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Science Fiction and Fantasy Books That Should Be Taught in School

I thought this would be a fun post to share now that the 2017-2018 school year has either begun or will begin soon for many schools in North America.

As you might have already guessed, English was my favourite subject from the time my mom began the homeschool version of preschool for me until I graduated from college.

My classmates and I read countless short stories, novellas, and novels during those years, but I barely remember ever being assigned a science fiction or fantasy book until I entered college.

This is a real shame. The sci-fi and fantasy genres are full of stories that can be used to as a jumping off point to explore logic, history, math, geography, ethics, and so much more. I wish my classmates and I had been exposed to these genres as an official part of our curriculums from the beginning.

There are five books in each section of this post for the different age ranges: elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Elementary School

Fantasy sure seems like it has a stronger influence on elementary-aged students. I wonder if it’s because of the lure of traditional fairy tales to young children? At any rate, most of my recommendations for this age groups will sit firmly in the fantasy camp.

 

Gwinna by Barbara Helen Berger

I know I’ve blogged about this book before, but I simply must mention it again. This is the most beautiful modern fairy tale that I’ve ever read. It would be a wonderful place to introduce all kinds of classroom discussions about adoption, the dangers of breaking a promise, and what the students think happened to Gwinna after the end of the final chapter.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

One of the things that first drew me into this story were its descriptions of what life was like for children in England during World War II. There are many things that have changed since then, but basic human nature will always remain the same. It would be very interesting to see how today’s children would react to the idea of being sent away from home for their own safety during a war.

Of course, some students will already have personal experience with that kind of huge life change! Immigration, the separation of families, and the sad consequences of war are still every bit as relevant today as they were in the 1940s.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Rabbit

I have a vague memory of one of my elementary school teachers assigning this book to us when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The thought of living forever had never crossed my mind until I learned about Winnie’s life, but I loved watching her mull over her choices once she discovered that the family she’d recently met had a surefire method to remain young and healthy until the end of time.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

This series covered so many timeless issues: child abuse; discrimination; grief; what happens when family secrets are finally aired. What surprised me the most about all of the Harry Potter books was how much fun the characters had even when they were dealing with serious topics that many kids face in real life.

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book about a factory filled with candy and other sweets?

On a more serious note, I liked the way the main character responded to the difficulties he faced in life. He was such a brave kid even when the odds were stacked against him and he couldn’t imagine how he’d get out of his latest predicament.

Middle School

Middle school is a tough age. Tweens and young teenagers are often suspicious of admitting they like stories they think were written for kids, but they’re also not quite ready for more mature material. These books – or portions of them –  would be perfect for this age group.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It takes courage to face an angry dragon, and that was only one of the many dangers Bilbo was exposed to during his first big adventure. If I were going to teach this book, I’d round off our readings with a discussion of what happens to people after other huge changes like going to war or being diagnosed with a serious disease. Bilbo’s response to what happened to him mirrored both of these real-life experiences in all kinds of interesting ways.

This is also the perfect introduction to the the Lord of the Rings universe for students who like Bilbo and want to find out what happened to him after he returned home.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book was about a developmentally disabled man who was given an experimental medical treatment that quickly began to raise his IQ. Suddenly becoming much more intelligent than you were before isn’t necessarily an easy experience, but the main character’s diary about what that process was like made me think about everything from how disabilities are defined to what happens when someone is given the chance to change their life in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Imagine a society without war, hunger, prejudice, or pain. In fact, all but one of the people in that society couldn’t even begin to tell you what any of those experiences were like.

This was by far my favorite book when I was in middle school. I thought the society the main character lived in was a paradise at first. Figuring out its dark side made me ask myself all kinds of questions about the meaning of life and how much freedom I’d be willing to sacrifice to permanently remove suffering in the world for just about everyone.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

One of the biggest reasons why I believe this should be read by middle school students is because it distills complicated arguments about freedom, politics, communism, and propaganda into a simple allegory about a farm full of animals who decide to revolt against their owner.

The twist ending is my second largest reason for recommending it to this age group. It was as funny as it was thought-provoking.

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The silly sections will make middle schoolers laugh, but they’ll also learn a few things about getting along with others and not assuming that you’re the centre of the universe. The sometimes-convoluted storyline would also be a good place to talk abut everything from unreliable narrators to how two people can remember the same event completely differently based on how their minds store memories and what small pieces of that day they’ve forgotten.

