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Publisher: Bluejack

April, 2005 : Essay:

Reviving Literacy through Science Fiction and Fantasy

Literacy rates are declining in developed English-speaking countries. Some blame MTV. Others blame the Internet. The fact is, children and young adults (our future, in other words) simply aren’t interested. It’s not that they can’t read, but they don’t want to. They simply aren’t interested.

Declining literacy knows no race, no income level, no bounds. A recent report, “Reading at Risk,” by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) shows a decline across all demographics in the United States. Dana Gioia, the chairman for the NEA, shares the bleakness of a report the NEA is not happy to issue: “For the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature....”

Authors David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Greg Bear are concerned by declining literacy. In an open letter to the science fiction community, they pose this thought: “Consider the ages from twelve to fifteen, when a person’s sense of wonder either blooms or withers.”

How many young readers’ sense of wonder withers away, leaving them as dull, apathetic, non-reading adults? Where is the joy in their lives? Where’s the hope for the future, the desire to look ahead, or even just the ability to escape from the daily grind for an hour?

It’s gone. What greater shame can there be?

How can this be prevented? How can you stir the imagination of a young reader and raise literacy at the same time?

Easy. Give a kid a science fiction book.

Science fiction and fantasy have long maintained the reputation of being highly imaginative. What better genre is there for sparking the imagination?

The film industry knows this. Look at the top 100 grossing films of all time. More than 80 percent of them are science fiction and fantasy.

Librarians know this. Look at their book lists of recommended reading—a goodly number of them are speculative fiction in one form or another.

Reading for the Future knows this. Their website explains, “Reading for the Future is a volunteer organization whose aim is to help young people develop a love of reading and intellectual adventure through the vehicle of science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fiction.”

Through programs like “Pass It On” (which gives away SF books free to teens on the condition that after they have enjoyed the book, they pass it on to another person) and educational support programs, this grassroots organization does its best to ensure that science fiction books end up in young hands.

Readers can’t read if they don’t have books.

Deb Parkes is a school teacher at a primary school in Western Australia. Every day she sees students who are at high risk for declining literacy. When asked what one thing could be done by anyone to help fight declining literacy, she replied, “Read to children. Read to them every day. Make sure they own books.” She also shares a story of a young student who, at the end of the year, received a book as an award. His sheer joy at receiving a book was greater than she expected. Turns out, it was the very first book he owned. At home, his parents didn’t have any books. When children live in homes without any books, is it any wonder that they don’t read?

So what can you do?

If you spend time with young children, read to them every chance you get. Build their love of wondrous stories and ignite that spark.

Before they’ve mastered spoken language, never mind reading skills, young infants hear stories from adults. What are some of the first ones they hear? Fairy tales and Dr. Seuss. Can anything else be more fantastic? Very few people can name a Dick and Jane story that they remember and love. Everyone can name a favorite fairy tale. Love for literature is established at a young age through fantasy.

For older children who can read, share some of your favorite books with them. Remember the awe of a Heinlein novel? Or perhaps of a Raymond Feist book? When you share a book, you also give the joy that goes with cracking a cover and that lovely sense of anticipation of knowing you are entering into a wondrous world beyond the one we now live in.

A survey by UK magazine Parenting lists the following books as ones parents most want to share with their children: C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (number one), A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Surprise, surprise, they are all speculative novels.

Often, children don’t read because they haven’t yet found books that really interest them. So what happens when a child finally finds that book? Magic. Look at what has happened with the Harry Potter phenomenon.

The sheer success of Harry Potter has kick-started a trend towards increasing literacy. In 2004 librarians saw students, who in the past had never voluntarily picked up a book in their lives, cue up to reserve Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a mammoth brick of a book rivaling War and Peace in length. And if they couldn’t get it right away, many of them were content to read an alternate recommendation while they waited.

Have trouble convincing teens that books are fascinating? Take them to the movies, then hand them the book. The success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films has resurrected an interest in reading Tolkien (again, not traditionally considered an “easy read”).

The last thing you should do is think you cannot make a difference.

Declining literacy rates are a concern for all, especially the withering away of the imagination and the sense of wonder. That cannot and should not be lost. What a sad world it would be if the majority of the people within it do not know the joy of opening a book and being able to utter the word, “Wow.”


Copyright © 2005, Heidi Wessman Kneale. All Rights Reserved.

About Heidi Kneale

Heidi Wessman Kneale is an Australian author of moderate repute. By day she works technological miracles for the local library. The wrest of the time she writes books and wraises babies.

COMMENTS!

Apr 4, 21:42 by Bluejack

Can science fiction save the world? How about the minds of young non-readers?

Heidi Kneale's article is here.
Apr 5, 01:40 by susie hawes
Excellent! This one hits close to home, too.

I've found this part:

Have trouble convincing teens that books are fascinating? Take them to the movies, then hand them the book. The success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films has resurrected an interest in reading Tolkien (again, not traditionally considered an “easy read”).

To be particularly effective. I've piqued my kids' interest in books like "To Kill a Mocking Bird", "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest", "Animal Farm", "Of Men and Mice", "Catch 22", LOTR and Alice in Wonderland by using this method.

The list is long and the opportunities are there. The kids really respond. I've found them critiquing the movies and books after absorbing both, and even had them ask if a favored movie was based on a book, and if we could get a copy.
Apr 5, 04:18 by Lavie Tidhar
I have several problems with this kind of argument. I've never felt comfortable with the messianic flavour some SF fans have for genre - a part of which is annexing works like Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh to the Great Genre List - and to say people don't read because of the Internet is just silly.

