different, until she’s kidnapped by a desert Prince and discovers a wildly different destiny as a warrior and hero.  I needed Alanna, the girl who disguised herself as a boy to become a knight and dealt with a violent bully among the pages by learning the martial wrestling skills to defeat  him. In short, I needed speculative fiction stories.  I firmly believe that the stuff I read in my grade school years was a powerful medicine for my psyche, and gave me the tools to grow into the person I am.  But it’s not always easy to convince skeptics of the value speculative fiction can have.

Real as a Stumbling Block

There’s no denying that for some readers, reality is the thing.  They love the books that are contemporary or gritty or set completely within the sphere of what’s known.  There’s nothing wrong with this in the slightest.  Some kids want to see other kids struggling through the same issues they might be. Broken homes, a sibling in the military, a parent with cancer, or simply a lost pet.  It can be nice to see that your situation is not unique.  That others have written about it, thought about it and explored it.  It can be helpful to see characters who have worked through their pain, frustration or grief and gotten on with their lives.  And author Judy Blume is particularly good at capturing tween and teen issues in a realistic setting.  Other excellent realistic fiction authors include writers like Walter Dean Myers and Jacqueline Woodson.

However, there can be some drawbacks to approaching biblio-therapy from a purely realistic perspective.

Back to Blubber: when I was a fourth grader I didn’t need reality slamming into me through my reading.  Every day did that when I walked into my classroom at school.  I didn’t need recognition that school bullying existed or know what someone else felt going through it, I already knew too much about it.   Too many of my personal spheres were already a struggle to deal with, I didn’t wish for reading to be one of them.  Reading was a chance to experience safely away from that awfulness.  That’s what made Blubber such a negative read for me. Not that it was a bad book, but because it continued a conversation and a world that I was already fully cognizant of.  One I’d preferred to keep separate from my reading.

Another point to consider is that no matter how close the book might resemble a reader or their life–it will never be exactly the same. Sometimes that’s a greater dissonance than pure fantasy storytelling. A realistic fiction work can put a reader at odds with the story when the situation and characters all sound incredibly familiar, and then the story makes a marked departure from the reader’s actual experiences.  In my case, it made me angry with a story.  Somehow the promise of being similar and realistic can be it’s own disappointment.  Like my bullying issues in school.  The problems I had were very different from the bullying tactics in Blubber.  In my mind, every time circumstances were different or a reaction was different, I’d think “that’s not the way it happened to me . . .”

Escape is More Than a Button on a Keyboard

Ah, that old escape key.  Capable of pulling you out of frozen screens and muddled data and hopeless computer games.  It’s the safety hatch out of the chaos or problem.  And that’s no small accomplishment.

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Too often “escapist” is a term  used to put down genre fiction and especially speculative fiction as less important and “fluffy” when compared with realistic fiction.  But having an escape in our lives is essential.  A chance to cut through and past all the nonsense ito reconnect with the person we are–a chance to clear our brain of all the emotional turmoil and anxiety.  Why else do we crave our vacations, our night out with friends, our time to ourselves than to rest, recharge and enjoy a different brand of life from our usual routine?  Speculative fiction gives our minds the ability to step so far out of the real and possible that it can enjoy playing with the impossible.

Playing is essential to our sanity, methinks. It can also give us the space and time to heal. Having a place for fun and enjoyment is never a bad thing–and making that a safely separated space, a sphere of stories that aren’t real gives the mind the allowance to kick circular thinking and anxiety to the curb for a while.  There’s nothing wrong with taking time off from the bullied reality of grade school, in order to find a quiet spot during free time to speed away on a rocket ship and do battle with space pirates.  It fortifies us, it helps us get the break we need so we know the world doesn’t have to be only what lives in our current reality.  That we can dream of better and some day find it.

This was one of my constant re-reads as a kid. A comfort book of sorts for when life seemed particularly hard and I needed an old friend.

