In November 2015 I finished my first novel, A Shrouded Spark. This was a huge moment of success for me--I had been writing the book for almost 4 years. I was a graduate student at the time, studying education at BGSU, as well as completing two internships. Finishing this book during such a time was strenuous, to say the least. But I did it, and I was proud of it. The self-publishing process began in February 2016, and carried into my first year as a 5th grade English teacher. E
I got to share so much of this process with my students. They were the first to see the cover proof, the first to get the news of finalization, the first to SEE the physical book--everything. They witnessed and shared in the excitement and it was truly a sight to behold for twenty-three year old me.
Fast forward 2 years, 2019, and I’m teaching 7th grade. I now have the same group of students from my first year, my first group of 5th graders. The first thing they asked me when they realized I’d be their 7th grade teacher was, “Ms. Anglen, can we read your book this year?” and I was floored that they even remembered. Furthermore, this was the first time I had heard kids telling me that they wanted to read a book. I knew that I had to use that leverage, that momentum. And when my babies want something, I always make it happen.
So I went to my principal. Knowing that we have a prescribed curriculum, I knew that what I was asking might be pushing it. However, my principal was supportive and encouraged me to, at the end of the year, do the whole module. Because of a few technicalities, the school couldn’t purchase the books--but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I got the green light.
I began planning the module. Building the curriculum from scratch. The lessons. The homework. The annotations. The projects. It was a strange, metacognitive process, reading my book not as the author, but as an educator. I was preparing to dig into this book like never before, pull it apart and let children analyze its bones.
To say that I was nervous would be an understatement--how would they recieve it? Would my lessons be good enough? Was the material rich enough for analysis? What if the kids found mistakes? (They did). I was met with so many fears and anxieties about putting my work in front of my own kids. Kids are tough critics! And they would be the first critics to sit in my face for eighty minutes, every day.
Regardless, my fears were unfounded. I had never seen my kids so engaged in a book. Eighty minutes is a long time--we can’t expect kids to be engaged for every second of that time, but the majority were. I knew that part of their interest and engagement were out of love and respect, but part of it was them truly enjoying a story that was put in front of them. I saw the children come alive when they were faced with characters in a fantasy story who looked like them and talked like them. Suddenly, the girls were saying things like ‘Ooh I wanna be Noni!’, ‘I like Bianca because she got a smart mouth’, and boys saying things like ‘I’m Alex because I want to protect people!’ and ‘Terrell cool for real, I could be him’.
I was astonished.
I was watching them identify with characters right in front of me, watching them insert themselves in the story, grow to empathize with the characters, question and analyze their motivations--every teacher’s dream, coming alive in my little classroom on 93rd.
This meant so much to me--I hadn’t had that moment until I was a full grown adult, the moment of truly seeing myself represented in fantasy literature. While in grad school, I read Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland. Her main character, Zephyr Mourning, was a baddass black girl with locs, a huge personality, and a real smart mouth. There was a moment in the narrative (if my memory serves) where one character is greasing another character’s scalp, and I had to put the book down! That was the FIRST time I saw something, anything, from my culture represented in fantasy literature. Such a small thing had such a huge impact on ME. I couldn’t even imagine how much of an effect it would have on children.
The downfall of so many fantasy texts (and writers) is that they neglect to write about characters that are non-white. As if imagining black skin in a fantasy land was too hard to imagine. Gamora, anyone? Yondu? Piccolo? Fantasy characters with skin every color but brown. Excluding black and brown people from even fantasy worlds is a trend that is all too popular. What people don’t understand is that black children love fantasy. (Shoutout to Blerds!!) Anime? We fans. Comic books? We outchea’. Harry Potter? We stan a black Hermione.
I sat for hours talking with my students about the fantasy books/movies we loved and sadly, what they all had in common was that there were no black characters, at least not any that influenced the plot or were essential enough to keep around until the end of the story.
I have a student--I’ll call him G. In short, G does not like reading. ELA is his least favorite class. G struggles in almost every class--he would rather be the class clown than top of the class. As an educator, I know that lack of motivation stems from much more than disinterest in the subject. I know that this student struggles and the fact that we were reading dry, historical fiction for most of the year did not help.
As kids were reading the chapter together, G raised his hand and waved me over. He said “Ms. Anglen--this is the best book we read all year. How did you write this? What made you write this?”
I thanked him. I told him why. “A story like this, with people like us, didn’t exist when I was your age. And so I thought, well--if it doesn’t exist yet, that means I have to create it.”
During this module, I saw the highest rates of student engagement. Students were talking about the book outside of class, asking their parents to buy it for them, telling other friends about it. They asked me why I hadn’t made a movie yet, and I had to tell them that that’s not how money works (much to their dismay). Yet, their enthusiasm and joy while reading re-ignited my passion and reaffirmed my why.
As I finalize my second book, the sequel to A Shrouded Spark, I think about G and all the other kids who hate reading until they find a book that resonates with them or mirrors them. We, as black writers, as black teachers, must create the world that we want our children to exist in. We must saturate our children with media that not only uplifts them but reflects them. We must cultivate creative worlds, characters, that reflect the thoughts and desires of our children. Only then will we see a real change, not only in our children, but also within the world of fantasy literature.
The internet didn’t exist until someone created it. The phone, airplanes--none of it existed until someone created it. Just so, the literature we crave will not exist until we create it. And we must.
If nothing else, I convinced sixty-five twelve and thirteen year-olds to read a book in its entirety and engage until the last day of school. This summer, I’m going to continue to unpack and process this experience, and spend some time refining the module for next year.