Saturday, August 31, 2019

Yes, There ARE Things Every Kid Should Know: Social Justice and Self-Direction

I’ve seen some interesting discussion from fellow leftists in and around the unschooling world in regards to social justice and the importance of children--all children--knowing certain things. The issue raised is this: if we can agree that there are important issues of power and oppression that all children should understand, how do you reconcile that with an approach which, on the surface, looks like children learning whatever they want, regardless of what anyone else thinks?

I agree that there is a baseline of knowledge and understanding necessary in order to be a thoughtful and kind person, and in order to engage in the work needed to dismantle structures of oppression. How are children to understand the current context if they don’t know the history of the Holocaust, of American slavery, of British colonialism, of Canadian residential schools? Children are generally taught about the ways in which they themselves are marginalized either by a hostile world which never lets them forget it, or by loved ones looking to prepare children for that world. But what about making sure all children, no matter their background, are equipped to challenge power and behave conscientiously towards those around them?

I believe the concern that these things won’t be learned if children just “do whatever they want” rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what unschooling is, or at least my understanding of it. I’ve often described unschooling as self-directed learning that is guided by the desires and needs of the learner and their communities. We exist in a world full of other people, and I would never disagree about the importance of living as morally and justly as we can, which requires being educated about important topics.

However, using oppressive and authoritarian methods to try and teach anti-oppression and anti-authoritarian politics is ridiculous and counter-productive. People learn what they live, and no matter how great the content being taught, if the structure or ways of relating reinforce hierarchies, dominance, and oppression--if children are learning that people who are bigger and older are entitled to control and dictate to those younger and weaker, they will not be learning the lessons we want them to. It’s simply unjust to use force and coercion to try to “make” children learn something, and the belief that the ends justify the means is just the type of attitude that sustains modern schooling, that continues a system built on the denial of children’s autonomy, and the enforcement of a colonialist Western model of education and social organization.

I think becoming educated on important topics can be achieved through unschooling. I further believe it’s imperative to try and nurture these qualities respectfully, and detrimental to try and do so any other way.

After all, people don’t tend to remember the things they’re taught against their will, when they don’t see the relevance or real world implications, when they’re somewhere they don’t want to be and are being taught by people they may not like. There’s a quote by Katrina Gutleben that goes “Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he's not interested, it's like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating.” This is why I don’t believe a mandatory curriculum covering everything any of us might decide ALL children should learn would be any more effective than current curriculums, where most information that’s taught is never truly learned.

One of the things that’s always appealed to me about unschooling is the anti-authoritarianism baked into an ideology that treats education not as something done to children by learned adults, but as an organic, collaborative, community-rooted process. It embraces horizontal ways of relating to other people, across age divides, and invites us all to question the oppressive structures we’ve been told are just and necessary. It is one way to start creating a different world, to live as we wish things to be instead of recreating harm.

Do all unschoolers feel this way? Not remotely. There are unschoolers with politics I consider terrible, who have very different goals than mine when it comes to embracing self-directed education, and who are passing on a lot of harmful ideas about the world to their children.

Here is where I agree with the people who believe that some things just need to be learned in order to challenge injustice. Unschooling, on its own, is not enough. Respectful parenting alone is not a complete solution.

So what to do? Well, here is where I think the importance of family and community culture comes into play. Who is part of a child’s life? What are their perspectives, experiences, and values? If children are surrounded by people who talk about and embody different ways of existing and living outside of the dominant culture, who discuss inequalities and structural violence, important history and current events, who work to unlearn their own prejudices and fight for justice, who care and learn and struggle and include children in all of that--then that is what they will learn to do themselves.

While some disagree, I’ve never seen unschooling as a way to shelter children, or as a way to control what they learn. As I’ve discussed before, I see unschooling as a way to open up more of the world, not to restrict it. I’m also never going to argue against having firm boundaries about, say, not using slurs or derogatory language about marginalized people. I am not suggesting that unschooling is a free-for-all, but that there are far better, more authentic, more consensual ways for children to learn than an “anti-oppression curriculum.”

