Last week I got so carried away with my enthusiasm for my favorite SF/F anthology to use with students, I had to break the post into two parts. You can find Part I over here.
When last we saw our intrepid writing teacher, she was doing a story-by-story breakdown of how she uses The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens, Jane Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s brilliant but insufficiently lucrative 2005 attempt to launch a new Year’s Best annual series.
Then, in a stunning cliffhanger, a pack of Red Martians from the troublesome vassal city of Zodonga attempted to kidnap her and carry her back to Barsoom.
She tricked them into arguing about the necessity of the serial comma, and while they resolved the question by means of roaring bloodshed, she fled to the nearest cafe to gather her thoughts about teaching the following short stories:
This story’s surface is accessible, shiny, simple–a student who has just had a daunting time with one of the harder stories in the anthology can find refuge here. “CATNYP” is another take on fairy abduction, so that surface simplicity is, of course, an illusion. If it takes a session or two of writing about “CATNYP” before my student notices how weird it is that Neef, the main character, comments all the time about what kind of story she’s telling us, and deliberately interrupts that story for infodumps, that’s okay.
The tale Neef tells is of true love (sort of) in the spaces between the mundane New York City and its fairy double. One of those spaces between is in the New York Public Library. Two human teenagers who have grown up as fairy abductees can get into some spectacular trouble there.
The editors wanted to include a “golden oldie” from 100 years before in every edition of the planned Year’s Best series. “They” is a subtle ghost story–subtle enough to delight an adult genre reader with the execution of its twist. (To preserve the twist for you, I’ll say no more about the plot.) “They” is also subtle enough that a few of my students have reached the end and asked where the ghost was. Fortunately, there are a few key scenes I can bring my students back to that illustrate how it can be fun and useful to comb over a paragraph, phrase by phrase, for clues. There’s always a moment of illumination when the student is thrilled to have put the pieces together for himself.
(I’m tempted to digress about one of my favorite bits of teaching jargon, the Zone of Proximal Development. It’s that weird zone between the outer limit of what the student can do alone right now and the outer limit of what the student can only do with help and guidance. Inside that zone, where the kid can step beyond her own limits with a little bit of mentoring, and thereby change where the limit falls next time, is where a lot of the Cool Stuff happens. But I won’t digress about the Zone of Proximal Development, no I won’t.)
“The Wings of Meister Wilhelm”
Daring escapes! Mythical flying cities! An indomitable little girl rescuing her teacher! Violin lessons! Violin lessons? Oh, and “The Wings of Meister Wilhelm” is also about the power of imagination to save us from the ugliness of history. My students don’t need the layer about the ugliness of history right away, though.
This is usually the first story I assign from the anthology. It makes a fine bridge between the kinds of assignments they’re used to in school and the weirder assignments I tend to give. We start with a familiar five-paragraph essay about three character traits that enable Rose to see past the anti-Semitism of her Depression-era small southern town and save Meister Wilhelm. And when we’ve paid the five-paragraph essay its due, we can start looking at how the first-person narration works, and if the student’s history teachers have done right by her, the historical context the two central characters hope to leave behind in their quests for the flying city of Orillion.
For those of us who grew up on The Wizard of Oz, particularly on the film, this is a fun reimagining of the victory over the flying monkeys from the monkeys’ perspective. It’s kind of dark and satiric, and begs for allegorical application to whatever refugee crisis is in the news in any given year.
However, I have given up trying to use “Displaced Persons” with students. Kids these days ain’t got no sense of the classics: They’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz. Bobet relies on specific images from the film, relies on her readers to have those images permanently engraved on their consciousness from childhood. It’s too late to do that for my students, and probably was for most of Yolen and Nielsen Hayden’s intended audience.
It takes serious guts to write a novella from the point of view of a dog. It takes serious chops to sustain what might have been a gimmick and make it sing from the first page to the last. Sergeant Chip himself is genetically and surgically augmented, and he’s probably a bit of a cyborg, but for all that, he is consummately canine. The humans who made him have lost track of what that means, to their peril, and they mess with the human who is Chip’s pack alpha one time too many.
My students love this story. It’s long, it’s challenging, it has some tragic strands, as any well-made story of war will have. My students will slog through any mud to write about Chip’s misadventures in a desert war zone. This is usually the last story I assign from this anthology. By this time, they’re often ready to write their own assignments. When they get to college, they’ll have bare-bones assignments–write a five-page paper about “The Turn of the Screw,” write a ten-page paper about King Lear, write a fifteen-page paper about Paradise Lost–and it will be their responsibility to come up with a way to narrow the scope. No need for them to drown in all that freedom, when a little practice can save them.
What Students Do with the Anthology as a Whole
They start by breathing a literal sigh of relief that these writing lessons their parents are making them take are going to involve a book with two dragons battling on the cover.
There’s a moment of shock a couple of weeks later when they realize they’ll still have to do some real thinking and real work, even though the stories are fun.
A few weeks after that, there’s a moment of vindication when they realize the genres they love, and that they have defended to their teachers and families, actually stand up to real thinking and real work. They start to respect themselves more as readers and writers.
That brings us back around to Jane Yolen’s preface, in which she talks about searching through short fiction written for adults to find the stories that could also work for younger readers. The sense of accomplishment and vindication that my students earn through their efforts would not be as great, I think, if they were working on texts that had been written deliberately for the YA market. There are some wonderful YA books out there, and I teach with many of them, but none of them so consistently make my students feel that they have reached the summit of a mountain.
Perhaps, if we are all very lucky, when we reach the other side of the current chaos in publishing, we will find ourselves in a new equilibrium where Jane Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, or other editors of equivalent fabulosity, can try a project like this again.