Middle Readers in Middle Earth: Reflections on the Fantasy Genre for Young Readers

Middle Readers in Middle Earth: Reflections on the Fantasy Genre for Young Readers

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

For more infor­ma­tion on Christo­pher Richard­son’s school and library vis­its, click here.

To book a school or library vis­it, please con­tact The Chil­dren’s Book­shops Speak­ers Agency.