I also think it’s important to note that while children do not have all the knowledge and experience that adults generally have, and so of course it’s important for adults to be role models and help children gain those things, we must recognize that children, too, have valuable experience and perspectives that add to adults lives, and to social justice and liberatory movements themselves. There’s a great meme I’ve shared before on Facebook, that states in part “Children's innate tendency to question the status quo as well as their ability to imagine an ideal world without limits makes their active engagement in organizing efforts an invaluable resource as we move together towards ultimate liberation for all.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing children as empty vessels to be filled, as people in training instead of people now, when the reality is that everyone has things to both learn and share, everyone has something to add across the spectrum of ages. And if any movements are seeing children solely as almost-people in need of molding they’re both perpetuating oppression and missing out.

To bring it all back around, there is definitely knowledge that is important in attempts to challenge injustice and create better ways of living. However, the best way to acquire it is to live it, to be surrounded by people who care. Kind of the same way adults gain the knowledge and skills necessary to make positive change. Children, though their needs, their experiences, and their development may be different from adults, are still every bit as deserving of basic respect, to be included instead of condescended to, to have relationships with people who see their involvement as valuable.

If we really care about making things better, we can’t do so by recreating the same power structures that oppress us all. Instead, we need to recognize every person as a potential ally and partner in the struggle for justice… including kids.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

On Seasons and Cycles: Unschooling and Nature

This post was originally published on my Patreon in February 2019. While most of my Patreon posts will remain exclusive to financial supporters, occasionally I share an older one over here as well.

You know winter is truly over when you hear the spring peepers. Even living in the suburbs, the wetlands, tucked discreetly behind houses with manicured lawns, would fill with with tiny frogs, their distinctive chorus echoing down streets and bouncing between buildings. A local zoo that focuses on fauna native to the Saint Lawrence River Valley would open up the gates at the back of their property when the peepers came out, allowing groups of people into areas generally reserved for zoologists and grad students, where we’d shine our flashlights around as darkness started to fall, trying to spot the small bodies clinging to stalks of grass. You could hear them before you even turned in to the parking lot, but as you made your way into the marshes the sound rose to deafening heights, exhilarating and consuming.

I can still hear the peepers from my house, when the snow has melted but the temperature still drops below zero some nights. The sound has grown fainter over the years as wetlands have been filled in for new housing developments, patches of forest whittled down, but they’re still there.


Instead of heading closer to the city for activities, growing up we were more likely to head in the opposite direction, where suburbs faded into more rural surroundings. We’d go on hikes and on frog catching expeditions, learned to spot wood that had been gnawed on by a beaver and admired their dams, chewed on tart sumac berries and kept a lookout for poison ivy. We’d watch turkey vultures spiral high above us, and spot red-tailed hawks and downy woodpeckers.

There are children who are more nature literate than me and my sister were--quite a few of them and quite a bit more knowledgeable--but for children of the suburbs, we spent more time in wild spaces than most of the other kids we knew.

When you grow up without school, you get to create your own structure, the what, where, how, when, and who of your choosing, which means that one of the “where’s” you can choose to focus on is outside. Without the segmentation of semesters and school vacation, you can allow other forces to guide you instead: the turning of seasons, the weather, when your favourite flowers bloom in the fields, that perfect stretch of time for hiking in the autumn when the leaves are at their brightest. You can fade into partial hibernation in the winter months, a fallow time for thinking and creating.

And, taking inspiration from the natural cycles, you can embrace the way learning itself follows its own patterns, periods of intensity and growth followed by stretches of absorption and rumination. 


When I think of my childhood, I think of it in seasons.

Spring was peepers and fat tadpoles. It was burying peas in newly thawed ground, cold earth lodging under my fingernails. It was a carpet of white trilliums rolled out through the woods, ghostly on dusk walks, punctuated by occasional red ones, foul-smelling if you leaned too close. As spring grew into summer, we’d spend afternoons picking strawberries at the farm up the road, the sun hot on our backs.

