Remembering Back to School

The return to school in September is always an energetic time. At university, students are often overflowing with enthusiasm, which usually lasts until exams start in October. Then, things get hard.
I remember back to school for my kids. Through their elementary years, junior high, then finally high school, September was always about routine, about settling in, about finding a rhythm for a new year. And September was the New Year, not January.
While my fondest memories of back to school are those of my kids—the shopping for school supplies, the new clothes, the anticipation, the tears—my most poignant memory of back to school is my arrival on the UofA campus for the start of my undergrad degree in 1985.
As a blind student, I found the UofA campus an intimidating place. It was sprawling, confusing, and hard to navigate. I had some help from the people at Disabled Student Services, but I simply had to learn my way around. The bookstore was in the Students Union Building, and Disabled Students Services was in Athabasca Hall—both on the west side of campus
My classes took me from the Humanities building, through HUB Mall, to Dentistry, to the Old Arts building, to somewhere in the Engineering Wing. I got lost repeatedly as I found my way around.
I didn’t own a computer in those days—it was the 1980s and computers were just becoming a thing. I took braille notes in class using a slate and stylus. It usually threw off my professors the first time they heard the rapid punching of metal through thick paper. My god, that slate and stylus was loud. By the end of my undergrad degree, I had a four-drawer filing cabinet filled with braille notes. One of my prized possessions during my undergrad degree was a seventy-five volume braille dictionary that filled a six-foot-by-six-foot bookcase.
My first-year English class was an introduction to literature with Jim Nelson. I loved that class. We started with Chaucer, which blew my mind. I had the anthology on cassette tape—three dozen four-track cassettes that required a special tape player. I listened to the “Prologue” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” over and over again. Professor Nelson would walk into the class, write page numbers on the whiteboard, then lecture for forty-five minutes, leaving five minutes for questions. Those lectures were packed with information. He gave close readings of the texts, filling in historical background and pausing occasionally for anecdotes.
The first essay I wrote for Nelson’s class was an examination of three stories: “Araby” by James Joyce, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D. H. Lawrence, and “Road from Colonus” by E. M. Forster. I can’t remember what I wrote for that first English essay—I’m sure it was terrible. I do remember, however, reading the stories while the rain fell that September. I sat in the room I called a study—the second bedroom of the house where my wife and I lived. I had been a reader since I lost my sight in a car accident at the age of ten, but reading those stories was like finding literature again for the first time. I read them over and over. The dark streets and the narrator’s obsession with his friend’s sister in Joyce’s story haunted my imagination, while the darkness and strangeness of Lawrence disturbed my universe. I started university thinking I knew something about literature; I was finding out I knew much less than I thought. I had quit a job to go back to school, and I was feeling my world opening up and bottoming out at the same time. I loved university, but I always felt like an outsider. I had access to books, but only books on tape. I had it in my head that listening wasn’t the same as reading, and when I needed to use the library, I always needed help.
I got through that first year—god knows how. And near the end of the winter term, Professor Nelson ask me and a couple of other students to stay back. I was nervous—I was always nervous talking to my professors. These were the halls of learning, and I was just one more Jude the Obscure, a working-class, blind kid who didn’t belong.
Professor Nelson sat in a desk beside me, and he gave me a letter. It was a recommendation to the honours program in English. It was an important moment. Someone was telling me I had something valuable to contribute. I’ve realized since such letters are about recruitment as much as anything else, but I’ve been grateful to Professor Nelson ever since.
Universities are different places now. I have the good fortune to work for two of them, and I feel more at home now that most people work digitally. The move to an online world has enabled me to work more effectively as a teacher and a researcher. In spite of all of it, I’ve never lost that early sense of being something of an outsider—the blind guy who reads and teaches but who doesn’t use actual books. I get a whiff of this sense every time I walk into a library—a building full of books, that are to me so many bound volumes of smooth paper that always keep their secrets.