Escapes don’t have to be speculative in nature, but just because something is an escape doesn’t make it bad, or less worthwhile to read.  In fact, these are often the books we keep, and love and re-read over and over again.

Escapes also aren’t all we need, but they give us the space to start looking at our troubles in a different way–to start finding solutions we do need and the critical healing that might be so badly required.  Which leads me to my next point . . .

It’s More than Spaceships and Unicorns

Life lessons don’t need to be pinned in reality to be real.

Lets take Nita, a geeky girl who regularly gets chased by bullies.  She hides out in the library and finds a book titled So You Want To Be a Wizard.  When Nita reads it and takes the oath, she becomes one of a community of wizards and learns the nature of magic in her universe.  Suddenly things are a lot wilder and a lot more dangerous than a group of school bullies.  But Nita learns to find the strength, courage and wisdom in herself and the support of her new friends to confront dangerous creatures and dark deities.  Nita doesn’t succeed because of amazing magic, but how she chooses to use it, and what she chooses to become.  These are powerful lessons in  So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane. Ones I took to heart. And there’s that oath.  I know it’s fictional in nature, but it still made an impact in this tween who was figuring out her own sense of right and wrong.

“In Life’s name and for Life’s sake, I say that I will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so—till Universe’s end. I will look always toward the Heart of Time, where all times are one, where all our sundered worlds lie whole, as they were meant to be.”

Or how about Meg, a math-loving girl with an odd younger brother and a missing father.  Three mysterious strangers take her on a an adventure across the galaxy to find and rescue her father.  But at first, things go wrong, her baby brother becomes trapped by the evil IT–taken over by it’s mind-control.  And Meg nearly gets killed.  Somehow she has to pick up the pieces of herself, face her fears and confront the monstrous IT in order to win back her brother.   She must use words and love to get through the mind-control and insane “logic” that IT uses.  We learn that failure is not an ending, only a place from which to rally and try again.  We learn that love can see us through and that fear can be faced.  The struggle at the heart of  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is one of the human heart.

Harry is raised in a household where he is horribly mistreated and then he discovers that he is actually a boy with a huge destiny on his shoulders and a deadly nemesis.   To face his destiny and all the challenges it will bring takes friends that are willing to to face the challenges with him.    Working together, Harry, Hermione and Ron can face problems that no one of them could solve on their own.   He learns that magic can’t solve all problems–that takes bravery, courage and wisdom. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling proves that the magic of friends is what can make the difference.

How to find your dream when you just can’t seem to fit in where you are?  Menolly has a huge talent for music, but girls can’t become harpers in her community, and all her creative efforts are quickly squashed until she barely feels like herself anymore.  Menolly has to find a way to break free to become herself, to be the musician she is meant to be, and not what everyone else expects.  Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey recognizes the need to follow a dream, even when it may not be an approved on an expected one.

There are more, there are so many more  books that flooded my life, taught me things that became the architecture of my mind and the source of strength within myself.  I doubt I could ever name them all.

Never underestimate the power of a book, especially when it falls into the hands of the child that needs to hear what it has to say.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on March 23, 2014, in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This is a very powerful blog post! Well done!

  2. I totally agree! This is why I don’t read much fiction about adults–so often the adults are having adult lives of various sorts, which is the last thing I want to read about, in as much as I have plenty of adult life of my own…..

  3. (To be honest, Blubber made me furious and I didn’t read it until I was a relatively socially-secure college student).

    As for the post overall, I shared it with all my follower-people. 🙂

  4. Really terrific post, so much to think about. I was definitely one of those kids who loved books that took me everywhere else.

  5. Great post. I loved fantasy/sf too but also some realism and never thought how that might turn a kid off. As a school librarian I’m always trying to help kids branch out from getting into too much of a reading rut so young but now I won’t be too pushy (not that I am) if they have valid reasons like you mention for avoiding certain types of books.

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