Fantasy novels get the rap for being escapist fluff. We all know that. Warlocks, vampires, elves, and psychic savants hardly seem to be the stuff that PhDs are made of. That’s why kids and adults love to read fantasy. They don’t like to think, right?
Scholarship on this subject has focused on how the fantasy genre impacts the development of childhood imagination and emotional maturity . Very little has been said about the power of fantasy as a springboard to academic education.
A big motivator to write my first middle reader fantasy was noticing how spectacular children are at learning and understanding complete nonsense. (insert joke here…) Fantasy novels are chock-full of ridiculous words defying pronunciation much less intuitive understanding. Yet within the context of the story, these words make sense to them. In fact, many readers of fantasy revel in the specialist vocabularies: place names with no vowels, magical objects that can’t be pronounced, and entire fictional languages.
I find middle-grade readers to be the most vocabulary-tolerant of any reader. One reason for this may be that everything is a little harder for them to read. They are faced with new vocabulary on a regular basis so it really doesn’t put them off when they need to look up a word or take special care to sound something out.
Adults on the other-hand, often lose the patience necessary to investigate a word. Adults want the machinery of the art to disappear behind the story. Instead, their preferred challenge lies with subtext and abstraction. Perhaps this is why we, as adult writers, often underestimate our middle grade readers. We take too much care to avoid frustrating them with difficult words. Just like the protagonists in fantasy books, getting challenged and emerging victorious at the end is part of the fun.
These four proper noun words are from hugely successful middle reader fantasies. You probably can rattle off a bunch more.
If readers can handle “Dumbledore” then why can’t they handle real words? Why can’t they handle Latin (scientific) names? Fantasy has a highly specialized and developed vocabulary. Science has a highly specialized and developed vocabulary. I believe the two can combine without turning into SciFi. Two examples that came immediately to my mind were the “holothurians” in the classic Water Babies and “tesseract” in A Wrinkle in Time. Not exactly words used in everyday conversation. Yet learning those words helps expand the reader’s knowledge and understanding of our world.
In Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus, the characters meet a creature called an anaspidean. Although the name sounds like an alien and the whale-sized creature is clearly fantastic, it is actually a real animal (albeit smaller in scale.) The anaspidean is a great way to introduce students to mollusks. What do you suppose a reader is going to find if they look up the word anaspidean in a dictionary or online?
Fantasy novels also employ plot-driven teaching. In Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus, Olivia is introduced to the Florida scrub and the Floridan aquifer. She interacts with many of the animals that make Florida unique and special. These aren’t lessons that Olivia sits through in a classroom. They are simply the worlds that she participates in. To the casual reader, the aquifer is just the magical location of the secret city of Junonia. It isn’t mechanically any different than entering Narnia through a door in the back of a wardrobe or the characters in a magical book coming to life and causing havoc in our world. But the fact that aquifers are real things does make a difference. Junonia generates interest in the geology beneath Florida, the Cenozoic Era, and issues of groundwater and springs.
Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series introduces students to Greek mythology, even if the idea of a stories being used to teach stories is a bit reflexive. Riordan’s books are not modernizations, they use characters and situations from classical myths to drive entirely new stories. This is what makes them appealing. They aren’t trying to teach you anything, yet the fun, exciting fantasy introduces the readers to classical literature.
There is a limit to how much educational material can be presented in a novel and still keep it readable. The key of course is to engage the reader first. The book has to be a good read. Fantasy novels are not textbooks but they can be a great supplement to an educational curriculum.
Christopher Tozier was awarded a 2011 Individual Artist Fellowship from the State of Florida. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus is his debut novel, the first in the Olivia Brophie Series. It is available at your favorite bookstore or online. You can learn more at www.oliviabrophie.blogspot.com and www.christophertozier.com. Join us for a Twitter chat on March 6th at 3:30p EST to chat about why fantasy can be educational during our #flfantasy chat, use #flfantasy to join in.