The Worlds We Build by Kali Wallace
It doesn’t always work that way. Some stories begin with characters, others with scenarios or single images. But City of Islands began with the city. It was so vivid in my mind, and the more I wrote, the more vivid it became. It was an archipelago city in a stormy, dangerous ocean. There were sea serpents, trading ships, noisy docks and boisterous taverns, palaces and slums. It was beautiful; it was also terrible. It was full of people of every skin color, every kind of background, travelers and immigrants from all over the world–the way port cities, trading cities, all through history have been.
At first, I wrote it that way because it was what seemed most likely to me. A city formed at the nexus of ocean-spanning trade routes would surely have people from all over living on its rocky shores. It made no sense to me that the people would be racially or culturally homogenous, or that they would all speak the same language, or that they would all adhere to heteronormative rules, or have the same beliefs, or know the same stories and follow the same traditions. None of those things is true in this air-conditioned San Diego cafe in which I am sitting to write this post, and there are all of twenty people here.
But for every writer, and especially for writers inventing our own worlds, there comes a point at which what seems likely to us is not enough in creating a setting. We have to look beyond the limits of our experience and think, deliberately and carefully, about the world we are building. In a children’s novel, that means we have to think about how that world treats its children.
A city is not a character–no matter what the cliche says–but that doesn’t mean that it can’t have moods, feelings, history, trauma. It only means that our understanding of setting should include all of those things, because all of those things exist in the times and places we inhabit in real life.
City of Islands is not based on any real-world place or historical era; it is not an analogue to a specific culture. I am writing about a made-up place, but the kids who sit down to read this fantastical adventure story about magic and pirates and sea serpents are very real. Their fears and hopes are real, their families and friends, their pasts and futures.
And children know when the world is unkind. Children know when adults are lying to them.
A fantasy world in which all people are the same color, speak the same language, and have the same traditions is a lie. A fantasy world in which all people are heterosexual is a lie. A fantasy world in which adults always care for children is a lie. A fantasy world in which the powerful always help the powerless is a lie. A fantasy world in which children are always safe from harm is perhaps the worst lie of all.
Kids are watching us. They see the choices we make and hear the language we use. They experience the mess we have made of the world. They may not fully understand the ingrained prejudices, selfish decisions, and petty cruelties that have shaped the world they live in, but they know when they’re scared of being bullied, or beaten, or taken from their parents and locked in a cage for no reason other than that it gives a few powerful men pleasure to have that power. They know when they are hated for the color of the skin, the nature of their love, the history of their people, the language the speak, the way they worship, the name they carry. They know when adults fail.
To leave those aspects of life out of children’s stories, and out of the world’s built for children’s stories, is to deny the reality in which our readers live.
Just to be clear: I don’t actually believe that children’s fantasy literature ought to be an introduction to the cold, hard world, although it probably sounds like that’s what I’m arguing. City of Islands is a fantasy adventure story about a brave girl and her loyal friends, and there is plenty of magic and mischief and excitement and fun. There is darkness, and there is light. There is betrayal, and there is triumph. What I believe is that all children’s literature should acknowledge and respect the truths of children’s lives, and that includes that hardships.
The City of Islands and its inhabitants came from my mind, but like all stories, all fantasies, they are stitched together from pieces of the world around us. The world is diverse, changeable, flawed, unfair, caught in a never-ending struggle between the ugly and the beautiful, the cruel and the kind, because that is the world that children experience every day. The characters are struggling, determined, sometimes venal, sometimes callous, often deserving of more than what the mistakes of the past have laid upon them, yearning for connection, dreaming of the future, and so very brave, because those are the people children know and recognize.
Perhaps that is what we mean when we characterize a setting as a character: a setting, when it is vivid and fully-formed, is a place that exists in how we experience it. The choices we make as writers of children’s fantasy literature decide who we exclude from that experience, and who we invite along. I want the cities I weave from my heart and my mind to be both welcoming and truthful, because I want the children who read my stories to know that even when the world is unkind and frightening, they still deserve a place to belong and thrive.
Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees and the upcoming middle grade fantasy City of Islands. Her first novel for adults, a science fiction horror, has recently been acquired by Ace Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.