Reluctant readers, part deux

I received an email today commenting on my last post on reluctant readers. Author Darcy Pattison said:

I just read your livejournal post about the panel on reluctant readers and fantasy. I love what Mirrorstone does with the reluctant readers and fantasy. Sounds like the BN Educator’s Day you went to was more lively than the one I attended here!

I wonder if there’s another readership you might explore, too.

I once heard Lawrence Yep talk about reading fantasy. As a first generation Chinese-American, he grew up in an all black neighborhood, but attended a school that was mostly white (If I remember it right!). He said that for him, reading fantasy was like his life: a character is thrust into an alien environment, must learn the rules of society, and must survive.

Using fantasy to reach out to immigrants might be another avenue of reaching the right readers for fantasy stories.

I completely agree with her. Often fantasy is written from a Western point of view or using mostly British/Celtic lore, and I’ve seen many a discussion about why that is and how we might gain more multicultural readers if we used more multicultural lore. Laurence Yep’s work is a great example of using themes and folklore from other cultures to tell a great story that might appeal to readers of a more broad background. I volunteer for the library here and work with Somali and Cambodian immigrants, and it’s probably an issue they’d relate to.
But related to that, one thing I love about fantasy is that it can address issues like race and culture in a metaphorical way, so that people of many backgrounds can put themselves into an alien world and get out of it what applies to their life. That’s another thing we talked about on the panel, actually, that I didn’t cover in my post–the multicultural themes a lot of fantasy covers. Dragonlance, for example, at least in the New Adventures, often addresses racism between kender, elf, and human. Sindri Suncatcher is a kender who can do magic–something that’s simply “not possible” in the world, which causes a lot of discrimination, speculation, and comments from other characters. Elidor is a great example of an elf from a mixed race who has to deal with the racism of his Silvanesti relatives and villagers at his “otherness.”
Star Sisterz is another of our series that has alternating protagonists from many cultural backgrounds (Indian-American, Caucasian, Latina, and Asian-American—there’s one more that I’m forgetting), and we really love that it can speak to girls of all types—both in universal themes and in characters of different backgrounds. The authors were talking in the panel about how there’s not a lot of contemporary fantasy like that out there, but that high fantasy often addresses those themes. (Which does make me say, “we need more contemporary fantasy that addresses those themes!”)
One thing that fantasy addresses well is the idea of “otherness,” metaphorically. It’s one of the reasons I love fantasy, really–as an outsider socially, a nerd/geek/bookworm (not to mention a farm girl in an urban world and a member of a minority religion), I’ve experienced at least some of what it feels like to be an Other, and I think that when we’re in that position, even for a moment, it helps us to understand others who might feel like outsiders. Reading a book in which the protagonist is an “other” puts the reader, of whatever background, into their shoes and creates an experience that can help increase empathy, for those who have never felt that way, or just let the reader be able to say, “yeah, I’ve felt that way, too.”
Not that I’m advocating bibliotherapy. But I do believe we look for ourselves in the books we read, as well as looking for adventures that we’d never be able to experience in real life. Both of those elements can be found in fantasy and science fiction, especially in what’s out there for kids and teens today.