Realistic Fiction in the Classroom
By Robyn Gioia
A genre that is not front and center in today’s stories of zombie, vampires, unicorns, and fairies is the world of realistic fiction. My class and I recently studied realistic fiction and what I learned was surprising.
The root word “real” in realism says it all. Are the characters regular people? Do they have problems? Do they make mistakes? Do they have real emotions? Do they grapple with pain, feel love, become utterly depressed, or bubble over with serendipity? Is the world real or is it a fantasy world with three moons and purple mountains? If it’s a made-up world, does it follow the rules of physics? If a character walks off a cliff, do they get hurt?
Probably the biggest element to examine is plot. Is it believable? Although circumstances may be extraordinary at times, is it something that could really happen? How do the characters deal with real problems? Are the solutions something that can really happen?
I noticed my students were so firmly rooted in fantasy, that when we studied our unit on realistic fiction, it took a lot of examination to decide if something could really happen. They argued that a character who miraculously survived a plane crash could climb the highest mountain, and walk a hundred miles to the next village without any food or water.
When I added that there are no super powers in realistic fiction, they stared at me. Then came the explanations. Maybe the survivor was in shape, they said. Maybe this person had a big dinner before the crash. Then the next set of “maybes” became even grander, without text evidence I might add. Maybe someone gave the person a ride. Maybe the person found a bunch of power drinks. The “maybe” syndrome continued.
After our discussion, things got better. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the different reading groups asking each other, “Can it really happen and where is the evidence?”
So, why realistic fiction?
This brings us to the question. Why teach realistic fiction when other genres are vastly more popular?
Realistic fiction grounds students in real life. It lets them experience real life situations through cause and effect. It shows them the complexity of problems and how humans might react. It helps them to understand relationships. It helps students see life through the perspective of others. It shows them how problems may or may not be solved. It exposes them to the vast differences in cultural beliefs and interactions between others.
To sum it up, realistic fiction helps students understand the way life works.
At the end of our study, something I did not expect was a comment from one of my brightest. “I haven’t found any books that I like. But I just learned that I like realistic fiction.” Grinning from ear to ear, he pulled out a copy of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and settled down to read.