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Dear fellow Science Fiction fan or professional,
Many in the SF community have ideas about solving society's ills, and back up their beliefs with time and money. But is there some venture we might all get behind? One that's independent of dogma or ideology? We think there is one place where we our community might do a lot of good - the same place where most of us had our feet planted firmly on the road to science fiction and beyond. That place is the junior high schools of North America.
Consider the ages from twelve to fifteen, when a person's sense of wonder either blooms or withers. For most of us, science fiction literature cast our minds far beyond the limits of family, city, or oppressive peers. How many kids in today's tense world might be better off if the same portal opened for them, as well?
We've all heard about declining literacy. Sherry Gotleib tells that when she first opened the Change of Hobbit bookstore, in L.A., it thronged when the local junior high let out. Over time, these customers stayed loyal... but weren't replaced. In the store's final years, Sherry's average customer was gray-flecked or balding, and the few teens who showed up focused on media or comics. Polls show an ageing of the SF readership. Science fiction themes are popular -- in films, comix and games -- but the genre's literary heart faces demographic collapse.
Worst of all, countless kids forget how to say the most beautiful word in any language -- "Wow!"
Our proposal -- every SF-oriented club or fan group should consider adopting a local junior high school as their main charitable cause --
Making contact with librarians and English teachers, to find out their needs and to show them how SF encourages kids. Recruiting guest speakers to visit classes or school assemblies, giving inspirational talks about science, writing, or history... anything to fire enthusiasm and imagination at an age when these are precious, flickering things. Sponsoring a reading club and/or writing contests, to encourage a love of SF and the creativity that helps produce more of it. Persuading bookstores to offer prizes and discounts for teens.
As for the pros, most of us have interesting tales and talents to share. Many SF authors have speaking experience, and for those who don't, what better start than with small groups of kids?
There is self-interest here. Authors who give talks often acquire new fans. Local conventions that sponsor an SF club may soon have new con-com members. If your charity auction sends $500 to the "Special Wish Fund," you'll get a thank-you note; but hand the same amount over to a stunned librarian and the photo will make your local paper! It's a win-win proposition, because each new reader helps SF pros put off the day when we might have to swap our word processors for alarm clocks and actually go to work for a living. It also means there will still be fresh SF fans entering the scene when we are old and gray.
Since we first proposed this idea in the SFWA FORUM, it has led to considerable discussion online, in the Genie SF Sig and other locales. Now it's time to open up the discussion to fandom in general. In our typical, chaotic way, can we reach some sort of consensus how to proceed? Should we aim at thrashing out a final version of a plan at the Anaheim Worldcon?
A recommended reading list for various age levels. How to maintain referral lists of possible speakers in each part of the country. A code of propriety and behavior, to maintain our welcome and effectiveness.
- Ideas about leveraging a grass-roots effort through philanthropic funding. How volunteers might coordinate a continuing effort, while avoiding too much structure. Many publishers already have adopt-a-school programs.
- How might these be leveraged in conjunction with grass-roots efforts? A name for the program. (e.g. "The Discovery Project"?)
Plans schmans. For the most part what's needed is action at the local level! Each of us lives near some school where bright kids now languish - bored, bullied, or unmotivated. Who among us can't recall facing the same crisis once, in our own lives? For many, it was science fiction that helped us turn the corner. Science fiction welcomed us home.
That is where it all finally comes around. No altruism is more effective than the kind that begins at home.
David Brin, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear
Note #1. Before rushing to school, a note of caution. In today's paranoic society, a poorly-presented campaign might be easily misunderstood. Lately, small groups of parents have decried sf/fantasy as "satanism." Others (with some reason) fear strangers who seek contact with their kids. Mature patience is a better response to such fears than confrontation. The best approach is to seek, and strictly follow, guidance from librarians and teachers about local sensitivities. Note #2. Baen Books publisher Toni Weisskopf has already volunteered to send starter packages to Young Adult SF/F to any school SFWA designates, to support classroom visits. Other publishers should soon follow.
Followup Note: A meeting was held at LACONIII, the 1996 World Science Fiction Convention. 150 avid volunteers attended, sharing enthusiastic ideas how to organize a concerted effort like the one described above. It is hoped that an internet interest group will soon be organized to discuss further efforts
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