The Dark Fantastic. A Groundbreaking Book on Race in Children’s Literature.

We have all heard the saying.

Catch them while they are young.

Focus on the children and you will build the future you want to see. But what is that future you claim to be building? Are you building a future for change? Or is it a future that maintains a status quo that serves some groups over others?

In publishing, the issue of the future comes to the fore in children’s literature. In 2014, the non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books was founded in response to a publishing industry that publishes children’s book that fail to address the diverse experience of what it is to be a child in the United States today. The purpose of WNDB is to “help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Since its foundation, WNDB has helped shape the conversation on diversity in children’s literature, highlighting the good work that is being done and exposing the instances when children’s literature perpetuates racism, ableism, and gender discrimination.

71cPAgR+hKLIn 2019, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Associate Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the conversation with her groundbreaking book The Dark Fantastic. Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (New York University Press, 2019. Paperback, September 2020).

By taking a closer look at the representation of race in fantasy, Dr. Thomas cracks open the thick shell of the genre’s deep legacy of non-inclusivity and racism.  Dr. Thomas picks apart the massively popular franchises of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries and reveals their use of race, which, on the surface, looks like an empowerment of Black characters, but which at closer scrutiny is only more of the same.

The Dark Fantastic is a groundbreaking book for several reasons. First, it is one of few academic publications to discuss race in children’s literature. Second, to my knowledge, it is the only such publication to take fandom into account as an authentic source. Third, in addition to revealing children’s literature and publishing’s relationship to race, it simultaneously shines a light on racism in the genre of fantasy as a whole. Fourth, it presents a Theory of the Dark Fantastic and in so doing moves the field of research forward in that it provides future scholars and authors with a framework in which to position the work of their own as well as that of others.

The Dark Fantastic is a groundbreaking book on race in children’s literature that exposes and highlights while charting a way for the future of children’s literature.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.



Valkyrie. Excellent New Book on Women of the Viking Age.

Sometime during the second half of the 11th century, a Swedish woman named Gerlög went to Torbjörn the Skald and asked him to do something for her. Gerlög’s daughter Inga had recently died, and as Inga’s only living relative, Gerlög came to inherit her own daughter. To avoid any accusations of having come into her inheritance by unlawful means, Gerlög needed to make a public statement of the course of events that led up to her inheriting Inga. Torbjörn the Skald was knowledgeable in runes, and this is the message that Gerlög hired him to carve into the bedrock.

U 29 Hillersjöhällen

The Hillersjö Hill where Gerlög explains how she came to inherit her daughter, Inga. Source: U 29, the Swedish National Heritage Board.

Interpret, you! Germund was given Gerlög as his wife when she was a maiden. Then they had a son, before he (Germund) drowned. And the son died after. Then she was given Gudrik as her husband. He… this… Then they had children. But only one girl survived; her name was Inga. Her Ragnfast in Snottsta was given as his wife. Soon after he died and then the son. And the mother (Inga) came to inherit her son. Then she was given Erik as her husband. Soon after she died. Then Gerlög came to inherit Inga, her daughter. Torbjörn the Skald carved the runes.

9781788314770This inscription is known as the Hillersjö Hill (Hillersjöhällen) and is included in Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s new book Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020). Valkyrie is a history of the Viking Age that places the women of the time at the center of the story.

The Viking Age is commonly viewed as a time dominated by men where women are barely visible, but Viking society couldn’t function without a tight relationship between men and women. To run a farm, both men and women were needed, which means that women participated in those supposedly all-male Viking expeditions that invaded and settled all the way from Newfoundland in North America to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. Because without both men and women working together, those settlements wouldn’t have survived and the iconic Viking ships wouldn’t have been able to set sail.

Jóhanna’s contribution to the study of Viking history and society is immense. In her book, she successfully views the Viking Age from the point of view of its women and in doing so, she refreshingly and unapologetically pushes Viking men to the side.

Her use of source material is broad. In addition to using the sagas, she also uses rune carvings, grave goods, and other archaeological artifacts. Personally, I appreciate the inclusion of the rune carvings seeing as they are the only texts where the Vikings speak to us directly, many of them women like Gerlög. Rune carvings are mainly found in Sweden and using them as source material broadens the view of the Viking world, which all too often ends up focused on the British Isles, France, and Iceland in translation.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World provides a new perspective on old knowledge by letting Viking Age women take center stage and speak to us in their own voices.

In the words of my friend the Australian, I shall return.