Summer was for frog and grasshopper catching. It was fields filled with bright flowers. It was black raspberry picking, thorns sharp as they caught on purple-stained fingers, and fruit bright on my tongue. It was lying on soft-prickly grass and sunning on big, sun-heated stones like some warm-blooded lizard. For years when I was small we’d head northeast, following the Saint Lawrence all the way to Gaspe, right as summer started to fade into fall. I’d spend hours picking wild blueberries, running through un-mown fields and bushwacking my way through the woods to marvel at ancient, twisting crabapple trees. I’d walk along the beach, mesmerized by crashing waves, and sometimes seals would swim close to the shore, watching us with the same curiosity with which we’d watch them.

Autumn was leaves shading into yellow and orange, red and purple, and crunching most satisfyingly underfoot. It was ponds stilling and reeds browning, the scent of decomposition in chilled noses. It was carefully deliberating over the selection of decorative gourds at the farmstand, fingers tracing stripes and ridges. It was the excitement of halloween, clamoring over prickly straw bales, and trying to catch the first flakes of snow on our tongues.

Winter was chilled faces and sparkling fresh snow, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the strangely quiet, creaking woods under the muffling blanket of a heavy snowfall. It was the bright red flash of cardinals against a white backdrop, tottering out in ice skates onto a frozen pond or rink, or sliding carefully along in boots, arms outstretched for balance. It was winter festivals and toes too long in the cold, bright pain burning as they thawed out near a warm fire, or merely the car heating vents.

Kids who don’t go to school do not have a monopoly on outdoor exploration or seasonal traditions, not by any means. But what I want to highlight is the flexibility life learning provides in allowing families to choose where and how they spend all the hours of their days, instead of only being left with a handful of evenings and weekends to do with as they wish. I want to celebrate the way that seasons can take precedence over a school calendar in structuring life, how nature can be the primary force that shapes your days, instead of a schedule set up with the best interests of an institution in mind, not the best interest of children.

When you’re not in school, you simply have time. Time to be outside, time to lie in the grass, time to organize last-minute group hikes, time to stay up late watching bats, time to go on a trip when other kids are in school. Not going to school doesn't necessarily mean you’ll spend more time in nature. But it means that you have the time--boundless, limitless time--to do so.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

When Learning is Like Breathing: On Awareness and Evaluation

One of the biggest revelations offered by people who live outside of schools and enforced curriculum is just how effortless, how ever-present, how natural learning can be. People sometimes ask me how I learned a specific thing, growing up, and I often have trouble answering. Both because, by now, my childhood was quite a while ago and my memories aren’t as clear, and also because, when you’re not using a curriculum, the exact mechanics of how learning happens are not always so easy to track.

This is definitely the case when it comes to writing. The short answer is that I just… started doing it, and got better over times as I gained more skill and experience.

Sometimes learning is as natural as breathing, and like breathing, when you become too aware of it, too conscious of lungs expanding and expelling, you can throw it off, start breathing too fast or unevenly, a natural process made complicated through hyperawareness. 

An author who was writing about self-directed learning once offered to pay me to document how I learned a new skill. At first, I agreed, but I quickly found that the act of scrutinizing the process irrevocably changed it, made it into something stilted and self-conscious. Even my own gaze could be turned into something that felt like evaluation, could be made somehow external and detached from self.

There’s a difference between that type of assessment and picking part of the process to offer for critique and observation. It’s a part of life to take a specific result--an essay or piece of art or demonstration--and present it to others for evaluation of some kind, and I have done that willingly, even cheerfully, many times over. It is not the same as intently watching and cataloguing each step, asking over and over is that learning? What about that? And, even worse, finding yourself judging which parts aren’t learning. To internalize that evaluative gaze is to self-police, to place yourself on a narrow track and administer scoldings when you stray too far into the bushes.

I think it’s important, for individual learners and those journeying with them, not to get too caught up in the details of what’s happening right now, if you can help it. It’s one of these things that forms a more complete picture only when looking backwards, when you can see how the different pieces of the landscape came together--a mountain dropping to valley below, that collection of happy little trees--to complete the whole.