What is using the Internet if not communicating by written language? Despite complaints, things like the Internet and mobile phones' Short Messaging Service (SMS) - which was a little-known feature until discovered and made popular by a new generation of mobile phone users - are making this generation the most open to written language than had ever been before. Several initiatives in the UK promote short fiction and articles via mobile phone, and the proliferation of fiction sites on the Internet surely offers a further encouragement. From my experience, in discussion with editors and publishers in the UK, the number of people writing novels has grown tremendously - everyone, it seems, now wants to be a writer.

How many young readers’ sense of wonder withers away, leaving them as dull, apathetic, non-reading adults? Where is the joy in their lives? Where’s the hope for the future, the desire to look ahead, or even just the ability to escape from the daily grind for an hour?

It’s gone. What greater shame can there be?"


Just because people don't read speculative fiction it doesn't make them "dull, apathetic readers". Many people don't read SF. So what? Some people prefer non-fiction, for instance, and many prefer realistic novels, or any other type of story from a vast selection. Genre is not, and has never been, the be all and end all of fiction.

Literacy rates are declining in developed English-speaking countries


Are they? So why not provide your source for that statement?

For older children who can read, share some of your favorite books with them. Remember the awe of a Heinlein novel? Or perhaps of a Raymond Feist book?


Heinlein? Sure... Children everywhere could do with the paternalistic political odd-ball rantings and sexual fantasies of Robert Heinlein. And - Feist? Awe? If you said the early Le Guin (as opposed to her later maternalistic political odd-ball rantings and non-sexual fantasies) I might have agreed, but...

Have trouble convincing teens that books are fascinating?


No. It's not my job, frankly. Sure, the pulps are gone and books are competing against movies, TV, music, a hundred other methods of entertainment. Is that bad? I don't think so. After all, I benefit from that as much as anybody else. And the publishing industry is alive and well, and kids are not growing up any stupider than before - unless you can prove me wrong?

When you share a book, you also give the joy that goes with cracking a cover and that lovely sense of anticipation of knowing you are entering into a wondrous world beyond the one we now live in.


I think the above quote really encapsulates your argument. Only some of us think that this world is wondrous in itself, and see no need to go beyond it. And no, you didn't use the word "escape". I wonder why.

I was recently at the launch of a book, The Book of Voices at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The anthology was launched in aid of Sierra Leone PEN, a charity promoting literacy in Sierra Leone. Before we worry about whether kids read Heinlein or Feist (god forbid) let's try and help those countries that DO suffer from a very real literacy problem due to crippling social and economic reasons. We need to help the children of the world learn to read before we worry about what they read.
Apr 6, 11:55 by Dawn Burnell
While I agree that literacy rates are falling and that something needs to be done, I think that citing Speculative Fiction as the best choice is rather presumptious. There are many books out there. The point should be to give children SOMETHING to read and figure out what they are interested in rather than forcing an interest upon them. As a child, I liked to read SF/F so that's what my father & grandfather gave me. I also liked to read Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Bobbsey Twins (all Mysteries). I was given those, but never the adult mysteries which is probably sad in reflection. Further, I enjoyed the "girls" books like Babysitter's Club, The Gymnastics, and "Together 4ever". This could have lead me to Chick Lit, and I have enjoyed some Chick Lit.

All that is to say: There were several "genres" I was interested in as a child. Only one was really encouraged (SF/F), which turned out okay in my case. But it didn't work for my siblings who were interested in other genres and that wasn't encouraged as readily and now they don't read as much as I do. Watch what a child chooses to read, offer them many choices, and encourage WHATEVER genre they prefer to read.

And yes, give books to libraries and schools. If you buy SF/F it makes sense that you will give such, but consider making a trip to the bookstore and buying something that isn't SF/F to expand your own horizons and donate that too.
Apr 7, 00:27 by Nora Bencsics
As some of the respondents have said, not ALL kids (or adults) are interested in S&F. I see this with my two nephews for example.

That said, I WAS one of those kids who adored the genre, and however disappointed (or perhaps just jaded) I am about the current crop of books, nothing gives me as much pleasure as reading a good sci-fi novel.

What I have thought for a long time is that sci/fi&fantasy is the 'literature' of the 20th (and the 21st? we'll see) century. The literature of the 19th century dealt with the social struggles brought about by the industrial revolution (off the top of my head : the names Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolsdoy, Hardy spring to my mind).

But in the 20th century? What defined the ethos of the century, its drive, its horrors and fears, its inventions? It wasn't James Joyce for sure. Literature is not just about the writing as art is not just about the art - it's also about the connection between the work and the psyche of the collective readers.

As for children - well, the children who are no longer reading because of TV, internet, etc. etc. (and who suffer as a result of poor attention spans that make reading a pain) are the same children who read SOMETHING years ago because there was no other entertainment available.

But the children who love to read are no different than the ones who loved to read 50 or a 100 years ago. If we did the research, factoring in the idea of quality of reading as opposed to just the fact of it, I'll wager the numbers will still be the same.

And in the same way, there'll be as many who love to read sci-fi as before, percentage wise.
Apr 7, 10:17 by twosheds
Sure, kids have always been "lured" away from reading well before the internet and Nintendo. In my day (here it comes) I went outside and played. While I think there is some argument that internet, TV and Nintendo have impacted child obesity, I don't think it's as strong as an argument in child illiteracy.
Apr 7, 23:04 by travitt hamilton
Some previous respondents have been a bit, ummm...feisty about Kneale's assertion that SF in particular can/should be used to get kids back into reading. I would remind those folks that this isthe Internet Review of Science Fiction, not the internet review of chick lit. And if SF authors are concerned enough to get publicly involved as SF authors (as opposed to getting involved as parents or concerned citizents), in improving childhood literacy rates, it only makes sense that an essay published in a genre outlet would focus on literacy efforts within the genre.

Also, parents who are giving their kids books are probably perceptive enough that if the SF ain't working, they'll come up with something else.

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