Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The woolly mammoth de-extinction project

So, I was on a very interesting Archon panel about this Woolly Mammoth De-Extinction Project. Now, the Archon description compared bringing back mammoths to Jurassic Park, which I do think is sooooo overstated.

The basic truth about large animals is: they are easy to find and kill. If your huge dinosaurs or mammoths are causing serious problems, you can shoot them all. I mean, our ancestors eradicated woolly mammoths using nothing but spears. Killing large animals is just not that hard. It’s not like trying to track down the green tree snakes that destroyed the songbird populations of Guam.

However, it’s also clear if you check out the website that there is no practical goal of re-creating the actual extinct woolly mammoth — the goal is just to create an animal more or less suited for the same ecological niche.

Breakthrough advances in genomic biotechnology are presenting the possibility of bringing back long-extinct species — or at least “proxy” species with traits and ecological functions similar to the extinct originals.

In which case … why bother? You have lost the poetry inherent in bringing back the real thing. I’m not convinced we can predict the ecological consequences of establishing large populations of hairy elephants, especially without their natural predators. The whole thing lacks the allure of true de-extinction, for me.

Instead of fake woolly mammoths, I’d rather focus on de-extinction of much more recently eradicated creatures, like Tasmanian thylacines. Some fragmentary DNA is present in museum specimens, though putting together the whole genome is beyond our abilities at this point.

The Tasmanian ecosystem lacks a natural large predator without the thylacine. Dogs and cats ought to be tightly controlled on the island in any event; they can be so destructive for native faunas on islands. Then if the thylacine could be reintroduced, great!

Thylacine compared to dog

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Limits in YA fiction

So what limits, if any, should YA authors hesitate to cross?

In general I don’t know that there should be any particular limits for YA, for two reasons:

First, are you planning to prevent teens from reading all the fiction that is not labeled YA? How? It’s all very well to call the category YA and draw up neat little grade-appropriate rating systems and offer Advanced Reader points to students who read particular books, but none of that erases the obvious fact that “Young Adult” is really just a marketing category. Young readers can and do read anything they want, whether it’s labeled YA or not. And so they should. Anyone my age or older will recall that this artificial distinction that attempts to draw a line between fast-paced-shortish-length-coming-of-age-stories-with-teenage-protagonists and everything else didn’t exist when we were teenagers. Anybody feel that posed a big problem finding books you liked? Right, didn’t think so.

And, second, readers of any age can and will sort themselves out and read what appeals to them within YA, as within the broader realm of literature. Teens who find it helpful to see their own problems mirrored in literature can find contemporary YA “issue” novels. Those who would strongly prefer to escape from their own problems by reading noblebright fantasy can do that instead. Limiting options for teenagers today according to what appealed to you when you were a teenager does not seem reasonable. Especially since it can’t be done anyway.

Having said that, let’s consider the following:

Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler offers a story where a girl, a cutter, is victimized by a sadistic sexual prank and cuts herself up in response: “. . . she had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

Scars by Cheryl Rainfield presents a grim story where a girl who is sexually abused by her father from toddlerhood is given knives anonymously by him when she is a teenager, because he hopes she will commit suicide.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher presents a situation where the protagonist successfully makes herself the center of attention and makes people feel sorry for her and essentially becomes the romantic heroine of her own drama by committing suicide.

Anybody care to take responsibility for putting that last novel in the hands of a troubled young teenage girl, perhaps a child with a borderline diagnosis? Let’s say a girl who has made suicide gestures in the past. Would you personally hand this story to that girl? How would you feel if you had written this and then you got a letter from a parent whose child mentioned your book in a suicide note?

I haven’t read any of the above books. A couple of them are held up as examples by Meghan Cox Gurdon in her article “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books,” which I read some time ago. Those are her descriptions and her choices of quotes from Rage and Scars, not mine. I don’t know how the protagonist of those books copes with her life in the end. Or fails to cope. It makes a pretty big difference which, doesn’t it? It’s the failure to cope in Thirteen Reasons Why – or the presentation of suicide as a successful method of coping – that seems particularly problematic.