I learned to write because I had something to say. Before I was capable of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard myself, I dictated to my mother, a child’s stories and thoughts laid out neatly in her clear print. Once I could read myself, writing seemed like a natural extension, and my stories and thoughts started to sprawl out far less neatly in scattered notebooks, and soon in Word documents and blogs. I did not consider whether I was writing at “grade level,” I was not compelled to write about what other people thought I should be turning my thoughts towards. I was not entirely free of what Carol Black refers to as “the evaluative gaze of school,” since as she further notes about parents who take their children out of school, “to their grief they may find that the gaze is inside them, and gets to their children through their eyes.” It is, I think, impossible to fully escape it. But I was cushioned from it. Protected, for the most part.

Learning can be as natural as breathing. But a gaze bent on recording and analysing learning, whether it comes from outside of us or is our own gaze turned inwards, has a weight to it, a heaviness that drags everything into its orbit, turns life into something that seemingly can’t function without scrutiny. If we want learning to happen as it should, to be a process owned wholly by the learner, then we must become aware of the evaluative gaze, and put our foot down, raise a shield: on this, you cannot gaze.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Why Hitting Kids Will Never Be Compatible With Unschooling

Unschooling is all about respecting and trusting children. So when people who have liked my unschooling Facebook page start defending the practice of hitting children, I’m baffled as well as upset.

Because the thing is, and I can’t state this strongly enough, violence against children will never be compatible with a philosophy of respecting children. There is very little in this world that is less respectful than striking another person. (And while I’m not a pacifist, violence in defense of self or others is wildly different from violence used to intimidate, hurt, and gain the compliance of people you claim to care about.)

People have a lot of justifications, a lot of things they tell themselves (and often aggressively insist to other people) to try and make it sound better. There’s the euphemisms, like “spank” and “swat” that attempt to obscure the fact that what’s happening is an adult striking a child. There’s the deeply disturbing claim that violence done in the name of love can’t be bad (a claim countless abusers have used to gaslight their victims). There’s the assertion from adults that they were hit as children and “turned out fine,” a questionable claim when their version of “fine” includes hitting children.

No matter the excuses, the words used, or how little force is supposedly put behind palm striking skin, the act of doing so is domestic violence. Using fear and pain in order to gain compliance is the action of an abuser. And the research at this point is abundantly clear: “spanking” causes a whole lot of harm, without even achieving the goals its proponents claim to be aiming for.

I should be clear at this point that I don’t think parents who have hit their children are horrible people. But I DO think they’ve visited harm on a small person under their care, and the correct course of action is to immediately cease causing that harm, make amends, and put in the work needed to learn better strategies, ones that don’t involve using violence as a means of control.

We do not live in a world where parenting is in any way easy. People are overworked, have little support, and they can fear that if they don’t use violence to make sure their kids stay in line, others will use greater force against them. Yet I keep thinking of the quote by L. R. Knost, “It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

Do parents really want to be the first people to raise a hand to their child? The first people to hurt them? Do they want to introduce fear and pain into a relationship that’s supposed to be built on trust and unconditional love?

I don’t think there’s any moral excuse for hitting children. And if someone thinks that they can both unschool and strike their children, then they’ve failed to grasp the most important part of what unschooling is.

Trust and respect children. Base your actions on an ethos of love and consent. It might not be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

My thanks to Nola for reminding me that simple is often better and suggesting this title when I was stuck.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Children Are More Trustworthy and Capable than People Think

This post was originally published on Patreon in January of 2018. If you become a supporter for $1 a month you gain access to a brand new, patron exclusive post every month, along with the entire back catalog of Patreon posts. A few of them eventually make it onto this blog, but most remain available only to financial supporters! 

As I shared on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I am continually surprised by just how little faith people have in children, in their ability to learn, to make choices, to do just about anything really. And since I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, I wanted to take the time to explore the topic a bit further, and to address some of the things people erroneously believe about kids…

Me and my sister were always welcome in the kitchen.

