Can fantasy novels help you graduate?

Allow me to introduce you to me at my first week of college: I’m barely eighteen. I’m living in my first apartment in a moldy complex across the street from the “real” dorms, working at Payless shoes for minimum wage, and recovering from my birthday-week breakup with a guy who raped a friend. I was 1300 miles from home, but happy to be living in the woods. I had a reasonably good ACT score, some good friends, a history of depression, and no winter coat.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

If someone had run a statistical test on me, knowing what we know now about college outcomes, I would be considered at risk for dropping out. Here’s why: my family’s income was under the federal poverty level. I was a free lunch (and breakfast) kid for all my years of public school.

Research shows that the single most important factor in whether a college student graduates is their parent’s income level.

But I had a secret weapon: fantasy novels.

In Who gets to graduate?, Paul Tough looks at a program at UT Austin that’s exploring why poor kids don’t graduate as easily as their wealthier peers and what can be done about it.

The main problem: poorer students feel that they don’t belong there. That we’re not meant to be in college with all of these other successful, wealthy kids with their new cars and new clothes and the incomprehensible ability to pay for dinner out whenever they want to. Without some extra support, poor kids smash into barriers and leave college, while wealthy kids with similar SAT scores sail over them.

I had a lot going for me in the college department. First, I’m white, which meant I faced fewer barriers than many students of color who have to contend with both class and race issues in college. I grew up in a house with a lot of books, even if my parents never had time to read them. But I was also lucky in a more personal, perverse way: like a lot of young fantasy and science fiction readers, I hadn’t “fit in” for years. I was inoculated to not fitting in, and I was successful at it because fantasy novels were how I understood what it meant to be an outsider.

Fantasy’s a lot bigger in the world of teens than it was when I was kid (proof that the world does actually improve, imho), and authorship and readerships are getting more diverse by the year. But I’ll bet that a lot of younger fantasy readers still have some traits in common: they’re being told what they want or feel or look like is wrong and they have a sense that the world is darker than it appears to other people (because of injustice or abuse or whatever else they’ve noticed that adults around them are doing their best to ignore). They also sense that there is something more to life than what is immediately apparent.

Lit snobs think that fantasy is adventure fluff with swords and orcs. Some of it is. But the best fantasy is about facing the world in situations where you lack power. It’s about being abused or living with oppression and having diminished choices and still finding a way to move forward. It’s about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (or stranger… that one’s a toss up). The history of fantasy, both as a genre and in the themes it explores, is about being an outsider. I read it as a teen because it made sense to me. Regardless of the magic and the dragons, it felt real.

Fantasy novels aren’t an accurate portrayal of real life, of course. And there is a lack of representation (a dearth of characters of color and queer characters, for example) that make fantasy less accessible to folks who ought to have a big place at fantasy’s table.

But there’s one way that fantasy’s, well, fantasy, is helpful. Fantasy novels almost always end with something that the real world only sometimes provides: a happy ending.

I’m not a believer in the myth that every person who yanks on their bootstraps makes good on the American dream. But there is evidence that believing in the possibility of a happy ending is important for our mental health and for our ability to take risks.

Wealthier people have no problem with this because they take it for granted that their hard work will be rewarded. Because it is. That’s not always the case for folks without money, and people without money have noticed that. It turns out that poor people (like depressed people) may see the world more accurately than their wealthy or happy counterparts. (As Karla McLaren said, “Why is it that outsiders always have insight/But insiders rarely have outsight?”)

It is (ironically) this false-positive belief that helps people to take appropriate risks and  achieve greater success, whether that’s in graduating college or organizing a protest or being a great parent. It turns out that mild delusion is healthy.

At UT Austin, they’re experimenting with interventions that help incoming students from marginalized backgrounds think of intelligence as something achievable over time (rather than a fixed personality trait) and to re-frame setbacks as temporary hardship, rather than external “proof” that they aren’t meant to be at college. To do this, they ask new students to read essays about these two topics and then write their own letter of advice to a future student.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a sunny-side, power-of-attraction true-believer. I find positive-thinking a little creepy. My favorite fantasy explores difficult subjects (Ursula K. LeGuin’s young adult novel about colonialism or N.K. Jemisin’s post-slavery narratives) and I dislike sappy happy endings (that’s one reason I love Robin Hobb’s Farseer series). But there’s some middle ground between the cult of positivity and fatalism. Reading fantasy books can help us inhabit this middle ground by reflecting the difficulties we face back to us, by inoculating us to failure, and hardwiring the feeling that it is possible to achieve.

It’s simple and it has a measurable, positive effect. Students from wealthier backgrounds who’ve done the intervention show no change in graduation rates. But students from poor families show a 4% increase in 4-year graduation rates. It seems to me that these interventions are doing the same thing all those fantasy books did for me, except with less magic.

College had its difficult spots, but I made it through. I fit in a lot better there than I did in high school. But a lot of the credit goes to my earliest teachers (think middle school and high school) on overcoming adversity, and expecting that good just might prevail: Shirley MeierTamora PierceFlynn ConnollyMadeleine L’EngleRobin McKinleyEsther M. FriesnerUrsula K. LeGuinAstrid LindgrenSheri S. Tepper, and so many more.


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