I mean, in one of Sarah Addison Allen’s novels, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, the protagonist is a woman who used to cut herself when she was a teenager – but she stopped, she learned better ways to deal with life, she regained a healthy emotional balance and moved on and built a good life. Allen has her protagonist look back on her difficult teenage years with tolerance and humor and forgiveness. In contrast, where is the girl in Rage going to be in ten years, or twenty? Is there any chance she’s going to get to a better place? I have no idea, and it matters. It’s almost the only thing that does matter, I think.

Gurdon says, “Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave – what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. . . . this is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called ‘problem novels’ – books that have a troubled main character . . . The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped . . . The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.”

This seems broadly true to me. Except that there a difference between a book which presents a kid stuck in a horrible situation and leaves her stuck, versus a book which presents a kid stuck in a horrible situation and shows her actively getting herself out of it and into a better place. There is a difference between a book where the metatext presents life as awful and cruelty as normal, and a book where the metatext condemns cruelty and offers an idea of stability and emotional health as normal. There is also a very important difference between a book that presents a girl who kills herself as a romantic heroine and a book that presents a better, truer picture of heroism. It’s not clear from her article that Gurdon is making these kinds of distinctions.

Meghan Gurdon says that she’s not exactly targeting books that depict horrific scenes and situations. She is criticizing books that to her seem to evince the modern “flight from beauty”, the trend we see these days not only to depict the vile, but to devalue, tear down, and ruin the beautiful. To depict not only horror, but horror that denies the possibility of beauty or heroism or truth or transfiguring greatness.

But here Gurdon seems to be ignoring a large number – surely a great preponderance — of YA novels in which truly horrific scenes occur, but not in any way that evince a “flight from beauty.” Look at Elizabeth Wein’s The Sunbird, for example. The horrible, indifferent cruelty directed toward slaves is in no way condoned by the story. The scene where a slave boy, who has had his hands cut off and his tongue cut out because he overheard something his master doesn’t want passed on, is beaten for clumsiness, is one of the grimmest images I know of in YA. It shows horrific cruelty based on indifference and lack of sympathy, which in some ways is even worse than deliberate sadism. It’s a brilliant book. But would you want your kid to read that scene? Does it make a difference that the metatext of the story utterly condemns this horrific lack of empathy? I think it makes all the difference in the world.

Or if not The Sunbird, I wish Gurdon had mentioned, say, The Hunger Games. I wish she’d used it as either an example of what she means, or a counterexample. That would have offered a chance to triangulate on her actual meaning, wouldn’t it? Because The Hunger Games depicts one of the most horrifically repressive societies ever, a society that makes a glamorous game out of torturing children. Think of that ending scene at the Cornucopia, for example. If you’re looking for a scene exemplifying deliberate sadism, well, there you go.

But of course, the broader society in The Hunger Games is not depicted as normal or good or even tolerable; the overarching theme of the whole trilogy is that war is horrific and permanently scars those forced into violence, but also that war is sometimes absolutely necessary, and that tearing down a tyrannical system is worth virtually any cost. This is a story that specifically confirms the need for heroism and self-sacrifice under the worst of circumstances. It’s not just a coincidence that by the end of the trilogy, the evil oppressive regime has been torn down and the society is in the process of transforming into something that, while clearly not utopian, is definitely going to be far less evil than what it replaces. Compare that to 1984 or Brazil or Animal Farm, where the evil oppressive society actually does defeat heroism. Where does that leave a contention that YA literature, YA in particular, has become ugly, that it has begun to treat ugliness as the norm?

I personally am not aware of any YA novels where the bad guys actually win. I don’t feel much of an urge to read Rage or Scars but if anybody has – do the bad guys win in those? Have you read any modern YA novels where ugliness actually defeats beauty? I mean, the YA equivalent of the movie “Saw,” for example?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that modern society often tries to cheapens all beauty but the most superficial, and too often society does seem to celebrate coarseness and ugliness. But is modern YA fiction “increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly” as Gurdon claims? Is it possible that anyone can read widely enough to know whether there is such a general trend?

