Open any social media platform and you will certainly be bombarded with a mixture of dangerous rhetoric and dismal reality. As an instructional coach, I’ve been straddling the conversational line, privy to the experiences of students, teachers, administrators as well as parents, community stakeholders, and people who just shout as loud as they can so that they can be a part of the conversation too. With all of the negativity and the noise, we all are trying to take care of ourselves to make it to another day and still have something to give our families, our students, our community. Full disclosure: I am the worst at self care. However, I realized today that it’s been over FOUR MONTHS since we began incorporating stay-at-home habits and changing our entire way of life. I wondered, “How on earth am I okay? What self-care habits have I been employing accidentally that have gotten me to this point without losing my sanity?”
At first, I couldn’t really think of anything that had changed. I’m still working crazy hours, still randomly shoving shame-snacks away in my pantry like a gremlin…then it occurred to me to check my Goodreads account. Normally, I read approximately 30-40 books a year. However, it’s July and I’m currently sitting at 44…having read over 20 since March. This is craziness! When taking a closer look at my readerly choices, I found that most of what I’ve been reading falls into the category of fantasy.
I grew up a huge fan of fantasy, and have continued that love into my adulthood. However, it’s something that I rarely make time for as I have professional development books to read or YA realistic fiction to read and vet for teachers. Yet, in a time of crisis, I unknowingly returned to the world of fantasy. Wait…that’s not accurate. I’ve devoured fantasy. I’ve read four of the Harry Potter books aloud to my daughter. I’ve read two entire series by Sarah J. Maas, some days consuming multiple books. But why?
I reached out to a Facebook group I belong to full of people that love and discuss all things fantasy, and through their responses have put together a few points that I believe fully reinforce why both our students and ourselves need fantasy now more than ever.
Sense of Belonging and Community
Fantasy stories have a shelf life that far outlasts the publication of the last book in a series. Many fantasy stories such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and many others have drawn together readers who are bonded in their common love for the texts. These groups, or “fandoms,” as it were, continue to give these stories life and momentum through the collection of shared reader experiences. Podcasts such as Binge Mode, Cast of Kings, and others dig deep into these stories and have a fan base that can compare in size to any professional sport. As a proud Harry Potter fan, I love the common language that we share. When I see a stranger wearing a Gryffindor shirt, I have 100 percent certainty that, when I exclaim excitedly, “I’m a Ravenclaw!” that I will not be looked at with fear or annoyance but will have instantly made a new friend.
Consider gatherings such as Comic Con, or even online forums such as fan fiction sites or the aforementioned Binge Mode Facebook group. These are places where we can go, share our love of these stories, and instantly find belonging. In a world and culture in which we are experiencing isolation in multiple areas, multiplied by the various effects of being at home 24/7, belonging and community are necessary to our survival.
The Need to Escape
As a little girl, things weren’t always lovely for me. I struggled a lot through understanding divorce, faith, perfectionism, anxiety, and guilt. I struggled to fit in, to find my footing in the popular social circles of elementary, then middle, then high school, never quite mastering the concept of “fitting in.” As early as 7-8 years old, I was drawn to fantasy stories. I remember laying face-down on a tire swing, reading The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis over and over, until the pages were yellowed and torn. In middle school, I was entranced by Harry Potter, captured in essence as he transitioned from the boy living in a cupboard under the stairs, penniless and loveless, into a boy with friends, talent, purpose, and love. When escaping into these stories, I was able to simultaneously take a break from my own experiences, yet deal with them through the safety and distance of a fantasy story. J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a talk at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland many years ago, titled “On Fairy Stories.” In explaining the need for escapism, he states: “We should look at green again, and be startled anew…by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves” (p. 19). By escaping to a new world of fantasy, we begin to understand how to deal with our own issues.
Caring for Social Emotional Needs
Why does this resonate now? In my original Facebook thread, Kelly Ganzberger said it best when asserting that fantasy allows us to escape the “daily dystopian nightmare of 2020.” When your experiences and your worldview only extends to what you see in your home, school, community, and social media feeds, often the world can feel very small. Children and adults alike who experience mental health disorders like anxiety and depression can feel at times like the metaphorical (and physical) walls are closing in, that no one understands or knows their struggles. As a child who put crippling pressure on myself, fantasy stories offered me a reprieve from the bubbling panic in my chest while subtly showing me a light at the end of a tunnel. Dora Valencia, another member of the Binge Mode Facebook group, stated that she “needed to escape to a world that didn’t seem to end even if the books did. The moment my fears and anxieties were taking the most out of me, I had a place to go.”
G.K. Chesterton once said that “fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” How many of our students walk around battling “dragons” every day? How many of us do the same? When Aslan defeats the White Witch, when Harry Potter emerges from the Battle of Hogwarts victorious, it gives us all hope that we too can do the same.
Building Global Citizenship and an Activist Mindset
One look at someone’s Twitter post comments or seeing your great-great-aunt’s latest post on Facebook is living proof that many former students grew into adults who do not know how to engage in civil discourse, how to empathize with others, and how to understand multiple perspectives and beliefs. Tolkien refers to this as “morbid delusion,” saying that if this sort of behavior were to happen in a fantasy story, there’s no way that the story would end without the behavior being cured (“On Fairy Stories,” p. 18).
If you’re an English teacher, you’ve probably heard of (and taught) “The Hero’s Journey.” The hero, usually a naive, inexperienced youth, embarks on some type of quest. They encounter obstacles, and eventually gain something from their quest, most of the time that something being different than what they originally sought. Sound familiar? Not only do most fantasy stories follow this outline, but our lives often embody this parallel, over and over again.
Kellen Korinek said it best in her Facebook contribution: “Fantasy stories teach us lessons about the real world. They show us that Harry Potter, or Frodo, or Percy Jackson’s real powers aren’t that they can do magic and fight monsters, but that they have friends and families that help them be better and get better.I teach my students that the Hero’s Journey can be applied to real life as well as fiction. Some problem causes us to leave our ordinary world and be faced with challenges and villains (physical or mental) and learning how to deal with them makes us a better person. Then, once we’re back, the ordinary world is better or different and so are we.”
I mean, mic drop.
We can use the distance of fantasy to have safe yet difficult conversations about the things our students live with each day. We can address social injustice, bigotry, bias, prejudice, etc. through the lens of fantasy, and gain the proper language, structures and confidence to carry over those conversations into our lives. When we see Harry or Frodo or Luke Skywalker—though weak, inexperienced, unqualified and terrified—do the right thing, not because they are ready or equipped to win, but because it is the right thing…maybe we can go into our own homes, circles, and communities and do the same.
It is July 2020, and sometimes, I just need to turn off CNN and fill my head with fairies and wizards just to breathe. Students are coming back to school either virtually or in person, carrying with them the weight of a global pandemic among with several other inequities and injustices that they’ve worn long before now. It’s essential that we do our very best to give them, and ourselves, what they need. I believe at my core that fantasy stories should be counted as essential in classrooms and in our own lives, both now and in years to come. Fantasy isn’t an aversion to reality; rather, fantasy helps us live the fullest and richest reality possible.
What is your “reader origin story”? How do you feel about the genre of fantasy? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like more information on how to better implement fantasy texts in the coming school year, please find me on Twitter and send me a message; I’d love to help you brainstorm some ideas!