In recognition of #PinkShirtDay, 2018. Help stop bullying, whether it’s in the office or on the playground. The focus of this year’s campaign is cyberbullying, but this is only one more arena where such behaviour finds an expression.
When I was twelve, I returned to school after having lost my sight in a car accident. I had been away from my regular school for a year, and I was initially welcomed back. That lasted only a couple of months. I spent most of junior high fending off a select group of kids who made it their business to torment me in a routine sort of way. I didn’t know what to do, so I retaliated.
“Flash Point” is a story I published last year that looks at some of those events. The events are fictionalized, but everything in the story occurred. Retaliating certainly wasn’t the answer, although no one, including me, had much awareness of how to address such behaviour in the late 1970s. Pink Shirt Day thankfully speaks to a growing awareness, but everyone still has to do his or her part.
In 1999, my kids wanted to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Their friends were reading the books, but their mom, and other parents I knew, had concerns about the series. As parents, we agreed I would read the first book and let her know what I thought.
My kids and I had just moved into our new house, and I spent a rainy week in July reading the audio book, performed by Jim Dale. My youngest walked into my room to hear the line,
“Urgh – troll boogers.”
“What are you reading?” she asked, with some surprise.
My kids started reading Harry Potter later that summer. We talked about the books, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what bothered them.
Over the years, I’ve made it a practice to read what my kids are reading. Not everything, but even if I didn’t have time, or if I couldn’t get a digital copy of the book, we talked about what they were reading. And being able to talk about books meant we could talk about other things—music, movies, or pop culture.
This week is Freedom to Read Week. Reading with kids and talking about books can be the most effective ways to help a new generation become more aware and more clear-thinking adults. And reading together is simply one of the best ways to spend time with kids—I say that as both a parent and a storyteller.
Western culture has a long history of adults trying to control what kids read, going back farther than the eighteenth century. At that time, adults wanted kids to read books that were uplifting, instilled a fear of God, or taught lessons in honesty and working hard. One of the most shocking books ever written for children is James Janeway’s A Token for Children, which featured stories of child martyrs, all dying in the knowledge that their faith in God is secure. But children have always been drawn to those books adults don’t want them to read—both then and now.
If you want to read more about Freedom to Read Week, check out their website. Have a look at this list of challenged books in Canada from the Edmonton Public Library’s website—a list that contains some of my favourite books. And listen to this story from the CBC archives about the challenge to Margaret Laurence’s books in 1985.
The battle over books has gone on for centuries. But it’s not just about books; it’s about ideas and the freedom to think critically. Kids are curious; they want to read, and they want to talk about what they read. Unfortunately, the challenge to most books emerges out of fear—fear of what we dislike, fear of what we see as different, fear of what doesn’t reflect our own beliefs. Much is gained from maintaining a dialogue with children and young adults about what they think—they’re pretty awesome. And they are, after all, those who will inherit the Earth.
A sincere thanks to Dan and Jen of Firewords Magazine: The Anthology of Fiery Fiction and Poetry. This month, Dan and Jen bring us Issue 9, Perspectives,and I’m happy to say the magazine includes “The Water People,” a story I wrote earlier this year.
“The Water People” is, in some ways, a different kind of story for me. For one, it’s told from a collective first person point of view, which I’ve never used before. This is a story about days of endless rain, and a strange race of liquid people who take over the world as it drowns. Fine—I have a thing for stories in which the world ends, so that’s nothing new.
I’m also excited because this is the first time my work has appeared in a UK magazine. Firewords is a Glasgow based, print journal that relies on volunteers rather than advertising. You can purchase the magazine in a variety of formats—just follow the link above, and thanks for your support of this gem of a journal.
If you have been following the recent Internet buzz around Harry Potter, you are probably aware that studies suggest reading the novels will make you a better person. I’m sure it’s true. I’m never one to argue that reading will help you become more empathetic, more compassionate, and result in you becoming more aware of marginalized groups. However, much of the buzz around this study fails to acknowledge the long-standing connection between reading and empathy, quite apart from the Harry Potter books and their effect on young readers.
The study in question is “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice,” which appeared in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2015. You can find the study yourself, if you have access to a university library data base. This group of researchers tested three groups of young people. They set out to test if positive identification with the main character of a particular fantasy series—that being Harry Potter—would result in higher levels of sympathy towards marginalized groups, such as immigrants, refugees, and members of the LGBTQ community. Surprise surprise—the researchers discovered that young people who positively identified with Harry felt more empathy towards stigmatized groups.