Perhaps rather than trying to get an idea of overall trends, one could look at the sorts of YA books that are nominated for and win awards. But examining the kinds of books which are nominated or selected for awards carries its own complication: I think it’s inevitable that the adult members of awards committees will always be more jaded than teenage readers. I mean, an adult reader is a LOT more likely to be bored with Medieval European settings, or plucky girl protagonists, or talking animals, or portal fantasies, or whatever, then a teenager to whom the world of words is still unfolding in all its infinite variety. I suspect that awards committees are likely to select books they perceive as edgy, different, and heavy on the Issues of the Day (whatever those happen to be that decade). And I expect awards committees to be influenced by the idea that a book which is grim and dark is deeper and more worthy than a book which celebrates the joy or beauty of life, because that tendency exists in all aspects of art. So awards committees may not give us a fair cross-section of YA titles.

In fact, adult selections forced on kids in general illustrate this exact issue. Just look at the classics every high school kid is forced to read – Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies and like that. I wonder how Meghan Gurdon feels about that kind of classic? Because don’t classics like those suggest that it may be iffy to suggest that there’s a modern trend toward ugliness that spoils beauty? I can appreciate those books on an intellectual level now, while still loathing the experience of actually reading them. In high school, I definitely did not appreciate them on any level. The classics I read voluntarily included The Count of Monte Cristo, in which you’ll notice that themes of honor and forgiveness and mercy and love underlie the more obvious revenge story.

So, so. No definitive conclusions here. Except that I have not personally read any YA novels that could properly be said to belong to the grimdark school. Of course I run the other way from grimdark stories in general. I get most of my YA recommendations from a limited circle of bloggers and personal friends and so forth, so I certainly don’t encounter a random selection of YA titles. But based on what I do read, it’s hard to believe Meghan Gurdon in encountering a random selection of titles, either. I wonder if people are helpfully pointing out to her the very nastiest, grimmest, darkest, ugliest titles, and she has developed a feeling that there is a strong trend when maybe there is no trend? Or only a weak trend?

Comments? Thoughts from any YA librarians particularly welcome, since I bet you all are better able to spot trends than I am.

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Not on my Top Ten List of fears

Quite amazing the things people can come up with to worry about.


Short answer: No.

Longer answer: No, of course not, how could that possibly happen?

Here is the proposed conspiracy theory, which pretty much beats all other conspiracy theories I’ve ever heard of:

NASA (in association with secret organizations, such as the Illuminati or the Freemasons) wants to use this plutonium [That powers Cassini] for a “higher purpose”, dropping Cassini deep into Saturn at the end of its mission where atmospheric pressures will be so large that it will compress the probe, detonating like a nuclear bomb. What’s more, this will trigger a chain reaction, kick-starting nuclear fusion, turning Saturn into a fireball. This is what has become known as The Lucifer Project. This second sun will have dire consequences for us on Earth, killing millions from the huge influx of radiation by this newborn star. Earth’s loss becomes the Saturn moon Titan’s gain, suddenly it is habitable and the organizations playing “God” can start a new civilization in the Saturn system.

…… Okay, really?

Click through to the linked article if you’d like to see this particular conspiracy theory taken apart.

On a completely trivial note, why are there ” ” around “God” in the paragraph quoted above? “Playing God” is a widespread, normal metaphor. Could “people” quite using ” ” at random “moments” for no good “reason?”

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When I’m writing fiction, I can’t read it

Here’s a post by Anne Korkeakivi at The Literary Hub: When I’m writing fiction, I cannot read it.

For a period of time while I’m working on a new manuscript, novels by other authors—other than ARCs that have been sent to me for blurbs and fiction by friends to critique—disappear from my bedside table. It’s not that I won’t still read for pleasure; I feel I have to read daily, especially before I go to sleep at night.

