Why Bad Things Happen in Good Fiction

Years ago, I had a conversation with a police officer visiting our school about the Percy Jackson movies. “I won’t see them,” he told me. “I can’t enjoy a movie where kids get hurt.”

I don’t begrudge him that at all. Usually when I watch a movie or television show, I am also looking for some level of escapism, and sometimes real or painful things take me out of relaxation mode. But that’s not to say there isn’t value to real or painful things in fiction, especially for children.

Because, real and painful things actually happen to children. And to people children know.

I remembered this conversation while watching A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, which I find to be quite a good adaptation (and I am loving Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket). The theme song, which features slightly different lyrics every episode, continually exhorts the viewer to “look away, look away” from the distressingly unstable lives of the Baudelaire orphans. Naturally, curious children are tempted to watch further (or, read the books).

As an adult, I do feel the urge to protect children, not just from “bad” things, but sometimes the knowledge of “bad” things. But I am not a perfect shield, and we don’t live in a perfect world. Let kids read (and sometimes watch) the stories with the “bad” stuff. If they see it on the page or screen first, perhaps they’ll be more ready for it when the hits start comin’ in real life.

Assessment and Steven Universe

As a thirty-year-old woman, I may not be the target demographic for most cartoons being produced today, but let me tell you this: I know a good cartoon when I see one. And Steven Universe is a good cartoon. There are a lot of things I really like about it: the fantastic character development, the sweet sing-along-able soundtrack, the way it taps into a wide spectrum of emotion.

But as an educator, one episode that really got me right in the feels was a season one episode called “The Test.” In this episode, Steven finds out that a previous adventure was used to assess his readiness to join the Crystal Gems on their planet-saving missions.

“It wasn’t something we planned behind your back,” leader Garnet tells him. “We just saw an opportunity…” Sounds like informal assessment to me!

Steven is aghast, because he thinks he failed the test he didn’t even know about, and insists on being re-tested.

The Crystal Gems then design a very video game-like dungeon to test Steven. It seems like a combination of puzzle and peril, but it turns out there’s more than meets the eye.

(Spoilers ahead).


Cosplayers dressed as some of the characters from Steven Universe.

Steven realizes before finishing that the test is impossible to fail — it’s rigged. Whatever he tries on the puzzle succeeds, and the dangerous bits are illusions that won’t actually hurt him. In fact, he exploits a glitch (told you it was video game-like!) and overhears the Crystal Gems discussing the point of the test. Unlike before, when they wondered whether he was ready for adventure, now they want to “give him another success.” Like them, Steven has superpowers, but unlike them, he is still learning to use his, and emotional state is a huge component of controlling them. He has experienced successes but also setbacks throughout the show up to this episode.

“The point is he’s come so far,” says Pearl. “We have to give him another success. He can’t lose his confidence like that again.”

Then, after a pause, Amethyst says, “We’re bad at this.” Her point is that, while they’re probably the best suited to serve as Steven mentor’s, she still feels ill-prepared.

“He needs us to show him how to be a Gem!” Pearl says.

“Steven is not just a Gem. There has never been anything or anyone like Steven,” Garnet concurs. “We don’t know what he needs.”

As an educator, I find this struggle relatable — that for all the years I’ve lived, all the time I’ve trained, all the books I’ve read, all the lessons I’ve planned and reflected on — sometimes I still don’t know what a student needs. We can differentiate and support and scaffold out the wazoo, but to truly understand what it’s like to be inside a student’s head — anyone else’s head, really — to some degree that’s mysterious and forever unknowable. And most of the time, that’s okay, we’ll still go on adventures. But sometimes, when you know a student needs you most is when you know least what you can or should do for them.

I won’t tell you how the episode ends — I encourage you to seek it out, I found it through Hulu Plus and also Amazon Prime, though it may also be elsewhere — but Steven acts on what he overheard in a way that ultimately lifted my spirits. It doesn’t answer the questions about what he really needs from his mentors, but it is reassuring nonetheless.


The Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department – Podcast

Length: 4:48

Five fractured fairy tales, cobbled together. In a perfect world, the voice of the Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department would have been Kristen Schaal, and I would have been able to pay her oodles of money. Oh well.

Check teacherofftopic.com to see the show notes. Email teacherofftopic@gmail.com if you have a question you’d like answered.

The Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department – Show Notes

Show Notes for The Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department.

I fractured the following fairy tales:


Sound effects:

Image: toadstool from fairy tale by melanie kuipers at FreeImages.com