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.

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Think

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.

World Read Aloud Day, 2018

A couple of years ago, I was stopped outside MacEwan by a young woman.
“Are you Mr. Thompson?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking she must be a student.
“I was in your daughter’s class in elementary. You used to come in and tell us stories.”
I was touched that this young woman remembered those stories and thought to say hello, especially since elementary for my kids was more than a decade in the past.
My kids have always had an experience of books. Their mom started reading to them before they could talk. For my part, I tried ordering print-braille books so I could read to them as well, but books took ages to arrive by mail, which meant the whole thing was more frustrating than anything else.
I was lucky enough to have taken a children’s literature course with Jon Stott during my undergrad, so out of desperation, I pulled out my old textbook to see if I could find a story to tell my two-year-old. The first story I ever told her was “Kate Crackernuts.” She heard that story every night for three months, and I doubt she heard the ending until much later. But telling stories became part of the ritual at bedtime, which lasted for years.
Later on, when my kids started school, I went into their class and told stories—stories I found in books or on the Internet. The teacher had the idea to turn all those stories into a project. The kids drew pictures of their favourite stories, and my mom and another parent transferred those pictures onto fabric. The whole thing became the Storytelling Quilt.
Reading aloud to children is a powerful thing. Research suggests reading aloud helps both general literacy and reading acquisition. But consider –reading to your own kids means spending time with them, and spending such time goes a long way to actively showing your kids how much you care.
February 1 is World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by Scholastic. If you can, take the time to read aloud to a child in your life. And if you can’t manage it for February 1, remember that every day of the year offers such an opportunity.

Ursula Le Guin, A Reader’s Tribute

Ursula Le Guin, a giant in science fiction and fantasy, died this week at the age of eighty-eight. I read the news this morning on Vox. Sorrow, fondness, and a deep nostalgia all came in a rush as I read the post, my coffee growing cold beside my keyboard.
As a thirteen-year-old, geeky kid who mostly felt like an alien, I was starving for books. Two years before, I lost my sight in a car accident, and since then, reading had become my life. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings created a space in my head I never knew existed; those books gave me a hunger for fantasy that was impossible to slake.
In those days, I read books on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. That thing weighed fifteen pounds and was bigger than a boot box. Many of my books came from The Materials Resource Centre in downtown Edmonton, which was then part of Alberta Education. Lesley Aiken ran the MRC, and we talked about books whenever I visited.
One day, Lesley gave me a copy of The Tombs of Atuan, the second book in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. She thought I would like it since I liked Tolkien. I was curious and excited, and was immediately transported by Earthsea and its archipelago.
Reading Le Guin for the first time opened my mind in new ways—yet again. As a teen, I found her worlds—especially the science fiction—more challenging, but I think I can say Le Guin helped me take my first steps towards becoming a feminist.
For me, Ged and his journey to Roke Island was the original story of the school for wizards, thirty years before the Boy Who Lived appeared on shelves. I read Le Guin through my twenties and thirties, including her books and essays as part of my PhD thesis. I even taught The Left Hand of Darkness to a first-year class at MacEwan. This last November, I decided to finish reading Le Guin’s Chronicles of the Western Shore, a series that includes Gifts, Voices, and Powers.
So you see, Le Guin is one of those authors who has literally been part of my whole reading life. If you haven’t read Le Guin, find one of her books or read some of her stories. She is, without a doubt, one of the giants of twentieth century science fiction and fantasy. She’ll be missed.

The Magic of Reading Harry Potter, or Just the Magic of Reading?

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!