But while I’m developing the voice of a book, I don’t want to hear someone else’s fiction cadences. Nonfiction titles, poetry, and periodicals take the place of novels for me. At various moments while writing Shining Sea, I read books by or about a WWII Japanese prison camp survivor and a Pacific Ocean surfer, John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island, and Homer’s The Odyssey — books, in other words, which I might have read for pleasure but whose cadences (or at least those of a character in them) I did want to catch.

Basically the same for me. Except that even more important: when I start a wonderful novel, I WILL finish it. I’ll spend hours reading it and then I’ll think about it afterward, maybe write fan fiction in my head about what ought to happen after the story closes or what ought to have happened but didn’t. All this takes time, and honestly, when I’m actively writing, I can’t take that much time and still hit my daily minimum.

I’m not actively writing this week. Not really this whole month. That means I’m reading a lot. October … if all goes well, October will be completely the other way around, I’ll make tons of progress on a WIP, and I will hardly read at all. Except for nonfiction, just like Korkeakivi.

She also says:

The big price would be if being a novelist interfered with the pleasure I derive from reading other people’s fiction. What if having become a novelist and all that comes with it—the increased knowledge both of craft and business—were to interfere with the ability to fall into novels?

I’ve known writers who say this has happened to them. That is much more dire and awful than taking a two- or three-month break from reading. I can’t even imagine. Frankly, if I lost the pleasure of reading, I’d probably give up writing.

Much more in depth discussion at the link.

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Maps in fantasy novels

Here’s a longish post about the maps that have become fairly ubiquitous in fantasy novels. I’ll say up front: I love the maps, though I generally don’t feel they’re actually necessary.

There’s something I’ve noticed about the recent round of debates about fantasy maps, something I’ve been noticing about discussions of fantasy maps in general. They don’t talk about fantasy maps in terms of their cartographic merit. That is to say, they don’t judge fantasy maps as maps…They’re not critiquing the map, they’re critiquing the territory.

This leads to an interesting observation: The presence of a map at the front of a fantasy novel signifies that this fantasy novel is the kind that comes with a map, i.e., an epic fantasy series. Whether you like or dislike fantasy maps often comes down to whether you like or dislike those kinds of books.

I guess I read a lot of epic or semi-epic fantasy, because as I said, maps seem pretty ubiquitous to me.

The complaint that the geography makes no sense doesn’t much matter to me. This is, after all, a *fantasy novel*. Normal geological processes are not the only way to get a huge mountain rage across the southern edge of the map and a desert in the north — to take one example where both features exist because of magical disasters. Anyone who glances at the map in this book and says in disgust, “Why is there a mountain range THERE?” is completely missing that there is in fact a reason and that it is not because one continent rammed into another (as happened to create the Himalayas) or because a landmass passed over a volcanic hotspot or whatever.

My suggestion for creating maps that don’t look like everyone else’s and do have workable geographical features, if that happens to concern you: pick up an atlas and steal your geography. It’s not that hard to change elements so your large island doesn’t look *too* much like Borneo, but if you start with Borneo and then change things up a little, it ought to look real enough. Put mountains and rivers kind of where Borneo has them and then if someone tells you that you did it wrong, you can point them to Borneo and suggest they lighten up.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

This movie review, for a movie I hadn’t heard of, caught my eye because it is just so well written. I mean, it really seems to capture the spirit of movie and simultaneously raise questions about what the producer had in mind:

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a strange proposition. It’s a film that won’t attract many viewers who aren’t already fans of AA Milne’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh books, and yet its explicit purpose is to ensure that anyone who sees it will never enjoy those books in the same way again. Remember Saving Mr Banks? Remember how it suggested that PL Travers wrote Mary Poppins because she had an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother? Compared to Goodbye Christopher Robin, that was a feel-good treat for all the family.

Now, this doesn’t affect me, because I never read Winnie the Pooh. Although I liked Kenny Logan’s song “Back to Pooh Corner” — do you remember it? —

Christopher Robin and I walked along
Under branches lit up by the moon
Posing our questions to owl and eeyore
As our days disappeared all too soon
But I’ve wandered much further today than I should
And I can’t seem to find my way back to the wood

So help me if you can, I’ve got to get
Back to the house at Pooh corner by one
You’d be surprised there’s so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh…

It’s a charming song, though wistful. But wistful and nostalgic are not what the movie seems to be going for:

It’s a film which might come in useful as a how-to guide for raising unhappy children.

