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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.

Signs of Spring

Spring in Edmonton comes quickly. Winter drags on and on, then suddenly, it’s spring. Here are three passages to get you thinking about spring—where ever you are.

Spring had come once more to Green Gables the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.
(L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, Chapter 20)

But of course this didn’t prevent Edmund from seeing. Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree—gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or having their little quarrels.
“Faster! Faster!” said the Witch.
There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.
“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”
(C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, , Chapter 6)

“I heard the frogs today,” said the old sheep one evening.
“Listen! You can hear them now.”
Wilbur stood still and cocked his ears. From the pond, in shrill chorus, came the voices of hundreds of little frogs.
“Springtime,” said the old sheep, thoughtfully. “Another spring.” As she walked away, Wilbur saw a new lamb following her. It was only a few hours old.
The snows melted and ran away. The streams and ditches bubbled and chattered with rushing water. A sparrow with a streaky breast arrived and sang. The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte’s old web floated away and vanished.
One fine sunny morning, after breakfast, Wilbur stood watching his precious sac. He wasn’t thinking of anything much. As he stood there, he noticed something move. He stepped closer and stared. A tiny
spider crawled from the sac. It was no bigger than a grain of sand, no bigger than the head of a pin.
(E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web, Chapter 22)

Writing Blind

I recently had an essay published in Wanderlust Journal—a piece called “Traveling Blind.” After I have a piece accepted by a journal, I mostly forget about it—at least it drops off my work radar. However, I went to the website and reread the piece. A question occurred to me. Why did I write it?
Everything I write is something I’ve experienced in some way—that includes fiction. If I’m to be authentic in writing about my life in the form of personal essays or memoir, then I have to write about being blind. The reality is that I don’t think about it much of the time. I just live my life—I clean my house, I do my work, I walk, I read. Even if I’m standing in an aisle of the grocery store and looking for salad dressing, I don’t think to myself, I can’t see, and this makes this whole thing hard. Instead, I think, this bottle is the shape of the salad dressing I usually buy, so into my basket it goes. I will sometimes ask people for help, but not always.
The point is that if I’m going to write about my experience as a blind person, then I need to think about it—weird as that may sound. It occurred to me one day—if I could see, I would just be another white guy over fifty. Being blind reclassifies me, puts me in a category of difference—at least according to the world. Do I think about being blind as I’m writing every day? NO.
I recently wrote a story about a mysterious young woman who has an uncanny ability to know which books would be best suited for people she meets in a book store. I wasn’t thinking about being blind when I wrote that story. The story is told from the point of view of the young woman: she’s a student, and she’s meeting an acquaintance for coffee, someone she knew in junior high (middle school to the rest of the world). That’s what I had to think about—being a young person, a young woman, who loves books, and doesn’t quite know how to deal with this person from her past. Writing such a character is tricky. I’m not a young woman, but I love books, and I usually have complicated responses to people from my past.
Perhaps the point here is that writing is always something of a paradox: it’s important to write what one knows, but one has to step outside of the experience to write about it at all. Think about building a fence or painting a painting. You have to stand back and see it coming together as a whole. The same is true for me as I try to write my experiences. And even as I’m writing about what the world defines as a disability, I have to see it from the outside to communicate the experience. That experience is always intensely personal, so that’s how it gets written. The question then becomes, how do you write something intensely personal without feeling as though you’re standing naked on a bus? That’s maybe a post for another day.

A New Piece, Traveling Blind

By nature, I’m mostly a hobbit. However, like Bilbo Baggins, I do travel, sometimes more than I want. And I mostly travel alone, which means I rely on the kindness and assistance of people who work for airlines and in airports. And these people are amazing—helpful, good natured, efficient, and friendly. I couldn’t travel the way I do without them.
“Traveling Blind” is a nonfiction piece about getting there—where ever that is. I hope you find it funny, in a neurotic sort of way. The piece first appeared in Wanderlust Journal, and I want to thank Sarah Leamy for being interested enough to accept it for publication. Enjoy the piece, and make sure to check out the magazine.

Pink Shirt Day, 2018

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.