What to Do with Narnia

Reading C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books is a varied experience. As part of our discussion of Narnia, my students and I explore a Christian reading of the series. They work hard to decode the books in terms of Christian metaphor and allusion, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, especially. Many read Narnia specifically for its Christtian allegory; others read it for the fantasy and the adventure.
As it applies to Narnia, the term allegory is problematic. For one, it forces people to read the characters in a particular way. If we read Aslan as a Christ figure, then do we necessarily read the White Witch as Satan and Edmund as Judas? The answer to both is no. Writers use Christ figures all the time. People read Frodo as a Christ figure. What does that make Sam? My point is not to treat a book like a puzzle. A book worth reading doesn’t have pieces that fit neatly together to form a particular picture, Christian or otherwise.
Lewis has drawn various criticism over the years for his Narnia books. They have been called both racist and misogynistic. According to Philip Pullman in “The Dark Side of Narnia” (The Guardian 1998), “there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” Pullman offers some noteworthy criticisms of the series, but his vitriolic condemnation of the series is excessive, to say the least.
However, many will be surprised to learn that J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis’ longtime friend and colleague at Oxford, intensely disliked The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe upon a first reading. Tolkien was mistrustful of allegory in all its forms, which I’ve always found odd considering he was a medieval scholar.
In a conversation with Roger Lancelyn Green, Tolkien comments, “I hear you’ve been reading Jack’s [Lewis’s] children’s story. It really won’t do, you know! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun’. Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?” (qtd. in Green, Roger Lancelyn, and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Revised Ed., Harcourt, 1994, p. 241).
Lewis and Tolkien became friends in the 1920s, and they founded the Inklings, a group of Oxford writers and intellectuals who met regularly in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College to discuss books and writing. By 1950 when Lewis was writing Narnia, the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was deteriorating, and the Inklings no longer met in the same way. Tolkien’s dismissive attitude towards Narnia was, in part, a further sign of that disintegrating friendship.
These criticisms aside, it’s possible to read the Narnia books for more than just the Christian allegory. This last July, I attended the conference for the International research Society of children’s Literature (IRSCL) in Toronto. The conference took place on the Keel campus of York University. It was a pleasure to meet and talk to so many interested and interesting children’s literature people from around the world.
I presented a paper on Lewis and narrators, which was less a discussion of narrative than one of Lewis. I’ve tried for some time to understand how Lewis himself fits into the chronicles. Lewis loved placing himself in his own fiction. Maybe it was a kind of inside joke for Lewis and his Inklings cronies: Lewis puts himself in Out of the silent Planet, The Great Divorce, and his unfinished story the Dark Tower.
Lewis does something different with the Narnia books. Read the series carefully. You will notice the narrator of the books—which may or may not be some version of Lewis—commenting to young readers about character and action. Here are some examples:

“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been—if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you—you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again. At any rate that was how it felt to these two.” (LWW)

“That ride was perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to them in Narnia. Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the heavy noise of the hoofs and the jingle of the harness and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or grey or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn’t need to be guided and never grows tired. He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree-trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in a park nor even on the downs but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and out into acres of blue flowers.” (LWW)

“(By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead, is port, and the right is starboard.)” (Dawn Treader)

“And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them. It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.” (Dawn Treader)

The most intriguing of these narrative comments is the last, the interaction between Lucy and the narrator. It suggests the narrator has a relationship of sorts with the Pevensie children outside the text of the series. Alternatively, perhaps Lewis had conversations with the Pevensie children in his own head, which isn’t that weird, if you think about the relationship many writers have with their characters.
More important, I think, is who Lewis had in mind when writing the Narnia books. Was he thinking of kids in general? Not likely. He didn’t know many kids. But Lewis new his reader of the Narnia books was going to be a young reader, an imaginative reader who understood something about books and reading. The point of my paper at the IRSCL conference was that Lewis had himself in mind as a reader of the series.
Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, is interesting in many ways. It’s Lewis’ picture of his life in the context of his eventual conversion to Christianity. The first chapter of the book describes Lewis’ imaginative childhood at Little Lee (the family’s Belfast home), and the death of his mother to cancer in August of 1908. It’s a sad and poignant account, and it’s the one that all the biographers turn to when writing about Lewis’ early life.
I’m convinced that the child of Little Lee—his love for reading and his willingness to be transported by the books he read—is the reader Lewis had in mind for the Narnia series. Maybe this is a stretch, but consider this: Lewis wrote surprised by Joy while he was writing the Narnia books. He was writing a children’s series and rethinking his own childhood at the same time. Each informs the other in interesting ways, and if nothing else, it adds something to a reading of Narnia that’s more than a rehashing of the old arguments around allegory.