Hmm. I do see that some critics liked the film a good deal better. It sure doesn’t sound like a film you’d take your Winnie-the-Pooh loving child to see, though.

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Story design: how would you build a Little Red Riding Hood retelling?

Here on Ilona Andrew’s blog, a great post about story design. They’re using Little Red Riding Hood as an example. The outline of the retelling starts like this:

* * *

Imagine a five year old, one of your relatives, children, siblings, etc. You need to tell the story of Red Riding Hood to him and do it so he or she don’t get bored.

Red Riding Hood was a very nice girl, who lived on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. Red Riding Hood liked to wear a red cape her Grandma gave her for her birthday. Her grandmother lived by herself in the woods.

Five year old: Why did Grandma live in the woods by herself?

This is a valid question, so let’s think up of a reason.

Her grandmother was a powerful witch and she had to live in the woods, because that where she gathered the best herbs.

At this point let’s circle back to the first paragraph.

Red Riding Hood is a very nice girl, who lives on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. Red Riding Hood likes to wear a red cape her Grandma gave her for her birthday. Her grandmother told Red Riding Hood that if she were ever in trouble, the red cloak would protect her. Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother lives by herself in the woods, because she was a powerful witch and that’s where she gathers herbs to brew her magical potions.

One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asks Red Riding Hood to deliver a basket of bread rollscookies bottles of imported nightshade to Grandma. Red Riding Hood puts on her cloak and goes to the woods.

In the Red Riding Hood’s village also lives a very nice boy, whose name was Ranulf. Ranulf is a hunter and he is really good at hunting, because Ranulf is a werewolf. He keeps his magic a secret, because people get scared of werewolves and Ranulf doesn’t want to scare anyone. For awhile now, Ranulf has been finding disturbing signs in the woods, animals who were hacked to pieces.

Need to up the stakes here.

Also, two girls had disappeared from the village. They went into the woods and didn’t come back. Some people said it was some deadly beast who tore them apart. Someone like a big scary wolf.

Back to the front paragraph.

Red Riding Hood is a very nice girl, who lives on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. The forest is a dangerous place. Two girls from their village had gone into the woods and never came back, but Red Riding Hood isn’t scared of the woods. She loves wandering under the big old trees and goes there often, which is why her grandmother, a powerful witch who made the woods her home, gave her a red cloak for her birthday and told her that it would protect her in time of danger.

One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asks Red Riding Hood to deliver some bottles of imported nightshade to Grandma. Red Riding Hood puts on her cloak and goes to the woods.

In the Red Riding Hood’s village also lives a very nice boy, whose name was Ranulf. Ranulf is a hunter and he is really good at hunting, because Ranulf is a werewolf. He keeps his magic a secret, because people get scared of werewolves and Ranulf didn’t want to scare anyone. Even so, people don’t like Ranulf. There was just something odd about him that makes them worry. So Ranulf keeps mostly to himself and doesn’t talk to smart and funny girls like Red Riding Hood.

For awhile now, Ranulf has been finding disturbing signs in the woods, animals who were hacked to pieces. Then, the girls disappeared. Ranulf knows that something terrible is in the woods, and when he sees Red Riding Hood leave by herself, he decides to follow her. But because he isn’t well liked, he turns into a wolf, so he can follow her undetected.

Red Riding Hood notices the big bad scary wolf and tries to lose him….

Then the post goes on from there, until Ilona Andrews starts writing the real story as a full narrative with all the details. Of course we only get a tidbit of this fleshed-out story, because this is an example of story creation, not a real novel that they’re really going to write.

The post is really snazzy — fun to read and also potentially helpful. If you’ve got a few minutes, you should definitely check it out.

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How many bad Vorkosigan covers can there be?

