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.

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.

Writers on Writing

Craft essays are those pieces in which writers talk about writing—their process, how they started writing, or how they keep writing. I read such pieces in the hope of gleaning something that will help me the next time I feel stuck, overwhelmed, or desperately discouraged about my own writing.
Recently, I read “This is How a Writer Writes a Story” by Margaret Malone. She thoughtfully explores the messy business of writing fiction, and her first experience of having to write a story for a creative writing class.
But there are as many opinions on writing as there are writers. If you are someone who wants to write, or someone who wants to write more effectively, where do you begin?
Two years ago, I decided I had to quit screwing around with my writing. I had to get stuff finished and sent out. Many literary journals use Submittable as their online, submission portal, and I decided I would use Submittable to send out as many pieces as I could. I wrote and wrote. Those pieces I finished went into a folder on my computer; those I couldn’t finish, for one reason or another, went into another folder.
Since the late fall of 2015, including several older pieces I pulled out to revise, I’ve completed thirty-five. I’ve made over one hundred submissions, through Submittable and by email, and I’ve published seven, including essays and short stories.
My goal over the past eighteen months has been consistency—both in terms of what I’m writing and how much I submit. My draft folder has more than a hundred pieces, most of which won’t turn in to anything. But that’s fine; I hang on to everything I write.
In order for me to understand myself as a writer, I needed to complete as much as I could, and I needed to get used to editors rejecting my work—never an easy thing to do. However, it’s even possible to turn rejection into a motivator.
Kim Liao offered some of the best advice I’ve heard recently on writing: aim for one hundred rejections a year. This seemed like masochistic advice, but then I thought about it again. Rejection isn’t a measure of a writer’s ability; it’s a measure of a writer’s output—the consistent, day-to-day grind of writing and revision that makes you better at what you do.
I’ve sent out a story, had it rejected, then gone back to look at the story and been horrified that I let it get out there. Then I revise it and send it out again. This is always a lesson in humility. I usually learn that I was more anxious to send out something I thought was a great story than I was interested in making it the best story it could be.
Flannery O’Connor, one of my favourite short story writers, would call this day-to-day work of getting stuff out there the external habit of writing. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor says the external habits of a writer will be driven by his or her common sense—or lack of it—as well as his or her own circumstances. Writing, for O’Connor, is more about getting the habit of art, and the habit of art is about getting at the truth in an imaginative way, which is both messy and laborious. O’Connor writes: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
***
Several years ago, my daughter bought me pottery lessons for father’s day. We went to a series of classes that summer. I quickly discovered that pottery was much harder than I thought. First, you have to centre the clay on the wheel, then you have to decide what you will do with the clay—a mug, a bowl, or something else. Clay can be unforgiving. There’s a point at which you have to stop forcing the clay to be something you want; you have to let the clay take the shape it’s going to take. If you force it, the clay will slump, and you end up with a collapsed mess on your wheel. Each time you throw a pot, you learn more about how to work the clay.
Writing is like that, but it’s also more forgiving—thank god. You can revise, restructure, flip the point of view, or simply start over. But that story or essay or novel is going to have limits; you need to understand what you are building in order to not force the thing into a shape that’s going to make it implode. Hence, the folder with more than a hundred partially finished pieces.
However you go about it, writing is about writing. Thinking about writing won’t get words on the page or the screen. Thinking about food won’t put your dinner on the table. Write stuff down. Get feedback on what you write, but don’t let anyone tell you what your story should or shouldn’t do. Feedback is invaluable. Listen carefully, express your gratitude, and then go back to writing and revising.
Once you’ve established a discipline of writing, and once you’ve had a few lessons in humility, you will discover what my friend Tom Wharton calls the fifth element of story. The fifth element, according to Wharton, is that space between the story, the listener, and the teller, “a magical space, a pocket dimension, a field of invisible forces. You know this space when you’re in one that’s really working. It casts an enchantment over you.”
I mostly know the fifth element as a reader. It’s the experience of a book or a story that transports me beyond what I am, that helps me to see the world according to a new pattern of understanding—even if it’s just for a brief space of time. If you can write a story that transports your reader, you can know that you’ve had a hand in something truly humbling—the function of art and the operation of story.

