Words seem cheap nowadays. They roll beneath our fingertips on social media feeds, via text messages, and on the news-sites and blogs we browse on trains and buses. First thing in the morning and last thing before sleep, we read. In this world of words, literacy remains as important a tool as ever, perhaps ever more so. Words snake beneath our news screens and they flash, almost subliminally, on shop screens, restaurant screens and underground train station screens. Yet seldom do we give any of these words our full attention. We read and walk. Read and talk. We read three things at once. We have become textual omnivores, eating quickly before moving onto the next bite. Sometimes, on those very same screens, we read listicles warning us that our attention spans are failing. In our busy lives, we fear there is no time for slow cooking, let alone slow reading. This is the world today’s children are raised in. A world we have created for them, not the world they created.
Yet visiting schools since the publication of Empire of the Waves: Voyage of the Moon Child in 2015, a maritime fantasy of some 90,000 slow-cooked words, my experience has been this. The primal yearning to stop the clock and sit still, to lean in and pay attention to words at the expense of all is alive and well. The ritual is by now familiar. Under the watchful eye of teachers, students listen as I tell them how I became an author, and how the tale of Anni Tidechild came to be published. Understandably, some are more interested in this than others. I sure fidgeted when sportspeople spoke at my school. It is only when I stop to read aloud from the novel that a transformation starts. The fidgeting ends and clandestine texting ceases. All lean in and eyes widen, as together we share something numinous: the communal pleasure of storytelling, of attention focused and shared. For ten minutes, we are in Salila together, all of us sprinting with Anni Tidechild around the stormshield of Pel Narine as the cannons of the Hornet Clan strike. No, attention spans have not died. They are waiting for something to pay attention to.
I’m biased, of course, but middle readers (upper primary and lower secondary) are probably my favourite demographic. Typically, middle readers balance a childlike sense of wonder at the infinite possibilities of the universe with an almost, but not quite, adult intelligence and sophistication that realises such possibilities are not, in fact, quite so infinite after all. For the most part, they are not yet consumed with self-awareness, or the need to appear cool before a world of images. There will be time for that later. Whilst YA literature tends to hold little (or nothing) back, children’s literature and writing for middle readers need only point towards adult realities. As the late great American film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, “A good story for children should suggest a hidden dimension, and that dimension of course is the lifetime still ahead of them.”
Indeed, the intellectual and emotional tools required for interpreting and navigating Middle-earth, Earthsea, Lyra’s Oxford or Salila are the same tools young minds require to interpret and navigate our own world too. For a young person, the adult world, with all its peculiarities and paradoxes and perils, is just another fantasy to be decoded and explored. He or she may peer through the curtains in wonder or in terror, but cannot wholly dwell there. Not yet.
Moreover, myth and fantasy allow societies and cultures to open dialogues about themselves that might otherwise be hard to have. From the Iliad to The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, the genre offers an opportunity to work through communal experiences, triumphs, fears and traumas, in ways that adults and children may respond to together. We should be infinitely grateful, for instance, that J.K. Rowling was there to shepherd a generation of children through the post-9/11 era. And, of course, thanks to Peter Jackson, Tolkien too, his World War mythology revived for a new age of anxiety and doubt. The greatest fantasy, of course, being both universal and particular. Far from an “escape” from reality, the genre is, in fact, one of our most powerful means of engagement.
I have found there to be four things in Empire of the Waves my young readers respond to most. Above all, it must be said – and thank the Muse for that! – most respond to the pure and undiluted pleasure of storytelling. A child will tell me about a favourite character, or favourite moment of action or suspense. Then there are those who engage seriously and thoughtfully with the mechanics of Salila. These readers want to know more about the floating cities, more about the universe of the spheres. Even better, many want to tell me about them! Unprompted, one launched into a discussion about medieval cosmology, explaining how he always took “the music of the spheres” to be a most wonderful metaphor. How true!
Then there are those readers who delve deeply into themes. These young people ask about Filip Able’s political machinations, the morality of war, of the challenges of family, the pleasures and sorrows of friendship, and the sting of betrayal. Some of the most sophisticated commentary emerges from the pens of nine and ten-year-olds, as well as the eleven and twelve and thirteen-year-olds. Little seems beyond them. Finally, there are those who explain how the novel helped them through the day. They write how they related to the challenges facing Anni Tidechild and Duck Knifetooth, and found comfort in the solidarity they forged with these characters. This always moves me most of all. Stories sustain lives, and sometimes even save them.
To conclude one particularly successful school visit I invited a hundred Year Seven students to create their own pirate clans, to populate and describe them, and then decide whether their clan was in it for the loot and plunder, for revenge, adventure, or perhaps because they harboured other ambitions. Invited to share in my created world, to add to its texture and detail, the students unhesitatingly produced creative and perceptive and intriguing and surprising work. Their hearts and minds and wits were sharpened. Words came to life and we were in the world together. For Narnia, Earthsea, Middle-earth and Salila are our own worlds after all