Children have to be taught how to learn

This one even crops up in self-directed learning spaces every now and then, and seems to show such a strange view of how humans function. It’s as if some people think that we’re born as blank slates, so devoid of any desires or drives that we must be taught to do even that most basic of all things: to learn. In reality, we come with that particular drive fully intact. It seems like a truly profound lack of respect to think children are incapable of this, when in fact it’s one of the things they’re absolutely best at.

Children will always make awful choices

There seems to be an assumption that children want to make dangerous choices, and if given half a chance will waste no time in doing so. Yet while it’s certainly true that children lack the experience, maturity, or impulse control of adults, that doesn’t mean they lack all caution, all sense, or all desire to do good. Further, the way children learn is by doing. As my friend Nola said, “Use it or lose it. If you make your own decisions, over time, you figure out how to make better choices. It works for adults, and for kids too.” With a little guidance and reasonable expectations, children can be perfectly capable of making their own choices.

Children can’t pick what they like

Content, be it books, games, or otherwise should be educationally enriching, so the thought goes, and if that’s the case then surely children can’t be trusted to pick out their own things. It must then be left up to responsible adults to choose what’s best for their children to engage with. I’m saddened by this theft of discovery, taking away the joy of picking out your own books at the library, your own shows on (kids) Netflix, getting to develop your own unique tastes and style that’s separate and distinct from the adults in your life. It’s such a simple thing, to allow children to make their own choices about their media (as long as it’s within age appropriate bounds), but it means so much. Children deserve to express their own likes and dislikes, to have their own interests, and adults shouldn’t be getting in the way of that.

Children aren’t allowed to participate in real work

So often the smallest dangers are blown out of proportion when it comes to children: a vegetable peeler in the kitchen turns into fears of ER visits, and children are barred from any work with any possibility of danger. While I’m certainly not suggesting getting a 3-year-old to help you chop wood, often fears of danger seem overblown, now even more so than when I was a child (and they were frequently overblown then). Children are capable of being careful. Children usually want to help. And the way that they learn how to be safe is by practicing, using tools, gaining skills and proficiency, and building on that base as they grow. As Laura Grace Weldon said in a piece on bringing children into the kitchen, “We spend much time and money on enriching activities and products for our children, but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.”

There are myriad ways that children’s abilities are frequently undervalued and many avenues to gaining greater competency that are often denied to them. But in taking a life learning path, there are a lot more opportunities to respect children, to trust them, to allow them greater freedom, and to engage with them in meaningful activities. I hope that the more examples there are of living respectfully with children, the more others will see just how capable they can be.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Unschoolers Aren't Products

Every now and then, someone talks about what type of people unschooling “produces.” They want to know about the products at the end of the line.

I flinch, a little, when I see that. I know the phrasing isn’t intentionally bad. Usually, people are genuinely curious and not in any way trying to be offensive.

But the thing is, I’m not a product.

Unschooling does not produce products, or even results. Life produces people, and all of our experiences, including education, shape us into who we are.

Sometimes I see unschooling being described as mere trickery. It’s a way to convince children to learn. You just sneak lessons into everyday activities, you see! With a wink and a nudge, one adult to another, they tell you that unschooling is just about making kids learn important things without the kids realizing what’s happening.

Thankfully, these erroneous definitions of unschooling generally come from people who are not, themselves, unschoolers. But they certainly leave me shaking my head in frustration and disappointment, to know that some people see trust and respect children as a mere euphemism for manipulate them into doing what you want them to, but in such a way that they can’t even tell they’re being manipulated.

I think that these two ideas go together: the belief in controlling children, and the idea that it’s possible to mold children into exactly the person someone else wants them to be. If you believe that, I suppose it’s natural to think that unschooling can have predictable results, can reliably create a certain type of product.

In an excellent, concise article on the topic of life learning success, Wendy Priesnitz had this to say:

“In our family, the foundations of life learning and parenting (which were interwoven) were respect and trust. And we didn’t raise our daughters with respect and trust because we had an idea about how we wanted them to turn out. In fact, I think having that sort of agenda would be counterproductive to trust and respect. We did it because treating them like we would any other human being was the right thing to do.”