Tales from the Red Planet

This past winter, I taught a course on Mars. I wasn’t actually on Mars, although that would have been awesome. I taught a course about the literature of the red planet as part of my winter teaching load.
Several years ago, I helped create the course in speculative fiction for our department, but this was the first time I had the chance to teach it. Interestingly enough, the course has quickly become one tailored to the interests of the instructor. Someone taught the course as an exploration of zombies, someone else on artificial intelligence. As I was considering what I would do with the course, I suddenly thought, hey, Mars.
The red planet has fired the imaginations of writers and scientists alike for centuries, and Mars has found its way into virtually every mythology. To the western world, Mars is most recognizable as the God of War, but even Mars, Ares to the Greek world, was an evolving deity. The figure of Mars Silvanus, for example, combined attributes of the God of War with that of a nature deity.
The amount written about the red planet is astonishing: everything from well-known books, such as War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, to lesser known stories, such as “Ministering Angels” by C. S. Lewis. From the literary to the ridiculous, from books and short stories to television and film, you can find just about everything. Have you seen, for example, Santa Clause Conquers the Martians? And who could forget Marvin the Martian.
The students who took the class were interested, engaged, and keen to talk about Mars, representations of the alien, and what the planet has come to represent in the popular imagination. A fabulous group.
Beginning with Greek and Roman mythology, we discussed ways the red planet has entered the literary and cultural imagination—the seat of war and conflict, the home of dead civilizations, and an imminent threat to Earth. We examined the history of the exploration of Mars, as well as sections from the less than scientific Mars and its Canals by Percival Lowell.
Here’s a brief list of books to get you started on your own exploration of the red planet:
War of the Worlds, By H. G. Wells,
John Carter and the Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs,
Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis,
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury,
The Sands of Mars, by Arthur C. Clarke,
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson,
The Martian, by Andy Weir,
Red Planet Blues, by Robert J. Sawyer,
Second Going, by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon).
You’ll notice only the last book in this list was written by a woman. Mars remains, unfortunately, largely the territory of male writers. As you read, check out the many images of the red planet on NASA’s website. And most of all, look up into the night sky this summer, find the baleful eye of Mars looking back, and let your imagination play over the possibilities.

Literacy and the Reading Success Story

This June marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ll have more to say on that next month. For now, one of the Google alerts I often receive is the story about the kid who didn’t read until picking up a copy of Harry Potter.
Such stories are part of the reading success narrative you will often encounter on social media. Some kid has trouble in school, and who, with the help of a compassionate teacher or librarian, turns his or her life around because of reading. These stories usually focus on a child’s experience of reading fiction for the first time. Fiction changes people’s lives; it changed mine. After losing my sight in a car accident at the age of eleven, I was introduced to books on tape. Reading has been my life and my work ever since.
As much as I want everyone to read the books that changed my life, I also recognize that reading success isn’t limited to fiction—and certainly not to the books I’ve read. Reading, at its most basic, is about literacy. It’s about one’s ability to engage with and understand the world through words and language. New comers to this country, for example, don’t need to read Harry Potter; they need a functional vocabulary in English so they can communicate effectively as they establish their new lives.
It’s also no surprise that exposing children to books at a young age helps develop their literacy early in life. A 2015 study by Dominic Massaro at the University of California suggests that reading out loud to children is actually a more effective means of building literacy than just talking to them.
Those people who identify themselves as readers are invaluable ambassadors of literacy. But here’s the flip-side. Readers can also be reading snobs.
“What! You haven’t read it!”
To my everlasting embarrassment, I’ve said this more times than I care to admit. And I’ve had people say it to me more than I like.
“What! You’re a professor, and you haven’t read it?”
Yes, I’m a professor. I read for a living. And no, I haven’t read it.
There are many paths to literacy—mine is one. Yours is another. Whether it’s Charles Dickens, romance novels, magazines, bird books, or (god help me) Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (I can’t stand these books), reading is the path to greater literacy, engagement, and critical thinking. There are, of course, those people who only read to reinforce their own beliefs or prejudices, but this doesn’t take away from the main point: deliberate and careful reading—whatever that means—makes you a more engaged and compassionate human being. And who cares if you aren’t reading what’s trendy, or new, or any of that. Just read, and encourage others in their own reading.
My early teens was the time in my life I felt most isolated. Reading helped me to understand that worlds existed beyond mine, that others had, at least in part, gone through something similar. And as alone as I felt much of the time, reading always made it easier to bear.
So be a literacy ambassador. Buy a book and give it to someone you care about. It will set you back the price of two lattes—or just go through your shelves and find something you can give away. Literacy is power, so get out there and empower someone.