High School

My high school English classes assigned us a lot of John Steinbeck and Shakespeare readings. I think these books would make a perfect addition to that kind of curriculum.

Beowulf

I first read this in college, but I wish I had discovered it years earlier. The dark themes and occasional scenes of violence are best suited for more mature readers who are willing to push forward to the conclusion.

I also believe that everyone who speaks English should be familiar with the first poem we know of that was written in Old English. There is so much about the beginnings of our language that we simply don’t know. Holding onto what we do know is important.

1984 by George Orwell

Should the government be trusted? Is everything that’s shared on the news actually true? How do you know when you’re being lied to?

These have been dangerous questions to ask in many different cultures and eras. Knowing when you’re being deceived is nearly as important as knowing how to react when it happens. I think every high school student should graduate with at least a little practice at weighing what they’re told carefully.

 

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Climate change has already begun to affect our world. How people live in a generation or two will probably be quite different from how the average westerner lives today.

Ms. Butler had such a creative take on what our future could be like. I wish she had lived long enough to finish this series, but I relish what she was able to write. High school students could learn a lot from her thoughts on prejudice and what happens when an entire society falls apart.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This is a classic piece of science fiction about time travel and the ethical dilemmas that result from knowing what will happen in the future but not being sure how to warn everyone about what is coming. Not every conflict in life has or should have a black-and-white solution.

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

Most high school students are probably aware that there used to be other human-like species living on Earth, but I doubt most of them have wondered how our planet would be different if early humans had died out and another species had become dominant instead.

This tale asked a lot of hard questions about intelligence, environmentalism, and what it would mean to be human if we discovered that we weren’t the only intelligent hominids wandering around after all.

What science fiction and fantasy books do you wish would be taught in schools?

Suggestion Saturday: August 19, 2017

Here is this week’s list of short stories, essays and other links from my favourite corners of the web. If you live in North America, I hope you enjoy the solar eclipse that will be happening on Monday. This photo made me think of everyone who wishes they could see it but who don’t live in the right part of the world for that.

Eclipse Searches. If any of my readers don’t already follow XKCD, go read this strip from them.

In a Heartbeat. I don’t share many short films with my readers these days, but this one was fantastic. If you have 4 spare minutes today, definitely go give it a try.

Stop Pretending Superman Might Lose a Fair Fight via MBTTTR. I love the fact that this is a debate.

Jamaican Folklore: The Lizard’s Story via ‪naditomlinson‬. I had no idea that there were so many stories and old wives’ tales about lizards. How interesting.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience. Wow, this was incredible.

When Wishing for Rain, Equip Yourself for the Possibility of Thunder via

DavidLodda. This was an interesting metaphor for preparing for the unexpected in life. It also made for an eye-catching title for the post.

From Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained:

We’re supposed to think of each other as a team, while we integrate. You already think of us that way, to the extent that you think at all, so most of the work there is on me. I’m told that it’s not uncommon for that to be a somewhat bumpy road. I’m told all sorts of reassuring things.

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Who to Follow on Twitter If You’re Into Mindfulness and Meditation

A few weeks ago I started a new series of posts on this blog about Twitter accounts that share the same theme. This week I’m going to be recommending accounts that are about mindfulness and meditation.

There aren’t as many mindfulness and meditation suggestions as there were for the science fiction and fantasy version of this series, but I’m tentatively hoping to eventually write a part two for this once I’ve found more high-quality accounts that talk about it.

If you have suggestions for specific accounts to recommend or topics for a future post in this series, I’d be quite interested in hearing about them.

@bunnybuddhism‬.

The cute rabbit pictures were what first drew me into following this account, of course, but one of the reasons why I enjoy the tweets from the woman who runs it so much is how insightful she is about topics like grief, death, and truly living in the moment.

‪@tinybuddha‬.

This is the official account for a Buddhist website by the same name. They tweet a lot, but their articles are well-written and full of helpful advice for people from many different walks of life.

‪@yogainspiresyou‬.

Ntathu teaches yoga and meditation. I love the positivity of her tweets, especially when it comes to the short quotes she shares regularly.

@SatyaRobyn‬

Satya is a Buddhist priest I’ve known online for years. She has a lot of interesting things to say about mindfulness and her belief system in general.

