One of the most fun activities I do with my book group of Yr5/6 (US 4TH/5TH grade) is a session, sometimes two, on world building.
We warm up with brief quiz on the best known imaginary worlds, talk about other worlds in books they’ve loved (Hogwarts featuring heavily). Sometimes I even bring in my copy of the rather wonderful Dictionary of Imaginary Places
We then use the Brainstormer app in World Builder mode on my iPad to create a jumping off point for their world. I have them working in groups to mix things up, generate ideas and prevent a whole series of copy cat magical boarding school or Greek myth worlds.
This is great fun for them (and me) to play with:
I then ask them to brainstorm ideas for their world around a number of questions: the name of their world, inhabitants, food, methods of travel, what are the young taught, at school or otherwise? Does magic or technology exist in this world or both? What form does it take? Who controls it? What are the threats to the world?
And so on.
The worlds they build always amaze me completely. The children think about, deconstruct and analyse all sorts of ‘real world’ structures and problems from patriarchy to climate change to terrorism, all within the safe space of their ‘fantasy world’.
Only last week we had:
Inhabitants: One girl (Selina) and a plethora of wild beasts who she can communicate with. Threatened by evil goblins until Selina captures one, kisses him thereby transforming him into a handsome prince…[CHEERS OF FEMINIST SOLIDARITY]
A rundown technology library hidden deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Heroes are trained in teleportation and mind-reading using special ‘beams’ the library is the sole source of. Once trained they are deployed around the world to defeat terrorists by defusing bombs. Oh and they get to eat vegetables that taste like sweets, too…[HUGE BONUS]
Neo Orc [IN A BROOKLYN ACCENT]
A labyrinthine world inside a giant volcano with intelligent super newts (good) and orcs (bad) Ruled over by the NeORC a mutated giant hybrid Newt-Orc. The clever newts get to learn superpowers such as shooting electricity from their fingertips and flying while Orcs mainly ride around on wolves being aggressive. [MUCH LIKE SCHOOL? OR WAS THAT JUST ME?]
The Crooked Palace of Evil Deeds [THESE KIDS ARE WRITERS]
A huge creepy castle with an infinite number of rooms and corridors. Here junior witches, zombies and vampires are trained in their respective professions while eating bugs and rotting meats. [COLLEGE!]
All my very diverse group of kids LOVE world building-even the ones who are not particularly fantasy readers.
All of which plus the (at the time of posting) #DiverseMG and #iLoveMG tags trending away on twitter made me think about the scarcity of diverse fantasy and science fiction, documented here by the marvellous Charlotte’s Library
Is it because fantasy worlds are seen as a product of the very British first Golden Age of kid lit that spawned Alice, Peter Pan and Narnia?
Or because a character other than white Anglo-Saxon, middle class and gender-conforming MUST by default have an issue or ‘problem’ and the story is structured around this, rather than magic portals or wish-granting sand fairies or whatever?
A little of both–but I think the difficulties of world building has much to do with this dearth. Some children and adults like having their world rocked around a little bit. Many don’t, however (adults seem to be more uncomfortable with this than children.)
In the fantasy worlds we know and love, elves (tall, fair, slender) are good, if a little wayward, goblins and dwarves (squat and broad in the beam) are bad. Witches are dark haired and hook nosed and generally bad too, unless they’re white witches–in which case they may be beautiful. Gods and goddesses-Nordic and Greek ones are allowed because Culture. All the others are confusing, with funny names and many heads and so on. Dragons are evil and hoard gold, (unless Eastern dragons–so much cooler but how many mainstream fantasies have you read where they feature?) Villains and bandits are frequently swarthy. Unicorns are good and must always be white.
See what I mean?
If you are part of a community of individuals who are short, or dark skinned or haired, or hook nosed or broad in the beam, you really cannot go along with this bullshit nonsense.
So what can you do?
You may choose leave out the entirety of the Western fantasy canon (in which case your world may be too different and ‘unrelatable’)
You may attempt to dismantle the entirety of the Westen fantasy canon and its tropes in the space of one short book meant for 8-12 year olds.
And we haven’t even BEGUN with the issues of technology-based violence, colonialism and slavery yet. Some of the reasons why there may be a) few writers of diverse heritage writing fantasy/sci-fi for this young age group or b) they exist but are writing about mainstream characters/worlds or c) they are writing from a diverse world view about diverse characters but not getting published/publicised/promoted.
That said, some brilliant people have written great speculative fiction for this age group which encompasses diversity of character, culture and belief. Here are some recommendations, tending to the older end of the range and with one exception, SF Said, not written by diverse authors:
Please do tweet me @storyvilled if you have more suggestions of gripping, challenging, well written, immersive stories for this age group!