Op-Ed

Back to School in the Olden Days

Last year, my younger daughter was assigned to interview an older relative about what school was like back when they were in first grade. In an ordinary year, this assignment must have been an interesting way for the kids to discover and appreciate all the differences in school culture and technology that have built up over the past few decades.

My daughter chose to interview her older sister.

“I remember back when I was in first grade, six years ago, we went to school in a building that wasn’t our own house. Some kids got dropped off by their parents, and others got there in a big yellow bus.”

“That’s crazy!”

“And we didn’t use iPads, like, at all.”

“How could you see the teacher?”

“The teacher wasn’t on a screen. The teacher was in the room.”

“No way!”

“In gym, we got to play games and run around, and sometimes we went outside.”

“With the iPad?”

“There was no iPad.”

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

“I’m not! And when we ate our lunch in the cafeteria, we sat at huge tables with all the other kids in our class.”

“That’s impossible! Also, what’s a cafeteria?”

“It’s like a restaurant, but just for the school.”

“With curbside service? Or was it a drive-through?”

“Neither. It was like one of those old-timey restaurants where you could eat indoors. Like you see sometimes on TV.”

“But you had to stay six feet apart from everyone and wear a mask, right?”

“There. Were. No. Masks.”

“What-what? School in the olden days sounds dangerous! You’re lucky you survived.”

* * *

Some kids went to school in person for at least part of last year, but many students this fall haven’t been inside a school building since mid-March of 2020. Some can barely remember what in-person learning was like.

These are challenging times for sure.

Stay strong, teachers.

The Myth of the Monomyth

Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?

The Myth of the Monomyth by Greg R. Fishbone asks, "Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?"

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Mythoversal Newsletter.

The Status Quo

I grew up on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and imprinted on the Hero’s Journey as the definitive storytelling template, but my enthusiasm has been tempered lately by mythologists and folklorists who absolutely loathe this theory.

The monomyth has been called sexist, racist, colonialist, and harmful to the expression and appreciation of world cultures. But why? And is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for creating and understanding stories in the context of our 21st Century world?

The Catalyst

I was six when I saw the original Star Wars movie, and I was hooked. From then on, I measured all other stories using Star Wars as my personal yardstick.

Acceptance and Action

I began to notice that a wide variety of stories would often start with a Luke Skywalker character called to an adventure by a Ben Kenobi character. The Luke Skywalker character would often undertake a quest to save a Princess Leia Organa character from a Darth Vader character, often with help from a Han Solo character and one or two C3P0 and R2D2 characters. I filled notebooks with every example I could find and engaged friends with my evolving theory that Star Wars could explain the story structure underlying a huge portion of the movies and books we all enjoyed.

Encounter with the Guru

What I’d independently reconstructed was the monomyth theory of Joseph Campbell, building upon the archetypal figures of Carl Jung, as adapted and applied by George Lucas and other filmmakers who sought to emulate his success.

Star Wars beats mapped onto Hero's Journey beats

Trials and Tribulations

Campbell summarized the monomyth as:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell’s theory was that this story template resonated with the human psyche, and had been present in the storytelling of diverse world cultures from humanity’s earliest days.

Friends and Foes

The monomyth theory was presented in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell’s 1949 book on comparative mythology. In the 1980s, with the success of the monomyth-fueled Star Wars original trilogy, PBS aired a discussion between Campbell and Bill Moyers in a program called The Power of Myth, which brought the monomyth to an even greater level of notoriety. Since then, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder, and others have refined the monomyth and extended it to the novel-writing and screenwriting process.

The Edge of the Abyss

At a workshop during the 2021 Arisia conference in January, I joined fellow panelists in a discussion of the more troubling aspects of Campbell’s work. These fell into four main categories:

First, while there are many myths that generally fit into the model proposed by Campbell, there are as many or more that do not, including such foundational stories as the myths of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Therefore, the monomyth should always be presented with a caveat that it is not as universal as Campbell claimed it to be.

Second, the Heroine’s Journey is not accounted for. The Hero’s Journey has been called a masculine myth, based on traditional stories of male protagonists, generating new stories that best fit male protagonists, and appealing more strongly to male audiences. Other templates are required for more feminine storytelling. These include 45 Master Characters, a writing guide by Victoria Lynn Schmidt based on the theories of Campbellian psychotherapist Maureen Murdoch.

Third, the monomyth has been described as a hammer in search of a nail. Some stories and characters can be mangled into the stations and archetypes of a Hero’s Journey only at the cost of better understanding the essential distinctions that make them unique and special. An overreliance on monomyth-inspired movies has made it harder for audiences and critics to appreciate the stories that don’t fit into that mold, increasing and perpetuating the dominance of the monomyth to the detriment of other forms of storytelling.