The Puzzle of the Banquet Hall of the Dukes. A peer-reviewed article in History and Theory


Akershus Castle, Oslo, Norway. King Haakon V (r. 1299–1319) began construction on the castle during the first year of his reign in 1299. Haakon V is the father of Duchess Ingeborg Haakonsdaughter, whose wedding in 1312 is at the center of my article published in History and Theory (1:2020). Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I have a research article in the latest issue (1:2020) of the peer-reviewed journal History & Theory (Wiley). In this article I am studying how incorrect facts survive the transition from pre-scientific scholarly work to scientific scholarly work and consequently become labeled as truth. The paywall that this article is usually behind has been lowered so here’s an opportunity to read the article while it’s available.

If you wish to read the article in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Tell Me a Story

On April 29, 2020, The Week published an article I wrote about how the audiobook is a medium unique to the 21st century because it merges the millennia-old practice of building community through storytelling with the solitary listening that we engage in everyday on our mobile devices. Mark Athitakis wrote a similar perspective in The Washington Post recently, where he points out that reading in solitude is a perfect way to practice social distancing, but reading alone is a very late development in how humans relate to stories.

Athitakis wrote his piece to address how reading can be a way to handle the isolation we are all in right now, even if this means reading books we have already read several times. My point is similar to his but it works at a more aggregate level, addressing how listening to stories connects us to our own humanity and the humanity of those who came before us, sometimes several thousand years in the past.


Tell Me a Story

woman sitting on window reading book

Photo by Thought Catalog on

Society tends to be divided about the merit of audiobooks. Some argue they’re no different than physical books. Others are staunch opponents to them, even going so far as to suggest they’re linked to a decline in literacy. And even if you’re not opposed to books on tape, you likely harbor a quiet assumption that listening to a story is, well, lazy. But audiobooks are just a modern incarnation of a tradition that’s older than civilization itself: the act of listening to the voice of another human telling us a story.

We may think reading is the purest form of engaging with a story, but in reality, humans were listening to stories long before we were reading them.

Take, for example, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the two works considered the fountainheads of our literary tradition.

If you wish to read the article in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


How To Quickly Learn a New Subject in History

The other day I was engaged in a Twitter discussion on the merits of the edited volume for historical research. The discussion came about because there is an attitude among some established historians that edited volumes are a lesser form of publication, and as such, they should not be counted among the publications required for a tenure track position in history at an American university.

I completely disagree.

An edited volume is a book on a specific topic put together by one or more scholars who act as editors and who invite other scholars to submit chapter length research texts on the specific topic of the volume. As one of my co-debaters expressed it in our Twitter discussion, edited volumes are often published as part of a series and because of this, the publisher can take greater risks with an edited volume than they can with a stand alone book. Therefore, the edited volume is more likely to contain cutting edge research and it is also more likely to contain authors who have yet to establish themselves as scholars. In other words, edited volumes are an excellent stepping stone in a scholar’s early career, and disparaging them as a lesser form of publication is insidious and elitist.

Edited volumes provide quick, updated (most of the time) overviews of specific topics that otherwise would be difficult to put together on your own. Edited volumes are a great service to the scholarly community and should be regarded as such, not only in the hiring process but also in the research process.

I am currently working on a book project where I am forced to move outside of my own area of expertise. The project is medieval but the topics I discuss include early monastic culture, anchoritism, book production, the history of Bohemia, and Heaven and Hell as historical concepts. I would not be able to work on this project without the help of edited volumes.

To celebrate the edited volume as the perfect medium to quickly learn a new subject in history, I would like to share with you some of the edited volumes that I have found particularly useful. The titles below include the edited volumes I am working with in my current project, as well as edited volumes that I use when I teach.

I would like to point out, though, that these are all academic publications, and as such they can be expensive to buy, in case you are interested, and, as e-publications, they might be locked behind institutional log ins. The prices charged by academic publishers on their publications is an extortionist practice, if you ask me, and many university libraries make it unnecessarily difficult for people–lay people and unaffiliated scholars alike–to access their collections and library holdings.

All right, here we go.

41cM4MUu7ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Alison I. Beach & Isabelle Cochelin (eds.), The Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin West Volumes 1 & 2 (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
These edited volumes are brand new and contain the latest research on monasticism in Catholic Europe during the Middle Ages. It covers a wide range of topics, but the main reason why I like this volume so much is because of its geographical reach. Often, publications who claim to speak for the entirety of medieval Europe focus mostly on France and England. This makes them more or less useless for a scholar like myself, whose area of expertise includes Scandinavia, the Baltic, and the Arctic and who now has branched out into Bohemia, which today is part of the Czech Republic. The two books can be bought as a set for a whopping $375.

