I’m teaching a class on the Science Fiction/Fantasy novel. I’m really just acting as placeholder teacher this year. Even though this is a genre I love, I won’t ever teach it again because it is not a class I created and because I am returning to the middle school next year to teach 7th grade.
The teacher who designed this class two years ago wanted to keep teaching it, but an elective mishap made everyone’s schedules messy and left him with two American Lit, two World Lit classes but no senior electives. I am the teacher of record, but Mike is also there everyday for class, and we created the reading list together. I got to add Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and he got to keep Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, a sort of quid pro quo.
The Set Up
I thought we had a great set up for the start of the novel. We had started by looking at doors in fantasy, how they can lead us to the unexpected and the unexplained. Short video excepts from a handful of films got us started: The Seeker based on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising novels; The Wizard of Oz; Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Alice in Wonderland; and Monsters, Inc. All of these are based on books (except the last.)
Not Off to a Great Start
I’ve never taught Neverwhere before and Mike hadn’t finished reading it, so it was not an auspicious beginning when one of our students, on Day 1 of discussion, said this would be a book that a twelve year old would read. Okay. So, where do I go with that? This is a great story, and I didn’t want them to give up without giving it time. I brought the discussion around to Jung and archetype theory and the tropes that are part of the classic fantasy novel: the hapless Everyguy who blunders unwillingly into the adventure, the (generally) three tasks that await him, the Big Bad, the double cross, the parallel worlds (London Above and London Below), the zany band of supernatural folk, metaphor all around.
My weird dream of showing Buffy the Vampire Slayer in class
Yes, I’ve always wanted to find a reason to show parts of BtVS, and Buffy helped me get our students thinking about fear and allegory. We watched sections of the much lauded episode from season 4 – “Hush” where the set up is all about talking and the scary monsters in the episode steal everyone’s voices. Okay, so the things that we are afraid of make good reading, and the students were getting pulled into the text.
But it was Gaiman
And they read it. Second semester seniors read the book. The same student that said this was a book for his little sister looked at me across the top of the computer in the lab one day when we were both working on other things and said, “Mrs. Tabor? I finished the book.” I asked him what he thought of how it ended, and he replied, “I got totally sucked into it.” We talked about lots of different aspects of the end – decisions the hero makes, whether or not he gets the girl, what it means for us, other Gaiman to read… I don’t know that I had anything to do with the student liking or disliking the book, but I’m glad that he did enjoy it.
Our students are going to write their own fantasy fiction now. Chicago has a rich underground landscape and is a fertile spot for narrative. I’ll be anxious to see what they come up with and what archetypes they use. Thanks for a delicious book to teach, Mr. G.
“Now: onward. Things to do. People to damage.”
— Mr. Croup in Neverwhere
Image by Flickr member Jenny Downing