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.

 

 

First Draft

In November 2001 I started writing an epic fantasy novel for adults. I spent the following years writing this tome on and off. I even sent it out to professional freelance editors. I participated in public readings. After revising the story I shopped it around to different publishers and in my naive and uneducated fervor I broke every rule there is when you submit a manuscript.

Of course the book didn’t get picked up. Partly because I didn’t understand the publishing industry, mostly because it just wasn’t any good. However, one of the rejection letters stated that even though they didn’t publish exactly this kind of fantasy, the world I had created was a compelling one, in particular the names of the characters appealed to them. (Probably because it was a fantasy novel with not an apostrophe in sight…)

This letter stayed with me when I put the novel to the side and instead focused on writing a dissertation in medieval history. The years as a graduate student are some of the toughest in my life. It literally was five years of blood, sweat, and tears.

Would I do it again? Hell no.

Would I have those years undone? Hell no to that too.

Why? Because those years gave me thicker skin, they taught me how to write, they taught me how to get published, they taught me how to research a book, and they taught me how to bring a book project to completion within a reasonable amount of time no matter what came at me while I was writing.

And as I neared the end of my graduate studies and as the defense of the dissertation was behind me, this fantasy epic reared its head again. I remember sitting in an office at a university where I was filling in for another teacher and I had a couple of hours to kill before I had to leave for the train.

The office was quiet. It was as if sound had ceased to exist.

And I began to write.

And I didn’t stop until I had finished a completely new version, using the first novel I wrote all those years ago as backstory.

This time around I was able to determine on my own that this wasn’t any good. I didn’t need to hire a professional editor or insult publishers to understand that I still wasn’t ready.

So I put it aside again. I worked on getting some kind of traction in the new place to where I had moved. I started freelance writing, I published research articles, I started teaching college history part time, I started tweeting, blogging, and I started to write short stories to hone my craft. I shopped those stories around. I got rejected but I also got enough encouragement from editors to know that, just like with my very first novel, I was on to something.

And then one day–in July 2015–the novel came back to me. And again, I wrote a completely new version, this time based on the second novel as well as the first novel.

I started working on this version in earnest in October 2015.

On May 23, 2016, I finished the first draft of the third version of the epic fantasy novel for adults that I began writing in November 2001. Two days ago I printed it.

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First Draft. Large font, double-spaced, 20k words too many.

So, will anyone want to publish it? I don’t know. What matters to me at this stage is that I finished it and it works.

However, when the time comes to shop this novel around, I think I might stand a better chance if I let this be the title:

The Girl Who Went in Search of Her Dad.

Even though the girl is actually a 25-year-old woman and the search for her father is only part of the story.

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

5 Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and Not an MFA

When querying an agent, what should you include in your letter? The answers to that question are as many as there are literary agents. But one thing that most responses have in common is, If you have an MFA (in creative writing), mention that. At first I was intimidated by this. I don’t have an MFA. But then I realized that I have something better.

I have a PhD.

If you want to become a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction, in my opinion a PhD is a wiser way of spending your money.

Here are five reasons why.

1) Language and style.
In historical science a writer’s language and style are of utmost importance. Historical science is dedicated to the study of human activities through the written word. These studies are conveyed to the rest of the human population through the writings of the historian. Language and style are important in historical science because if an historian abuses his/her privilege as a scholar, historical facts can be distorted, as in the case of Holocaust deniers and believers in exogenesis. Therefore, when writing historical research, the scholar needs to choose his/her words very carefully, consequently developing a close relationship to the written language.

2) Editing.
When writing a research article or a dissertation, the scholar needs to be able to determine what pieces of information are important to the argument and what pieces are not. Moreover, all academic publications, except perhaps the dissertation, are limited to the amount of words allowed. Whenever submitting an article or a chapter, you need to follow the guidelines of the editor or the publisher. If an article cannot exceed a certain amount of words, that rule becomes your law. Moreover, that limit often includes the footnotes and references, as well as the actual text.

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Daguerrotype of unidentified woman, possibly Mrs. Knox Walker, c. 1844
Photographer: Mathew B. Brady (c. 1823–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Daguerrotypes

3) Thick skin.
Just like the publishing business, the world of academia can be both tough and rewarding. While writing your dissertation, your results will be heavily criticized by people who care about you and by people who don’t give a damn about you. Your research results will be scrutinized in minutest detail, questioned and picked apart. These reactions can have just as much to do with the quality of your work as they can be completely unrelated to anything you have written. As a graduate student you will learn how to discern the honest critics from those who play at politics. And you will learn how to incorporate the criticism in your work and improve it.

4) You will be published.
The question of graduate students publishing research while still working on their dissertation differs from university to university and from country to country. During my years as a graduate student I published several articles while I was working on my dissertation. By doing that I learned how to submit manuscripts, deal with editors, and, most importantly, wait for editors. When I graduated, the dissertation became my first book.

5) You have proven yourself.
When you graduate and receive your doctorate, it is the same as if you would become a master craftsman. You have created something and been rewarded. You have been allowed entrance to a community of peers. If you have a PhD in history with the ambition of writing historical fiction, the PhD is your ticket to archives, libraries, universities and university faculty expertise. You do not need to convince them of your skills. Your PhD will take you wherever you want to go. And once you get to the archive or library where your source material is located, you know how to find your way among the shelves and the documents. You know how to conduct sustainable research.

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Crimean War cavalry camp, 1855
Photographer: Roger Fenton (1819–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Fenton Crimean War Photographs

Graduate studies are tough. There is a reason why I say that my dissertation was written in blood, sweat and tears. At the same time, writing my dissertation and receiving my doctorate was the best thing I have ever done. Graduate school may be hard and demanding, but it is a safe haven where you are allowed to fail and pick yourself up again. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, it is expected of you. When you graduate you have already gone through many of the emotional ups and downs of writing and publishing. When the agent doesn’t respond to your query or when a book critic tears your work to pieces, you will doubt yourself, your heart will be broken, but you know that you have the strength to continue. Because you have been there before.

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