The study undeniably makes a point about three select groups of young people who read Harry Potter. And yet, I don’t entirely know what to do with it. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a social scientist. As someone who teaches literature, and someone who teaches Harry Potter on a regular basis, I’m unsurprised by the results, but I am surprised by people’s reaction. A life time of reading has shown me how reading can expand my sense of the world, particularly of people I know nothing about. More important are the interactions that can emerge out of reading-in the classroom or with other readers. Talking to one another about the books we love fosters a dialogue that can become the vehicle for marked and radical change.
Studies on the positive effects of reading are plentiful. Just Google “reading and empathy” and you will see what I mean. Does this take away from the research on Harry Potter? Not necessarily. But it does suggest some perspective is in order.
A piece in Scientific American from 2013, for example, comments on a study examining the benefits of reading literary fiction, while a 2016 article in The Atlantic discusses studies on reading and the theory of mind, which suggest reading, while beneficial, will not give you super powers.
All this to say, reading Harry Potter will help make you a better person, but so will reading C. S. Lewis, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Elizabeth Smart, rohinton Mistry, as well as a thousand others. While social media has expanded people’s spheres of contact in astonishing ways, nothing takes the place of reading, then telling someone close to you about the book that just blew your mind. As the holidays approach and you stock up on books to get you through to the New Year. Remember to come out of your quiet corner now and then to tell somebody about what you’ve discovered. Happy reading!
Winter arrived here in Edmonton on November 1. It does that here—one day it’s fall, cool but lovely, and the next day it’s winter, snowy and cold. Even the geese who stop here on their way south were caught unawares by the sudden change.
This happens every year, and every year many are taken by surprise at the abrupt start to the winter. People scramble to find their winter-clothes; they line up to have winter tires put back on their cars. For this season, which is sometimes fully half the calendar year, it takes longer to get ready to leave the house, and it takes longer to get anywhere. This longest season of the year has an inevitable effect on the way people think and the way they interact with their world. If you live here, you simply can’t ignore what’s happening outside your window.
A few years ago, I wrote a flash fiction piece about snow and about winter. I’ve never tried submitting the story, mostly because I didn’t think it would mean much to anyone living south of the fifty-third parallel. Nonetheless, here’s the story, Dreaming of Snow. Enjoy!
He dreamed. All day the snow fell heavily and deliberately, dropping down in great white flakes that gathered themselves into clinging crystalline faces that vanished as they kissed the ground. The air was thick and alive with falling snow.
He sat on the couch and watched the gathering whiteness through the window. The snow fell and fell. It obliterated the green of pines and the brown of branches. It swirled and settled, leveling the ground to an implacable plain of whiteness that steadily rose and rose.
Once, he opened the front-door. It smelled sharp and clean and cold, and the snow hissed and sighed as it jostled its way down, filling the air with its crystalline whisper and clogging coldness. He closed the door.
Back at the window, he watched as the level of whiteness crept up the side of the house. He knew he was drowning, drowning in snow and cold. It would rise to the level of the window, then it would rise even higher, and it would bury the house—and keep falling and falling. Sooner or later, he would be entombed in snow.
Eventually, he would suffocate, or perhaps the inexorable weight of the falling snow would simply crush the house with him inside. Watching the white wall creep up the window, he knew he could do nothing. There was nothing to do save remember the dream of summer that had fled forever. And as he remembered sun and leaves and the song of birds, he could see individual snowflakes pressed against the glass, flakes that formed patterns and frozen faces, faces that peered in and took no account of the heat that for now still ran throbbing through his veins in a rhythmic pulse of denial.
A big thank you to Rebecca Leboeuf and the people at Penmen Review for picking up My Sister Maddie. This story has made the rounds of literary journals, so I’m thrilled that it has finally found a home.
My Sister Maddie began as a writing exercise. I haven’t tried this one often, but it can be helpful. Take a story or an excerpt from one of your literary mentors, then write something that models itself after that piece. You can try emulating language, character, or the way the piece creates setting. It works—for the most part. You will find that your own writing takes a different shape as it evolves. It’s a great way to get started or unstuck.
When starting My Sister Maddie, I used Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat” (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood 1976) as a starting point. MacLeod writes stunning landscapes and character portrayals. I can’t do what MacLeod does, but I can aspire towards that kind of excellence.
Check out all the fine writing on the Penmen Review as well, and if you don’t know MacLeod’s work, then find a quiet afternoon and read one of his short stories. They are lyrical, poignant, and painful—from one of Canada’s best writers.