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 providing 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…

13 thoughts on “Escapism & Representation

  1. Lila says:

    No Name On The Board, but I think that in virtually every class I’ve ever taken, including grad school, the teacher has had to tell me to shut up. (Fair enough, I do tend to run off at the mouth until stopped.)

  2. Jessica says:

    I don’t remember getting my name on the board, but I do remember getting sent to the principal’s office – multiple times.

    As for books, my story is much like yours with the exception of my mother handing my Chiam Potok (I was raised Jewish) instead of Jane Eyre.

    For me, it was a movie – Shrek – that hit me hard about representation. I remember crying at the end of the movie, blubbering about how “the fat chick won!” I hadn’t even realized how little of myself I saw in books and on screens until that moment. So yeah, representation matters. And having just finished Digger, I loved reading a book about a short, fat, female who was also good with engineering. Again: representation.

  3. Tegan Frid says:

    My grade 7 and 8 teachers had a laminated sheet with all our names on it and would mark down any time we talked or were disruptive or whatever. You had to stay in from recess copying out sets of 8 verses from Psalm 119 (it was a Christian school) for each mark.

    It never stopped me from talking though, I just got really good at writing bible verses quickly so I could go outside.

  4. Emily says:

    I was homeschooled (and sheltered), so books about Normal Everyday Kids were about as far from my experience as books about talking animals. I ended up mostly reading fantasy and sci-fi, which are still my go-to genres.

    I think the best way to explain it is that I’ve made friends who’ve turned out to share an eerily large number of my life experiences/representation issues, but they’re real people – we can actually share experiences and support each other. On the other hand, nonrealistic or non-contemporary settings in fiction help me strip away the surface details to find the characters who are most like me, or like who I aspire to be. Maybe I just haven’t been finding the right books, but it seems like a lot of the contemporary stuff I’ve read defines characters by their experiences much more than their personalities.

    (that said, if anyone’s got recs for contemporary books with characters in the Susan Sto Helit-Maria Hill-Hermione Granger-Sophie Hatter mold, I will happily check them out!)

  5. Darla says:

    I don’t remember names on the board. I do remember a 3rd grade report card (I still have it!) that says “Darla is a good student. She’s very intelligent, always willing to help, and an avid reader. She would do even better if only she didn’t talk quite so much.”

    As for the books we read? I too found (and still, mostly, find) the “every day life” books b-o-r-i-n-g, and their so-called protagonists often too stupid to live. Give me Aerin and Ged and Lessa and Morgan Le Fay (I may have carried “The Mists of Avalon” around for months in 6th grade) and Frodo and Tasslehoff any day. I don’t know that I thought of it as escapism at the time; I just thought their stories were much more ALIVE that those stupid Nancy Drew books my mother kept trying to fob off on me.

    Lucy Pevensee remains one of my favorite characters *ever.* One of the best compliments I ever received was from a co-worker when the film came out: “You remind me of that little girl, Lucy. She’s so brave, loving, and willing to accept the impossible.”

    I do remember receiving the Little House books and a whole set of those non-sentient animal books one Christmas or birthday and devouring them (particularly Black Beauty, the Black Stallion, and Misty of Chincoteague), but they couldn’t quite hold up to swords and dragons and fairies and hobbits.

    I *started* this post to say that I’m bummed that I didn’t get to see you while you were in Houston, but somehow got derailed by memory lane. It’s my first year teaching, and I’ve scarcely looked up from lesson plans, but hopefully I’ll catch you next time around!

  6. Taen says:

    I read those same sorts of books growing up, although if you really think about it, sf/f nerd girls weren’t really represented in the real-world fiction school girls were being given. If those girls were nerding out over dragons and Star Trek, or wanting to travel through time or do magic, or getting angsty about trying to perfect their fanworks, or finding that the next book in the series that has hooked them hasn’t been published yet (Damn you Bruce Coville! I had outgrown your Unicorn Chronicles by the time you finally published book two! I searched for years! YEARS!), then I bet that real world fiction would have been a hell of a lot more tempting.

  7. Martin says:

    Name on the board: frequently. I served many a detention for not paying attention in class, because YES we’ve been over the basics of multiplication three times now and I GET IT. And then I’d ask a question and get the dreaded “We’ll get to that in a little bit”, which meant I could safely tune out for the next ten minutes without missing anything. (And being a very smart elementary student breeds terrible study habits, let me tell you.)

    I was a big escapist reader too. The first novel I ever read by myself was the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My parents were heavily Christian, so I stuck to a lot of sci-fi (because dragons and magic are Satanic, you see,) but I still managed to read the cover off a book where two kids fall into a world populated by dragons, because it was a Christian allegory and was bought in a Christian book store.

    Then I went to college and started playing D&D…

  8. De says:

    Hear, hear!

    I think Michael Drout, the Tolkien critic, put it best when he said what people overlook is the fact that literary fiction is no more a one to one match with reality than fantasy. They’re all just maps, and no map will ever fully capture all of the information about a piece of territory, that’s why you need many kinds of map.

  9. alexander hollins says:

    “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.”

    AAWWW YES! Hero and the crown. Luthe was one of the fictional men I wanted to grow up to be like.

    I do see both sides of it. Escapism is awesome, but I did have a desire to read some escapism with characters somewhat like me, and that was hard. The Pevensie’s were all prats, imo. Calvin O’keefe, now there was a guy i could look up to. Will Stanton, that was a kid I would go adventuring with. But honestly, I didn’t see characters i could really identify with until I started reading adult books. (which makes sense, since most of my friends were adults, or other kids who, most of their friends were adults. )

    I think a big thing with the escapism / representation dichotomy is a need for more escapism with characters that more kids can also identify with. I think the escapist element of the story is more powerful for most if you can easily imagine yourself in that characters place? There are exceptions, of course, part of my joy at the Phantom Tollbooth was the idiot Milo getting his just deserts. (We’ve just reached Dictionopolis and my kids already don’t like him, heh. )

  10. Kate from Iowa says:

    I was too nearsighted to see whether or not my name was on the board, but I don’t think it ever was. I was usually reading something. I can’t remember a single year of school (until college) that I hadn’t finished the entire textbook in a week to a week and a half.

    I would have been one of those kids who never saw themselves in a book, if my parents’ hadn’t been really radical in the sixties. They must have started collecting books for us the second my mother knew she was pregnant, because we had plenty of them, including some with black characters from other countries (the one I remember best was a little black boy from Mexico who had a burro.) I suppose I should be more grateful for that, but the books I remember most? The Richard Scary books and the Frances books. I even (this is how old I am) had the copy of Bread and Jam for Frances that came with the little 78 that you could listen to on your toy record player if you weren’t able to read along with the book.

    The last thing I wanted was more of my reality.

  11. Gene says:

    I more often got in trouble in Sunday School–I was the beady-eyed contrarian who pointed out inconsistencies in Bible stories.

    There is no world where middle-school boys measure up to Ged, or Calvin O’Keefe, or Race Bannon, but when I was that age there was also no way a middle-school boy was allowed to have a crush on another boy. So, yes, I wanted fiction that wasn’t like my real world, but I also wanted to feel welcome in those better worlds.

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