What a relief that sentiment is, to me, seeing it laid out like that. I want children to be treated with trust and respect because I, too, believe it’s the right thing to do. While I offer my experiences, my writing, in the hopes it can contribute to more children being trusted and respected, doing so also opens up my life to a lot of outside scrutiny. “What do you do now? Can you support yourself? How is your social life? Did you ever go to college?”

I have, with my own actions and invitation, opened myself up to that, and I do not resent the people who ask such questions (as long as it’s done respectfully, and in the appropriate times and places). But at the same time, it feels like an immense weight, people hanging all these judgments on the experience of a single person, where my words can tilt people in one direction or another.

We are, each of us, made up of many things. Shaped by our genetics and the people who raise us, by where we live, what we like, who we make friends with, and where we spend our days. Unschooling undoubtedly has an impact on those who are raised with this philosophy, but it is just one part of a whole... and it’s also a way of approaching education that takes as many different forms as there are people living it.

It’s important to listen to grown unschoolers, I think. More than our parents, even, we have firsthand knowledge of what unschooling is like, what worked and did not in our own unique lives. Yet each of us, as individuals, is just that: a unique individual. Meeting an unschooler and hearing about how they lived and learned says more about them than it does about unschooling as a whole. It is neither rational nor fair to view individuals as products of unschooling, or to use us as the guidepost for whether you should really trust and respect children.

Children deserve trust and respect regardless of anything else. Regardless of perceived “results,” regardless of expectations met or not met.

Treat children well, today and every day, because of the inherent worth in all of us, because it’s the right thing to do. Everything else will work out as it will.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Ending the Tyranny of the Classics

I’m someone who loves to read, loves books with a depth of feeling I find hard to convey in words. If you’re a fellow book lover, you know what I mean. But I’m also a reading rebel, of a sort, who believes strongly in people’s right to develop their own relationships with stories, read what they want, or not read at all. Prescriptivism only ever gets in the way of enjoyment.

We pick our way through prickly grass, shriveled and brown from an excess of sun and shortage of rain, shake out our slightly musty lawn chairs, and settle in front of the stage, a simple fake-stone structure serving as backdrop to one of the most well-known plays in the Western canon.

My mother used to bring me and my sister to see a Shakespeare-in-the-Park show every summer when we were growing up, and after years of missing it, I’ve picked up the tradition once more as an adult. Two years ago the production was an all-women version of Julius Caesar. Last year it was a 50’s themed take on Much Ado About Nothing. And this year, a very queer Romeo and Juliet. Our local theater company that puts on these productions likes to do something fresh and modern with such well-worn material, as many great modern Shakespeare companies do. They’re also incredibly skilled, the actors featured often winning awards for their performances.

I’m watching the performance with my sister, who’s long been in love with both musical theater and Shakespeare. She’s watched the recording of the 2014 Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus multiple times, and tries to convince all her friends to see it, too. She once drove 2 ½ hours to Ottawa to see a National Theatre Live show that wasn’t going to be airing in our home city of Montreal. When she was backpacking in the UK, a highlight of London was seeing a production of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre.

I, on the other hand, am a much more casual fan. For the most part I’m purely a Shakespeare-in-the-Park person.

Romeo & Juliet: Love Is Love, put on by Repercussion Theatre.

Needless to say, we were never taught Shakespeare in a formal context. We were never forced to read plays, of all things--an exercise about as useful as teaching kids to read music so they can study the scores, instead of going to a concert. But when something so permeates a culture as does the works of Shakespeare, and when you live a life filled with books and media and other human beings, it’s impossible not to bump up against countless references that give you basic outlines of what you’re missing, or lead you to dig into the topic further, to understand for yourself why your culture has become so saturated with these works of art, and whether you think all the fuss is worth it or not

As my sister and I headed home from the play, shirts buttoned up against the surprisingly chilly summer evening, we were laughing about some of our favourite amusing bits (from the first half, before everything becomes tragic) and discussing the thematic relevance of making Romeo and Juliet a lesbian couple, with parents hell bent on their children only partnering with the “right” people. Sometimes classic works can really be imbued with a sense of timelessness, and bring joy to people long, long after their creators could have ever imagined.

