And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. ~ Roald Dahl
Anyone who knows me can attest that I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to science fiction and fantasy. No matter the medium, chances are I have binged on it and can find more than a few reasons to debate you on the merits of its awesomeness. My love for the genre is so well known in fact, that when my friends and family heard my husband and I were having twin boys, it was just assumed they would be named Fred and George. (Spoiler Alert: They’re not.) It was only natural then that these stories of galaxies far, far, away and magic schools in the mountains of England would be an integral part of how we raised our kids. Which brings me to why I’m writing this overly-long blog post. I want to talk to you about the innumerable benefits – from the practical to the scientific – of fostering a love of these genres in your children’s lives.
As a librarian, one of the questions that frequently pops up in my interactions with parents goes something like this: “My kid hates reading. I’ve tried everything, but he/she just won’t pick up a book.” I can see the struggle in their faces and I know they’ve come to me because they’re hoping I have a magic answer. Well, I kind of do.
We as parents want our kids to understand the value of reading, so – though incredibly well-meaning – we can occasionally place too much pressure on the process. Research has shown that kids’ hesitance to read is often due to the association of reading with obligation, be it schoolwork or otherwise. It’s also shown that kids are most inclined to read on their own when there are no strings attached and they are given the freedom to choose what to read. So, getting children to read because they want to is the first Jedi mind trick every parent should master. (Second, of course, being broccoli in the brownies.) This is where sci-fi and fantasy are your secret weapon because there is a wealth of content that supports and capitalizes on the very things your kid is already obsessed with.
Does your kid dream of meeting a unicorn? “Fablehaven.” Dragons? “Wings of Fire.” Or maybe your child just really likes mermaids and fairies. In that case, let me introduce you to Emily Windsnap and Phillipa Fisher. Maybe your child is more specific. Maybe there is a movie that has been playing non-stop in your house for the last several months (Cue “Let It Go” on your internal song loop). Chances are we have a book to go with it. The point here is that kids are often attracted to the magical and you can use that to foster a successful relationship with reading. Plus, once they learn of their own accord that reading is something they enjoy, they will often branch out into different types of books on their own. But even if they don’t…
The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. The Chronicles of Narnia. A Wrinkle in Time. All of these are fantastic, critically-acclaimed series that many adults read first as children and then revisit as adults. Why? Because they are not only great stories, they are examples of truly superb writing. And here is Jedi mind trick #2: by reading books that are well-constructed, children intrinsically learn how to write better themselves far more effectively than when a person provides instruction on the topic. Sentence structure, vocabulary, the difference between “to” and “too” – the English language is not an easy one to learn and one of the best ways to internalize its many idiosyncrasies is to see them in action. Rowling, Tolkien, L’Engle, and Lewis are literary geniuses. Tolkien actually created his own languages! (Yes, that’s “languages” with an “s” on the end.) These authors represent some of the best teachers of the English language that the world has to offer.
It teaches empathy in a way that other methods simply can’t.
A few years ago, Harry Potter made headlines when a study found that reading HP might just make you a “better person” by increasing a child’s capacity for empathy. By viewing the inequality and prejudice that is present in Rowling’s wizarding world through the eyes of their heroes, children learn to better empathize with people who are different from themselves. In other words, the characters act as a proxy for the experiences the reader may not have first-hand knowledge of, making the impact of the story deeper and more meaningful. And Harry’s story is archetypal; it’s intrinsic in the construction of fantasy and sci-fi stories. The heroes of these tales are often ones whose quests are larger than themselves and whose story arch revolves around an effort to help those less fortunate. Harry Potter may be the most popular, but he is far from the only one.
It encourages children to imagine the impossible and push beyond what’s easy.
Imagination is not just a tool you use at a young age to pass the time during play. Imagination is something that has far-reaching effects well into adulthood. It plays a huge part in learning to problem-solve which in turn helps kids to learn resilience. Having the tenacity to not give up when the going gets tough, to think outside of the box, to have the forethought to reach beyond what is accepted as “possible”, are all attributes of the people that our society reveres. Those tendencies all have their root in imagination. When a child reads a story that asks them to consider the impossible (such as space life and magical educations), they learn to look at the world not as a place of limits, but one of infinite possibilities. Creative thinking and resilience are skills that are difficult to teach yet crucial to development. Science fiction and fantasy stories can help by offering kids the opportunity to imagine something beyond what they know, which in turn encourages them in very real-life endeavors such as scientific and technological exploration.
It’s a tremendous way to bond as a family.
Raise your hand if you’re a “Star Wars” fan. Perhaps you’re a die-hard Whovian. If you are, I would bet my first edition Harry Potters that you have already shown those films/episodes to your kids who have then embraced their own love for them. I would also bet that a large part of why your kids enjoy them as much as they do is because you enjoy them as much as you do. It’s not always easy to find aspects of modern-day life that both a parent and child can appreciate on the same level. In many ways, the sci-fi/fantasy stories that surround us are an excellent tool to bridge that gap. It brings kids on board with something their parents love and brings parents down a few levels to where their kids normally operate. In short, it brings out the kid in all of us. It bonds us.
Below you will find a list of some of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy titles for kids. I hope they begin to spark a love of reading in your littles (and not-so-littles) that lasts beyond their time as children. Maybe you could even pick up a title yourself. At the end of the day, we all can use a little more magic in our lives.