I just got back from a reading and discussion of the Fourth World trilogy (final installment pending) in two separate sixth-grade classes today. Frankly, I hadn’t expected very much engagement; to me, Fourth World seemed much too dense with 22nd-century medicine, genetic engineering, stem cell technology and even the mechanics of space engines, to appeal to students in sixth grade. But the intro and Q&A sessions covered the art and science of both sci-fi and medicine, which seemed to draw rapt attention– something for everyone. About two-thirds of the class said they preferred the arts, while one-third classified themselves as science-heads. Anyone want to write as a hobby or professionally? Quite a few hands shot up. How about doctors? Almost an equal number– amazing, at this age.
For those who denied any interest in writing, I advised keeping an open mind: years from now, they may find that writing has become one of their greatest passions. My advice to the nascent writers in the class: first and foremost, read a lot! In junior high school, some books I read for fun were Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, The Foundation Trilogy, some Kurt Vonnegut, Dune and Lord of the Rings. But To Kill a Mockingbird has had the greatest influence to this day. Love of reading does not lead to good writing any more than love of music leads to composing skills or mastery of a musical instrument– but in the absence of high-quality reading, good writing is impossible.
Second, write what you know: that is as old as the hills and twice as dusty– but still valid. Of course I wrote Fourth World drawing from my experiences in medicine, bench research, patients’ stories and so on. Although too young to have accumulated much experience of that sort, most sixth-graders have gone through the gamut of family struggles, (cyber)bullying, good and bad relationships, lack of confidence, and personal loss.
Third, know what your theme is before you write. When students were asked what they would write a book about– or would like to see in a book written for teens– recurrent themes included character growth through the school years and entering professions such as medicine. Those were expected, as well as themes oriented around gaining control of one’s life, as well as the fear of death. More surprising, one student who had lost her father recently said that she hated doctors for failing to save him– but wanted to become a doctor herself. Another student– thanked by the teacher for sharing– wished for a book about a girl who was constantly abused by her mother, then discovered superpowers in herself. Yet another planned to solve, and write, murder mysteries. In the end, there was universal enthusiasm for an ethnic cookbook– food conquers all!
Then came my reading from both novels. When given a choice of passages, the overwhelming majority of kids chose Benn’s discovering a scene of horror in a locked medical ward (from Fourth World Nation). I thought they would! A baseball game played on Mars came in second, and no one wanted to hear about a band of young children fleeing an invading army (now that I had not expected).
These students, maybe ten to twelve years old, were very bright, definitely engaged, and not shy about speaking up. They understood various references, albeit not in detail, that I made to artificial intelligence, genetics, space and medicine. In contrast, when I was ten and entered sixth grade, as far as I can recall, I had no knowledge of anything. It must be the energy and generous spirit of their teacher, supplemented by the Internet Age; the whole time I thought my readings would fall on deaf ears, I needn’t have worried at all.
Three paragraphs above, I mentioned a book about a mother’s abuse of her daughter, who subsequently gains superpowers. Here’s a mercifully brief excerpt from Fourth World, in which Benn mulls over his strict upbringing:
“Honestly, his father’s long absences were a relief to Benn, as Owen’s oppressive approach to child-rearing (traditional among the Chinese, Benn had learned from a library book on psychosocial development) included caning his son when he broke the rules, or slapping him for asking impertinent questions. Benn rubbed the back of his head, imagining a dent where Father had once applied his shoe. The effect, however, was the diametric opposite of what Owen intended: as a child, Benn reacted to physical punishment by further rejecting the rules, his impertinence growing with every blow.”
To the girl who requested that book: Benn does develop extraordinary abilities later in Fourth World, and to a degree, justice is served. Keep on reading!