When I first started this post, I was thinking of “the classics” as the Western canon generally foisted upon high school students. But I quickly branched out to cover “classics of the genre,” and just anything that’s held up as classic in one way or another. The works people place on a pedestal. The ones people are told they have to read.

There’s a devotion in our culture to those canons, an awe felt towards works that have, as far as I can tell, been chosen as best somewhat arbitrarily. It’s not that classics aren’t generally good in some way (though some are, in my opinion, genuinely bad and just dressed up in enough pretension to fool people who aren’t looking too closely), but best? Out of everything countless people have created and produced and shared? When it comes to art and literature, I don’t think there is such a thing as “best,” a judgement that’s just far too subjective.

My family’s home has always been filled with scores of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. It’s easily the most popular genre in this house. And as I reached the beginnings of my teens and started looking towards adult books, I tried picking up some of the supposed sci-fi greats, people you’d surely recognize even if you're not a reader of the genre yourself, like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. And that’s the first time I can remember questioning the place of “classics,” and whether the works endowed with such a title were really so deserving of my time.

There’s a certain way that those male writers talk about women, and though I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding back then to fully recognize why those books I attempted to read (and often gave up on) made me uncomfortable, I now know the simple reason is “misogyny.” Undaunted, I dove into genre fiction, preferring the fantasy end of the spectrum, and gravitating towards newer releases.

I’ve been loving SFF for many years now, choosing my reading material primarily from the ranks of genre fiction, but I found that same frustration I had all those years ago with big-name male writers creeping back in. Time and time again I’d read stories by very well respected male authors and find that the women characters were nothing but props and prizes or cartoon villains, cardboard cut-outs of straight male fantasies or “bad” women who didn’t perform femininity “correctly.” To say I was becoming disillusioned with all of those writers held up as masters, who seemed completely incapable of writing interesting women with engaging storylines, would be an understatement.

This Christmas I was gifted with a favourite, and somewhat obscure, fantasy
trilogy: The Fall of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells. An author who writes amazing
characters of all genders!

This is emblematic not only of sci-fi and fantasy, but of the majority of what are held up as great literary works, books that are strikingly white, male, and straight, and tend to have embedded in their pages either a callous disregard for or outright animosity towards all those people who aren’t white, or male, or straight. In Erin Spampinato’s piece How does the literary canon reinforce the logic of the incel? she questions what topics have been enshrined in our collective psyche as important:

“I was trained to accept that male sexual frustration was a serious issue because I read hundreds of pages about it before the age of 20, far more than I read about issues of undoubtedly greater social import, like the legacy of slavery, the alienation of women and people of color from public life, or the violence of the settler colonialism on which the United States was founded. Perhaps these novels even coached me into taking male sexual frustration seriously through a kind of frightful education: look what happens, they seemed to say, when men don’t get what they want. “

For myself, I just decided several years ago that my reading world would be richer and more rewarding if I severely cut down on authors most likely to write terribly about women (aka men), and I have never looked back. I haven’t cut out books by men completely: I still read some books by male authors I already know I like, books by marginalized men, and books by men that have been recommended by people whose taste I trust. But to put it in perspective, I’ve read more books this year by nonbinary authors than by men, and out of the 55 books I read in 2017 only 4 were by men.

I imagine this choice will strike some people as unfair, but I have only so much time to read, only so many books I can read in my lifetime, and each book I choose to read means another book left unread. Each book that leaves me disappointed is time that could have been spent on something that enchants me instead. My parameters for choosing books are designed to prioritize the books I think I’m most likely to like, and my experience has taught me that I generally prefer books by people who aren’t men. So that is what I read.

