Tag Archives: Education

Why Middle Grade Fantasy Novels can be Educational

Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus by Christopher Tozier

Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus by Christopher Tozier

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.

  • Muggles
  • Quidditch
  • Anaklusmos
  • Smeagol

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.

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Guest Post: Do you need a publishing degree to work in publishing?

No—but there’s no denying it helps. What does a master’s degree in publishing teach you and how useful is it?

I was lucky enough to first experience the publishing industry at Pineapple Press, where I found that I wanted to learn more about it through a master’s degree in publishing. I ultimately decided to get my publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, but no matter where you get your degree, the publishing industry is very similar on both sides of the Atlantic. (One of the big differences, though, is in production—paper is measured in grams and books in millimeters which, for this American, takes some getting used to!)

At Oxford Brookes, the publishing degree has four major courses:

Editing

The editing module covers the basics: learning the editing marks; learning how to edit on-screen; and the role of the editor in the publishing process. For me, our editing class wasn’t too useful as I already obtained many of the skills in my time at Pineapple Press and had no interest in becoming a full-time editor; for others, it may be among the most beneficial classes on a publishing course.

Design and Production

Design and production are a half-semester each, with the design half focusing on learning how to use Adobe InDesign through designing a cookbook. The production half covered how to put a book together—things like binding, paper weight, and a fair amount of math—and what’s suitable for certain situations, such as publishing academic monographs or trade paperbacks. I’ve been surprised by how helpful my production seminar has been; knowing how to correctly produce printed materials has been a very useful skill in my subsequent jobs.

Marketing

The marketing module not only teaches marketing in publishing, but general marketing tips and tricks. For someone who majored in medieval history as an undergraduate, it’s been incredibly useful to know how to do a SWOT analysis, marketing plan, and how to identify a target market. This class, along with New Product Development, was the most beneficial class on the course for me.

New Product Development

This class was specific to my degree program; other publishing degrees don’t typically require it. We were assigned to teams of 7 or 8 students and were responsible for creating a publishing proposal which was presented to the entire course at the end of the semester. From accounting to website design, we had to learn it all and I think it’s a good thing that my program taught us the business side of publishing, as it’s a business just like any other.

We were also required to take two electives in our second semester: mine were Rights Management and Publishing & Language Issues. All of this coursework led to our master’s thesis or final project, which was the culmination of our degree. (By the way, if you need to know anything about state-sponsored publishing in endangered languages, I’m your girl.)

So, what did I do with my degree? I ended up working at Oxford University Press UK, helping to market their scholarly reference materials and online resources, which was a great experience. Though I’ve since moved back to the US and taken some time out of the industry, I would still say that the skills I learned while doing my publishing degree have been very helpful in my career. I met someone just the other day who also has a publishing degree; both of us agreed that many of the things you learn are easily transferable to other jobs and other industries, such as developing a product from the ground up, the new frontiers of digital media, or learning to think creatively in a creative industry.

If you’re thinking about a publishing career, look into some of the programs either state-side or further afield, like Columbia, University of Denver, or Rosemont. Networking is a skill you need in publishing and by getting a degree, you’ll learn the skills needed to get into the industry and meet some great, passionate people while doing it. And who knows where you can go from there?

Caitlyn Miller is a 2008 graduate of Oxford Brookes University’s publishing program. She is currently the Center for Career Education & Off-Campus Study Assistant at New College of Florida and a freelance writer and media strategist. She can be reached via email at caitlynmiller@gmail.com or on Twitter at @NewCollegeCCE.

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