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Escapism & Representation

So I spent the weekend at the TweensRead book festival in Houston, which was wonderful and amazing, and I found myself having some thoughts.

First of all, if you were still of a mind to question the need for many kids to have books about people like them, this would dropkick it from anyone with an ounce of sense. Over and over and over I heard stories from authors going "I am writing these books because they're what I needed when I was a kid." Our keynote speaker, the utterly amazing Jason Reynolds, talked about how he quit reading at the age of nine because the books he was given in school were no one he'd ever met, in a world nothing like his, and had nothing to say to a nine-year-old from D.C.

I sat on panels multiple times with amazing authors, gazing at the back of my fun little book about hamsters, and thought "This is a great truth. We are all writing the books we wanted or needed when we were kids."

Then I stared at my hamsters and thought "Jesus, what am I doing?"

I thought of all the books I read when I was young. Star Trek. Narnia. Roald Dahl. Robin McKinley. Andre Norton. Harper Hall. Earthsea. My struggles to get through The Hobbit. Watership Down. Books of fairy tales. Books about dinosaurs. And then a tween asked about the books we liked to read as kids and why we liked them, and I found myself saying "I didn't want books about my life. I knew all about my life. I was an expert on it, and books had nothing to tell me about it. I wanted books about dragons and aliens and talking animals. I wanted something else." And then, because that seemed rather curt, I added "Escapism rocks!" (I try to be very enthusiastic, even when I'm babbling.)

I was the kid who never read a Sweet Valley High book, or the Babysitter's Club. I liked Honestly, Katie John, which I think my mother picked up at a garage sale or something, but her attempts to get me to read Jacob Have I Loved and Jane Eyre were met with moaning and/or sulking nine-year-old resistance. I was only really willing to read about kids my age if they had horses or if they were stranded alone on a desert island (my copies of Island of the Blue Dolphins and Call It Courage fell apart from re-reads.) I read Little House in the Big Woods because it was frontier competence porn, not because of any great attachment to any of the characters. I had a massive collection of those weird books that were written from the point of view of a non-sentient animal--Yellow Eyes, about cougars and Red Ben about foxes. (I think there were a bunch about foxes, actually. And one about a lynx. And enough Jack London to build a fire with.)

I didn't want a boyfriend. I wanted a fire lizard.

(As there is no world where a middle-school boy lives up to Tor or Luthe or Ged or Bigwig, I stuck to a rich fantasy life.)

This does not mean, for the record, that I was Not Like Other Girls or any such foolishness. I fit quite nicely into the female nerd archetype, which many of you are likely familiar with. I am certainly not recommending this as a Better Way of Being. (Actually, in some ways it's probably worse. My understanding of relationships with other people mostly involved Vulcans, survival on desert islands, and a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, which prepares one nicely for being buried alive and not much else. As some of y'all might have noticed, my social skills are finely honed in extremely narrow channels and if you get out of my particular area of emotional expertise, I will go skipping across a minefield whistling and then wonder why things are exploding behind me.)

Now, obviously it is infinitely easier to have the option to read books about kids like you and to reject them then to not have the option in the first place. I wasn't being erased, I was being annoyed. There were eleventy million Ramona books and Judy Blume and Paula Danziger and at once point or another, I probably read most of them, although I recall a certain weird cynicism toward many elements. (When Ramona is going to say a bad word and says "GUTS!" I recall thinking "Jeez, that's the best you can do?" I was extremely sheltered in a great many ways, and even I knew far better swear words than that.) We had to read Skinnybones in fifth grade, and I believe to this day that the book would be improved by a desert island, or possibly having the protagonist trapped in a room with the air running out, trying to dig their way free with a spoon.

My memory of the third grade is a bit hazy, except that Having Your Name Written On The Board was the worst thing that could happen to you in class, and our well-meaning teacher, Mr. Christensen, tried dozens of variations on the writing-your-name-on-the-board thing, including one where everybody's name was up with a window next to it, and if you misbehaved, you got a crack in your window. I remember, though, that as my parents were divorced, I went to talk to the school counselor once a week. I think I was given pamphlets or something about kids with divorced parents that were supposed to be written from their point of view. I have a vague memory of feeling intense contempt toward these pamphlets. Christ, what a waste of type. Not a dragon to be seen.

(I would spend the rest of my life with an intense dislike of Very Special Episodes and After School Specials. Every time they showed us a video in health class of kids struggling with alcoholism or sucide or teen pregnancy, I would slump in my seat thinking "The real issue here is that these people are too stupid to live.")