I also almost exclusively read newer books, those published in the last fifteen years or so. It brings me great joy to stay on top of new releases in my chosen genres, to read books that are extraordinarily timely (as they’re products of the world we are currently living in), and ones that will likely end up on the ballots of my favorite awards. I’m constantly asking my library to purchase new and upcoming books, and delight in discovering promising emerging authors. In choosing to focus on newer books, I also read more diverse books, since the industry is changing and the authors who used to get shut out--authors of colour, queer and trans authors--are at least starting to be recognized.

As I mentioned previously, there can be a lot of gatekeeping in the SFF genre (and, I imagine, other genres as well), with ideas that you have to start with “the classics” when entering a genre. That you have to read Tolkein if you want to read fantasy. I almost finished The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings trilogy bored me immensely, meaning I never finished the first book, and if I’d believed those gatekeepers back in the day, the ones who say there’s only one door that everyone must pass through, I would have missed out on an entire world of literature that makes my heart sing.

As bestselling fantasy author V. E. Schwab has said about her own disinterest in Tolkein, “I have a very strong belief that reading should be an act of love, of joy, of willing discovery. That when we force someone across the wrong literary threshold, we risk turning them away instead of ushering them through.” (That linked article is well worth reading in full, by the way.)

Or, as another successful SFF author, John Scalzi, put it on Twitter, “Most ‘classics of the genre’ (whatever the genre) are just unbelievably dated and anyone who demands new readers to genre ‘start with the classics’ is going to ensure they hate it. Give new readers new books they have a better chance of relating to. They can work backward later.”

I tried reading Jane Eyre at some point in my teens, and was deeply bored. I picked up a couple of other very old books in my teens and found myself similarly uninterested. It’s only this year, after diving into the world of modern historical romance, that I decided it might be time to give some books by Jane Austen a try. An audiobook would be a good medium to tackle such a novel, I decided, and I picked a narrator I was familiar with, one I knew I liked, out of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of recorded versions. I know the story of Pride and Prejudice quite well thanks to countless film and book riffs on the story, and I’m happy to say I’m enjoying it! The immersion in a different time period, the sly humor, the differences in story construction between a Georgian and modern novel. It’s not that I’ve decided everything old is bad, just that newer generally means more relevant, unless you’re specifically interested in understanding the history of a genre, or a time period.

If someone came to me and said “I want to start reading SFF. Where should I start?” by now it should surprise no one that I’d pull out modern suggestions, by women, as my top picks. Something by N. K. Jemisin, either The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Fifth Season, depending on how dark and complex a read someone was looking for. The Ancillary series by Ann Leckie, for certain. I’d say they should definitely pick up something by Naomi Novik and Martha Wells. I’d make sure to note some new authors to watch, like Ruthanna Emrys and Rebecca Roanhorse, C. L. Polk and Alexandra Rowland. I’d let them know about some of my very favourite series, like Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire, and the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott.

But I’d also be very sure to make it clear that my beloved books might not be theirs, that the experience I’ve built in the genre is tailored specifically to me, to my interests, to the themes I find captivating. Maybe they would like entirely different authors, different stories, different experiences.

A statue I came across in Quebec City, by the
sculptor Rose-Aimée Bélanger


My argument against attempting to force anyone, children most definitely included, to read “classics” feels like a very personal one to me: I don’t read many, and I’m fine. But going deeper than that, I credit not being forced to read things other people decided were best for me with allowing me the space to find what I, personally, loved about books and reading. I wasn’t turned off of reading, or turned off of a certain genre or type of book, by being forced across a threshold that was not meant for me. Letting people come to things in their own time, when and if they want to, allows them to figure out what’s right for them, which parts of the literary world they wish to explore and which parts they want to steer clear of. 

In trying to force the same set of books on everyone, you push people towards things that most will find irrelevant, outdated, and not at all in line with their interests. You turn what could be something positive for some percentage of those people into a chore instead.

There’s a big difference between introducing works you think are interesting and important, and deciding to dictate to another person what they themselves should like and care about. In the relentless amplifying of so-called classics, too many people fall into the latter category.

The world of books and reading can be a fantastic one to explore. Lets stop ruining it for others by insisting there’s only one path to take.