Liz Herbert McAvoy (ed.), Anchoritic Traditions in Medieval Europe (Boydell & Brewer, 2019. Reprinted edition).
The anchorite was a person who took a vow to dedicate their life to God and Christ by retiring from society and live walled up in a cell until they died. Today, anchorites are considered an obscure part of medieval culture, but during the Middle Ages, anchorites were anything but. Hundreds of people–mostly women–lived as anchorites all over Europe, and even though they had withdrawn from society, many of them became important figures, offering prayers and spiritual guidance to the community that surrounded them. The practice of anchoritism disappeared with the Reformation, and over time the people who dedicated their lives to Christ in this way were more or less forgotten. I like this volume because it provides a quick and comprehensive overview of anchoritism, its history, its geographical spread, and the current state of research. Still, there is a slight emphasis on anchoritism in England, so for someone like me who is interested in the anchoritic practices of Central Europe, some chapters are more useful than others.

4132n-hLnUL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Ra’anan Boustan & Annette Yoshiko Reed (eds.), Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions (Cambridge University Press, 2004. Digital edition from 2009).
Our view of Heaven and Hell goes far back in time and is a composite of ideas of the afterlife that can be traced to several different regions, cultures, and religions. In this volume, Boustan and Yoshiko Reed bring together scholars who discuss how the major religions of Late Antiquity viewed the afterlife and how these views inform the development of Heaven and Hell as concepts. The edited volume is a perfect format for this kind of discussion because each chapter allows for an in-depth discussion of the many aspects of Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife that would be difficult for one scholar to pull off within the confines of a stand alone book, while it also provides a quick overview of an unwieldy research topic.

Debra Hassig (ed.), The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature (Taylor & Francis, 1999).
The bestiary is another integral part of medieval culture that tends to be overlooked. When I do see bestiaries being referenced out in the world, it’s usually in the form of bestiary images taken out of context. A bestiary was a book of real and fantastical animals intended to teach people how to live as good Christians through the use of parables. The fascinating thing about bestiaries is that they were in vogue for a comparatively short time and only in a few places (13th century England and France, basically), but their legacy still lives on. Bestiaries are the reason why we view hyenas and weasels negatively and lions and panthers in a positive way. Bestiaries were antisemitic and their parables lie at the foundation of the strand of antisemitism that associates Jews with certain animals. Bestiaries were also deeply misogynist. Debra Hassig is the leading expert on bestiaries and has been for many years, and this edited volume gives a very good overview of the medieval bestiaries. The volume is from 1999 which tells you a little bit about the state of research on bestiaries. Their images float around on the internet on a regular basis, but very little research is actually done on them.

51khvlK9qLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Olaf Asbach & Peter Schröder (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to the Thirty Years War (Routledge, 2014. Digital edition 2016).
The Thirty Years War lasted between 1618 and 1648 and when it was over, the European continent lay in ruins and devastation that would not be seen again until World War II. The Thirty Years War is a complex and complicated military conflict to the point where it can be debated whether this really was one long war or several different conflicts fought in the same general area over a certain period of time. Similar to the anchorites and the bestiaries, the Thirty Years War tends to be overlooked in historical research written in English. England itself did not participate in the Thirty Years War as a main combatant; instead, England descended into a Civil War which ended in regicide. This edited volume provides an excellent overview of all aspects of the conflict(s), but if you wish to buy it, you are going to have to pay over $160, which is just outrageous.

Philip de Souza, Pascal Arnaud & Christian Buchet, The Sea in History—The Ancient World (Boydell & Brewer, 2017).
This edited volume is part of a series that brings together research on the significance of the sea in human history, also known as maritime history. What I really like about this volume is that it brings together the different civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean and connects them to each other. It also demonstrates how the Mediterranean communicated and traded with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean already this far back in time. Too often, Ancient history is taught in a way that makes you think that the amazing civilizations of the Ancient world existed in isolation from one another. This volume makes it abundantly clear that they all coexisted and influenced one another across the millennia. Again, this book is very expensive if you wish to buy it. The e-book clocks in at nearly $100 and the hardback costs nearly $200, which is unconscionable.

Magdalena Naum & Jonas Nordin, Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity. Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (Springer, 2013).
This edited volume is an excellent example of how the format helps bring forward cutting edge research in a niche topic by emerging scholars. Scandinavian colonialism as a research topic was abandoned following the end of World War II when the Nordic countries–Sweden especially–rebranded themselves as social-democratic utopias dedicated to uphold peace and human rights. During the past couple of decades, historians have begun returning to the imperial projects of Sweden and Denmark-Norway, but the research field is still too small for publishers outside of the Nordic countries to take a chance at publishing stand alone books on the topic. I don’t agree with everything the authors say in these chapters, but the volume provides a good overview of an emerging field of research. Again, though, the prices for all editions of this volume are atrocious. The book came out seven years ago. There is no reason still to be charging nearly $150, especially since publications in English on this specific topic are so few and far between.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.