And fourth, the adaptation of non-European mythologies to a Eurocentric lens has been seen as a form of cultural appropriation or cultural colonization. The Hero’s Journey is based on those Jungian archetypes closest to the surface in the collective consciousness of Western cultures, while other world cultures may emphasize different archetypes. When we remove a story from the culture that created it and view that story through a Eurocentric lens, or even through a lens that falsely purports to be “universal,” we shortchange the story’s culture of origin.

The Way Through

So is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for writers in our 21st Century world?

I’d like to think so, but only by first recognizing that the monomyth is just one tool of many in a storyteller’s toolbox. The monomyth can be used to build and analyze story structures, but how much better could it be if we were using the entire toolbox, and looking at our stories through all available lenses?

Return to the Normal World

I still use the Hero’s Journey in my writing, but with an awareness of its problems and limitations. But perhaps the real Hero’s Journey requires throwing away all of our preconceived maps entirely and following each story wherever it leads.

Diversity in MG Lit #17 Equity for Black books and their creators

It’s my goal with these posts to shine a light on new diverse books for young readers at the middle grade level. It’s a regular feature on the Mixed Up Files Blog because the disparity in attention that diverse books receive is an ongoing problem. Recent events, however, call for a more systemic look at racism as it exists within the children’s book industry.
I have been writing for the last 25 years and have had published work for the last 11 years. In that time I’ve met people at all levels of the publishing and bookselling industries. Across the board I’ve found kind folks with good intentions. There has been an awareness of the inequalities in the industry as far back at the 1920s or 30s. Efforts have been made over the last hundred years, and yet time after time they have come woefully short of anything that looks like equality.
Rather than cast blame I’d like to look at the retail side of the equation and a handful of concrete ways all of us can make book sales grow, especially for POC authors & illustrators. It’s not the entire solution, but one sure way to make more money available for Black authors is to make books more available to Black families. Here are a half dozen steps you can take to do right by authors of color.
  1. Buy your books from Black-owned bookstores. Here’s a list of them by state. If there’s one near you, please become a regular customer. If not order from one once in a while and have them ship the books to you.
  2. Support Indie bookstores. Most new voices are first discovered and promoted by indie booksellers. Indie bookstores are a venue for book events for local authors not given a publisher-sponsored tour. And indie bookstores selling books at their cover price are the ones that give an author their full royalty. Those venues on line or elsewhere that offer discounts on books are giving the author less in royalty. Royalties are what make it possible for an author to continue writing.
  3. Donate to BINC. BINC is the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. They provide assistance to booksellers which helps them stay open in the face of difficulty. The assistance includes help with serious medical expenses, eviction prevention, funeral expenses, disaster assistance, domestic violence survival, utility shut-off prevention, and many other things. Donate here. Every little bit helps, especially now when so many book stores are struggling.
  4. Read books from Small Presses. Even the big publishers agree that the most daring and diverse books come out of small, independent, regional, and university presses. If you are a librarian, especially one on a book award committee, please give equal attention to the small press gems from Amistad, Just Us Books, Cinco Punto, Orca, Charlesbridge, Lee & Low, Enchanted Lion, Lerner, , and the many others listed here.
  5. Get involved in small business politics  If I could wave a magic wand I’d love to give every neighborhood and town it’s own vibrant independent bookstore. Sadly many people live in a book desert. If that’s your community, spend some time at your town’s council meetings. Ask the local small business association what you can do to bring a bookstore to town, The American Booksellers Association has a small business issues section that offers, state-by-state some suggestions for advocacy for bookstores. This kind of advocacy can be boring and feel far removed from the heat of the moment but if we want Black businesses to flourish in the future we have to lay the groundwork for it now.
  6. Use and promote your public library. Librarians are often at the forefront of advocating for diverse books. If your local library is not as inclusive as you’d like, The American Library Association has materials to help a library conduct a self audit and take steps to diversify the books on the shelf. If the books on your state reading lists and battle of the books lists are not reflecting Black lives, speak up. Librarians choose those lists; they need to hear from you. If they’ve consistently done a good job of serving the Black community—give them that feedback too. Help your library by using it regularly, requesting Black-authored books regularly, and supporting it with your votes when the library levy is on the ballot.
  7. Advocate for a full time teacher-librarian in every public, private, and charter school. Librarians pay a key role in introducing young readers to diverse voices. They also support diverse authors by buying their books. Show up at school board meetings. Pay attention to how school funding is allocated. Make sure there is always budget for diverse books and the librarians who support them.
  8. Most important of all–Vote. Vote in every election, especially the local ones. Be a well-informed voter, drawing your information from a variety of sources. Be a passionate voter, advocating for free access to the ballot box for all. Speak up when voting abuse happens. And always, always, keep in mind the readers you serve as a parent, teacher, librarian or bookseller. Serve not just your immediate interest but their long term benefit.