As a kid, I got an early start to reading. Not because I was some prodigy, I just wanted to do everything my big sister could. And anyway, I quickly discovered that I loved reading. Mom would send me to my room to clean it and find me hours later tucked in a messy corner with a book.
By the time I was picking my books out myself, a definite trend emerged. I loved The Book of Three. I was fascinated by A Wrinkle in Time. By the end of middle school, I’d read every single book in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. In early high school, I discovered Robin McKinley and never did fall out of love with her imagined worlds.
I think I was drawn to fantasy literature for a bunch of reasons. To escape? Sure. To have an adventure? Absolutely. Because dragons are super-cool? Yes. But also, the reality of everyday sexism hit middle-grade-me like a kick in the teeth. If you ask me, fantasy’s greatest power is its unique ability to expand our understanding of what’s possible. And I’m not just talking about portals and magicians and tesseracts.
If a writer is creative enough, those imagined worlds don’t need to share this world’s failings. Racism, sexism, homophobia—all of it can be transcended, or better yet, in the pages of a book, a reader can step into a world where they never even existed.
Or, speculative fiction can offer a razor-sharp critique of our society’s ills. The canon has a lot say about repression and bigotry, fascism and propaganda, bullies and the everyday kind of people who stand up to them. The Lighthouse between the Worlds is first and foremost a fast-paced adventure story with a good dose magic. But it also looks at the terrifying consequences of forfeiting independent thought. As much as it’s about hopping a portal between worlds, it’s also about the tension between isolationism and diverse coalitions—something we’re wrestling with today on a global scale.
I wish I could say that nothing got in the way of my love affair with fantasy lit. But that’s just not true. In those later high school years, in the doldrums of reading all those “important” required texts, I got the message that the stories I loved most weren’t worthwhile. I remember vividly one time when my lit teacher let us choose our own book for a report. And what did I pick? This long, boring book for adults about Aaron Burr. I hated that book the whole way through. So why did I pick it? Because I thought my history teacher would be impressed.
Before I knew it, I’d stopped reading fantasy. It wasn’t too much later that I’d stopped reading for fun altogether. How did that happen?
More and more, I see teachers online standing up for their students’ reading preferences, validating all kinds of readers and all sorts of texts, finding really creative ways to pair books to broaden learning, to build empathy, and to celebrate reading for reading’s sake. Educators are pushing back against practices that sap the joy out of reading. And every time I see that, I’m over here, fist-pumping, celebrating that those kids have a teacher like that in their corner.
Fast forward to my first year in college. I was in the University library attempting to study for a test on parasites. Yuck. I kept reading the same paragraph in my textbook over and over again, but remembering nothing, so I thought a change of location might help. What I discovered on the next floor up was a hip-high segment of bookshelves just for Children’s Literature. I remember sort of looking around, befuddled, like, what is this doing here with all the “important” books?
And then I spotted the spine of a book I’d know anywhere. It was The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I ditched my textbooks and spent the rest of the day joyfully immersed in that familiar story.
Now, I write books for all kinds of reasons. I’m hugely passionate about my YA historicals Audacity and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky. I’ve never had so much fun writing a novel as I did with last year’s middle grade contemporary, Three Pennies.
But there’s something special in it for me when I write a work of fantasy. It’s like I’m writing to that pre-teen me, right before she let herself be convinced that her favorite stories weren’t worthy. It’s like I’m reaching back through time to whisper in her ear: Look, this thing that brings you so much joy? Hold on tight. Don’t ever let it go.
Melanie Crowder is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including
Audacity, Three Pennies, An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, A Nearer Moon and Parched, as well as the new middle grade duology The Lighthouse between the Worlds. The sequel,A Way between Worlds, releases Oct. 1 of this year.
Melanie’s books have been awarded the Jefferson Cup, the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, the SCBWI Crystal Kite, and the Bulletin Blue Ribbon; they have been recognized as a National Jewish Book Awards Finalist, Walden Award finalist, Colorado Book Awards Finalist, Junior Library Guild selection, YALSA Top Ten Books For Young Adults, ILA Notable Book for a Global Society, Parents’ Choice Silver Medal, BookBrowse Editor’s Choice, BookPage Top Pick, and The Washington Post Best Children’s Books for April. Her work has been listed as Best Books of the Year by Bank Street College, Kirkus Reviews, The Amelia Bloomer List, New York Public Library, Tablet Magazine, A Mighty Girl, and The Children’s Book Review.
The author lives under the big blue Colorado sky with a wife, two kids, and one good dog. Visit her online at www.melaniecrowder.com.