In fiction, dystopias come and go, but magic and monsters are forever.
During times of real-world upheaval, tales of fantasy can provide a useful escape into wonder. But can these stories also provide real, useful coping mechanisms to kids muddling through difficult times?
We say, emphatically, yes.
Last March, one of us (Fran) spent a day at Ridge Elementary in Richmond, Va., teaching a writing workshop to 80 fifth graders, soon after some pretty scary world events.
The school’s theme that year was Superheroes and Ridge Elementary’s hallways and library were filled with bright Bam! and Pow! posters. Even a library mascot, a horse, wore a red super-cape. Fran walked into the library and the students were waiting, wondering what the heck a fantasy author had to do with superheroes, the challenges they were facing at home, at school, and what was happening in the world. (Fran notes: I have to admit I was wondering about that, too …)
‘Superheroes! Pretty great right?’ she said. She got nods all around, some smiles. A few kids played with their pencils and elbowed each other. Then she asked, ‘You guys want to make some monsters?’ You could hear a pencil drop. From the back, she heard a whispered, ‘YESSSSS.’ And for the next hour, they walked through how Fran built monsters in her books by taking a familiar thing, mixing it with something scary, figuring out its weaknesses and fears, then setting it loose.
At the end, students shared their monsters: from flying washing machines, impervious to everything except blackouts; to lots of giant spiders, variously armored; a clown with flames for hair; and a basketball with teeth. The students talked about why their monsters were the scariest, and then they all set out to see if they might overcome the monsters together. That’s when the room got really interactive, with kids helping each other solve problems related to defending against the monsters they’d built out of things that scared them.
Monster building is a great way to talk with young students and our own children about the creative process. It’s also a problem-solving exercise that helps with real-world fears: If you can imagine how to make a monster, you can figure out how to disassemble one, too.
The world is confusing, especially right now. Even though both of us have nominally been adults for some time now we still look at the world outside our own walls and feel confusion, if not actual fear, at what we see. It’s impossible for our kids not to be affected by tensions in the world around them: media is everywhere and by the time kids are in middle school, they are, if anything, more connected to it than adults. They’re living with the same confusion and fears these days that we are, and they have fewer tools for understanding and coping with it.
Reading about and making up monsters can help kids build real-world problem-solving skills to address those fears. So can magic, in very similar ways, by teaching about complex systems and how to use them.
Writers often start the work of creating a magical world by putting together a logical system with consistent rules to govern it. For a reader, part of the work of enjoying these books is learning the rules of the system, often alongside the characters as they figure out how to make that system work for them. Just like with the monster workshop, this kind of engagement involves problem-solving and creative thinking. It involves figuring out how to function in a place that is much bigger than one small person, and how to survive there until you can figure out how to thrive there, or to change it for the better.
And here’s the important part: the magic, and the monsters, too, are never fully the point of the stories. Often it isn’t magic that ultimately wins the day, and the monsters are rarely the end of the world. Instead, it’s the characters who solve problems using real life skills that win and save the day. Magic is secondary, for instance, at the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In reality, it is athleticism that aids Harry in catching the key, strategic thinking that leads Ron to a win at wizard chess, and logic that helps Hermione work out which potions will move Harry forward to the showdown and her backward to safety. Athleticism, strategy, logic: things that are within reach to many kids in one form or another, and that can be applied in their real-world lives.
Magic enchants readers while underscoring the fact that heroes can win by using tools that we, too, possess. Monsters teach similar things.
When engaging with magic and monsters, young readers (and young writers too) are studying some really important stuff: how to persevere and solve problems, even when the world seems unfamiliar and scary or strange.
Selected (and not at all finite) Book Suggestions (in somewhat age-ascending order):
Ed Emberly — Go Away, Big Green Monster
Maurice Sendak — Where the Wild Things Are
J.K. Rowling — The Harry Potter Series
Lewis Carroll, — Through the Looking Glass, Alice in Wonderland
Lloyd Alexander’s — The Chronicles of Prydain
C.S. Lewis — The Chronicles of Narnia
Tracey Baptiste — The Jumbies
E. Nesbitt — The Enchanted Castle
Bruce Coville — A Magic Shop series
Shaun Tan — The Arrival
L. Frank Baum — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
J. R. R Tolkien — The Hobbit
Susan Cooper — The Dark Is Rising Series
Patrick Ness — A Monster Calls
Jonathan Auxier — The Night Gardener
Cindy Pon — Serpentine
* Kate Milford is the New York Times best-selling author of Greenglass House (winner of the Edgar award for juvenile literature, and a nominee for the Andre Norton Award and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature) as well as five other novels for young readers, including the forthcoming The Left-Handed Fate (Henry Holt, 2016). She occasionally remembers to update her website at www.clockworkfoundry.com.
* Fran Wilde is the Andre Norton- and Compton Crook Award-winning, Nebula-nominated author of Updraft (Tor, 2015) and the forthcoming Cloudbound (Tor, 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, and Nature. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on twitter @fran_wilde and at franwilde.net.
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