Cli-Fic–Have you Heard of it?

Climate change fiction for young adults, or cli-fi, also called eco-fiction, is a genre that has been gaining ground for a few years. Cli-Fi is one of those genres that crosses boundaries into other kinds of fiction. It can be dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be. To be cli-fi, these books seem to need an environmental disaster as part of the central conflict.
According to Scientific American, cli-fic is establishing itself as a genre for adults, while it seems to have already become a thing in the world of young adult books. In a larger way, such books are part of what is also called Anthropocene fiction—the Anthropocene being a term describing the period within which humans have had the gratest impact on the planet’s ecosystems.
Weirdly enough, when I first encountered a reference to cli-fic, I was less surprised than I was baffled. How is this suddenly a genre, I wondered. I hadn’t encountered the term before, but this wasn’t exactly a new kind of book for me.
Long, long ago, when phones weren’t smart, and the Internet was just a thing for geeks, I took a badly typed and badly written manuscript to the public library, where Monica Hughes was serving as the writer in residence. I thought I could write at the time, and Monica was so kind and encouraging that I believed I still could upon leaving the library. Seldom have I encountered someone who could provide critical feedback with such grace and understanding. I like to think of her as one of my early writing mentors, even if briefly.
If you don’t know, Monica Hughes was born in Liverpool in 1925. She had a career that included dress maker and bank clerk, and she published her first novel for young adults at the age of fifty. Canada claims her as one of the country’s best science fiction writers for young adults. But she wasn’t just a Canadian; she was an Edmontonian.
Monica Hughes was writing climate change fiction in the 1980s and 90s, long before the genre had ever been thought of. Her Isis trilogy deals with the despoilment of a planet, whose sole inhabitant, Olwen Pendennis, has been surgically altered by her robot guardian so she can live safely in the harsh climate of Isis. Two other important cli-fic books are Ring-Rise, Ring-Set (1982) and The Crystal Drop (1992). Ring-Rise tells the story of the advancing glaciers in northern Canada, the Earth’s climate having been altered because of a ring of asteroidal dust encircling the equator. The Crystal Drop, on the other hand, is set in southern Alberta, where global warming has turned the prairie into a desert. After the death of her mother, Megan Dougal and her younger brother have to make a trek across the drought-stricken prairie to find a new home with their uncle in the mysterious community of Gaia.
There you have it—climate change fiction from the 80s and 90s. And it was happening in Edmonton, coming from Monica Hughes, a delightfully engaging and prolific writer, who was farther ahead of her time than I ever thought.

Dialogue in Children’s and Young Adult Books

Many readers look for dialogue in the books they read. This is no different for children. Dialogue adds tension, information, and moves a story along in helpful ways. But when is dialogue too much?
I teach J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit every year. Invariably, a student will tell me the book wasn’t for them. This is a polite way of telling me they didn’t like it. When I ask why, the student will often say, “There’s just too much description.”
On one hand, I can appreciate that someone might find Tolkien’s pacing slow. The book has long passages of description, and Bilbo’s journey takes time. On the other hand, the same student who doesn’t like The Hobbit will like Gary Paulson’s Hatchet. Hatchet is a survival story, which means Brian, the main character, is stuck on a lake in Northern Ontario for fifty-four days—by himself. As you can imagine, the book has hardly any dialogue. So what’s the difference?
In this case, I think it’s a matter of taste rather than criticism. However, when is dialogue a bad thing in a children’s book? I’m reading Brandon Mull’s Beyonders series, based on the fantasy kingdom of Lyrian. I was part way through the second book, Seeds of Rebellion, when my mind started wandering. I realized that Mull’s large cast of characters was talking too much. In the second book, many of these characters come together on a journey—then they start talking. The dialogue goes on and on. The characters are busy organizing a rebellion against Maldor, the evil emperor, but the endless talk of who’s who and how they plan to defeat the emperor gets tedious. It’s like reading a script—the dialogue provides information, but the tension evaporates. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Brandon Mull. His Fablehaven series is excellent, and it remains my favourite.
Thinking about dialogue in kid’s books raises some important questions for me. For one, when I think about the inner life of a child, I remember a rich world of feeling that I had to work hard to articulate. I’m sure this isn’t true for many kids, but kids still have to learn how to close the gap between feeling and verbalizing. Language acquisition doesn’t happen at the same rate for every child. If an author fails to recognize that language acquisition imposes certain limitations on character, then they aren’t doing justice to a child’s experience. If the point of the dialogue is just to get across information, then you might as well skip the dialogue and—or some of it—and offer a concise explanation.
This is an exercise in balance. Return to Tolkien for a moment. Here’s a passage from The Hobbit that both uses description and dialogue to its best affect:

One morning they forded a river at a wide shallow place full of the noise of stones and foam. The far bank was steep and slippery. When they got to the top of it, leading their ponies, they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them. Already they seemed only a day’s easy journey from the feet of the nearest. Dark and drear it looked, though there were patches of sunlight on its brown sides, and behind its shoulders the tips of snowpeaks gleamed.
”Is that The Mountain?” asked Bilbo in a solemn voice, looking at it with round eyes. He had never seen a thing that looked so big before.
”Of course not!” said Balin. ”That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have got to get through, or over, or under those somehow, before we can come into Wilderland beyond. And it is a deal of a way even from the other side of them to the Lonely Mountain in the East where Smaug lies on our treasure.”
”O!” said Bilbo, and just at that moment he felt more tired than he ever remembered feeling before. He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!
(J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

Tolkien creates a balance between the interior state of the character and dialogue. Both provide information, and the tension comes out of Bilbo’s tiredness in relation to Balin’s comment that the world is much bigger than the hobbit imagines.
An Internet search will tell you it’s important to use dialogue in kid’s books. Good advice. But dialogue is effective for any kind of writing. And most kids know when they are being condescended to. That includes the over use of dialogue. Kids can be discerning readers, just like adults, which to my mind is always the best place to begin—remembering that kids are readers, who know what they like, and who aren’t afraid to close a book once they’ve had enough.

Waiting for A Wrinkle in Time

If you’re like me, you’re anticipating the filmic release of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time this March. I read this book as a kid—on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which, if you’re wondering, is a dinosaur from the analog era. Just so we’re clear, the analogue era is that point in human history before everything went digital.
I was an impressionable reader at fourteen. Everything I read blew my mind, and everything I read was going to change my life. Reading about Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their search for their father introduced me to a new kind of fantasy—fantasy that wasn’t Lord of the Rings and THAT crossed THE line into science fiction.
A Wrinkle in Time was the first book I read by Madeline L’Engle. I of course wanted more, but I quickly discovered she didn’t exclusively write fantasy. L’Engle is known for her Time series, which includes A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. But she wrote more than fifty books. If you want to read more about the series and the author, check out this fine 2004 piece by Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker.
As a teenager, I felt a little weird reading a fantasy/science fiction book that made reference to God. At that time, I hadn’t yet read any C. S. Lewis. At university, I studied A Wrinkle in Time with Jon Stott, my children’s literature mentor, who talked about the book in terms of what he called the Isis archetype—girl characters who had to confront, and often save their flawed fathers. That gave me something to think about, although I hadn’t yet become a flawed father myself.
Eventually, I read C. S. Lewis’ Space trilogy, which gave me another way of understanding L’Engle’s AWiT. Lewis’ series, especially the first book, draws on the tradition of H. G. Wells, the man who, I would argue, invented science fiction. Out of the Silent Planet (1938) is by far my favourite of the trilogy, with its depiction of deep heaven, the angel-like Oyarsa who govern each of the planets, and Earth, or Thulcandra, as the silent planet. All this, I think, looks forward to AWiT, the angel-like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Witch, and the dark thing, or shadow that envelops the Earth.
I always need to fit the books I’m reading into a larger literary picture. Call it an obsession. L’Engle may very well have been drawing on Lewis, but she gave us something new in 1962: a contemporary girl character who fights evil. Some aspects of the book now seem dated, But Meg Murry, with her stubbornness and belligerent attitude, remains a forerunner to the spunky girl characters of the twenty-first century.

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.

100 and Still Posting

This entry marks the one hundredth post on my blog. It’s actually more than that, but I figured re-posting doesn’t count.
In the early summer of 2015, I had the idea for a blog on children’s literature. The teaching term was over, and I spent hours sitting at my kitchen table trying to figure out how to create a blog. Everything I read told me I needed to make it interesting, that I needed pictures, and that I had to find a niche.
I surfed the web for hours, looking at other blogs about kid’s books. Many of these were book review sites—interesting and informative, but not what I wanted to put my energy towards. I finally settled on a weird mix of commentary, personal reflection, and creative writing.
I was still faced with many questions:
1. How not to sound like a pompous ass,
2. How to write about things that interested me,
3. How to reach readers,
4. How to offer something original,
5. And how to make my blog both easy to read and appealing to the eye.
Of Other Worlds: A Children’s Literature Blog was born. My first entry was a personal account of discovering Tolkien at the age of eleven, after losing my sight in a car accident the summer before.
I quickly discovered that maintaining a blog was less easy than I thought. I tried writing something every week, but that was too hard. I tried writing about the books I loved, which worked better. I started writing and posting fractured fairy tales, which was fun, but again, hard to maintain. All of it was a learning experience—the writing, the site itself, and the hard-to-ignore, sometimes demoralizing conviction that nobody was even reading it.
Last summer, I created this author webpage, which meant that my blog was just now part of my site. Kid’s and young adult books are still a major part of my life and work, but the blog has expanded into something more. I’ve learned a great deal from creating and maintaining these sites, and I’ve gained a greater appreciation for anyone who reads what I write.
I’ll keep posting, and I hope people keep reading. You’ll still find stuff on kid’s and young adult books, but maybe you’ll occasionally find more to interest you. Either way, let me know.