The One Thousand Kilometre Walking Challenge

Summer is a time for many things—working in the garden, lying in the sun, going on road-trips. This summer I decided to set myself a walking challenge. I walk every day, but I thought a challenge would help me walk more consistently.
Back in May, I came across my cousin’s Facebook post about the walking challenge he set for himself. I thought, what a great idea. My IPhone counts my steps, so I’ve been using the Health app to keep track of all my walking—whether it’s to the mall, to the train, on the treadmill, or just Out there walking.
My goal is one thousand kilometres by September 22. Thus far, since May 23, I’ve clocked six hundred eighty-one kilometres.
I’ve thought for years that Edmonton is too much of a car-town. As a pedestrian, parts of this city—depending on where you need to go—are practically inaccessible. Edmonton has a decent transit system, but the bus or train can’t get you everywhere—at least not in a hurry. And some places, not at all.
When my daughters are home, I have the luxury of a car. Much of the time, I rely on foot and transit. Edmonton is reasonably accessible, more than most cities in other parts of the world. I can’t speak for people using wheelchairs or walkers, but as someone married to a white cane, Edmonton isn’t bad. The endless construction, of course, is an obstacle for everyone.
If you want to set yourself a challenge this summer, make it a walking challenge, or even a pedestrian challenge. Walk and take transit for a week, and see how fast your life gets reorganized. Even if you just make an effort to walk more, you will be better off.
And as you fight the rush-hour traffic and the road-rage, watch out for pedestrians. According to a City of Edmonton website, on average, three hundred people in Edmonton are hit by motorists each year, and most of them in crosswalks.
I’ve had many close calls with vehicles, some of which ended in my cane getting mangled by a car. I’ve always thought my cane makes me more visible to drivers—but not always. Enjoy the remaining days of summer, and embrace the slow life by walking whenever you can.

Here Be Dragons

I love dragons. They are one of my favourite mythical creatures; they are powerful, cunning, destructive, disturbing, uncanny, magical, and downright terrifying. English literature is full of dragons, beginning with Beowulf, the oldest surviving manuscript in Old English. More than this, western mythology is full of dragon slayers, including heroes from ancient Greece, such as Cadmus, Perseus, and Heracles. Dragons have literally fired the imaginations of writers for hundreds of years.
Some of my favourite characters are dragons:
• Smaug, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit,
• Norbert, the Norwegian Ridged-back, from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (although he isn’t much of a character),
• Ewstace, as a temporarily enchanted dragon, from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader,
• and, Yevaud, from Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
You can find an extensive list of young adult books about dragons on Goodreads. Just follow the link.
As so many writers have depicted these amazing creatures, it’s difficult to find much that is new or different in the world of dragons. Recently, I discovered a new book by Brandon Mull. Dragon Watch is Mull’s latest book that continues the story of Fablehaven, a series centring on Kendra and Seth Sorenson—sister and brother—who discover their grandparents are keepers of a magical preserve, a place that houses and maintains mythical creatures. This five-book series is well worth the read.
In Dragon Watch, the first book of the new series, Kendra and Seth find themselves caretakers of Wyrmroost, one of the world’s dragon preserves. Kendra is fairykind, and Seth is a shadow charmer; together, they have the power to resist the enchantment of dragons. While written less well than the books in the original series, Dragon Watch is full of, well, dragons, so if you love these creatures, then add these books to your list.
Where I live is pretty short on mythical creatures—but perhaps not as short as you might think. I recently took a trip with a friend to visit the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. The museum is an amazing walk through the geological and palaeontological history of Alberta. Even if you aren’t’ a dinosaur person, you will find this museum fascinating. All the fossils are creatures that walked the swampy forests or swam the Bearpaw Sea that was once Alberta.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex and Edmontosaurus on display might not be dragons of myth, but looking at these fossils will help you understand why dragons, or even the thought of dragons, has so fully entered the imaginations of countless writers. They are those creatures that lie on the edges of our imaginations. They slumber in caves or under mountains; they are hoarders of wealth and of secrets. Wake them, if you dare.