I am the only me that I know, so I cannot give you the report from the other me in another timeline who had no books about kids like them. It seems likely that since I had a thousand options of representation, I was free to reject them all and read about dragons. I had the option to view Ramona as a peculiar anthropological oddity (what the hell was zwieback? Why did people eat it?) and identify with Wilbur from Charlotte's Web. Having that option is vitally important, even if only so that you can choose not to take it. I could afford the luxury of contempt.

No escapism without representation, maybe?

Do I have a point? Oh, probably not, or I've forgotten it already. Maybe just that in any class, you will likely have one beady-eyed little contrarian who wants nothing to do with the books that they are supposed to identify with, and would rather take their life lessons from Spock or Hazel or Bilbo.

Maybe just that at the end of the day, all of us authors on those panels really were writing the books we needed as kids. And some of us desperately needed to be acknowledged, and some of us just wanted to escape. And here I am, today, still trying to write books for that beady-eyed little contrarian who never had enough books about talking animals.

Anyway. Great book festival, great people, great everything. Recommend it highly if you're anywhere near Houston next year.

(And does anybody else remember getting their name on the board?)

ETA: By the way, this is NOT to say in any way that fantasy/SFF is free from the responsibility of representation--far from it! People want to know that people like them are welcome in fantasy worlds, too! More musings on the weird divide between people wanting books about their world and some of our strong desire to kick that world to the curb...

I am the parent of a third grader right now and he still gets his name written on the board, albeit thankfully not as much as in first and second grades...

(His teacher is also using a program called ClassDojo where she gives points to a tiny monster who gets more powerful when everyone behaves well and less powerful when they don't. C is very fond of the monster.)

That's an adorable concept!

I loved the books from the point of view of nonsentient animals. There was a great one about otters (the author's last name was Lippincott), Jim Kjelgaard had several; I must have read Haunt Fox at least ten times. Some of the dog books--Lad, a Dog and Irish Red come to mind--had chapters from the dog's point of view. I also liked horse books and others about kids with animal companions; Walt Morey's Gloomy Gus and Gentle Ben were terrific.

I loved books about non-sentient animals. I remember in fifth grade reading one from the POV of a deer in between two from the POV of wolves, and being struck with my own easy shift between sympathy with predator and then with prey. It kind of unnerved me.

The dog books were awesome.

I think the bottom line is true diversity in kid's fiction, in the broadest possible sense, meaning that young readers (and older ones too) should have available to them a great range and depth of books, real-life and fantasy, books about people (human or not) of multiple cultures and colors and time periods and attitudes. So they can choose to read whatever grabs them at the time, and read six more very similar if that's what they want or pick something totally different instead.

You don't want empty library shelves, and you don't want homogenous ones either. (I find myself wondering if the children on Camazotz have books at all. If they do, they all have the same books which are very pedestrian and improving.)

Oh, this is 100% me, too. I hated books about real life. (Apart from the very brief period where I read romance novels, I suppose.) If it didn't have a dragon or a talking horse or magic, what was the point?

(These days, pretty much all I read is queer fantasy or fantasy with no or minimal romance. Because your average het character bores me almost as much as "realistic" books. :D)

ETA: Also, I am reminded of the time when my father tried to get me to read classics by ruling that I had to read a classic every week & I talked him around to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Terry Pratchett being classics. *grins*

Edited at 2016-10-24 04:56 pm (UTC)

I've gone over most of the lists of "best books" and on average about half are SF&F. There are lots of "classics" for us. :)

I didn't want books about my life. I knew all about my life. I was an expert on it, and books had nothing to tell me about it.
I didn't want a boyfriend. I wanted a fire lizard.

I love you so much right now for this line. I can hear these lines *in your voice* - slightly exasperated and impatient with all the slow people who just don't understaaaaaand.

Third grade? It wasn't so hot. I also admit that I had a different experience than you, mostly because I didn't discover actual fantasy-with-a-dragon until a little later. I was big into the kid-with-pet books like Wolfling and Rascal by Sterling North, The Good Master (horses and fairy tales), and My Side of the Mountain (falcon and no parents!). And I owned every Encyclopedia Brown book ever. I was going to problem-solve everything with my trusty wolf/raccoon/pig/falcon as a sidekick. My escapism still did have representation, if a bit skewed towards prescient pets.

Fourth grade, on the other hand, rocked my socks. I got into the Gifted & Talented program and got a teacher who cared about reading. (Children's books that disturb me and why that's a good thing) She saw no problem with science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, fantasy... they were books and we were going to read them!