Here at tor.com, a post that takes a look at Memory.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer says, “The tradition in this reread blog is that we kick off the new book by examining some book covers. What does Memory have in store for us?”

And then we see many covers of Memory, for all kinds of different editions. And . . . drumroll . . . all of them are bad. She doesn’t say so. The badness of all the covers is my personal judgment. She says she loves the Czech cover. As a piece of artwork, so do I. As a representation of Miles or a cover for Memory, I think it’s dreadful. “Honors the story’s emotional heart”? Maaaaybe, but . . . no, not seeing it.

Click through and take a look. Which is the worst cover? Hard to choose. Which is the best? Do any seem to hit the mark to you?

And, bravely asking the important questions, I feel compelled to ask: Is there actually a curse laid on this series so that it’s impossible for any Vorkosigan book to actually have a good cover?

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Recent Reading: Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

A sensible woman would never have accepted the invitation in the first place. A week-long house party filled with bickering gentleman magicians, ruthlessly cutthroat lady politicians, and worst of all her own infuriating ex-fiancé? Cassandra Harwood only agreed to attend because of pressure from her incurably romantic sister-in-law . . .

Okay, so that’s the setup. This novella is an Austen-style romance, with the primary question being when and how and through what obstacles Cassandra will get back together with her ex-fiancé, Wrexham. Except it’s not aaaallll that much like an Austen story, because this is really an adventure story with romance rather than the other way around – the romance is important, but the obstacles, wow, substantially greater peril than you ever see in an Austen novel.

This is not Austen’s England. This is an England where if you fail to pay the proper tax for your carriage, it’ll be picked up by a troll and carried off, with you left to make your way on foot to your destination. It’s an England where fairies are mostly not dangerous any longer and the longstanding treaty between elves and humans means there probably won’t be another major war . . . unless somehow that treaty were to be broken.

That’s not the coolest part of this alternate history, though. The coolest bit is how, long ago, the warrior queen Boudicca used her magic to defeat the Romans and set the stage for this recognizable but very different England, where politics is the domain of ladies of good family, while magic has become the purview of gentlemen. Sex roles (and class expectations) are almost as rigidly codified as during that period in our own history, but along quite different lines.

Cassandra’s life has been complicated because she was born with an obsession with and talent for magic instead of politics. To make matters worse, she unwisely bit off more than she could chew, magically, and lost the ability to safely do magic. That puts her in an awkward position vis-à-vis trolls and elves, various guests at the house party, and most particularly her ex-fiancé.

All this makes for a great background to the story, but that’s as much as I probably want to say about it. Any more would start to give too much away. I’ll just say that the reader is likely to enjoy cheering on Cassandra and Wrexham as they sort out their problems and get back together – while dealing with snowstorms, trolls, elves, a wide variety of peculiar houseguests, and a ticking clock counting down toward real disaster.

Smooth writing that deftly establishes the world and characters, a fast pace that sweeps the reader along, and a determined but imperfect heroine all work together to deliver a story with tons of charm and a resolution that is satisfying without being simplistic.

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Missing chapters from Robin Hood

From Book View Cafe, a just-for-fun post by Sherwood Smith, about “missing chapters” written by her sixth-grade students.

Delightful idea, eh? It’s the kind of thing my middle school teachers might have assigned. In fact, I’m a little surprised they didn’t think of it. They were a pretty creative bunch, in retrospect.

As for the stories, one particular year the class had two alpha girls, their posses dividing the female half of the class right down the middle, with plenty of attendant social drama. One alpha decided to write her particular lieutenants into her story, inspiring a flurry of Mackynzi and McKyli and Logan and Ryli appearances throughout her story, heroically raiding the castle where her rival and her gang were all sniveling Sheriff’s weasels, cheating Normans, or Prince John’s spies.

Naturally, this story electrified half the class and outraged the other half with as much intensity as if those girls really had gone and shot up a castle with arrows, and poisoned Prince John’s dinners for his gathered villains and spies…

Hah! Lots more at the link.

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