How do you track down the evil scientist who infected you with a virus that occasionally turns you into a super-being with wolf-like attributes?
Sure, that might not be a question you ask yourself every day or, okay, ever, but it’s a run of the mill query for a child in a sci-fi adventure novel. Science fiction, fantasy and adventure novels can offer escapism, but they also put forth a definition of readiness from which, no matter how absurd, we can usually extract some core truth.
Here is a list of adult-friendly young adult books in which characters face outlandish obstacles, but where good conquers evil thanks to skills that, with a little interpretation, have applications in real life.
The Virals Series: Emotional self-regulation as a form of readiness
When Tory moves to live with her dad on a small island, it’s a happy accident that all of the other kids on the island are her age, attend her school and are also science nerds. That last point comes in handy when the group visits a nearby research facility, gets infected with an experimental strain of canine parvovirus and discovers they have unique wolf-like powers.
In addition to modeling strong female leadership and endorsing an interest in science, the kids in the Viral series by Kathy Reichs and Brendan Reichs have to apply their skills to get out of jams. Yes, they might get powers like super vision or super hearing, but their problem-solving abilities come down to two things:
Each child has a strong foundation in science and technology from which they can draw
Their emotional regulation is applied in ways that are way transparent from what you normally see in books, but also essential to their survival
In the recent KnowledgeWorks forecast, “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” the authors outlined three core skills that promote the social and emotional awareness needed to succeed in the future workforce. One of those is emotional regulation, which they define as “workers will need to be able to recognize their own emotions; understand the triggers that create them; and move to more productive emotional states.”
That skill is essential for the kids of the Viral series. When their wolf powers go into effect, which they call flaring, their eyes start to glow and their senses go into overdrive. Sometimes it happens by accident, causing all sorts of mishaps, and gradually they learn how to control it. They self-regulate so they can apply their special skills when necessary and where needed, not unlike how all of us learn when and how to apply our own skills.
Summerland: Deep self-knowledge as a form of readiness
In Summerland, a baseball fantasy novel by Michael Chabon, Ethan is struggling. His mother has passed away and his Zeppelin-designer father is too immersed in his work to give his son the support he needs. To make matters worse, Ethan hates baseball. When Ethan’s dad is kidnapped, he enlists his friend Jennifer T. to help solve the crime. They attach a blimp to an old Saab and set out to lands filled with Indian mythology, sasquatches and other mystical creatures.
Because this is a baseball fantasy book, the story culminates in, you guessed it, a game of baseball. But that’s not the real story. What really happens is that Ethan learns more about himself, what strengths he has and how to apply those, on and off the baseball field. That journey of self-discovery is one we all take as we mature. What we learn about ourselves, and how we apply it in the workforce, is one piece that helps us be successful.
Fangirl and Carry On: Empathy and perspective taking
The logical follow-up to Fangirl, a book about a girl writing fan fiction, is Carry On, the fan fiction which was being wrote. However, the two books are more than a clever gimmick from writer Rainbow Rowell. They also offer a lens from which to view the act of writing fan fiction, in which you write alternate plotlines, or ask the question “yes, and”, “yes, but” and “what if?” about a book and answer them in a retelling.
The very act of writing fan fiction can be a sort of empathy. The reader wants more for a character or storyline, and offers a way to achieve it. That’s what happens in Fangirl, in which Cath is pretty fixated on the character of Simon Snow in the book series she grew up with. She writes new romances for him and builds a huge following online. While this is only one subplot in Fangirl, readers can take a deep dive into the life of Snow in Carry On.
What Rowell does in Carry On, which is also reflected in her other writing, is offer multiple perspectives of the same event by changing points of view within a scene. It helps the reader have empathy for more characters and it gives more depth to the changing alliances throughout a story.
The authors of “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out” define empathy as a skillset “people will need to be able to recognize others’ emotions and perspectives to help build inclusive, collaborative work environments.” Those same skills are applied in the writing or critical reading of fan fiction, helping readers change perspective and flex a willingness to challenges assumed outcomes.
Readiness in the Face of Great Obstacles: Readers Reflection Guide
Young adult fantasy, science fiction and adventure books don’t have the market cornered on characters having to apply skills to solve problems. Instances of this can be seen throughout books for all ages. Take a look at a book you’re reading, or work with your students and books they’re interested in, to identify characteristics times when a character overcomes a problem and look at the skills necessary to achieve that end. Here are some guiding questions to help:
What was a hurdle the character in your book had to overcome?
What skills did the character use to meet the challenge? Did they already have those skills to did they have to develop them?
What previous experiences did the character have that helped prepare them for their circumstance?
If placed in the same circumstances as the character in your book, do you think you would have the skills necessary to succeed? Why or why not?
Note: While I personally like every book I’ve included here, their inclusion is not an endorsement from KnowledgeWorks.