So, um, yeah. A point. I highly encourage you to keep writing the books you needed as a child. I've been buying them and reading them and waving them around excitedly to my friends (both with and without children) because they are the books that I want to read even now. Sure, there's a place for About the B'nai Bagels on my shelf. It's right next to Big Red. But there's also a place for Castle Hangnail right next to Jackaroo.

Edited at 2016-10-24 05:13 pm (UTC)

I loathed most required reading books, though I eventually came around to some of them. My Side of the Mountain was one of those. The process of having to read them So. Damn. Slow. when my own reading speed meant I'd read them in a day, two or three if I was busy, was just torture. And then having to fill out the dummy 'did you actually read it' worksheets with "critical thinking" questions that were nothing of the sort....

I hated school. A lot. The only year I remember actually being stretched in any of my classes at all was in 8th grade, when I got thrown into a French class with people who had had French class for 5-8 years when I myself had none. It was deeply frustrating at first, but eventually I got it and almost enjoyed it (if she hadn't been so hard on my accent, I would have. I had braces with rubberbands holding my mouth half-closed, I physically couldn't make some of the sounds, like the R, which is deep in the back of the mouth and half-rolled and really depends on being able to drop your jaw).

Getting to college made me happy for about a year, and then I got used to the level of work demanded, and it too was boring. Grad school...that could have been great if I hadn't had my heart shattered into little tiny pieces a few months before I started by the end of an engagement (it was eventually for the best, but in the meantime, it sucked a great deal). But by the time I was starting to recover, my supervising professor had already decided I didn't belong and encouraged me to quit. Another professor encouraged me to stay, my grandfather died, I wrote an awful MA thesis that I did not enjoy the process of writing at all because I chose poorly on my source material, and I left the field.

I would have enjoyed law school a great deal if I hadn't gotten terribly sick right before it started and didn't get diagnosed until 3 months before I finished. So that could have gone a lot better. Though I do still find law fascinating and like my subject area generally.

I'm somewhat amused that after I came across your blog on top blogs (and enjoyed tales of the goats enough to read back a good long way) to find you reading and commenting on the blogs of two other people I read. I have serious fiber envy, btw. I know nothing about spinning mohair, I spin mostly wool with a bit of alpaca now and again, and the only mohair I've had my hands on was quite coarse adult mohair, which was difficult to spin and not terribly rewarding. I quite like the idea of a fleece from someone like your girl Hope, who is super soft even if she doesn't have great curls. Sadly, I can't manage raw fleeces anymore - I can't manage the work of scouring them, as I am disabled. Also, the fiance would probably be annoyed at me if I spent money on more fiber just now while we're saving up to get married!

Edited at 2016-10-28 08:44 am (UTC)

Me too! Have you read Raptor Red? XD It's about... a Utahraptor. From the Utahraptor's point of view. :3 Probably not scientifically accurate but it was great fun when I was a kid.

One of my teachers gave me "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson" to read bc it was about a Chinese immigrant girl in the US, and I was a Chinese immigrant girl in the US, and she thought I would like it. I was SO CONFUSED by that book. We don't really bow to each other. Schools start at age 6 the same as the US, so that bit where she was supposed to be in 1st grade but suddenly was bumped to 3rd bc of her age? Not a thing, at least not that I knew of. Also what kind of irresponsible asinine parent sends their illiterate, non-English-speaking child out for cigarettes?!? The mangled pledge of allegiance they include is just insulting to me, not humorous. Anyway.



RAPTOR RED! Did you read The Dinosaur Heresies?

Yeah, I remember getting my name on the board...

Anyone who thinks that "escape" or "escapism" are bad words needs to read Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories"...

Hear, hear from a beady-eyed contrarian who got significant life lessons from Spock, Hazel, Bilbo... as well Will Stanton, Murdoc Jern, and Kemoc Tregarth (amongst others).

Stuff like this is why I wish LiveJournal had a "like" button. (He said, making a vacuous comment as his only way of showing enjoyment of the post.)

-The Gneech

My little fangirl heart is now fluttering and and waving its mini fedora. Ursula's blog attracts ALL the cool people!

Can't say I found (or currently find) myself represented in many books. Or if I do find one aspect of my self, it's only one: so there may be books with my mix of mixed race characters ... but then they're male, or straight, or movie-star-beautifully exotic looking.

That said, I don't remember ever really looking for that as a child. My life was --to me-- mostly boring, and I wanted to be solving mysteries, or adopting stray/abused horses, or learning magic, or exploring other planets full of interesting aliens (who might need a visitor from Earth to adopt their stray alien riding animal and use Earth-type magic skills to solve an alienish mystery).

So if some authors (and some readers) want representation, I guess I'm glad that there's some of both so they can keep each other happy. Me? I'm ever so very happy that there are still people writing about magic and space travel and all the other escapist genres. Escapism does truly rock!