‪@calm‬

This is a meditation app I’ve used off and on for years. The guided body scans in the app itself are fantastic, and their Twitter account is full of good information as well.

Previous posts in this series:

Who to Follow on Twitter If You’re Into Science Fiction and Fantasy 

We Need Less Romance in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Genres

I feel a few feathers ruffling already out there in cyberspace, so let me explain.

One of the most bizarre and irritating trends I’ve been noticing in this genre over the last few years has been romantic plots being crookedly tacked onto every kind of story you could possibly imagine in this universe for reasons that defy explanation: zombie; post-apocalyptic; historical; otherworldly; ghost; slasher; psychological horror; speculative; deep space; futuristic.

There have been times when I’ve read something that spent the first 90% of the plot focused on characters painstakingly exploring new planets, outrunning zombies, or figuring out what all of those strange noises were in the old farmhouse the main character and their family have recently moved it.

Suddenly, the last twenty pages of it turned into the main character falling in love and living happily ever after.

Wait, what? Did the author honestly not remember what their character was like for the first 180 pages of their story?

Mixing Genres Isn’t Always Smart

If you read a lot of sweet and gentle romances, imagine how you’d feel if the characters you were beginning to get to know and love suddenly started finding dead bodies on the sidewalk while they were out on dates. It might be a fun twist if it happened once or twice to characters who happened to work as detectives or had other reasons for needing to investigate a decaying corpse while also falling in love, but wouldn’t it be odd if it started happening regularly?

Mixing genres works amazingly well for certain types of tales, and I definitely see the value in it if the storyline can juggle two or more different styles of writing at the same time. However, there’s also something to be said for allowing genres to exist in their own worlds without trying to market to every conceivable audience who might read the blurb and find something interesting about it.

Happily Ever After Is Different for Everyone

I understand the urge to market stories to more than one audience. There have been scifi romances – and even a few regular romances –  that I thought were incredibly well written in the past, but I’m growing tired of the trend of pushing romance into so many SFF books regardless of whether or not their plots actually call for that kind of subplot.

Not every character should end their arc by finding a life partner. In some cases, this flies in the face of everything that character has done and said over the last X number of pages or books.

It bothers me when a book randomly tacks on a relationship or marriage to give the characters a happy ending after they’ve spent most of the storyline pursuing any number of other goals in life, from discovering a cure for a fatal disease to finally defeating the big villain who has  been skulking around and killing any secondary characters who wanders into their path.

Happily ever after might be falling in love for one character after they’ve defeated the villain, but it could also involve:

  • Adopting a dog from the local animal shelter
  • Making peace with their past for good
  • Changing their name and moving to Brazil
  • Buying a new house if the spirits in their old house refuse to move on
  • Learning a second or third language
  • Finally getting a good night’s rest after spending the last 3 books evading henchmen or the undead
  • Inheriting a massive fortune and dedicating their life to donating it to good causes

Or any number of other experiences, goals, or plot twists. The possibilities are endless, and yet endless numbers of books in this genre try to shove everyone into the love and romance box.

Love isn’t the Only Emotion Worth Exploring

One of the things I enjoy the most about the sci-fi genre is when it uses otherworldly experiences to explore universal emotions. A robot or rocket ship on its own is cool, but it’s even better when it shows us the best and worst of human nature.

Here’s the thing, though: love isn’t the only emotion out there. Grief, anger, sadness, doubt, fear, disgust, joy, anticipation, trust, and many other emotions are just as complex and worthy of exploration as love is.

You can learn a lot about a character by discovering how they react when they’re frightened, surprised, lonely, or excited. Falling in love is part of the human experience (for the majority of people), but there are so many other ways to show who someone is, flaws and all, without pushing them into a romance.

Not All Love is Romantic

Finally, not every form of love is romantic. If the SFF genre had shifted to include more explorations of the love between friends, family members, a person and their dog, or a cat and their human,* I would be much more interested in the topic.

Unfortunately, non-romantic forms of love receive much less attention in genre fiction than they should. I actually get excited when I pick up a mystery, horror, or sci-fi novel and realize that the main character’s deepest and most meaningful relationship in their life is with a pet, friend, or family member.

*Because we all know that cats have pet humans, and not the other way around. 😉

Have you noticed the same trend in this genre? What do you think of mixing genres in general? Let’s talk about it on Twitter today!