Friday, February 22, 2008

Time Travel

To have time travel, you have to have some concept of time. When do kids begin to comprehend time, its flow and its mystical nature? Based on my own sampling of three, kids come to a concept of time at very different points in their development and once there, have a highly variable engagement with time as a measurement system. One of ours knows the time to the minute, always has known and always will know exactly what time it is, knows who is supposed to be where, how long it is likely to take to get there and just how long it will take to do whatever it is that needs to be done. I have another who has to stand and think a minute to determine what day of the week it is much less where he is supposed to be, what he is supposed to be doing, or how long it might take.

Because of this variability, there is no easy way to predict when a child will begin to engage with a story that involves time travel, but once they do it is a fascinating room in the house of children's literature to explore.

There are a number of good reasons to encourage children to read time travel stories. Stories that take you back into time can be revelatory: "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." When read from this perspective, this type of time travel story, where the protagonist is whisked off to a different century, is not much less than historical fiction rendered vicariously. The reader doesn't read the history directly but reads it indirectly through the experiences of the time-traveling protagonist. But it is still basically history or historical fiction.

Related to this revelatory aspect (Is that how they did it then?), time travel stories help build the imagination of the reader. It is not just the facts of existence in the past but how those facts shaped what was done. Those facts help children expand their imagination about what it would be like to live in entirely different circumstances. And by building imagination, you begin to build the capacity for empathy. Louis MacNeice's poem, The Gloomy Academic, captures this sense of adjusting to a past as it was rather than as we might wish it to have been.

The Gloomy Academic
by Louis MacNeice

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills...
But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Time travel stories give children the power to not just learn more and imagine more but also open the gateway of contingency thinking. What would happen if X had not happened? Would there be Y today? The capacity to understand the nature of contingency (if this happens then that is likely to happen) is a critical milestone towards adult thinking and responsibility.

Related to this understanding of consequences and contingency is an increasingly sophisticated understanding of some of the philosophical complexities interwoven in the concept of time travel best characterized by the classical conundrum and inherent contradiction of a time traveler going to the past and killing an ancestor, the consequence being that the time-traveler would not be born in which case the ancestor would never be killed, and around and around. It's like giving the kids a Möbius strip for the first time and their bewilderment as they suddenly realize it only has one side.

It is only a short step from the mental exercises of exploring the logic of action in a time travel scenario to becoming interested in the physics of it. Over the years I have noticed how often many scientists have indicated a childhood interest in sci-fi and fantasy books. Their thinking got kick-started somewhere.

The mechanics of time travel in children's stories usually fall into four or five categories. The classic and one of the first, was of course, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (published in 1895) in which the unnamed Time Traveler builds a time machine that carries him forward to different points in time. He does not travel geographically, just in time. When he returns, he returns to a point very near in time to his departure. Many time travel stories have this feature - regardless of the crowded events that might occur in their time traveling, they are not noticed to have been gone or have not been gone long.

It is of course not always a time machine that carries the protagonist backwards or forwards. Sometimes it is an incantation, sometimes some sort of a portal such as the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The Chronicles of Narnia offer an example of another category, i.e. moving beyond time. Lucy, Peter, Edmund and Susan clearly travel to a different place. They must also be time traveling because, though there is a long elapsed period while they are gone, they return to the time of their departure. And yet they haven't traveled to a recognizable place in time. It is almost as if they have traveled beyond the constraints of time. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is another example of this type of time traveling - traveling beyond time.

Another category of time travel is where the time travel occurs in the present; a different time comes to you in the present. Fog Magic by Julia Sauer is an example of this type of time traveling. The protagonist, Greta Addington, a young girl in Nova Scotia, Canada, finds she can visit an old fishing village, Blue Cove but only through the magic of a particular fog. She doesn't go to a different point in time, it is rather there for her to discover in her own time. In situ time travel as it were. Another example of this type of time travel would be Tom's Midnight Garden.

A variation in this category is some of those turn-of-the-last-century type fantasy stories where adventurers discover a missing land in which time has stood still. They travel geographically to a place where time has been arrested. Not time travel per se but pretty close. The Time Land Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs and The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would both fall into this category.

Similar to this type of time travel is a plot in which the author leaves it unclear as to whether time travel is occurring at all. The classic example of this might be the wonderful stories by L.M. Boston, The Children of Green Knowe. The protagonist, Tolly, goes to live with his great-grandmother in their family home. While there, he discovers three ancestral children from the 17th century with whom he plays and shares adventures. They are not ghosts, nor are they here-and-now children but something altogether other: the past sharing the present. Daphne du Maurier does something similar with her House on the Strand.

These are all wonderfully engaging stories and styles of time travel story telling. Some styles may appear to be more attuned to one child's tastes than another but once they have been bitten by the time bug, most children will happily read across all the styles.

Below is a potpourri of time travel tales. We hope you enjoy. Safe travels!

Independent Readers

Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander Suggested

Something Upstairs by Avi Suggested

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks Highly Recommended

The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey Recommended

A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond Recommended

The Children of Green Knowe by L. M. Boston and illustrated by Peter Boston Highly Recommended

Stonewords by Pam Conrad Suggested

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper Highly Recommended

Edward Eager's Tales of Magic : Half Magic, Knight's Castle, the Time Garden, Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager Recommended

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer and illustrated by Chris Connor Suggested

The 13th Floor by Sid Fleischman and illustrated by Peter Sis Suggested

A Girl Called Boy by Belinda Hurmence Suggested

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle Highly Recommended

The Root Cellar by Janet Louise Swoboda Lunn Suggested

The Story of the Amulet by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by H. R. Millar Recommended

Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton and illustrated by Erik Blegvad Recommended

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and illustrated by Susan Einzig Recommended

Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer Recommended

Time Warp Trio by Jon Scieszka Suggested

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells Recommended

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen Receommended

Young Adults

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs and illustrated by J. Allen St. John Recommended

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle Recommended

The House on the Strand by Daphne Du Maurier Highly Recommended

A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain Suggested

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