Jack London, To Build a Fire. (tee hee!)

I wanted a kriff, a giant iridescent dragonfly pet as described in Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars.

There never were enough sci-fi or fantasy books where the protagonist was a Bug Eyed Monster.

Edited at 2016-10-24 05:37 pm (UTC)

I wanted a StarBeast like Lummox...

I'm writing stories for the kid I never got to be. (pause) If I were to think deeply on it I would have to venture that I write for the words I either never heard or was never allowed to say. I think that's part of my overall angst with writing. It's personal because it's from and to myself.

But I digress. Island of the Blue Dolphin. AAAAAAAAAAA (kermitarmflailing) I LOVED that book. I wasn't ever sure why but I LOVED that book. Looking back, duh, it was my perfect life- alone. I hated the ending for that reason. I also loathed, even then, that she was made to give up everything that worked for her, that was important to her, without question. It was the first time I'd seen or understood majority rules.

As for name on the board. I was horribly well behaved as a kid. I was the meek and quiet kid. It was late highschool before I started being awful.

(Deleted comment)
I was just having similar thoughts some days ago, when I was reminded of having to read S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" in seventh grade and being extremely unimpressed. By that time I had read Sherlock Holmes and Lord of the Rings and more Dragonlance than was strictly necessary, and become a die-hard fan of Pratchett; from seventh to ninth grade I would go on to read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and The Sandman and to reread the Moomin books, which to me were the pinnacle of Finnish literature. I believed that realism was basically pointless unless there was detective work involved, and "The Outsiders" did nothing to change that. (To the credit of my teacher, we did read "The Cask of Amontillado" and she recommended both "Not Before Sundown" and "The Master and Margarita" to me, so I did get something out of those classes.) It probably didn't help that my experience of being an outsider involved less gangs and more reading books during the break, but then again, I didn't exactly gravitate towards books about kids whose parents were divorced and or whose family couldn't afford to live in their own house anymore, and I identified strongly with Granny Weatherwax despite being neither old nor female, so maybe it's just that winning the priviledge bingo leaves you spoiled for choice.

See, and I loved "The Outsiders" for reasons I can't put my finger on. Certainly their reality was nearly as far removed from mine (a sheltered child of white-bread suburbs) as most fantasy would be. But it felt real in ways that most things I was reading at the time - Walter Farley, Three Investigators, etc. - did not. I was also reading F/SF such as Andre Norton and the Lucky Starr series, but didn't expect those to feel real. Though of course they had their moments, emotionally if not plot-wise.

It's possible that I liked "The Outsiders" because the librarian recommended it to me, not because we had to read it for class. And (dating myself) it was new at the time, so didn't come with the mental baggage of expectations.

The test case for "have to read" for me was "A Tale of Two Cities." I read it when I was in 8th grade because my father suggested I might like it, and I did. We read it in class in 9th grade and I hated it. ;-)

"I read Little House in the Big Woods because it was frontier competence porn"

YES!!! I didn't particularly LIKE the characters, but was fascinated by how they lived.

I ripped through the whole series in I think 2nd to 3rd grade for much the same reason. The characters were a bit whatever, but the process was interesting! The descriptions of doing things like boiling down maple sap to syrup and making snow candies were fascinating to me.

You're one of the only people I know who also read the Katie John books. They were kind of old-school in the 1980s, no longer in print, but I had both "Katie John" and "Honestly Katie John" courtesy of garage sales or something.

The thing I remember being most frustrating was that Katie John struggled endlessly against feminine conformity, then caved at the end. There are SO MANY BOOKS for girls where the coming-of-age arc is, "tomboy learns to be A Lady." A literary critic termed this Caddie Woodlawn Syndrome, Caddie being one of the best-known versions of this.

It made me appreciate Calpurnia Tate even more. (Calpurnia's mother hauls her in from the woods to make her learn to cook and knit, but this is never not oppressive.) Have you read the Calpurnia Tate books? No dragons, but they're pretty awesome anyway.

No, but I am intrigued!

OMG, those animal POV books--I distinctly remember one called White-tip? About a solid black panther with a white-tipped tail? It was awesome. Those led me to the Gerald Durrell and Frank Buck books, and any bios of naturalists I could find. (It was the 70s in west Texas; there weren't many.)

And a book called Jade, about a girl who runs away and becomes a pirate--the back third was all about the Time After Pirating, which I had ZERO interest in, but I checked that book out over and over just to read the pirating bits.

No names on boards--but our principal was rumored to have a paddle with holes in it, which we assumed would make it much more painful.