Young Adult Books for Canada’s 150th

Canada’s sesquicentennial gives people living in this country many reasons to celebrate. One of them, of course, is books. Check out this blog post I wrote for the Athabasca University website—just a few of my own favourites.
It would be nice to compile a list of the best 150 young adult books by Canadian authors. If you have suggestions, please email, and I will try to post a definitive list by the end of 2017.

Twenty Years of Harry Potter

In 1999, on a rainy afternoon in July, I was flaked out in my room reading an audio book. My kids and I had just moved in to our new house. They came home from an afternoon with their mom, and my youngest walked into my room. She heard:

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue.
“Urgh – troll boogers.”

“What are you listening to?” she asked, laughing in surprise.
It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Correction—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. A neighbour had given me the book on cassette tape (if anyone remembers what those were), and my kid’s mom and I agreed that I would read the book before letting our kids read it. Thus began the obsession.
This June 26th marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. These books have been part of my life as a parent, an academic, and a reader for the last eighteen years.
While the Harry Potter franchise has become something of a bloated monster, I mostly simply appreciate the books as books. I’m not a Harry Potter film person, which, to some, makes me a heretic. I don’t spend any time on Pottermore, I don’t visit fans sites such as The-Leaky-Cauldron.org, and I don’t write fanfic—although I did think about it, once.
The books first entered my life as a parent. My kids and I read the books together, and we mostly listened to the Jim Dale recordings. By the time Order of the Phoenix appeared, you could sometimes hear the voice of Jim Dale coming from three different rooms in the house.
The night Deathly Hallows was released, my kids and I lined up at the south-side Indigo for copies of our books. We listened to the first chapter together, sitting at the kitchen table (it was now after 1:00 in the morning), before scattering our separate ways to read—my youngest and I through the rest of the night. The series gave me one of the many points of connection with my kids, and it carries a particular weight for that reason alone.
Teaching the book is another story. I teach either Philosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets each year in my children’s literature classes, and one year, I taught a senior level course on the series. I’ve published two articles on Harry Potter, and made several presentations at conferences. The books are rich, but as an academic, I read with a critical eye—always reminding my students that I love the series, even if I question it relentlessly on a variety of levels:

Yes, Harry Potter is a Cinderella figure.
Yes, the dialogue often gets awkward.
No, the snake that appears in the first book has nothing to do with those appearing in the second.
No, Harry’s desire to kill Sirius Black in the third book is nothing more than teenage anger and adolescent bravado.
And, did you catch the major plot problem in Goblet of Fire?

In my life as a reader, the wizarding world has an immovable place. That place isn’t that of Narnia or Middle-Earth, but it’s in there. The Harry Potter books, for me, constitute an experience of shared reading—mostly with my kids. My reading life is a private world, which probably sounds odd coming from someone who teaches for a living. But the reading I do for my classes isn’t the same as the reading I do for me: the one is meant for public consumption; the other isn’t.
In celebration of twenty years of Harry Potter, I’m providing some links to other pieces I’ve written on the series.

The Potter Effect and the School for Wizards
The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation
The Birthplace of Harry Potter
More on Harry Potter, The Glasgow Connection

Enjoy! And if you haven’t read the series, do yourself a favour and read the first book. Consider it part of your professional development as a reader. Go ahead and hate it, but you’ll at least get a glimpse into the world many people find so compelling.