Through fantasy universes, students have shaped worldviews that brim with empathy and adventure

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Paulina Diesen

Junior Paulina Diesen reading in her grandma’s library when she was younger

While the stunning scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park blurred by outside her car windows, sophomore Paige Harsevoort had her attention pinned to something else entirely. 

A first-grader at the time, she was utterly absorbed in an installment of the Junie B. Jones series, and nothing, not even the natural wonders of the Rocky Mountains, was going to keep her from finishing her chapter.

“My parents kept [telling] me, ‘You need to look out the window. We’re in the mountains, and it’s pretty,’” Paige said. “And I was like, ‘Let me just finish the chapter! I’m almost done!’”

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Evident to the people around her in her vast vocabulary and diligent actions, Paige is a bookworm, and she’s proud to carry the title. 

From the humble beginnings of literary works like Junie B. Jones and Giraffes Can’t Dance, Paige has worked her way up to far more involved universes—like Cassandra Clare’s expansive repertoire. 

Now, she bears a particular affinity for the fantasy genre and the escape it has often provided her with when the world around her wasn’t as pretty. 

“Reading was always a way for me to kind of get away,” Paige said, “and I guess with fantasy, it’s just something that I personally, in our world, would never be able to do, so it’s the next best thing to [being] able to experience that.”

But even though the literary worlds that Paige immerses herself in are radically different from the physical world she lives in, she’s been able to carry lessons out of those worlds and into her own. 

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Not only has reading shaped the way she thinks and contributed to her academic success, but it’s also influenced her capacity for empathy and her willingness to consider new perspectives. 

“I think that a lot of people who don’t read—just how I see it—I feel like they’re not really able to get different people’s perspectives,” Paige said. “You hear the saying, ‘there’s two sides to the story,’ but I feel like in books, you can really see that on a different level because you can read people’s different perspectives. So that’s helped me to look at the bigger picture in my own life, instead of following one person’s ideas or one other person’s thoughts.”

When it comes to an appreciation of the palpable effect books can have on a person, sophomore Ashley Schenck is on the same page as Paige. 

An equal proponent of the fantasy genre, Ashley is a fan of both classics, like Harry Potter, and slightly newer, lesser-known releases, like Keeper of the Lost Cities

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The hours she’s spent swept up in magical worlds—somewhere on the playground during recess as a child or curled up on her couch at home—have left an indelible mark on her life. 

“I definitely think reading all those books has increased my vocabulary,” Ashley said. “It’s helped me in my writing, and it has helped me understand a large variety of words I wouldn’t have otherwise understood.”

While finding the time to read is notably more difficult amidst a busy high school schedule, Ashley still has a book close at hand in the in-between moments, and she treasures the occasional moments throughout the week when she’s granted reading time in her English class. 

In those moments, where she’s allowed to forget about homework and simply dive into whatever book she’s currently reading, she comes close to the simplicity of childhood that often brings her a sense of nostalgia. 

“I really look back on when I was reading as a little kid when I had no responsibility,” Ashley said. “I didn’t have to do any extra homework, no tests, and I just loved that.”

As a child, Ashley was drawn to what would become her favorite books through various avenues—while some jumped out at her from the shelf, the love for others was passed down like family heirlooms by her older siblings. 

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In the same way that Ashley connected with her older siblings over the books they shared a love for, she valued the opportunity to connect with her friends over the books that they were reading at similar times.

“I don’t think [my friends] read as much as I did,” Ashley said, “because I got really into my books, but most of my friends definitely at least liked to read, and they’d enjoy it when they had to read for class. I loved it when we read the same books at around the same time and we could compare what we read and what we thought and just get into the story together.”

For junior Paulina Diesen, the social aspect of reading ultimately influenced which books had the most substantial impact on her childhood. 

As an avid reader still to this day, Paulina often chose books at the recommendation of the librarian at her elementary school, so she’s familiar with the faces of the fantasy genre, as well as many of the more obscure constituents.

However, the ones that stand apart in her memory are the ones that she shared the experience of reading with her friends. 

“I think the [books] that really stuck with me were Harry Potter and The Hunger Games,” Paulina said. “I think that’s mostly because they’re so popular, and you get to talk to people, and they get so excited about it. It was just so much more fun because you would have competitions with your friends to go through the series, and then you’d wait for them to catch up and to talk about everything that happened.”

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Reading was Paulina’s whole world as a child, from talking about the books she was reading with her friends to pulling out her book at every possible convenience—at recess; at the bus stop; on the bus ride to and from school; under the desk during class, much to her teacher’s chagrin.

There was a magic to reading when she was younger, a magic that came from innocence and wonder. When she thinks about the sleepless nights she’d spend with a book in her hand, she’s filled with nostalgia for a simpler time—a time when her biggest concern was getting caught reading while her teacher was giving a lesson.

Now, she feels like there’s some aspect of her books that’s becoming reality. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Paulina definitely experienced some surreality, having read her fair share of dystopian, apocalyptic books. 

“It kind of made it seem more a little bit more like an adventure,” Paulina said, “but at the same time, it was kind of frightening because you read books, and it’s always the worst-case scenario, all these crazy things happening, and you’re like, ‘It can’t be real, but it’s starting to be real.’ So [it was] kind of scary, but at the same time, it was kind of like my books were coming to life—in the worst way possible, like we couldn’t have had fairies, but we can have COVID.”

. . . it was kind of like my books were coming to life—in the worst way possible, like we couldn’t have had fairies, but we can have COVID.”

— Paulina Diesen

In retrospect, Paulina can say that she’s happy the overall outcome of the pandemic wasn’t the dystopian nightmare she occasionally wondered it’d be. And now, hopefully coming out of the worst of it, she’s looking ahead to a future with a worldview that has been shaped by the time she’s spent between the pages of a book. 

As she considers applying for college, her options stretch far and wide—one of her main goals being to get out into the world and explore. Having witnessed the fantastical landscapes of her favorite series, she knows she doesn’t want to just stay in one place for the rest of her life.

Her whole life, she’s craved adventure, and books have been both a catalyst and an outlet for that.

“I’ve always been very adventurous,” Paulina said. “I want to go out and do stuff; I hate being caved in, and books help with that a lot. I don’t know what I would’ve done to help with that other than be stupid and do dangerous things.”

Now, with her future beyond high school just over the horizon, she’s tantalizingly close to being able to go past the pages of her favorite stories and past the boundaries of the world she’s familiar.

The person Paulina will be as she steps out into the world seeking adventure is someone unquestionably shaped by the stories that have taught her to seek that very adventure. 

“I think books play such a huge role in people,” Paulina said. “You get to go out of your life for a little bit and see, ‘Oh there’s adventure.’ It definitely made me want to be able to do more with my life. As a kid, you don’t realize how big the world is, and then you get to read and explore all these different possibilities, and yes, they’re fantasy, but then it helps you, when you’re older, realize there’s so much out there that you can find.”