As a teacher, I was painfully aware of how limited our Houghton Mifflin’s reading selections were. Every story was realistic fiction about a student who didn’t feel like they fit in.
Realistic fiction is fine, but the stories that really ignite a love for reading often come from science fiction and fantasy. Think about the most popular book series of recent past:
- Harry Potter
- Percy Jackson
- The Hunger Games
- And (yes) Twilight
And of course, film series in these genres are massively popular as well: the Star Wars and Marvel universes, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and so on.
I use a lot of pop characters in my workshops, and am amazed at how many teachers say they’ve never seen any films from these series, or read any of the books. And there’s almost a sense of pride in being unaware of what kids are most interested in.
If you don’t know Luke from Frodo, Harry from Katniss, or what makes Captain America and Iron Man different, take a weekend and sample what your students are delightfully feasting on. There’s a lot of meat on these bones.
I’ve also heard teachers simply say: “I don’t like science-fiction”, thus denying their students of a powerful experience.
Beyond Pulpy Fun
Sure, sci-fi and fantasy stories are fun and often action packed. But the real value of these genres is their ability to tackle sticky ethical issues in a less intimidating way.
The Harry Potter series begins with the death of Harry’s parents and only gets tougher from there. Harry faces prejudice and betrayal from classmates, loses mentor after mentor, and deals with unwanted celebrity. But it’s all done through the lens of a magical school.
The Hunger Games is an entry point to discuss media’s coverage of tragedies, the horrors of war, and the effects of class divisions, but it’s all wrapped in a science-fiction future.
Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War is a wonderful debate over the need for government control vs freedom, argued through super heroes.
The Star Trek series have, for decades, addressed modern ethical problems through science-fiction. The Klingons were stand-ins for Cold War enemies, and then became a symbol of working with one’s former foes. Lt. Cmdr. Data gives writers a way to comment on the nature of humanity through a charming android.
Writing Sci-Fi & Fantasy Stories
I’ve started a series over at Byrdseed.TV about writing sci-fi and fantasy stories that address an ethical issue.
- Ask students to pick a modern problem. Racism? Poverty? Feeling like an outsider? Bullying? Voting age? Anything can work.
- Then, they can describe their fantastic setting. How is it different from a realistic setting?
- Finally, what is the parallel ethical issue in that setting? Rather than voting age, is it the age for flying a space ship or using magic?
Students are now armed with an interesting ethical dilemma, but can write about it in a fantastical setting without the weight of the real world.
Reading Sci-FI & Fantasy
Besides the series already mentioned, here are some books that work with upper-elementary and middle school (and even those advanced younger kids too):
- Ender’s Game Hoo boy. This one’s powerful. Lots about empathy, war, and standing up for yourself. Then read Ender’s Shadow for even more great discussion.
- The White Mountains series. I still remember reading this one as a kid, waiting for my mom to get her nails done.
- The Giver OMG. A child in the future must learn to take on a powerful burden for his people.
- A Wrinkle In Time A classic, and an especially great dive into giftedness, including a wonderful gifted female protagonist
- For the younger crowd (and a favorite of 5th grade Ian), Matilda is light fantasy that also features a gifted girl.
You can also read about my experience guiding 11 year olds through The Time Machine – a book that was way too hard but we still had a blast with.
What about you? Any favorite sci-fi and fantasy series for kids (or that I might like)? Send them my way!